Looking at Muslim expansion in 21st Century Britain, how much credit would you give to Sufism for this?

It is apparent from census data that Islam is progressively increasing in Britain.  As of the beginning of the 21st Century, according to the British Government’s Labour Force Survey, the number of Muslims in Britain has risen from 1,870,000 in 2004 to 2,422,000 in 2008, an increase of approximately 27.9%.[1]  This is a considerable increase to happen in a short time, and thus directly suggests that there has been a significant expansion in Islam so far in the 21st Century.  For the purpose of this essay, an exploration will be made into the contribution of Sufism towards this expansion.  The suggestion by Geaves  that ‘there is no doubt that Sufism is flourishing in all of its contemporary manifestations amidst the Muslim communities in Britain’ will be explored in understanding how deeply British Islam, and especially the expansion of British Islam, is influenced by Sufism.[2]  This essay will likewise analyse how a Sufi-influenced expansion might be portrayed in comparison to Islamic expansion throughout history; and will explore into the effects of notable Sufi Pir Wahhab Siddiqi and his succeeders and organisations on the expansion of Islamic governance and education in Britain.  Sufism, however, should firstly be defined in order to outline how this essay will use the concept.

Sufism is a potentially problematic concept when approaching the expansion of Muslims in Britain.  The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘Sufi’ as ‘one of a sect of Muslim ascetic mystics who in later years embraced pantheistic views’ is not unlike Geaves’ definition of universal Sufism as having ‘departed from shari’a and…consequently transcended Islam as well as ethnic boundaries’.[3],[4]  Geaves followed categorising Sufi manifestation into three further categories in his study The Sufis of Britain.  These are: ‘a loose allegiance to the Ahl as-Sunnat wa Jamaat which represents the variety of Muslim ethnic communities present in Britain’; ‘those who are practising Muslims following both tariqa and shari’a but still confined to an ethnic community’; and ‘those who are practising Muslims following both tariqa and shari’a but who have transcended ethnic boundaries’.[5]  It is important to note that Geaves used these categorisations purely for the purpose of his study, and did not suggest that these were the only ways of defining Sufis in Britain.  Because of this, the definition of Sufism in relation to its manifestation in Britain must be seen in a broad sense.  As the Oxford definition suggested, a Sufi can cross boundaries, which is clearly shown in Geaves’ categorisation of where Sufis are manifested in Britain.  The concept of ‘Muslim expansion’ is likewise central to this essay, and for this reason it is important to set exactly what is meant by a ‘Muslim expansion’.

The history of the expansion of Islam suggests that a situation must arise for Islam to expand into.  This situation, as suggested by Ina Wunn, was one in which Islam could thrive as being a ‘connecting element’, whereby the ‘belief in local gods had mainly disappeared and the idea of a High God was at least already known’.[6]  Wunn also suggests that ‘political change and development’ influenced how successful Islam was after the Islamic conquest in the seventh century.[7]  The relevant aspect of this suggestion is in the implication that Islam has succeeded after it has reformed and developed a society.  Whilst the example of the Islamic conquest cannot be truly compared to the Islamic introduction in Britain as Islam has relatively little influence on the British state, acknowledgement should be given to the Islamic emphasis through history on reforming and developing societies in order to thrive within them.  It is this aspect of Islamic expansion, through the conscious efforts towards reforming society, that will be mainly explored in order to understand how far an expansion has happened, and indeed if further expansion could be validly predicted to happen as a result of this.  In looking at this, the Sufi involvement will be directly explored in order to analyse how far Sufism has affected the Muslim expansion in Britain.  Firstly, in order to understand the physical presence of Sufism in Britain, the cultural manifestation of Sufism will be explored through its demographic presence within Britain.

