Abdullah Quilliam: Forgotten champion of Islam: One man and his mosque
by Michael Savage
Number 8 Brougham Terrace in Liverpool is a derelict semi-detached house. Its whitewashed facade is filthy, its front door scratched and swollen and its rear gates are covered in graffiti. Pigeons have made the roof their home. The condition of the interior is even worse. Large, orange rings of dry-rot fungus cling to the walls. Pieces of the roof are scattered across the floor.
There is little to suggest that No 8 Brougham Terrace is anything special. But underneath the dust and the mould is a building of extraordinary historical and social significance. This was Britain’s first true mosque.
And following years of neglect, it could finally be about to receive the restoration treatment that, given its place in the nation’s history, it surely deserves. The Bishop of Liverpool has called for action. The Saudi and Kuwait governments are interested in helping to fund a project that would cost £2.4m.
With Liverpool gearing up to be European Capital of Culture next year, the plight of the forgotten mosque is attracting attention again. That, in turn, has shed light on the astonishing character who founded it on Christmas Day 1889.
William Quilliam was a solicitor. But in late 19th century Britain there was no other solicitor quite like him. He is said to have appeared in court wearing Turkish ceremonial dress. Others claim he travelled through Liverpool on a white Arab horse, or that he was descended from a first lieutenant who fought with Nelson at Trafalgar.
Such stories may well be apocryphal, yet Quilliam was a man whose life needs no embellishing. Few religious figures have championed their faith the way the man who became Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam did. He did so despite often facing hostility from his own countrymen. He was made the Sheikh of Britain by the last Ottoman emperor, converted hundreds to his religion, and was honoured by the Sultan of Morocco, the Shah of Persia and the Sultan of Afghanistan. The mosque at 8 Brougham Terrace was his crowning achievement.
Born in 1856, Quilliam was the son of a wealthy watchmaker, and became a solicitor after training at the Liverpool Institute. But life as a lawyer took its toll on Quilliam and in 1882 he travelled to the south of France to recover from stress. While he was recuperating, he decided to cross the Mediterranean to Morocco and Algeria and it was there that his fascination with Islam began. At the age of 31 he converted to the religion, changed his name to Abdullah and bought a marmoset as a pet.
“He never went anywhere without that monkey,” said Quilliam’s granddaughter, Patricia Gordon. “It used to sit on his shoulder. He had a little fez made for it and would even take it to the British Museum when he was studying there. He was an old Victorian eccentric. He was his own man and he did what he wanted to do all his life. When he walked into a room, everyone would go quiet. He was a very colourful character.”
His love of exotic animals turned his home into a zoo - he reportedly kept a jackal, a wolf, a fox and even a crocodile.
For Quilliam, his own conversion was just the start of his loud and proud association with Islam. He soon found he had the knack of convincing others of its merits. He first began holding lectures on his new religion and then founded the Liverpool Mosque and Institute in the small semi on Brougham Terrace, West Derby Street, in 1889.
Within 10 years of his return to the city, he assembled a following of about 150 Muslims, almost entirely made up of British converts. Scientists and professionals were among Quilliam’s group, along with his sons and his mother, who had spent most of her life as a Christian activist. He also produced two journals, The Crescent and The Islamic Review, on a printing press in the mosque’s cellar. Both were circulated internationally.
But Quilliam’s misssion did not stop at publishing. He set out to help ease Liverpool’s social ills, founding the Medina Home, which cared for illegitimate children and found them foster parents. He set up the Muslim College, a weekly debating society and also wrote a book of Muslim hymns in English.
He still found time to write a book. The Faith of Islam was published in 1899 by a small local printer and was translated into 13 languages, with three editions published. Quilliam proudly said that it had been read by Queen Victoria and the ruler of Egypt.
But not everyone appreciated Quilliam’s vigour. Soon after he converted to Islam, he was evicted from his house by his landlord, who took exception to his rejection of Christianity. The timing of his book on Islam compounded the vitriolic hatred that some in the Christian community felt for him. “The ongoing conflict with Sudan meant that the very mention of Islam in Britain was like a red rag to a bull,” says Professor Humayun Ansari, an expert in British Islamic history from Royal Holloway College, London.
Quilliam was never one to go quietly and launched a series of attacks on the British government. When the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was due to give a speech in Liverpool urging action against the Ottoman Empire for its treatment of Armenians, Quilliam leapt to the emperor’s defence. He gathered his congregation at the mosque to make a rival speech, during which he declared the West was quite happy to ignore “Christian atrocities” elsewhere.
“An American explodes a bomb in the crowded streets of Constantinople and slays innocent women and children and, because he calls himself a Christian he is extolled in England as a hero and as a patriot!” Quilliam wrote. “An Afghan fights for his fatherland in the Khyber Pass, and because he is a Muslim he is denounced as a traitor and a rebel.”
