By Abdul-Azim Ahmed
Islam’s relationship with Britain, and indeed Wales, is ancient, dynamic and deeply revealing. It is sometimes challenging, sometimes optimistic. In an era where much is written about Muslims in Britain, it can often be forgotten that Muslims are not always recent migrants, but a long established part of British history. This is especially true of Wales.
The best place to begin the story is in the late eight century with King Offa of Mercia, who is perhaps most recognised for Offa’s Dyke (a partition built along the eastern border of Wales that still remains in parts to this day). However, King Offa is also known for minting one of the rarest and most curious coins of British history. A gold coin with the standard signage of ‘OFFA REX’, but with an additional Arabic script stamped upon it. The Arabic reads ‘There is but One Allah, the Only God, the True, and Muhammad is His Prophet’. The coin has attracted attention for this unique features, and many theories have put forward as to why a Christian King would mint a coin with the Islamic profession of faith. The most tenable theory is that the coin is an imitation of currency that was in circulation in the Abbasid lands. Yet most remarkably, it shows us that so early Wales already had contact and interaction with Islam.
The twelfth century saw Wales develop many of its most stunning and remarkable buildings and landmarks. Included in this development was Neath Abbey, a building once described as ‘the fairest abbey of all Wales’ by poet John Leland. What is surprising then perhaps is that ‘the fairest abbey of all Wales’ may in fact have been designed by a Muslim. A handful of records state that Lalys, captive from Palestine brought to Britain by Richard de Granville, was the architect of Neath Abbey. Despite Lalys’ unfortunate circumstances, and indeed the wider context of the crusades of the period, Neath Abbey symbolises the cultural exchange and communication that occurred between Muslims and Christians through trade and travel. This exchange of culture and technology can also be seen in the castles that adorn Wales’ borders; many adopted the design and architecture of castles in the Holy Land. I saw this remarkable shared history myself when visiting Syria. As I stood upon Qalaat el Hosn, one of the most important Crusader castles in Syria and looked at the green lush mountains that surrounded the castle, I was immediately reminded of Castell Caerffili. The link runs deeper even yet. Grahame Davies (author of The Dragon and the Crescent) considers the possiblility of whether the English military preoccupation with the crusades gave Wales the breathing space to establish and enjoy two centuries of freedom from England. We can’t answer definitively, but we can say with confidence that Wales and Islam did not exist in isolation during the medieval era.
Conversion to Islam was rare in British Isles prior to the twentieth century, but far from unheard of. We find the story of a Welshman ‘runagado’, an archaic term for conversion to Islam from 1671. Having been on the losing side of a naval battle between his own pirate ship and a Dutch man-o-war, he was hanged from the yard-arm of his ship. The incident is recorded in Charles I Domestic State Papers and gives us a tantalising glimpse into the life of a single Welshman of the time. Our hanged Welshman would not have been the only convert to Islam during this era – travel by sea was becoming more common and it would yet play an important part in the history of Wales and Islam.
Islam and Christianity indeed share many shared origins, being grouped as Abrahamic faiths with a shared faith in one God, in many of the same prophets and common ethical and eschatological framework. Indeed Islam very much reflects the tone of religion of Wales, a religious experience founded upon an egalitarian ethos with a strong sense of the importance of the individual in their expression of piety, something visible through Wales’ non-conformist history.
Despite Christianity and Islam being viewed as faiths in opposition, Muslims and Christians have often found themselves natural friends throughout history. This is most evident in Wales on the Isle of Anglesey.
Anglesey is home to a remote and ancient Church, that of Llanbadrig. It was said to have been founded by St. Patrick himself (Llanbadrig means the Church of St. Patrick). By the late nineteenth century, the Church had fallen into disrepair. It was Lord Henry Stanley, a wealthy aristocrat and convert to Islam (the first Muslim member of the House of Lords) who decided to fund its repair. His conversion was in no way in conflict with his admiration and love of Churches and the Christian faith itself, and so he provided the money for it to be restored. As a mark of respect to its benefactor, the Church incorporated stained glass windows that reflected Islamic artwork, which provides a beautiful integration of Islamic architecture and ancient Celtic architecture. The close relationship between Christians and Muslims in Wales has continued today through the innovative partnerships between the Muslim Council of Wales and various Christian bodies.
