William Henry Abdullah Quilliam, a prominent Islamic leader of the U.K., founded the first mosque and Islamic center in Liverpool in the 19th century after he converted to Islam following a short trip to Morocco.
A journalist and lawyer by profession, Henry, a Christian, became Abdullah after returning from Morocco in 1887.
The eyes of Abdul Hamid II, the 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, fell on Abdullah. Recognizing his efforts to promote Islam, the Sultan granted Quilliam the title of Sheikh-ul-Islam of Great Britain, a title reflecting his leadership in the Muslim community.
As a charismatic preacher, he created a remarkable community of Muslims in Victorian Liverpool, including around 600 converts in Britain.
Quilliam was born in 1856 in Liverpool to a Christian family. He spent most of his childhood on the Isle of Man, a British crown dependency, and was brought up as a Methodist.
He was a “regular attendee” at the Fairfield Wesleyan Chapel and taught at a Sunday School at the United Methodist Free Church, Ron Geaves, a visiting professor in the Centre for the Study of Islam in Britain at Cardiff University, told Anadolu Agency.
He became active in the Temperance Movement, “the non-conformist Protestant movement opposed to the consumption of alcohol,” and was known in Liverpool as the Temperance Child, Geaves said.
In 1878, he became a lawyer specializing in criminal law after training at the Liverpool Institute and spent most of his working life there.
The Liverpool Weekly Courier described him as the unofficial Attorney-General of Liverpool, Geaves said.
Geaves underlined that throughout his early life, it is not difficult to chart Quilliam’s disenchantment with the religion of his birth, adding Liverpool was “deeply divided between its Catholic and Protestant communities” and these divisions often led to violence on the streets.
As a Muslim, Quilliam often commented that the “sectarianism deeply affected” him, he highlighted.
Geaves went on to say that Quilliam’s sympathy to Islam gained momentum during his visit to Morocco — a North African Muslim majority country — where he was impressed with people who consumed almost no alcohol due to their religious beliefs.
Additionally, Quilliam was “deeply” concerned with social justice and was unhappy with “Christianity’s endorsements of deep inequalities” in Victorian society, he said.
Later, Quilliam became interested in Islam after he visited Morocco and attended a meal with a Muslim and a Jew, Geaves said.
“Each was asked to defend their faith. Quilliam admitted that he was convinced by the Muslim’s testimony.”
Islam addressed many of the doubts he had harbored concerning the religion of his upbringing, Geaves said, citing Quilliam’s later writings on the religion.
In 1887, he became a Muslim, and a year later announced his conversion at the age of 31 in the media and set about the task of spreading Islam in Liverpool.
Liverpool Muslim Institute
In September 1887, he established the Liverpool Muslim Institute, the first Islamic center in Britain.
The institute consisted of a mosque — the first in the U.K., purchased by donations from the Amir of Afghanistan — two Muslim schools, one for males and one for females, a printing press, an orphanage and a museum of Muslim culture, along with various educational activities for local youth.
His weekly newspaper, The Crescent, was published at the Liverpool Muslim Institute from 1893 to 1908 and circulated in more than 80 nations.
Quilliam published the weekly newspaper and a monthly journal, The Islamic World, using a printing press that was established in 1893 at Brougham Terrace with donations from Muslim “well-wishers” in India and Malaysia.
In addition, he wrote a pamphlet called Faith of Islam, which was translated into 13 languages.
Through his publications, he opposed slavery and European colonialism, advocated the right of the city’s poor and defended the Ottoman Caliphate and independent Muslim states, Geaves said.
Even though the British media were not always supportive of Quilliam’s efforts, they “were not as unkind as might be expected,” he said.
Also, his first attempt to organize meetings promoting Islam was met with “fierce resistance” by the landlady of the property on Mount Vernon in central Liverpool, who evicted them for preaching “that Jesus was not crucified,” he underlined.
Later on, these resentments turned into an “anti-Islamic behavior that included low-level violence and vandalism.”
“These periodic outbursts tended to increase in number and severity when Britain was involved in colonial enterprises involving expansion into Muslim territory,” he said.
Having a close relationship with Abdul Hamid II, Quilliam and his son were guests of the Ottoman Sultan, who appointed him as Sheikh-ul-Islam of the U.K. in 1891.
Geaves underlined that his position with regard to other Muslim leaders around the globe was influenced by their “respective positions towards the legitimate caliph.”
In 1894, he represented the Sultan at the opening of a mosque in Lagos, Nigeria and decorated the mosque’s principal donor on behalf of the Caliph, while the Sheikh revisited Istanbul, where he was received by a guard of honor.
The Sultan presented Quilliam with an official seal cut in silver affirming his position as Sheikh-ul-Islam in 1897.
In July 1898, the Minister Plenipotentiary of the Ottoman Court, General Syed Mahomed Fridoun Bey, visited Quilliam in Liverpool on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s jubilee.
In 1904, the Sheikh was recalled to the Ottoman court, and the following year, he returned to go on a “fact-finding tour to inquire about Christian insurgencies in the Balkans at the Sultan’s express request,” Geaves said.
Even though he considered the British Empire to be an achievement that brought “prosperity and development,” he was opposed to British intervention in sovereign Muslim territories such as Afghanistan and Sudan, Geaves underlined.
Also, he used his right as an alim — a leader of a Muslim community in a large urban environment — to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, demanding that Muslim regiments in Egypt not fight against fellow Muslims in Sudan.
Quilliam stated the Holy Quran itself forbade the killing of Muslims by fellow Muslims and therefore his intervention was not political but religious, he added.
Geaves said Quilliam’s main challenge was in the “changing relationship” between the British and the Ottoman Empire.
He went on to say that Quilliam strongly believed that Britain’s interests lay in “supporting and encouraging a strong” Ottoman Empire as a “bulwark” against the threat of Russian expansion.
Quilliam did not consider Islam to be a religion of foreigners or associated with ethnicity, Geaves said, adding that in his time, he sought ways to promote Islam, which echoed “the best values of Victorian Britain.”
“The knowledge of a Muslim community active in the promotion of Islam and already establishing the symbols of the religion in urban areas in 19th century Liverpool takes the advent of Islam and Muslims in Britain back more than half a century before the mass migrations that began in the 1960s,” Geaves said.
In 1908, Quilliam suddenly departed for Istanbul with his eldest son after facing hostility and persecution.
Although when exactly he returned to England is uncertain, he eventually returned to the U.K. after a long period and lived under the pseudonym of his old friend and fellow convert Henri de Leon, or Haroun Mustapha Leon.
Until his death on April 28, 1932, in London, Quilliam continued to serve Islam and never lost his conviction that Islam was the final and complete revelation from God.
Quilliam’s journey remains a powerful story of example for the present time.