Islam in Britain

(an amended version of an article originally published in 1986, it was an extract from a public lecture of the same title delivered in 1981. The full lecture is available from Ta Ha Publishers Ltd., 1 Wynne Road, London SW9 OBD. This extract is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and publishers).

The emergence of Islam in Arabia in the seventh century C.E. coincided with the introduction of Christianity into Britain. St Augustine came to Britain while the Prophet was a young man but the conversion of the Northumbrians and East Anglians took place after the ministry of the Prophet had begun. Not long after the death of the Prophet the Muslim state expanded with explosive rapidity onto the Christian world, conquering Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Spain. Muslims at the centre of the world of Islam, however, had little knowledge of Britain at that time. In the middle of the eighth century Bishop Willibald (St. Willibald) went with a number of other Englishmen on a pilgrimage and they were arrested in Tortosa in Syria, accused of spying. When he tried to identify his place of origin to his interrogators they did not believe what he said. The Muslims of Syria apparently knew nothing of the off-shore island located where ‘the sun sets on the edge of the sea of darkness’ (as the Arabs called the Atlantic Ocean). The image of the Muslims in the European mind was in its formative stage too and this image was being built on a vast volume of misinformation about Islam which was described as a form of polytheistic idol worship and the Islamic way of life as lascivious and violent.

This image persisted throughout the Middle Ages and in certain respects still persists to this very day. By the time of King John, Muslim powers in the Maghrib and Spain became very familiar to the British. For this reason Matthew Paris thought it plausible to assert that the beleaguered King sent a delegation to the Almohad ruler of Morocco seeking military support against his rebellious barons and promising to convert to Islam. (1)

Reports of British rulers converting to Islam do not belong only to these early times. A much more recent monarch of this country was reputed by the Muslim peoples of the Empire to have become a Muslim. The monarch in question was none other than the great Queen Victoria herself. The origin of the report comes from a charming and unusual episode. One summer’s day towards the end of the last century the Queen noticed three figures of strange appearance by the railings of Buckingham Palace. They were two men and a woman carrying a child. She was moved to invite them into her presence. They were naturally delighted and excited at being allowed into the Palace and having the honour of meeting the Queen herself. The Queen asked who they were and where they were going. They replied that they were Malays from Cape Town on their way to Makka to perform the pilgrimage. The Queen stretched her arms towards the woman and took the child, kissed it gently and gave it back to the mother. At the end of the audience the Queen in a gentle and quivering voice, said: ‘Please pray for your queen at the Holy Places in Makka’. The three Malay visitors left the Palace fully convinced that the Queen was a secret Muslim. Later from Makka the report spread far and wide through- out the Muslim world. (2)

It is not my intention to survey the long history of the relationship between Great Britain and Islam. My concern will be limited to the more recent aspects of this relationship or, to be more precise, to the Muslim community in Britain.

There is little doubt that Muslims appeared on the shores of Britain as traders throughout the Middle Ages. In those days the Muslims may not have ruled all the waves but they certainly ruled a large portion of them and the southern ports such as Hastings were known to Arab travellers and cartographers. But we have no knowledge of a large settled community of Muslims in this country, though evidence of some Muslim settlements is coming to light. Some gravestones with Arabic inscriptions have been dug up in a garden in Derbyshire. It is possible that these tombstones belonged to the eighteenth century. The matter is being investigated in order to trace the origin of these stones and the community that used this graveyard.

Large Muslim settlements in Britain belong to the era of British commercial pre-eminence. Ships from all over the Muslim world called on various British ports and certain liners specialised in carrying goods to and from particular ports. Sailors from the Yemen and South Asia became familiar with Liverpool, Cardiff and South Shields and groups of them dug roots there and remained more of an outpost to the home country than an assimilated part of the British community. It was in the nature of their business that they should continue to be in close contact with their home country with little or no concern for what went on immediately around them.

After the Second World War the whole situation was transformed through the technological advances which made transport easier and cheaper. The industrial growth in Britain and Europe characteristic of the 1950s and ‘60s brought a large number of Muslim immigrants to this country. They flocked to where work opportunities presented themselves. They manned the foundries of Rotherham, the textile factories of Manchester and many other enterprises throughout the Midlands and of course in Greater London.

