Crescent moon over Foggy Albion: how did Islam get to the UK?

Prime Minister of the UK (1916-1922) David Lloyd George stated in one of his speeches: “We are the greatest Mahomedan power in the world and one-fourth of the population of the British Empire is Mahomedan. There have been no more loyal adherents to the throne and no more effective and loyal supporters of the Empire in its hour of trial.” But the history of Islam in the British Isles began much earlier, Karim Gaynullin, a columnist for Realnoe Vremya, expert at the Centre for Islamic World Studies, notes. In his article for our publication, he tells why and under what circumstances Islam came to the UK.

How the idea of the waqf was embodied in the creation of the Merton College in Oxford

Despite its distance from Islamic countries, the religion of Islam has been known in this land since the early Middle Ages. Even before the formation of the United Kingdom, the King of Mercia, one of the many small kingdoms on the territory of early medieval Britain, minted a gold dinar, imitating the caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty. This shows that the British were interested in trading with the Abbasids, who at that time represented a global superpower.

The common European language of intellectuals in the early Middle Ages was Latin, the works of Arab philosophers were translated into it: al-Ghazali, Ibn Sina, Ar-Razi, Ibn Rushd. Through these works, the Europeans assimilated Greek thought, coupled with its Arabic adaptation, as well as Islamic theology and science. A special case here is Ibn Sina's “The Canon”, the most profound medical work at that time. English scientists also got acquainted with these works.

Some law historians point out that cultural penetration was also expressed in British law and institutions of the early Middle Ages. Regarding institutions, Monica Gaudiosi from the University of Pennsylvania wrote about how the idea of the waqf, a charitable self-governing trust, was embodied in Islamic law in the creation of the oldest British college — Merton College as part of Oxford University (Gaudiosi, 1988).

In turn, various subjects of the British crown were interested in Islam: officials, adventurers, poets.

Pirate сonverts

One of the unexpected ways for a European to convert to Islam in early Modern times was piracy. Mediterranean pirates used the bays of the modern Maghreb for their raids: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia.

Europeans called Maghreb pirates Ottoman. However, in many ways, North Africa came out from under direct Ottoman rule already in the 16th century and could have an independent policy. The pirate population in these lands was multi-religious — they were Jews, Muslims, and Christian adventurers from Europe.

The main activity of the pirates was the seizure of European merchant ships. However, the pirates' favourite mean of earnings were also attacks on coastal settlements in southern Europe — to capture slaves. Sometimes pirates raided further — the most famous distant and, at the same time, unusual raid was a pirate raid to Iceland. The story about him became a national tragedy and formed the basis of a book about Turkish kidnappings written by priest Olafur Egilsson. Interestingly, the backbone of the attackers were Europeans converted to Islam, led by Murad Reis, an ethnic Dutchman formerly known as Jan Janszoon van Haarlem. The main purpose of the raid is the Icelandic girls, unusual for the Islamic slave trade.

Raids were also made in Great Britain — however, much less often than in the south of Europe. The slaves who were taken out often converted to Islam, however, according to Icelandic history, it is known that a significant part of the slaves remained Christians. Besides, there were also pirates from the UK.

The most famous of them is Yusuf Reis, who previously bore the name John Ward. His activity took place at the end of the 16th — beginning of the 17th centuries. There is a version that the story of Yusuf Reis formed the basis of the image of Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.

Yusuf Reis was born in Kent into a family of fishermen. His pirate career began already from the time of service to the crown. Great Britain, just entering the era of its dawn at that time, actively attracted pirates in order to rob its competitor, Spain. However, with the accession to the throne of James I, who concluded peace with Spain, Ward was dropped. Since state, “legal” piracy was no longer supported, they had to live at the expense of private “illegal” one. Ward got a job on a royal ship and just captured it, and then another and another, one sailboat larger than the other. As a result, Ward sailed to Algeria, but chose Tunisia for his base, where he negotiated with a local Turkish manager, Uthman Dey.

