Olive Trees in Scotland: A Brief History of Islam

All wise proverbs about “knowing where you came from ...” aside, it can’t be too much of a bad thing to have some idea of how Muslims actually found their way to Scotland, of all places. This is why we share this blog post. But what about the ‘Olive Trees’ part? Well, when you’re trying to establish a brand for yourself, it can be hard to resist an opportune moment to slip one’s name in. This is a much more honest answer than trying to somehow represent Muslims as olive trees organically sprouting out of Scottish soil! Seriously though, the aim behind this blog post was: we wanted to make sense of how we as a Madrasah came to be found in Scotland. So, how on earth did Muslims end up in bonny Scotland? This is a good place to start.

Early Migrations

The earliest recognised Muslim migrations to Scotland are chronicled around the mid-eighteenth century. A ‘steady flow’ of Indian seamen called lascars arrived to work on ships docked at Scottish shores. Although the lascars tended to not settle permanently, they prepared the ground for later Muslim arrivals in Scotland. Key events which would take place around their trade would have an impact on certain re-structuring of socio-economic activity. This would pave the way for the Muslim community’s relatively more successful integration. We’ll look at this soon.

The next key milestone for Muslim migration in Scotland would be in the 1880s through Indian students from middle and upper-middle class families attending Scottish universities for their higher education. By the early 1900s, the Edinburgh Indian Association, originally set up by six students reached 200 members.

Towards the end of the 19th century, lascar employment soared in the Scottish port cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee due to the expansion of the British mercantile sea trade routes to and from the East. ‘Structural and technological changes’ within the British shipping industry created new job roles ‘undesirable’ to the white European workers. The lascars came in and took these roles resulting in ‘colonies’ of Indian seamen settling within the mentioned port cities.

Muslims, Irish Catholics, Jews ...

To look further into the relationship between the Muslim migrations, host society’s perceptions and socio-economic factors, it’s key to highlight that the lascar arrivals in the 19th century and subsequent settlement of Muslims thereafter in the 20th century were ‘contemporaneous’ with one of Scotland’s ‘most concentrated phase[s] of immigration’. This period saw Irish Catholics, Irish Protestants, Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, Italians and Lithuanians arrive in the country. Establishment of the South-Asian Muslim community in this context of multi-ethnic/ religious migration would elicit certain responses from the host Scottish society. These responses were influenced by two key factors: (a) the migrants’ placement within the labour market, and (b) the extent of their abilities to integrate into Scottish society.

The Colour Problem

In the late 1920s through to the early 1930s, ‘the colour problem’ emerged after riots in many of the Scottish seaports following the global collapse of the shipping industry at the end of the First World War. The ‘cheap’ colonial seaman workforce was quickly outlined as a threat in the face of fast disappearing jobs and dropping wages. In this regard, the South-Asian Muslim community had more in common with the Irish Catholics, Lithuanians and Polish workers vis-a-vis the Irish Protestants, Jews and Italians. How come? Besides being more higher-skilled, the Irish Protestants had a sectarian commonality with their Presbyterian Scottish counterparts. As for the Jews and Italians, their entrepreneurial self-sufficiency enabled them to avoid competing with the locals in the job market. A potentially negative situation was averted through diverting the South Asian economic activity away from competing in the labour market. An era of itinerant peddling ensued.

A Self-Employed Community

From the early to mid-1920s, increasing numbers of South Asians took the self-employment route by working as pedlars ‘selling mostly ladies’, childrens and gent’s clothing’. Apart from providing an alternative source of income for the migrant community, itinerant peddling dispersed the South Asian community across the Scottish cities and even to remote villages during the economic depression of the early-1930s.

With an independent economic niche, two significant events would occur to provide further social rooting for the fledgling Scottish Muslim community: establishment of the first Scottish mosque in Glasgow (Gorbals) in 1944 and acquisition of the first Muslim cemetery in Glasgow (Sandymount) within the same year. These monumental events were facilitated by the official establishment of the Scottish branch of the Jamiat ul Muslimin (the Muslim Association) in 1933.

