Muslims in Britain. Assimilated or Claiming a Separate System?

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2011

38 Pages




Islam in British Society
1.1 Muslims in Britain – a Brief Historical Introduction
1.2 Muslims in Britain - Assimilated or Claiming a Separate System?
1.3 Islam - the World’s Second Religion in Britain

Islam and Women
2.1 Women of Islam – Their Role and Rights
2.2 Muslim Women in Britain

British Media and Islam




Religion is clearly a force to be recognized within global politics. At the same time, its connection to peace, conflict, and international affairs is not well understood. The aim of this paper is to present the world of Islam on the foreign territory – namely, in Britain.

Basically, looking at the country and the phenomenon of immigration, people have been coming to settle in Britain for centuries. They have come from near and far, individually and in groups, fleeing from political or religious persecution and in search of economic advancement. Among many groups of immigrants who entered this country between 1400 and 1900 one should mention on bands of gypsies during the fifteenth century, the importation of African slaves and servants from the sixteenth century onwards, the influx of Huguenot refugees from France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and many consequent ones. One cannot forget about the fact that around the turn of the twentieth century many Jews fled to Britain from pogroms in Eastern Europe and others followed later, their numbers rapidly growing during the 1930s by those who escaped from Nazi persecution in Germany. Also, immediately after the Second World War a large number of political refugees and exiles from Eastern Europe settled there. The ‘modern’ Britain saw fresh influx of immigrants when newer and newer countries were introduced to the European Union and consequently their citizens were not required visas anymore to come and begin their new life in the United Kingdom.

In order to depict all the interesting facts about British Muslims and the state of the affairs between British citizens and Muslims this paper was divided into three chapters. The first one, deals with introductory history of the idea of Islam itself, as well as the political and religious matters. The second discusses the role of Islamic women viewed from different perspectives and finally, chapter three focuses on the impact of Orientalism on representations of Islam in British media.

The author of this paper hopes that the paper will be an interesting source for anyone who would like to find out more about Islam, Muslims and their life in Britain.

Chapter One Islam in British Society

On the one hand, Britain is a country with defined boundaries, a recognizable landscape, a long history, and a position in the various international economic, social, and political league tables. On the other, British people are much harder to describe. To begin with, some British people do not live in Britain also, many people living in Britain do not think of themselves as British. Nationality is a matter of allegiance and cultural affiliation. Some people say that nationality is indicated by where one chooses to live or by the team one supports at sports events; others say that it is a question of which one would fight for. It has also been argued that nationality is no longer a powerful force in Britain that it is simply a matter of circumstance, and that today it is far less significant than local or global identities such as relatives, friends, and communities that are more important and so is the culture.

Above that there is so-called cultural identity which is something partly imposed by one’s background and partly chosen by people. All people have a number of influences bearing on them, that is, they inherit their ethnicity, physical abilities, intelligence and so on, in large measure from parents. But many other ‘environmental’ factors affect their development: for example family, region, schooling, religion, music, etc. determine their experience. To a degree they form their own cultural identities by selection from a range of options. They conform with or react against the values of their parents and accept or reject society’s expectations of them. According to Storry and Childs these influences, absorbed willingly or unwillingly, determine identity.[1] Sebastian Poulter recalls the census figures for England and Wales so that readers were at least aware of the broad statistical information uncovered by the inclusion of a purportedly ‘ethnic’ question:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1. Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys, 1991 Census: Ethnic Group and Country of Birth, Great Britain[2]

Interestingly, a ‘religious’ question was not included in the 1991 census, nor are any official government statistics kept concerning religious affiliation in this country. Nevertheless, it has become commonplace in England to refer to both the ‘non-White’ groups as identified in the 1991 census and those ‘ethnic minority communities’ also called ‘minority ethnic communities’. There are obvious dangers in assuming that the only identity possessed by any individual person is membership of a particular ethnic community, defined by reference to its adherence to a specific ‘culture’.

As Hunter points out, the presence of Muslim communities in Europe dates to the turn of the twentieth century, when such immigrants began arriving from Europe’s empires.[3] The influx of Muslims reached substantial levels during the postwar years of economic reconstruction, as single male and mostly unskilled or semiskilled laborers were ‘invited’ to work in Europe. These invitations, however, did not include permanent residence. The European countries fully anticipated that recovery from the Second World War would soon enable their own people to provide the labor needed for economic growth. Most immigrants, too, hoped to return home after acquiring sufficient means to provide more comfortable lives for their families. In Britain, the swift process of postwar decolonization accelerated Muslim immigration because the imperial powers had acquired certain moral and legal obligations toward some of their colonial subjects.

Due to the fact that this paper discusses the aspect of Muslims and Islam in Britain, the first part of this chapter will be shaped as brief introduction to what Islam is and its very short history.

1.1 Muslims in Britain – a Brief Historical Introduction

Historical reviews of the Muslim following in the UK have various starting points. Until recently, British society understood the phenomenon as having begun in the context of the UK’s colonial history; Muslims from across the British Empire, and later the British Commonwealth, traveled to the UK and thus began Muslim British history.

