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GREAT BRITAIN. Once the source of a great Christian out-migration to the colonies of the British Empire, the British Isles have in return become the home of significant numbers of Muslim immigrants from the former colonies. In 1991 there were between 1.25 and 1.5 million British residents of Muslim background.

History. Apart from a few individuals, Muslims only begin to settle in Britain to any significant extent as a result of British colonial expansion in India. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries seamen recruited by the East India Company often found themselves laid off when their ships docked in London. However, it was only when ships started recruiting in Aden after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 that such settlements of seamen led to the founding of small Muslim communities in port cities such as Cardiff, South Shields (near Newcastle), London, and Liverpool. As colonial activities expanded, so did the sources of such seamen, and Liverpool witnessed the growth of West African settlement. At the same time, British overseas merchants and colonial civil servants established links with local elites. As a result there grew up a cosmopolitan expatriate colonial community in London, many of whom were Muslim.

The first Muslim institutions to appear were `Alawi zawiyahs serving the Yemenis and Somalis recruited in Aden. In 1889 members of the London Muslim elite founded a mosque in the southwestern suburb of Woking; two years later, a row of houses in Liverpool was converted into a mosque with associated activities. In both initiatives British converts to Islam played a prominent role. The Liverpool mosque ceased to exist at the beginning of World War I when its founder, `Abdallah (Henry William) Quilliam had to withdraw from public life because of his association with the Ottoman government. The Woking mosque continued to be active into the interwar years, when the Qur’anic translators Marmaduke Pickthall and `Abdullah Yfisuf `All were closely associated with it. For a time it was linked with the Lahori branch of the Ahmadlyah movement, but as Indian Sunni opposition to the Ahmadis grew, that link was finally severed in 1935.

During the 1930s plans had been developed to establish a central mosque in London, encouraged by the establishment of one in Paris in 1926. For a time this had the support of the nizam of Hyderabad, and it received a further boost when King George VI in 1944 donated a plot of land in Regent’s Park in recognition of the Egyptian government’s donation of land in Cairo for a new Anglican cathedral. The economic effects of the war and then of the conflicts around Indian and Pakistani independence, not to mention uncertainties in the Middle East, combined to delay the completion of the project until the 1970s. Only in 1977 was the present Central Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre finally opened. But by this time the nature of the Muslim community in Britain had undergone drastic changes.

As British industry grew in the two decades after World War II, it soon started recruiting workers from colonial and former colonial territories-first from the Caribbean, then from India, and by the late 1950s from Pakistan, mainly from the western sector but later also from the eastern sector that would become Bangladesh in 1971. Immigrants from both parts of Pakistan were almost all Muslims, and so were a substantial minority of those from India and small numbers from the Caribbean. In addition, other Muslims came from Cyprus, Morocco, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, especially from Kenya and Uganda when those countries introduced a policy of “africanization” in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Immigrants of Muslim background from the Indian subcontinent came from very limited areas. Villagers from Pakistan originated primarily from parts of the Punjab and the region of Mirpur in Pakistani-held Kashmir, and those from Bangladesh were mostly from the Sylhet region in the north. From India, the Muslims were mainly Gujarati traders.

Britain was the first major western European country to move toward a cessation of labor immigration, with the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962. The intention of the Act was to stop the influx of unskilled labor, but within two years its effect was extended to include semiskilled labor and most professionally trained people. However, the Act did not prevent family reunion. The first consequence of the Act was major immigration especially of Pakistanis in the eighteen months before it was adopted and implemented. Second, the character of the flow of immigration changed to consist predominantly of wives, fiancees, and children of men already in Britain. Several subsequent acts have been passed further restricting immigration. As elsewhere in western Europe, the major inward movement of people since the mid-1970s has consisted of refugees rather than economic migrants. This has included significant numbers of people of Muslim background from the Middle East, especially Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Iran. In addition, the country has always welcomed people of personal wealth, and London has thus acquired substantial communities from the Arab Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. Demographics. These developments are reflected in the figures available from the decennial censuses, which record place of birth. The first recording of Pakistanis in the census showed approximately 5,000 in 1951, rising to under 25,000 in 1961. Ten years later the figure (now for Pakistan and Bangladesh together) had risen to 170,000, and by 1991 it was 636,000. The 1991 census produced the following figures relating to country of birth: Bangladeshis, 160,000; Pakistanis, 476,000; Indians, 134,000; Malaysians, 43,000; Arabs, 134,000; Turks, 26,000; Turkish Cypriots, 45,000; and subSaharan Africans, 115,000, for a total of 1,133,000. Corrections suggest that the total 1991 population of Muslim background was between 1.25 and 1.5 million.

