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Islam in Scotland: A Brief Overview



Islam is the second largest religion in Scotland, having got used to women wearing the hijab, men wearing the shalwar kameez and purpose-built mosques, at least in the central belt of the country though there are Muslims and less obvious mosques throughout our land. Many of us grew up in a country that was predominantly white and Christian but have seen it increasingly become multifaith and multicultural after a wave of immigration in the 1950s and 60’s when jobs were available in transport and industry. Many of us would have been ignorant of the religions of these new immigrants who were simply classed as Asians as they tried to make a life for themselves in a new world and culture.

Muslims had in fact been in Scotland long before that wave of immigration with the first Muslims settling in the country in 1916 and the first Mosque being built in Glasgow in 1944. There had also been a long history of Christian – Muslim contact over the centuries with Arab expansionism defeating the Christian Byzantine Empire, establishing an Arab Empire in most of the then known world; the crusades that fought for Christian control of Jerusalem; colonialism that brought Muslim countries under European control, all events that can live long in the memory and make us suspicious and unsure of one another. It is not so long ago that there were calls for an apology for the violence of the crusades – something that has died down since the attack on the World Trade Centre.

There is of course much good in the history of relations between our two faiths and indeed between Scotland and the Muslim world, an account of which can be found in Bashir Maan’s book, ‘The Thistle and the Crescent’, which outlines contacts throughout the centuries between Scotland and the Arab, Muslim world through pilgrimage and trade. The society that pilgrims and traders encountered was a materially rich and culturally sophisticated one. It was the Arabs that translated many of the Greek works of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle into Arabic thus keeping them alive for such influential theologians as Thomas Aquinas whose theology was a dialogue between the philosophy of Aristotle and the truth of Christianity which he knew from the Latin translations of the Arabic texts. Duns Scotus too studied the works of Muslim philosophers as did many scholars and academics in medieval Britain. The great Muslim centres of learning, Cordoba, Toledo, Cairo, Baghdad were the forerunner of universities and gave much to the world. They established libraries, developed mathematics and astronomy, invented the telescope, compass and the pendulum. They brought the art of Chinese papermaking to the west in the 800s and set up pulp and paper mills for papermaking and money making.


The first English translation of the Qur’an was made by a Scot, Alexander Ross but he was not the only one who was enthralled by Islam. Michael Scot (1175 – 1232) a famous Scottish philosopher, translator, mathematician, and astrologer studied in Muslim Spain at Toledo. He learned Arabic and was one of those scholars who translated Arab treatises into Latin, thus making them available to Europe. Bashir Maan tells how he accompanied Emperor Frederick, for whom he worked, on his crusade of 1228 and, because he could speak Arabic, played an important role in the negotiations for the peaceful recovery of Jerusalem between the Emperor and Sultan Al-Kamal. This is the same Sultan whom St Francis Assisi met when he travelled to Damietta in Egypt, hoping for martyrdom but finding instead a fellow man of God. One story goes that Francis and the brother accompanying him stayed for a week, another that they stayed for three weeks but all are agreed that they recognised one another’s holiness and spent their time talking of the things of God. It is good and intriguing to know that we Scots have a connection with that event.


However, it was the wave of immigration from the Indian Sub-continent in the 1950s and 60s because of Glasgow City Council’s canvassing for people to come to work in Glasgow and in the 1970s because of Idi Amin’s expelling Asians from Uganda that began to change the nature of Scottish society. Like all immigrants they were not universally welcomed or accepted. To help with their integration the Church of Scotland employed a chaplain, Emmanuel Johnson and a community worker, Stella Reekie. Stella had been a missionary in Pakistan and knew a little Urdu which helped those coming from Pakistan to feel at home. Stella was a Deaconess who, as a young woman working for the Red Cross in Poland, had been at the liberation of Belsen. She had seen for herself what the hatred of one group for another could do. She also recognised the difficulties of settling into a new land and learning new ways including a new language. She set up a centre, the International Flat in Glasgow St, Glasgow where she organised a series of events including language and cookery classes for women, holiday clubs for children, advice and help with practical matters such as housing, health, and education.


