Islam in England

History, Early history

Although Islam is generally thought of as being a recent arrival in the United Kingdom, there has been contact between Britons and Muslims for many centuries. An early example would be the decision of Offa, the eighth-century King of Mercia (one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms existing at that time), to have coins minted with an Islamic inscription on them – copies of coins issued by the near-contemporary Muslim ruler Al-Mansur. It is thought that they were minted to facilitate trade with the expanding Islamic empire in Spain.[3]

Muslim scholarship, especially early Islamic philosophy and Islamic science, was well-known among the learned in England by 1386, when Geoffrey Chaucer was writing. In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, there is among the pilgrims wending their way to Canterbury, a ‘Doctour of Phisyk’ whose learning included Rhazes (Al-Razi), Avicenna (Ibn Sina, Arabic ابن سينا) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd, Arabic ابن رشد). Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine (1025) was a standard text for medical students well into the 18th century.[4] Roger Bacon, one of the earliest European advocates of the scientific method,[5] was inspired by the works of early Muslim scientists.[6][7] In particular, his work on optics in the 13th century was largely based on the Book of Optics (1021) by Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen).[8]

Since the publication of Professor John Makdisi’s “The Islamic Origins of the Common Law” in the North Carolina Law Review,[9] there has been controversy over whether English common law was inspired by medieval Islamic law.[10] Makdisi drew comparisons between the “royal English contract protected by the action of debt” and the “Islamic Aqd”, the “English assize of novel disseisin” and the “Islamic Istihqaq”, and the “English jury” and the “Islamic Lafif” in the classical Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, and argued that these institutions were transmitted to England by the Normans,[9] “through the close connection between the Norman kingdoms of Roger II in Sicily — ruling over a conquered Islamic administration — and Henry II in England.”[11] Makdisi also argued that the “law schools known as Inns of Court” in England (which he asserts are parallel to Madrasahs) may have also originated from Islamic law.[9] He states that the methodology of legal precedent and reasoning by analogy (Qiyas) are also similar in both the Islamic and common law systems.[12] Other legal scholars such as Monica Gaudiosi, Gamal Moursi Badr and A. Hudson have argued that the English trust and agency institutions, which were introduced by Crusaders, may have been adapted from the Islamic Waqf and Hawala institutions they came across in the Middle East.[13][14][15] Dr. Paul Brand also notes parallels between the Waqf and the trusts used to establish Merton College by Walter de Merton, who had connections with the Knights Templar, but Brand also points out that the Knights Templar were primarily concerned with fighting the Muslims rather than learning from them, making it less likely that they had knowledge of Muslim legal institutions.[10]

The first English convert to Islam mentioned by name is John Nelson.[16] 16th century writer Richard Hakluyt claimed he was forced to convert, though he mentions in the same story other Englishmen who had converted willingly.

This king had a son which was a ruler in an island called Gerbi, whereunto arrived an English ship called the Green Dragon, of the which was master one M. Blonket, who, having a very unhappy boy on that ship, and understanding that whosoever would turn Turk should be well entertained of the a yeoman of our Queen’s guard, whom the king’s son had enforced to turn Turk; his name was John Nelson.[17]

Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I in 1600
Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I in 1600

Captain John Ward of Kent was one of a number of British sailors who became pirates based in the Maghreb who also converted to Islam (see also Barbary pirates). Later, some Unitarians became interested in the faith, and Henry Stubbes wrote so favourably about Islam that it is thought he too had converted to the faith.

From 1609 to 1616, England lost 466 ships to Barbary pirates, who sold the passengers into slavery in North Africa.[18] In 1625, it was reported that Lundy, an island in the Bristol Channel which had been a pirate lair for much of the previous half century, had been occupied by three Turkish pirates who were threatening to burn Ilfracombe; Algerine rovers were using the island as a base in 1635, although the island had itself been attacked and plundered by a Spanish raid in 1633.[19] Around 1645, Barbary pirates under command of the Dutch renegade Jan Janszoon operating from the Moroccon port of Salé occupied Lundy, before he was expelled by the Penn. During this time there were reports of captured slaves being sent to Algiers and of the Islamic flag flying over Lundy.[20][21]

The Muslim Moors had a noticeable influence on the works of George Peele and William Shakespeare. Some of their works featured Moorish characters, such as Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus and Othello, which featured a Moorish Othello as its title character. These works are said to have been inspired by several Moorish delegations from Morocco to Elizabethan England around 1600.[22] A portrait was painted of one of the Moorish ambassadors, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun.

Besides scientific and philosophical works, a number of Arabic fictional works were also translated into Latin and English during the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous one was the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), followed by Ibn Tufail’s Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, which was translated into Latin as Philosophus Autodidactus by Edward Pococke the Younger in 1671 and then into English by Simon Ockley in 1708. The English translation of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, set on a desert island, may have inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, considered the first novel in English, in 1719.[23][24][25][26] Later translated literary works include Layla and Majnun and Ibn al-Nafis’ Theologus Autodidactus.

The first large group of Muslims in Britain arrived about 300 years ago. They were sailors recruited in India to work for the British East India Company, so it’s not surprising that the earliest Muslim communities were found in port towns. Naval cooks also came, many of them from the Sylhet Division of what is now Bangladesh. One of the earliest Bengali Muslim immigrants to Britain was Sake Dean Mahomet, a captain of the British East India Company. In 1810, he founded London’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House. He is also reputed for introducing shampoo and therapeutic massage in Britain.[27] There are other records of Sylhetis working in London restaurants since at least 1873.

The first Muslim community to permanently settle in the United Kingdom consisted of Yemeni sailors who arrived in ports such as Swansea, Liverpool and South Shields shortly after 1900. Later, some of them migrated to inland cities like Birmingham and Sheffield, where there are 23,819 Muslims.

Mosques also appeared in British seaports at this time; the first mosque in Britain is recorded as having been at 2 Glyn Rhondda Street, Cardiff, in 1860. [28] Second mosque is the Shah Jahan Mosque, Woking in 1889. The Woking Muslim Mission was established in 1913 by islamic missionaries. From the 1950s onwards, with considerable immigration to Britain from its former colonies (especially the Indian subcontinent and East Africa), large Muslim populations developed in many British towns and cities.
Demography and ethnic background

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5 Responses

  1. Thanks for information with “muslim”in the word. I hope muslim step by step to much popular in the word. But I’m sorry mr agungpambudi where are you from?thanks….

  2. assalamualaikum..

    i have seen you blog…it is interesting…describing about muslim culture all around the world…

    may we keep in touch…sorry for a long time i havent updated my blog because of time constraint , but soon i will update it in a few time.


  3. indonesia?

  4. Assalamualaikum
    Ya akhi….
    Nice 2 met u

    Syukron about your information of Moslems in the world
    I don’t know about moslem in England.
    It’s fantastic
    Subhanallah ……

  5. Good-day!(‘Go with God this day’)

    I am an English woman and I am writing a novel about the life around a place, Bodrum in Turkey, where different people find themselves visiting. It is about how we are all connected. Some of these people, back in history, are Muslem, Christian, Turkish, English, Arab, African Berbers, French, Greek, men and women, good and bad, young and old.

    They are all different but meet each other in this place. I found your blog searching for information, especially Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, so thank you for your work on this history of England and Islam.

    I live in the belief that good people think well of all others, of all races and religions. Those who cannot, have yet to learn.

    (Lovely pictures.)

    Best Regards, Wendy

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