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Before the 20th century

Islam and Britain

Queen Elizabeth I of England in a portrait commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  The ships are seen in the background

Queen Elizabeth I asked the Ottoman Sultan for assistance against the Spanish Armada

Islam has been known in England for a long time; there are references to Islamic scholars in the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1386).

Following the anti-Islamic frenzy of the Crusades, Britain became friendly with some Islamic countries. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, asked the Ottoman Sultan Murad for naval assistance against the Spanish Armada.

The first recorded Englishman to become a Muslim was John Nelson, who converted to Islam at some point in the 16th Century.

A 1641 document refers to "a sect of Mahomatens" being "discovered here in London". There were also a few conversions to Islam during the period, and a few years later, in 1649, came the first English version of the Qur'an, by Alexander Ross.

In the 18th and 19th Centuries there were a number of converts to Islam amongst the English upper classes, including Edward Montagu, son of the ambassador to Turkey.

The first large group of Muslims in Britain arrived about 300 years ago. They were sailors recruited in India to work for the East India Company, and so it's not surprising that the first Muslim communities were found in port towns.

Ships' cooks came too, many of them from Sylhet in what is now Bangladesh. There are records of Sylhetis working in London restaurants as early as 1873.

Some Muslim sailors decided to stay in Britain and simply left their ships without going through any formal immigration procedure.

The next wave of Muslim immigration to Britain followed the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The increase in trade caused a demand for men to work in ports and on ships.

Prince Naseem Hamed

Boxing champion Prince Naseem Hamed is a British Muslim from Sheffield whose parents are Yemeni

Most of these immigrants came from the Yemen, probably because Aden was the main refuelling stop for ships between Britain and the Far East, and many of the seamen later settled in the port cities of Cardiff, Liverpool, South Shields, Hull, and London. There are now an estimated 70-80,000 Yemenis living in Britain, who form the longest-established Muslim group in Britain.

An example is the Yemeni community of South Shields, which began at the end of the 19th century when Yemenis working as stokers on steamships moved ashore and set up boarding houses in the dock area.

The first mosque in Britain is recorded as having been at 2 Glyn Rhondda Street, Cardiff, in 1860.

In this article

  1. Before the 20th century
  2. Immigration

This page was last updated 2002-10-02

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