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The diversity of British Muslims

My talk in High Wycombe explaining the ethnic and theological diversity of Muslims in Britain.


Delivered 21 February 2018. Posted 6 April 2018.

The mission of the Council for Christian Muslim Relations (CCMR) is to promote greater understanding and cooperation between Christians and Muslims in High Wycombe in order to promote social cohesion by building resilience within the local community and in mutual respect to work towards preventing radicalisation of young people.

I have met their Chairman Chauhdry M Shafique MBE on several occasions, and last year also met one of their other officers, Laurence Smy, at a Global Strategy Forum event. Both are profiled on CCMR's Council Officers page. This led to my being asked to speak to the organisation.

The title was "Do all Muslims think the same? — Understanding the diversity of British Muslims."

On this page are:

  1. An outline of the talk
  2. A video of the slides I used together with an audio recording of my presentation.
  3. A partial transcript of the question and answer session.
  4. Some additional resources

An outline of the talk

The PowerPoint presentation contains 34 slides and has the structure below.

  1. The speaker
  2. A test - Can you pick out the Muslims?
  3. A history of Muslims in Britain
    1. Always some
    2. First major wave in 1950’s
    3. Census 2001: Great Britain 1.6 million
    4. Census 2011: England & Wales 2.7 million
  4. Muslims by ethnicity
  5. Theological diversity
    1. Sunni / Shia divide
    2. Schools of Islamic law
    3. Responses to the modern world
      1. India – 1866 Darul Uloom Deoband
      2. India – 1875  Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, now Aligarh Muslim University
      3. Advertisement

      4. Political Islam - Egypt 1928
      5. Political Islam – India
    1. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab 1703-1792
  1. Overview of “Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam” by Innes Bowen
  2. My message for Christians
  3. My message for Muslims
  4. Q & A

Video of my presentation on the diversity of British Muslims

Slide containing census figures

The table below may not be easy to read in the video on slide 17.

Ethnic group % of Muslim total



White British



White other



Mixed race












Asian other



Black African






Other ethnicity



A partial transcript of the question and answer session

The question and answer session was also recorded. However, I am not publishing the audio recording for three reasons:

  1. I do not have the permission of those asking questions to publish their recording.
  2. While the sound quality of my responses is very clear, the questioners were some distance from the microphone. Accordingly, in many cases their questions are almost inaudible.
  3. Most importantly, the live dialogue heard cold is not particularly informative.

Instead, I have listened to the Q&A session and, where I regard the questions as being worth sharing, have written down a condensed version of the questions and my responses, improving the clarity of both the question and the response where appropriate.

Amongst Christians what is considered to be right has changed over time as a result of debate and dialogue. Has the same process taken place amongst Muslims?

Something I like about Muslim scholars’ approach to writing religious opinions is that after going through their analysis and reaching a conclusion, they normally finish with the phrase “and Allah knows best”. The reason is to recognise that no matter how hard the scholar may have tried, his opinion is fallible.

Personally I do not use such phraseology. I also have the habit of always holding my views with total certainty. A friend identified this habit when I was at Cambridge, pointing out that I might hold the diametrically opposite opinion a week later, but would hold it with equal certainty! For example, I was a convinced Trotskyist at university with the same certainty that I am now a convinced Conservative.

My key point is that everyone is free to believe what they do with complete certainty, and to believe that others are completely wrong. However, they are still obliged to respect the others as individuals, and are not entitled to treat them badly because of their differing beliefs.

People appear to be becoming increasingly tribal. For example, you moved from the tribe of Trotskyists to the tribe of Conservatives. How can we prevent this and encourage people to develop relationships with those outside their “tribe”?

I am not convinced that people are becoming more tribal. Tribes originate in particular environments for practical reasons.

For example, in the Arabian desert a single individual has great difficulty surviving, and is a “sitting duck” for any hostile group that comes along. Accordingly, it should be no surprise that Arabian society is a very tribal one.

Contrast this with London over the last few hundred years. The strong rule of law enables individuals to work or trade without requiring the protection of a tribe around them. Sadly, in some of the less salubrious parts of London today, street gangs fulfil some of the functions of tribes, precisely because those areas are not otherwise as safe as they should be.

With regard to establishing relationships outside one’s ethnic group, the environment makes a very big difference.

When I grew up, there were only a few dozen families of Pakistani origin in Manchester. In my secondary school, out of about 150 new pupils each year, only about two would come from an Asian background. Accordingly, I had to establish many relationships outside my ethnic group.

Unfortunately, today some areas of the UK, particularly northern mill towns, have very large ethnic minority populations which enable people to be born and grow up in an ethnic minority “bubble” which severely limits their interaction with people of other backgrounds.

