William Quilliam (1856 – 1932) was the son of a successful watch-maker, and became a solicitor after training at the Liverpool Institute. But he was a politically radical solicitor. And even though many Victorian men felt free enough to be eccentric, Quilliam was more eccentric than most. For example, he reportedly appeared in court wearing Turkish ceremonial dress.
Quilliam also had a very serious side and saw Liverpool's social ills 'poverty, prostitution, alcoholism' as a sign that Christian culture had failed.
I don’t suppose life was easy for a concerned professional so in 1882 Quilliam travelled to the south of France to recover from stress. Then he decided to cross the Mediterranean to North Africa, to visit Morocco and Algeria. Perhaps he had nurtured a quiet interest in Islam beforehand, but it was in North Africa that his fascination with Islam manifested itself publicly. He converted to the religion and started using the name Abdullah.
In the years after his return to Liverpool, William Abdullah Quilliam gathered around him 150 Muslims, almost entirely made up of British converts, including his own family members. He first began holding lectures on his new religion and then, in 1889, Quilliam founded the Liverpool Mosque and Institute at 8 Brougham Terrace in West Derby Street. The architect, Joseph McGovern, made adjustments to the building eg a prayer room was built as an extension at the back of the building. Fortunately most of the Saracenic style renovations Quilliam made to the terrace were paid for by the son of the Emir of Afghanistan. Finally Quilliam also bought #9-12 Brougham Terrace, turning them into a boarding school and lecture rooms.
This social activist 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 a weekly Debating and Literary Society, and a Muslim college which offered courses for both Muslims and non-Muslims. His Temperance speeches introduced audiences to a religion that banned alcohol.
mosque, 8 Brougham Terrace in West Derby St Liverpool, opened 1889
Quilliam became a regular contributor to the letters pages of Liverpool’s daily newspapers, attempting to right what he saw as the incorrect popular view of Islam. And he wrote an important book. The Faith of Islam was published in 1899 by a small local printer and was translated into many foreign languages, all around the British Empire. Quilliam proudly said that it had been read by Queen Victoria who ordered several copies. Clearly he was still establishment enough for the Queen to keep up with his writings.
All this action came at a price. Liverpool thugs were not very pleased with Quilliam’s mosque, his publishing or his Islamic social welfare work. Soon after he converted to Islam, he was evicted from his house by his landlord, who disliked Quilliam’s views on Christianity. The mosque was vandalised many times by nasty local lads and his book on Islam stirred up more hatred from the local community. Sometimes huge crowds of protesters gathered outside the building, attacked those leaving the prayer hall and threatened to burn Quilliam alive.
But there were two even more substantial problems. Mostly, I believe, Quilliam’s critique of Christian theology distressed sincere Christians who would have otherwise ignored the eccentric solicitor. And his views on British foreign policy were loud and antagonistic. He attacked the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who was giving a speech in Liverpool urging action against the Ottoman Empire for its treatment of Armenians. Quilliam accused Gladstone of wilfully ignoring Christian atrocities against Muslims.
Fortunately this brave Briton received support from his Islamic leaders abroad. He was made the Sheikh of Britain, leader of British Muslims, by the last Ottoman emperor and was honoured by the Sultan of Morocco, the Shah of Persia and the Sultan of Afghanistan. But in the end, religious harassment of the tiny Muslim community of Liverpool forced the faithful to move to other parts of Britain. In 1908, the Liverpool mosque closed down and the centre of British-born Islam moved, largely to Woking in Surrey.
It is not clear what happened to Quilliam in 1908, just before he was absurdly struck off as a solicitor. One view is that he left Britain, mysteriously heading to Turkey and not returning until shortly before his death in 1932. The other more probable view is that he morphed into an academic called Professor Henri Marcel Leon who moved to Britain in December 1914, participating in functions at the Woking Mosque and writing in The Islamic Review .
Woking, first purpose built mosque in Britain
Most historians believe he died in 1932 and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, although a specific grave has never been identified. He was never a model for imported Islam; rather Quilliam was important as the founder of a unique, home-grown British form of Islam.
Today the remains of the oldest mosque in Britain are still on the ground floor of that C19th grade II-listed Liverpool building established in 1889 by William Abdullah Quilliam. But the elegant old Georgian terrace is a bit tragic today and desperately needs restoration work. There is a modern Abdullah Quilliam Society that wants to buy the building and renovate it as a Muslim heritage centre. The terrace is currently under consideration for listing by English Heritage.
The most useful book on the subject is Ron Geaves' Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam, published by Kube Publishing Ltd in 2010.