Around the European Union, the implication by large sections of society is that there is something intrinsically different about Islam that makes it difficult to integrate Muslims into European societies. Some of these sections of society are non-Muslim, and are reluctant to allow such integration to take place; others are Muslim, as represented by the quote above.[4]

These opinions and feelings raise a number of issues relating to the actual identities and their compatibility with modern day Europe and Islam. The British example represents an illustrative case study, having a long history of interaction with Muslims and being the home of a wide Muslim population.

In the last few decades this narrative has lost much of its former credibility, challenged by British historians. While it is correct to note that the largest and most noticeable presence of Muslims rose in the UK in the aftermath of the break-up of the British Empire, the history of the relationship goes back much further. According to above quoted Hellyer, the Anglo-Muslim community has produced many stormy debates over the centuries and consequently: “Religious dissidents, adventurers, romancers, scholar-pilgrims - all have enriched the diverse and colourful story that is British Islam: Peter Lyall, the Scotsman who became an admiral in the Ottoman navy; Abdullah Quilliam, the Liverpool solicitor who founded a mosque and orphanage in which Christian waifs were raised as Muslims; Benjamin Bishop, His Majesty’s consul in Cairo who turned Muslim and mysteriously disappeared […]”[5]

Therefore, it can be assumed that there is significant evidence to suggest five phases of Muslim history in the UK or among Britons:

a) Early Muslim general history until the end of the 15th century
b) 16th century to the end of the 18th century
c) 19th century-First World War
d) Early 20th century
e) Mid-20th century-present[6]

Each of these phases contributes something unique to the historical context of the Muslim presence in the United Kingdom.

Accordingly, beginning from the first part, there are some interesting facts that should be considered. Rosser-Owen suggests that ever since Egypt and Palestine came under Muslim control in the 7th century, Celts of western Britain came into contact with the Muslims through trade.[7] There are also other reports suggesting that Muslims had reached and interacted with Britons on their native soil, and abroad through trade, from very early on - possibly from the beginning of the 8th century. Furthermore, analyses of Islam and the Muslims as they appear in texts dating from the Anglo-Saxon period, between the seventh and eleventh centuries, are somewhat scarce, however, they discuss for example Bede’s knowledge of contemporaneous Muslim activity in Europe around the turn of the seventh century. Richard Southern and Norman Daniel sketched some history and medieval usage of the terms Saraceni, Ismaelitae and Agareni, concerning which Daniel makes the significant point that, during the Middle Ages, Arabes – a word used comparatively rarely – indicated something quite different from Saraceni and the others.[8]

Interestingly, contact between King of England, John I in the thirteenth century, and the wider Muslim world became close enough for him to propose marriage to the daughter of the Sharif of Morocco. He was willing to embrace Islam in order to be a suitable husband; according to one account, the Sharif refused stating that “Islam forbids taking undue advantage of helpless people, and had King John really wanted to embrace the Faith, he need not have to send any kind of statement to the Emir for converting himself”.[9] John I got excommunicated for his plans for conversion by the Church of Rome.

British relations under Queen Elizabeth in the late sixteenth century with the Muslims were fairly warm. Following from the steps begun by her father, the Queen arranged a defense treaty with the Ottomans in 1587, and later the UK formed political links with Muslim territories as far as India and Persia. Relations between Queen Elizabeth and Morocco were also often quite close, with Queen Elizabeth requesting military and diplomatic assistance from the Sharif Ahmad al-Mansur on more than one occasion. Within England, there were Muslims during these same periods who were neither permanent residents nor subjects of the crown, existing as a distinct group amid the British population. security for Muslim traders was guaranteed under Elizabeth, another step in forming amicable relations with the Turks and Arabs that induced the Pope to view Elizabeth as ‘confederate with the Turk’. During the reign of Charles I treaties were formed between the UK and Morocco and the Ottomans, resulting in similar trade arrangements and also Muslims continued to be permitted to practice their religion.

In the period of nineteenth and the turn of the twentieth century, the British colonized many predominantly Muslim territories and, as such, some Muslim communities began to gravitate to the center of the Empire. Records note that as in earlier centuries, there were a number of converts to Islam from within the British population, some well-known personalities and amongst them Murad Rais, formerly Peter Lyle, the Admiral of the Tripolitania Corsair Fleet during Nelson’s Battle of the Nile in the 19th century.[10]

Further in history, the first modern, large-scale Muslim immigration to the UK began in the late 1950s, mostly from the Indian subcontinent and Cyprus, following political disturbances on the island in 1957, as Hunter states.[11] This movement was made easy, because until 1962, entry into Britain by citizens of British colonies and member countries of the Commonwealth was unrestricted.

It is also worth recollecting that large numbers of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis came to the UK as migrants from the colonies, and some of them petitioned the government to build a mosque. Thus, during a war cabinet meeting in 1940, Churchill allocated funds to build the most prestigious mosque in the UK, Regents Park Central Mosque, which opened in 1944 with King George VI present.

The 1960s and 70s saw a huge growth in the number of British Muslims, particularly immigrants from British colonies and Commonwealth countries. Statistically interesting fact is that the number of both registered and unregistered mosques in the UK is over seven hundred.