You are a Sunni. How do you see the difference between Sunni and Shia?

The difference begins with a disagreement about history.

As a Sunni, I believe that the Muslim community of Medina made the correct decision when it chose Abu Bakr as their leader (caliph) after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Conversely, Shia Muslims believe that was an incorrect decision, and that Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman were not legitimate caliphs, regarding Ali (the Prophet’s cousin and son in law) as the first proper caliph.

This initial difference about who should succeed the Prophet subsequently led to differences in jurisprudence and aspects of religious practice.

I mentioned the four main Sunni schools of Islamic law during my presentation (see slide below). The main Shia school of Islamic law is the Jafari school, although there are others.

Schools of Islamic law

Slide 23

Obviously, both Sunni and Shia Muslims agree about the most basic tenets of the religion such as the oneness of God, the Prophet, and the revelation of the Quran.

Over the last 50 years, theological divisions between Christian groups have become much less important as markers of identity. Did I have any thoughts on this?

I agreed with the general point and shared with the audience something from my presentation in October 2017 at Brigham Young University’s International Centre for Law and Religion Studies annual International Religious Freedom Symposium.

In my view, the biggest divide in European and North American societies today is not between different religious groups. It is between those who have any form of religious belief and those who have none. This divide is seen in many of the most important arguments about the boundary between the law of the state and freedom of religious practice.

How can we heal religious divisions between Muslims or indeed divisions between different religious groups?

People overcomplicate the issue and it is actually very simple.

If you believe something, you are absolutely entitled to believe that you are right and that everyone else is wrong. That is my invariable position on every issue. I am right and everyone who disagrees with me is wrong.

If I did not believe that, I would change my opinion on the issue. Believing that you are right is not the problem.

The problem begins when you decide that your being right and other people being wrong entitles you to treat them badly.

Just because I am right on every issue, and everyone who disagrees with me is wrong, does not mean that I treat them less well, it does not mean that I do not socialise with them. If I behaved that way, I would only be socialising with myself!

When a religious group contends that God belongs only to them, are they not limiting God’s mercy?

I shared this concern and explain to the audience the circumstances that led me to write my website page “Teaching Muslims religious intolerance” and the message set out in Quran 2:62. The key point about this verse is that it reminds us that there are other pathways to God.

I regard as utterly ridiculous the view propounded by some extremist Muslim preachers that a person who lived her life as Mother Teresa lived hers is somehow condemned to hell because she was not a Muslim.

In your readings, have you come across evidence that the early Christians did not believe that Jesus died as a sacrifice to redeem us from our sins but some other doctrine?

I have not come across that in my readings so far. What I have come across is that Christians led by James continued to follow the Mosaic laws, in contrast to the teachings of Paul.

Muslim prayers recite that God (Allah) is the Lord of the Day of Judgement. So judgement belongs only to God. However, many people who are not well educated about religion are led astray by extremists wishing to impose their own understanding of right and wrong upon others. What can be done about it?

In my view, the key point is that Muslims need to be educated better about their own history.

The extremists preach an immensely simplified version of history. “Everything was wonderful for Muslims under the caliphate until Turkey abolished it in 1924. Our problems will be solved when we re-establish it.

The reality is that the history of Muslims is as varied as the history of other religious groups.

After the first four caliphs, the caliphate became in practice a hereditary monarchy, no different from the hereditary monarchies of Christian Europe. Just as in the Biblical Kingdom of Israel there were good kings and bad kings, and in Christian Europe good kings and bad kings, so also were there good caliphs and bad caliphs.

Once Muslims understand the real complexity of history, they become immune to the siren appeals of those who want to radicalise them.

For more on this, see my page "A strategy for dealing with Hizb ut Tahrir."

You stressed the importance of intra-faith harmony. What can we do as Muslims to promote this?

The most important thing is to have the right attitude of mind. Also small actions make a big difference because they affect your own thinking, as well as affecting others.

For example, in London, when I go to pray on Eid, I always go to the mosque which is nearest to me. That is a mosque established by a Muslim group from Nigeria, which is closely connected with their parent organisation in Nigeria.

Almost everyone at the mosque, apart from a few exceptions like me, is a black African Muslim, primarily Nigerian. That does not bother me. I do not know the theology of the group which established this mosque because I do not care; my purpose is to go there to pray on Eid.

Actions of this kind will positively affect your thinking about intra-faith relations.

Some additional resources

My review of "A Minority within a Minority: a report on converts to Islam in the United Kingdom" by M.A. Kevin Brice.

My 10 page paper "A brief introduction to Islam for non-Muslims."

My review of Hans Kung's book "Islam – Past Present and Future."


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