As well as this, Stella was convinced that the Asian community would only be accepted, understood, and feel at home if others understood their faith which was so central to their family lives. So, she set up the Glasgow Sharing of Faiths – the first interfaith group in Scotland. This group had a committee made up of all the major faiths including representation from Islam. Once a month there would be a public meeting at the Flat at which a member of one of the faiths would give a talk, after which there would be tea and traditional food followed by discussion. Each year there was a Presentation of Faith – a weeklong event in a public space in Glasgow; each faith would set out a stall explaining their faith and there would be musical and dance presentations. For the whole week schools would visit and experience meeting someone of a faith other than their own. All of this was going on in the 1970s at a time when religious education had changed its focus from the Bible to teaching world religions. For most teachers this was a new venture for which they were ill prepared and there were very few resources on the market. So, the meetings at the International Flat and the Presentation of Faiths were opportunities to learn about and meet with people of other faiths and sometimes arrange visits to places of worship. In my own work in teacher education, it was invaluable as it helped put flesh on what students were being taught and brought the academic knowledge they were acquiring to life.


From this beginning interreligious dialogue has grown in Scotland and Muslims have been an integral part of it. Salah Beltagui and Josef Inait were part of the core group that led to the setting up of the Scottish Interfaith Council (now Interfaith Scotland) and served it well. Muslims have been part of the growing number of interfaith groups around Scotland but, as with all other faiths, it was a minority who got involved though mosques were happy to welcome visitors and tell them about Islam. As the Asian community settled in Scotland, they reached a point of wanting to be identified by religion rather than race. It was at this point that attempts were made to set up a Christian- Muslim dialogue group which for a few years met regularly in the Central Mosque in Glasgow. My memory of those meetings is that the Muslim contingent of which Bashir Maan was one, would often talk of situations in the world where Muslims were being persecuted – mainly by Christians. This annoyed me somewhat to the extent that I began to keep stories from ‘The Tablet’ of instances where Muslims were the perpetrators of violence and we eventually agreed that both our faiths had been both oppressors and oppressed. We had some good discussions and got to know one another but the group did not sustain itself. Often dialogues with Muslims floundered at Ramadan. Committed to a month of fasting, prayer, and study there would be a hiatus in deciding on dates for future meetings and so the dialogues would come to an end to be resurrected later.


The attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 was a watershed moment for interreligious dialogue. No longer did people ask why we should engage in dialogue but rather how we should do it. Many people became very suspicious of Muslims and saw them as terrorists. In some instances, this led to a request for more information about Islam but there was a lot of misunderstanding as many saw Islam as a violent religion that had been spread by the sword. Muslims felt very much under threat and the target of suspicion and fear. They feared for their young people and the possibility of radicalisation. There was a retrenchment into community with the wearing of the hijab more visible than before. Within the community there was a desire for good education and programmes such as the iSyllabus, a five-year course of Islamic studies developed at the University of Glasgow in 2008, were set up. Islam Awareness Week begun by the Muslim Council of Britain in 1994 became more visible, invitations were offered to communities surrounding mosques to dinners, to iftar, the meal breaking the daily fast during Ramadan, to exhibitions and talks on Islam.


It was at this point that that the Shiah Muslim community became more visible, and the Ahl-alBait Scotland Society began to hold an annual Peace and Harmony dinner in Glasgow to which they invited people of different faiths, politicians, and significant public figures. The intention was to let the wider Scottish society know about their denomination and to promote peace and harmony. Members of Ahl-alBait Scotland got involved in interfaith groups (as did the Scottish Ahl-alBait Society in Edinburgh) and established contact with the Bishops Committee for Interreligious Dialogue. This was the beginning of a growing friendship which has led to several dialogues and prayer sessions described by Bishop Brian McGee in another article in this edition of the Coracle. Central to these dialogues has been the Statement on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University on 4th February 2019. This has captured the imagination of Ahl-alBait who have spearheaded our dialogues and together we plan to hold an annual conference on the anniversary of the signing of the document which falls within the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week. This is where we are now. Like our own Catholic community, Muslim communities have their own concerns and issues. They have become well established within society. They fear increased islamophobia and have a desire to counteract negative understandings of their faith. Some are involved and interested in dialogue but as with all faiths, including our own, this remains a ‘minority sport’. Would it were different!

Sister Isabel Smyth


Isabel is Secretary to the Catholic Bishop's Commitee on Interfaith Dialogue and is committed to promoting interfaith dialogue in Scotland today.






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