The Muslim immigrants from Pakistan came primarily for work, and their geographical distribution reflects this. They were employed mainly in the older industries-iron and steel foundries and textiles-and in semiskilled service industries such as public transport. The Bangladeshis were the latest group to arrive, by which time the old industries were in increasingly sharp decline, so a much higher proportion settled in London. The 1991 census figures illustrate this with reference to selected areas: in Greater London, 89,000 Pakistanis and 87,000 Bangladeshis; in the West Midlands, 89,000. and 18,000 respectively; in West Yorkshire, 86,000 and 6,000; in Manchester, 50,000 and 13,000; and in Glasgow and environs 22,000 Pakistanis and no Bangladeshis.

Another consequence of the process of immigration and settlement is that the Muslim population is much younger than the national average. This can be illustrated again with reference to the 1991 census for that part of the population which originated in Pakistan, as shown in Table I.

The 1962 immigration act triggered the major change from a Muslim population consisting mainly of migrant laborers to an immigrant settler community composed of a mixture of ethnic minorities (British conversion to Islam has been very small, probably not more than 5,000 in total up to the present). The establishment of families brought with it a variety of practical concerns which involved aspects of life and culture deeply imbued with Islamic elements. This particularly was the case with women and childbirth and with children and school.

Institutions. The activation of Islam as a result of family settlement after 1962 is shown most clearly in the figures for annual registrations of mosques. In 1963 thirteen mosques were registered with the RegistrarGeneral, a department of government for England and Wales. The number rose steadily, to 49 in 1970, 99 in 1975, 193 in 1980, 314 in 1985, and 452 in 1990. The majority of these mosques are properties bought and converted from other use. Some were formerly domestic dwellings; others were small factories or warehouses, or occasionally cinemas.

During the first period of settlement, the emphasis in the development of Muslim institutions in Britain was on the establishment of facilities for worship and for passing on Islamic teaching and practice to the next generation. This work tended to concentrate around the mosques, and local planning authorities have learned to expect that permission to establish a place of worship will also usually have to include permission to use the facilities for educational purposes, a separate category in planning law.

The organizations which have set up these facilities and the related activities, such as providing personnel

TABLE I. Ages of Pakistani and White Populations


0-4       13.13%            6.36%

5-15     29.52   12.97

16-24   17.47   12.55

25-44   2579    29.01

45-64   12.35   22.32

65+      1.73     16.8


and publications, have come from a variety of backgrounds. Usually the initiative has arisen within a local community, but as its resources were limited, it was often necessary to find sponsors. It was at this point that a number of organizations from the countries of origin entered the scene.

The most successful formal network is rooted in the Jama`at-i Islami of Pakistan and includes the UK Islamic Mission, which runs a series of mosques with education and community work; the Muslim Educational Trust, which provides peripatetic teachers to take classes in state schools outside formal teaching hours; the fortnightly newsmagazine Impact International; and the Islamic Foundation, a center for research, training, and publishing. The Islamic Council of Europe, established in 1973, sponsored conferences on the future of the Muslim economic order and the status of Muslim minorities. In 1982 it was renamed the Islamic Council, producing the “Universal Islamic Declaration” and the “Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights.”

Although successful, this network is not the largest. The Deobandi and Barelwi movements have also spread to Britain, where they often find themselves continuing the rivalry started at home. The Deobandi network is more integrated than that of the Barelwis, with two seminaries in the north of England providing a growing number of imams and teachers for Deobandi mosques. The Tablighi Jama’at is also active in Britain. The Barelwi network is fragmented among various prominent pirs and their lieutenants. Overlapping with the Barelwis are a number of Sufi orders, with branches of the Naqshbandis and Chishtis especially prominent. For a long time the Sfifis were hardly noticeable, as they functioned in informal personal networks; in recent years, however, some Sufi groups have taken on more recognizably British organizational structures, often because this made it easier to get access to local sources of influence and financial subsidies. Among the Muslims from the Indian subcontinent there is a small following of the Ahl i-Hadith movement, especially in the English Midlands. [See Deobandis; Barelwis; Tablighi Jama’at.]

There have long been attempts to form national umbrella organizations. The first was the Union of Muslim Organisations (1970) which, although it did not achieve its aim, still exists. Since then several other attempts have been made, some sponsored by the Saudi-based Muslim World League and one by the Libya-based Islamic Call Society. The Muslim Institute, founded in 1972 by the journalist Kalim Siddiqui, probably with Saudi assistance, for most of the 1980s was linked with Iran. In 1991 it set up the so-called Muslim Parliament, which has been greeted with skepticism by most of the British Muslim community.