Scotland (especially Glasgow) has a strong Muslim community with highly successful and respected business people among its members. The growth economy of the era of industrial expansion offered opportunities for the small businesses so familiar in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Many small shops appeared in areas of immigrant concentration and gradually spread into other areas. The small shopkeeper’s family put in long hours providing more service to customers and thus formed the last line of defence against the supermarket monopoly. A number of small enterprises, particularly in textiles, clothing and leather industries continued to emerge.

But there was another type of Muslim immigrant who deserves special note. At the time of King John British students flocked to the universities of Muslim Spain to acquaint themselves with the advanced technology and scientific knowledge of the Muslim world. Some of these students stayed in Spain and were integrated within the Muslim community. Now that Europe is the fountain of scientific and technological know-how, many Muslim students come to this country to study and many of them make Britain their home. In addition, the work opportunities in Britain attract a good number of highly trained Muslim doctors, engineers, lawyers and architects. It is therefore important for us to note that the Muslims of this country participate at the highest levels of intellectual and scientific activity.

Even more recently a new type of immigrant from the Arab world has arrived on the scene. They come equipped with oil wealth and spend a large portion of their time in Britain with their family: more often than not he is based here and their children are educated through the medium of English.

From this sketch we can conclude that we have a community between a million and a million-and-a- half, comprising people of vast wealth and others who are struggling to earn a living in new and unfamiliar surroundings, a community also of enormous talent and energy. This general picture however needs to be examined a little more closely.

The Muslims in Britain have various origins. The majority of them come from the sub-continent of South Asia. Many are Pakistanis, others are Bengalis. There are, as was mentioned, a number of Arabs as well as Muslims from West Africa and Malaysia, Turkey and Cyprus. There are a few who come from South Africa, East Africa and the Caribbean. They speak different languages — Urdu is dominant amongst the sub-continent immigrants but Gujarati. Bengali and Punjabi are spoken by large sections of the community. It is generally accepted that the largest portion of the Muslim community traces its origin to Pakistan, followed by those from Bangladesh and then those from India.

Many of the first generation immigrants, still for the most part isolated from the cultural and educational life of this country, speak little or no English. particularly if their educational background is initially poor. Their children, on the other hand, speak English as a native tongue with little or no acquaintance with the mother tongue. Very few of them are literate in the language of their heritage. This has its own serious consequences for the community.

From this description it should be clear that the Muslim community consists of many small communities with their particular languages and customs. They retain their cultural traditions as their major point of reference and continue to conduct their affairs wherever possible in the manner to which they are accustomed. If they prefer arranged marriages it is not for the purpose of circumventing immigration law, as the Press would sometimes have us believe, but because to the ordinary Pakistani and Bengali such is the order of things as they understand them. The spectre of a young man or woman being thrown into society to seek a marriage partner is regarded by the community not only as immoral but also as irresponsible. Marriage is too serious a business for the community to be left entirely to the inexperienced whim of the young. Circumstances impose their own strictures on the community and many a young man or woman may rebel against a system so unfamiliar to those brought up in Britain. But the majority of the young still welcome the advice of their parents, sure in the knowledge that it is up to the young people themselves to accept or reject parental choice.

The Muslim family in Britain follows a life-pattern as close as possible to its perception of what is proper in Islam. The woman in the Muslim family has a strong and secure position at the centre, for Islam perceives society as a collection of families. We hear a great deal about the poor position of the Muslim woman. In reality she has a greater part to play in decision- making in family affairs than her deceptively self-effacing pose may suggest. Among the shopkeepers, for instance, the wife is as much a business-partner as a life-partner. The generation of Muslims growing up here has to grapple with the problems of the two cultures and has to attempt to resolve the ever-present tension between the home on the one hand and the school and society at large on the other. They are not as unique in this respect as one might suppose at first glance. All societies face the same problem in this ever-changing world. If we call it a clash of cultures for the immigrant communities we may dignify it with the title ‘The Generation Gap’ within the local community.

Most sub-continental families seek residence in a neighbourhood where other families of similar origin reside. But the necessities of life have to be acquired and jobs must be obtained wherever possible. Individuals as well as families cope as well as they can in difficult circumstances. They sometimes organise themselves as a community around the mosque in a formal and regular way. They meet also on the annual religious occasions to celebrate and to enhance their fellow feeling. In reality, however, they remain small groups with more or less full autonomy within the framework of the larger groupings.

