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British Muslims and the Global

Ummah

[Fuad Nahdi]

It is very important that we have events like this one in our calendar as British
Muslims. It is not only part of our tradition to respect and honour those who have
selflessly contributed to the development of our community, but it is part of the
continued process of change and progress that is essential for the historical maturity
of our community. This event is particularly apt because it is the way KS, as some of
us were fortunate to refer affectionately to the late Dr Kalim, would have liked it. For
more than anything, Dr Kalim was a man who thrilled in dealing and combatting with
ideas.

Of all Western Europe and the Americas Britain has had (and continues to have) a
unique relationship with the Muslim world. It is important that we understand this
‘special relationship’. It goes back to the eighth century of the common (or Christian)
era. Initially, Muslims landed on these isles as explorers and traders. Unfortunately
for the British isles, however, early Muslim visitors found the country totally
unattractive: certainly not one that somebody would willingly emigrate to. The
country was poverty-stricken, physically hostile and lacked any exotic goods or
produce that could be the basis of any form of mercantile relationship. The food was
awful and the weather was unpredictable — and usually awful. According to Muslim
commentators, even the slaves captured from the coast by some Muslim pirates
based in north Africa at the time were a disappointment: they were "too fair and not
used to the sun, too laid-back, lazy, not inclined to hard physical work and not good
at words or making conversation."

Yet the Muslim world made a very different impression on Britons. Offa of Mercia, a
powerful Anglo-Saxon king who died in 796CE, was so desperate to trade with the
dynamic and vibrant Muslim world that he produced gold coins that were not only up
to Islamic standards, but also had the kalimah "la ilaha illa Allah" inscribed on them.
Several of these coins survive and can be seen in museums around the world.

However, it was not only Muslim trade and commerce that was attractive to the
Britons of the medieval ages. By the 14th century the Muslim world was also
admired and respected for its advances in all fields of knowledge.

By 1386 Muslim scholarship formed the backbone of intellectual life in Britain:


Chaucer wrote surrounded by Islamic texts of all kinds drawn from all over the
Muslim world. In the Canterbury Tales, there is among the pilgrims wending their
way to Canterbury a "Doctour of Phisyk" whose learning includes Razi, Avicenna (Ibn
Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd).

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Islam and the Muslim world were part of
the elite in society. The first British Muslim whose name survives in an English
source, The voyage made to Tripoli (1583), was a "son of a yeoman of our Queen’s
Guard... his name was John Nelson." The universities of Oxford and Cambridge
established chairs of Arabic in the 1630s, and scholars in Britain relied heavily on
translations from Arabic in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and medicine
throughout the medieval period and the Renaissance. The first rendering of the
Qur’an into English was produced by Alexander Ross in 1649, and this edition had
two imprints, showing its popularity and wide circulation.

Of course all this is exciting stuff and there is a lot of it. It is important that we learn
about Britain’s Islamic past so that we are better equipped to build an Islamic future
for Britain. But time is limited.

However, one important fact about the historic interaction between Britain and Islam
needs to be noted: that British colonialism and colonial policy is one of the major
causes of the situation and condition of the global ummah today. By 1897 a map of
the British Empire included Nigeria, Egypt, India and Malaya, all large territories with
significant Muslim populations. The British empire has been described by some
people as "the greatest Muslim Empire in the world"; that is to say, there was a time
when more Muslim people and countries were ruled by Britain than by any other
single government. It is also true that Muslim lands provided the manpower and
material resources that contributed to the prosperity of Victorian and Edwardian
England. In other words, it is largely Muslim wealth and human resources that put
the "Great" in front of Britain. I believe it is only with the help of British Muslims that
Britain can continue to call itself Great today and in the future.

So there has been a Muslim presence in Britain for at least 350 years. But it was the
colonial encounter that opened the gates to the mass-migration of Muslims, starting
from the middle of the last century. The East India Company recruited seamen from
Yemen, Gujarat, Sind, Assam and Bengal, whom the British called lascars. A number
of these established settlements in port towns and cities in Britain, particularly
London. There were also a number of Muslim businesses in Britain by the nineteenth
century; one of the best-known was the fashionable "Mahomed’s Baths" founded in
Brighton by Sake Deen Mohammed (1750-1851).

By 1842 three thousand lascars were visiting Britain every year. After the opening of
the Suez Canal in 1869, seamen originally from Yemen settled in communities in
Cardiff, Liverpool, London, South Shields and Tyneside, and set up zawiyyahs (small
mosques or prayer rooms). Here took place the rites of nikah (marriage), aqeeqah
(birth celebrations), khitan (circumcision) and janazah (funeral) and the celebration
of the two Eids and the mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet (saw).

Groups of Muslim intellectuals emerged in Britain late in the nineteenth century. In


the period 1893 to 1908 a weekly journal, The Crescent, was distributed from
Liverpool. Its founder was a lawyer, William Henry Quilliam (known within the
Muslim community as Shaykh Abdullah Quilliam). He had become a Muslim in 1887,
after spending some time in Algeria and Morocco, and was famous throughout the
Muslim world as author of The Faith of Islam, the first book in English by a Muslim.

The Liverpool Muslim community set up the Islamic Institute, the Liverpool Mosque
in Broughton Terrace, the Medina Home to care for children, and a Literary Society
which held weekly meetings. In 1889 Britain’s first custom-built mosque was
established at Woking in Surrey.

My reason for highlighting these well-known facts about British Islam is to ground us
today as Muslims within a known British history. The point is that British Islam is
older than Great Britain as a political, cultural or spiritual entity. Appreciating this
and understanding its consequences will not only make us strong and relevant but
also identify us as part of the Islamic tide that has been flowing across this country’s
history for several centuries. Today there are 2 million Muslims in Britain. British
Muslims are the most multi-racial, multi-national and multi-lingual in the world.

