Islam in the UK

Introduction: An outline of Muslim History and Divisions

Islam is a monotheistic religious tradition that developed in the Middle East in the 7th century C.E. Islam, which literally means “surrender” or “submission”, was founded on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as an expression of surrender to the will of Allah, the creator and sustainer of the world. The Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, contains the teachings of the Prophet that were revealed to him from Allah. Essential to Islam is the belief that Allah is the one and true God with no partner or equal.

Although Islam has several branches and much variety within those branches, the concept of ummah, the common belonging of all Muslims to a universal community which transcends tribal, ethnic and national identities is very important in Islam. Islam declares the absolute equality of all believers. This concept of the unity of Muslims became important politically with the rise of Muslim communal identity in the 19th century and resistance to western colonialism.  Muslims are united by the five pillars of their faith and by their common beliefs in the nature of Allah, and in Muhammed as his final prophet.

But there are divisions culturally, religiously and legally. The biggest division is between the Sunnis (followers of the Sunnah (example) of the Prophet) and Shiites (the party of Ali).  Globally, according to a 2009 Pew Research Study,[i] Islam has 1.57 billion adherents, making up over 23% of the world population. They mostly divide into Sunni (75–90%) or Shi’a (10–20%).  Whereas Sunni adherents are geographically located throughout the Muslim world ,  Shi’a communities are strong especially in Iran, Iraq, India and Pakistan.

The division came initially over leadership.  Sunni Muslims believe that Muhammad did not designate a successor; therefore the best or most qualified person was to be elected as Caliph (political leader). Their tradition as developed has stressed consensus. Shi’as by contrast believe that leadership was inherited, handed down by Muhammad’s male descendants (descended from Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, and her husband Ali) known as Imams.  Shi’a rejected the idea of an elected caliph and recognised Ali as their leader. Politically, the fates of Ali (assassinated) and his son, Hussein (killed in a massacre) have marked subsequent Shi’ite identity. They have regarded themselves as the persecuted ones and traditionally as the disinherited minority.

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. Sufis adhere strictly to the outward observance of Islam, but are distinctive in nurturing theirs and others’ spiritual dimension. They are aware that one of the names of the Prophet was Dhikr Allah (Remembrance of God) and their spiritual practice seeks to glorify Allah and to invoke an inner feeling of divine love.  Sufism is found in both Sunni and Shiite branches.

History of Muslim Presence in UK.

Muslims have been coming to the UK for many centuries as traders, seafarers, explorers and students.  The first substantial settlement came in the late nineteenth century.  The first communities formed in the port cities of Liverpool, Cardiff and South Shields.

Post 1945, there was an expansion of inflow as labourers came to the UK from the Indian subcontinent.  Though originally the intention was for a temporary stay, from the 1960s and 70s as immigration law changed, so residence became permanent.  In the 1980s and 1990s the Muslim presence was swelled by immigration from a range of Muslim countries for both economic and political refugee reasons.

According to the 2011 census, the second largest religious group in the UK were Muslims with 2.7 million people (4.8 per cent of the population).[ii]  About 1% of the Muslim population in the UK are converts.  Nearly four in ten Muslims (38 per cent) reported their ethnicity as Pakistani.[iii]  Nearly half of all British Muslims were born in the UK.

Some 38% of England’s Muslims live in London, where 1,012,823 identified as Muslim in 2011 (12.4% of London’s population).[iv]  Other high population levels are found in Blackburn, Bradford, Luton and Slough (circa 25%), Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Oldham, as well as in Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Migration patterns have influenced the character of Muslim presence in particular areas.  Thus in Leicester, the Deobandi School has a large presence because of the large numbers of Gujeratis settling there in the 1970s after expulsion from Uganda.[v]  In Bradford and Oldham there are large numbers of Pakistanis mainly from Mirpur.  Half the Bangladeshi from Sylhet live in inner London.  In London there are also large numbers of Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and the Far East, as well as from South Asia.

