Ifeoluwa Siddiq Oyelami
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the United Kingdom released the first batch of demographic information from its 2021 census in England and Wales last month. Since 1801, the UK has conducted a census every ten years, and this most recent one found a total population of 59,597,542 in England and Wales. Statistics on the population released by the ONS on its website late last month have sparked debates in several communities. For instance, the Muslim population in England and Wales has grown from 2.7 million in 2011 (4.9% of the population) to 3.9 million (6.5%) in 2021, and Muslims have taken to numerous platforms to “enjoy” this development. This 44.4% population increase may seem impressive at first glance, but it is important to remember that this data cannot be analysed in isolation. If we look at the data as a whole and try to make sense of it in the light of other issues, we can pray that Allah honours all those who have been involved in dawah work, but we also conclude that much work remains to be done in the United Kingdom, the West, and the world at large.
Understanding the Data
In the data collection, ONS has made religious affiliation optional, to which 94.0% (56.0 million) answered. Although Christianity remains the most followed religion in England and Wales, the number of its adherents has reduced drastically, with a 13.1% fall taking it below 50% for the first time in history. Christians now form 46.2% (27.5 million) of the population, against 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011. The question ‘where have the Christians gone?’ is immediately answered by the abrupt increase in the number of people identifying with the group ‘no religion’. These individuals who may be atheists, agnostics or unreligious humanists are, as of 2021, 37.2% (22.2 million) of England and Wales population as against 25.2% (14.1 million) in 2011. With a 12% (8.1 million) increase, the ‘no religion’ group are the highest growing group by number but not by percentage rating. The highest percentage growth was recorded by Shamanism, in which adherents have grown from 650 in 2011 to 8,000 in 2021- a whopping 1130.7% growth. Shamanism is a belief system that is associated with ancient Turks and Mongols. However, in the UK, it has been packaged as a “modern spiritual experience”, and the Shamanism UK website says, “it is not a religion but an authentic expression of mankind’s spirituality”. Its rapid growth, albeit within a tiny minority, in the UK will itself be an interesting topic of independent discussion.
Meanwhile the number of people who, like the prime minister, identify as Hindu has also increased by 11.7%, from 818,000 (1.5%) to 1.0 million (1.7%) in 2021. Jewish have remained at 0.5% of the population as they were in 2011. From these, we can say that while Muslims have the highest increase among the major religions, the increase is fewer than that of the “no religion” group. Noteworthy is that even though the rate of Muslim migration does not match the increase in the Muslim population, it is reasonable to think that it has at least a small role in the increase.
The figures released have since generated many reactions from both the religious and irreligious communities. For instance, some Christian leaders, like Archbishop Stephen Cottrell of York, have owned up to the failure of Christianity and said that the church may need to work harder to promote its faith, whichremains the state religion in the UK. On the other hand, secularists and non-religious people have increased their clamour for the abolition of state religion and the state funding of religious schools. Although Muslims have taken to social media to share their excitement about the increase in the number of Muslims in the UK, I think the whole situation should not be seen as a victory but as something to learn from. We ought to ask why the Christian faith is falling and why most of those exiting Christianity do not see Islam as an alternative.
Lessons for Muslims
Notwithstanding the increase in the Muslim population, I think the figures have many messages for Muslims, especially those in the area of dawah. Of course, Islam is the religion of Allah and whoever and what nations He wishes, He bestows upon them the blessing of this Deen. Many factors have slowed down dawah compared to what it used to be. The world is changing, and values are being redefined; most times sharply in contract with the fitrah upon which Islam was established. Here, the effects of 21st-century liberal culture and thought can be seen in the decline of Christianity, which has largely lost resistance to them, as well as an increase in belief systems, like Shamanism, that claim to be spiritual and not religious. The latter is due to the fact that humans are born on a fitrah that compels them to seek the truth about divinity, whereas they are taught to view religion as a bogus institution, no thanks to the history of Christianity in Europe.
To cover these gaps, Muslims should further emphasise the essence of the Islamic faith. They should express it not as a regional culture since many perceive it that way but as a message sent down for everyone to follow. While doing this, one of the most significant obstacles that will be faced is Islamophobia, as it has been for centuries, where politicians, literature and media have misrepresented Muslims. In fact, in 2020/2021, 45% of religious hate crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales were targeted against Muslims. Thus, combatting Islamophobia is sacrosanct.
In colonial and post-colonial times, dawah has been dramatically affected by the strength of the Muslims and various political and sectarian issues lingering in almost every Muslim community. The contemporary situation can be likened to the Makkah era, where the power thy be wanted Islam to be seen in a bad light. However, the difference is that while the Muslims in Makkah are united and hold firmly to their belief, the 21st century Muslims (in the west or not) are not like that.
While I should mention that the Muslims should always be exemplary with there conducts since they are mobile billboards of Islam, lastly, it is important to emphasise that Islam can only spread when it is undiluted Islam and not compromised. Compromised and modified deen may garner some acceptance today but eventually produce non-/un-religious. Meanwhile, despite flying the mantra, “Islam is the fastest growing religion” in the world, it is important to know that irreligiosity is equally increasing in the whole world, including the Muslim world. Thus, our dawah strategies should equally focus on these areas, such as deism, atheism, and humanism, lest we fetch water into the basket. At least Christianity is an excellent example of this. Despite spending a lot of resources on missions, its loss of substance and compromises make it continue to die even in those nations built upon the Christian faith-like England.