Sufism has historically been at the heart of the introduction of Islam into Britain.  Geaves suggested that, because the majority of the original Muslim migrants into Britain arrived from areas in the Indian subcontinent that have traditionally been strongholds of Sufism, the early introduction of Islam into Britain was essentially through Sufi traditions.[8]  In 1992, Maulana Shahid Raza Khan controversially claimed that 90% of Muslims in Britain at the time were Barelwi Muslims.[9]  This statistic is particularly relevant to this essay as Barelwi Muslims are strongly associated with Sufism, especially after a ‘notable Sufi in Bradford’ translated the founder of the Barelwi school Ahmad Raza Khan’s works.[10]  It must firstly be stated about the invalidity of Maulana Shahid Raza Khan’s calculation of the amount of Barelwi Muslims in Britain.  According to Mehmood Naqshbandi’s respected work Islam and Muslims In Britain: A Guide For Non-Muslims, although ‘the largest communities of Muslims in Britain are from areas of Punjab and Kashmir where the Bareilvi charismatic Sufi traditions are strongest’, the actual number of masjids (mosques) that are associated with the Barelwi faction is proportionally very low compared to that of the Deobandi Muslims, who have about double the number of masjids compared to the Barelwis.[11]    Moreover, the very idea of suggesting that those who attend a certain kind of masjid as holding some kind of a strong connection to that faction is problematic.  These problems lie in the fact that, firstly, many Muslims seem to pray in the masjid that is nearest to their home irrespective of which faction is controlling it, and, secondly, that the younger generation ‘disdains these traditional factions and the barriers set up’ and so could not be seen to be even near as aligned with a certain faction as the elder generations would be.[12],[13]  Both of these problems show that the idea of one faction holding a greater influence in comparison to another is invalid.  For this reason, this essay will branch away from focussing on the specific association that Sufism has with the Barelwi faction, and will rather concentrate on how central Sufism has been to specific themes of expansion of Islam in Britain.  The themes of education and governance will be explored, for the purpose of this essay.

The Islamic expansion in education, which has been major over the last decade, has been strongly influenced by a number of key Sufis.  The influence of these Sufis on Sufi education can be explored through looking at one college in particular.  Hijaz College Islamic University near Nuneaton has been renowned not only for having been developed by leading Naqshbandi Sufi Pir Wahhab Siddiqi, but also as having become the site of the first dargah, or Sufi shrine, in Western Europe after Wahhab Siddiqi’s death in 1994.[14]  Furthermore, Geaves suggests that the unique attributes of the college in having both a shrine and a masjid make it very attractive to the international community, and he envisions that the college, in bringing students from all around the world, could thus ‘transcend local ethnic communities’.[15]  It is likewise clear that the college has also become a place of pilgrimage due to the shrine being there, as because of this shrine the Muslims living in the region ‘will have to make a pilgrimage to the college in order to make their supplications to the deceased pir‘.[16]    This thus suggests that there has already been a significant recent expansion of Sufism in Britain.  In this example of Hijaz College, with Sufism holding a clearly central role to the College, we can see both the possible future influence that Sufism will hold in the expansion of the Islamic education system in Britain, and the effects that it has already had on this expansion.  Whilst it is difficult to suggest that the possible future expansion will definitely happen, it is worth exploring further into the contributions to expansion that the enigmatic Pir Wahhab Siddiqi made in exploring the expansion of Islam through governance in Britain.

Despite dying in 1994, Wahhab Siddiqi’s influence on the Sufi and general Islamic advancements in 21st Century Britain has been prominent.  Firstly, in developing the presence of Sufi governance on a world stage, Siddiqi has effectively made Britain into a notable hub in regards to facilitating the international organisation.  For example, the International Muslim Organisation (IMO), founded by Siddiqi in 1980 as a breakaway from the World Islamic Mission and continued past his death by his son Sheikh Faiz ul-Siddiqi, holds influence not only in Britain but also in the global body as an organisation to ‘monitor and support the religious, social and cultural needs of the Muslim Ummah globally’.[17],[18]  The fact that, in Britain, it was the IMO that purchased the school that would later become Hijaz College from Coventry City Council, shows that the IMO has been central to the development of Hijaz College, and thus is indicative of the immensity of its presence in the education system.[19]  Another way in which Wahhab Siddiqi has been central to Sufi and more general Islamic advancements in Britain has been in his role with the Muslim Parliament.  The Muslim Parliament, established at the end of the 1980s whilst the Salman Rushdie affair was current, bypassed the masjids and established ‘a new leadership for the Muslim community from across the ethnic and religious divides’.[20]  This inherently would have allowed for the increase in the politicisation of Muslims, and thus would have changed the dynamic of the Muslim population in Britain.  Finally, with the death of Wahhab Siddiqi, for the first time ever ‘young British-born and British-educated Muslims [have] inherit[ed] the traditional leadership of a Sufi tarriqa’.[21]  Wahhab Siddiqi’s son Sheikh Faiz, who has taken on many of the political duties that Wahhab Siddiqi held, has continued to make reformations and advancements in terms of both education and politics.  The effects of Sheikh Faiz’s actions are central to focussing on the progression of Sufism in 21st Century Britain, whilst also showing the role that Sufism is currently playing within British Islamic education and governance.

