Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: Activism in the United Kingdom

British Muslims in the United Kingdom, British Muslims in the UK, Muslim community in the United Kingdom, Muslim community, British Muslims, Muslims, Islam, Britain, news on Britain, United Kingdom, news on the United Kingdom, world news analysis, Islamism, Salafism, Islamists, Sufism, Sufi, international political news, religion, salafis, salafists

Birmingham, United Kingdom © Barry Robinson

October 18, 2016 19:59 EDT

Scholars hoping to get an insider and yet critical appraisal of Islamic activism in Europe should take this book as their starting point.

No religious minority in the world today has received so much global attention as the Muslims in Europe. From the burkini and burqa ban in France to the alleged charges of involvement in radical activities, Muslims have unceasingly made the headlines and been singled out as a “problem community” in the West. They are deemed as outliers due to their strong attachment to Islam and their aversion to secular values.

Such a bleak picture has been made worse by the rise of Islamic activism since the 1970s. With the growth of Europe-based Islamic movements came loud calls for resistance against the incursion of European liberal norms and lifestyles into Muslim life.

What has emerged from the confluence of media sensationalism of Muslim minorities and Muslim antagonism toward all things Western are influential works with goading, often misleading titles such as “Europe’s Angry Muslims” and “The War for Muslim Minds,” among many others.


In this well-researched and cogently-argued book, Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism, Sadek Hamid seeks to unsettle contemporary suppositions about the “Muslim question” in Europe. Hamid writes from the perspective of a British-born Muslim who, as Akbar Ahmed sharply observes in his foreword, “has channelled his intellect, passion and vigour into writing sharp academic studies and developed new programmes for studying Muslim youth work in the UK.”

Sufis, Salafis and Islamists must, therefore, be read not only as an academic tome about Islamic activism in the United Kingdom, but as a reflexive interpretation of the visions and programs, experiments and failures as well as the fragmented nature of missionary (dawah) activities in the country.

This book is, at once, an oblique reflection by a second-generation European Muslim about the future of Islam in Europe and the paths within which Islamic activists ought to thread in order for them to remain relevant in the face of the challenges of Islamophobia and the global war against terror.

Although limited to the UK, Hamid’s study belies the perception of Islamic activists in Europe as a united front bent upon asserting Muslim values in a secular society. Rather, Hamid shows that Islamic activists have rarely moved beyond the recurrent splits and multifarious disagreements within their own circles.

Islamic activists have, in actuality, taken on different ideological stances as succeeding generations of Muslims adapt to the rapidly changing world, particularly in light of the 9/11 attacks and the London bombings of July 7, 2005.

Indeed, as Hamid expertly notes, the British Islamic activist landscape is so diverse and fluid that it makes difficult to situate its actors within the typologies and categorizations devised by many preceding scholars. The author, however, leans closer toward Tariq Ramadan’s depiction of Islamic activism as divided into a few proclivities: “Scholastic Traditionalism,” “Salafi Literalism,” “Salafi Reformism,” “Salafi Political Reformism,” “Liberal or Rational Reformism” and “Sufism.”

But rather than taking such categorizations uncritically, Hamid reconstructs them based on the UK experience by centering his analytical lens on four dominant groups which, to him, could be placed squarely within Ramadan’s typologies. The four groups covered in lucid detail throughout the book are Young Muslims (YM) UK, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), Salafis and Sufis.

Although not made explicit, this book is, in effect, divided into three main parts. The introduction and Chapters one to four provide readers with deep insights into the importance of the four Islamic activist groups, their geneses and twisting fates. Chapters five and six bring to light the discourses employed by the groups to expand their appeal and the various social conditions that aided in their growth and decline. Chapter seven and the conclusion provide an up-to-date consideration of Islamic activism in the UK at present.


Chapter one traces the ebb and flow of Young Muslims (YM) UK. Organized and operating in the same manner as the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world, YM gained a wide following among young British Muslims from the 1980s up till the beginnings of the 21st century.