The largest and most famous raid of Yusuf Reis was an attack on the huge Venetian carrack ship Reniera e Soderina with a capacity of fifteen hundred tonnes, stuffed with expensive silks and rich goods. This attack provided him with a comfortable old age, but he no longer could return to the UK — Venice was so outraged by the actions of Reis that it could turn into a war.

Yusuf returned to Tunisia, converted to Islam and got married. However, it can hardly be argued that Yusuf Reis was a faithful and devout believer — in any case, he was known for drunkenness all the time, and Tunisia at that time was known as a multinational and liberal city. It is believed that pirates do not live long, but Reis was an exception — he lived up to 70 years in luxury.

Based on the story of Yusuf Reis, English playwright Robert Daborn created the play “A Christian Turn'd Turk”. It artistically depicts the process of an Englishman's conversion to Islam. The conversion itself rather resembles a pagan ritual, according to the image of Islam perceived by the Europeans of that time, where the “idol of Mohammed” is present. All this has little to do with the real simple practice of pronouncing “two testimonies”.

By the way, Maghreb is not the only pirate zone of the Islamic world. Until the 19ер century, the Persian Gulf (modern UAE, Bahrain, etc.) was called the Pirate Coast. Pirate families fought the British East India Campaign for control of the Persian Gulf trade flows. At the beginning of the 19th century, the British made a joint expedition against pirates with the Sultan of Oman, putting an end to the “Pirate Coast”. Thus, already with the discovery of oil in the region, there was an evolution from the “pirate” coast to the “capitalist” one.

Cultural interest

Already by the beginning of the 18th century, with the development of the Reformation and the philosophy of Enlightenment, a certain interest in Islam appeared in the scientific community. From the theological side, Islamic dogmatics was close to the Unitarian current within Protestant Christianity, which had spread in university circles. The Unitarians rejected the trinitarian dogma (the doctrine of God — the Trinity) and the “high” Christology (the doctrine of Jesus-God) of conservative Christians, which brought them closer to Muslims in theological terms.

On the part of writers, the most famous example is the story of the Moroccan “Moor” — “Othello” by Shakespeare, written back in 1603. Daniel Defoe's famous novel “Robinson Crusoe” was probably inspired by Ibn Tufail's novel “Hayy ibn Yaqdhan” of the 12th century, translated into English. If this is the case, then Muslim literature directly influenced the entire further development of the European novel. In 1706, “One Thousand and One Nights” was translated.

Arabic departments were opened in Cambridge and Oxford, where they studied Arabic scientific works on optics, astronomy, philosophy, medicine — all possible sciences.

British India

Since the middle of the 18th century, England and its East India Company began to seize the territories of India, after which an increasing number of Muslims fell into the citizenship of the British crown. After 1857, the whole of India, with a huge Muslim population, came under the control of Great Britain.

Already by 1911, the British Empire included almost a hundred million Muslim population — it was larger than the Christian one. More and more Muslims migrated to the metropolis. The acquaintance with English, the language of the local administration, contributed to the move — the communication barrier was gone.

The British colonial administration even sought to form a religious movement loyal to itself within Islam. The “Kadiyanites”, or “Ahmadites”, founded by the “prophet”, as he called himself, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, became such trend. This trend is known for the complete denial of the possibility of conducting military operations, including for self-defense. In one of his works — “Shahadat-ul-Quran” — Ghulam Ahmad wrote: “Undoubtedly, my faith and doctrine — what I emphasise is that Islam consists of two parts. One of them is obedience to Allah, and the other is obedience to the government that created the world and under whose protection we are protected from oppressors, that is, the British government.” This sect was not widely spread among Muslims, since from the point of view of Islamic orthodoxy, Muhammad was the last prophet. Therefore, those groups of Qadiyans who consider Mirza Ghulam a prophet are not considered Muslims by Sunni and Shiite scholars. The first mosque in London was built by the Kadiyanites, and now the headquarters of the entire current is located there.

Karim Gaynullin

Подписывайтесь на телеграм-канал, группу «ВКонтакте» и страницу в «Одноклассниках» «Реального времени». Ежедневные видео на Rutube, «Дзене» и Youtube.


The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.