Many books are described as being essential reading but few actually are. This one is.
Innes Bowen’s “Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent” is quite simply the best and most comprehensive contemporary portrait and guide to the realities of Islam in today’s Britain that is available.
Ms. Bowen sets out to map the geographical and theological landscape of British Islam and she succeeds triumphantly.
There are probably few areas of modern life in which so little is known by so many and where misinformation, confusion and incomprehension reign as is the case where Islam is concerned but no-one will remain ignorant after reading this book.
The title refers to the concentration of Sunni Moslems in the Midlands and Shia in North West London although Innes Bowen does not do “broad brush” and drills down to identify the sects and subsects that shape British Islam as well as tracing the origins of the madrassas, Masjids and Mosques that are so much a part of modern life.
The author has a wonderfully inclusive style and includes brief pen portraits of the principle personalities that provide the human dimension to a subject that is so often a cause of fear.
Here is the true value of the book.
If knowledge is the antidote to fear then no-one will remain unchanged by the detail and information here.
This is not to say that British Islam is wholly benign and without some sinister influences and Innes Bowen does not seek to disguise this.
She is especially thorough in her analysis of the connections between Deobands, Wahhabis and Salafis who dominate Sunni Islam in Britain.
She has also produce the best guide that I have ever read to the doctrines of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab and the Saudi dimension to international Wahhabism.
Rather than dizzying the reader with a constant catalogue of division and theological differences she maintains a cool objectivity that is a huge achievement in itself – as is the fairly obvious but miraculous fact that a woman BBC reporter gained access to every part of British Islam in the first place.
Moving to the Shia communities; Innes Bowen draws a map of the offshoots of the Barelwi tradition including the wonderfully meditative and musical Sufis whose love and adoration of the Prophet as well as a reverence for God is seen by their – principally Sunni – detractors as a departure from strict monotheism. Ismailis and followers of the Aga Khan are detailed and it is incredibly impressive to follow Innes Bowen’s descriptions from history to modern reality in every case.
The extent of her scholarship is staggering and I can well understand how this book has not only become the standard text but will need to be updated and revised as its subjects shift, expand and contract.
The recent death of Lord Gulam Noon introduced many to the Dawoodi Bohra religion and their extraordinary commercial success. This book tells the reader everything they need to know about the Bohras and their Masjid in the unlikely but welcoming surroundings of Northolt.
Although Londoners will see the Ahmadiyyas as a large and significant offshoot of Islam, as it was originally revealed and interpreted, Innes Bowen does not describe this peaceful and productive group in detail as their size does not compare to the major groupings that are the principle subjects of this book.
I entirely understand this and respect her need to keep this book within manageable limits.
The fact that such a treasure house of information has been contained within a few hundred pages is not only a minor miracle but a tribute to the author and her great achievement.
If you want to know anything about modern Islam, or even modern British society, then read this book.
There is none better.