The prominence accorded to the oneness of Muslims in the form of umma, where caste, creed and nationality become superfluous, is rendered hackneyed when it comes to the essence of their faith and the way it is practically demonstrated. Sectarian and in most cases sub-sectarian fissures run so deep that the category of umma or milat is reduced merely to clichéd locutions.
This assertion is evident in Innes Bowen’s book Medina in Birmingham Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, which is undoubtedly an invaluable contribution to the existing body of literature on British Islam.
Another striking feature of the book is the Pakistan connection. Every denomination discussed in the book, barring the chapter on Muslim Brotherhood, is somehow linked with Pakistan — particularly to get religious instruction from institutions like Jamia Uloom Islamia in Binori Town, Karachi or for training jihadis at various jihadi camps, including Dawat-ul-Irshad in Muridke.
In this article, I will focus only on Deobandis and Salafis in Britain. These are the largest religious networks causing concern for the British state. I will write a separate column on Barelvis and Shias in Britain.
Barelvis control 25.7 per cent of the total 1,700 mosques but their version of Islam is perceived as far from threatening. Barelvis as well as Shias are of immense significance in the context of Great Britain, hence cannot be ignored.
The book is evenly divided into eight chapters, each one devoted to one denomination. However, the Tableeghi Jamaat is an exception — because despite it being an offshoot of the Deobandi sect, its method of proselytisation is different. Therefore, a separate chapter has been assigned to it.
Such a ‘privileged’ treatment accorded to the Tableeghi Jamaat by the author reflects its significance as an instrument of Muslim representation in Britain.
Tableeghi Jamaat is one of the largest Islamic groups in the UK. The first Tableeghi mission, as Innes Bowen reports, came to England in 1945. Subsequently, it had its European headquarters in Dewsbury, Western Yorkshire, funded by the Tableeghi Jamaat charity called the Anjuman-e-Islah-al-Muslimeen (Madrassah Taleem ul Islam) of the UK.
Also read: Deobandi coalition in the making
Jamaat progressed smoothly till the 7/7 bombings in London when several tableeghis were implicated. The author reports eight incidents of terrorism by individuals who are said to have spent time in the Tableeghi Jamaat. Similarly, a group of British Muslims accused of plotting to blow up transatlantic airplanes with liquid bombs were also supposedly tableeghis. These incidents sensitised the British state and public about its existence. Thereafter, its image as a non-violent, peaceful faction changed.
Even in Pakistan, it is believed the Jamaat provides recruits to militant outfits like Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Muhammad.
While tracing the genealogy of the Deobandi persuasion of political Islam, the author notes Jamiat Ulema-e-Britain was founded in 1975, as a ‘network of Pakistani Deobandi scholars’. Interestingly, Indian Deobandi scholars in Britain have their own equivalent body: the Hizbul Ulema. Darul Uloom al Arabiya al Islamiya in Bury is the first and the most important Deobandi seminary, established in 1979, and has on its roll around 350 male students. Similarly, for females, a boarding school, Jamea Al Kauthar, has been set up near Preston in Lancashire. Besides this, there are 22 Deobandi Darul Ulooms in Britain, 15 of which are offshoots of the Bury seminary.
Many graduates from these Darul Ulooms have travelled to India or Pakistan for higher level of religious instructions but, after 7/7, visa restrictions have made this difficult if not impossible.
The book states Deobandis and Jamaat-i-Islami establishments are well entrenched in Leicester. Deobandis have the Al Kauthar Academy there, which is one of the most important Islamic colleges in the Deobandi network. Deobandi representatives are in complete control of the local Federation of Muslim Organisations (FMO), but they are reluctant to become directly involved in national intrafaith organisations like Muslim Council of Britain.
Also, they have remained indifferent to the government-funded watchdog the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, despite the fact that Deobandis control 44 per cent of Britain’s mosques. Deobandis do not back integration of Muslims in the British society but advocate freedom of religious expression. The links of Deobandis in Britain with terrorist like Masood Azhar and financial support lent to the jihadi outfits have also been brought into focus.
The chapter on Deobandis concludes that despite the group’s inability to broaden its base among Somalis and Kurds, it is the strongest. The author considers Deobandis of whom a majority is Pakistani to be potentially most dangerous.
The only other denomination with potential to compete with Deobandis is Salafis. It has drawn huge number of converts because, as the author states, Salafi doctrine “is simple, it’s pure and it’s monotheistic in that it calls them to the worship of Allah alone.” Its youth organisation Jamiat Ihyaa’Minhaaj al Sunnah (JIMAS), established in 1984 by Manwar Ali, a computer science graduate from London, played a vital role in bringing Muslim youth to the Salafi fold.
The first generation of British-born Pakistanis are leaving traditional Sufi Islam and becoming Salafi. This is partly because people in vanguard of the Salafi creed have switched over to English as a medium of communication and instruction.
Salafis in Britain are of three categories: pietistic Salafis, political Salafis and jihadi Salafis.
A Pakistani connection is usually traced through the influence Dawat-ul-Irshad has cast on Muslim youth in Britain by invoking the message of jihad. Hafiz Saeed came to Britain in the 1990s to raise funds, and several zealots went to Pakistan for jihadi training.
The intellectuals helping to disseminate the Salafi message and instruction in Britain are mostly from the Middle East. Sheikh al Albani from Jordan was one such influence. The organisations like Hizb ut Tehrir and Al Muhajiroun, which took extreme positions with their call for establishing the caliphate and jihad as the obligation on every Muslim, gave Salafis a chip on their shoulders.
To conclude, one may assert the connection of these denominations with Pakistan should not be seen as a one-way affair. Muslim diaspora has started galvanising political Islam by funding certain institutions and establishing charities with religious overtones, which is having a catastrophic influence on the social fabric of Pakistan.