A steady flow of South Asian migration to Scotland continued after the mid-twentieth century. Post-war affluence ascribed to the Marshall and Beveridge Plans, privatisation of key industries (the railway, coal, electricity, iron and steel), creation of the NHS and availability of council housing increased the standard of living in Scotland. Better times and the economic boom of the 1950s - as already highlighted - created gaps in unskilled labour. The UK looked to its colonies to fill these gaps.

What has been termed ‘a chain migration’ from the Indian subcontinent occurred after the passing of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962. During this period, family-run businesses, especially grocery shops replaced peddling, enabling the Pakistani and Indian families to gradually climb up the Scottish socio- economic system. Although prejudice surfaced from the Scottish population in response to these developments, racial tensions never reached the levels they were south of the border - ‘little by little’, a small dispersed community came to be accepted for their corner-shops as the Italians were for their ice-cream parlours decades before.

Scotland: A Land of Relative Tolerance

The 1970s and 1980s saw the ‘internal migration’ of South Asians from England to Scotland. The impetus for this went beyond family ties; interestingly, perceptions of a relatively more tolerant Scottish society, the affluence of the resident Muslim community and recognition of potential business opportunities all served as pulling factors. As far as estimates on the Muslim population at that time go, Bonino (2017) places it at approximately 25,000. The figure went up to 35,000 in the early 1990s (Bonino 2017). By this time, the Muslim community had managed to establish a sustained dispersed presence across Scotland. With the exception of some parts of Glasgow, this dispersal has mitigated the segregation effect seen other British and western European cities. In socio-economic terms of integration:

The community started diversifying, dispersing, expanding its businesses and entering new sectors (motor repair, service industry, property, do-it-yourself shops, catering, computer technology and so on). At the same time, young, educated Scottish-born Muslims accessed a range of professions that allowed a certain degree of social mobility. In the early 1990s, about 35,000 Muslims were living all over Scotland and formed a visible presence in the main urban areas as shop, restaurant and takeaway owners, as well as through a growing global and local participation in political affairs. (Bonino 2017, p23).

As far as recent statistics stand, Scotland stands out because the religion question introduced in the 2001 and 2011 Census gives us very clear statistics to discuss the Muslim presence and better understand its contemporary issues. In 2001, the Muslim population accounted for 0.8% (42,557) of the total Scottish population (5,062,011). By 2011, the Muslim presence had reached 1.4% (76,737) of the total (5,295,403) overall population (Elshayyal 2016; Bonino 2017). In terms of ethnicity, almost 60% of the Muslims living in Scotland are of Pakistani origin; 10% are of Arab ethnicity; 6% are of African heritage and 3.3% (2,501) are white Scots. As for the geographical distribution of Muslims in Scotland, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen host the significant majority with 42%, 16% and 6% of the total Muslim population residing in them respectively.

Edinburgh: A Model City for Muslim-European Relations?

The Edinburgh Muslim population is distinguished by a number of characteristics pointed out by Bonino (2017) in his pioneering study ‘Muslims in Scotland’. He outlined that the city represents one side of the two sided Muslim experience of the nation:

It is important to bear in mind that the experiences of Scottish Muslims is twofold. They include high levels of integration, social participation and tolerance, which are unique to Scotland and are epitomised by Edinburgh. But they also register more complex living conditions, which are typical of large British conurbations hosting large Muslim populations and which are exemplified by Glasgow. (Bonino 2017, pp36-37).

Bonino (2017) used Glasgow as a case for comparison and highlighting these distinguishing traits given that it hosts the largest Muslim community in Scotland. The first is low levels of economic deprivation among the Edinburgh Muslim population (9.5%) vis-a-vis Glasgow (19%). The SIMD index showed the capital city’s Muslim population fared better in all seven domains: (1) employment; (2) income; (3) health; (4) education, skills and training; (5) geographical access to services; (6) crime and (7) housing. The second major distinguishing trait is the ethnic composition of the two communities. The Pakistani communities of Glasgow and Edinburgh constitute 65% and 43% respectively. The Scottish capital boasts more heterogeneity due to its ‘international appeal’ (Bonino 2017). A third crucial factor is that whilst Glaswegian Muslims were more likely to find themselves living in segregated neighbourhoods (60% of Glaswegian Muslims are concentrated in Glasgow South), the Edinburgh Muslim community ‘is widespread and scattered across the city [...] this could favour closer contact and better integration within wider society.’ (Bonino 2017, p34). In this respect, Edinburgh differs from the Nordic cities because unlike them, scholarship hasn’t outlined any specific locality as a context of segregation or contestation.

Personal Experiences One of the initial questions I asked in the beginning of my stay in the Scottish capital in September 2013 was: could you please tell me where the Muslim area is? The answer to my surprise was, a puzzling look, then an awkward pause and then: “no bro. The Muslims live all over the city”. That was an amazing revelation to me. Apart from the obvious Madinah and Makkah, the only city I've been to that doesn't have what resembles a Muslim or immigrant area is Edinburgh. With time spent in the city as a resident, I've come to see the significance this has on both the Muslim and wider non-Muslim Scottish society. The little pockets of dispersed Muslims in all corners of the city of Edinburgh has indeed - as Bonino observed and theorised- facilitated the integration of Muslims.

When I first came in 2013, I lived further out of the city centre in Portobello. The Edinburgh city centre is indeed a thriving hub for a plethora of activities, this included Muslim-related affairs. The city centre boasts a number of mosques about four atleast and the further out one goes the more sporadic the mosque locations and establishments. In Portobello, there was one mosque affiliated to the Barelvi Pakistani community. And this is a distinguishing feature of Edinburgh compared to the Nordic cities. Sufism and especially the Deobandi and Barelvi traditions were the dominant Islamic ideological and methodological strains over against the more political Muslim Brotherhood movement. This is explained by the demographics. Whilst some 43% of the Edinburgh Muslim community are Pakistani, in Copenhagen and Malmo, the Pakistanis are a tiny minority rather the Arabs were the dominant group and hence the affiliation to the Muslim brotherhood.

A Very Diverse Muslim Community

In Edinburgh mosque attendance is a mixed choice between local proximity and ideological affinity. It isn't uncommon for Muslims to drive significant distances to attends a mosque they felt more ideologically methodically as well as culturally, ethnically and even linguistically inclined to. This is well demonstrated in the interesting case of Annandale street which has two mosques roughly adjacent to one another. One is Pakistani and the other is Bengali. Recently a Turkish mosque has opened in Gorgie.

The dispersal of the Muslim community has brought about particular advantages but it has also brought certain challenges such as community building and cohesion. Not living in a Muslim area means more risk of hyper-visibility particularly for the Hijab wearers. Muslim parents also lament the difficulty of raising children with a distinct Muslim identity. A distinguishing feature is the strength of support given and outreach made Muslims feel integrated both within civil society as well as the Scottish government. Interfaith work in particular stands out as well as the city’s famed cultural festival.


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Bonino, S. (2017). Muslims in Scotland: The making of community in a post-9/11 world. Edinburgh University Press.

Devine, T. M. (2012). The Scottish nation: A modern history. Penguin UK.

Edwards, B., & Jenkins, P. (2005). Edinburgh: The Making of a Capital City. Edinburgh Univ Press.

Elshayyal, K. (2016). Scottish Muslims in numbers. Understanding Scotland’s Muslim population through the 2011 census.

Lynch, M. (2011: 219). The Oxford companion to Scottish history. Oxford University Press.

Maan, B. (1992). The new Scots: the story of Asians in Scotland. John Donald.

Maan, B. (2009). The thistle and the crescent. Argyll Publishing.

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