“To move from Christianity to Islam, for an English man or woman, is not the giant leap an outsider might assume. It is simply the logical next step in the epic story of our people.”
Sheikh Timothy Winter, British and Muslim
“An Englishman can visit his pub on the regular, but may not find alcohol there; no matter, he believes in God’s commandments on it. He may visit his Church as he used to, though the main congregation will be on Fridays.”
I have been writing about England’s virtues. Had I wanted, I could also have written about its vices. Our obtuseness, our philistinism, our cold and atomised families. Our acceptance of injustice, our enormous hypocrisy. I do not want to do so because I do not wish to preserve these things. Custom, by default, has the weight of law in shar’iah, but not vicious custom.
But alone among the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths, the Qu’ran does not mention the Tower of Babel. Man’s division into nations and tribes is not a punishment. We are enjoined to love and to enhance the particularities of our native lands, but also to purify them. Englishness is a constellation of customs, institutions, and traits of character that flourished in a particular spot of dunya, and which, lacking God’s guidance, often veered to excess. Islam offers a middle way between extremes of any trait; and Aristotle, in the Western tradition, also recognised that both too much or too little of a virtue can make it into a vice. What is precious in a specific inheritance is generally the constellation and not the stars within it, some of which may in themselves contradict the Sacred Law. An Islamic England will not, therefore, be unchanged, but it will be enhanced in its distinctive cultural genius.
Exactly what should an English Islam look like? How should the Sunnah be instantiated in our sceptered isle? What of its ‘urf should be preserved, what should be revived, and what should be forgotten? These are difficult questions, complicated even more by the confusion created by the dominance of the global monoculture and its war against the fitrah.
Thankfully we do not have to begin afresh. The British Isles have a tradition of native Muslimness going back to the middle of the 19thcentury, when Darwinism and modern archaeology began to disrupt Christian self-confidence, and after the Trinitarian Act of 1812 removed the legal penalties on non-Christian worship. The outstanding figure in this movement was Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam, a Liverpool solicitor who converted to Islam in the 1880s after a trip to Morocco and, in recognition of his efforts to spread the faith in his native country, was appointed Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles by Abdul Hamid II, the last Ottoman Caliph to have real power.
The Liverpool Muslim Institute which Sheikh Quilliam founded involved close to a thousand people at its peak, and gained enough respect for the city’s mayor to attend their celebration of Eid. As part of their daw’ah at a time when most English men and women were still at least occasional churchgoers, the Institute offered Sunday “services” to the city’s non-Muslim population in competition with the local churches, at which they would explain the message of Islam in a familiar idiom. As part of their missionary effort, the city witnessed a brief flourishing of genuinely indigenous English (and Welsh and Scottish) Islamic forms of music, poetry and art. Notable examples from Quilliam’s time include Yahya Parkinson, whose martial poetry is redolent of Men of Harlech, and Amherst D. Tyssen, who composed Islamic songs in the style of the Anglican Hymnal. This tradition continues today in the poetry of Paul Sutherland, who celebrates the landscape of both England and his native Canada through the medium of his Muslim faith. The lines below are taken from Tyssen’s An Appeal to Christians, and were probably sung during one of the LMI’s missionary services:
And Jesus to his hearers
Prescribed a rule divine,
Call no man Lord, but worship
One God, your Lord and mine.
Then hold his name in honour,
Pursue the path he trod,
Observe his worthy precepts,
But make him not your God;
Nor list to heathen fables
That picture him God’s son,
For God was ne’er begotten,
And He begetteth none.
When He on aught decideth,
He saith – So let it be;
And lo! It is; for all things
Conform to His decree.
Then all good Christian people
Come worship God alone,
And place not Christ nor Mary
As rivals on His throne.
Sheikh Quilliam always claimed to be a patriot and a loyal British subject, but living at the time of the British Empire’s most rapid expansion, he found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his loyalties to Queen and Caliph, and eventually left for Turkey, only to return to England after the Ottoman collapse to live a strange, more private existence under a new name and identity. The Liverpool community floundered in the absence of their charismatic leader, but he remains the spiritual grandfather of English Islam. Since his time, and throughout the twentieth century, a succession of English (or British) men and women have made great contributions to the din, from Marmeduke Pikthall, who translated the meanings of the Qu’ran, through Martin Lings, famous for his biography of the Prophet(saw) and Sheikh Abdulqadir As-Sufi, to Sheikh Winter today.
