The foundation of Islam, AD 622

The English adopt a surprisingly relaxed attitude to the emergence of a new religion


In the early medieval era, English Christians largely regarded Islam as a variant, or at worst a heresy, within Christianity rather than as an alternative religion. Its coming was therefore not seen as particularly significant and its spread not alarming. The explanation for this relaxed attitude is clear. Judaism, Christianity and Islam emerged from the same region, in broadly the same era, and enjoyed a common cultural inheritance. They drew on the stories and ideas of the Old Testament and their practitioners honoured the same prophets, including Abraham and Moses.

On the other hand, English Christians were not very well informed about Islam until the early modern period when the collection of manuscripts at Oxford’s Bodleian Library fostered the development of a scholarly approach, and helped to undermine the more absurd medieval myths about the faith.

An English version of the Qur’an didn’t appear until 1649, and it wasn’t until 1734 that the orientalist George Sale produced a good translation. The work of translating Arabic and Persian literature was greatly extended by Sir William Jones (1746–94), a scholarly judge who served in Calcutta.


The First Crusade, 1095

Propagandists hail a ‘righteous’ adventure to free the Holy Land from ‘barbarian’ clutches
Between AD 632 and 936, Islam spread dramatically across the Arabian peninsula, the Middle East, Persia, Asia Minor, north Africa, Spain and southern France. Although England was not directly threatened, her kings responded to calls for a crusade, initially made by Pope Urban in 1095, to ‘free’ Jerusalem from the Muslims.

English crusading enjoyed its heyday in the 12th and 13th centuries, in the process generating one of the great English heroes, Richard the Lionheart (reigned 1189–99). In fact, the English contribution to the crusades was quite limited, although Richard’s efforts were to prove a huge drain on the country’s resources.

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In the 16th century English Protestants disparaged the whole enterprise, which they saw as tainted by Catholicism. Modern historians have also been critical, notably Sir Steven Runciman, who summed up the crusades as “a long act of intolerance in the name of God”.

Many historians have also come to recognise that Islam’s expansion was driven by pragmatic, empire-building ambitions rather than religious-ideological motives. Nonetheless, the crusades were hailed in propagandist literature as a noble adventure to liberate Jerusalem from the barbarians. This had the effect of entrenching a good deal of misconception about Islam as an obscurantist and anti-western movement, a view that was still alive and well in the Victorian period.


The East India Company takes control of Delhi, 1803

Relations between Britain’s empire-builders and India’s Muslims were, on the whole, good: the British largely took a relaxed view of their own religion and until the 19th century did not see India as an object of missionary activity. What’s more, the subcontinent’s predominantly Hindu society served to emphasise the similarities between Christians and Muslims.

As the European communities were small and all-male, British men often adopted an Indian social life and enjoyed personal relationships with Muslim women. They respected Muslims, who in time came to be seen as a bulwark against the rise of a nationalist movement.

Although the British displaced the Mughal empire, they signed treaties with hundreds of Indian princes – including Muslim nawabs – as a means of consolidating their rule. They promoted the cultural life of the great centres of Islamic society at Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad.

For their part, as Islam ceased to expand, Muslims largely reconciled themselves to non-Islamic rule. Under the British Raj, they were free to practise their religion, paid the land revenue and even served in the British Army.


The Crimean War, 1854

Russian expansionism drives Britain into a doomed alliance with the Ottomans
The British enjoyed extensive commercial and diplomatic links with the Ottomans, who held the Caliphate, or temporal leadership, of the Muslim world. This enabled Britain to pose as a defender of Islam.

Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Russia had been the chief military threat to Britain, but she could not effectively challenge the British route to the east without extending her naval power from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. In effect, Turkey blocked the way and it was therefore convenient for Britain to support her, even to the extent of fighting Russia in the Crimean War.

The flaw in this alliance was that Britons increasingly saw Turkey as too inefficient and corrupt to be propped up indefinitely. Consequently, by the later Victorian period, Britain was willing to guarantee Turkish territory in Asia but not in Europe, and her commitment became increasingly nominal.


Foundation of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, 1875

Muslims learn western languages, science and medicine
Lord Cromer, governor-general of Egypt, claimed that “Islam cannot be reformed”, a view that conveniently lent justification to British rule as the only means of improving backward oriental societies. However, this statement was inconsistent with the evidence of British India, where leading Muslims recognised the opportunities open to them in the universities and the civil service created by the Raj. A major expression of this was the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, established in the 1870s, which later became the Aligarh Muslim University.

The college promoted Islamic culture without being obsessive about religion. It was designed not just to educate young Muslims, but to show that it was consistent to be a good Muslim while studying western languages, political ideas, science and medicine. It generated a class of Muslim leaders who enjoyed a footing in both British and oriental societies, and gave the lie to the prejudice that held Islam to be incorrigibly backward and hostile towards the west.