The Muslims have a large number of organisations. They may exceed 4,000, mostly concerned with local welfare and occasionally with more ambitious pretensions, but only the societies centred around the mosques appear to have true social significance. We have here, therefore, a community united by a system of beliefs and certain basic rules of conduct but divided on linguistic, national and cultural grounds. The tension between the universal and the particular is ever-present within the Muslim community. It was once said of the Semitic races that they have as many opinions as there are individuals. Ibn Khaldun said of the Arabs that their intense individualism can only be subdued by an extraordinary phenomenon such as the appearance of a prophet.

The spirit of individualism appears to affect the behaviour of the community in Britain. Concerted action on behalf of the entire community has not yet manifested itself. In a few cases locally based community projects such as mosques and religious education have been comparatively successful. The success or otherwise of these local projects seems to depend on the personal qualities of the leadership regardless of the wealth of the community or its level of education.

On a recent visit to the community in High Wycombe, I found a group of factory workers who have created an effective organisation for the religious education of their children, securing in the process the aid of the local authority and the good will of the various school principals. Despite their low income they were able to accumulate sufficient funds to obtain a piece of land for the purpose of building a mosque and cultural centre. A more prosperous community in Glasgow has been able to sponsor an ambitious project of a mosque and cultural centre. The project is to cost two and a half million pounds and is at the moment at the half-way stage. The same community succeeded also in launching a private school for girls. Examples of this abound, indicating the intrinsic ability of the community to cope with its immediate problems.

So far, however, the community has not organised itself on a national basis. There is no doubt that the time factor is important in this matter. The Muslim community in this country is only abut two decades old. Another factor is the linguistic problem. English, the lingua franca amongst them, is not understood sufficiently by many members. But above all, unlike the Christian community, we have no common authority such as the Church.

Religious Organisation

Islam is a religion of the law. It centres around the book, the Holy Quran, and as such it has no priesthood. The imam is not an ordained priest but simply the leader of the prayer, a position which can be technically taken by any Muslim within the community who has adequate knowledge of how to pray. The appointment of an Imam to a mosque is a practical measure to ensure that when the time of the prayer comes there will be someone there to lead the worshippers. Islam also does not differentiate between the spiritual and the temporal, and the religious authority as well as the political is vested in one institution which rules in the Muslim country. Ideally the Muslim ruler should have sufficient knowledge of Muslim law to make decisions without reference to anyone else. This was not always the case and in consequence there emerged a body of specialists who came to be called the Ulema, the ‘savants’. They were simply the legal experts of the law in force in Muslim countries (which happened to be a religious law). Like every ‘savant’ his authority rests on his sound argument rather than on any claim to infallibility.

The immigrant community in Britain for the present lacks effective organisation to order its religious life and those aspects of human relations such as marriage, divorce and inheritance which have to be in accordance with religious law to he acceptable in conscience by the good Muslim. How the Muslim community resolves this issue remains to be seen but there are strong moves within it towards the creation of a representative body to take charge of all its problems. Such a body could effectively sanction the creation of institutions such as Muslim legal committees with effective moral and religious authority to compel compliance. Such bodies, once in existence, will almost certainly help the British Bench in resolving issues of dispute amongst Muslims pertaining to personal status.

The question of education is perhaps more straightforward. The Muslim community which in its homeland depended upon the Muslim government to provide education consistent with its heritage and religious beliefs cannot, in Britain, expect more than tolerance on the part of the British authorities for Muslims to introduce and finance their own religious education. For the present a large number of Muslim children are given some religious lessons after school hours in some cases and over the weekend in others. This education is better than nothing but it is hardly satisfactory for the Muslim parent and it often taxes the child without necessarily providing a significant degree of knowledge and understanding of the faith. The only solution to the problem lies in the establishment of a series of Muslim schools to become a resource for Muslim teaching. Our problems in this regard are not unique. Christian and Jewish communities suffer in the same way. The only difference is that the Christians have a long and well-established tradition of the Church undertaking these matters on their behalf, while the Jews have developed in this country their Board of Deputies which safeguards their community’s interests. The greatest wonder is that the Muslims, having neither of these institutions, have nevertheless carried through their task in this regard with determination. The challenges facing them are growing in complexity and they are adapting, albeit slowly, to the new environment. They are moving towards integration without assimilation. They are becoming a part of the great British community without losing their identity as Muslims.


1. See Daniel The Arabs and Medieval Europe, Longmans 1975, p178.

2. Anecdote related by Rosenthal From Drury Lane to Mecca.

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