Religious diversity

© Peter Sanders
© Peter Sanders

Muslims in Britain are from many different ethnic, linguistic, and racial backgrounds. As we have seen already, they often have diverse geographic origins and migration histories. But alongside these differences, many British Muslims also subscribe to various religious ‘schools of thought’. The extent of this internal diversity means that it is more appropriate to speak about British Muslim ‘communities’ – in the plural, rather than thinking of British Muslims as being a unified homogenous ‘community – in the singular.

As in many other world religions, Islamic teaching has been interpreted and practiced in various ways since the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. Over the course of history, and in different geographic regions, various ‘schools of Islamic thought’ have emerged. Today, this means that in cities such as Cardiff, or London, there are Muslims whose understanding of the Islamic tradition might vary slightly in relation to particular practices or beliefs. As a consequence of migration and travel, these different religious ideas, once separated by large geographical distances in the Muslim world, are now found on adjacent streets; the internal religious diversity of the entire Islamic world can now be seen in microcosm in some large British towns and cities. Inevitably, this sometimes leads to a certain degree of rivalry about ‘what counts’ as the most authoritative way of interpreting Islamic texts and teachings in 21st century Britain.

The different Islamic movements in Britain today share, however, some common characteristics, irrespective of their geographic or historic origins. For example, they nearly all regard the era of the Prophet Muhammad and his early companions as providing a template for authentic Islamic belief and practice. Belief in the Five Pillars of Islam will be shared by all Muslims, irrespective of their origins. The variation between them essentially arises from different understandings about how and in what ways Muslims today should try to follow the example of Prophet Muhammad. They use different methods of textual interpretation and place different degrees of emphasis on the oral sayings of the Prophet. For example, some British Muslims today look for answers to contemporary religious questions via the scholarly study of religious texts and the accumulated knowledge to be found in legal commentaries written over the centuries. In contrast, others rely on fresh interpretation of original Islamic sources. Amid these different approaches to religious knowledge and authority, some British Muslims also emphasise their connection to a spiritual lineage of scholars and saints.

The various religious ‘schools of thought’ that we find in Britain today have their origins in those South Asian and Arab countries from which British Muslims have mostly been drawn. To some extent, the way in which the various Islamic religious movements relate to one another and wider society as a whole is a reflection of the ideological and political stances they adopted during the period of their formation, especially in relation to former colonial power. Understanding the religious diversity within Muslim communities in Britain today requires an interdisciplinary appreciation of the intersection of history, politics and religious thought.