There are several different strands of Islam in the UK including the following :-


In terms of denominations, the Deobandi branch is the dominant branch in the UK with 44% of British mosques following its teaching.[vi]  The movement has its origin in British India, seeking to build up Muslim identity (in reaction to British rule) represented by the Jamiat Ulama-e-Britain.  It has a missionary body known as Tablighi Jamaat . Two important UK Deobandi seminaries are based in Bury and Dewsbury.

About 39% of Britain’s mosques belong to the Barelwi Sufi tradition, imported from the Punjab and Kashmir region (Mirpur).  In UK its main organisation is known as Minhaj Ul Quran, and its missionary body is Dawat-e-Islami (international headquarters Karachi, British headquarters, Dewsbury).

About 182 of UK’s 1700 mosques might be described as Salafi, linked with the teaching of Abd al-Wahhab from Saudi Arabia.  Wahhabi Islam is an ultraconservative strain of Islamic thought.  Its British organisation is known as JIMAS.

51 of UK mosques are associated with a Pakistan political party, Jamaat-e Islami, and its UK Islamic Mission.[vii]  It is influenced by Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi’s thought developing Islam as a political ideology in reaction to British colonial rule. More recently, it is associated with the East London Mosque.

The Muslim Brotherhood is particularly influential in student areas. Its origin is as an Islamist party in Egypt, created in the 1940s.  The Intellectual figurehead was Sayid Qutb. Organisations in Britain include the federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS or Federation of Student Islamic Societies), and the Muslim Association of Britain. (MAB)


Shi’as’ main area of influence is NW London; Westminster, Brent and Harrow.  There are about 113 mosques in the UK in all.[viii]  One important centre is the Al Khoei Foundation (created in 1989 by the son of Grand Ayatollah al Khoei, who at the time of the Iranian revolution was regarded as the Shi’a world’s most important cleric and was based in Najaf in Iraq.)  The Imam Ali Foundation (IAF) was created by a student of Al Khoei, and another major figure, Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

Iranian influence is to be found at the Islamic Centre of Britain in Maida Vale.  South Asian Shi’ites are represented in South London in Tooting, and in North Harrow and Stanmore


Ishmailis make up no more than 2% of the population in UK,[ix] but have important influence, especially due to the leadership of the Nizari branch by the Aga Khan.  Most came to Britain from East Africa.  Their headquarters is in South Kensington

Ahmadis: There is uniform agreement among all Muslims that two sects are entirely outside Islam, although the two describe themselves as “Muslim”.  One group is Ahmadiyya, representing 1%[x] of the UK Population, which started in what is now Pakistan, but has its European headquarters in Morden, south west London.  Its followers are often described as Qadianis, named after their present Indian centre.  The other is the American black separatist movement, the Nation of Islam.

Main Features and Beliefs of Islam

The main elements of Islamic faith are the five pillars which include the statement of faith (the shahadah), prayer (salat), almsgiving (Zakat), fasting (sawm) and pilgrimage to Mecca/Medina (Hajj).  The prophet Mohammad is a figure of the highest respect, but he is certainly not worshipped in the same way as Christians do of Jesus. Mohammad is not regarded as divine, rather regarded as God’s final messenger and prophet.  Whenever his name is mentioned, the Muslim will say “Peace be upon Him” (in either Arabic or English).

For Muslims, the Qur’an is literally the Word of God, God’s revelation to the illiterate Mohammad, written down later by his followers.  Because Mohammad is regarded as a model for Muslims, not only the Qur’an but also the Hadith, the stories about the prophet, are important.  Most Muslims do not use modern critical methods in approaching the Qur’an, but there is debate over interpretation of the tradition handed down from Mohammed and his colleagues (The Sunnah) which formulates Islamic law.  There are four schools of interpretation in Sunni Islam and two in Shi’a.

