Although Islam is generally thought of as a recent arrival in England, there was minor contact between the English and Muslims for many centuries.
An early example is the decision of Offa, the 8th-century King of Mercia (one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms existing at that time), to have a coin minted with an Islamic inscription - largely a copy of coins issued by a contemporary Muslim ruler, Caliph Al-Mansur. These coins may have been minted simply for prestige or to facilitate trade with the expanding Caliphate of Córdoba, as Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the Mediterranean at the time. Offa's coin looked enough like the original that it would be readily accepted in southern Europe, while at the same time his own name was clearly visible.
References to Britain are also found in early Islamic geographical literature, such as the 9th century work of Ahmad ibn Rustah, which describes the islands of "Bratiniya".
Muslim scholarship, especially early Islamic philosophy and Islamic science, was well-known through Latin translation among the learned in England by 1386, when Geoffrey Chaucer was writing. In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, there is among the pilgrims wending their way to Canterbury a 'Doctour of Phisyk' whose learning included Rhazes (Al-Razi), Avicenna (Ibn Sina, Arabic ابن سينا) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd, Arabic ابن رشد). In the Pardoner's Tale, Chaucer mentions part of Avicenna's work concerning poisons. Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine (1025), in Latin translation, was a standard text for medical students up until the 18th century. Roger Bacon, one of the earliest European advocates of the scientific method, is known to have studied the works of several early Muslim philosophers. In particular, his work on optics in the 13th century was influenced by the Book of Optics (1021) by Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen).
Professor John Makdisi's article "The Islamic Origins of the Common Law", published in the North Carolina Law Review, curiously suggested that English common law was inspired by medieval Islamic law. Makdisi drew comparisons between the "royal English contract protected by the action of debt" and the "Islamic Aqd", the "English assize of novel disseisin" (a petty assize adopted in the 1166 at the Assizes of Clarendon) and the "Islamic Istihqaq", and the "English jury" and the "Islamic Lafif" in the classical Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, and argued that these institutions were transmitted to England by the Normans, "through the close connection between the Norman kingdoms of Roger II in Sicily — ruling over a conquered Islamic administration — and Henry II in England." Makdisi also argued that the "law schools known as Inns of Court" in England (which he asserts are parallel to Madrasahs) may have also originated from Islamic law. He states that the methodology of legal precedent and reasoning by analogy (Qiyas) are also similar in both the Islamic and common law systems. Other legal scholars such as Monica Gaudiosi, Gamal Moursi Badr and A. Hudson have argued that the English trust and agency institutions, which were introduced by Crusaders, may have been adapted from the Islamic Waqf and Hawala institutions they came across in the Middle East. Paul Brand also notes parallels between the Waqf and the trusts used to establish Merton College by Walter de Merton, who had connections with the Knights Templar, but Brand also points out that the Knights Templar were primarily concerned with fighting the Muslims rather than learning from them, making it less likely that they would imitate Muslim legal institutions.
Early modern period
The first English convert to Islam mentioned by name is John Nelson. The 16th-century writer Richard Hakluyt claimed he was forced to convert, though he mentions in the same story other Englishmen who had converted willingly.
- This king had a son which was a ruler in an island called Gerbi, whereunto arrived an English ship called the Green Dragon, of the which was master one M. Blonket, who, having a very unhappy boy on that ship, and understanding that whosoever would turn Turk should be well entertained of the a yeoman of our Queen's guard, whom the king's son had enforced to turn Turk; his name was John Nelson.
Captain John Ward of Kent was one of a number of British sailors who became pirates based in the Maghreb who also converted to Islam (see also Barbary pirates).
Unitarians became interested in the faith, and Henry Stubbes wrote so favourably about Islam that it is thought he too had converted to the faith.
From 1609 to 1616, England lost 466 ships to Barbary pirates, who sold the passengers into slavery in North Africa. In 1625, it was reported that Lundy, an island in the Bristol Channel which had been a pirate lair for much of the previous half century, had been occupied by three Ottoman pirates who were threatening to burn Ilfracombe; Algerine rovers were using the island as a base in 1635, although the island had itself been attacked and plundered by a Spanish raid in 1633. In 1627, Barbary pirates under command of the Dutch renegade Jan Janszoon operating from the Moroccan port of Salé occupied Lundy, before they were expelled by Sir John Pennington. During this time there were reports of captured slaves being sent to Algiers and of the Islamic flag flying over Lundy.
The Muslim Moors had a noticeable influence on the works of George Peele and William Shakespeare. Some of their works featured Moorish characters, such as Peele's The Battle of Alcazar and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus and Othello, which featured a Moorish Othello as its title character. These works are said to have been inspired by several Moorish delegations from Morocco to Elizabethan England around 1600. A portrait was painted of one of the Moorish ambassadors, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, who had come to promote an Anglo-Moroccan alliance.
Turbans were worn in Renaissance England. While friendly relations were formed between England and the Islamic civilizations of the Middle East in the early 16th century, Persian and Turkish style fashions were sometimes worn by the higher classes as a form of party or fancy dress.
Elizabeth I of England was one of the earliest British monarchs to establish relations, alliances and trade with Muslim majority countries.
