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 …