According to Professor Ansari, Quilliam paid a price for his stance. “Of course, he was lampooned, but it showed that he was a courageous man, as well as a controversial figure. Although other English people had converted, they tended to keep a low profile. Quilliam on the other hand was much more forthright and challenging, making him a high-profile public figure in the process.”
Unsurprisingly, Quilliam developed a difficult relationship with the press. The Liverpool Review described his quest to convert the city to Islam as “silly and unwelcome”. He became a regular contributor to the letters pages, attempting to right what he saw as the incorrect popular view of Islam, derived from myths dating back to the Crusades.
He wrote: “When we consider that Islam is so much mixed up with the British Empire, and the many millions of Muslim fellow subjects who live under the same rule, it is very extraordinary that so little should be generally known about this religion. And consequently the gross ignorance of the masses on the subject allows them to be easily deceived, and their judgement led astray.”
His outspoken stance also made his mosque a target of abuse. During one confrontation, a crowd of 400 protesters gathered outside the building, hurling mud, stones and rotten vegetables at those leaving the prayer hall. In 1895, a group threatened to burn Quilliam alive.
His efforts to promote Islam brought him praise and powerful friends throughout the Muslim world. The Shah of Persia made him a consul to his country. In 1894, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the last Ottoman emperor, gave Quilliam the title of “Sheikh al-Islam of Britain”, leader of British Muslims. The Sultan of Afghanistan gave him a £2,500 “personal gift”, to help him continue his good works.
By the turn of the century, Quilliam had developed ambitious plans to build a mosque from scratch, complete with a dome and minarets. But true to his eccentric character, he took a sudden decision in 1908 to leave Britain, mysteriously heading back to the east and not returning until shortly before his death in 1932.
When Quilliam left Britain, he took with him the energy that had sustained his one-man mission so successfully. Without him at the helm, the institutions he had set up declined, including the mosque. It eventually ended up in the hands of Liverpool City Council. When the authority moved out, it fell further into disrepair, “probably because water got in after thieves took the lead from the roof”, said Galib Khan, a leading member of the group attempting to restore the mosque.
Mohammad Akbar Ali, chairman of the Abdullah Quilliam Society set up to campaign for the restoration, added: “Quilliam officially opened it on Christmas Day in 1889 with a special breakfast for 130 of the city’s children.”
A fundraising meeting earlier this month was attended by the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But for Mr Ali, there is a wider principle behind finding British money to restore Abdullah Quilliam’s legacy.
“Part of the problem faced by young British Muslims now is that they have no Islamic heritage they can truly call their own,” he said. “When Muslims born and bred in the UK want to revisit their Islamic roots, they go back to the countries of their ancestors like India, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But Quilliam is proof that Britain has its own Islamic heritage. Repairing his mosque with British money, either from the Government or the Muslim community, would act as a powerful symbol of British Islam. It is a religious heritage that all British Muslims can be proud of.”
The Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones, is now patron of the fundraising campaign. He admits that being asked to take up the cause presented a “theological challenge” to him, but he was compelled by Quilliam’s example. “One of the challenges in today’s world is concentrating on the best examples of each other’s religions and finding common ground,” he said. “Quilliam was a man who did a huge amount of good work that all religious leaders should appreciate and the campaign to restore his institute is worth supporting, both nationally and locally.”
BBC reports that Quilliam’s mosque is going to be restored. ” A spokesman for English Heritage, the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment, said: “It is an immensely important monument to Islam in Britain and it is believed to be England’s earliest mosque.”
The Quilliam Society has begun putting the original issues of The Crescent from 1893 to 1908 online as a resource documenting the history of Islam in Britain. They are continuing to add issues. The collection can be found HERE
England’s oldest mosque to get £3 million refurbishment http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/4060015/Englands-oldest-mosque-to-get-3-million-refurbishment.html
The legacy of Victorian England’s first Islamic convert, Rahila Bano http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-17827016
The Little Mosque http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/heritage/england/liverpool/article_1.shtml
William Abdullah Quilliam, Islam and the British Empire http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2011/01/william-abdullah-quilliam-islam-and.html
Abdullah Quilliam Society Website http://www.abdullahquilliamsociety.org.uk/
The significance of a 19th Century Muslim community in Liverpool http://www.plainislam.com/in-depth/the-significance-of-a-19th-century-muslim-community-in-liverpool.aspx
VIDEO: *Tim Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad) explores the life of one of the most extraordinary Victorians - William ‘Abdullah’ Quilliam, who established the first community of English Muslims in Liverpool in the 1890s. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-2trKiU_rg
First published on The Independent in 2007. First published on TAM 2/2008