Theses Doctoral

Cab Driving in the Spirit of Islam

Hussain, Nasser

This dissertation uses the taxicab as a vehicle to tell the story of the Pakistani Muslim community from the 1970s onwards. The research includes an in-depth ethnography (2013-2014) on Muslim cab drivers that live and work in West Yorkshire, northern England, but who vary in age as well as place of birth. Most have their heritage in and around the villages of Mirpur, Azad Kashmir/Pakistan, as do the vast majority of the Pakistani diaspora in Britain. One driver's personal narrative organizes my thesis: a former rude boy turn revert (practicing Muslim), whose trajectory is situated in the 1980s and 1990s specifically. Exploring themes of family, community, religious identities, and violence, ‘Cab Driving in the Spirit of Islam’ refers to the richness of Islamic religious traditions as well as the specter which continues to haunt the liberal imaginary, both of which help shape the world of Muslim cab driving.
Cab driving is a hyper-individualistic pursuit, the first steps towards integration into mainstream society and corollary normative acceptability. Yet paradoxically, for these South Asian Muslims, cab driving has stabilized into a communal infrastructure, a way of life for over three decades now, and as integral to them as the two Islamic traditions in their lives, Barelwi and Tablighi respectively. In the world of Muslim cab driving, critical knowledge is shared and passed on as religious community is continuously produced. The circulating cab driver occupies a pivotal mediating role, full of potential and promise, but also a position fraught with risk. As a figure of access and “plain person” in Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, he is an integral religious authority in this sociality, readily available to dispense and enjoin the Islamic good. It requires virtue and skill to live according to the sunna, the model of ethicality based on the Prophet’s example, the Prophet motive, rather than being dictated by the profit motive. In doing so, the expert driver turns a possible vulnerability into a potentiality.
The study has five parts. In ‘Formations of the Rude Boy,’ I introduce the “boys,” figures of resistance and rebellion analogous to Paul Willis’ working-class “lads.” Via the critical medium of the car, the boy becomes the sovereign-beast. He takes possession of his fate, the ineluctable predicament of degraded cab driver, position occupied by his father and "uncles." However, the significant difference from my findings and Willis’ research is that the world of cab driving mediates Islamic religious traditions to produce the Islamic counterpublic (Charles Hirschkind), thereby unsettling the normative regime where school complements workplace. The sphere of pious cab driving is tantamount to an education in the Islamic virtues, described in Part II, ‘Righteous Turn.’ The overlay of revivalist discourse and practice onto the cabbing infrastructure, especially the spiritual exchanges in the taxi base, enables the rude boy’s ‘reversion,’ an un-becoming Sovereign and a life-altering trajectory shared by a significant constituency in this Islamic revival. In his pious turn, the former “boy” sees the other side to the tradition, one of care and concern, rather than the policing which he aspired to rebel against.
Part III, ‘Riding with the Enemy,’ examines the specter of “Islam” in liberalism. Drivers work all over England, including the country proper, villages and market towns whose residents are predominantly non-Muslim whites. The driver is thus at the core of liberalism, both materially and psychologically. The Muslim driver is a marked target, a convenient opportunity and point of access, resulting in a concentration of violence in the cab. In the possibility that the ride turns into a sexual encounter, the Muslim driver is the “intimate enemy.” I investigate the gendered dimension in this mode of everyday violence, tying together the performance of expected gender roles to a resurgent nationalist sentiment that necessitates the need to disavow the Muslim/the migrant within. I trace the emergence of this nationalist subjectivity in the decline of the white working-class while attending to the spatial transformations and movements taking place in these landscapes. In Part IV, ‘Care Drivers,’ I consider the driver’s response in this vulnerable predicament as the putatively lacking migrant. The pious driver learns to depend and trust in God. He draws upon the significance of the social position of ‘lack’ and ‘beginning’ in Islamic tradition, most notably the Prophet’s companion, Bilal, the exemplar par excellence of embodying piety and practicing sabr, the virtue of endurance, in the face of degradation, inferiority and violence.
While Muslim cab driving has formed a way of life, it is far from stagnant. In Part V, ‘Revaluation of the Saints,’ I explore the shifts and transformations that result in the transnational circulation of goods and people, as the returning émigré-driver is endowed with a saint-like authority, produced out of the two dominant South Asian Muslim traditions, ‘Sufi’ Barelwi and ‘Deobandi’ Tablighi, mediated by cab driving and the migration process. I analyze changes in the religious authority and practices of these Muslims, a matter of ‘knowing the men,’ their good deeds and actions, as they strive to ‘live Medina’ in modern England.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2024-10-01.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Daniel, E. Valentine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 27, 2018