As the successor to his father’s previous position as the head of the Naqshbandi faction, Sheik Faiz al-Siddiqi holds not only a high degree of influence over his faction of Sufism, but also a central role in the development of various projects that his father handed down to him.  Because of holding this role, the development of Sufism in 21st Century Britain can be at least in part attributed to him.  Such changes made as the ‘branding’ of the Naqshbandi faction; the formation of the Muslim Action Committee to ‘campaign against and form responses to incidents perceived to be Islamophobic’; the aimed reformation of the umbrella groups into becoming grassroots community organisations that aim to resolve more deep-rooted issues such as gender, unemployment, and underachievement; and the changing of the role of the pir from one of power to becoming one of moral leadership, all show that a new dynamic to the role of Sufism is developing.[22]  Whether as the stress under Wahhab Siddiqi appeared to be mainly on developing education, under Sheikh Faiz there seems to be a much greater emphasis on the integration of Muslims into British society.  This is reflected, for instance, in the Anglicisation of ‘Urdu or Punjabi terminologies’ such as ‘pir’, which has been Anglicised into becoming known as ‘Blessed Guide’.[23]  By Anglicising such terms, the obvious alienation of the non-Urdu or Punjabi speakers is likely to have been significantly decreased and thus Sufism will have been made more approachable to a more general audience.  This emphasis in the 21st Century on Islam becoming more integrated into society is implicative of a social advancement, with Islam having perhaps having become more normalised into British society.

Sufism, it has been found through the case studies that have been explored, has had a progressively significant role on the Islamic community in Britain in regards to the expansion in governance and education.  Whilst Wahhab Siddiqi played an integrative role in establishing a distinct foundation for reform, the visible change has only really been noticed since his son Sheikh Faiz has assumed leadership.  There is a definite platform available for expanding upon, which can be highlighted by referring again to Hijaz College.  As it seems likely that the college will expand into becoming the first Islamic university in Britain in the coming future, the future of Islamic education is looking impressive.  In relation to the on-going expansion of Islam in Britain, the Sufi community has consistently maintained a strong presence by being at the heart of developments, if not actually leading them themselves, like in the example of Wassab Siddiqi setting up the International Muslim Organisation and being an influential part of the Muslim Parliament.  As there already have been successes made by Sheikh Faiz in developing Islam, and there is a very notable platform in place for future developments to be made, it is clear that Sufism will continue to contribute significantly towards Islam for the coming future in Britain.

 

Word count: 2185/2000

Bibliography

Journals

Geaves, R.,

– ‘Continuity and Transformation in a Naqshbandi tariqa in Britain’, In: Catharina Raudvere and Leif Stenberg, Sufism Today: Heritage and Tradition in the Global Community. 2009, London: I.B. Tauris, pp. 65-81.
– ‘Cult, Charisma, Community: The Arrival of Sufi Pirs and Their Impact on Muslims in Britain’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 16(2), 1996.

Lewis, P., ‘New Social Roles and Changing Patterns of Authority Amongst British Ulama’. 2004, Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, 49(125), pp. 169-187.

Wunn, I., ‘The Evolution of Religions’. 2003, Numen, 50(4), pp. 387-415, p. 402.


Books

Geaves, R.,

The Sufis of Britain: An Exploration of Muslim Identity. 2000, Cardiff: Cardiff Academic Press.
Sectarian Influences Within Islam In Britain. 1996, Leeds: University of Leeds.

