Who are Britain’s Muslims? 12 August 2016
An introduction to Muslim denominations and religious diversity by Abdul-Azim Ahmed
A Sufi, a Salafi, a member of the Tablighi Jamaat, and a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir are in the mosque when the lightbulb goes out. A meeting is called to determine how to resolve the situation. The Sufi gathers everyone’s attention and suggests “we should all engage in worship, and then the light of Allah will fill this darkened mosque”. The Tablighi Jamaat member chimes in that they cannot change the lightbulb until “we purify ourselves by going out on khurooj for at least forty days”. The member of Hizb ut-Tahrir says it is futile to change the lightbulb, and “the priority should be to work to re-establish the Caliphate”. The Salafi silences everyone, and in the darkened and silent mosque asks, “brothers, where is the evidence from the Quran and Sunnah that the lightbulb has gone out?”
I was told this joke over ten years ago in my own local mosque, and provided you’re vaguely familiar with the religious diversity of British Muslims, and the individual quirks of each group, the joke is a funny one. Without that prerequisite knowledge, the humour falls flat. It does however introduce the diverse landscape of denominational groups amongst Muslims in Britain, an issue which is increasingly queried.
More times than I can remember, I’ve been asked by journalists, colleagues, and readers of On Religion to write an overview of British Muslim theological diversity. I usually refer them to works of other scholars, such as Sophie Gilliat-Ray’s “Introduction to Muslims in Britain”, or a new addition, “Sufis, Salafis and Islamists” by Sadek Hamid. Recent incidents have made me increasingly reflect on whether a brief overview might have some value.
The brutal murder of a Pakistani shopkeeper in Scotland brought the term “Ahmadiyya” to public consciousness, and a series of drip-drip reports on prison chaplains (and a BBC Radio 4 documentary) introduced “Deobandi” to a wider audience. As there is a now a greater interest and awareness of British Muslim diversity, perhaps it is the right time for a short guide.
My hesitancy to produce a guide to British Islam is due to two factors. The first is that British Muslim theologies are both complex and shifting – anything I could describe would be partial, incomplete and open to criticism. The second is that I dislike the over-exaggerating of religion as an explanatory factor for human behaviour. Religion is important, but when it comes to Muslims, there is a tendency to describe everything as the result of religious theology. Muslims, like all human beings, have complex and often contradictory motivations.
That said, curiosity about British Muslims, and at times aggressive questioning, will be unlikely to disappear in the current climate. So here is a work in progress, but which nonetheless aims to give you, the reader, some understanding of the denominational diversity and differences of British Islam.
British Muslim Denominations
An overview of the denominations found amongst British Muslims is simple enough. The three overarching divisions are Sunni, Shia and Ibadi. The most significant difference between Sunnis and Shias is that the Shias believe religious authority remains in the hands of the family of the Prophet, whereas Sunnis believe it is open to any pious and knowledgeable Muslim. This fundamental difference in religious authority is the schism which led Sunnis and Shias to develop their respective traditions on parallel paths. In terms of religious leadership, the Sunnis had the Caliphs, and the Shias had the Imams. Ibadis are a less well known tradition; there are less than 3 million worldwide (barely registering as a single percentile amongst the global Muslim population of 1.6 billion). Nonetheless, Ibadis constitute a third schism, neither Sunni nor Shia, but with their own distinct theology – similar to Sunnis in some respects, and similar to Shias in others. In Britain, and indeed globally, Sunnis are the majority. Shias constitute about 15 percent of the worldwide population of Muslims, and something closer to 10% of British Muslims. Ibadis are a minority everywhere but Oman, and the indeed almost all British Muslim Ibadis originate from there.
The Ahmadiyyas are also a schism albeit more recent. They recognise a spiritual Caliphate begun by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (died in Lahore, 1908). The Ahmadiyyas believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to be a promised Messiah and Mehdi – Sunnis, Shias and Ibadis however do not, thus forming the divergence. The Ahmadiyya movement’s fifth Caliph is based in London, from where he serves about 10 million Ahmadiyyas globally. Due to the strong link between Ahmadiyyas and Britain, there is a significant (but small) population in the UK – second only to Pakistan, though there are no estimates on how many exactly – likely to be in the tens of thousands.
