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BOOK REVIEW: History of British Yemeni Muslim community

27th Jun 2014

The Last of the Lascars: Yemeni Muslims in Britain 1836-2012.
By M S Seddon. Leicester: Kube Publishing. pp328. PB. 2014. £17.99

This book is based on the author’s doctoral research on one of the earliest Muslim communities in Britain, namely the Yemeni community. Some research had already been carried out on this topic by a number of scholars such as Fred Halliday (Britain’s First Muslims) and Humayun Ansari (The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800). However Dr Seddon’s book is, as far as I am aware, the first comprehensive study and evaluation of the history, evolution and progress of the British Yemeni Muslim community to be undertaken by a Muslim academic.

In his thoughtful foreword to the book, Professor Humayun Ansari of Royal Holloway, University of London, says, ‘The popular perception is that Muslims lack roots in British soil: they have arrived only recently, and, as a consequence, they do not possess deep historical and organic links with customs, traditions and values of British society. This perception has been damaging for communal harmony since it has been deployed to set boundaries that, arguably, categorize, alienate and exclude Muslims, by calling into question their emotional ties, loyalties and claims of belonging to this country; namely, a version of ‘this is our country and by implication not yours’, through which claims to greater entitlement are frequently, if not always explicitly, asserted. In this discourse, British Muslims are viewed as a huge problem in need of a solution, and much media, political and academic energy is focused upon attempts to understand them.’ (p xx)

If the popular perception is that Muslims do not have deep historical roots in Britain, then Seddon’s book shows this to be utterly untrue. Consisting of seven detailed and illuminating chapters, the author presents a historical narrative that traces the journey of Yemeni Muslims from the early part of the nineteenth century up to the present, based on a range of sources, both primary and secondary, highlighting the experiences, challenges, difficulties and opportunities the community faced as they endeavoured to make Britain their homeland.

Seeking to contextualise his historical account, in Chapter 1, the author rightly provides a brief overview of the history of Yemen from the ancient times to the contemporary period, touching upon salient aspects of its past including the important role played by its seaports, creating naval links with India on one side and Britain on the other.

In the next chapter, the author explains how the early Yemeni sailors (lascars) made their way into several British port cities including Cardiff, Liverpool, London and South Shields, and subsequently to Manchester. His account of Yemeni settlement in prominent British cities is based on a range of sources including archival research, interviews and questionnaires.

In Chapter 3, the author traced the early formation and development of the community in the British port cities. This was marked by the establishment of Arab guest houses, cafes and shops in those localities as well as the lascars contribution to Britain’s political and economic growth and development during and after the First World War.

In the next three chapters, the author provides an interesting account of the community’s awareness of its self and its role in modern Britain, thanks largely to the efforts of a remarkable scholar and spiritual guide, namely Shaykh Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi and his able successors including Shaykh Hassan Ismail and subsequently Shaykh Said Hassan Ismail.

These three chapters are invaluable contributions as they highlight the lives and works of three pioneering British Muslim scholars, spiritual guides and community leaders, personalities, whose contributions have remained largely unknown, unacknowledged and neglected.

In the last chapter of the book, the author focuses on the challenges, difficulties and opportunities faced by the Yemeni community in contemporary Britain, touching upon issues of identity, Britishness, cultural integration and social cohesion, among other topics.

The author concludes a detailed epilogue with these words, ‘The resilience of the religious and cultural facets of British Yemeni identity raises some interesting questions relating to both the perceptions and expectations of the social integration and assimilation of minority faith communities into the wider identity constructions, notions and definitions of ‘Britishness’ in modern, multicultural and religiously plural Britain.’ (p 275)

This is a very interesting and important book and the author deserves much credit for his contribution. The book also includes a useful chronology, interesting illustrations/pictures, extensive endnotes and a detailed bibliography of references. Highly recommended reading for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Muhammad Khan, Acclaimed author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013).

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