Lawson, I., Leading Islamic Schools in the UK: A Challenge For Us All. 2005, Nottingham: National College for School Leadership


Online sources

Al Hijaz, ‘Mujadid of the 20th Century: Hazrat Allama Pir Muhammad Abdul Wahab        Siddiqi (ra) – 1942-1994: International Muslim Organisation’. Al Hijaz, [Online] Available from: http://www.al-hijaz.co.uk/tareeqa/AWS_STORY_IMO.HTM [Accessed 04.12.12].

Field, C., ‘How Many Muslims’. 2010, British Religion in Numbers, [Online] Available from: http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2010/how-many-muslims/ [Accessed: 04.12.12].

Naqshbandi, M., Islam in Britain: A Guide For Non-Muslims. 2006, London: City of London Police, [Online] Available from: http://guide.muslimsinbritain.org/guide1.html [Accessed: 02.12.12].


[1] Clive Field, ‘How Many Muslims’. 2010, British Religion in Numbers, [Online] Available from: http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2010/how-many-muslims/ [Accessed: 04.12.12].

[2] Ron Geaves, The Sufis of Britain: An Exploration of Muslim Identity. 2000, Cardiff: Cardiff Academic Press, p. 63.

[3] ‘Sufi’, Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2012 [Online] Available from: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/193615?isAdvanced=false&result=1&rskey=dO4pWd& (accessed 30/11/12).

[4] Geaves, The Sufis of Britain: An Exploration of Muslim Identity, p. 72.

[5] Geaves, The Sufis of Britain: An Exploration of Muslim Identity, p. 72.

[6] Ina Wunn, ‘The Evolution of Religions’. 2003, Numen, 50(4), pp. 387-415, p. 402.

[7] Wunn, ‘The Evolution of Religions’, p. 400.

[8] Ron Geaves, ‘Cult, Charisma, Community: The Arrival of Sufi Pirs and Their Impact on Muslims in Britain’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 16(2), 1996.

[9] Geaves, ‘Cult, Charisma, Community: The Arrival of Sufi Pirs and Their Impact on Muslims in Britain’.

[10] Geaves, ‘Cult, Charisma, Community: The Arrival of Sufi Pirs and Their Impact on Muslims in Britain’.

[11]  Mehmood Naqshbandi, Islam in Britain: A Guide For Non-Muslims. 2006, London: City of London Police, [Online] Available from: http://guide.muslimsinbritain.org/guide1.html [Accessed: 02.12.12].

[12]  Geaves, ‘Cult, Charisma, Community: The Arrival of Sufi Pirs and Their Impact on Muslims in Britain’.

[13]  Naqshbandi, Islam in Britain: A Guide For Non-Muslims.

[14]  Ron Geaves, ‘Continuity and Transformation in a Naqshbandi tariqa in Britain’, In: Catharina Raudvere and Leif Stenberg, Sufism Today: Heritage and Tradition in the Global Community. 2009, London: I.B. Tauris, pp. 65-81, p. 75.

[15]  Geaves, ‘Continuity and Transformation in a Naqshbandi tariqa in Britain’, p. 71.

[16]  Geaves, ‘Continuity and Transformation in a Naqshbandi tariqa in Britain’, p. 71.

[17]  Geaves, ‘Cult, Charisma, Community: The Arrival of Sufi Pirs and Their Impact on Muslims in Britain’.

[18]  ‘Mujadid of the 20th Century: Hazrat Allama Pir Muhammad Abdul Wahab Siddiqi (ra) – 1942-1994: International Muslim Organisation’. Al Hijaz, [Online] Available from: http://www.al-hijaz.co.uk/tareeqa/AWS_STORY_IMO.HTM [Accessed 04.12.12].

[19]  Geaves, ‘Cult, Charisma, Community: The Arrival of Sufi Pirs and Their Impact on Muslims in Britain’.

[20]  Geaves, ‘Continuity and Transformation in a Naqshbandi tariqa in Britain’, pp. 67-8.

[21]  Geaves, The Sufis of Britain: An Exploration of Muslim Identity, p. 128.

[22]  Geaves, ‘Continuity and Transformation in a Naqshbandi tariqa in Britain’, pp. 76-7.

[23]  Geaves, ‘Continuity and Transformation in a Naqshbandi tariqa in Britain’, p. 75.

 

Originally an essay submitted in December 2012 for the Muslim World Year 3 Study of Religions module at Bath Spa University.

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