Islam and Britain

Muslim Mission in an Age of Empire

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Ron Geaves
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781474271738.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Despite living hundreds of years in Europe, both as a dominant civilization in the case of the Iberian peninsula and as settled communities in many Christian-dominant nations for over half a century, Muslim citizens in Britain, Europe, and America are largely seen as a recent immigrant presence. Global events over the last seventeen years have made Western governments anxious about preserving social cohesion and security. Public concerns about terrorism and the apparent rise of conservative forms of assertive religiosity have caused politicians and media commentators to question the wisdom of state multiculturalism and have resulted in many governments enacting stringent social policies that exceptionalize their presence. 

Other voices point out that the vast majority of Muslims minorities live peacefully and have integrated successfully into their societies—so much so that some non-Muslims have embraced their faith. While there is a growing literature on religious conversion to Islam in the contemporary United Kingdom, less is known about the Edwardian era from 1912 to 1944. In this book, Ron Geaves offers a valuable historical bridge to understanding precolonial and postcolonial phases of Muslim missionization in the UK. This work builds on Geave’s previous work, Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam (Kube Publishing, 2017), and fills a lacuna in our understanding of how Islamic missionaries attempted to indigenize the faith in England during the interwar period. 

This book breaks new ground by documenting how a community of English converts and Indian Muslims attempted to spread Islam in Britain, engage the realities of European expansion, respond to Christian apologetics, and establish a community around Britain’s first purpose built mosque. This narrative also challenges assumptions about the simple transference of Sunni orthodoxy from South Asia and the Middle East, and demonstrates the critical role played by Ahmadi missionaries during this period. This is a significant feat given that the Ahmadi are considered by most Muslims to be a theologically heterodox movement since its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, believed he was a prophet who had received divine revelation. 

Ahmad started off as a self-styled Islamic reformer of Muslims who challenged Christian missionaries in India, but in 1889 announced that God had spoken to him and that he was thereviver of Islam of his age and the “promised Messiah” expected by Christians and Muslims at the end of times. Mirza Ghulam Ahmadi’s teachings played an instrumental role in the conversion of Alexander Russell Webb, the first prominent white American convert to Islam in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, the second Ahmadi to Ahmad, Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, after helping to support the nucleus of influential English converts in Woking and London, left for the US and helped to convert African American Muslims to the movement—some of whom would later develop proto-Islamic movements such as the Moorish Science Temple. 

Well known English convert Abdullah Quilliam had already established a nascent convert community in Liverpool before leaving for Turkey in 1908 and returning to England in 1912. The core of the book focuses on the interactions between Quilliam, Mufti Sadiq, and a cast of other notable converts and Anglophile figures such as the Indian scholar Ameer Ali, the famous Quran translators Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Marmaduke Pickthall, and social elites such as Khaled Sheldrake, Yahya Parkinson, and Lord Headley. Their collective work galvanized a network of intellectuals, activists, and dignitaries who formed an early, indigenous British Muslim culture. Their activities included creating an international journal (The Islamic Review), making the Woking Mosque a hub for the propagation of Islam in Britain, and they were instrumental in helping to establish what would become Regent’s Park Mosque. 

Attempts to adapt Muslim norms to a non-Muslim context created interesting tensions between the South Asian iterations of Islam brought by the Ahmadis and resisted at times by some of the English converts who wanted to retain certain uniquely English cultural practices and styles of public engagement. This had a social status element too, as prominent converts from the upper classes at times expressed conflicted loyalties when choosing political allegiances. Members of the Woking mission generally wore British dress and shoes in ritual prayer and Islamic terminology was Christianized so that, for example, the Qur’an became the “Islamic Bible.” Theological differences between the Ahmadi and Sunni Muslims were also played down in an attempt to avoid the sectarianism that was prevalent in Muslim majority societies but which would eventual split the British Muslim community on issues of theological normativity.

These debates were a precursor to the type of tensions played out today among British Muslims—contestations that privilege textual primacy and orthodoxy over a contextualized religiosity. A minority within a minority, the British Ahmadi community today continues to grow and has a visible but marginalized presence that has to find its place among the diverse claimants to represent Islam in Britain in the 21st century. This rigorous and carefully written book opens news chapters in the history of Muslim Britons and will be of interest to researchers of religious conversion, contemporary Islamic studies, and the sociology of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sadek Hamid is a postdoctoral research fellow at Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies in the United Kingdom.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ron Geaves is Visiting Professor in the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK based in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University, UK.

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