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Britain and Islam: A history from 622 to the present day, by Martin Pugh

14 August 2020

Good intentions steer this historian off course, says Philip Lewis

THE author of this work — a former professor of Modern British History at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne — is attempting two things.

The first is: “to explain how radically British relations with Muslims have fluctuated over the 1,400 years since the foundations of Islam: from fanatical propaganda associated with the Crusades, to the pragmatic collaboration with Muslim states inspired by the Protestant Reformation, the appreciation of the extensive common ground between Islam and Christianity in the eighteenth century, and Britain’s pose as a defender of Islam (in the shape of the Ottoman Empire) by the early nineteenth century”. This is clearly a worthwhile ambition.

Professor Pugh has also written the book for the general reader as a “corrective” to ignorance, misconception, and prejudice about Islam.

Unfortunately, these two tasks can pull in different directions, especially when the past is seen through the prism of addressing contemporary prejudices. This is especially evident in the first chapter, which offers an overview of Islam. Here, Pugh wants to dismantle the assumption that “Islam and Christianity” were locked into mutual enmity from the start, a fallacy that he blames on the Crusades.

Now, of course, relations between the two faiths should not be caricatured in this way. None the less, it seems disingenuous to pretend that Christianity was not, over time, massively and negatively affected by the early conquests in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia (see P. Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, New York, 2008).

Pugh himself occasionally seems to nod in that direction. He observes that Islam understood itself as a “purified and simplified” version of an Abrahamic faith which “superseded Christianity” (my italics). This simplified form, he concedes, initially involved “a collective and divinely sanctioned duty to expand so that the whole world would eventually embrace Islam”. He then rehearses the myth that non-Orthodox Christians welcomed the Arab conquerors as liberators from an oppressive Byzantine regime — a myth discredited in Robert G. Hoyland’s magisterial, In God’s Path: The Arab conquests and the creation of an Islamic empire (2014).

In addition, there is little acknowledgement of the specificities of the Prophet’s role as both, in Christian terms, emperor and pope, with Islam often understood as a religio-political ideology. Instead, he merely notes that, unlike Christianity, Islam did not separate religious from political power and so make space for the “secular”.

In his rush to exonerate contemporary Islam from any suggestion that it is incompatible with democracy, Pugh asserts that Islamism is not anti-Western, in essence, but simply a critique of authoritarian and corrupt Muslim regimes. More surprisingly, there is no discussion at all of the toxic, intolerant, Saudi brand of Islam — Salafism — projected and funded by petrol dollars around the world for decades.

Pugh seems unaware that many reform movements in Islam which exacerbated intra-Muslim sectarianism preceded Western colonialism: e.g. Salafism in Arabia and Usuli Shi’ism in Iran. Both declared their Muslim enemies infidels, thereby justifying violence to eliminate them (see Z. Heern, The Emergence of Modern Shi’ism: Islamic Reform in Iraq and Iran, Oneworld, 2015). In short, colonialism exaggerated such intra-Muslim intolerance, but did not create it. His failure in analysis here weakens his overall argument. This is a pity. Much of his sombre and critical analysis of deeply flawed British foreign policy in the 19th and 20th centuries is apposite, as is his critique of “Islamophobia”.

Because Pugh ignores Salafism, he is at a loss to explain the emergence and importance of “Deobandi” imams in Britain. They are mentioned only once in the context of some 200 recruited as chaplains to prisons in 2016. He characterises them as highly conservative: opposed to female emancipation, believing that all science can be found in the Qur’an, and insisting that Muslims must accept unquestioningly the opinions handed down to them. He concludes THAT their influence was “calculated to deepen the inmates’ alienation from mainstream society”. What Pugh does not make clear is that the Deobandis, with origins in India and latterly influenced by Salafism, comprise the most influential Sunni tradition of imams in Britain today, with more than 20 “seminaries”.

Because he does not engage with the specifics of Islam imported and developed in Britain, his final chapter, which tracks the “quiet social convergence” between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in cultural, political, and economic life, minimises the opposition within the communities to many of the gains that he documents, especially with regard to Muslim women.

His comments about contemporary Christianity tend to be perfunctory and ill-informed. When speaking about how Muslim communities have integrated into British society, he has no idea of the part played by Christian communities, not least Anglicanism, in resourcing interfaith relations, locally, nationally, and internationally. This is in contrast to Baroness Warsi (on whose work he draws), for whom “Christianity and its extensive UK-wide networks can . . . be the glue in a fractious country that holds communities together” (The Enemy Within: A tale of Muslim Britain, 2017).


Dr Philip Lewis is a consultant on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations, advised Bishops of Bradford for three decades, and taught in Peace Studies at Bradford University.


Britain and Islam: A history from 622 to the present day
Martin Pugh
Yale £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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