Ever since the 1984 ITV adaptation of Robin Hood, the addition of a Muslim warrior to the band of Merry Men has been a staple of the mythology. From a storytelling perspective, the benefits are clear: the Muslim/Western tension provides a modern resonance, and the character itself provides a valuable outsider's perspective on life in 12th century England.

But getting a Muslim warrior to England always seems to require a lot of effort on the part of the writer.

  • How realistic is this in general? Is there any evidence of any Muslims this far north-west in Christian Europe, around this period?
  • What would be the most realistic way for this to happen. Could it be part of a trade mission, a diplomatic mission? Is there any reason captured soldiers might be taken back to Europe?
  • How would the English respond to a Muslim in their midst? Could you walk down the street in London, or would you be in danger of arrest for just looking weird?

Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner image source

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    "Islam has been around in Britain for much longer than most people realise. The world map of the 12th-century Muslim geographer al-Idrisi provides evidence of the presence of Muslim traders on the south coast and in Cornwall." - The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800 by Humayun Ansari – called2voyage Sep 23 '15 at 16:35
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    Not sure of the historicity of the above, but given its direct relevance it is probably worth digging deeper into. – called2voyage Sep 23 '15 at 16:36
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    I can only tell that neither a Muslim in 12 century England, nor Robin Hood himself would be dressed in these idiotic Holywood designed uniforms. And second, I am not sure that discussion of movies is a legitimate subject here. Most "hostory movies" have really NOTHING to do with history. – Alex Sep 23 '15 at 18:04
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    @Alex I put the picture in there just to liven up the page. The question isn't about any movie in particular. And so long as the question is asking about the historical facts behind popular fiction, I don't see the problem. – Peter Sep 23 '15 at 18:29
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    Robin of Sherwood was NOT produced by the BBC but by Goldcrest in collaboration with HTV, part of the independent ITV network. You are correct though in identifying it as the source of a Muslim companion. This character was a pure invention by writer Richard Carpenter and not based on history. The Hollywood film Prince of Thieves then stole this character/concept (probably unwittingly) without giving Carpenter any credit. He discusses this briefly on one of the RoS DVD commentaries. – TheMathemagician Apr 13 '16 at 8:34

There is almost no direct historical evidence that openly-practicing Muslims were LIVING in the British Isles in the decades and centuries after the Norman Invasion. But I guess I'll start this post by highlighting the one prominent fringe hypothesis that would say otherwise (note that I mean hypothesis in a loose scientific sense here, as in a well-researched conclusion that has not gained widespread acceptance). The geneticist and demographer Donald Yates in The Early Jews & Muslims of England & Wales claims that he has discovered distinct pockets of Muslim patrilineage among UK citizens in Wales and Lincoln. According to Yates, these individuals possess the "right" North African genetic markers and surnames to surmise that they are descended from 9th-11th century Moorish merchants. However; Yates is the only resource out there making this claim and it is such a recent one (2014) that there hasn't been a lot of outside investigation by historians that would confirm this conjecture.

On the other hand, the historical record is full of examples of English-Islamic cultural exchanges going back as far as the 8th century. Note that we can't necessarily assume that these cultural exchanges were a product of Muslim traders coming to Britain (many Islamic ideas about science, trade, and jurisprudence came to Britain via contact with the Normans), but the influence was nevertheless significant. Examples include when Offa, the 8th century King of Mercia, ordered the minting of gold coins designed to resemble the dinars of the Abassid Caliphate. The reason for doing so was to apparently facilitate Mercian traders venturing to Muslim Spain and southern France. How about another example: Islamic geographers from the 9th century included Britain on their maps. Also, starting around the time of the Third Crusade, if not earlier, the Latin-translated works of highly-regarded Muslim scholars were also making their way to England and being studied by intellectuals of the period (see writings of Roger Bacon and Chaucer).

As far as hard population numbers and primary source documentation of a permanent Muslim presence in England, you won't get that until the Elizabethan period I'm afraid. For various reasons, these folks also tended to be native English who converted (save the Ottoman diplomatic delegation to the Court of Elizabeth), so it's doubtful they "stood out on the street". Good luck in your search.

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    the entire claim seems more to do with rewriting history than any scientific fact... While Moorish raiders and slave traders are known to have invaded the British isles in the late middle ages, often taking into slavery entire villages and taking them off to north Africa, they weren't there to stay. – jwenting Sep 24 '15 at 6:04
  • @jwenting if you're referring to Yates' claim, you're right. The evidence beyond his original research is flimsy. I included it here however because his book is still considered a legitimate work of peer-reviewed historiography. – Kanapolis Sep 24 '15 at 13:28
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    yes, I meant Yates' claim. While it's probably impossible to disprove there were any muslims living in what's now the UK permanently at the time, his claims are completely unfounded. – jwenting Sep 24 '15 at 14:11
  • How is it possible to have " Muslim patrilineage"? Islam is a religion, not a racial or ethnic group. It's of course possible that there were e.g. Moorish (North African) traders who formed relationships with local women and fathered children, but there's no way to know whether or not those men were Muslims. – jamesqf May 25 '18 at 3:16
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Medieval Lincoln was known for having a Jewish community. Sephardic Jews seem a more likely source for this DNA than North African Muslims. – TheMathemagician May 25 '18 at 8:49

Personally, I always hate it when a TV or movie producer takes some famous book and makes major changes to it, like adding a totally new character. Like hey, if you didn't like the story, write your own. Don't put your words in someone else's mouth just so you can piggyback on his popularity. Thee was certainly no such character in the original Robin Hood story. Whether this really is or will become a "staple of the mythology", we'll see I guess. But that little rant aside ...

To make a Muslim character living in England plausible, you don't have to suppose any large community of Muslims establishing a permanent residency in England. You just have to posit that ONE person could have made it there. And that seems pretty obviously possible. Others have noted that Muslims did visit England and trade with England in this period. You just have to suppose that among the hundreds? thousands? of Muslims who visited, one decide to hang around and join this particular group.

  • It's not just TV and movie guys that do this, Shakespeare did this too! – Mozibur Ullah May 26 '18 at 21:18
  • Hmm, of course Shakespeare made "historical dramas", took real history and made a fiction play out of it. Usually he was pretty faithful to his sources, though, I don't think he added whole new characters. Did Shakespeare "plagiarize" other writers for fiction plots? – Jay May 27 '18 at 23:00

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