The Forgotten (Muslim) Revival of Wales 5 November 2017

For those familiar with the history of Wales, the phrase ‘Welsh Revival’  evokes very powerful images.

It describes an era of intense religious fervour amongst Welsh Christian communities around 1904-05. The revival began with smaller movements in towns such as Ammanford but soon spread until all came to a climax in as key preachers, notably Evan Roberts, went on tours across Wales. Roberts and others spoke powerfully about the importance of repenting sin, publically professing their faith in Christ and opening oneself to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. It is estimated that over 100,000 “converts” were received during the period of a single year into Welsh churches, including greater religiosity and piety among pre-existing congregations.

The Welsh Revival was an important part of Welsh history and takes it takes its place in a backdrop of other Christian revivals in Britain and Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth century.

There is however a forgotten revival, one that is not included in the history books but still shaped the future direction of Wales powerfully.

It is however an Islamic Revival, that swept across South Wales during the 1930s-40s. It was led by a single man, Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi, and its influence is still important today.

Cardiff during this era was a bustling port city, one of the largest in the UK. The first million pound cheque in the world was written in Cardiff’s Coal Exchange, evidence the the size and importance of the port. Thousands of Muslims working on ships found themselves in Cardiff, sometimes for short stays and sometimes for longer. They would be in between employment on ships – usually as firemen. Some decided to abandon the difficult life at sea and make a home in Cardiff. Most of these Muslims lived in the Docks area which became known as Tiger Bay. They came from diverse regions of the world, Somalis, Indians and Malays. By far however the largest contingent came from Yemen, specifically the Aden.

The adherence of these men to their faith however was something that concerned the religious leaders of the time, and so Shaykh Ahmed ibn Mustafa al-Alawi, sent his student Shaykh Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi, a Yemeni scholar, to Britain to address the issue. Shaykh Ahmed al-Alawi (died 1934) is founder of the Alawiyya Sufi order, one of the most significant Sufi reform movements in the world. His students, and indeed student’s students, had and still have an incredible influence upon Islam in the West. Shaykh Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi was amongst the first, perhaps the first, of these.

In the space of a few short years, Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi successfully transformed the local Muslim community in Cardiff (and to a certain extent, South Shields, Liverpool and Hull). He established a mosque at Peel Street (perhaps the first in Wales), regular Quran study classes for children and adults alike, created a number of welfare services for the local community and he negotiated the establishment of the Wales’ first Muslim burial site in Ely – something the Muslim community in South Wales still benefits from.

Al-Hakimi’s work also extended to the wider community. He had a close relationship with politicians, the media and local leaders from other faiths, holding annual dinners where he would bring them all together. His diplomatic success is demonstrated by the attendance of the Mayor of Cardiff at the re-opening of Peel Street mosque after it was destroyed in the Blitz of World War 2.

Kenneth Little, a social scientist, carried out a survey of Loudon Square in 1944, a key area in Tiger Bay. He describes the Muslim community below: –

“Mention should be made again of the strong body of Islamic faith. The adherents of this creed not only carry out their religious and ritualistic obligations with more fervour than the rest of the community, but are correspondingly surer both of their creed and of themselves. The various prohibitions enjoined by the prophet are on the whole rigorously observed, as are Ramadan and other fasts and festivals. In the celebration of the latter, ritual dress is worn by a large number of the Arabs and other Moslems”

This description is one that stands in contrast to the Muslim community prior to the arrrival of al-Hakimi. There is much more detail still needed about his life and works, and how his influence still survives in Cardiff today.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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