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A Sufi, a Salafi, a member of the Tablighi Jamaat, and a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir are in the mosque when the lightbulb goes out. A meeting is called to determine how to resolve the situation. The Sufi gathers everyone’s attention and suggests “we should all engage in worship, and then the light of Allah will fill this darkened mosque”. The Tablighi Jamaat member chimes in that they cannot change the lightbulb until “we purify ourselves by going out on khurooj for at least forty days”. The member of Hizb ut-Tahrir says it is futile to change the lightbulb, and “the priority should be to work to re-establish the Caliphate”. The Salafi silences everyone, and in the darkened and silent mosque asks, “brothers, where is the evidence from the Quran and Sunnah that the lightbulb has gone out?”

I was told this joke over ten years ago in my own local mosque, and provided you’re vaguely familiar with the religious diversity of British Muslims, and the individual quirks of each group, the joke is a funny one. Without that prerequisite knowledge, the humour falls flat. It does however introduce the diverse landscape of denominational groups amongst Muslims in Britain, an issue which is increasingly queried.

More times than I can remember, I’ve been asked by journalists, colleagues, and readers of On Religion to write an overview of British Muslim theological diversity. I usually refer them to works of other scholars, such as Sophie Gilliat-Ray’s Introduction to Muslims in Britain, or a new addition, Sufis, Salafis and Islamists by Sadek Hamid. Recent incidents have made me increasingly reflect on whether a brief overview might have some value.

The brutal murder of a Pakistani shopkeeper in Scotland brought the term “Ahmadiyya” to public consciousness, and a series of drip-drip reports on prison chaplains (and a BBC Radio 4 documentary) introduced “Deobandi” to a wider audience. As there is a now a greater interest and awareness of British Muslim diversity, perhaps it is the right time for a short guide.

My hesitancy to produce a guide to British Islam is due to two factors. The first is that British Muslim theologies are both complex and shifting – anything I could describe would be partial, incomplete and open to criticism. The second is that I dislike the over-exaggerating of religion as an explanatory factor for human behaviour. Religion is important, but when it comes to Muslims, there is a tendency to describe everything as the result of religious theology. Muslims, like all human beings, have complex and often contradictory motivations.

That said, curiosity about British Muslims, and at times aggressive questioning, will be unlikely to disappear in the current climate. So here is a work in progress, but which nonetheless aims to give you, the reader, some understanding of the denominational diversity and differences of British Islam.

An overview of the denominations found amongst British Muslims is simple enough. The three overarching divisions are SunniShia and Ibadi. The most significant difference between Sunnis and Shias is that the Shias believe religious authority remains in the hands of the family of the Prophet, whereas Sunnis believe it is open to any pious and knowledgeable Muslim. This fundamental difference in religious authority is the schism which led Sunnis and Shias to develop their respective traditions on parallel paths. In terms of religious leadership, the Sunnis had the Caliphs, and the Shias had the Imams. Ibadis are a less well known tradition; there are less than 3 million worldwide (barely registering as a single percentile amongst the global Muslim population of 1.6 billion). Nonetheless, Ibadis constitute a third schism, neither Sunni nor Shia, but with their own distinct theology – similar to Sunnis in some respects, and similar to Shias in others. In Britain, and indeed globally, Sunnis are the majority. Shias constitute about 15 percent of the worldwide population of Muslims, and something closer to 10% of British Muslims. Ibadis are a minority everywhere but Oman, and the indeed almost all British Muslim Ibadis originate from there.

The Ahmadiyyas are also a schism albeit more recent. They recognise a spiritual Caliphate begun by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (died in Lahore, 1908). The Ahmadiyyas believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to be a promised Messiah and Mehdi – Sunnis, Shias and Ibadis however do not, thus forming the divergence. The Ahmadiyya movement’s fifth Caliph is based in London, from where he serves about 10 million Ahmadiyyas globally. Due to the strong link between Ahmadiyyas and Britain, there is a significant (but small) population in the UK – second only to Pakistan, though there are no estimates on how many exactly – likely to be in the tens of thousands.