The Birth of British Salafism Among the Pakistani Diaspora in Postcolonial Britain

By Eeman Ali


Before delving into the emergence of British Salafism and its appeal among much of the Pakistani diaspora in Britain, this paper begins by defining the term Salafism. The term Salafi or Salafiyah is used to denote the era of the Salaf, referring to the first three generations of the Prophet’s companions. This reformist branch of Islam brands itself as the “pure” and “authentic” interpretation of religion, placing overwhelming emphasis on adhering to the Quran (i.e., the holy book) and the Sunnah (i.e., the traditions and practices of Prophet Muhammad). It encourages the practice of tawhid (i.e., belief in the oneness of Allah), the avoidance of shirk (i.e., associating partners with Allah), and the avoidance of bid’ah (i.e., practicing innovations within the religion) (Hamid, 2020, p. 35). 

Salafism is by no means monolithic; various branches exist within Salafist thought. Tariq Ramadan identifies six visible Islamic tendencies with different levels of influence in the British context: scholastic traditionalism, Salafi literalism, Salafi reformism, radical or political literalist Salafism, Sufism, and liberal or rational reformism (Hamid, 2020). Salafi reformism interprets scripture based on maqasid (i.e., purpose and intention) of shari’ah (i.e., Islamic law) and believes that contextualized ijtihad (i.e., independent legal reasoning) is necessary. In fact, Salafi reformists seek to enact change by working within existing systems. Salafi literalism understands scripture in its literal form, rejecting any room for interpretation by the schools of jurisprudence (Hamid, 2020). Salafi literalists strongly oppose political involvement. Radical Salafism first emerged in response to the persecution of Muslims globally and rejects political cooperation with non-Islamic governments. Radical Salafis seek the violent overthrow of these governments and to re-establish the Islamic caliphate (Hamid, 2020). 

Although room for disagreement exists regarding the term “British Salafism,” the Salafism that emerged in Britain should be seen as a distinct religiopolitical development. To some degree, British Salafism can be viewed as a merger between South Asian Salafism and Saudi Salafism (Amin & Majothi, 2021). Both these forms of Salafism have followed different trajectories. The Salafism that emerged in the Indian subcontinent was a direct response to British colonialism, but the same does not hold true for the Arabian Peninsula. When referring to the brand of Salafism that developed in, and has been exported by modern-day Saudi Arabia, the term “Saudi Salafism” is used. This is because the term “Arab Salafism” can extend to regions such as Egypt, that have followed a trajectory similar to South Asia, developing their own brand of Salafism in response to British colonialism. 

Salafism first entered Britain as a reformist ideology brought by South Asian immigrants during the 1960s and 1970s. It subsequently evolved in different forms to adapt to the British context, and in response to external imports. While for most first-generation Pakistani immigrants, identifying with Islam was generally a more cultural choice than religious, second and third-generation Pakistani immigrants developed a different relationship with religion because of their growing identity struggle. With little to no connection to their ancestral home, and faced with social exclusion and marginalization in the British domestic realm, many were searching for a sense of belonging. During the 1980s and 1990s, rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in Britain, and Western military interventions in Muslim countries politicized the Muslim identity. This politicization saw many second and third-generation British Muslims begin to center their identity around Islam. Among those searching for a concrete sense of self from religion were those who joined and established local Salafi groups, as Salafism offered an interpretation of Islam that provided strong moral and ethical clarity (Hamid, 2020). 


Through a content analysis of peer-reviewed books, journal articles, and primary materials distributed by Muslim organizations in Britain, this paper seeks to trace the emergence and appeal of British Salafism among the Pakistani diasporic community in the UK. In the future, this research can be enriched by conducting interviews with first, second, and third-generation Pakistani immigrants in the UK to gain a greater insight into the individual experiences of the diaspora and their inclination towards or away from Salafism. 

Post-colonial Migration and the Origins of British Salafism

To contextualize the development of British Salafism and its relationship with first-generation British Pakistanis, it is important to examine the changing patterns of South Asian migration to the UK. Following World War II, Britain was in desperate need of cheap labor. The 1950s and 1960s saw a rapid influx of Pakistani men into Britain, to work as industrial laborers, having left the Indian subcontinent with little scope for productive labor. (Kalra et al., 2008). While India saw many professional men migrate, Pakistanis largely came from peasant-farming backgrounds (Kalra et al., 2008; Samad, 2014). Unlike their Indian counterparts, Pakistanis developed a blue-collar profile and experienced very limited social assimilation. Most Pakistani migrants worked under highly exploitative conditions, enduring long hours for low wages to earn and save for their families back home (Kalra et al., 2008). Although most of these men had moved with the intention of returning home, much of the local British population viewed the rapid wave of migration unfavorably. Growing anti-immigration rhetoric eventually encouraged the British government to pass the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 (Lever, 2018). This Act was a form of restrictive immigration legislation that limited free movement between individuals from non-European countries and the Commonwealth. Ironically, this Act encouraged the wives and children of the men who had migrated earlier to settle with them. Here we see the first-generation Pakistani diaspora begin to establish themselves in Britain. This diaspora was soon faced with a still ongoing struggle to assimilate into the conservative population surrounding them. 