The relationship is not only between Islam and Christianity however. In January 2010, the Muslim Council of Wales and Cardiff University Islamic Society in association the Cardiff University Jewish Society hosted what was termed a ‘historic event’. In honour of Holocaust Memorial Day, Muslim and Jewish communities in Wales attended an event with photo-journalist Norman Gershman, who told the story of Muslims in Albania who protected Jews from the Nazi war machine during the dark days of the Second World War. The event may have been historic, but it was not the first time the Welsh Muslim and Jewish community came together to celebrate their shared heritage.
On the 6th January 1908, over a century ago, a prominent British Muslim convert, Abdullah Quilliam, spoke at Cardiff University College alongside Dr Hirchowitz and Dr Zalkin (at that time, Professor of Hebrew studies). The topic Abdullah Quilliam spoke on was the close relationship between Muslims and Jews throughout history. It is encouraging to know that over 100 years, the religious communities of Wales still found common purpose.
The nineteenth century also saw a significant number of Muslims coming to Wales, particularly the docks of Cardiff and Barry. The Muslim is one of the oldest non-Christian community in Wales. Yemenis and Somalis were made up the majority of sea merchants, many of whom stayed in Cardiff while waiting work. These communities slowly became part of the society until Cardiff became home.
Perhaps in recognition of this long established Muslim community, we can see a star and crescent sitting above a stone dragon on the front of City Hall in Cardiff. There are no notes left by the architect and designers on the purpose and intention of this emblem on the front of Cardiff’s most famous civic building, so we can only guess as to its intention for the time being.
Cardiff is also home to one of the earliest mosques in the UK (although certainly not the first, as has mistakenly been claimed). Peel Street Mosque was established sometime in the 1930s, originally just a converted house. The mosque however was bombed during the Blitz in 1941. A new mosque was rebuilt and finally opened in 1947. Records show a number of the individuals involved with Peel Street Mosque were also part of the British war effort during World War 2. Pictured below is Kaid Shef, who helped in the mosque after being injured in the Normandy campaign.
One individual of importance during this era was Abdul-Hamid, who for some time was based in Rhyl in North Wales. He was killed during a bombing in 1944, however records show he was a well known and recognised individual, and an obituary in the times written by Lord Winterton states that Abdul-Hamid was an ‘enthusiastic believer in friendship between Great Britain and… Islamic peoples’.
The sacrifice of Welsh Muslims in World War 2 is under-researched as it stands, but worthy of investigation. If one were to visit Barry Memorial Hall today and spend some time reading the names of those killed during both World War 1 and World War 2, they would find dozens of Muslim names. The stories of these men is still unknown.
Cardiff is home now to about a dozen mosques, ranging from purpose built ones such as the South Wales Islamic Centre in Butedown, to converted homes such as al-Manar in Cathays. Its home to one of the largest and most active student Islamic Societies in the UK, a scouts group, several Islamic charities and much more. Swansea likewise is currently raising money to renovate and old church, and has a great history of fantastic community relations. In North Wales, the Muslim community in Wrexham has just purchased a building for the site of its first mosque (after decades spent praying in a university prayer room).
The community is also marked by a growing level of engagement and interaction with the wider public sphere, creating Muslim Welsh identity that speaks strongly of civic contribution, global citizenship and ethical integrity and confident faith in God.
But that there is still much more to know about the history of Muslims in Wales. Most of this information I fear is not within history books or textual records, but within the people of Wales. Stories passed on, life experiences and local knowledge.
Abdul-Azim Ahmed is a PhD student in Cardiff University in the sociology of religion. He also writes and edits On Religion (www.OnReligion.co.uk), a quarterly magazine on faith and current affairs.