“And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?”

William Blake, Jerusalem

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

King James Bible, Mark 8:36

The Venerable Bede, England’s first native historian, records that Pope Gregory I, on seeing a group of fair-haired Anglian children at Rome’s slave market, exclaimed that they were “non Angli, sed Angeli!” (“Not Angles, but Angels!”) and was subsequently inspired to convert their homeland to Christianity.

If Gregory imagined that their country was a place where the Divine Countenance, or at least His incorporeal servants, were especially proximate, he was echoing a sentiment of the English themselves throughout their history. To be more precise, the English did not feel they were especially close to God, but that they lived in a place which was an especially direct means of coming into His presence. In other words, they felt that England was a land especially enchanted.

Not, however, that you would know it today. A land of trash and garbage, filthy from each weekend’s debauchery, unsafe after dark for half its residents; its children abandoned, murdered in the womb, or drugged into compliancy in schools whose teachers can be sacked for ignoring their “gender identity”; its elderly abandoned in authoritarian Care Homes to slowly die of loneliness; its popular culture pure junk and its high culture pure subversion; its religion an empty relic, its institutions fossils; its people haunting soulless streets and byways owned by someone else as they stare at the latest gimmick of the globalist entertainment industry on their hand-held computers, it sits festering on the edge of Europe like an open sore.

Of course most of this is nothing special. Half the world is the same and the other half is quickly catching up. England does, though, have the distinction of almost the world’s highest rate of family breakdown, a culture of binge-drinking and football hooliganism that earn us the deserved contempt of the otherwise similarly degenerate nations on the European continent, and an unparalleled absence of national purpose. The citizens of other Western nations can at least offer a serious answer to the question of who they are and what they stand for. All we can think of to distinguish us are trivialities like the habit of complaining about the weather. And that is what our country is: trivial.

Within living memory, things were completely different. The oldest generation remember an utterly different, now unimaginable, country with plays and films strictly censored, religion respected, buggery illegal, immigrants rare, deference, temperance hotels, schoolmasters who wore gowns, and people with hot water bottles instead of sex lives. On the whole, it was a better country. It was harsh and repressive but it upheld normal, healthy human values like faith, chastity, family, loyalty, and self-control. It still had living traditions, a real culture, and a way of life, in sum, much closer to the human fitrah.

It was also a country which, in the modern period, committed great crimes. I will not discuss this here. My excuse is two-fold: first, that so much has been written about it elsewhere, by people far more knowledgeable than myself; second, that it is not relevant to my aim in this essay. That is to explore what an Islamic England might look like, and to examine points of convergence with Islam in our national tradition and how they might be built on. I will therefore largely stick to our virtues, for so much has already been written about our vices. Suffice it to say about Empire that other countries have committed worse crimes, and that they too have cultures worth preserving. That Germany produced the Nazis does not mean that Germanness should be abolished: it means it should be purified, God willing, by the Divine filter that is the shariah. The same goes for England.

The notion of England as an enchanted land is the central theme of Sir Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy, by far the most thoughtful attempt to understand a culture that was extinguished within the writer’s lifetime. This notion provides the lynchpin of a people’s self-understanding and explains the institutions and customs that they built. I will consider a few of these here and show the virtues which they share with Islam, before returning to the concept of the enchanted land to consider how it might affect our future.

First, England was a land of freedom. This is a commonplace, in fact a cliché. It would be better to say that it was a land of individualism. The freedoms which we prize today—to fornicate, to abandon our families, to behave indecently—have nothing to do with it. I won’t recount the tedious magna carta mythology of the nineteenth century here. It is significant, though, that the Anglo-Saxons already seem to have practiced, in common with other areas of North-West Europe, the system of manorialism, whereby serfs would work a piece of land individually assigned by the manor’s lord. This led to weak extended families and spending a lot of time with relative strangers. Partly as a result, tribalism seems to have been replaced by impersonal law as the basis of justice as early as the tenth century reign of Aethelstan.

From very early on, England was therefore a society whose basic unit was the individual rather than the family, tribe, or clan. This had enormous virtues. It produced a people given to innovation, scepticism, and personal initiative, and it explains much of the rest of our national character. The Qu’ran tells us that no bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another (35:18), and we know that the eternal drama of souls that is the reality of human existence knows no tribe or nation. We also know that the individual soul is tested through its obligations to its family and neighbours, but nothing in English society rejected this. It was a society that believed in God and in a moral law: it differed from less individualistic cultures in that it more clearly affirmed that the duty of obedience has only the individual as its fundamental subject. This in no way weakens the duty.

