Most British Muslims, whether emigrants or born in the country, originate culturally in the Indian subcontinent – Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Of some three million British Muslims, comprising close to five percent of the total national census, nearly forty percent are British Pakistanis. In their identification with Muslim sects, the majority claim affiliation with Sunnism. Within that classification, almost half of British mosques belong to the radical-fundamentalist Deobandi and Wahhabi (so-called ‘Salafi’) factions.
Deobandis are inspirers of the Taliban and the separatist revival movement Tablighi Jamaat. Wahhabi doctrine underlies the Saudi monarchy as well as the brutal, supposed ‘Islamic State’ or ISIS/ISIL. The apparent preponderance of Deobandi mosques in the UK is a fact. These are often purpose-built mosques or other marginal properties.
Nearly thirty percent of British mosques are affiliated with Barelwism, a traditional interpretation that incorporates aspects of spiritual Sufism. Barelwism began in the Indian subcontinent after, and in opposition to, Deobandism. Yet the Barelwis immigrated to Britain earlier than the Deobandis, and Barelwis established the main mosques in Britain. Paradoxically, while they are moderate in doctrine, Barelwis tend to integrate into UK society, obeying British law, but not to assimilate. They cling to the forms of dress they wore before coming to Britain, and in the first waves that arrived, may not have learned English. In Pakistan, Barelwis make up about sixty percent of Muslims, and they represent a larger majority in India.
Deobandis in the UK are often more strict in appearance, education, and social standing than Barelwis. But they are simplistic and fanatical in their understanding of Islam. This is a contradiction of radical Islam in general. It often reflects a nostalgia for an idealised past in people who, in reality, live their lives in the present. Such individuals may not change their appearance, growing a long beard or putting on ‘Islamic’ costumes, but might adopt a narrow and bigoted world-view. Yearning for a purportedly authentic and unspoiled ‘original’ Islam cannot stand up to serious religious study. Islam embodies a global civilisation developing over 1,400 years. Deobandis and Wahhabis, therefore, gravitate naturally to an unsophisticated and even childish conception of Islam. This may lead in turn to violent attitudes among them.
Aside from these trends asserting their fidelity to Sunnism, Britain’s Shia Muslims account for about four percent of mosques.
Recently, a conflict in the established Barelwi mosques in the UK has become visible. The older Barelwi leadership may be giving way to dominance by Deobandi adherents. In a most notable instance, the Central Mosque in the northwest London Borough of Harrow has been taken over by a pro-Deobandi/Wahhabi group, Living Masjid. This outcome came after an election to its Executive Committee that was challenged by some mosque attendees for alleged fraudulent voting procedure. A complaint has been lodged with the UK Charity Commission by the dissidents. Members of Living Masjid had disrupted mosque services by shouting, a common Deobandi/Wahhabi practice.
But the incumbent Executive Committee has twice blocked an investigation of the situation, according to the local Harrow Times of 2 February 2015. Several years ago, Harrow Central Mosque adopted a revised constitutional structure. Under its current rules, controversies among members will be resolved by placing control of the Harrow Central Mosque under the notoriously radical Regents Park Mosque in London.
Muslims in Western Europe face great challenges. Concern over radicalisation and terrorist recruitment is growing. The Barelwis in UK mosque leadership should take the initiative in opposing infiltration by Deobandis. But the Barelwis appear paralysed and incapable of effecting measures necessary to protect the moderate majority. In Leicester, which is a leading British Muslim community the majority of whom are Deobandis, Barelwi clerics have welcomed Deobandi sypmpathisers into their mosques. It was the illiterate committee of one of the main Barelwi mosques in Leicester that sadly refused to accept the fatwa (religious decree) by a leading imam for allowing a guide dog in their mosque.
Money going abroad often seems to play a role in this process. That should reinforce the will of the Charity Commission to investigate conditions in the contested mosques. Well-known Barelwi Sufis are often labelled contemptuously as ‘pir sahibs’, or teachers who conduct themselves in a lordly manner. They have been assailed by the Deobandis on fundamentalist grounds. But ‘pir sahibs’ are also accused by some of their own sect of unregulated fund raising. In the Barelwi mosques commonly money is thrown at Naat Khawans (persons who recite poetry in praise of the Prophet) in a manner similar to throwing money at an entertainer.
They are alleged further to transfer authority dynastically, from pirs to their offspring. Such claims stir discontent in the Barelwi Mosques.
Mainstream Sunni mosques should not be run as family businesses. Their financial accounts should be audited by the UK authorities. Much money is sent in an unmonitored way to Pakistan and India. Online mosque accounts are not updated, although such maintenance is required by law. The criticism of ‘pir sahibs’ is often just, in that they concentrate on recruiting followers and neglect Sufi instruction. In addition, they speculate in politics and lobby for honours, an undignified habit for a religious leader and a mosque chairman.
Numerous young men from Pakistan have declared themselves ‘sheikhs’ or religious authorities. They have only completed two years of religious studies. These young sheikhs have started to take short trips to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia to teach and attend lectures. This is not education, much less Islamic schooling or metaphysical cultivation.
It is the duty of the British government to monitor such individuals/groups and their nature to ensure they are not being radicalised.
Senior Muslim scholars should stop these abusive practices. Islam is in danger in Britain because of the advance of Deobandi ideology and a descent of the Barelwis into careerism. The consequences may be felt throughout society, and with considerable harm, if those who absorb such attitudes succumb to intolerance and rage. A ‘mosque war’ in Britain can and should be avoided.