The Midlothian Campaign, 1879–80

Growing public mistrust of Islam helps propel William Gladstone back into 10 Downing Street
In THe late Victorian era, British attitudes towards Muslims grew more negative, partly due to the spread of evangelicalism, the 1857 Indian rebellion, and a belief that Islamic capitals were seats of debauchery.

Increasingly, Britons viewed Muslim states as barbarous survivals from the Middle Ages. And, as these states’ power waned, Britain vied with Russia for control of central Asian territory, and launched two disastrous invasions of Afghanistan, in 1839 and 1878–79.

Hostility reached a peak over Ottoman oppression of Christians in the Balkans. Victorian liberalism, with its support for self-determination by the Greeks – who won independence after a 10-year war with the Ottomans– found Ottoman rule offensive.

In 1880, in a series of foreign policy speeches known as the Midlothian Campaign (after the constituency for which he was standing), Gladstone attacked the Conservative government’s backing for the Ottomans as both politically misguided and morally wrong. Declaring that: “The Turks are, upon the whole, the one great anti-human species of humanity,” he returned to power on a wave of indignation among the press and political activists.


The Treaty of Sevres, 1920

Global conflict poisons Britain’s relations with the Islamic world
The First World War set Anglo-Muslim relations on a steep downward path, from which they have never fully recovered. The Ottoman empire opted to side with Germany, leading to military conflict with Britain in the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia in which Turkish troops demonstrated that the Ottoman state was far from being the decadent power claimed by some western propaganda.

War complicated British relations with India’s Muslims, thousands of whom were to be mobilised by Mohandas Gandhi’s non-co-operation campaigns. Turkey’s defeat resulted in the Treaty of Sevres, which provoked a nationalist revival, a renewed war and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. This left a secular and democratic Turkish state under Kemal Attaturk.

In the wake of the Ottoman collapse, Britain helped create a series of small, unstable states – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq – in the process antagonising Arabs who argued that they had been denied the large state Britain had promised. Finally, the 1917 Balfour Declaration (in which the British foreign secretary expressed sympathy with the idea of a Jewish “national home”) and her League of Nations mandate left Britain presiding over Jewish immigration into Palestine, prompting an Arab revolt.


The overthrow of President Mossadeq, 1953

Britain acquires the habit of interventionism in the Muslim world
The end of the Second World War saw an accentuation of Britain’s role both in redrawing the boundaries of parts of the former British Raj with large Muslim populations, and in intervening to manipulate Muslim regimes.

The creation of Israel in 1948 – following Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine – saw 726,000 of the 1.3 million Palestinians being moved into refugee camps. Eight years later, Britain’s invasion of Suez further damaged the country’s influence in the Middle East and made Egypt’s president Nasser a hero among many Muslims.

Meanwhile, the growing importance of oil led Britain to try to maintain control in Iran. This resulted in the nationalisation of the oil refineries in 1951 and, in a coup partly orchestrated by MI6 and the CIA, the overthrow of Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq. Yet things didn’t turn out as Britain planned: the coup led to a cut in Britain’s oil supply and, while the pro-western Shah assumed power in Iran, he was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1978–79. The post-Shah Iranian regime has frequently been antagonistic towards Britain and the USA.


The Satanic Verses, 1988

Muslim immigrants adapt to British society, although there are setbacks
Under the 1948 British Nationality Act, Commonwealth citizens enjoyed the right to migrate to Britain. By 1984, 371,000 Muslims from Pakistan and 93,000 from Bangladesh, as well as others from India and East Africa, had done so.
The chief problem they faced in Britain was not their religion – few attended mosques – but their poverty.
The second generation adapted to British society more successfully. Yet there were grievances, most notably over perceived police discrimination, racial prejudice and what was seen as Britain’s anti-Muslim foreign policy. These helped fuel the response to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, when British Muslims were part of a global demonstration against the novel, which some thought offensive to their religion. The author was forced into hiding after the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeni, issued a death threat against him.


The invasion of Afghanistan, 2001

The west’s response to the World Trade Center atrocities alienate some British Muslims, yet others thrive
Several decades of western backing for unpopular and authoritarian regimes, as well as a pro-Israeli policy, contributed to the USA becoming a target for terrorism. This culminated in the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, in which terrorists murdered almost 3,000 people. In turn, this led to invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The troubled occupation of Afghanistan has followed a similar pattern to Britain’s Victorian wars and the USSR’s failed invasion of 1979.

According to MI5, the wars had major domestic implications, in alienating and radicalising young Muslims and creating terrorists. The World Trade Center atrocities also sparked a rise in Islamophobic propaganda, which played on the spectre of a Europe overrun and subverted by Muslims.

Despite this, Muslims increasingly play a role in mainstream British society. For example, Sayeeda Warsi (Conservative) and Sadiq Khan (Labour) have become prominent political figures. And in the field of sport, the boxer Amir Khan has won an Olympic medal and world titles, while Nasser Hussain, who has a Muslim father, captained the England cricket team.

Martin Pugh was formerly professor of modern British history at Newcastle. He is author of Britain: Unification and Disintegration


This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine