Tuesday, October 5, 2010
(Muslims in Britain: An Introduction, by Sophie Gilliat-Ray, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp316, 2010, PB, £19.99.)
In his ground-breaking study, Islam in Britain, 1558-1685 (Cambridge, 1998), Professor Nabil Matar wrote,
"Throughout the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, both Muslims and their Arab-Islamic legacy were part of the religious, commercial and, at certain times, military self-definition of England.
In drama and theology, in domestic and in foreign state records, among home- bound preachers and expatriated renegades, in churches and in coffee-houses, among merchants and weavers, sailors and soldiers, the Islam of the Ottoman Empire and the North African regencies was engaged, attacked, discussed and described.
Between 1558-1685, Islam left its mark on Britain in a way that was unparalleled by any other non-Christian civilization which Britons encountered. For at this stage in its history, Islam could neither be ignored nor 'dominated'." (p184).
Likewise, in his remarkably insightful and sympathetic book, Islam and the West: A Dissonant Harmony of Civilisations (Gloucester, 2005), the historian Christopher J Walker wrote,
"In the eras of both Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, England established informal alliances with the Ottoman Empire. The two great monarchs favoured the Muslim empire above other, Christian, empires.
Queen Victoria even threatened to abdicate unless her government took a firmer line in support of Turkey. Yet neither of them, separated by three hundred years, has ever been accused of betraying Christendom, or been regarded as a cultural traitor. What does this mean in terms of Islam and the West?
Other instances may lead us to question any fixed categories of East and West. Francis I of France, the Most Christian King, made an alliance with Islamic Turkey to guarantee independence against subjection to Emperor Charles V. Before the battle of Lepanto of 1571 - seen as a display of Christianity, turning the tide against Ottoman Islam - the pope invited the Persian shah to join in.
Faith, it seems, could mutate from being the defining issues in war and diplomacy to being just one element among many."
Nevertheless, Sophie Gilliat-Ray, the author of the book under review, is right to say that,
"In the history of the relationship between Britain and various Muslim nations, the determinant role of economic and material interest in shaping contact and influence is repeated continually
When Britain has been in a position of relative weakness, interests have tended to be negotiated with the Muslim world. But when Britain has been more powerful, economically and politically, negotiation has usually been replaced by the imposition of terms and conditions detrimental to Muslim participants both in trade and politics.
Paradoxically, therefore, throughout history negative assumptions about Islam and Muslims have co-existed alongside very different secular views about the material culture of Muslim countries." (p 8).
The author is aware of the dual venues which governed Britain's historical engagement with the Muslim world, namely the secular and doctrinal. The former expressed itself in the form of Britain's military, diplomatic and commercial engagement with the Muslim world especially the Ottoman Empire, while the latter expressed itself in the literature and eschatology which more often than not were hostile to Muslims and their religion.
This love-hate relationship was also reinforced by the Crusades and their legacies although, as Christopher Walker pointed out, "the crusading expeditions had been phenomena driven primarily from northern Europe; Eastern Christianity never developed the language of visions and prophecy with which Western Christianity upheld its right to assault Islam.
Southern Europe was often keener on coexistence. Christianity and Islam mingled contentedly in the Sicilian court of the two Rogers and Emperor Frederick II; and in Spain, in the early years of the Reconquest, Islamic learning was held in honour by the Castilian kings, who avoided rhetoric."
After briefly tracing the roots of Islam in Britain from the eighth century to the mid- nineteenth century, in Chapter 2, the author turns her attention to the development of the Muslim communities in Britain, focusing primarily on the role and activities of Shaykh Abdullah Ali Al-Hakimi (in Cardiff) and Abdullah Quilliam (in Liverpool). The author rightly points out that from mid- nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century, cities like Cardiff, Liverpool, Hull and Glasgow became important centres of Muslim settlement but, for some reason, she does not highlight the important role played by Muslims in Woking, London and Glasgow at the time.
It is not sufficient to say,
"Readers with an interest in other important locations for Muslim settlement and activity, such as Woking, London or Glasgow, or in other significant British Muslim personalities, such as Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, Syed Ameer Ali or Marmaduke Picthall [sic], are directed to further sources." (p 29).
