In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islam and Muslims in Britain

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History of Islam in Britain
  • Muslim Settlement and Community Development since 1945
  • British Muslim Institutions
  • Religious Leadership, Authority, and Representation
  • Educating British Muslims
  • Islamophobia
  • Gender
  • Policy, Politics, and Law

Islamic Studies Islam and Muslims in Britain
Sophie Gilliat-Ray
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0244


There has been contact between the British Isles and Muslim-majority societies since the 8th century CE. Trading links, piracy, missionary excursions, diplomacy, colonialism, and immigration have each in various ways shaped the character and understanding of Islam in Britain, as well as the experience of Muslims living in British society. Consequently, the field of study concerned with documenting Islam as a religion, and more especially Muslim experiences in Britain in more recent times, reflects the scholastic work of historians, social scientists, theologians, political sciences, anthropologists, linguists, and other related disciplines. Precise understanding of “what counts” as Islam in Britain will differ across these various disciplinary perspectives, from the academic efforts of 17th-century Arabists at Oxford and Cambridge to understand Muslim thought and Islamic texts, on the one hand, to more anthropological appreciation of 21st-century urban mosques in modern Britain, on the other. Prior to the 19th century, understanding of Islam in British society was largely based on the writings of travelers and missionaries visiting Muslim-majority societies, and Islam was generally apprehended through the lens of Christianity. However, from the mid-19th century onward, small numbers of seafarers who had been recruited to work on steamships along the trading routes of the colonial empire began to establish boarding houses in major port cities such as London, South Shields, Cardiff, and Liverpool. These boarding houses formed a social and religious hub for early Muslim community development and enabled the establishment of the first mosques in Britain, the earliest recorded being in Liverpool in 1887. After the Second World War, large numbers of single men from the Indian subcontinent were recruited to help rebuild a war-torn society. The expansion in manufacturing industries and the need to develop the economy resulted in an abundance of unskilled and semi-skilled work. Rather like their seafaring counterparts, these men shared accommodation and supported one another in securing employment. With the later arrival of women and extended family members in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a transition from temporary male economic migration to more permanent family settlement. The inclusion of a question about religious identity in the 2001 and 2011 census charts the growth of the Muslim population in Britain (currently at 2.7 million; about 5 percent of the UK population according to the Office for National Statistics). Muslims come from a wide range of linguistic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, and the religious diversity of Muslim-majority societies is found in microcosm. About half the Muslim population was born in Britain, and about half are under the age of twenty-five.

General Overviews

Writing about Islam and Muslims in Britain generally reflects the perceptions, context, and disciplinary orientation of authors, alongside the emergence and development of Muslim communities in the United Kingdom. As a consequence, there has been a growth in scholarship that reflects firsthand social scientific engagement with Muslim communities in Britain (as opposed to more straightforward textual scholarship) and, in more recent years, the production of scholarly monographs by British Muslim researchers themselves. Writing about Islam and Muslims in Britain has mainly been undertaken within the fields of Islamic studies, religious studies, ethnic and racial studies, and sociology. This has resulted in variable attention to specific matters of religion. It is clear, however, that as Muslims have themselves pressed for greater recognition of their distinctive religious identity, this has been reflected in scholarly outputs. An indicator of this shift is evident in the new title given to the second edition of Halliday’s classic work on Yemenis in Britain. First published in 1992 and titled Arabs in Exile, it was republished as Britain’s First Muslims (Halliday 2010) when there was a particular appetite for understanding Muslim communities in Britain. A number of other monographs about Muslims in Britain were published in the 1990s and early 2000s. Like Halliday’s study of Yemenis in South Shields and Cardiff, although the titles of these works suggested a UK-wide perspective, they were in fact based upon research with Muslim communities in specific localities, and often from a particular ethnic background. For example, Joly 1995 examined Pakistani settlement and institution-building in Birmingham. For about a decade, Lewis 1994 served as a key text, documenting the settlement of South Asian Muslims in Bradford, and the formation of community infrastructures. Ansari 2004 produced a comprehensive history of Islam and Muslims in Britain from 1800 onward, thereby covering the most significant period of Muslim settlement and community formation. A useful journal-length “overview” is to be found in Hellyer 2007. Gilliat-Ray 2010 is the first book on Muslims in Britain intended as an undergraduate textbook; it covers a wide historical period, and introduces research on key topics such as gender, education, youth, and identity. Most of the general overviews about Muslims in Britain have been authored by academic researchers. An important early exception was Raza 1991, writing as a qualified imam and religious scholar, and director of an Islamic center in the city of Leicester. A more recent exception is Ali 2015, which is a report from the Muslim Council of Britain that provides a detailed examination of the socioeconomic situation of Muslims in Britain, based on 2011 census data. A more popular journalistic overview of Muslims in Britain comes from Bowen 2014.

  • Ali, Sundas. British Muslims in Numbers: A Demographic, Socio-Economic and Health Profile of Muslims in Britain Drawing on the 2011 Census. London: Muslim Council of Britain, 2015.

    A report produced by the Research and Documentation Committee of the MCB, which provides detailed statistical information and commentary. Available online and free to download.

  • Ansari, Humayan. The “Infidel” Within: Muslims in Britain, 1800 to the Present. London: Hurst, 2004.

    Writing as a historian, Ansari examines Muslim settlement in Britain from 1800, though he does consider briefly the influence of Islam in Britain from as far back the 8th century onward. A lengthy and detailed volume.

  • Bowen, Innes. Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam. London: Hurst, 2014.

    Authored by a BBC radio journalist and based mainly on interviews and secondary sources, rather than academic material. Attempts to illuminate the internal diversity within British Muslim communities.

  • Gilliat-Ray, Sophie. Muslims in Britain: An Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511780233

    Synthesized over four decades of interdisciplinary research and writing about Islam and Muslims in Britain. Includes “source notes” to assist researchers to navigate the range of material that informs the book, alongside a lengthy bibliography.

  • Halliday, Fred. Britain’s First Muslims. London: I. B. Tauris, 2010.

    The second edition of Halliday’s classic study of Yemenis in Britain, focusing on the port cities of South Shields, Liverpool, and Cardiff, and the later development of Yemeni communities in Birmingham and Manchester. The first edition, published in 1992, was titled Arabs in Exile.

  • Hellyer, Hisham. “British Muslims: Past, Present and Future.” The Muslim World 97.2 (2007): 225–258.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-1913.2007.00172.x

    Examines historical contact between the Muslim world and the British Isles, and the formation of communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The incorporation of Muslims into British society is considered, alongside the formation of community infrastructures. Challenges such as Islamophobia are discussed, as well as legal issues such as blasphemy and incorporation of Sharia into state law.

  • Joly, Danièle. Britannia’s Crescent: Making a Place for Muslims in British Society. Aldershot, UK: Avebury, 1995.

    Based on quantitative and qualitative research with South Asians, conducted between 1983 and 1990 in Birmingham, focusing on community associations, political engagement and local politics, and the views of parents about educational opportunities for their children.

  • Lewis, Philip. Islamic Britain: Religion, Politics and Identity among British Muslims. London: I. B. Tauris, 1994.

    Based on doctoral research (Department of Religious Studies, University of Leeds) in the city of Bradford, and a position as interfaith advisor to the bishop of Bradford. Particular focus on religious and community leadership and the changing role of imams.

  • Raza, Mohammad S. Islam in Britain. Leicester, UK: Volcano Press, 1991.

    One of the first British Muslim scholars/imams to write about community life and leadership as an “insider.” Takes a very critical approach to organizations, highlighting their shortcomings and challenges.

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