Mosques are the main place of community prayer for a Muslim, though prayer is possible for an individual anywhere.  The most important features of mosques are the places for ritual washing, the Mihrab, for determining the direction of prayer towards Mecca, the clock (for determining time of prayer), and the prayer carpet, to enable the worshipper to prostrate.  Traditionally there are no images because of a belief that images of the human being will encourage idolatory.  However, there may be examples of calligraphy in Arabic which are expressions of faith or prayer.  Practices vary; In many mosques, only men pray.  In others, women have a special section either marked by a curtain or upstairs.

Mosques in Britain are managed by a committee who are often elected.  The chair is very important in this role and is often in Sunni Mosques the point of contact. The Prayer Leader will be either trained in a UK seminary or come from abroad.  In Shi’a Mosques, the Imam has a much higher status and is regarded as an expert in the interpretation of Islamic law and teaching.

For Muslims, the main festival is the month of Ramadan (the month of fasting), leading up to Eid Ul-Fitr. The date varies as the Muslim calendar is lunar based. During this month, Muslims are meant to focus especially on their spiritual lives.  In the UK, a recent development has been that Mosques use this opportunity to invite their neighbours to a communal breaking of the fast (Iftar). Some schools will have special holidays to celebrate the period of Eid Ul-Fitr.

Another important festival is Eid ul-Adha, remembering Ibrahim’s (Abraham in the Bible) sacrifice of Isma’il. Muslims in the UK may take the day off work or school to celebrate this festival.

For Shi’a Muslims, Ashura is an important period.  It occurs during the month of Muharram. It reminds Muslims of the day when Noah left his ark and Moses saved the Israelites from the Egyptians. For Shi’a Muslims, this day is the anniversary of the assassination of Ali, the grandson and son-in-law of the Prophet.

Visiting a mosque: Certain codes of behaviour are encouraged

Men and women will be expected to take shoes off (Be aware if you have holes in your socks!).   Women are expected to cover their heads with a headscarf and to dress modestly.

Be aware that it is normally not acceptable to shake hands across the gender divide.  When a woman meets a man from a Muslim background, do not insist on eye contact or be surprised if there is not any.

There is a strong emphasis on cleanliness in a mosque

If you have an official invitation, be prepared to make a short address even if you have not been forewarned.  It is also helpful to find out the role of the person you are speaking to and to use their formal title of address.

Food is a major aspect of the welcome you will receive. Be ready to accept this gift!

If you sit in the prayer room on the floor, avoid pointing your feet in the direction of prayer.

Welcoming an Islamic group to your church or school

If it is a long event, you may need to find a neutral space where a Muslim might pray. For most Christian denominations, the guidance is that it should not be the sanctuary.

Certain foods will be unacceptable (i.e. pork); fruit, most biscuits and vegetable food will normally be acceptable. Be aware that gelatine contains animal proteins.  If it is a Christmas event, check that the mince pies etc. do not contain alcohol!  Do not offer alcohol; this will cause offence.

If a school group is visiting from a Muslim school, it is good to explain that the altar/sanctuary/font etc. are regarded as “sacred” and therefore need respect. Sometimes students might do things unintentionally, which might be regarded as sacrilegious.

Main Areas of Debate

Islam’s approach to Christianity and Judaism; Islam and the Word of God as revealed in scripture

Although Islam recognises the partial legitimacy of Christianity and Judaism, they are regarded as flawed religions and inferior to Islam.  This partly comes out of Muslim belief about Revelation.   Muslims regard Muhammad as the final prophet to whom God revealed his Word.  Only that revelation of God’s word exists today in its uncorrupted, pure form.  Though Islam believes that God revealed his word to earlier prophets like Jesus and Moses, their revelation as known in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is now only available in a corrupted version.  All other religions are seen as kafir (heretical).

Islam and the nature of God

For Muslims there is only one God, and Islam cannot accept the idea of the Trinity.  Unpacking what is meant by God also reveals differences in understanding.

