UK: The legacy of Victorian England’s first Islamic convert

Property at Brougham Terrace formerly owned by William Abdullah QuilliamThe mosque, in the middle of the three houses owned by Quilliam, has fallen into disrepair

On a bleak, wet and windy day in Liverpool the old Georgian, white-stoned building which once housed England’s first registered mosque looks quite dull.

The property on Brougham Terrace is just a few miles from Liverpool city centre but, in stark contrast to the newer council building next door to it, the paint is peeling off the front walls and the windows are boarded up, after years of vandalism.

The house, one of three adjoining properties, was once owned by William Abdullah Quilliam, a solicitor and son of a Methodist preacher. In 1887, he became the first Christian to convert to Islam in Victorian England.

Born William Henry Quilliam, he turned to the religion after a trip to Morocco, and adopted the name Abdullah.

Two years later he opened the Liverpool Muslim Institute at 8 Brougham Terrace, as a mosque and hub for the growing Muslim community. He also opened a boys and girls school and an orphanage.

Professor Ron Geaves is author of the book Islam in Victorian Times. He gave the first Abdullah Quilliam Lecture at the Pakistan Community Centre in Liverpool earlier this month.

“William Abdullah Quilliam was brought up as a devout Christian and was part of the Temperance Movement which promoted abstinence from alcohol. One of the reasons he was attracted to Islam was that alcohol is forbidden for Muslims. He also had theological concerns about Trinitarian Christianity,” he said.

Muslim leader

Quilliam gained national and international recognition through his many writings and lectures about Islam and Muslims. Part of his house was converted into a publishing house for this purpose.

In 1894 the title of Sheikh-ul-Islam, leader of Muslims in the British Isles, was conferred on him by the last Ottoman caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. He was also appointed Vice Consul of Persia by the Shah.

Prof Geaves said: “He was a royalist and was also recognised by Queen Victoria. He had sent her one of his books about Islam, apparently. She then ordered several copies for her children.”

William Abdullah Quilliam William Abdullah Quilliam, founder of England’s first registered mosque

At the time of her son King Edward VII’s coronation, Quilliam was widely recognised as a leader of Muslims in the British Isles.

Prof Geaves recounts an occasion when Quilliam, as Sheikh-ul-Islam, dressed in his long robes and turban, accompanied the Lord Mayor to greet foreign dignitaries arriving in England through the port at Liverpool. They included maharajas, royalty and world leaders.

“Hundreds of guests had gathered in the Great Hall, in the Empire building, including foreign troops. When they saw him the whole regiment rose and offered him not the British military salute but the Islamic ‘Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar’. (God is great).”

Quilliam had been responsible for the spread of Islam in England in the Victorian era. He helped to convert about 600 people. They included the wealthy landowner, Lord Stanley of Alderley, in Cheshire, the first Muslim peer in the House of Lords. This also proved controversial.

Prof Geaves: “At the time of his (Lord Stanley’s) death some Christians questioned if he was a Muslim. They said that he had built churches on his land and therefore could not be one.

“Quilliam then intervened and told them that, as a landowner, he could provide places of worship for his Christian workers.”

Despite the controversy, Lord Stanley had a Muslim burial with Quilliam leading the Islamic funeral prayers at the mosque he had established in Brougham Terrace.


The prayer hall has holes in the walls

After Quilliam’s death in 1932, the property housing the mosque was sold, and later used as a register office where records of births, deaths and marriages were kept. These included records of the marriage of John Lennon and his first wife, Cynthia.

Behind the door of 8 Brougham Terrace today lies what could be described as an empty shell. The old prayer hall has holes in the walls where doors and windows once stood.

A group of Muslims from Merseyside set up the Abdullah Quilliam Society in 1999 in order to preserve Quilliam’s legacy. In 2000 they took over responsibility for the building, which is now recognised as part of British Heritage.

The society wants to reopen the mosque and publishing house as a museum and heritage centre.

Its chairman, Ghalib Khan, said: “It is the birthplace of Islam in the UK. We need to raise £3.8m to return it to its former glory.

“Several hundred Muslims used to gather here to listen to the Sheikh. There was also a piano at the back of the prayer hall. He was known for rewriting Christian hymns so that they had an Islamic slant to them.”

Work to restore the mosque has been slow. So far, they have only raised about £300,000 which was used to reroof the property and for the treatment of dry rot.

Mr Khan said: “We wanted to complete the project by 2008. However this wasn’t possible. We are now looking to carry out the work in several phases but times are hard, everyone is short of money.

“We’ve got some people who give us a pound a month or a week but we are optimistic that we can raise £100,000 so at least the prayer hall can be renovated before the summer and Ramadan, which starts in July.”

‘Absolutely fascinating’

The Abdullah Quilliam Society is trying to raise the profile of the Sheikh-ul-Islam. It recently held its first annual lecture in his honour, at the Liverpool Pakistan Community centre.

It also plans to hold an awards ceremony to recognise people who promote Islam and who work to foster good links with other faiths.

The lecture was attended by some of the Sheikh’s descendants. Jonathon Quilliam and other members of his family had travelled to Liverpool from Stafford.

“I think I’m related through my dad’s side. It’s very interesting to know that someone from the Isle of Man originally, where we still have relatives, and then from Liverpool, was responsible for the rise of Islam in this country, absolutely fascinating.”

Some of the British Muslims attending the lecture were impressed by Quilliam’s courage and strength of purpose.

Mohammed Afzal, who is in his late 20s, said: “It’s important because a lot of stigma is attached to Islam, but Quilliam spoke out about it openly even though it was against the status quo.”

Shaheena Anjum said: “In this day and age, people find things difficult, but he came from a Christian, Methodist background.

“I think what he did required a lot of determination and courage.”

By Rahila Bano

You can hear more on this story on Asian Network Reports on the BBC Asian Network