Almost all these men seem to have felt that being Muslim not only did not contradict their British patriotism but actually strengthened it. This is surely because of the deep areas of convergence which I explored last time. When he was not receiving prizes from Al-Azhar for his English sira, for example, Dr Lings was also a world-renowned scholar of Shakespeare and even published several books in which he argued that his plays amounted to an expression of the sufi path. Today, even His Royal Highness Prince Charles has shown he has a deep and genuine sympathy for the faith, to the point of penning forwards to Dr Lings’s books and serving as the patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and accompanying the ulama there on foreign trips.
There have been significant converts from other European nations. One thinks of France’s René Guénon or the Italian sufis inspired by Julius Evola. But there is not, I think, the same sense of convergence between Islam and native patriotism.
I have been writing about English culture as if it still exists. It does not. Scruton called his book An Elegy for a reason: he describes a period of cultural destruction in the late twentieth century which he calls the “forbidding of England”.
England has a complex relationship with modernity. On the one hand, it was the first country to become “modern”, so much so that in many ways modernity is really the export of Englishness abroad. Society based on the individual, government based on consent, the impersonal rule of law, a privatised religious faith: all these archetypical features of modernity were native to England, the only difference being that here they actually made sense, because part of a wider culture in which they had evolved over centuries.
Consequently, for a time England weathered modernity very well. One of our greatest achievements in this period was the maintenance of domestic peace and political stability; there has been no fundamental revision to our constitution since 1688. Even industrialisation did not really disrupt our sense of belonging: doubtless it was traumatic for the labourers fleeing rural starvation into the armies of the dark, Satanic mills—in the 1840s, Edwin Chadwick found that life expectancy in the slums of Manchester was nineteen. But culture survived. We never felt truly at home in the city, and the nineteenth century witnessed the strange spectacle of the world’s first industrial nation setting almost all its art and literature in the countryside. Meanwhile, in an effort to re-enchant their world, the Victorian bourgeoisie built themselves little suburban imitations of the gentry’s stately homes, while they built whole districts of their commercial cities in sweeps of fairy-tale neo-gothic, full of crenulated office blocks and turreted warehouses that sicken contemporary onlookers because they try so desperately hard not to be what they are.
As England’s folk traditions disappeared in the grist of the factory floor, they were recovered and preserved for posterity by men like Vaughan Williams, who collected dying folk songs and set them to modern music, at the same time as the expansion of hymn-singing, music hall, and brass bands ensured that some of the old cultural expressions could be preserved in modernity, distributed by the phonograph record and then the wireless in the industrial cities. Civic life eventually came to flourish too, with a network of institutions—the boy scouts, the Rotary Club, the cricket team, associations for every conceivable kind of hobbyist—evoking in their half-contrived rites and rituals a sense of continuity with the rural past which was more than half real. In the mid-twentieth century English schoolchildren played the same outdoor games as they had in the eleventh. Now, of course, they play Angry Birds.
The forbidding of England is a phenomenon of the last few decades, beginning in earnest only in the nineteen sixties. Peter Hitchens is right to call this period a “cultural revolution”: it was the beginning of the greatest, most rapid and most unprecedented change in the way of life of any people ever experienced. The collapse of religious belief, the sexual revolution, the growth of pop culture—all these things transformed every Western country, not just England, and they are now being rapidly exported to the rest of the world through accelerating globalisation.
But in England their effect was qualitatively different. Our identity as denizens of an enchanted land was dependent upon the feeling that it was enchanted. The revolution destroyed that feeling because it destroyed the beliefs, customs, and moral code that sustained it. It destroyed the Anglican Church, which baptised over half the nation’s new-borns in 1960 and claims barely ten percent of them now. It destroyed our ethic of restraint and self-control. It destroyed our customs and institutions of leisure and replaced them with the habit of gawping at screens.
At the same time, it was accompanied by two phenomena that were peculiarly English: an upheaval in the physical environment and a deliberate assault on historical consciousness. Until the ‘sixties England had resisted the excesses of modernism in architecture, and had refused to adopt the utopian experiments of the likes of Le Corbusier. Since town councils started re-housing slum dwellers in the late 19th century, council houses had been imitations of the homes of the middle class, suburban villas in miniature, complete with bay windows and tidy front lawns. Suddenly, the last of England’s slum dwellers found themselves in giant towers of concrete, blasphemously gesturing at the heavens, trapped in box-like apartments where the only neighbours were the people on television. A people who define themselves through privacy and rootedness cannot live in such conditions and remain themselves.
