The Thistle and the Crescent. By Bashir Maan, Argyll: Argyll Publishing. Pp255. PB, 2008. £9.99
This book is a historical survey of Islam in Scotland from the earliest times to the present covering nearly fifteen hundred years of history. This is a remarkable effort considering the fact that this is a neglected topic and even experienced historians and researchers would have struggled to produce a book like this. Though the author of this book is better known for his role as a politician than as a researcher and author, with this work Bashir Maan has proved that he is an equally talented historian.
Consisting of an introduction, prologue, epilogue and six short but highly informative chapters, in this book the author has traced Scotland’s contact with the Muslim world since the seventh century.
In his foreword to the book, Rt Hon Alex Salmond, MSP, MP, First Minister of Scotland, writes, ‘For the first, Scotland’s historic links with the Muslim world have been explored in The Thistle and the Crescent. While the contribution made to the Scottish society by our Muslim communities in recent times is better known, I’m sure it would come as a surprise to most people that there may have been contact between Scotland and Islam dating back to the seventh century.’ (p5)
The prologue sets the scene by providing a brief overview of the advent of Christianity in Scotland and the emergence of Islam in Arabia and its neighbouring territories. This enabled the author to explore, in Chapter 1, the Islamic contact with Scotland through the early travellers, traders and pilgrims who had travelled to Islamic lands for business as well as pilgrimage to holy sites of Christianity in Palestine.
The author points out that officials representing Caliph Abd al-Rahman II, the Muslim ruler of Spain, may have visited Scotland in the wake of the Vikings raids on Scotland in the mid-ninth century.
In Chapter 2 the author surveys the impact and influence of the Crusades on Scottish and Islamic relations as the numbers of pilgrims from Scotland to the Muslim world increased during this period. By contrast, Chapter 3 focuses on the role of the scholars, diplomats and travellers who facilitated contact between Scotland and Islam during the Middle Ages as Scottish scholars travelled regularly to Muslim Spain and North Africa in pursuit of knowledge and higher education.
While most of Europe languished in the Dark Ages, at the time the Muslim world led the rest of the world in research and education in philosophy, science, mathematics and religious sciences. Some of the world’s foremost institutions and academies were based in the Muslim world, thus attracting students from many parts of the world including Scotland. (p103)
In Chapter 4 the author surveys Scotland’s contact with the Muslim world during the time of the British Empire, covering the period from eighteenth to twentieth centuries. During this expansive and equally explorative period in modern history, Scottish soldiers, administrators and scholars worked in many parts of the Muslim world including Mughal India and Malaya. According to the author, ‘They developed friendships with the Muslim elite, adopted their customs and culture, some even converted to Islam and married Muslim women.’ (p12)
In Chapter 5 the author provides an overview of the history of the Muslim community in Scotland, explaining the reasons for the early migration, the gradual development of the community and its progress since the early 1950s. Bashir Maan is able to relate this part of the history from his own experience as one of the early Muslim settlers in Scotland and the first Muslim city councillor in the UK.
By contrast, the final chapter of the book is a brief introduction to Islam as a faith and culture aimed mainly at non-Muslims. The author explains that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is an Abrahamic faith and much of the misunderstanding and misrepresentation about this beautiful religion stems from fear and ignorance.
The author seeks to dispel some of those myths by explaining Islam’s main principles and practices.
This book is a much needed contribution, written by one of Scotland’s most well known Muslims, who also has an unusual ability for historical inquiry and research. This is a remarkable contribution from a remarkable Scottish Muslim. Highly recommended reading!
Muhammad Khan is author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013).