Hamid attributes the decline of the movement to internal crises and splinter groups that broke away as YM leadership sought to reorient their objectives in the post-7/7 era. One other reason that may explain the decline of YM is the rise of other contending Islamic activist groups. YM’s story parallels that of another movement: the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). Chapter two tracks the growth of the group, the programs its members pursued to achieve the dreams of reviving the Islamic caliphate and its belligerent calls for the end of the secular world order.

HT’s utopian visions contributed to its own downfall. Hamid registers this but expresses it in a manner that is somewhat hyperbolic. He writes that HT “offered little that is constructive, beyond vague general prescriptions about the superiority of Islamic systems and did not have much to say about pressing social issues affecting British Muslim communities at the grass roots.” In reality, the movement did engage in many social- and welfare-based activities, bringing youths from troubled neighborhoods such as Bradford and Luton away from drugs and gangster culture. But one has to concede with the author’s main point that HT’s rhetorical claims tended to obscure all of its other efforts at uplifting the dire state of the Muslims.

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In Chapter three, Hamid places in sharp relief the Salafi dawah under the wings of the Jamiyah Ihya Minhaj as Sunnah (JIMAS). Popular only for a brief moment in the 1990s, JIMAS struggled to convince Salafis themselves that it remained true to the methodology (manhaj) of pious Muslims of the past. The advent of different versions of Salafism in the UK Islamic activist scene coupled by the revival of Sufism, however, made it difficult for Salafis to expand their reach in the country.

To be sure, Sufism or the “traditional Islam network,” as Hamid terms it, has been growing from strength to strength as explained in Chapter four of the book. The chief factor that underlies the flourishing of Sufism was the creative abilities of its activists in leveraging upon globally recognized preachers such as Hamza Yusuf to breathe new life and meaning to the Sufi message in the UK. These preachers “re-established Sufism as a legitimate and necessary part of mainstream Islam and inspired young people to deepen their knowledge of religious tradition.”

The next two chapters of the book outline some common themes that surface from the careers of the four Islamic activist groups. Drawing from social movement theory, Hamid discerns that amidst their manifest differences, these groups share the use of similar ideological frames to justify their existence and to rally others to their respective causes.

These frames include “To Be a Good Muslim,” “Islam is the Solution,” “We are One Ummah,” Struggle Between Islam and the Rest” and “The Search for a British Islam.”

The allure of these discourses was to be found in the changing demography of the British Muslim population from one that was dominated by transient migrants who saw the UK as a temporary abode to a community that was determined on making Britain their homes and shaping the country in ways that would make it more conducive for Muslims to live in. Global and local events and the rising terrorist threat in the UK have encouraged Muslims to pay due emphasis to the idea of “moderation in Islam.”

The book closes with an interesting observation that Islamic activists are now moving away from formal and structured collectives and movements to embracing “a post-ideological position, which is eclectic, hybridised and heavily uses digital communication technologies.” This statement deserves a book in its own right, and Hamid is perchance the best person to write it as a sequel to the current study. Whether this trend of “eclectic piety and activism” would lead to the demise of the four groups discussed in the author’s first book remains to be seen.

What is, however, clear is that the informal networks and collectives that are currently populating the cyberspace have the potential of filling in the voids left behind by established Islamic activist groups. They are able to connect with estranged Muslim youths who are cynical toward institutionalized Islam while engaging in issues such as human rights, justice and gender equality—issues that have escaped the attention of erstwhile Islamic activists.


Scholars hoping to get an insider and yet critical appraisal of Islamic activism in Europe should take this book as their starting point. Sufis, Salafis and Islamists unravels the complex struggles of Muslims living in the West and their attempts to safeguard their faith, their religious values and moral visions. The book informs us that Islam will continue to the shape the lives of ordinary Europeans just as Europe would inevitably structure and graft Muslim piety in its own image.

*[Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism can be purchased at the publisher’s website.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Barry Robinson

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