Jesus as the Son of God; Jesus and the Cross

Further two major areas of debate between Muslims and Christians are the areas of prophecy and the status of Jesus as Son of God.  Though Muslims accept Jesus (and Mary) as a prophet chosen by God, like Muhammad, they cannot accept that Jesus was in any way divine.  They also deny that Jesus died on the Cross and that he rose from the Dead.  Jesus (Isa) and Mary (Miriam) are written about in the Qur’an in some detail, but they are seen through a Muslim lens.

Human Purpose and Salvation; Sin and Forgiveness

Although both Islam and Christianity have a vision of the end time and judgement day, there is less emphasis in Islam on Sin and forgiveness, and of course the role of Jesus death and resurrection in human salvation is ignored.

Speaking of our Faith to members of the Islamic religion

Introductory Thoughts

Just as in Christianity, there are different theological schools within Islam.  These will range from those who take a more conservative view whose approach is clear and insistent about the exclusivity of Islam’s universal message, to more moderate positions where there is a recognition of the validity of diversity of faiths. Because there are different schools of Islamic legal interpretation this too will lead to differences when entering dialogue.  Moreover there are also Islamic traditions which put an emphasis primarily on spirituality. Islam means submission, as in submission to the will of ‘God’, which may parallel the Christian call to follow the Way of Christ.

There are often many meeting points between Christians and Muslims in the understanding of God’s love and mercy, and also on expectations about treatment of one’s neighbour in its wider sense.  A good starting point here is the document, “A Common Word” published in 2007, where the emphasis is on “Love of God” and “Love of Neighbour”.  Finally  we need to be aware that because certain adherents to both faiths are evangelistic in approach, conversation can sometimes be reduced to claim and counter claim, which is not genuine dialogue.

Islam’s approach to Christianity and Judaism

Muslims regard Muhammad (PBUH) as the final prophet.  They recognise Judaism and Christianity as legitimate, if flawed religions.  Jews and Christians are seen as “people of the Book”.  They are both seen as people to whom ‘God’ has revealed his Word through his prophets, who are recognised and respected as such by Islam.  Thus Isa (Jesus) is spoken about in the Qur’an as a Muslim prophet, as are Adam, Noah, Abraham (Ibrahim), and Moses (Musa).  Each of these prophets is thought to have received a revelation though the pure versions of that revelation no longer exists.  According to Islamic understanding Jewish (tawrat) and Christian scriptures (injil) are not the original record of that revelation.  Over time the Torah and New Testament (as they exist in the present) are considered to have developed error.  All other religions are seen as kafir (heretical).

Islam and Revelation

Islam postdates both Judaism and Christianity. All three faiths claim to be the consequence of revelation; the task for the person of faith is to demonstrate the uniqueness and authenticity of one’s own revelation.  Although Jesus (Isa), Mary (Maryam) and the Jewish prophets are written about in the Qur’an, they are seen in the light of Muslim understanding of prophecy and revelation, and in the light of understanding that Muhammad is the final and most important prophet

Islam’s description of Jesus (and Mary)

Though Muslims accept Jesus and Mary as prophets chosen by ‘God’, they cannot accept that Jesus was in any way divine.  The Qur’an leads Muslims to deny that Jesus died on the Cross and that he rose from the Dead.  The Isa and Maryam of the Qur’an are very different figures from the Jesus (and Mary) of the Gospels.  Moreover the accounts in the Qur’an differ from those found in the New Testament.

Common beliefs of the “Abrahamic Faiths”

Islam, Christianity and Judaism are monotheistic faiths.  They do share many understandings about ‘God’, that ‘God’ is outside and beyond and different from all created things, that ‘God’ is the Creator of all in the created order, that ‘God’ sustains the world, that ‘God’ is a forgiving and merciful/ compassionate ‘God’.  If one looks through the 99 names given to Allah, one will find many which parallel with titles given to ‘God’ in the Bible.  ‘God’ is beneficent, just, wise, affectionate, merciful, the judge, the king, The Holy, the one who gives life and so on.  They agree that human beings are called to praise ’God’, follow his Word, and that doing this will bring them toward salvation.  They also share a goal of building community.  Islam means submission, which implies surrender to God’s will and God’s commands.  Christians likewise believe that they have a calling to live a life worthy of a child of ‘God’, by following the Word.

