In 1887, a Liverpool solicitor converted to Islam after visiting North Africa. William Henry Quilliam adopted the name Abdullah and began to seek adherents to his new faith in his native city. His conversion was announced in the press and presumably created some consternation amongst the city’s gentry. Abdullah Quilliam was highly respected in the city. His family members were prominent Methodists and established watchmakers. He was known for his temperance activities, successful law firm, presidency of the Mersey Railway Quay and Carters Union and as an amateur geologist of some renown.
In October 1899 The Sunday Times reported that 182 English men and women had joined him and established a mosque, a Muslim school and an orphanage in the city. Quilliam’s activities on behalf of Islam became well-known throughout the Muslim world through his weekly newspaper, The Crescent, which was circulated to over 80 Muslim nations. By 1893 he had attracted the attention of the Sultan of the Ottomans, Ahmed Hamid II, and the Amir of Afghanistan. The former was to award Abdullah Quilliam the title of Sheikh al-Islam of the British Isles and the latter donated £2,300 for the purchase of the mosque premises. It is estimated that by 1908 when he left Liverpool to reside in Istanbul he had converted over 250 native-born English men and women to Islam. Perhaps more significantly this included a number of prominent personalities who were to play major roles in the establishment of the London Muslim community in the early decades of the 20th century.
Abdullah Quilliam’s activities in Liverpool need to be reassessed in light of his historical role in the creation of a Muslim community in Britain. Although he is now achieving something of an iconic reputation because he provides evidence of an indigenous Muslim presence in Britain that precedes mass economic migration, his real achievements need to be clarified.
The Muslim community in Liverpool was more than a group of English middle-class converts. The renown of the British lawyer and his mosque in Liverpool had gone out to the Muslim world. At the time, Liverpool was the second city of the Empire and the gateway through which many, including Muslims, arrived in the country. The new railway linked the city to Manchester and to the rest of the nation. Wealthy upper-class Muslims had already developed their own version of a world tour and arrived in Liverpool on the steamships. They would use the city as a place of transit to visit London, Europe and even the USA. Many had heard of the mosque in the city and visited, often staying as a guest in Quilliam’s villa, from where they would attend juma (Friday) prayers, sometimes even giving lectures on various aspects of Islam, Muslim culture and history
The steamships did not only bring the wealthy to the shores of England. Many of the deckhands who ensured the success of the British merchant fleet were Asian or Arab Muslims. The Lascars, as they were known, were often in dire straits, stranded in Britain’s port as they waited to contract a journey home. Abdullah Quilliam became their champion, accommodating them in the mosque when they were homeless, attending to them in hospital when they were ill with fevers contracted at sea or offering them a full Muslim funeral with appropriate rites when their cause was hopeless. The Sheikh was pilloried in the British media for his willingness to carry out weddings in the mosque between English women and Muslim men. Quilliam was also known to Muslim students studying in Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge. They visited him and he helped Cambridge Muslim students to establish the first university Islamic Society in Britain.
Through his activities Quilliam was able to bring together the various constituents of the 19th century Muslim presence in Britain and draw upon the resources of the mosque in Liverpool to create a hub around which these often itinerant Muslim presences could cohere. But he also effectively utilized the possibility of the global reach brought about by the Victorian communications revolution to network and assist fledgling Muslim communities trying to establish themselves in Canada, USA, Australia, and South Africa. Yet globalization was about more than using steamships, trains, telegraph and wireless to lessen the impact of the geographical distance between nations, or even the increasing occurrence of migration to weaken the gulf between cultures; globalisation was also about empire and the attitudes of Muslims in Britain towards British foreign policy with regard to the Muslim world.
Even then, this would raise issues of loyalty and citizenship. Quilliam insisted that he was ‘a loyal British subject by birth and a sincere Muslim from conviction’. However, individuals who followed religions whose centre of authority was abroad were perceived with deep suspicion by the British public, and this was particularly true when the foreign nations that were associated with the religion were hostile or at war with Britain. This suspicion could take the form of religious prejudice, but Quilliam never shied away from being forthright in his criticism of imperial policies in the Muslim world. His challenge was to offset the prevalent view of Islam and to present it as the religion of reason allied to the values of toleration and moderation that public opinion insisted were part of the British worldview. His dilemma remains pertinent to the contemporary political domain and the demands on the children of the mid 20th century migrants in Britain who remain caught between proving their loyalty to their country of birth yet true to the teachings of their religion and reconciling the empathy they feel towards fellow Muslims worldwide. Quilliam’s political and social activism, his pride in his nation, his love of its values, but his refusal to confuse patriotism or citizenship with subservience to governments are one model for a way forward for contemporary Muslims in the West.