Originating in colonial India, the Ahl-e-Hadith played a particularly interesting role in laying the groundwork for British Salafism. Many Ahl-e-Hadith figures migrated from South Asia to Britain during the late 1960s and 1970s, establishing mosques and umbrella institutions that set the ball rolling for second and third-generation British Pakistanis. Their official Quran school was named Madrasa Salafiyyah, and the term Salafi was first adopted in the British context from the network’s organization Markaz Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith (MJAH)’s activities (Amin & Majothi, 2021). This Salafi reformist group emerged as an anti-colonial struggle and had thus been political from the beginning. From the onset, the Ahl-e-Hadith encouraged partaking in British politics and joined forces with more secular groups, providing them with platforms to raise awareness for British Muslim issues. First-generation members stayed connected to their South Asian heritage by retaining their language and dress code; they spoke in Urdu and wore shalwar kameez, and men even wore the Jinnah cap (Amin & Majothi, 2021). 

For most first-generation Pakistanis in Britain, Islam was more about ethnic identity than spiritual religiosity (Jacobson, 2005). However, growing concerns that after-school Islamic classes were insufficient to balance the “non-Islamic” influence children received from the state-based national curriculum, led them to challenge aspects of the British national curriculum. Parents held campaigns to withdraw their children from Christian assemblies, pushed against music lessons and mixed-gender physical education, and requested halal meat (Hamid, 2020).  To compensate for the lack of Islamic learning in schools, institutions inspired by the Indian Salafi group Jamaat-e-Islami were established. Among these institutions was the UK Islamic Mission (UKIM), established in 1963. Interestingly, the UKIM later aided the formation of a new localized reformist Salafi network, the Young Muslims, which developed during the politics of the mid-1980s (Hamid, 2020).

Second and Third-generation British Pakistanis and the Search for Identity 

The rise and evolution of British Salafism among second and third-generation Pakistanis in Britain can be traced to the beginning of British Muslim identity politics in the 1980s and 1990s. Increasing discrimination against Muslim immigrants—the largest percentage of whom were Pakistani—signaled that the local population would never truly consider Pakistanis as one of them. However, many of these individuals found it equally difficult to connect to Pakistan, having grown up in British culture. Struggling to see themselves as British or Pakistani, many second and third-generation Pakistanis were thus drawn to the emerging “Muslim” identity.

On a domestic level, the early 1980s in Britain were characterized by xenophobia towards immigrants. Controversy surrounding the provision of halal meat emerged in Bradford in 1983, which was the first major instance in which British Pakistanis felt alienated from the local population. After Bradford Metropolitan District Council started providing halal meat for Muslim children in schools across the city, widespread debate on the dangers of multiculturalism broke out on a national level (Lever, 2018). The right-wing aligned itself with animal rights activists in opposition to the provision of halal meat on the grounds that it was non-stunned meat. Xenophobic rhetoric only increased in the wake of the Honeyford Affair (1984), during which the headteacher of Bradford’s Drummond middle school, Ray Honeyford, published articles opposing multiculturalism and cultural diversity in education (Lever, 2018). Honeyford insisted on the need for “assimilation,” arguing that Muslims should not be granted special treatment on the grounds of cultural diversity, and should learn to assimilate into Britain. This discourse reinforced self-consciousness among British Muslims as a collective group and marked the beginning of what would become a wider identity struggle for British Pakistanis.

While the Honeyford Affair stirred controversy surrounding Muslim integration in Britain during the early 1980s, it was not until the Rushdie Affair (1990) that a newly politicized British Muslim identity was truly born. The publication of Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses led to mass book burnings, widespread demonstrations demanding its banning, and calls for Muslims to be protected by blasphemy laws. Rushdie’s work was considered defamatory toward the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, and the Holy Quran (Ossowska-Czader, 2015). The British government responded to the demonstrations by highlighting a lack of loyalty on the part of British Muslims for resisting integration. Instead of granting concessions to the British Muslim community, the government emphasized the need for British Muslims to assimilate into mainstream British society. Most second-generation British Muslims did not read Rushdie’s book but simply hearing of it sparked widespread outrage that encouraged them to reconsider what Islam meant to them and begin to see themselves as part of a wider collective group of Muslims (Hamid, 2020). 

Wider imperial geopolitics only furthered the development of British Muslim identity politics in the 1990s. During this time, conflicts involving Muslims or Muslim countries— such as the Bosnian crisis, the 1991 Gulf War, and the unresolved conflicts in Kashmir and Palestine—played a role in politicizing the British Muslim identity (Hopkins & Gale, 2009). Second and third-generation Pakistani immigrants subsequently began to see themselves as part of a collective group persecuted by the non-Muslim West. The violence of Western intervention in Muslim countries was seen as a struggle for all Muslims, referred to as the ummah’s struggle (Hamid, 2020). Some responded to this development by aligning themselves with leftist movements, while others aligned themselves with religious movements. 

Prominent British Salafi Trends

British Salafi Reformism

In the wake of domestic and international crises in the 1980s, the Young Muslims developed as a British Salafi reformist organization that adapted itself to local culture. This Salafi group advocated political reform and embarked on a “re-Islamization” strategy that offered halal alternatives to recreational activities popular in Britain (Hamid, 2020). The Young Muslims appealed to many young second and third-generation British Pakistanis who sought a balance between religion and entertainment, and found other forms of Salafism too rigid. However, internal disputes about where the group was headed during the mid-1990s ultimately led to the organization’s disintegration (Hamid, 2020). 

British Salafi reformism might not be prominent as evident in the decline in the popularity of the Young Muslims, but the Salafi reformist concept of dawah (i.e., an invitation to Islam) persists to date. Dawah involves spreading the message of Islam to non-believers or misguided Muslims (Hamid, 2020). For instance, second-generation members of MJAH created the missionary project IslamWise, wherein they distribute dawah literature with a particular focus on converts and beginners (Amin & Majothi, 2021). Dawah street activism still exists in British Muslim society, as British Muslim organizations such as The Straight Path encourage “conveying the message of Islam to others” (see Appendix A). 

Globalization and the Import of Radical British Salafism

Originally founded in Jordan with its headquarters in Lebanon, Hizb-ut-Tahrir developed a branch in the UK during the 1980s after members were exiled from the Arab world and sought political asylum in Europe (Hamid, 2020). As a radical British Salafi group, their focus was re-establishing the Islamic caliphate, and they rejected political participation in British society altogether. Members of the group adopted a distinct look; women had to conform to a specific hijab style, while men had to have stubble and dress in blazers. Hizb-ut-Tahrir had a strong presence in over 50 universities and appealed to many in search of an internal identity. The makeup of this group was predominantly South Asian because of what has been colloquially referred to as the “Bobby and Abdullah syndrome.” This is a term that pokes fun at the identity crisis faced by many British Muslims who struggled to navigate their identity as non-Western people living in a Western country (Hamid, 2020). 

By the mid-1990s, radical British Salafism, as advocated by groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, began to see a gradual decline in members. In addition to organizational disputes, many members shifted to more moderate British Salafi groups after the organization failed to capture state power anywhere. Calls for establishing an Islamic Caliphate were also no longer seen as relevant, when the group did little to acknowledge or address the day-to-day issues faced by British Muslims (Hamid, 2020). Thus, while Hizb-ut-Tahrir once attracted many second and third-generation British Pakistanis, its appeal was short-lived and soon to be replaced by the search for other means of connection to one’s Muslim identity. 

The Kingdom of Wahhabism and the Appeal of British Salafi Literalism

Saudi Arabia’s vested political interest in exporting Wahhabism abroad is central to contextualizing the development of British Salafi literalism and its influence among second and third-generation British Pakistanis. For its generally apolitical stance and emphasis on literalist interpretations, Saudi Salafism or Wahhabism can be understood as Salafi literalism. Saudi Arabia provided funds for popularizing their interpretation of Islam (Ghoshal, 2010). The main distinction between Salafism and Wahhabism is that while all Wahhabis are Salafis, not all Salafis are Wahhabis. Both religious ideologies advocate a return to what is considered “orthodox” Islam and are generally intolerant of other branches or sects of Islam (Ghoshal, 2010). While South Asian Salafism has historically been open to forming political alliances with secular groups for political purposes, Saudi Salafism is characterized by its particularly rigid and exclusionary ideals. 

