Many of us hold the perception that the Muslim communities of Britain were the result of post-war mass migration, and to some extent this is true. But among the talks during the Islam Awareness Week—an annual week of activities aimed at encouraging knowledge and understanding of Islam across the United Kingdom by engaging local communities—was “1000 years of Islam in Britain” by Mohammad Siddique Seddon of the Islamic Foundation.
Imagine that, a thousand years of Islam in Britain! Well, while this statement needs to be nuanced, it is, however, clear that there has been an Islamic influence in this country for more than a millennium, a heritage that belongs not only to myself as a second generation British Pakistani Muslim, but also to the “native” English who can trace their genealogy on the island back for generations.
The first hint of Islamic influence that the speaker referred to was that felt under the leadership of King Offa of Mercia, a wealthy Anglo-Saxon king who ruled until the end of the 8th century CE. He is perhaps more famously known for commissioning Offa’s dyke, a massive wall built to separate England from Wales, compared by many to the building of the pyramids in terms of the resources employed.
King Offa commissioned a gold coin using the Islamic gold standard. On the one side it reads “There is no deity but God, without partners.” On the other, one way up it reads “Offa Rex” (King Offa). When rotated 180 degrees, it reads “Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” There are a number of theories about the coins: the need to align with one of the two Muslim authorities of his time and to facilitate business with Muslim traders. However, the one that I am partial to is the need to pay the Pope his dues—a process perhaps best illustrated in the Robin Hood movies. Having accepted the need to pay tribute, King Offa did so willingly but with tongue in cheek by marking the coins with the testimony of the belief in one God, quite contrary to the Trinitarian belief of Christianity of which the Pope was the supreme authority. Then again, perhaps he even accepted Islam. Whatever the hypothesis, what cannot be denied is the minting of a coin bearing the mark of one of the most powerful English kings and the Muslim testimony of faith.
At the turn of the 9th and 10th centuries, we find another anomaly: the Ballycottin Cross. Found on the south coast of Ireland, it is a brooch in the shape of a symmetrical cross at the center of which sits a glass bead that reads “In the name of Allah.” It is assumed to be a decorative Celtic brooch that leaves many questions unanswered: Who made it? To whom did it belong? How did it get there? What influence was the owner under to have worn something which conflicted so staunchly with the ideology of Christian belief?
Two centuries later, the younger brother of the famed Richard the Lion Heart, King John, is reported to have undertaken an unusual diplomatic move. After having quarreled with the Pope, he was excommunicated. Further struggles with the land barons led him to send an emissary to the Muslim ruler of Spain, Muhammad An-Nasr, in which he offered to accept Islam. King John was willing to submit himself and his kingdom to the rule of Islam under one condition: that An-Nasr would send an army of Muslim soldiers to help him in his battles against the land barons. After much deliberation An-Nasr declined, but imagine how different life would have been had he accepted King John’s offer.
During this same period, the late 12th century, a famous monk and Knight Templar, Robert of St. Albans, traveled to Jerusalem with the Crusaders. Intending to recapture the city from the Muslim “savages,” what he found instead was the honorable values and rich heritage of Islamic civilization. This appeal not only led him to accept Islam but to marry the grandaughter of the famous Salah Ad-Din Al-Ayyubi (Saladin).
A few centuries later we find John Ward, a famous pirate, who lived in the late 16th century. This is a period when the Islamic civilization was at the height of its abundance of knowledge and wealth, with cities such as Baghdad and Damascus conjuring up the same grand associations as London, New York, and Paris do today. Algiers was no exception. An account reads how a British ambassador to Algeria, William Lithgow, visited the British convert to Islam John Ward and was shocked to see that the apostate had a higher standard of living than he himself! Records also show that there were about 15,000 converts who were living in Algiers at the time.
In the 17th century we find Dr. Henry Stubbe, a theologian who mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and who authored a text entitled An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mohametism and a Vindication of His Religion From the Calumnies of the Christians. Imprisoned for heresy, Dr. Stubbe attempted to publish his book three times, but failed. The text, which was eventually published in the 19th century, intended to expose that the core teachings of Islam were not dissimilar to the post-reformation Unitarian Christian beliefs.
In the same period we also read of Joseph Pitts, a sailor from Exeter captured by Algerian pirates who was taken to Algiers and sold as a slave. His slave master was kind enough to teach him Islam. Having been convinced of its truth, Pitts accepted Islam and was set free. His former slave master furthermore paid for him to go on pilgrimage to Makkah. Pitts documented his experience in a book entitled A Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of Mohametism, which is the first recorded Hajj carried out by an Englishman.
In terms of social dynamics, the 17th century saw intensified trade with the East and the introduction of coffee by Muslim traders, which fueled the Starbucks of that century with more than 350 coffee houses in London alone by 1650 CE. These coffee houses created a sober environment, a center for business dealings, contrasting the public houses attended in the evenings where people would go for entertainment.
Between the 19th and 20th centuries we come across the story of Abdullah William Henry Quilliam, reportedly the first Englishman to reach the town of Wazan, located in the Sahara Desert. He accepted Islam when traveling in Morocco in 1889 and later studied Islam at the University of Fez. He was famed for establishing a mosque, a publishing house, a library, a debating society, a school, and even an orphanage in Liverpool named the Medina Children’s Home.
We also find, at the beginning of the 20 th century, the story of Robert Rashid Stanley who, born in Cardiff to wealthy tea traders, was engaged in Turkish-British trade relations. Twice the mayor of Staylbridge, he was profiled in The Crescent—a weekly record of Islam in England that can be found at the British Library—in April 1907. Robert’s great-great grandson is also a Muslim.
Finally, there is Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, who was educated at Harrow—one of England’s leading private schools—and traveled the world extensively. He accepted Islam in 1917, studied Arabic, and became the imam at the first purpose-built mosque in England, based in Woking, approximately 30 minutes by car from central London. He is perhaps more famously known for having produced an English translation of the Qur’an, entitled The Meaning of the Glorious Quran, in 1928.
While the accounts above are by no means comprehensive, they do shed light on a heritage that many of us living in the United Kingdom are oblivious of. Perhaps with time, and a greater deal of research, we can learn more about the interaction between the Muslim world and Britain. One thing is certain: I attended the talk hoping to find some answers to the questions raised by the program, only to leave the lecture hall with even more questions that I hope to answer one day.