English individualism was really a noble ideal: that a man should obey the moral law out of real choice and knowledge, not blind conformity to convention or the wishes of others. This is the basic message of Shakespeare, whose characters are individuals par excellence. “This above all: to thine own self be true” says Polonius to Laertes; but he does not mean the nafs but the ruh and its sense of God and justice. Shakespeare’s heroes pray and ponder, fear God, believe in the Hereafter, and seek purity and forgiveness; but they do all this as individuals, thinking for themselves and aspiring to be independent of others’ good wishes. It is perhaps the Bard’s concern for authenticity that allows even moderns to appreciate him; but as Sheikh Winter puts it, his values “are closer to the ethics of Islam than the ethics of the monoculture…he is not the ancestor of Ricky Gervais or Jade Goody”.

This individualism is now completely foreign to us, even though a memory of it is used by fake traditionalists to promote their de-moralising agenda. In tandem with all the other facets of national decline in the last sixty years has come an erosion of traditional liberties. Suspected “terrorists” can now be held without charge for up to two weeks, in flagrant violation of the medieval principle of habeas corpus, or else placed under virtual house arrest indefinitely through so-called Control Orders, and the State, tiny before 1914, now intrudes impulsively on every aspect of our lives. Individualism is also dead as a cultural ideal: television and then the internet put paid the ideal of self-direction, and the young inhabit a culture of abject conformity, believing they are expressing their authentic selves by all doing, and enjoying, exactly the same boring things.

The other side of the individualism of the manor was a premium on self-control. The poor could often not marry until a plot of land became available through death, and they therefore had to practice delayed gratification. Thus, another central virtue of the English—much as this will be incomprehensible to most Englishmen born after about 1950—was sexual restraint, and a related culture of self-control.

The Victorians, and even our own grandparents in the middle of the twentieth century, believed freedom and self-control were inseparable. This saturates their Imperial propaganda and explains the strict code of moral censorship and the restrictions on the rights of moral deviants which they upheld, seeing absolutely no tension with their ideal of individualism. Astonishingly, the 1956 Sexual Offences Act made it a crime for a man to introduce a young woman to a third man with whom she subsequently fornicated.  Meanwhile, the Obscene Publications Act strictly prohibited any kind of positive representation of sexual immorality in writing. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence’s trashy piece of soft porn whose 1960 test case undermined that law, had a power to genuinely shock that the Tinder generation can’t even imagine.

Of course, this culture of repression was excessive. It did not understand the value of sensuality, and it could on occasion lead to moral catastrophe. The idea of Victorian England as a gigantic brothel run by a hypocritical, hedonistic bourgeoise is, however, complete rubbish. Most people must have managed to practice self-control because in a world without truly reliable contraceptives less than four percent of children were born out of wedlock. Until the nineteen-sixties, an even smaller number of marriages ended in divorce. And although late marriage has been a custom of the English for centuries, we didn’t completely lack moderation in our repression, and the role of marriage in taming uncontrollable desire was prescribed as a cure for the vice of self-abuse by most Victorian writing on the subject just as it is in Islam.

Scruton, who admits it was excessive, shows that it could also make people beautiful. In the opening chapter of his book he describes his grammar school chemistry master, Mr Chapman, a devout Anglican and former colonial officer, abandoned by his wife somewhere in the tropics, but in his own mind still married—this being an indissoluble sacramental bond, as per the teaching of the Church in his time. A humble, kind, and powerfully dignified figure, whatever desire he might still have felt was sublimated into a pure and (to anyone’s knowledge) chaste affection for the boys he tutored.

The basis of all moral elevation is the riyadat al-nafs (the war against the lower self), and its corollary is, as Ghazali puts it, “breaking the two desires” of the stomach and the genitals. The English, though since the eighteenth century we lacked a spiritual tradition to make sense of this process, excelled at breaking both, even we erred too much on the side of repression, rather than Islam’s great via media. There is a reason our food, too, is terrible: it reflected a puritan fear of sensual indulgence, and the boys of the nation’s elite were consequently served a tasteless cuisine of chopped meat and overcooked vegetables at their terrifying boarding schools, which probably achieved its intended effect of making them tough and disciplined young men.

