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Islam in Scotland


As of this writing, there are over 75,000 Muslims in Scotland, representing 1.4% of the population. They are a small but very visible minority, especially in the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. In fact, I’ve spent the past week staying next door to the Edinburgh Central Mosque, which is a lovely building in its own right, and obviously Muslims are a common sight all around it.

Islam has been in the news this week for a particularly sad occasion: the murder of one Muslim by another, over religious differences. As the BBC reported:

Tanveer Ahmed, 32, from Bradford, is accused of killing Mr Shah outside his shop in Glasgow almost a fortnight ago. In the statement he denied the incident had anything to do with Christianity. Mr Ahmed claimed Asad Shah had "disrespected" Islam by claiming to be a prophet. The shopkeeper, an Ahmadi Muslim, who had moved from Pakistan to Glasgow almost 20 years ago, was found with serious injuries outside his shop on Minard Road in Shawlands on 24 March. He was pronounced dead in hospital. Mr Shah was killed just hours after he posted an Easter message on Facebook to his customers. The message said: "Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nationx" During the police investigation officers claimed the incident was "religiously prejudiced" and confirmed both men were Muslims. Mr Shah was an Ahmadiyya Muslim, a group known for its non-violence and interfaith concerns.

It’s hard to imagine an incident more emblematic of the ongoing struggle for the fate and future of Islam. Ahmadiyya Muslims are what one might call a reformed or reformist Muslim sect, given that the intentions of it founder were to strip Islam of fanaticism and violence. There are, however, very few Ahmadiyya worldwide–no more than 20 million, though estimates vary considerably. Many Muslims consider them apostates, as well, and as the BBC notes, adherents are forbidden from referring to themselves as Muslim in Pakistan.

Tanveer Ahmed, who stands accused of murdering Asad Shah, offered a somewhat rambling statement through his attorney:

"This all happened for one reason and no other issues and no other intentions. "Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. Mr Shah claimed to be a Prophet. "When 1400 years ago the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him has clearly said that 'I am the final messenger of Allah there is no more prophets or messengers from God Allah after me. "'I am leaving you the final Quran. There is no changes. It is the final book of Allah and this is the final completion of Islam. There is no more changes to it and no one has the right to claim to be a Prophet or to change the Quran or change Islam.' "It is mentioned in the Quran that there is no doubt in this book no one has the right to disrespect the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him and no one has the right to disrespect the Prophet of Islam Muhammad Peace be upon him. "If I had not done this others would and there would have been more killing and violence in the world. "I wish to make it clear that the incident was nothing at all to do with Christianity or any other religious beliefs even although I am a follower of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him I also love and respect Jesus Christ."

Suffice it to say, there’s been little obvious support for Ahmed’s view of the situation. Quite the contrary, in fact, given that Muslims routinely condemn violence committed in their names.

The reporting I’ve seen here since Shah’s death has focused on how well-liked Shah was, and how shocking his murder is to the people who knew and cared for him. Muslims are a growing demographic here, too, having seen a 50% increase in their population in Scotland since 2001, and conversions to Islam are on the rise. There’s even an official Islamic tartan, for those who wish to celebrate both their Scottish heritage and Muslim identity.

And when the UK agreed to take in a thousand refugees from the civil war in Syria, Scotland quickly moved to take in over 300, despite only being committed for 100. (That 1000 refugees represents a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the overall number is another matter entirely, and one that the Scottish government has no control over unless and until the country becomes independent of the UK.)

Unfortunately, Muslims in Scotland have faced unwanted attention and discrimination in the aftermath of high-profile terrorist attacks elsewhere in Europe. One hopes that these are brief outbursts of ignorance and do not signal a broader trend in sentiment toward Muslims. The situation was certainly much rosier a few years ago, and evidence was ample that one could be both Scottish and Muslim without feeling any sense of conflict, at least according to The Economist:

The relationship between Scottish nationalism and the Muslim community seems unusually harmonious. Six out of ten Scots believe Muslims are integrated into everyday Scottish life, according to a poll in 2010 by Ipsos Mori. A survey in 2011 by the Scottish government found Muslims in Scotland felt that being Scottish was an important part of their identity, and that for them “community” tended to mean the shop down the road, rather than a local or global network of other Muslims. In last year’s referendum the pro-independence Yes campaign was backed by 64% of Asians, most of them Muslims, according to a poll by Scotland’s main Asian radio station. Mazhar Khan of the Muslim Council of Scotland says that Muslims in Scotland will define themselves as Scottish, while those in England are prepared only to call themselves British. Why? Scottish Muslims have greater economic power than their English counterparts: many are involved in business, and arrived with the means to set themselves up (a large proportion are from Punjab, a relatively rich Indian state). Most English Muslims hail from poorer bits of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and often went into industries that have since faltered. In Scotland ethnic minorities sometimes benefit from “reverse discrimination”: as the National Health Service was the first employer to send minorities to some of Scotland’s farther-flung areas, it is often assumed that non-whites are doctors. Mohammad Sarwar, a Scot, was Britain’s first Muslim MP. Theories abound: Scots regard themselves as a minority, persecuted by the English; left-leaning Scottish nationalism is friendlier to minorities than English Conservatism. And Scottish Muslims are few—they make up just 1.5% of the population, compared with 4.5% across Britain—giving them a greater incentive to integrate.

It’s easy for Muslims, wherever they live, to be viewed as a monolithic bloc, which makes them convenient objects of fear and suspicion, but more Muslims are like the late Mr. Shah than his killer. It’s also worth appreciating the ways Islam and other cultural and religious identities gel with local histories and customs. The Scottish Muslim isn’t an aberration, but a sign of the present and the future–cause for celebration, not fear.