Amongst Sunnis, there are the Deobandis. Deobandis are a South Asian Muslim tradition with origins in colonial India, who stress the preservation of the Islamic tradition through scholarly study and fidelity to religious law. They are arguably the most important actors within British Islam, especially today. They manage about 40 percent of the 1700 mosques in the UK. They invested into and opened the first British-based Dar ul-Ulooms, Muslim religious seminaries, educating Imams and religious scholars right here in the British Isles as far back as the seventies. You are likely to have encountered Deobandis if you have visited a Muslim religious institution in the UK, particularly those with a South Asian heritage. With both vision and hard work, the Deobandis have been quietly meeting the religious and spiritual needs of a significant proportion of British Muslims, and are perhaps the most influential British Muslim group.
The Tablighi Jamaat are often associated with the Deobandi tradition – its founder, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi (died 1944), was a graduate of a Deobandi Dar ul-Uloom. But Kandhlawi felt the values and virtues of the Dar ul-Uloom needed to be brought out of the seminaries and into the lives of ordinary Muslims, and so the Tablighi Jamaat took the scholarship of the Deobandis to the masses. The Tablighi Jamaat stress personal religious piety achieved through a temporary monasticism, going on khurooj, short trips ranging from three days to four months, in which members of the group visit mosques locally and sometimes even globally. The aim is to live a simpler life away from distracting luxuries, and to engage in worship and study, as well as preaching to other Muslims on the importance of Islam and its moral teachings. Barbara Metcalf, who has researched the Tablighi Jamaat, writes that it is the recreation of a sacred time that is important to the movement – the pristine and undiluted simplicity of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, through which the followers of the movement could achieve peace and salvation. The Tablighi Jamaat has been described as, with good reason, the largest Islamic movement in the world. The Tabilighi Jamaat population of Britain is nestled within the Deobandi, but its success has attracted members from outside the Deobandi tradition also – particularly Salafi (more on that later).
Also originating from South Asia are the Barelwis. On the surface, they are remarkably similar to Deobandis. Both follow the same school of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi – more on that later too!), both celebrate many of the same figures, both trace their origins to the Indian subcontinent, and both lay claim to Sufism. The Barelwi however maintain passionate attachment to esoteric and mystical practices which the Deobandis consider as beyond the pale of religious orthodoxy. Their close proximity to each other –in terms of theology and geographic origins – often leads to a tension between the two movements. For the Deobandis, the alim (the scholar), is the fount of all religious wisdom. For the Barelwi, it is the pir, a living saint. The Bangladeshi Fultoli tradition is in many ways similar to Barelwi, differing only in language and the particularities of tradition. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis make up the bulk of the British Muslim population, so together, the mystical Sufi Islam of Barelwis and Fultolis constitute a sizable part of the landscape.
More distinct from Deobandis, Barelwis and Fultoli Muslims are the Jamaat Islamiyyah, an Islamic reform movement, once again with links to colonial India, that consider the personal religious and spiritual devotions of Deobandis and Barelwis lacking. Jamaat Islamiyyah is an anti-colonial movement, and thus has a focus on political activism. The Quran is a social gospel in their view, one which should bring Muslims out of the mosques and into public life. To revive Islam, in the Jamaat Islamiyyah view, is to engage to reform and improve social welfare and government. In this regard, they share much with the Middle-Eastern Ikhwaan al-Muslimoon (or Muslim Brotherhood). The founder of the Jamaat Islamiyyah, Maulana Mawdudi (died 1979), introduced a distinctive idea that amalgamated the thoughts of many others prior. He had witnessed the success of the nation state, and reasoned that the only way to truly achieve success against colonial imperialism was the establishment of an Islamic nation state. Mawdudi was thus an important voice in the shaping of both Pakistan and Bangladesh, and though he initially opposed the partition of India, he soon became embroiled in political life. Jamaat Islamiyyah has grown beyond Mawdudi however, taking the vision of a social gospel worldwide, especially in Britain where members of the group have set up charities, mosques and Islamic welfare organisations.
