The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800 by Humayun Ansari

Playboys, poets and puritans
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The Independent Culture


Muslims are a bewildering lot. Even someone like me, used to dealing with different kinds of Muslims, finds the sheer diversity of British Muslim community quite baffling. To begin with, there is an extensive range of countries of origins - Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, Malaysia, Somalia and Turkey, to mention the most obvious. Each nationality also hides a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. So a British Pakistani Muslim may be a Panjabi or Sindhi, a Pathan or a Kashmiri, may speak any one of the scores of languages and dialects of the Subcontinent, and be quite distinct in his or her cultural practices from all other Pakistanis.

And, of course, there are a host of religious denominations to which any particular individual may belong. One could be Sunni or Shia, a practising Sufi mystic, a follower of one of the (mostly legalistic) Six Schools of Thought, of a traditional movement such as the Bravelis, of a modernist revivalist movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or a totally apolitical group like Tablighi Jamaat. On top of all this, there is the entire spectrum of political persuasions, from the revolutionary left to lunatic right.

This striking diversity is the most distinctive feature of the Muslim community in Britain. Yet, as Humayun Ansari argues in this mammoth history of Islam in Britain, British Muslims have consistently been portrayed as denizens of a monolithic and undifferentiated world, ill at ease with modernity, secularism and democracy. Through painstaking research, and an inspired exploration of the issues of identity, Ansari sets out to dispel this absurd, but widely held, myth.

Islam has been around in Britain for much longer than most people realise. The world map of the 12th-century Muslim geographer al-Idrisi provides evidence of the presence of Muslim traders on the south coast and in Cornwall. The earliest record of conversion of an Englishman, John Nelson, dates from the 16th century. By the early 18th century, Muslims had a sizeable presence.

The first relatively permanent, migrant Muslim populations were established in Manchester, Cardiff, Liverpool, South Shields and the East End of London. The vast majority of these people, consisting of sailors, servants and students, and a sprinkling of professional classes and itinerant entertainers, were connected with the Empire and came from the colonies or protected territories, such as Aden, British Somaliland, Malaya and the Yemen.

Many Muslims also came in search of adventure. Indeed, towards the end of the 19th century, there was a constant stream of young men of wealthy patronage, learned scholars and mullahs, street hawkers and musicians and itinerant surgeons, who came looking for a good time. Many settled here, like Nawab Nazim of Bengal, who arrived in 1870 and soon found himself accused of living "a life of debauchery".

The "Muhammadan Queen" of Oudh commuted between London and India, always accompanied with her large entourage. Munshi Abdul Karim, who arrived soon after Queen Victoria's Golden Jublee in 1887, became her favourite servant, taught the Queen Urdu, and rose to become her "Indian Secretary". Not surprisingly, these "native" Muslims, with their exotic lifestyles and fancy dresses, became a regular staple of the gossip columns.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain was home to a series of influential Muslims who played a key role in shaping Islamic thought and developments in the Muslim world. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, came as a student in 1892, was called to the Bar, and returned in 1930 to practice law in Britain for four years. Muhammad Iqbal, revered as "poet-philosopher of the East", arrived in 1905, studied at Cambridge and qualified as a barrister before returning.

Syed Ameer Ali, a well-known Shia scholar, came to study in 1873, married an Englishwoman and eventually settled in Britain. Later appointed a Privy Councillor, he went on to write The Spirit of Islam, which had a profound influence on British Muslims as well as the Muslims of the Subcontinent. Abduallah Yusuf Ali arrived at the same time and settled in Britain to produce one of the most widely used English translation of the Qur'an.

These Muslims faced a number of dilemmas concerning personal morality, codes of behaviour, types of education, forms of religious practice and cultural identity. But, as Ansari shows so brilliantly, secularism, modernity or democracy were not a problem for them. On the whole, they were open-minded liberals, with a traditional bent.

The group that evolved round the Woking Mosque, for example, presented Islam as compatible with being British and Western. Built in 1889, the Woking Mosque published the highly influential Islamic Review, which I read devoutly during my adolescence. The monthly magazine saw democracy as integral to Islam and projected Muslims as highly modern people.

Things began to change during the 1970s. The diversity of the community created problems about how to define Muslims officially. Issues of racism led many Muslims to reject the idea that ethnicity and culture could form the basis of their identity. Different groups - migrants, youth, women, converts - strove to set the "Muslim agenda", making it difficult to establish a unified position. The arrival of a new wave of ultra-conservatives and extremists in the 1980s and 1990s aggravated the situation. At the same time, British Muslims began to identify with the political causes of the ummah - the international Muslim community - such as Palestine and Kashmir.

The problems of British Muslims have been compounded, argues Ansari, because they are regarded essentially as "outsiders" rather than "authentically" British. Because they were ex-colonial subjects, both Muslims and their religion have frequently been perceived as "inferior".

There is still a dominant view that Britishness depends on a shared sense of (post)-Christian cultural and racial unity, and imperial history. British Muslims, therefore, have had to think about themselves in reaction to being rejected and constructed as the "infidel within". It is this attitude that has given the ultra-conservatives and neo-traditionalists an upper hand at the expense of the "reformists" and "secularists".

Under these circumstances, Muslims in Britain have constantly faced the challenge of proving that they do indeed belong to British society. After September 11, they have been repeatedly pressed to condemn the attacks louder than other citizens, as anything less is regarded as hidden support for the murder of innocent civilians. Thanks to such events, suspicions linger in the minds of the majority population that Muslims do not, and perhaps cannot, fully understand, and become part of, British society and its institutions.

The Infidel Within demonstrates that Muslims are as loyal to the Crown as any other community. The majority population, suggests Ansari, must appreciate that Islam is an integral part of British history and a living reality in Britain. Instead of focusing on a group of "hegemonic" extremists, we should provide support and space for alternative interpretations to blossom.

Ziauddin Sardar's 'Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim' will be published by Granta in June

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