Communities, not community – a more nuanced understanding of British Muslims

On the 5th March 2024, the Institute for the Impact of Faith in Life published our flagship report, exploring ‘The social contribution of British Muslims’.

Authored by myself and Dr. Rakib Ehsan, the report was intended to shine a light on what we considered to be an underappreciated aspect of the diverse Muslim population in Britain: that Muslims feel compelled to contribute to society because of their faith, not in spite of it.

The findings of the report are truly fascinating: British Muslims feel, on average, that Britain is a good place to live when it comes to people having the opportunities to progress and thrive in (86%) compared to the general population (70%). Similarly, more than half of British Muslim respondents (51%) reported having a strong sense of belonging in their local community and neighbourhood, compared to just 35% of the general population. British Muslims are also more likely to report a strong sense of belonging in their family life (91% compared to 86% of the general population).

“Overall, do you think Britain is a good or bad place to live when it comes to people having the opportunities to make progress and excel in life?” (British Muslims and general population)

The most important outcome of the report, however, is the diversity of the British Muslim population that our survey revealed. In the wider public conversation on Islam in the United Kingdom, there has persisted a perception of Islam and Muslims as a monolith, a single group whose thoughts and attitudes are the same regardless of the internal demographics of that group. This perception has persisted since 1997 when the Runnymede Trust publicly identified the issue, and the “gulf of understanding” between the public perception of the beliefs of British Muslims and the reality remains a significant issue.

Even as this misunderstanding – and the tropes it leads to – has been addressed, the diversity of British Muslims can often be overlooked in favour of simplistic presumptions that make addressing the concerns of this complex group difficult. Dr. Rakib Ehsan’s recent blog post highlighted the need to understand the diversity of British Muslims – both in terms of demography and beliefs.

The findings of our report directly challenge this monolithic misconception. Beginning with Islamic denomination, we found that just under half of Sunni Muslims (which collectively made up 83.8% of the survey sample) identified as “non-denominational”, meaning just over 57% of Sunni Muslims did not identify as a specific denomination. It’s worth remembering that the 16.8% of Sunni Muslims identifying as “other” does not strictly mean they are non-denominational.

Yet the “Sunni-Shia” distinction that is commonly recognised in the general population masks important differences within and between these two broad umbrella groups. For instance, whilst over half of Sunni Muslims in the United Kingdom do not identify with a particular denomination, amongst Shia Muslims the trend is the opposite. Only 0.3% of the respondents identified as non-denominational Shia Muslims, which is equivalent to only 4% of Shia respondents. The remaining 96% were split somewhat evenly between Twelver, Ismaili and “other”.

The last significant attempt to understand the denominational differences within British Muslims specifically was published a decade ago: Innes Bowen’s Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam was structured around the analysis of some of the major groups amongst British Muslims representing the broad denominations. For instance, the Sunni denomination of ‘the Deobandis’ – of which our survey found 6.9% of British Muslims identify as – were referred to as the “market leaders” in Bowen’s first chapter, whilst the chapter on the Sunni denomination, ‘the Salafis’ (of which our survey found 6.6 identify as) was subtitled, “‘Don’t call us Wahhabis!’”.

Amongst the Shia minority, particular attention was paid to two groups; the Twelvers, from whom the second half of Bowen’s book title – “Najaf in Brent” – was drawn; and the Dawoodi Bohras, a sub-group of the Ismaili denomination. One group that Bowen did not pay much attention to, however, was the Islamic revivalist group, the Ahmadiyyas – who fall outside of the Sunni-Shia distinction mentioned above. Evidently, whilst Bowen’s work remains essential reading, in the last decade the British Muslim population has proven itself to be more denominationally complex.

Moving beyond denomination, our survey confirmed the traditional pattern that the two largest ethnic groups among British Muslims are Pakistanis (39.2%) and Bangladeshis (14.2%) – though after this combined majority, the picture becomes more complex. Similar proportions of British Muslims are ethnically Arab (9.4%), Black African (9.6%) and Indian (8.5%), and the next largest groups are Mixed-Race (4.8%) and White British (4.5%).

Just as interestingly, only 40.8% of respondents listed the UK as their place of birth, meaning that nearly 60% – a significant majority – of British Muslims are born abroad. Large minorities of Britain’s foreign-born Muslims were found to come from South Asia (18.5%), the MENA region (11%) and Africa (excluding North Africa – 10.4%).

Whilst scholarship has attempted in the last 20 years to present the global community of Islamic peoples – the ummah – as a mosaic and not a monolith, increasingly there is a need to reflect on the diverse and diversifying picture of Muslims in Britain specifically.

At our recent panel event to celebrate the launch of our report, I had the pleasure of discussing these findings with a group of Muslims drawn from across the country, intentionally reflecting the diversity of the Muslim population in Britain. Of the three Sunnis, a Dawoodi Bohra Shia and an Ahmadiyya Muslim, only two were born in the UK, whilst one was born in Eritrea, one in Norway and one on the East Coast of the United States. Sharing and comparing their experiences of living in the UK and different nations, the welcome commonality amongst the panellists was that Britain is a friendly nation that celebrates the diversity of its people and allows for a great degree of religious freedom.

The national thinking on Islam in the United Kingdom must be refreshed and updated in light of the increasingly obvious diversity of British Muslims. As the fastest growing faith in the UK, but the most misunderstood and misrepresented, it is time to stop talking about the “British Muslim community” and start talking about “British Muslim communities”.

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