Over half of British Muslims have a South Asian heritage, but Middle-Eastern reform movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood play a significant role amongst British Muslims of Arab heritage, and by gaining new followers from other backgrounds. The Muslim Brotherhood I’ve already compared to Jamaat Islamiyyah, but arguably, the Brotherhood has been more successful. The founder, Hasan al-Banna, led a religious revival in pre-Second World War Egypt attracting young followers through preaching an Islam removed of elitism and sectarianism that had become prevalent in parts of Egyptian society at the time. Al-Banna stressed unity and egalitarianism, while increasingly viewing the military dictatorship of Egypt as a stumbling block to true religious and social reform, thus politicising the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood’s vision was always diverse and often far-reaching, and so the Brotherhood in Britain is largely represented through welfare organisations, youth groups and educational institutions.
Another politically orientated group is the Hizb ut-Tahrir. While the Jamaat Islamiyyah and the Muslim Brotherhood combine traditional expressions of Muslim piety with their political activism, the Hizb ut-Tahrir consider politics a primary religious duty, and in particular, the re-establishment of the Caliphate. They are the prototypical Islamists, and while having never been involved in violent extremism in Britain or elsewhere, their deeply antagonistic position towards every government often brings them under heavy political persecution at worst, and restriction at best. The Hizb ut-Tahrir are not numerous in Britain – the numbers are perhaps at most in the thousands – but their active political campaigning and incendiary message has raised their profile and influence.
The final, and significant, Sunni religious denomination to mention are the Salafis. Salafism traces its origins to Saudi Arabia, and to historic reformers such as Muhammad Abduh (died 1849) and Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328). Salafis differ from their co-religionists through the stress on recreating a pure Islam, free from any cultural influences or heresy. To achieve this, they place an emphasis on the religious scripture (the Quran and the hadith – the narrations of Prophet Muhammad) over the traditions of Islam (the schools of jurisprudence and other sciences). In a reform that has echoes of the Protestant schism, Salafis insist individuals must have a personal relationship with the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet, the Sunnah, to recapture of the pristine Islam practiced by the earliest Muslims – the Salaf (literally, the predecessors). The simplicity of the Salafi message and its stress on scripture resonate well with Western-educated and literate young Muslims, leading Salafism to be one of the fastest growing Islamic movements in Britain.
Amongst Shias, the predominant group is the Ithna Asharis, the Twelvers – called such for their recognition of twelve Imams who are the divinely-decreed successors after the death of the Prophet Muhammad . There are also the minority Ismailis, and the even rarer Zaydis. Though all have a presence in Britain, the Ithna Ashari, hailing from both Pakistan and Iran, are the most populous both in the United Kingdom and globally.
So in a sentence, the denominational diversity of British Islam can be described as Sunnis, Shias, Ibadis, and Ahmadiyyas; further divided to the Deobandis, the Tablighi Jamaat, the Barelwis, Fultoli Islam, the Jamaat Islamiyyah, the Ikhwaan, the Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Salafis, the Ithna Asharis, the Ismailis, and the Zaydis. It’s a big sentence, but naturally, such a sentence conceals more than it could ever reveal. Hidden behind each of these terms is history and diversity. Such labels also do much to conceal both the porous boundaries between them, and the kaleidoscopic way in which religious identities may amalgamate more than one of these groups.
Eradicating the Myths
So with a rough overview of British Muslim groups, there are some misconceptions to clear up. The first is the aforementioned Sunni/Shia split. The caricature is that that Sunnis and Shias are at war, and hold irrevocable animosity against each other, especially in the Middle-East. This view however reduces complex geo-political wrangling into a battle over theology. Thankfully, the idea has slowly been abandoned. Both Sunnis and Shias generally recognise each other as part of the Islamic tradition, a significant fact that is all too often overlooked. In some places around the world, Sunnis and Shias co-exist peacefully and without incident. In other places, there may be distance, but a cool one. Of course, in some places the identity markers of Sunni and Shia are loaded with antagonism and political consequence, most clearly seen in current Syria and Iraq. Sunni and Shia relations in the contemporary era, much like the historic, are diverse and not always as troubled as some like to make out.
The second myth is about Sufism. Sufism is sometimes mistakenly described as a separate sect or movement within Islam that has somehow broken away from the mainstream. This isn’t the case. Rather Sufism is usually considered as one of the dimensions of Islam, and thus it is present in some denominations and not in others. Rather than being a separate movement, it is more characteristic of an approach that includes a range of practices, some uniquely Sufi, some practised and maintained by all Muslims. There are Sunni Sufis as well as Shia Sufis. Both Deobandis and Barelwis lay claim to Sufism. Only Salafism considers Sufism as an aberration, but again, there will be shared practices and understanding. Sufism is something that, in most cases, transcends denominations.