Connected to this was a predilection for modesty and restraint. I have previously commented on the schizophrenic attitude of Western conservatives to hijab (Hijab: A Great British Tradition, November 2017), which was actually worn (though not at all times and places) by English women until a few decades ago. Her Majesty the Queen still wears it often, and Mitchel and Kenyon’s films of Edwardian England show us, as a BBC costume drama never will, that working class English women then often dressed more modestly than Muslim women do now.

This was paralleled by a desire not to impose one’s personality upon others, or to have oneself so imposed upon, typified by the “English eccentric”. An Englishman’s home is his castle, as the old saying goes, and his greatest ambition was to own a little piece of his country, where he could rule his own private kingdom in peace and solitude, undisturbed by his neighbours. Orwell called us a “a nation of flower lovers… stamp collectors, pigeon fanciers and amateur carpenters” in 1941. Peter Hitchens, who justly called the destruction England has faced in the last sixty years The Abolition of Britain, contrasts the funerals of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana: the former involving controlled, dignified grief and tolerance for different responses, the latter a scene of a television-imposed conformity in narcissistic emotional incontinence. Scruton comments that, until this time, for the English, there was no need to express an emotion simply because it happened to be one’s own; despite having a vocabulary far larger than other Latin languages, English has few words for the subtler inner states.

Some of this tendency still survives. It is reflected in our habit of apologising when shoved in the street, which is a way of avoiding emotional imposition, and the love of the private sphere is apparent in our relatively high rate of home ownership. The culture reflected a deep modesty of character which is also an Islamic value. For instance, it is of the Prophetic Sunnah to speak very little, and this is fundamental to Sufi practice: while Scruton observes that foreigners were amazed that “the normal condition of the English, both in public and in private, was silence.”

Another virtue of the English was our reverence for law. The English system of common law and equity is very different to that of other Western nations: the law was originally made by judges, not by the state, based on specific judgements on the cases that came before them, rather than abstract principles of justice.

Although much (but by no means all) of the common law system has now been replaced by statute, it was originally a system very similar to the structure of the shar’iah. Magistrates interpret law according to the precedent of their seniors, who at the highest levels of scholarship have the privilege of ijtihad or independent reasoning, and this process takes place outside the direct authority of politics. Of course, the content of English ijtihad is very different, because common law is inductive and fiqh is deductive: the former is not based on Revelation but on custom and intuition, which given our lack of access to uncorrupted Revelation was no bad thing.

Nevertheless there is a deep similarity in spirit. Wael Hallaq in The Impossible State explains the difference between Western and Islamic law in terms of “paradigms”. Western civilisation is based on a Schmittian paradigm which privileges “the political”; law flows from the decree of the state and there is no structural mechanism to ensure it reflects morality. By contrast, shar’iah is an inherently moral system, incorporating subjects that the West doesn’t recognise as law at all, and its “judiciary” of qadismuftis, and fuqahah is institutionally separate from the ruler and holds him accountable to a higher authority. The Sultan and his men are accorded only a narrow sphere of leeway within a system that bases law on the Divine, and thus places morality above politics. This may be alien to Continental systems of civil law, with their Napoleonic Code and inquisitorial tribunals, but in England it was in fact the law’s central ideal.

Doubtless it rarely realised this ambition in practice, but ideals still regulate men’s conduct when they fail to live up to them by preventing them from becoming totally depraved. The reverence for law as an impartial realm of justice, beyond the reach of power and privilege, has run through English history for over a thousand years. Magna Carta was substantially based on a charter issued by Henry I over a century before, and even his bastard father, for all the brutality of his Conquest, had sworn to rule by the law of the land. In modern times, all the critics of the injustices of our elite admitted this ideal of law had at least some impact on their conduct. As Orwell put it in the same 1941 essay, in which he called for a radical upheaval in favour of democratic socialism, “Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor” but at the same time, “the hanging judge, that evil old man in scarlet robe and horse-hair wig…who will at any rate interpret the law according to the books and will in no circumstances take a money bribe, is one of the symbolic figures of England”.