As part of Saudi Arabia’s large-scale efforts to spread global Wahhabi dawah, many British mosques, religious institutions, and publications are rooted in Salafi literalism. Local Islamic bookstores throughout the UK are filled with Wahhabi literature, copies of which can be found abundant in comparison to that of any other British sectarian-based publication aimed at an English-speaking audience (Birt, 2004). As of March 2022, at the Mayfair Islamic Center in London, a book titled Realities of Faith by Umm Muhammad is shelved as a free gift (see Appendix B). This book was produced by the Abul-Qasimi Publishing House in Saudi Arabia (see Appendix B). Considering its emphasis on literalist interpretations of religious scripture, the book can be seen as a Salafi literalist product that reflects the extent of Wahhabi influence across Islamic institutions in Britain. 

Extensive Saudi funding of Wahhabism encouraged the development of British Salafi literalist groups and influenced the trajectories of other existing local Salafi networks. Generous scholarships were offered to foreigners to study at the Islamic University of Medina, which brought many British-born Pakistanis to Saudi Arabia, who later returned to the UK to spread Salafi literalism (Birt, 2004). During the mid-1980s, returnees from the university founded the Salafi literalist group Jamiat Ihyaa Minhaaj al-Sunnah (JIMAS). Abu Muntasir, often called the “father of Salafi dawah in the UK,” aided JIMAS’ development and was, interestingly, closely involved with the Ahl-e-Hadith (Birt, 2004; Hamid, 2020, pp. 95-99). JIMAS regularly held classes at MJAH branches, utilizing Ahl-e-Hadith spaces and connections to preach their version of Salafi Islam. Their annual conferences attracted several thousand attendees (Amin & Majothi, 2021). The group was popular during the early 1990s among those who found the Salafi reformism of the Young Muslims too “wishy-washy” and the radical Salafism of groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir too political (Hamid, 2020). Beyond popularizing localized Salafi literalism, the import of Saudi Salafism influenced the Ahl-e-Hadith, whose second and third-generation members have since become influenced by its principles (Amin & Majothi, 2021).

Initially, JIMAS adhered to Salafi literalism and refrained from open involvement in politics. However, following the 1991 Gulf War, the organization faced a major factional split stemming from political disagreements, which ultimately led to the group’s disintegration. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Salafi scholars issued a fatwa (i.e., Islamic ruling), allowing the establishment of US military bases in Saudi Arabia. Salafi literalists were then divided over the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, a country seen as the heart of Islam (Birt, 2004). Three main divisions subsequently emerged within those following the Saudi brand of Salafism. The first group comprised of those who remained unquestioningly loyal to the regime, focusing purely on theological issues to deviate the discussion from politics. One of the chief advocates of this faction was Rabi al-Madkhali. The second group equally emphasized focusing on theology but was slightly more moderate than the regime loyalists in their opposition to political engagement. The final group adhered to what is referred to as political Salafism and became outspoken critics of the Saudi regime, as well as secular Arab governments (Amin & Majothi, 2021). 

Shifts in the British Salafi Landscape Since the 1990s

Divisions over the Gulf War fatwa eventually evolved into a broader debate surrounding the role of Middle Eastern scholars in guiding Muslims residing in the West, which has shaped much of the focus of British Muslims today. Increasing securitization and the rise of Muslim profiling following the events of 9/11 and 7/7 further politicized the British Muslim identity during the early 2000s (Elshayyal, 2017). This development pushed British Salafis away from relying on Middle Eastern scholars, whom they saw as having failed to address the struggles of Muslims living in the West (Hamid, 2020). Many British Salafi groups began to shift their focus to carving out an “Islam in the West” (Amin & Majothi, 2021). This shift was not confined to the British Salafi sphere, as the wider British Muslim population began indigenizing “British Islam” through various means. Q-News, a British Magazine that began in the mid-1990s, was one of the first popular media outlets that explored the lives of Muslims in Britain, their diverse communities, and their issues (Hamid, 2020). 

The inadequacies of Salafi trends, that have struggled with internal disagreement have since left a gap for a new religious approach that has slowly gained popularity among second and third-generation British Pakistanis: Sufism. Initially, Sufism was seen by many as a folkloric legacy of their parents. With the displacement of notable Salafi-based networks such as the Young Muslims, JIMAS, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the vacuum left is partly beginning to be occupied by the “Traditional Islam (TI) network, popularized by figures such as Hamza Yusuf (Hamid, 2020, p. 136). TI is much more Sufi-oriented, with its figures emphasizing spirituality over all else, an element missing in the alternate Islamic currents. The potential development of this phenomenon remains to be seen. 