The final myth is the good Muslim/bad Muslim stereotype. Some labour under the impression that there are moderate Muslims and extreme Muslims, and that the extreme Muslims come from one particular sect of Islam. This view of Islam is all too common amongst journalists and politicians. It’s a consequence of the way in which violent extremism has been tied to ideology. As Dr Matthew Francis, researcher into radicalisation has said “there are radicals that aren’t terrorists, but you also have terrorists who are not radical”. From what we know of violent extremists in Britain, they are usually not deeply religious, and so don’t identify strongly with any denomination. If you do trace a denomination, you have to work backwards from their parents or their friends – which is often neither helpful nor telling. There are examples of individuals who have been engaged in violent extremism from Salafism as well as Sufism. It’s common for Salafism to be blamed as the “bad Islam”, with its historic links to Saudi Arabia and similarity to the textual insistence of Christian fundamentalists. But while being more religiously conservative, Salafis in Britain have been at the forefront of challenging extremism and radicalisation, working with government bodies and the counter-extremism project PREVENT to do so. Likewise, it’s easy to think of Sufism as the “peaceful”, “liberal” Islam, but this too can be mistaken. A recent assassination in Pakistan of a politician who opposed the blasphemy laws (Salman Taseer) was committed by a Sufi Muslim from the Barelwi tradition. It is simplistic to think of radicalisation and extremism as being tied to a single religious group, and this idea has to be abandoned to successfully understand British Muslims. This misconception sometimes manifests itself as conflating the conservatism of certain groups, such as Deobandis and Salafis, with violent extremism. The profile and background of most violent extremists is a lack of religious knowledge alongside involvement in crime, drugs and the universally accepted Islamic vice, alcohol – violent extremists tend not to be religious conservatives.
Dimensions of Diversity
While a denominational approach to describing religious diversity amongst British Muslims – as done above – is useful in providing an overview of the key groups, the terms and labels are only way in which to view the complex theologies and differences that make up the religious landscape. There are significant dimensions to this diversity worth exploring.
Our European heritage of Protestantism, whether or not one is Christian, affects the way in which we view, understand and engage with religion. We have, as a Western culture, a tendency to think of faith in terms of creeds. It isn’t uncommon to hear religion spoken about as almost synonymous with “belief”. “What do you believe in?” a person might ask with regards to another’s religious identity. Creedal differences, however, are not absolutely salient when it comes to religious diversity amongst Muslims. Creeds are important, but as Shaykh Akram Nadwi writes “a creed is a competitive statement of beliefs: its function is to distinguish one group from another”, and debates about creedal issues are largely of historic rather than contemporary relevance. It’s an indication of the secondary nature of debates about correct belief that if you were to stop a Muslim and ask them to which creed they adhered, they would probably be somewhat unsure. So within the Sunni tradition, you have the three dominant schools of creedal beliefs, the Ashari, Athari and Maturidi. Amongst the Shias, there is a greater diversity, with creedal schools such as the Ja’afari, or the esoteric Batiniyya. By and large however, these creedal differences remain issues of debate amongst scholars and the lay Muslim may be largely oblivious to them
Orthopraxis (correct practice) is often more important than orthodoxy (correct belief). There are a number of “schools” of Islamic law. Within the Sunni tradition, these are the four traditional schools (in Arabic madhaab), Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali. Each of the four schools are named after their founder, who developed particular interpretative approaches to deciphering the link between sacred text and practice. In Africa, the Maliki and Shafi schools are popular. In South Asia and South East Asia, the Hanafi school is predominant. In the Middle East, one can expect to find each of the four schools. Salafism abandons the schools altogether, taking a more direct line to the text. The differences between these schools are largely based on methodology. The Quran instructs Muslims to pray five times a day, but the specific questions of how does one pray, at what times, with what words, are all answered by the schools of Islamic law. Within Britain, almost all the divergent schools are present, but owing to migration histories, the Hanafi school is the most common – though Salafism has grown in recent years particularly among younger Muslims.