The Word of God 

Where there is a difference between the two religions, it is in discovering the nature of that Word or command.  Muslims emphasise the importance of the written Word, the Qur’an, which they regard as the manifestation of God’s divine Word given in revelation through the prophet Muhammad.  Christians speak of the living Word of ‘God’ manifested in the person of Jesus Christ; our scriptures bring an account of the life and work of Christ.  Christians seek to follow Christ’s teaching or Way.  This is understood through a combination of reading and interpreting scripture, understanding church teaching and following individual conscience, all three guided by God’s Holy Spirit.

The Knowability of God

Both Christians and Muslims cherish the concept of revelation.  For some Muslims Islamic theology teaches that Allah is so different from human beings that he cannot be known to them.  All that human beings can know is the Will of ‘God’ for humanity as revealed through the revelations made to the prophets of ‘God’ and written in Qur’an, and as seen in God’s creation.  On the other hand there are Muslims who will take a different line, that ‘God’ can be partially known by human beings though never in totality.  Christians believe that ‘God’ does reveal himself through the universe in all of creation, through human conscience, through the Bible and supremely through Jesus under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but we cannot claim to have total knowledge of God’s being.

The Trinity

Philosophically all human language about ‘God’ is limited in that ultimately human beings cannot fully know ‘God’ in God’s totality.  In Muslim language concerning ‘God’ there is an emphasis on the absolute oneness of ‘God’ (tawhid).  Islam cannot accept the doctrine of the Trinity, which they regard as shirk (idolatry),  that is associating another being with the being of ‘God’.  This is the ultimate sin.  Moreover some Muslims will claim that the ‘God’ they worship, Allah, is the one true ‘God’, distinct from the ‘God’ of Christian worship.  However, Allah as a name for ‘God’ was used by Arab Christians and by Copts long before it was adopted as the name for the Muslim Deity.   In Arabic it simply means The ‘God’ (al-ilah).  Mainstream Christianity, like Islam, holds to there being only one ‘God’, however our perception of that one ‘God’ differs.  In addition Christians claim to have a personal relationship with ‘God’ whom they address as “Father” in a way that Muslims would not.

For Christians then there is the challenge of how to present the Trinity.  Muslim belief is perhaps not as distinct from Christian belief as some might claim.  We must emphasise that Christians do not believe in three separate entities. Whilst we (Christians and Muslims) together would thus fully accept the belief in the oneness of ‘God’ we would hold that the doctrine of the Trinity reflects the way ‘God’ acts in relationship to human beings.  With Muslims we believe ‘God’ creates the world and sustains it.  Further ‘God’ desires that human beings follow his Way.  Thus ‘God’ reveals his Word, in Islam through the Qur’an, in Christianity through the Living Word made flesh in Jesus.  Just as ‘God’ seeks to draw human beings to his way through the Qur’an and Muhammad’s example, so Christians talk of the Holy Spirit “leading and guiding human beings towards the wisdom and goodness of ‘God’”. (Ref: Rowan Williams)

The Purpose of Life

There are also differences in understanding and emphasis concerning the nature and purpose of human beings.  Islam emphasises the importance of individuals submitting to the will of ‘God’ as set out in the Qur’an and modelled by Muhammad.  The Last Judgement in Islam is when an individual’s good deeds are weighed up against the bad.  In Christianity Sin and repentance are pivotal.  Christians speak of the sinful nature of humanity and therefore of the need for Jesus’ death on the Cross and his resurrection for human redemption.