Diplomatic relations were also established with the Ottoman Empire with the chartering of the Levant Company and the dispatch of the first English ambassador to the Porte, William Harborne, in 1578. For the first time, a Treaty of Commerce was signed in 1580. Numerous envoys were dispatched in both directions and epistolar exchanges occurred between Elizabeth and Sultan Murad III. In one correspondence, Murad entertained the notion that Islam and Protestantism had "much more in common than either did with Roman Catholicism, as both rejected the worship of idols", and argued for an alliance between England and the Ottoman Empire. To the dismay of Catholic Europe, England exported tin and lead (for cannon-casting) and ammunition to the Ottoman Empire, and Elizabeth seriously discussed joint military operations with Murad III during the outbreak of war with Spain in 1585, as Francis Walsingham was lobbying for a direct Ottoman military involvement against the common Spanish enemy. Although she never did receive any assistance from the Ottomans, her relations with the Sultan's did not waver.
In 17th-century England, there was a "second wave" of interest in the study of Arabic science and Islamic philosophy. Arabic manuscripts were considered the key to a "treasure house" of ancient knowledge, which led to the founding of Arabic chairs at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, where Arabic was taught. A large collection of Arabic manuscripts were acquired, collected in places such as the Bodleian Library at Oxford. These Arabic manuscripts were sought after by natural philosophers for their research in subjects such as observational astronomy or mathematics, and also encompassed subjects ranging from science, religion, and medicine, to typography and garden plants.
Besides scientific and philosophical literature, works of Arabic fictional literature were also translated into Latin and English during the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous of these was the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), which was first translated into English in 1706 and has since then had a profound influence on English literature. Another famous work was Ibn Tufail's philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, which was translated into Latin as Philosophus Autodidactus by Edward Pococke the Younger in 1671 and then into English by Simon Ockley in 1708. The English translation of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, set on a desert island, may have inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, considered the first novel in English, in 1719. Later translated literary works include Layla and Majnun and Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus.
Bengal (now Bangladesh and West Bengal), an affluent province of Mughal India with a Muslim majority and Hindu minority, and globally dominant in industries such as textile manufacturing and shipbuilding, was conquered by the British East India Company at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The plunder of Bengal directly contributed to the Industrial Revolution in England, with the capital amassed from Bengal used to invest in British industries such as textile manufacture during the Industrial Revolution and greatly increase British wealth, while at the same time leading to deindustrialization and famines in Bengal. With the establishment of British India, the British Empire ruled over a large Muslim population.
By the time of Union with Scotland in 1707, only small numbers of Muslims were living in England. The first large group of Muslims to arrive, in the 18th century, were lascars (sailors) recruited from the Indian subcontinent (largely from the Bengal region) to work for the British East India Company, many of whom settled down and took local wives. 38 lascars are reported arriving in British ports in 1760. Between 1803 and 1813, there were more than 10,000 lascars from the Indian subcontinent visiting British port cities and towns. By 1842, 3,000 lascars visited the UK annually, and by 1855, 12,000 lascars were arriving annually in British ports. In 1873, 3,271 lascars arrived in Britain. Throughout the early 19th century lascars visited Britain at a rate of 1,000 every year, which increased to a rate of 10,000 to 12,000 every year throughout the late 19th century.
Due to the majority being lascars, the earliest Muslim communities were found in port towns. Naval cooks also came, many of them from the Sylhet Division of what is now Bangladesh. One of the most famous early Bengali Muslim immigrants to England was Sake Dean Mahomet, a captain of the British East India Company who in 1810 founded London's first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House. He is also reputed for introducing shampoo and therapeutic massage to the United Kingdom.
By 1911, the British Empire had a Muslim population of 94 million, larger than the empire's 58 million Christian population. By the 1920s, the British Empire included roughly half of the world's Muslim population. More than 400,000 Muslim soldiers of the British Indian Army fought for Britain during World War I, where 62,060 were killed in action, and half a million Muslim soldiers of the British Indian Army fought for Britain against the Nazis in World War II. David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1916 to 1922, stated: "we are the greatest Mahomedan power in the world and one-fourth of the population of the British Empire is Mahomedan. There have been no more loyal adherents to the throne and no more effective and loyal supporters of the Empire in its hour of trial." This statement was later reiterated by Gandhi in 1920.
Muslim mass immigration to Britain began after World War II, as a result of the destruction and labour shortages caused by the war. Muslim migrants from former British colonies, predominantly India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, were recruited in large numbers by government and businesses to rebuild the country. Large numbers of doctors recruited from India and Pakistan, encouraged by health minister Enoch Powell in the early 1960s, also played a key role in the establishment of the NHS health service.
British Asian Muslims faced discrimination and racism following Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech and the establishment of the National Front in the late 1960s. This included overt racism in the form of Paki bashing, predominantly from white power skinheads, the National Front, and the British National Party, throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Drawing inspiration from the Indian independence movement, the black power movement, and the anti-apartheid movement, young British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi activists began a number of anti-racist Asian youth movements in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Bradford Youth Movement in 1977, the Bangladeshi Youth Movement following the murder of Altab Ali in 1978, and the Newham Youth Movement following the murder of Akhtar Ali Baig in 1980.