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Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen
published by Hurst, ISBN 978-1849043014
in Middle East in London

The beliefs and aspirations of British muslims should be of enormous interest to every politician, media, intelligence and academic pundit in the land. So it greatly amused me to discover, on page 6 of this fascinating study that ‘the most detailed publicly available research” had not been achieved by any Police force, university department, division of the BBC or by MI5 but could be found “ in the spare bedroom of a terraced house in South London. The man who had done all this (unpaid) research is an English convert to Islam who works full time in IT.” She rates his site, MuslimsinBritain.org as the single most useful database on Islam in Britain after the national census returns. I rate her book as the single, most accessible survey of the shape of the current British muslim community, all her research packed into a paperback of under 200 pages.

The primary fact to emerge is the overwhelming importance of the historic British relationship with the Indian subcontinent. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Egypt and Iran might dominate our headlines, our foreign policy agenda and in matters of trade and finance, but they do not populate our Mosques. Over 60% of muslims in Britain come from the lands of the old Raj - Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. So Urdu and English are the languages of communication in British Islam, not modern classical Arabic, let alone Koranic Arabic.

This vast parish of Muslims is divided into two factions - Deobandi and Barelwis. The Deobandi (and its allies) run 44% of British Mosques, some 738 institutions with a membership of around 330,000. The Barelwis run 25% of British mosques, some 428 institutions but with a comparable congregation, of around 299,000. These two groups also effectively run the various Muslim umbrella organizations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) , the British Muslim Forum (BMF) and the Sufi Muslim Council (SMC). Both are rooted in the Hanafi tradition of Sunni Islam and have a deeply imbedded South Asian ethnic identity. To an outsider, engaging just with the theological position of these two camps, they might appear very similar. What sets them apart is their different attitudes to politics, especially to the creation of Islamic states and the dream of a revived Caliphate.

The Deobandi movement has a long history in such matters. It was born out of the military suppression of the Indian Rebellion (the so-called Mutiny) in 1857 and the destruction of the Islamic Mughal Empire by the British. So right from the start, the scholars of the Deobandi think-tank, the Darul Uloom, ‘the house of knowledge” working just 130 miles north of the old Imperial capital of Delhi, aspired to recreate a Muslim state. Indeed in the First World War they were probably conspiring with the Amir of Afghanistan, the Germans and the Ottoman Sultanate to expel the British from India. The formation of an independent Hindu dominated Indian Republic was a great blow to these ideals, and resulted in a slight internal schism, and the Pakistan branch of the movement emerged as Jamiat-Islami. They are the market leaders in organisation, and have been skilled in employing seemingly western and well-assimilated Gujerati spokesman such as Sir Iqbal Sacranie to mask their strongly held Islamist ploitical mission. It is a bizarre irony that Britain is the historic enemy, but is also now their homeland!.

By comparison the Barelwis might appear to be the good guys, for they have no secret political agenda and represent the traditional belief pattern of Indian muslims justifiably proud of their thousand year old heritage of piety, poetry and music. But detailed examination reveals that the Sufi-friendly Barelwis also have their trigger points. It is they for instance who have reacted most strongly to perceived blasphemy against the Prophet, be if from Rushdie or Danish cartoonists.

Though it is seldom aired in public, the Arabic speaking Muslim Brotherhood (alongside its Salafi-Wahhabi allies) can be wary of South Asian Islam. In their eyes both Deobandi and Barelwis can appear to be tainted with clan factionalism and the shadow of caste-traditions, alongside real but usually unacknowledged ethnic divisions between Pathan, Punjabi, Gujerati and Bengali.

Like some maddened modern bird-spotter, Innes Bown then moves her attention to the smaller Shia world in Britain – both the Iranian diaspora, and the Gujerati-dominated Ismaili and Bohra communities. So I am probably in a minority of readers who regretted that this book did not also provide coverage of the Turkish, Somali, Bahia and Ahmadiya communities. Even so this is the best thing on the market, and no politician, police chief or community leader should open their mouth before reading this admirable work.

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