This convergence may be no coincidence: recent scholarship has suggested that the shar’iah had a huge impact on the development of English law in the middle ages, and whole areas, such as the law of trusts (roughly, waqf) seem to have been imported wholesale. The attitude of reverence that this ideal inculcated in the English is derived from its connection to our enchanted isle. The common law was the law of the land and its authority came from the land: it represented the system of natural justice appropriate to England itself. Hence in the trial of Somersett’s Case in 1772, which determined that masters could not forcibly remove their slaves from the country, an advocate could declare (for all his hypocrisy) that “England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in”, and it was natural that his words became famous. Something of this reverence survives into the present: we are no longer the safe, orderly country we were a few decades ago, but we still feel, more than most comparable peoples, that The Law can be invoked as the final moral, as well as practical, arbiter in our disputes.

Finally, the empirical, pragmatic tendency of the law reveals a wider disposition for scepticism and intellectual humility. In the modern period, all our great philosophers, except during a brief period in hoc to Hegel in the late 19th century, have been of an empiricist bent, and until around 1910 our art was stolidly, resolutely realist. Our politicians, too, have been averse to abstract thought. Ian Gilmour spoke for centuries of English leaders, and not just for his own party, when he said that “when it comes to ideology, the Conservative is advised to travel light”, while the Labour Party famously “owed more to Methodism than Marx”. This, combined with our reverence for legality, is probably the reason we avoided succumbing to the great ideological death-cults of the twentieth century in significant numbers. Moseley’s British Union of Fascists never caught on because people simply laughed at them when they paraded in the street. Continentals may have mocked our aversion to theory, but it was Theory which sent the kulaks to Siberia and the Jews to Auschwitz.

This is also apparent in our religious traditions. The 14th century Cloud of Unknowing, perhaps the greatest surviving work of indigenous spirituality, sees the embracing of one’s ignorance, and the surrender of conscious cogitation, as the beginning of wisdom. “On account of pride”, its anonymous author argues, “knowledge may often deceive you, but love builds”. England was also the first major European country to embrace religious toleration. The first Elizabeth, who ended the period of doctrinal chaos immediately following the Reformation, proclaimed that though she would require outward conformity to the rites of the newly restored Church of England, she would “not make windows into men’s souls” by prying into their private faith, a notion which finds clear parallels in Islam’s approach to apostasy.

With the extension of toleration in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, this same suspicion of dogma eventually gave rise to a flourishing network of Unitarian churches, who rejected Trinitarian mysteries in favour of pure monotheism. It also informed the first Westerner to launch a serious defence of Islam, Henry Stubbe, who concluded that “the sum of Mahometan religion” consisted in “not clogging Men’s Faith with the necessity of believing a number of abstruse notions which they cannot comprehend, and which are often contrary to the dictates of Reason and common Sense”.

England’s unique religious style can most clearly be seen in its religious architecture. The cathedrals of Salisbury or Lincoln are buildings as great as almost any in the world. But they do not intimidate like those of Chartres or Amiens. There are no dizzying facades or impossible buttresses, no challenges to normal metaphysics. Their glory is humble; their spires, tall is they are, do not try to rise up to meet God but to coax Him into joining us down below. With their rambling cloisters, their illogical rural settings, they are vernacular buildings which grow out of, rather than sitting on top of, their surrounding communities. They are horizontal rather than vertical. They affirm tasbih rather than tanzih. They tell the onlooker that he need not feel distant from God because He is already here, in England.


This brings me back to the centre of the English culture, which was the sense of inhabiting sacred land. It unites all the virtues I have discussed. It was the reason for our reverence for a law which grew out of that land and expressed the conception of justice appropriate to it. By imbuing awe for the sacredness of the everyday it promoted our striking diffidence and modesty of character. It was the natural companion of an identity based on ties of geography rather than ancestry, and hence also of our anti-tribal individualism. And its uncompromising particularity and earthy rootedness explains much of our aversion to dogma and abstraction, for we did not need such things to know whom we were. For that we relied on gestures, not genealogy—and certainly not on ideals.

This did not entail any kind of ethnic chauvinism, though it was appropriated for such by the Victorian and Edwardian shills of Imperial grandeur. It could accommodate any number of immigrants, so long as they remained a trickle rather than a flood and had time to make the land their own. We did not think ourselves superior to others, but more fortunate, for inhabiting a land where the Divine presence could more easily be felt—here, in “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.

Here I will end part 1 of the essay. In part 2 I intend to discuss the role of Islam in England’s future. Wa Allahu alam.

Jacob Williams

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