Muslims in Britain

Muslims in Britain: An Introduction is a long-awaited new book by Sophie Gilliat-Ray, Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University (Cambridge University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-521-53688-2, £19.99 paperback – also available in hardback).

The volume deliberately sets out ‘to rebalance current discourse by focusing on issues that are perhaps much closer to the “ordinary” daily lives of British Muslims’, shifting emphasis away from ‘the political, religious and social consequences of “crisis” events over the past three decades’.

Part I of the book thus covers the historical and religious roots of Islam in Britain, and Part II its contemporary dynamics, including socio-demographic profile; religious nurture and education; religious leadership; mosques; gender, religious identity and youth; and engagement and enterprise.

The contents are essentially a judicious and well-presented synthesis of recent academic research into British Islam, particularly published as monographs or journal articles in the 1990s and 2000s.

An appendix (pp. 266-72) provides a useful overview of the main categories of sources, with cross-references to the bibliography (which, as a single alphabetical listing, is otherwise somewhat difficult to navigate).

Although Islam in Britain has generated few statistics itself, partly because it lacks central structures, the quantitative interest of Muslims in Britain is somewhat greater than the inclusion of only four tables in the volume might suggest.

This is especially (but not solely) the case in chapter 5 (pp. 115-29), which summarizes the socio-demographic profile, mainly based on the 2001 census, drawing upon Serena Hussain’s Muslims on the Map (2008). As Gilliat-Ray acknowledges, this census has probably been overtaken in large part by the very rapid growth in Muslim numbers during the intervening nine years.

The one quantitative source which the author does not really deploy is national sample surveys, with the exception of the Labour Force Survey to a small extent. The Citizenship Surveys are mentioned at one point but not used.

Opinion polls among Muslims are also largely ignored, seemingly rejected (p. 269) because they are ‘crisis-driven publications’ which ‘are rarely underpinned by the normal protocols of scholarly peer review, ethical scrutiny or in-depth social scientific methodological awareness’.

This seems a somewhat extreme position to take, denying the reader the opportunity to gain potentially useful insights into Muslim thinking which are not otherwise available at national level. Some polls embrace ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ matters of faith, not just attitudes to Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism and so forth. 

Hopefully, one of the exceptions to the rule which Gilliat-Ray would concede is the survey of British Muslims undertaken in February-March 2009 by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Robert Putnam (Harvard University), David Voas (University of Manchester) and David Campbell (University of Notre Dame), with funding from the John Templeton Foundation.

Intended to parallel many of the questions in the British Social Attitudes Survey for 2008, this study has yet to be reported in any detail. But, when it does appear, it will be an essential contribution to the academic literature.

Also out-of-scope for Gilliat-Ray is any substantive discussion of how the majority British population has reacted to the emergence of Islam as a major faith in Britain. For instance, the term Islamophobia gets only three entries in the index.

In these ways, while Muslims in Britain offers an excellent introduction to many aspects of the community, it by no means tells the whole story.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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