William Henry Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932)

© Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries
© Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries

Abdullah Quilliam was arguably the most influential and controversial British Muslim convert of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a fact acknowledged by his Muslim contemporaries in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

William Henry Quilliam converted to Islam in the late 1880s in Morocco in his early 30s whilst travelling for health reasons, this after a lifetime of intense political and religious scrutiny in which he had questioned both the current condition of Christianity, its theology, attitudes towards contemporary moral issues and the various attitudes of the political parties towards equality, social injustice and foreign policies.

On conversion, Abdullah Quilliam was not content to practice his new faith, but immediately began to proselytise in his home city of Liverpool, finding premises to hold meetings for those interested. Abdullah Quilliam brought to his attempts to promote Islam, as the final truth of the Abrahamic monotheistic religion, considerable resources gleaned from his advocacy of temperance, trade unionism, and social equality in the city of Liverpool. As a satirical journalist and a very skilled defence advocate, he was already well-known in his home city as a significant figure who fought for the rights of the less privileged in society.

Always outspoken, he announced his conversion to Islam in the local media, and by 1893 was able to find premises in Brougham Terrace to be used as a mosque and meeting hall. His efforts to publicly promote Islam in the heart of the British Empire brought him to the attention of both the Ottoman Sultan and the Amir of Afghanistan. The former conferred upon him the title of Shaikh al-Islam of Great Britain and the latter sent his son to offer the Shaikh considerable financial resources which were used to expand the premises to include two Muslim schools, an orphanage, a museum of Muslim culture, a library and further education facilities for the city’s working classes.

The Shaykh was to use these facilities to publish a weekly Muslim newspaper and a monthly journal. His newspaper went out to over eighty Muslim nations and brought Abdullah Quilliam to the attention of the wider Muslim world. His efforts to establish Islam in Britain involved the conversion of over 250 individuals and families in Liverpool alone, but he was also the major contributor to the conversion or education of many of the main figures in British Islam of his era. His efforts also extended to assisting Muslim converts and settlers in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. Through his activities Quilliam was able to bring together the various constituents of the nineteenth century Muslim presence in Britain and draw upon the resources of the mosque in Liverpool to create a hub around which all the, often itinerant, foreign Muslim presences in Britain could cohere and created a unique community comprised of converts, Lascars, Muslim students and rich Muslim travellers.

His forthrightness, particularly with regard to British foreign policy and colonial expansion into Muslim territory, would raise issues of loyalty and citizenship. The Shaikh insisted that he was ‘a loyal British subject by birth and a sincere Muslim from conviction’. 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-twentieth century Muslims in Britain who remain caught between proving their loyalty to their country of birth yet true to the teachings of their religion.

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Website: Abdullah Quilliam Society