I would like to end by trying to connect British Muslims, Britain and the global
Ummah. One of the most important aspects of the debate initiated by the late Dr
Kalim was the position of Muslim minorities living in the west, such as British
Muslims. The Muslim Manifesto and the Muslim Parliament were efforts to tackle a
complex matter in a comprehensive and revolutionary manner.

It is not my intention this afternoon to debate either the Muslim Manifesto or the
Muslim Parliament. But before I proceed I must point out that this document and this
institution were important turning-points in the development of Islam in Britain.
Today, one cannot fully comment on such diverse events as having Muslims in the
Houses of Parliament, the publication of a report on Islamophobia, or the emergence
of organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, without relating them to the
ideas and institutions produced by Dr Kalim.

Questions surrounding the future of Islam and Muslims in Britain are complex; as a
journalist, I know better than to make predictions. But I do have the confidence to
make a few suggestions. The first is that any serious analysis or strategy for British
Islam and British Muslims must take into account the nature, experience and
potential of British people as a whole. Anybody hoping to contribute seriously to the
future of Islam in modern Britain must understand that all depends on shaping
individuals to become Muslims: in our faith and spirituality, ethics and morality,
deeds, community life, and most importantly of all in our identity. Identity
development has, unfortunately, received little attention among those of us
purporting to work for the global Islamic movement. But it should: without people
with strong individual and Muslim identities, our community has no hope of survival.

Having an identity means answering the questions: "Who am I?" and "Who are we?"
These questions are basic to any individual or group of people, and need to be
answered before we can move on to any other issue we face. How can we discuss
our purposes and priorities as Muslims in Britain without a firm grip on who we are?

We need to establish a framework for Muslim identity development in Britain to serve


as a basis for creating and shaping well-adjusted, well-rounded individual Muslims
who have a firm grip on reality and a heightened sense of responsibility to both the
Muslim community and to society at large. Perhaps the first stage of identity-
development should include a strong sense of self-identity and self-awareness. This
is a difficult concept for many to understand, because it is not well-developed in
traditional Muslim cultures, which emphasise family or group identity.

Other bases for a healthy identity include ties to such basic human institutions as
family (both nuclear and extended), to one’s cultural heritage and, most importantly,
to Islam. This should include knowledge and practice, participation in community life,
membership of relevant organisations, and friendships within the Muslim community.
A human being may function well without one or two of these, but when too many
are missing it means serious weakening of a person’s identity and self-worth, leading
to identity crises and alienation.
Most Muslims in Britain are missing several of these ties, and they are indeed
suffering from identity crises and alienation. As a result a substantial number of
people have little real sense of who they are, within either the local concept of the
ummah or the global one. This is dangerous because it means a weakened sense of
responsibility to ourselves, to our families, to our Muslim communities and to society
at large. The effect of this lack of identity on attempts to establish Islam and Muslim
communities in Britain is easy to see.

Increasingly, studies are showing that many Muslims are loosening their ties with
mosques and community centres: the masajid, according to many, are only there for
the Friday prayers and the odd gathering. Sometimes they are useful because they
run a madrassah. Otherwise they are as alien as the local KFC selling haram chicken
nuggets. Our younger generation is growing up little aware of, and even less
concerned about, their responsibilities towards Islam and the Muslim community
here and abroad. The evidence is plain to see in the trend of British Muslim
contributions towards Islamic causes.

The struggle must be to re-introduce our brothers and sisters to the old axiom of
thinking globally but acting locally. Britain (and the Muslim world) needs Muslims
with a healthy and balanced identity, the starting point for the emergence of a
genuine Islamic movement. This would enable communications and interactions with
others and is important in discovering one’s purpose and ways to contribute to the
world.

The future well-being and survival of the Muslim community requires us to raise such
people. We must establish some means of instilling an identity that is Islamic in
every sense: we must go beyond the process of just producing scarf-wearing or
bearded people bothered only with the consumption of halal meat.

As Muslims in Britain there is another issue of identity that faces us. This is the
question of who we are collectively, as a community. The answer is very simple. No
matter what our ethnic origin, language or culture, we are more than just Muslims in
Britain: we are British Muslims. We seem to shy away from affirming this obvious
fact, which affects our approach to the work of establishing Islam and the Muslim
community in the United Kingdom.

Serious as overseas issues are to the Muslim ummah, placing a higher priority on
them than on our British issues is suicidal. Our first duty as British Muslims has to be
to establish Islam in Britain. For us, this should be as much a jihad as any jihad in
the Muslim world. This mis-ordering of priorities is preventing us from discussing
issues crucial to our survival as individual Muslims and as a community. It is also
diverting attention from defining appropriate purposes and priorities for our
community and finding solutions to the many problems we face. It is also affecting
relationships with other groups, keeping us from finding our place in this society and
reaching out to others in it.

One is saddened to see an almost schizophrenic Muslim mind emerging. It is true


that most of us function according to one set of rules in private life, at home with
family and Muslim friends, and within Muslim communities; and according to another
set of rules in public life, with non-Muslim neighbours and friends, at school or
college, on the job and in business or professional contacts. Nowhere is this
dichotomy more obvious than in gender relations, where Muslims interact freely with
members of the opposite gender in their public life, yet are reserved and distant with
other Muslims.

By such dichotomous behaviour we think we are preserving Islam, but are we really?
In the long run such a lifestyle prevents us from developing a British Muslim culture.
We need to think seriously about developing such a culture, which would serve as a
bridge between Islam, our Muslim cultural heritage and our cultural and social
environment. We must re-educate ourselves: we must learn to discuss rather than
argue; to smile rather than frown; to sing rather than growl. Our future in Britain
may well depend on how well we are able to do so.