When did Muslims arrive in Britain? Find out more
Last updated 2009-09-07
When did Muslims arrive in Britain? Find out more
There are references to Islamic scholars in the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1386).
Following the Crusades against Islam, Britain became friendly with some Islamic countries. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, asked the Ottoman Sultan Murad for naval assistance against the Spanish Armada.
The first recorded Englishman to become a Muslim was John Nelson, who converted to Islam at some point in the 16th Century.
A 1641 document refers to "a sect of Mahomatens" being "discovered here in London". There were also a few conversions to Islam during the period, and a few years later, in 1649, came the first English version of the Qur'an, by Alexander Ross.
In the 18th and 19th Centuries there were a number of converts to Islam amongst the English upper classes, including Edward Montagu, son of the ambassador to Turkey.
The first large group of Muslims in Britain arrived about 300 years ago. They were sailors recruited in India to work for the East India Company, and so it's not surprising that the first Muslim communities were found in port towns.
Ships' cooks came too, many of them from Sylhet in what is now Bangladesh. There are records of Sylhetis working in London restaurants as early as 1873.
Some Muslim sailors decided to stay in Britain and simply left their ships without going through any formal immigration procedure.
The next wave of Muslim immigration to Britain followed the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The increase in trade caused a demand for men to work in ports and on ships.
Most of these immigrants came from the Yemen, probably because Aden was the main refuelling stop for ships between Britain and the Far East, and many of the seamen later settled in the port cities of Cardiff, Liverpool, South Shields, Hull, and London. There are now an estimated 70-80,000 Yemenis living in Britain, who form the longest-established Muslim group in Britain.
An example is the Yemeni community of South Shields, which began at the end of the 19th century when Yemenis working as stokers on steamships moved ashore and set up boarding houses in the dock area.
The first mosque in Britain is recorded as having been at 2 Glyn Rhondda Street, Cardiff, in 1860.
Britain's Muslim population are almost all people who immigrated to Britain in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, or their descendants.
During the first quarter of the 20th century it was estimated that there were around 10,000 Muslims in Britain. Now there are between 1 and 2 million British Muslims (2% - 4% of the population), and over half of them were born in Britain.
Many of the immigrants in the 1950s and 60s came from India and Pakistan in search of a better material life. They could earn 30 times as much in Britain as they could in Pakistan.
While many planned to bring their families to Britain once they'd achieved financial security, others hoped to save money to buy land in Pakistan and then return to the families they had left behind.
Fear was another reason to come to Britain in the 1950s. Many left India because they wanted to escape the disruption and community violence that coincided with the division of British India into Pakistan and India. (During this partition, as many as 2 million people died in communal violence, ostensibly on religious grounds.)
A less-known reason why many Muslims left Pakistan was the construction of the Mangla Dam in the early 1960s. This submerged some 250 villages in the Mirpur District, and displaced 100,000 people; more than half the residents of some villages moved to Britain.
Most immigrants came from farming areas such as Azad Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier, which had close connections with Britain as established recruiting grounds for the British army and the merchant navy.
Almost all Bangladeshis came from Sylhet, which also had a long tradition of providing immigrants to Britain.
The first immigrants were men, who left their families behind. Once in Britain they tended to live in groups in communal houses until they had saved enough money to bring their wives and children to join them, or chosen to return to their birth-land.
The communal houses often contained men from the same village in Pakistan. Living like this made life easier for the new arrivals because it gave them a base, a community and friendship, and financial support while they found their feet.
Because they had no family or home comforts in Britain the new immigrants began a tradition of working very long hours that the present generation rejects.
Even when their wives joined them the early Muslim immigrants were still isolated from the host culture by language and prejudice. The generation of Muslims that have been educated in Britain have much stronger relationships with non-Muslims than their ancestors.
Immigration was boosted briefly by The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which removed the right of automatic entry for Commonwealth Citizens, restricting it to those who had a work voucher. People hurried to get into Britain before this new law made it too difficult.
The later Immigration Act of 1971 blocked immigration for single men.
The next wave of immigrants came from Africa, mostly from Kenya and then Uganda.
As certain African regimes encouraged a policy of Africanisation, life became more difficult for those Asians already living there. Many of these Asians started moving to Britain until the Commonwealth Immigrants Act made it more difficult for them to do so. In 1972 60,000 Asians were expelled by President Amin from Uganda, many of whom were allowed to settle in Britain.
Although the immigrants from Africa were often traumatised and had lost most of their material possessions, they still had many advantages. They were better educated than the earlier immigrants, many of them were professionals or from skilled trades, and they already had experience of thriving in a minority community.