Simultaneously, the countryside was transformed through a wave of agribusiness, motorway-building, and suburbanisation. The great industrial cities were tight and compact and did limited damage to the rest of the country, for all their filth and squalor, but until this time we could live in them while still pining for the familiar old pattern of the countryside that was our spiritual home. When the landscape of that countryside was transformed beyond recognition this was no longer possible and we began to despair. And as if to add Divine insult to this injury, from 1967 Dutch Elm disease swept the country, all but wiping out the giant guardians of England, often growing to over a hundred and fifty feet, so prominent in the landscapes of Constable and Turner, towering over our churches and houses like haggard soldiers, whose disappearance left the landscape unprotected and spiritually flat.
And as their world was being turned into a concrete playground, the English found that even their memories were under attack. At the exact moment that the family was breaking down, that rebellious youth cultures were breaking out, that the rising generation began to adopt more of their values from their peers than from their elders, England’s schools ceased to teach its young about its culture. Even today, French schoolchildren are expected to be able to quote from an established literary canon in their exams and are taught a sweeping narrative of their country’s history designed to instil pride and confidence. To some extent, the other countries of Great Britain also still promote this form of patriotism, through, for instance, the celebration of Burns Night or the invocation of the alleged heroism of William Wallace. England has no equivalents with any hold on the national consciousness. This is the result of choices made quite deliberately.
In 1960, O-level exams in English literature (the equivalent of today’s GCSEs) involved the study of a list of canonical writers, from Chaucer, through Spencer, Milton, and Swift to Wordsworth, Dickens, Arnold, and Kipling; whilst history was a (not uncritical) narrative arc from Anglo-Saxon settlement to the First World War via Agincourt, Plassey and Waterloo. Within a few years, the authorities, wracked by anxiety about identity in the wake of Imperial collapse and trying to accommodate new arrivals from former colonies with their own cultural heritage, dropped all this and replaced it with a course in multicultural citizenship. Today children learn no history to speak of. They might analyse in minute detail the causes of some specific development in the Civil War, and probably know a lot of random biographical facts about Hitler or Martin Luther King, but for the most part, the new history, which focusses on so-called skills that children will only use if they choose to become historians, goes completely over their heads and leaves them with no story to make sense of whom they are.
The trashing of England’s literature is even more tragic. GCSE candidates study one play of Shakespeare and are lucky to even read all of it, while the rest of the course is a dreary dissection of Of Mice and Men and possibly another short novella, and the dredging up of “personal responses” to an anthology of seemingly randomly selected poetry, most of it subversive, postmodernist drivel written by the sort of fake intellectual who thinks that neglecting to use punctuation is a challenging metaphysical statement.
Wisdom, as the Prophet(saw) said, is the lost property of the believer; and the English have lost a treasure-house of wisdom in their literary heritage. William Blake, for instance, who penned Jerusalem, the closest thing England has to a national anthem, rejected Trinitarian obfuscation in favour of pure monotheism and consequently expressed a moral vision very close to that of Islam. And this is to say nothing of the profundity of Shakespeare, who is plausibly the greatest English-language articulator of the inner realities of the din that we will see. As Hitchens sums up this work of destruction, “a culture that in living memory still read The Pilgrim’s Progress and readily recognized quotations from Isaiah now watches Sex in the City and thinks Vanity Fair is a magazine.”
Last glimpses of this culture can still be seen at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning in a village or market town. In the ancient parish church, a dozen or so octogenarians, stiff and formally dressed, will assemble to celebrate Holy Communion according to the rites of the Book of Common Prayer, in a cold stone house whose walls exude English modesty, with no music and no jolly modern hymns, with only the occasional cough interrupting the haunting, melodious liturgy of Thomas Cranmer. This is what England must have been like: but it is extinct.
Thus, a great culture and a great country was trashed, sold off, and concreted over. All the facets of this revolution taken together amount, for Scruton, to the Forbidding of England: the loss, never to be regained, of an enchanted home, of those “happy highways where I went / and cannot come again” as Housman put it. It is not, therefore, for nothing that Hitchens can write, with justice, not just of England’s decline but of its abolition.
And yet. Though England may be extinct as a culture, the English still exist as a people. Hitchens did not think it would be so. Seeing the revolution ultimately as a political project, he foresaw the next stage being England’s final dismembering and carving up into administrative regions of the European super-state, shortly antecedent to the abolition of the monarchy and the smashing of the altars. He has so far been wrong.
