Muslim ethnicities

© Cardiff University
© Cardiff University

The term ‘ethnicity’ refers to a social group bound together by a more or less shared sense of historical (and sometimes geographical) origins which may be based upon language, culture, or religion. It is therefore to be distinguished from ‘race’, ‘kinship’ or ‘nation’, mainly because there is some degree of flexibility in ethnic identification, according to context or circumstances.

While detailed analysis of 2011 Census data in relation to the ethnicity of British Muslim communities is still awaited, researchers can nevertheless make broad estimates about the ethnic composition of the Muslim population based on 2001 data. This showed that around three-quarters of Britain’s Muslim population is from an Asian ethnic background, particularly Pakistani (about 43 per cent), Bangladeshi (about 17 percent), Indian (about 9 per cent) and Other Asian (about 6 per cent). A further 6 per cent of Muslims are of Black African origin (especially Somalia, Nigeria and other North and West African countries). Some 4 per cent of Muslims describe themselves as being of white British origin, and a further 7 per cent from another white background (including Arabs, Turks, Cypriots and Eastern Europeans – especially refugees from Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo).

During the course of your studies, you will have been meeting Muslims who originate from England, Scotland and Wales as well as from Russia, China, India, Kenya, Zambia, Ireland, the Middle East, Pakistan, Bangladesh. This diversity among our contributors is a good reminder of the immense linguistic, ethnic, and racial complexity within British Muslim communities; in some senses, we can see the Muslim world in microcosm here in Britain. But of course, as Muslim from very different backgrounds interact in Britain, and as marriages and new families arise amid this diversity, so the boundaries of any distinctive ethnic group begin to become more fluid. This is compounded by the internal diversity within particular ethnic groups. So, while many Bangladeshis in Britain trace their origins to a particular district of Sylhet, in contrast, many of those with Pakistani origins here in Britain have roots in the Punjab, Mirpur in Azad Kashmir, and the Afghan border regions. Each of these places has its own distinctive language and cultural traditions.

While most Muslims in Britain share a common religious identity, the expression of their faith is likely to be shaped by their ethnic or national origins. For example, when it comes to dress, there are many different stylistic interpretations of how to conform to Islamic expectations of modesty. Even among distinctive ethnic groups, such as Pathans or Sylhetis, the fluid and changeable nature of ethnicity and ethnic identification is evident in the cultural fusions and transformations taking place among young British-born Muslims.

In recent decades, academics have explored the intersections of race, ethnicity, and religion, and the ways in which these shape identity and self-understanding. They have also considered questions of power and inequality, in order to examine why some ethnic groups within the British Muslim population suffer disproportionate social and economic disadvantage compared to others. A key finding from some of this research is the increasing salience of religious identity and in many cases a strong sense of identification with the worldwide Muslim community (the ummah) rather than with the ethnic traditions of parental or grandparental countries of origin.

We will look in more detail at religious and cultural diversity amongst British Muslims in the next steps of the course.