Islam

   Islam is the religion of the Muslims, a monotheistic faith which regards itself as incorporating the final revelation in the message of the Qur’an from God to the Prophet Muhammad. This message ends the process of prophecy and completes the revelations of the Old and New Testaments. There are two main categories of Islam. The majority of believers adhere to Sunni Islam, which emphasizes dependence on the interpretation of religious texts by agreement between appropriate scholars. In the minority are followers of Shi‘i Islam, which sees authority as residing more in particular individuals who serve as authorities themselves. The majority of British Muslims are Sunnis. Islam sets out principles of prayer, charity and pilgrimage for its adherents, and emphasizes study of the Men and women are given different roles within the religion, and there is often segregation during prayer and socially.
   There are, at the end of the twentieth century, about two million Muslims in Britain. Around twothirds come from South Asia, with the others from the Middle East, Cyprus and Iran. They are a very rapidly growing religious group, since the age structure of the population is comparatively young and Muslim families tend to have more children than the average. Although Muslims share a core of religious beliefs, there is not much unity among the Muslims in Britain. There has been a longstanding Muslim presence in Britain, but it is the recent large immigration from South Asia and East Africa which has led to the rapid growth of the Muslim population. Many Muslims came to work in the manufacturing industries of the North and Midlands, and the majority of the Pakistani community are based outside the Southeast and London. Given the change in economic structure from manufacturing to services, those Muslims have experienced high rates of unemployment, while other Muslim groups have managed to become successful in the self-employed sectors and the professions. This often has far more to do with their ethnic background than their religion, and there do seem to be different rates of success in education, employment and income between different ethnic groups, which often include Muslims. Islam is a religion and not the name of an ethnic group, so Muslims often cut across ethnic groups.
   The Muslim community is largely based in the major British cities, especially London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford and Glasgow. As a fairly recent immigrant community, they have not enjoyed much success in British politics and culture, having managed to produce just one Muslim MP in the 1997 election, and without a major influence on cultural and commercial activities. Perhaps the most important group has been one of the smallest: the Arab community centred in London. London has become the centre of the Arabic press, and also a major financial centre for the oil economies of the Middle East, and the skill and learning of the Arab community has combined with their comparative wealth to dominate the intellectual life of the Islamic community. The notion of such a community should not be overstressed, however, since Muslims tend to divide up on ethnic grounds, and the attempts to link all facets of the community, such as the Muslim Parliament, are not widely supported. The community has had difficulties in representing itself with a common voice politically, and even in ensuring that the rules of halal (permitted) slaughter correctly apply to all such labelled meat. There has also been only limited support for the idea of Muslim schools, which so far have been rejected by the Department for Education as candidates for state support since they are invariably in areas of cities with too many school places already. Such rejection has led to suspicions about its precise motivation, of course, and has only served to increase the antagonism which some Muslims feel for the official institutions of the United Kingdom. Islam is often regarded as a threatening and antagonistic force in Britain, especially given the activities of the anti-Rushdie book burnings in response to the publication of The Satanic Verses. The notion of Islamic fundamentalists who are determined to assert themselves has been perceived as a threat to liberal British culture, and there have certainly been a number of groups of Muslims who have insisted on their rights to a separate Islamic education and who have opposed the ethos of a multicultural approach to religion in the National Curriculum. There has also been a struggle between different organizations backed by Saudi and Iranian money to orientate the community in particular directions. Even those committed to a multicultural society have been disturbed by what seems to be a growth in Islamic exclusivism, especially among young British Muslims who have increasingly distanced themselves from their parents and challenged the traditional community and religious leadership. All this has taken place within a general cultural background which has replaced communism with Islam as the central threat internationally to the Western democracies, and it is hardly surprising that as a result British Muslims should feel under attack, and sometimes react vigorously. However, all the evidence suggests that very few British Muslims are attracted to fundamentalist ideas, which imply the necessity of a very distinct lifestyle for Muslims, and most Muslims continue to blend their religious principles with ordinary life in British society. An interesting question concerns the extent to which Muslims in Britain will be able to resist the forces of secularism, which have played such an important role in diminishing the role of religion in the lives of its nominal adherents. It is too early to answer this question, and it is worth emphasizing that the contemporary experience of Muslims in Britain is more affected by their ethnic background than by their religion.
   Further reading
    Lewis, B. and Schnapper, D. (eds) (1994) Muslims in Europe, London: Pinter (an account of the British community compared with the situation in other European countries).
    Lewis, P. (1994) Islamic Britain: Religion, Politics and Identity among British Muslims, London: I.B.Tauris (a very interesting account of a particular community, that in Bradford).
   OLIVER LEAMAN

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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