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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 2001 there were between 1.5 and 2 million British residents of Muslim background.


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, a cosmopolitan expatriate colonial community grew up in London, many of whom were Muslim.

As British industry grew in the two decades after World War II, it soon started recruiting workers from colonial and former colonial territories many of whom were Muslim-first from the Caribbean, then from India, and by the late 1950s from Pakistan, mainly from the western sector, particularly Kashmir and the Punjab, but later also from the eastern sector that became Bangladesh in 1971. 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.

With the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, Britain was the first major western European country to move toward a cessation of labor immigration. 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 made provision for 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 subsequent flow of immigration changed to consist predominantly of wives, fiancées, and children of men already in Britain. Several later acts have been passed further restricting immigration. The major influx of Muslims since the mid-1970s has consisted of refugees, especially from 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.


These developments are reflected in the figures available from the decennial censuses, which record place of birth. The first record of Pakistanis in the census showed approximately 5,000 in 1951, which rose 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 2001 census was the first since 1851 to include a question on religion. In response almost 1.6 million Muslims were recorded, making them slightly over half of the population declaring a religion other than Christianity and 2.78% of the whole population of Great Britain. Subsequent research indicates that this figure was a significant underestimate, and most observers agreed that the total figure was probably closer to 2 million. Just under half of Muslims had been born in the United Kingdom. In terms of national origin the largest single group remained the Pakistanis (688,000), followed by Bangladeshis (256,000), and Indians (128,000). Some 176,000 were identified as being from a white ethnic group, which included Turkish, Cypriot, Arab, and eastern European as well as about 64,000 “white British.” The result for Muslims of African background was 96,000. There were no reliable figures for converts to Islam, although most observers suggest several tens of thousands.

The 2001 census showed that 38 percent of Muslims lived in London, followed by 14 percent in the conurbation centered around Birmingham, 13 percent in the Manchester-Liverpool region, and 12 percent in South Yorkshire. But within these regions the concentration was very uneven, with some smaller districts’ populations over half Muslim. The Muslim population was also much younger than the national average. About one third of Muslims were under the age of 16 in the 2001 census, whereas the national average was 20 percent. Less than 5 percent were over 65 as compared with a national average of 17 percent.


The growth of Islamic activity 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. 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 were properties that had been bought and converted from other uses, but a growing number were also specifically built for the purpose.

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. Usually the initiative arose within a local community, but because 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 notable formal network is rooted in the Jamʿīyat-i Islāmī of Pakistan and includes the U.K. Islamic Mission, which runs a series of mosques with education and community work, including the Muslim Educational Trust, which provides peripatetic teachers to state schools for religious classes outside formal teaching hours, and the Islamic Foundation, a center for research, training, and publishing. In the early 1990s the Foundation started the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, which offers courses for professionals as well as master's degrees and Ph.D.'s awarded by a neighboring university. It has also cooperated with government in joint projects and produced reports on aspects of the situation of Muslims in the U.K.

Although successful, this network is not the largest. The Deobandī and Barelwī movements have also spread to Britain, where they often find themselves continuing the rivalry started at home in India. The Deobandī network is more organized than that of the Barelwīs, with several seminaries providing a growing number of imams and teachers for Deobandī mosques. The Tablīghī Jamāʿat is also active in Britain, often in cooperation with the Deobandī networks. The Barelwī network is fragmented among various prominent pirs and their lieutenants. Overlapping with the Barelwīs are a number of Ṣūfī orders, with branches of the Naqshbandīyah and Chishtīyah orders especially prominent.

In the 1990s organized Shīʿī activity apart from local Muslim communities increased in places like Birmingham, Manchester, and parts of London. The Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation, based in London, is mainly Arab in its constituency and springs from the Iraqi family of religious leaders of the same name. Apart from educational and social activities for the Arab Shīʿī community, the Foundation has also been active in interreligious networks and cooperation with official institutions. The Islamic Cultural Centre in north London is an Iranian initiative which has established connections with some of the local Shīʿī communities of South Asian origin.

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 this 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, was linked with Iran for most of the 1980s. In 1992 it set up the so-called Muslim Parliament, which was greeted with skepticism from most of the British Muslim community.

In 1997 the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was formed out of an informal process of internal consultation and meetings with the British government which had started some five years earlier. The MCB brought together over 200 local Sunnī organizations and developed a variety of specialist activities, including an active government lobby. Soon after, a group of prominent Muslim individuals of various national backgrounds established the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), one of whose main characteristics was a strong reluctance to engage with government based especially in disagreements over foreign policy.

