Britain’s diverse Muslims

Britain’s Muslim population remains a largely misunderstood one – with the incredibly diverse nature of it being largely overlooked.

The 2021 England & Wales Census revealed that 3.9 million Muslims live across the two home nations – 6.5% of the population. Around two in three are of Asian origin, with one in three being of Pakistani heritage. Much of the Pakistani-Muslim population in Britain can trace their origins back to the district of Mirpur in Azad Kashmir, with migration accelerating from here due to the construction of the Mangla Dam during the 1960s (which submerged 250 villages and displaced 100,000 people). One in ten Muslims in England & Wales are black, with the overwhelming majority being of African origin. There are also notable sections of the British Muslim population which are Arab (7 per cent), White (6 per cent), and of a mixed-race background (4 per cent).

In terms of geographical distribution in England, there are relatively large numbers of Muslims in cities such as London, Birmingham, Bradford, and Manchester, along with a string of post-industrial towns in northern England such as Blackburn in Lancashire and Dewsbury in Yorkshire. There are also sizeable established Muslim communities in Luton, Bedfordshire and Slough, Berkshire.

The local authority with the highest concentration of Muslims is in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets (39.9%), followed by Blackburn with Darwen (35%). While the former predominantly comprises Muslims of Bangladeshi origin, the latter largely consists of their co-religionists of Pakistani heritage. One of the other higher-ranking local authorities in terms of concentrations of Muslims is Luton (32.9%) – with this population being relatively diverse in terms of ethnic background when compared to the Muslim populations of Tower Hamlets and Blackburn with Darwen.

The 2021 England & Wales Census did not drill down to Islamic denomination or sect. While the majority of British Muslims are Sunni, a notable portion are Shia. According to JPR research published in 2017, two in three British Sunni Muslims were ‘non-denominational’, with minorities identifying as Barelvi (5.9%), Salafi (5.0%), and Deobandi (4.1%). The same study reported that 5% of British Muslims were Shia, with 1% belonging to the revivalist Ahmadiyya movement. It is worth noting that there are notable differences between denominations, with there being continued disputes regarding the rightful successor of Prophet Muhammad PBUH.

There are, of course, general points of commonality. The vast majority of British Muslims believe that their religious background is important to their identity. It may come as a surprise to some, but most also believe that Britain is a good place to live as a Muslim and are concerned by the threat posed by Islamist extremism. Many British Muslims hail from family-centred cultural backgrounds which value intergenerational cohesion.

But to truly understand the everyday lives of British Muslims, it is vital to recognise that we are not referring to a single-voice, monolithic, homogeneous bloc. As it stands, there are far too many politicians, policymakers, and practitioners who fail to acknowledge this diversity – both its richness but also the challenges it may pose.


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