This article is one of a series on Muslim civil society in Britain.
The number of Muslim chaplains in Britain has grown dramatically over the last ten years, and there are now estimated to be between 400 and 450 in the UK. This growth is the result both of increasing demand among Muslims and an emerging supply of British-born, British-educated religious leaders. Today, Muslim chaplaincy has the potential to provide answers to questions about the place the Islamic tradition in Britain today.
The chaplaincy profession has distinctive historical and religious roots within the Christian tradition. Christian chaplains have been employed in the military, in hospitals, in prisons, and in universities for centuries. In contrast, there is no tradition of institutionalised chaplaincy in Islam. Although there is an implicit theology that supports and encourages what might be called ‘pastoral care’, the Islamic tradition has not followed the same trajectory of developing a professional ministry in which the pastoral role is central. In light of this, the emergence of professional Muslim chaplains in Britain is a relatively novel development, but one that indicates how Muslims and the Islamic tradition can become embedded within, and can contribute to, public life and human flourishing in a new context.
Irrespective of religious tradition, the work of a chaplain is by definition carried out ‘behind closed doors’ for much of the time. As chaplains counsel university students, comfort bed-ridden patients and their families, or try to bring hope to prisoners serving long sentences, research has shown that chaplains often have a vital role to play in supporting relationships, both human and divine, within and beyond their institutions. This article explores the growth and significance of the increasing number of Muslim chaplains in contemporary Britain. A small team of researchers that included myself along with Professor Stephen Pattison (Birmingham University) and Maulana Dr Mansur Ali (also at Cardiff University) tried to find out who becomes a Muslim chaplain in Britain today, and why? What kind of background and qualifications do chaplains bring to their work? We also wanted to know how chaplains spend their time, by mapping their day to day practices.
“An important driver of the growth in Muslim chaplaincy has been the growing availability of British-born, British-trained Islamic religious scholars.”
During the course of our research, it was clear that Muslim chaplains have to negotiate a number of political realms. For example, they have been profoundly affected by the ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ agenda (especially in the prison service), but they also have to navigate the internal politics of their own institutions and the broader professional chaplaincy community. So, our research also explored the broader contextual and political factors that have shaped the emerging role of ‘Muslim chaplain’.
We estimated that there are around 400-450 Muslim chaplains in Britain today. Within this number, about one quarter are full-time, with the rest being part-time, sessional, or voluntary. Muslim chaplains can be both men and women, and they now work in a broad range of public institutions, from prisons to police stations. Some are qualified Islamic religious professionals (carrying the title ‘imam’ or ‘alim), while others have come into the role via secular professional work such as counselling or teaching.
The dramatic rise in the number of Muslims employed as chaplains in Britain since the early 2000s has been driven by a range of contextual factors. These include straightforward demographics, so that, for example, Muslim prisoners now comprise about 12 per cent of the prison population, in contrast to the broader population where Muslims constitute just 5 per cent. Today, about half the live births in cities such as Bradford are to Muslim parents. Consequently, prisons and NHS hospitals have been among the most responsive public sector institutions to consider the implications of these changes for religious and spiritual care provision via chaplaincy services. But in more recent times, a number of universities, airports, magistrates’ courts, shopping centres, and leisure attractions in the UK have made provision for the appointment of a part-time or voluntary Muslim chaplain.
Alongside changing demographics, another driver of this increasing recruitment has been the growing availability of British-born, British-trained Islamic religious scholars able to take up the new positions. The graduates of some of the Islamic seminaries established in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s have been well-placed to act as chaplains, since alongside their religious knowledge they often speak good English and a range of community languages.
By now, there are some Muslim chaplains who have been in their posts for well over a decade, and in some cases, they have risen through various staff grades to become the senior chaplain and overall manager of chaplaincy services in their institution. Elsewhere, I have documented the transition from part-time ‘Visiting Minister’ to ‘Muslim Chaplain’ in more depth. But what is especially notable about the growth and professional maturation of Muslim chaplains is their ability to ‘translate’ not only across linguistic boundaries, but also across the boundaries of culture, ethnicity, and religion as well.
For example, Muslim communities in Britain are characterised by a great deal of internal diversity. This includes widely different approaches to law, practice, ethics, and textual interpretation. There are a range of Islamic ‘schools of thought’ to be found in Britain today. But Muslim chaplains have to be able to work within and across these different ‘schools of thought’, and respect clients’ different approaches to Islamic law (shari‘ah). And so the ability to negotiate a place for the practice of Islam – in all its diversity – within multi-faith, secular public institutions, requires a skill in the contextualisation of the Islamic tradition that is rare to find in mosques and other community settings.
“Many Muslim chaplains have acquired a level of social ‘capital’ that means they can bring a peaceful resolution to situations – in ways that would not be likely for any other member of staff.”
Meanwhile, working within multi-faith chaplaincy ‘teams’, Muslim chaplains have become important carriers of knowledge about how to live and work in a multi-faith society more broadly. As a consequence of their chaplaincy work, Muslim chaplains have learnt to see their tradition from the outside, as it were. As one prison chaplain told us:
I think we all play an important part …. we’re these pieces of the jigsaw. A Jewish piece, a Hindu piece, a Sikh, a Christian … a Quaker, you know. And to collect all these pieces….actually created a picture called the Chaplaincy.
Not surprisingly, chaplaincy departments in Britain are now sites of intensive inter-religious encounter and dialogue. Although there are inevitable contests about practical issues, such as worship spaces, resources, or staffing, Muslim chaplains have nevertheless learnt to negotiate a place for the practice of Islam in their institutions, and have often forged enduring relationships with staff right across the institution.
The quality of these relationships was most evident in our research when it came to the accounts we were given that reveal the crucial ‘troubleshooting’ role that Muslim chaplains can sometimes have in the face of tragedies, catastrophic institutional failures, or sudden emergencies. When disaster strikes, it is clear that many Muslim chaplains have acquired a level of personal and social ‘capital’ that means they can bring a peaceful and satisfactory resolution to the situation – in ways that would not be likely for any other member of staff.
This acquired understanding of how to work in multi-faith, secular public institutions, with all that this implies in terms of current legislation around equality and diversity, client-centred care, non-judgemental counselling, and pragmatic approaches to the practice of Islam in public settings, means that Muslim chaplains have potentially become an extremely valuable resource, not only for the wider Muslim population in Britain, but also for society at large. Within the figure of the experienced Muslim chaplain, we find a person who has acquired a set of skills and developed a range of personal qualities that poses a challenge to, but also provides some answers to, questions about the place of Muslims and the Islamic tradition in Britain today.
Sophie Gilliat-Ray is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University. She was the Principal Investigator for the research upon which this article is based, funded by the AHRC/ESRC (the co-investigator was Professor Stephen Pattison, Birmingham University, and the Research Fellow was Maulana Dr Mansur Ali, currently Jameel Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cardiff). Their book, Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy, was published by Ashgate in October 2013. Further details about the Islam-UK Centre can be found at: www.cardiff.ac.uk/islamukcentre
 The study was based on an AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ large grant (2008-2011).
 Gilliat-Ray, Sophie, ‘From “visiting minister” to “Muslim chaplain”: the growth of Muslim chaplaincy in Britain, 1970-2007’, in Barker, E. (ed.), The Centrality of Religion in Social Life: essays in honour of James A. Beckford (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 145-160.