In addition to these locally based institutions, the World Ahl al-Bayt Islamic League (WABIL) is an international ShIN organization with headquarters in London and affiliates in various countries. Currently its secretary-general is Hujjat al-Islam Sayyid Muhammad al-Mfisawi, a Lebanese Shi’i `slim. Its activities include the performance and registration of marriages and divorces; the distribution of authoritative opinions by senior officials (marja` al-taqlid); announcement of the start and end of the lunar month, important for observation of Ramadan; the provision of teachers and religious leaders to Shi’i communities requiring them; the coordination of the programs of its various branches; assistance to Shi’i victims of natural disasters, largely through the distribution of zakat; the provision of aid to students for study in madrasahs in Qom, Najaf, and elsewhere; and the countering of hostile prejudices and propaganda among both non-Muslims and Sunni Muslims.

Another Shi’i organization with a base in London is the Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation, established around the followers of the leading ayatollah, Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Khu’i, whose family was imprisoned and then executed by the Iraqi regime during the 1980s. Since the Gulf War, the Foundation has been taking an increasing interest in the Muslim community in Britain. [See Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation.]

As Muslim organizations have begun to take a more active part in the wider society, many have also begun to establish various forms of cooperation with other religious groups, especially the churches at both local and national levels. Muslim organizations played a prominent part in the founding in 1987 of a national Interfaith Network, and both during the Rushdie affair and later during the 199o-1991 Gulf crisis and war there was active consultation between Muslim organizations and churches locally and nationally.

Political and Social Programs. During the 1980s many local Muslim organizations were beginning to feel more self-confident and learning how to function with more success in local politics. They have thus begun to integrate into local political life, often quite successfully. Coming together around educational issues, the Muslim Liaison Committee in Birmingham linked some sixty local Muslim groups and was able to negotiate with the city’s education authority to produce guidelines for schools on how to treat Muslim children. Since then they have conducted several further successful negotiations with other parts of the city government and have also agreed on a common dating and advance notice of `Id al-Fitr. In Bradford, Muslims cooperated in the mid-1980s in a campaign to change many aspects of local educational policy. Out of this local cooperation arose the first public initiative in the long-running campaign against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. [See Rushdie Affair.] In many cities Muslims have been elected to the city council, although there is not yet a Muslim member of Parliament.

A concern for educational issues has been one of the main characteristics of many of these organizations. For almost two decades there have been sporadic campaigns for Muslim schools to be established with public money, just as there are publicly funded Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Jewish schools. So far such campaigns have not been successful, and the only Muslim schools remain about thirty private institutions of varying size. As British government structures have become more centralized since 1979, so central government has increasingly become the target of these campaigns. Following the Rushdie affair, central government has also begun to respond more openly and, at least on the surface, more positively. Thus government supported the establishment at a Birmingham teacher-training college of a program for training Muslim teachers for religious education in the state system. Likewise, the Department of the Environment (responsible for local government) has set up an Inner Cities Religious Council.

As young Muslims born in Britain have grown up, they have begun to loosen their links with the countries and cultures of their parents. In the last few years many, especially the better-educated, have begun to move into the management of existing Muslim organizations. Others have established their own youth organizations. In the universities, they are gradually becoming an important force in Islamic student societies previously dominated by foreign students. A number of English-language Muslim weekly newspapers have been started by such groups. This change of generation is also beginning to lead to a change in the Muslim community’s reference points in the Islamic world. While the immigrant generation continue to look back to the regions and cultures from which they came, other perspectives are beginning to be voiced by the young.

There is clear evidence of the development of a British Muslim lifestyle in which the cultural traditions of the northern Indian subcontinent are being laid aside. The younger Muslims are much more actively concerned with events in Bosnia and Palestine than with developments in their parents’ regions of origin. Although a few appear to be attracted by radical groups such as Hizb al-Tahir, the great majority are developing a mode of participation which includes local and national activity within Britain as well as a concern for wider issues of the Muslim world community.

[See also Islamic Foundation; United Kingdom Islamic Mission.]


Anwar, Muhammad. “Muslims in Britain. 1991 Census and Other Statistical Sources.” CSIC Papers: Europe 9 (September 1993). British Muslims: Monthly Survey. Birmingham, February 1993Monthly record of events affecting Muslims in Britain, published by the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (CSIC), Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham.

Lewis, Philip. Islamic Britain: Religion, Politics and Identity among British Muslims. London, 1994

Modood, Tariq. “Muslims, Race and Equality in Britain: Some PostRushdie Affair Reflections.” CSIC Papers: Europe I (June 1990 Observations on what racial equality and pluralism mean in postSatanic Verses Britain.

Nielsen, Jorgen S. Muslims in Western Europe. Edinburgh, 1992. Places development of Muslim communities and institutions in Britain in larger comparative context.

Siddique, Mohammed. Moral Spotlight on Bradford. Bradford, 1993 Critical Muslim analysis of social and political life of a Yorkshire city.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/great-britain/

  • writerPosted On: June 8, 2013
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