Please bear in mind that this is my perspective of how things were 20 plus years ago.
I was born here but I’m from a Caribbean African background in terms of culture and upbringing. My conversion to Islam was far from cultural since the community didn’t really have that appeal.
The Muslim landscape was very different to what I see now. Some 20 plus years ago the Muslim communities of London were predominantly South Asian. The Arabs had not quite made their mark yet as an Islamic entity. In the area where i live the groups were thus:
The Naqshabandi Sufi (led by the late Sheikh Naazim).
The Shia – not very vocal at the time but were visible. Back in the day small pockets of black musicians joined them (MC Mello etc).
The Sunnis – visibly they were in the form of the Tablighi Jamaat.
JIMAS (Jamiah Ihya Minhaj As Sunnah) – I would argue that they were the beginnings of the salafi movement in London. They were also based in Birmingham in the North of England.
The Nation of Islam – I throw them in there because they were part of the whole thing. They were mainly in the Brixton area (SW London).
The Ansarullah – Another set of black nationalists that modelled themselves similarly to the Nation of Islam. They later changed their names and their beliefs (now calling themselves Israelites led by Dr Malachi York).
It may seem like there was much to choose from but in actual fact there wasn’t. My entry to Islam came from the Asian Sunni community.
Culturally i found it a little difficult. The reasons were that most Islamic books back then were either Indian or Pakistani printed. Hence many of the terminologies in these books were Urdu or Panjabi references; Namaaz for Salaah, Rosa for Sawm, Paak for clean (when discussing tahaara). These terms were only an issue for me because much of what was being taught was done within the Asian cultural context. Converts/ reverts were not common. Islam for so many years was the sole domain of Asian and Arabs living in London. During those years da’wah wasn’t really a major thing. Neither of those communities had conversion in their minds. Hence their Islamic literature reflected that.
At this point I wish to point out that this is not a criticism of the Asian or Arab communities. Let’s be honest; most communities came to the UK for economic reasons not da’wah. For most, Islam was part of the culture and keeping one’s deen was part of preserving one’s self in a foreign land. A reminder that you were in Rome…but not of Rome.
While da’wah did exist, the Muslim community did struggle to appeal culturally to converts. I am a black man born in the 1970s. I grew up with a strong sense of culture. On accepting Islam I saw nothing that accommodated my identity. This included food. There were no halal food places from my culture. They had not yet been established.
Then a time came when I was told that I was to dispense with my culture and only be Muslim; as if there ever was a single homogenous Islamic identity.
This gave rise to other groups forming almost in rebellion to the current landscape. A group called Hizb ut Tahrir began to show up in colleges and universities. The Salafi movement began to rise also. Back then, both of these groups spent a lot of time talking about what they felt was wrong with the older generation of Muslims. They argued with culture and rebelled against tradition. They were a new younger generation with all the energy but very little wisdom. Islamic talks began to gain momentum and energies were high. Then the groups began to argue.
The elders from the Asian community didn’t take kindly to these groups. They found them impetuous and impertinent (in many cases they were). I recall many being kicked out of Masaajid because of their new age attitudes.
In hindsight it was clear that the Muslim community as a whole was getting a wake up call; a resurgence. They were slowly rising to the task of their duty to spread Islam. But the community was young with many lessons to learn. Being a new Muslim meant having to navigate through all of this. Many didn’t make it, but most did.
I praise Allah for giving me the tawfeeq to live through it. May Allah guide us all through this new age.
-ANDREW RAMSEY WAS BORN AND RAISED IN SOUTH LONDON. HE IS A TEACHER, MARTIAL ARTS INSTRUCTOR AND YOUTH WORKER