1.2 Muslims in Britain - Assimilated or Claiming a Separate System?

Hellyer Hirshma, in his British Muslims: Past, Present and Future states that:

Britain has approximately 1,200,000 Muslims, the majority of whom were born in the UK. Others have arrived from the Indian subcontinent or from African countries. The larger Muslim communities are concentrated in the industrial cities of the Midlands, in London, Bradford, and Strathclyde, and in the textile towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire where in the 1960s the clothing industry attracted workers from overseas. Additionally, immigrant communities who arrived in Britain from colonies and ex-colonies in Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s tended to concentrate in particular areas - notably London, Birmingham, Glasgow, and the big industrial towns of northern England - and this has led to large communities of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs in these areas. Glasgow, Newcastle, and Leeds have sizeable Muslim populations.[12]

In his celebrated study, Orientalism, Edward Said has demonstrated how, from the Middle Ages to modern times, Western writers, administrators, and politicians have systematically defined the East (and especially the Arab peoples of the Middle East) as embodying quintessentially ‘alien’ values, beliefs, customs, and modes of thought. As a branch of academic scholarship ‘Orientalism’ has presented Westerners with a stereotyped image of ‘the East’ which is distinctly unflattering. Such a negative portrait helped probably to justify the colonial domination.

Nevertheless, as it will be discussed in the following part of the chapter, the rapid development of Muslim organizations in Britain can be observed in the proliferation of mosques, religious supplementary schools, and Muslim associations. Like the general size of the Muslim population, the number of such institutions rose rapidly from the 1970s. The various regional and linguistic origins of each religious community within the British South Asian population account for ongoing social and cultural complexity.

According to Haddad, the most successful effort at Muslim unification in Britain came in November 1997 with the inauguration of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).[13] MCB is an umbrella organization of some 250 local, regional, and national Muslim institutions. It came as the culmination of various steps taken during the 1990s by the United Kingdom Action Committee on Islamic Affairs.

It is interesting to note, that English courts apply conflict of laws principles to determine the outcome of cases with a foreign element. In some instances this may mean that they decide the issues on the basis of the rules of another legal system, if that system is selected as the appropriate legal regime to govern the particular case.

The most successful attempt to create a national umbrella organization arose out of the organized response to the Rushdie affair. Reflecting on the strength of feeling in the Muslim community after the Rushdie affair, Paul Weller noted that: “by insisting that they do not want to be dealt with as an ‘ethnic minority group’ or in terms of ‘race relations’ considerations, and in demanding recognition primarily as a faith community, Muslims are posing fundamental questions to British society. In a cultural milieu where ethnicity, nationality, class and fashion have been seen as the major determining factors of individual and corporate identity, for a group to define itself primarily in terms of religious identity represents a major break with the prevailing social ethos”.[14]

The UK has traditionally welcomed immigrants, but just as elsewhere, their integration was through specific prisms. A community that insists on a primarily spiritually derived identity creates some issues that require adaptation. Through the current lens of race-relations, a number of demands of the Muslim community were partially accommodated; In particular the following are constantly being noted:

- Permission to establish facilities for ritual slaughtering of animals for consumption,
- The setting aside of areas of local cemeteries for Muslim use,
- The provision of halal (ritually permissible) food in public institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons,
- The designation of prayer facilities in the work place,


[1] Storry, Mike and Childs, Peter (Eds.), British Cultural Identities. London: Routledge, 2002, p. 5.

[2] As quoted in Poulter, Sebastian, Ethnicity, Law, and Human Rights: The English Experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, p.8.

[3] Hunter, Shireen T. (ed.), Islam, Europe's Second Religion: The New Social, Cultural, and Political Landscape. Westport, CT.: Praeger, 2002, p. xii.

[4] Hellyer, Hisham A., British Muslims: Past, Present and Future. The Muslim World. Volume: 97. Issue: 2. 2007, p. 225.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hellyer, Hisham A., British Muslims…, Op. cit. p. 144.

[7] Rosser-Owen, Daoud, The History of Islam in the British Isles: An Overview. (The Association For British Muslims online:, 1998), accessed on 2011-01-09.

[8] Beckett, Katharine Scarfe, Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Islamic World. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 5.

[9] Hellyer, Hisham A., British Muslims…, Op. cit. p. 225.

[10] Hellyer, Hisham A., British Muslims…, Op. cit. p. 225.

[11] Hunter, Shireen T., Islam, Europe's Second Religion… Op. cit., p. 51.

[12] Hellyer, Hisham A., British Muslims…, Op. cit. p. 225.

[13] Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck (ed.), Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 22.

[14] As quoted in Hellyer, Hisham A., British Muslims: Past, Present and Future. The Muslim World. Volume: 97. Issue: 2. 2007, p. 225+.

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Muslims in Britain. Assimilated or Claiming a Separate System?
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Muslims, Islam, UK, Britain, culture, religion, assmiliation, belief, differences, community, Islamophobia, acceptance
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Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2011, Muslims in Britain. Assimilated or Claiming a Separate System?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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