Islam and us

Share this article

THINK of Scotland's first contact with Muslims and we tend to think in terms of the 1950s and 60s; of lonely pedlars bearing suitcases, of bus conductors, of the first tentative corner shops which would become indispensable and, of course, the handful of Indian restaurants which would give us our first piquant taste of what has become virtually a national cuisine. Yet, as Bashir Maan

explains in his new book, The Thistle and the Crescent, Scotland's links with the Islamic world can be traced as far back as the seventh century AD, and over the centuries have been maintained through amicable trade and scholarship, as well as less enlightened crusade and empire-building

The book comes with plaudits from historian professor Tom Devine, who describes it as "a pioneering study of Scottish-Islam relations, which will be of deep interest in today's world", and from Alex Salmond, the First Minister, who will launch it at the Scottish Parliament tomorrow. Maan, 81, a kenspeckle figure in the Scottish Muslim community, former Glasgow councillor and current convener of the Muslim Council of Scotland, was prompted to write it by what he perceived as a yawning gap in historical accounts. "We didn't have any record whatsoever about Scottish-Islamic relations," he says, "and after 9/11, when Islam was… shall we say, accused of being terrorist and this and that, I was stimulated to do something about it."

He embarked on his research with the help of a fellowship from Glasgow Caledonian University, but found the kind of early records he was looking for sadly thin on the ground. There was, of course, the legend, as recounted in the 15th century Scotichronicon, that the Scots were descended from Scota, daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh. More substantial connections have been discovered in the form of fragments of fifth-century Egyptian and North African pottery in south-west Scotland, suggesting trading links. By the seventh century AD, the institution of pilgrimage to the Holy Land was well established: a Frankish bishop by the name of Arculf, who had gone on such a journey, was blown off course while returning to Gaul and ended up in Iona, where his accounts were recorded by Adamnan, the ninth bishop of Iona, in what was in effect a guide book for pilgrims, the De Locus Sanctis. Maan points out that, although Arculf refers to the Muslims as "Saracens", "unbelievers" or "infidels", his account is notably free of animosity and records no instances of harassment of Christian travellers.

Tantalising evidence of Islam making its mark – in this case quite literally – on the British Isles, if not specifically on Scotland, appeared a few years ago with the discovery in England of a coin stamped on one side with the head of "Offa Rex", the eighth-century king of Mercia, and on the other the Arabic inscription "La ilaha ill Allah – "there is no god but Allah". That, says Maan, leaves "a real conundrum" as to why an English coin should be stamped with the Islamic creed at a time when the religion was still emerging in the east.

Other tell-tale coinage has turned up in Scotland – 9th-century silver coins bearing the name of the Baghdad caliph al-Mutawakkal ala Allah, and silver dirhams from Tashkent and Samarkand found on Skye, both hordes probably left by traders or Viking raiders.

Scots participated in the crusades, now regarded as a pretty discreditable episode in Christian history with the widespread massacre of both Muslim and Jewish occupants of "reclaimed" cities, and King Alexander I was reputed to have owned both an Arab horse and Turkish armour, possibly brought to him by a returned crusading Scots nobleman. Better known is the story of Sir James Douglas, who carried the heart of Robert the Bruce into battle against the Moors in 1330, during the Spanish reconquista, when he was killed himself, the casketed heart later being found and returned to Scotland.

Not surprisingly, Muslim accounts of such adventurings are less than favourable, expressing disgust at what they saw as the boorish, immoral and unwashed ways of the Farnji – "the Franks", as they called the crusaders, regardless of where they came from. On the other hand, writes Maan, the returning crusaders learned much from Islamic culture and technology – not least the art of distilling.

By the 16th century there were numerous Christians happy to convert to Islam, such as "Inglis Mustapha", a general in the Ottoman army who was actually a Campbell from Scotland. Then there was the Perthshire girl Helen Gloag who, in the 18th century, ran away from home, boarded a ship bound for America, was captured by Moroccan pirates and sold to slave traders but eventually became the favourite wife of the Sultan of Morocco.

The first Muslim visitor to Scotland of whom we have any record was one Ishmael Bashaw, during the 18th century, although Maan cites circumstantial evidence that there were Muslims here from at least the 15th century. But Islamic culture made a real impact on these shores with the arrival of the "Mahometan berry": Scotland's first coffee house opened in Glasgow in 1673, despite opposition from the clergy and press, who regarded it as an inducement towards Islam. Their fears were possibly intensified by the fact that, around the same time, the Koran was first translated into English by a Scotsman, Alexander Ross.

For centuries before that, however, Scots scholars had been investigating the riches of Islamic culture and science, a notable example being "the wizard", Michael Scott, or Scot, a renowned scholar and philosopher who studied in Moorish Spain and translated Arabic works into Latin. Maan's book shows a carving of Scott at Melrose Abbey, sporting what looks very like a turban. Others drawn to Arabic culture included the early 17th-century traveller William Lithgow who, at a time when Jews were suffering under the Inquisition, noted in his wonderfully titled Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations the religious tolerance and hospitality he encountered in Muslim countries.