In the referendum on leaving the European Union, Britain (really, England: Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain) was faced with a choice about whether it wished to continue to exist as a people. The EU is a bureaucratic, Bonapartist institution based wholly on the Continental model of civil law and completely alien to England’s legal and political traditions. It is also wholly committed to the never-ending process of “ever closer union” and the final merging of European nations into a single repugnant super-nation. It does not aim in doing this to transcend the nation-state, a modern political contingency that is an improper object of a Muslim’s patriotism; merely to recreate it on a larger scale and a more arid and artificial basis. If England had voted to remain it would have been our end as a people and a nation. Instead, in the face of the almost unanimous advice of our supposed betters, of legions of technocratic “experts”, of armies of economists, econometricians and professional politicians, we voted to be a nation and not an aggregation of cheap labour.
So if England was an enchanted land, we might say that though it has been destroyed, the English have not. Critics of so-called “nationalism” claim that nations are invented by the states they claim to represent. There is some truth in this; certainly, the idea of a British people seems to have been partly constructed after the Act of Union with Scotland, and involved the expropriation of the culturally dissident crofters of the Scottish highlands after they revolted against our Protestant constitutional monarchy in 1745. England is obviously not a modern invention, however: the concept was already a basis for governance from the earliest period of political unification in the 10th century; consequently, the Anglo-Saxon historian Nicholas Higham has even claimed England could somewhat plausibly be considered a nation-state at this time. And far from being sustained in existence by the British state, that state has actually been considerably hostile to specifically English patriotism over the last few decades, especially under Labour governments. So what we are dealing with is a reality, an authentic instance of the nations and tribes into which man has been divided by God.
And the English have one enormous strength. Other Western nations base their identity either on ethnicity—as in most of Eastern Europe—on Christianity, or on secular liberalism, as in America and to some extent France. English identity is based on none of these things: we are simply the people who identify with the memory of our once-enchanted land; a community grounded in residence, not race or creed. Becoming Muslim will therefore not change this identity. Whereas it must in a nation whose very being consists in rejecting Islam, as in constitutionally Christian or liberal societies, and generally, too, in an ethnic nation. In Germany, for instance, Turkish migrant communities were expected to eventually return home until the middle noughties. Consequently the idea of being a fully German Muslim is still very difficult for the natives to comprehend. State-led promotion of a multicultural identity is therefore provoking huge resistance because it so obviously makes no sense: it seems to deny the distinctive existence of the group who until yesterday defined the German nation.
This is why odious movements like Generation Identity seem to be flourishing on the European Continent but are not doing so in Britain. The Alternative für Deutschland, which came third in the last Federal election, claimed in 2016 that “Islam…is not compatible with the constitution” and calls for bans on burkhas and minarets. Similar movements thrive in Norway and Denmark, while Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid declares that it will fight the “growing influence of Islam in Dutch society”, inspired by the memory of Pym Fortuyn, murdered by a left-wing activist in 2002 and the grandfather of a specifically homosexual strain of anti-Islamism, who argued that our religion must pass through the “laundromats” of Reformation and Enlightenment before it will be compatible with the liberal, fun-loving Netherlands.
This kind of open hostility is not, thank God, anywhere near as prominent among serious movements in the UK. Of course prejudice and hostility exist, but our own version of the recent populist uprising, the bucolic UKIP, largely stuck to the rhetoric of a banal civic nationalism. In Europe, a multiculturalist political elite utters platitudes about tolerance and diversity that make no sense to peoples who define themselves in opposition to Islam; in Britain, this tension does not exist, and polling evidence also suggests that popular hostility to Islam is far less intense. It is, at any rate, less bound up with the state: it is impossible to imagine the vicar’s daughter Theresa May telling Muslims to rewrite the Qu’ran as France’s former President Sarkozy recently did.
The English, therefore, have the opportunity to become a Muslim nation while still remaining themselves, in a way that other Western countries perhaps do not.
And we will become a Muslim nation—or we will perish. All particular communities will eventually perish in the monoculture beneath the weight of global capital and communications, and sink giggling into the sea in fits of fornication. Ultimately, of course, unless stopped, the monoculture will abolish humans altogether: its scientists are well on the way to working out how to replace us with an upgraded, more compliant model.
If I am right, we English still have a better chance of combining orthodox Islam with genuine indigeneity than the other parts of the West. In doing this we have, already, a trail blazed for us in the work of Sheikh Quilliam and his successors. Our people are of course still prejudiced. But they will be cured of this only by this indigenisation of Islam; for although they are alienated from their heritage, they still define themselves in terms of its memory—the memory of their land of lost content.
Let us pray that Allah(swt) makes that land once again the home of angels as well as Angles.
Wa allahu alam.