There have been many other important figures in the history of British Islam including Sir Abdullah al- Ma'mun Suhrawardy, who founded the Pan- Islamic Society in London, and Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the famous translator and commentator of the Qur'an, among others. No serious study and exploration of the history and evolution of British Islam is possible without considering the life and contribution of these remarkable and outstanding Muslims.
However, in Chapter 3, the author rightly states that,
"Intense competition exists among Muslims in Britain today about what counts as the most authentic and authoritative interpretation and practice of Islam. Religious reform movements that have their origins in nineteenth and twentieth- century Arabia and South Asia, each of which claims to reflect an authentic and correct expression of Islam in the contemporary world, now influence some young British Muslims." (p 54).
Here the author explains the main differences between the Sunni and Shi'a branches of Islam, the role of Sufism as well as the different expressions of Salafiyyah movement in Britain today.
I should point out here that although the majority of British Shi'a Muslims are of subcontinental origin, for some inexplicable reason, the author explores the make-up of this community under the heading of 'Middle Eastern religious reform movements' rather than in Chapter 4 entitled 'South Asian religious reform movements'. Nevertheless, the author is right to say that,
"A range of major religious reform movements that emerged in South Asia in the nineteenth century influence many Muslims in contemporary Britain. These movements in part evolved as responses to colonialism, and have been characterised as 'the reformist Deobandis, the quietist and revivalist Tablighi Jama'at, the conservative and populist Barelwis, the Islamist Jama'at-i- Islami and the modernists' (Lewis 1994:36).
These broad schools of thoughts still shape the character of Islam in the Indian subcontinent, and consequently they remain prevalent among British Muslims also." (p 84).
Even if the division of South Asian Islamic reform movements as Deobandi, Tablighi, Barelwis, Jama'at-i-Islami and modernist is an easy and convenient way to analyse them, such an approach overlooks many important similarities and differences between them.
For example, theologically both the Tablighis and Jama'atis can be considered to be Deobandis, but politically and ideologically they are poles apart. Likewise, the Barelwis and the Sufis have much in common theologically but they differ considerably in their socio-political outlook. These differences and similarities do exist within the South Asian British Muslim communities, and therefore it is important that we do not put them into neat, water-tight boxes.
After explaining the historical and religious roots of the British Muslim communities, in the remaining six chapters of the book, the author briefly explores the nature of the Muslim communities, their religious make-up, and the educational, institutional and demographic condition of British Islam.
The author highlights the challenges, difficulties and opportunities currently facing the British Muslims. However, the important role played in the British Muslim communities by an increasingly large numbers of British reverts to Islam deserves more attention.
Likewise, in the last chapter of the book, the author should have noted that The Muslim (published by Federation of Students Islamic Societies in UK and Eire (FOSIS) and Impact International (published by News and Media Ltd) were two of the earliest and pioneering British Muslim publications.
Furthermore, the activities of many well known and some not-so well known British Muslim organisations have been rightly highlighted, but the author surprisingly overlooked the role played by the FOSIS which is one of the oldest and most important of British Muslim organisations (this writer was an Executive Member of FOSIS during the mid-1990s), etc.
In other words, although the author is very sympathetic to her subject, this book should be regarded as no more than a partial and incomplete survey of British Islam and, as such, it needs to be read in conjunction with other relevant literature on the topic in order to acquire a more comprehensive understanding of British Islam and its diversities.
It is also inaccurate to refer to Tablighi Jama'at as 'The Preaching Party' (p 89); the 'Society of Islamic Preachers' is a more appropriate and accurate description of this pietistic, apolitical international Islamic movement.
The above observations and comments aside, I found this book an interesting and useful contribution. The author deserves credit for her interest in this subject and I have no hesitation in recommending this book to the readers, academics and lay readers alike.
(Source Muslim News. Muhammad Khan is author of the acclaimed book, The Muslim 100 (reprinted 2010), and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (forthcoming); he is a Founding Director of Bengal Muslim Research Institute UK.)
[Picture from Cambridge Catalogue]