Despite the broader geopolitical trend of religious fundamentalism, Salafism attracted second and third-generation Pakistanis in Britain because of the context of their ancestral migration. Although the Gulf is home to numerous Pakistani immigrants, the majority are blue-collar workers whose citizenship denial has led to circular migration and guest worker status (Samad, 2014). Therefore, the general migratory experience of the Pakistani diaspora in this region of the world has been considerably different. The class profile of North American Pakistani immigrants has also shaped their experiences in ways distinct from their British counterparts. Historically, the Pakistani presence in Britain has been inextricably linked to imperialism in a way that does not hold true for the United States. Most Pakistani immigrants originally came to the UK with low qualifications and soft skills. The Pakistani immigrants that first arrived in the US generally came from highly educated professional backgrounds and were later joined by their less qualified relatives (Samad, 2014). Thus, while Pakistanis settling in North America could integrate into Western society, those coming to Britain were from much poorer backgrounds, subject to a future of social exclusion, marginalization, and uncertainty. In this regard, the migratory context of British Pakistanis can be seen as having greatly influenced their relationship with Salafism, as many struggled to develop a strong sense of identity and found that in local Salafi groups. 


British Salafism and its relationship with the Pakistani diaspora in Britain is certainly not linear; it has evolved and continues to change in response to sociopolitical changes. Salafi reformism first developed in Britain due to the Ahl-e-Hadith, who brought their cultural and political brand of Salafism from the Indian subcontinent when they settled in the 1960s and 1970s. Although Islam was more cultural than it was spiritual for most first-generation British Pakistanis, many of their children and grandchildren grew up to view religion contrarily because of developments in the 1980s and 1990s. Struggling for acceptance in British society and holding little to no connection to their motherland, second and third-generation Pakistani immigrants grappled with neither feeling truly British nor Pakistani. During this time, rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain, and Western imperial intervention in Muslim countries politicized the British Muslim identity, paving the way for the formation of local Salafi groups. 

Among this period’s emerging British Salafi groups was the Young Muslims, a Salafi reformist network that proposed a counterculture for Muslim youth. The group appealed to many first and second-generation British Pakistanis until organizational disputes in the mid-1990s eventually led to their decline. Globalization brought radical Salafism to Britain, as seen in the development of the British branch of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, another Salafi group popular among British Pakistanis. However, growing disillusionment with the prospect of establishing an Islamic caliphate in Britain led to the loss of much of their support. Saudi financing of Wahhabism resulted in the formation of the Salafi literalist group JIMAS, established by returnees from the Islamic University of Medina. The group initially adopted a non-political stance, though this changed after the Gulf War fatwa. The infamous fatwa also sparked wider discourse surrounding the role of Arab scholars in dictating Muslims residing in the West. Since then, the Pakistani diaspora in Britain has been turning to alternative means of connecting to Islam, some of whom have recently been drawn to more Sufi-oriented groups. 


Amin, H., & Majothi, A. (2021). The Ahl-e-Hadith: From British India to Britain. Modern Asian Studies, 56(1), 176–206. 

Birt, J. (2004). Wahhabism in the United Kingdom. Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf, 182–198. 

Elshayyal, K. (2020). Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, Activism and Equality in Britain. I.B. Tauris. 

Ghoshal, B. (2010). Arabization: The Changing Face of Islam in Asia. India Quarterly, 66(1), 69–89.

Hamid, S. (2020). Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism. Bloomsbury Academic. 

Hopkins, P., & Gale, R. (2009). Islamophobia in the construction of British Muslim identity politics. Muslims in Britain, 210–227. 

Jacobson, J. (2015). Islam in Transition: Religion and Identity among British Pakistani Youth. Routledge.

Kalra, V. S., Sayyid, S., & Ali, N. (2008). A postcolonial people: South Asians in Britain. Columbia University Press.

Kepel, G. (2003). Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Harvard University Press. 

Lever, J. (2018). Halal meat and religious slaughter: From spatial concealment to social controversy – breaching the boundaries of the permissible? Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 37(5), 889–907.

Ossowska-Czader, M. (2015). The Rushdie Affair – Politics, Culture and Ethnicity in Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album. Politeja, 31/2, 11–26.

Samad, Y. (2014). The Pakistani Diaspora: USA and UK. Routledge Handbook of the South Asian Diaspora. 


Appendix A: Leaflet by The Straight Path promoting ‘Street Dawah’ distributed at Leicester Square in London on March 19th, 2022

Appendix B: Realities of Faith by Umm Muhammad Shelved in Mayfair Islamic Center, London, as a “free gift”  A hand holding a green tablet

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Appendix C: Page 89 of Realities of Faith by Umm Muhammad

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