Britain was a frequent choice of exile for Islamic activists caught up in crises in their own countries, and as early as the 1980s London became home for political refugees from a number of Muslim countries. From the late 1990s onward security authorities were paying growing attention to the political activities of Muslim exiles, and from 1998 anti-terrorism legislation was taking into account possible activities from Muslim quarters. This was markedly strengthened after the September 2001 (9/11) attacks in the U.S., the 2003 intervention in Iraq, and the 2005 attacks in London. While the government continued to cultivate positive relations with the Muslim communities, the increasingly visible security agenda also strengthened the popularity of both more conservative groups—there has been a marked growth in groups and meetings which can broadly be described as Salafī—and more radical groups. Hizb al-Tahrīr had appeared on university campuses in small numbers in the late 1980s. A more radical splinter group calling itself al-Muhājirūn broke off at the end of the 1990s and was suspected of active links with terrorist activities after 2001. Individual preachers, especially in London, attracted notoriety and suspicion of involvement in militant activity and had some success in recruiting small numbers of individuals towards a radical view of Islam sympathetic to activities in the style of al-Qaʿida.

As the majority of Muslim organizations have developed an active part in the wider society, many have also established 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 of the national Inter Faith Network in 1987, during the Rushdie affair in 1989/90, during the 1990–1991 Gulf crisis, and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and July 7, 2005, when Muslim organizations and churches across the country undertook mutual consultation and cooperation.

Political and Social Program.

During the 1980s many local Muslim organizations were beginning to feel more self-confident and operated with greater success in local politics. In many cities Muslims have been elected to the city council, and since the 1997 general election a number of Muslims have been elected to the House of Commons and several have been appointed to the House of Lords. There are also several British Muslim members of the European Parliament.

A principal concern for many of these organizations has been education. For almost two decades there had been sporadic campaigns for Muslim schools to be established with public money, just as there were publicly funded Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Jewish schools. The new Labour government granted public funding to the first Muslim school in 1997. Since then several more Muslim schools have been granted this status. As the structure of British government has become more centralized since 1979, so has central government increasingly become the target of lobbying. Following the Rushdie affair, the government has also begun to respond more positively to these efforts, with various government departments establishing their own mechanisms to liaise with Muslim and other faith communities. For some years the MCB was the government's favored dialogue partner, and its lobbying activities met with some success, including changes in proposed legislation on its way through parliament. However, the relationship became less comfortable after British military intervention in Iraq in 2003. At the same time, government increased the attention and funding it gave to its policies of social inclusion, in which it saw faith communities, especially Muslims, as essential partners.

As Muslims born in Britain have grown up, they have begun to loosen their links with the countries and cultures of their parents. Since the early 1990s many, especially the better-educated, have begun to move into the management of existing Muslim organizations. Others have established their own youth organizations. In universities, native students have become the dominant force in Islamic student societies previously controlled by foreign students. This change of generation has also led to a change in the Muslim community's reference points in the Islamic world. 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. Younger Muslims have become much more actively concerned with events in places like Bosnia, Iraq, and Palestine than with developments in their parents’ homelands. Although there are concerns about a resulting radicalization and some young Muslims have in fact been attracted by radical groups, the great majority continue to develop modes of participation that include local and national activity within Britain as well as a concern for wider issues of the Muslim world community.



  • Abbas, Tahir, ed.Islamic Political Radicalism: A European Perspective. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. Parts III and IV detail the reasons for and effects of British Muslim radicalization. Find it in your Library
  • Ansari, Humayun. The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800, London: Hurst, 2004. Find it in your Library
  • British Muslims: Monthly Survey. Birmingham, U.K.: Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (CSIC), Selly Oak Colleges, February 1993–2001. Monthly record of events affecting Muslims in Britain. Find it in your Library
  • Maréchal, B., S. Allievi, F. Dassetto, and J. Nielsen, Muslims in the Enlarged Europe, Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2003. Find it in your Library
  • Office for National Statistics, National Statistics: Focus on Religion, London: Office for National Statistics, October 2004. Find it in your Library
  • Lewis, Philip. Islamic Britain: Religion, Politics and Identity among British Muslims. New ed.London: I. B.Tauris, 2002. Reliable overview. Find it in your Library
  • Modood, Tariq. Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity, and Muslims in Britain, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Find it in your Library
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