Jesus Death on the Cross

For Christians the death and resurrection of Jesus are at the heart of how they understand the identity of Christ and his ‘God’ –given ministry to human kind. And just as Muslims will claim that the revelation given to Muhammad in the Qur’an has a universal purpose, so Christians claim that the death and resurrection has a similar universal significance.  In response to the Muslim claim that Jesus was not crucified, we might refer to how Biblical sources are supported by independent witnesses outside the Bible who record that the crucifixion actually took place Thus the Roman Historian Tacitus writes of the suffering of Christ during the reign of Tiberius and at the hands of Pontius Pilate.  Similarly Josephus reports of Jesus being condemned to being crucified by Pontius Pilate, but whose followers continued and thrives.

The significance of the Cross

But most important is to share that Christians believe that the significance of the Cross is that it demonstrates the idea of a path of vulnerability and suffering as a means by which ‘God’ reveals his compassionate and merciful love for all humankind , and that through following a path of self-sacrificial love, even to the point of death, good may come.  The idea that Jesus was called to die was difficult even for his disciples to accept; it challenged their thinking in relation to how ‘God’ acts in the world.   It also brings into focus the Christian understanding that ultimately we are all sinful human beings, and so are reliant on God’s gracious mercy and love for forgiveness.  For Christians this defines the ultimate purpose and nature of human life.

Jesus, The Son of God, and human redemption

Whereas Muslims see Jesus in the context of prophecy, and specifically as a precursor to Muhammad, Christians understand Jesus as Son of ‘God’. How we unpack the meaning of “Son 0f ‘God’” is important.  It certainly does not mean that Jesus is physically the Son of ‘God’ in a biological sense.  It also is not a title used by Jesus himself but is one adopted by his followers reflecting their philosophical and theological understanding of the identity of Jesus.  In the human person of Jesus, God’s Word and Wisdom revealed itself through his teaching and action.  In his obedience to the Father’s Will he demonstrated that he was worthy of the mantle of being the Son of ‘God’ in line with David of the Old Testament.   And in his relationship with the Father, he showed the power of God’s Word which through his death and resurrection, Christians believe, brought forgiveness to all and enabled all human beings to be restored to full relationship with ‘God’.  Through the power of the living Word, made present through the Holy Spirit, human beings are able to live out their calling to be children of ‘God’.

Further Reading

Chapman, C. Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenge of Islam IVP 3rd Edition pub. 2007

Race, A. (ed)  Beyond the Dysfunctional Family: Jews, Christians and Muslims In Dialogue with Each Other and With Britain CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform pub. 2012

Sudworth, R. Encountering Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations in the Public Square SCM pub. 2017

Volf, M. Allah, A Christian Response HarperOne pub. 2011



[i] Mapping the Global Muslim Population. Pew Research Centre, 7.10.09. Accessed: 17.2.19

[ii] Ali, S. et. al. British Muslims in Numbers. Pg. 16. The Muslim Council of Britain. 2015. Accessed: 7.2.19

[iii] Full Story: What does the Census tell us about Religion in 2011? Pg. 7. Office of National Statistics. 2013.—religion.html. Accessed: 7.2.19

[iv] See above; British Muslims in Numbers. Pg. 16

[v] McLoughlin, S. Discrepant Representations of Multi-Asian Leicester: Institutional Discourse and Everyday Life

in the ‘Model’ Multicultural City. Pg. 8. Accessed: 8.2.19

[vi] Islam in the UK: An Overview. Pg. 1. BBC.

Accessed: 8.2.19

[vii] Naqshbandi, M. UK Mosque Statistics. Pg. 5. Muslims in Britain. 2017. Accessed: 8.2.19

[viii] See above; UK Mosque Statistics. Pg. 5.

[ix] Bagehot. Multicultural and aggrieved. The Economist. 24.1.15 Accessed: 25.2.19

[x] A quiet man with a loud voice. The Economist. 31.3.16 Accessed 23.2.19