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Amongst Sunnis, there are the Deobandis. Deobandis are a South Asian Muslim tradition with origins in colonial India, who stress the preservation of the Islamic tradition through scholarly study and fidelity to religious law. They are arguably the most important actors within British Islam, especially today. They manage about 40 percent of the 1700 mosques in the UK. They invested into and opened the first British-based Dar ul-Ulooms, Muslim religious seminaries, educating Imams and religious scholars right here in the British Isles as far back as the seventies. You are likely to have encountered Deobandis if you have visited a Muslim religious institution in the UK, particularly those with a South Asian heritage. With both vision and hard work, the Deobandis have been quietly meeting the religious and spiritual needs of a significant proportion of British Muslims, and are perhaps the most influential British Muslim group.

The Tablighi Jamaat are often associated with the Deobandi tradition – its founder, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi (died 1944), was a graduate of a Deobandi Dar ul-Uloom. But Kandhlawi felt the values and virtues of the Dar ul-Uloom needed to be brought out of the seminaries and into the lives of ordinary Muslims, and so the Tablighi Jamaat took the scholarship of the Deobandis to the masses. The Tablighi Jamaat stress personal religious piety achieved through a temporary monasticism, going on khurooj, short trips ranging from three days to four months, in which members of the group visit mosques locally and sometimes even globally. The aim is to live a simpler life away from distracting luxuries, and to engage in worship and study, as well as preaching to other Muslims on the importance of Islam and its moral teachings. Barbara Metcalf, who has researched the Tablighi Jamaat, writes that it is the recreation of a sacred time that is important to the movement – the pristine and undiluted simplicity of the Prophet Muhammad’s life, through which the followers of the movement could achieve peace and salvation. The Tablighi Jamaat has been described as, with good reason, the largest Islamic movement in the world. The Tabilighi Jamaat population of Britain is nestled within the Deobandi, but its success has attracted members from outside the Deobandi tradition also – particularly Salafi (more on that later).

Also originating from South Asia are the Barelwis. On the surface, they are remarkably similar to Deobandis. Both follow the same school of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi – more on that later too!), both celebrate many of the same figures, both trace their origins to the Indian subcontinent, and both lay claim to Sufism. The Barelwi however maintain passionate attachment to esoteric and mystical practices which the Deobandis consider as beyond the pale of religious orthodoxy. Their close proximity to each other –in terms of theology and geographic origins – often leads to a tension between the two movements. For the Deobandis, the alim (the scholar), is the fount of all religious wisdom. For the Barelwi, it is the pir, a living saint. The Bangladeshi Fultoli tradition is in many ways similar to Barelwi, differing only in language and the particularities of tradition. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis make up the bulk of the British Muslim population, so together, the mystical Sufi Islam of Barelwis and Fultolis constitute a sizable part of the landscape.

More distinct from Deobandis, Barelwis and Fultoli Muslims are the Jamaat Islamiyyah, an Islamic reform movement, once again with links to colonial India, that consider the personal religious and spiritual devotions of Deobandis and Barelwis lacking. Jamaat Islamiyyah is an anti-colonial movement, and thus has a focus on political activism. The Quran is a social gospel in their view, one which should bring Muslims out of the mosques and into public life. To revive Islam, in the Jamaat Islamiyyah view, is to engage to reform and improve social welfare and government. In this regard, they share much with the Middle-Eastern Ikhwaan al-Muslimoon (or Muslim Brotherhood). The founder of the Jamaat Islamiyyah, Maulana Mawdudi (died 1979), introduced a distinctive idea that amalgamated the thoughts of many others prior. He had witnessed the success of the nation state, and reasoned that the only way to truly achieve success against colonial imperialism was the establishment of an Islamic nation state. Mawdudi was thus an important voice in the shaping of both Pakistan and Bangladesh, and though he initially opposed the partition of India, he soon became embroiled in political life. Jamaat Islamiyyah has grown beyond Mawdudi however, taking the vision of a social gospel worldwide, especially in Britain where members of the group have set up charities, mosques and Islamic welfare organisations.

Amongst Shias, the predominant group is the Ithna Asharis, the Twelvers – called such for their recognition of twelve Imams who are the divinely-decreed successors after the death of the Prophet Muhammad . There are also the minority Ismailis, and the even rarer Zaydis. Though all have a presence in Britain, the Ithna Ashari, hailing from both Pakistan and Iran, are the most populous both in the United Kingdom and globally.