As an inordinate number of Scots became involved in the running of British imperial India, some became totally "Indianised". Among them was James Achilles Kirkpatrick who, fluent in Persian, Urdu and Tamil, pursued a successful diplomatic career, adopted Indian dress and habits, such as smoking the hookah, and became very friendly with the local aristocracy. Amid much scandal, he courted and eventually wed a beautiful young woman who was already engaged to a Muslim noble, which involved him converting to Islam and undergoing circumcision. His two Anglo-Indian children were sent back to England to be educated, much against the wishes of his heartbroken wife, and their Indian names replaced with the more prosaic sounding William George Kirkpatrick and Katherine Kirkpatrick. Another to "turn Turk", as the expression went, was Sir David Ochterlony of Angus, who maintained a diplomatic post at the court of the titular Mughal Emperor at Delhi, as well as four wives, plus concubines, and gave each one an elephant by way of transport and status symbol.

The trust and intimacy which the British enjoyed with the Indian establishment was dispelled, however, by the brutal suppression of the Indian Mutiny, or war of independence, depending on your point of view. But among the many and mixed legacies of the British Empire in India, says Maan, is the 50,000 Muslims currently living in Scotland.

When Maan first arrived in Glasgow from Pakistan in 1953, as a student of textile chemistry at the Royal Technical College (later Strathclyde University), he met a relic of imperial times in Sundhi Din, who had come from India at the beginning of the century as servant to a retired Army colonel. When Maan met him, he was an old man, living in a "Lascar colony" in Port Dundas. Such colonies were where other early-20th-century Muslim immigrants settled, the first door-to-door hawkers, at a time when racism and prejudice were rife. As Indians and Pakistanis reversed the journeys taken by their colonisers in previous centuries, more and more arrived, taking up jobs, if they were able, on the buses, or working in factories; then, gradually, opening the corner shops and restaurants which would become ubiquitous.

Today, we Scots like to think of ourselves as more tolerant and less racist than elsewhere, yet, as Maan agrees, there is no room for complacency. Our understanding of Islamic culture remains imperfect, to say the least, at a time when mutual understanding has never been so necessary, to counterbalance the suspicion and fear engendered by extremist terrorist outrages.

Despite some occasional encounters with racism, Maan's Scottish experience has been a positive one: "For example, when I stood for election (as councillor for Glasgow's Kingston ward in the early Seventies], "nobody expected me to win. But they were all proved wrong – Scottish people voted for me against one of their own." And in 2005 he joined a joint Christian-Muslim pilgrimage to Jerusalem, organised by the former Glasgow Lord Provost Alex Mosson: "It was a wonderful exercise," he recalls. "The kind of thing that can really bring the communities together."

Maan terminated his long-term membership of the Labour party in response to what he saw as the lies behind the invasion of Iraq, and he had effectively finished the book by last June, when a blazing car at Glasgow airport brought the threat of Islamic extremist tactics horribly to our doorstep. However, he was gratified by the reaction of the both the police and the Scottish Government, both of whom sent representatives to an emergency meeting called by the Glasgow Islamic Centre. "Whenever things seem to be getting better, something else happens," he says. "There was 9/11, 7/7, and we thought we were all right in Scotland, but we also had our unlucky day and these things do strain relations. There is still a lot of distrust about, unfortunately."

Which was, of course, prime motivation for him writing the book. "I wanted to show that Islam and the West have lived together for 14 centuries – sometimes in good ways, sometimes confrontational," he chuckles. "But they have to live together – now even more so, because we're not in the world of the 11th or the 14th or the 19th centuries, when nobody knew what was happening in other countries. We're in a global village."

&#149 The Thistle and the Crescent is published by Argyll publishing, priced at 12.99

Information will help stem the tide of Islamophobia


ISLAM is now the second largest religion in Scotland. Muslims are living in almost every city and town and participating in every walk of Scottish life. Muslim women wearing the hijab (headscarf) and men wearing baggy trousers and skullcaps are common scenes in the streets of Scotland.

New, beautiful, purpose-built mosques with domes and minarets are changing the Scottish skyline and making the presence of Islam felt in this predominantly Christian country.

Muslims began to settle in Scotland in the third decade of the 20th century and, to date, their numbers have grown to nearly 50,000.

However, there have been contacts between Islam and Scotland since the seventh century. It was a strange coincidence that Islam reached the Holy Land and Christianity became the religion of Scotland at about the same time, in the mid-seventh century.

By the beginning of the eighth century, Islam had spread to Egypt, the North African countries and the Iberian peninsula, with which Scotland had minor trading links. These developments led to contacts between Islam and Scotland, at first through the Scottish pilgrims to the Holy Land and trade, and later through the Crusades, scholars, embassies, travellers, the Empire and so on. However, there is no collective and comprehensive record in Scottish history linking these centuries-old varied connections.

At this time, when Muslims are experiencing a growing alienation from society, there can be no better antidote than information and knowledge about the historical relationship between Scots and Muslims.

If people can be helped to see the nature of this relationship over many centuries, the likelihood of being influenced by a rhetoric that casts all Muslims as potential terrorists will be lessened considerably.

It is hoped that this effort would bring about a better understanding of Islam and Islamic culture, help stem the rising tide of Islamophobia and lead to harmonious relations between Muslims and other communities in Scotland.