Photo exhibit shows diversity of Muslim population

The Muslim Graves of Southeast Michigan exhibit opened at Grand Valley State University’s Red Wall Gallery on Dec. 20, displaying photographs that show the gravestones of various Muslim cultures.

Ronald Stockton, a political science professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, spent the last four years photographing Muslim gravestones. Stockton said he has more than a thousand pictures, including those in the exhibit at GVSU.

There are about two to three million Muslims in the U.S., and in Michigan, the Muslim population is largely concentrated in Wayne County, where the majority of the photos in the exhibit were taken. Stockton said these populations have been in the Detroit area since the 1800s.

“They display an amazing diversity of populations,” he said. “I have found individuals from over 20 countries. They are buried in over 25 different places.”

Many people do not realize the diversity of the Muslim population, Stockton said, adding that there are many groups of people who consider themselves Muslim. Most of these people are Arabs, but others include Iranians, Albanians and Pakistanis. Each group has different gravestones in terms of their shape and how they are decorated.

“We tend to think of Muslims as being of a common culture, but that is simply not the case,” Stockton said. “They are from very different religious traditions.”

Coeli Fitzpatrick, the coordinator for the Middle East Studies Program at GVSU, connected with Stockton through the annual Michigan event of the Model Arab League.

“We thought it would be great to have this exhibit to show the different kinds of burial practices of Muslims in Southeast Michigan,” Fitzpatrick said. “When we talk about Muslim graves, we aren’t really talking about one uniform practice, but many different expressions.”

Fitzpatrick said her goal for the exhibit is for viewers to have a new appreciation for the diversity of the culture and to realize that more groups besides Arabs are Muslim. She added that it is good for everyone to have an understanding of different cultures and religions.

“Seeing the differences and similarities of these Muslim graves can help us see how similar we are even with difference,” Fitzpatrick said. “It shows us these expressions of patriotism, love, and other affiliations that people exhibit.”

Jenna Stoken, president of the Muslim Student Association, said the organization was not involved in bringing the exhibit to GVSU, but she said she is happy for the recognition the community will get.

Stoken added that the “Muslim culture” is too broad of a phrase because it does not fully express the diversity of the populations.

“Muslims all share the same foundations as a result of the basic tenets and practices of our faith,” she said. “But our identities are created from not only our faith but our cultural, racial, ethnic and individual backgrounds. It’s this range and diversity that I think is what makes Muslim culture so beautiful and so important.”

Stockton said that although they have their cultural differences, most Muslims would not have an image of a wedding ring or the date of their marriage on their gravestones because these are common American customs. Instead, they often have what Stockton calls “Lifestyle Stones,” which show hobbies, clubs or military service.

He added that Muslim burial practices are similar to Jewish practices. Both cultures wrap their dead in a shroud and bury them within a day. They also prefer to be buried directly in the ground, but the embalming and casket laws in the U.S. prevent this practice.

The Muslim Graves exhibit runs through March 14 and is located in Lake Ontario Hall on the Allendale Campus. It is free and open to the local community.