Another approach to understanding the diversity of denominations would be to consider the ways in which groups approach political authority. Thus you have Quietist groups, who tend to view political authority with a great amount of scepticism coupled with resignation. Political authority for Quietists is a necessary evil, the primary objective of which is to establish peace. Thus they will recognise the authority of whatever leader is in the country, whether democratically elected or dictatorship, and aim to reduce the harm and maximise the benefit by advising or interceding with the authority when relevant, but otherwise keeping a healthy distance to preserve their religious freedoms. This approach, found among Deobandis, Barelwis, and some Salafis, can often be mistaken for isolationism. By contrast, the Activist approach believes political authority can, and should, be exercised for good. Activist groups consider it a religious duty to oppose a tyrant political authority. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a typical example, and true to their principles, the Brotherhood has been the sole opposition to the military dictatorship in the country from the days of Anwar Sadat.
While most Activist groups are largely non-violent, Salafi Jihadists are anything but. Osama bin Laden and the Islamic State are examples of the Salafi Jihadi movement. What they share with other Salafi counterparts is simply the abandonment of the traditional schools, insisting on a direct relationship with scripture. Saudi Arabian Salafism, on the other hand, is Quietist, whether in Saudi or in Britain – they recognise the political authority of the country, and insist that disturbing or seeking to uproot it is contradictory to Islamic ethics. Thus during the Arab Spring, Quietist Salafi scholars issued fatwas forbidding Muslims from joining the protests against rulers, since they can destabilise a country and invite fitnah (sedition and chaos). Looking at Libya and Syria, some might be tempted to agree with their warnings.
Salafi Jihadism by contrast considers it a religious duty to fight against political authority to establish an Islamic state; this includes the Saudi monarchy. The outward methodological similarity between mainstream Salafis and Salafi Jihadists leads many to confuse the two carelessly. In 2016, David Cameron did just that in parliament, accusing British Imam Suliman Ghani of supporting the Islamic State. Suliman Ghani however had been vocal and active in opposing the Islamic State and its teachings, forcing Cameron to issue an apology. Had David Cameron made the statement outside of parliament, it is likely he could have been sued for libel. The point that religious conservatism is not the same as violent extremism needs to be stressed, in hope to avoid similar cases.
These various religious dimensions – of orthodoxy, orthopraxis, epistemology, views of political authority, and views on religious authority – can combine in a variety of ways. It’s led to scholars attempting to provide a paradigm through which to understand these approaches. Dr Mansur Ali, lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cardiff University, proposes a four-fold division to categorise them. Ali’s division is perhaps the most streamlined and utilises the categories “Islamic Modernists”, “Modernist Salafis”, “Traditional Salafis”, and “Late Sunni Traditionalists”.
These divisions describe the various intersections of approaches to religious texts and views on religious orthodoxy and orthopraxis. In this model, “Islamic Modernists” represent progressive movements typified in Britain by groups such as the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, a London-based project running an open and welcoming mosque especially aimed at women and members of the LGBTQ community. “Modernist Salafis” seek to contextualise religion in the contemporary era, working to ‘update’ established Islamic tradition, and encompassing a range of religious groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat Islamiyya, and Sufi scholars such as Abdullah bin Bayyah. “Traditional Salafis”, typified by the aforementioned Salafi movement emerging from Saudi Arabia, take a more literal and direct textual interpretation, abandoning the pre-existing Islamic tradition (of legal schools and interpretive models), and going to the sources directly. “Late Sunni Traditionalism” is a resurgent movement, and argues that tradition does not need to be changed, but rather than solutions to modern issues can be within the existing Islamic frameworks. The term is broad, encompassing influential British scholar Abdal-Hakim Murad alongside the Deobandi and Barelwi denominations.
This abbreviated description of British Muslim diversity is truncated, but like a medieval map of the globe, it should at least provide some orientation. The landscape is constantly in flux however. Most British Muslims will not belong to and derive their religious understandings from only one denominational source, but will engage with many. This, along with new and emerging religious scholarship in Britain, means the denominational maps are being redrawn even as we speak.
The diversity of British Muslims should never be underestimated, and along with the religious denominations described there are salient ethnic, cultural, socio-economic and political differences. And British Muslims, like all people, are not solely theologically motivated. Their actions, choices and goals are complex and multifaceted. Perhaps the diversity of British Muslims is best summarised by another joke I was told in a mosque many years ago – “if you have three Muslims in a room, you’ll have four opinions”.