29 January 2011

William Abdullah Quilliam, Islam and the British Empire

I was examining the first synagogue in Liverpool, an existing building which was adapted for synagogue use in 1753. Then I accidentally came across the first mosque in Liverpool and saw a story that had to be told.

William Quilliam, on the cover of Ron Geaves' book, Islam in Victorian Britain

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 burned with the fervour of a man who had found his true calling. He produced two very important and successful journals, The Crescent and The Islamic Review, on a printing press in the mosque's cellar. In 1897 a map of the British Empire included Nigeria, Egypt, India and Malaya, all large territories with very significant Muslim populations! Muslim lands provided the manpower and material resources that contributed to the prosperity of Victorian Britain and there were so many Muslims in the British Empire that whatever he wrote inside Britain was eagerly read across the Empire.

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.


Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Helen - an interesting post. You certainly learn something new every day :-)

I had never heard of Quilliam before today. I would never have thought of Woking in connection with the Muslim faith. I always think of Woking as somewhere middle class and rather staid.


Hermes said...

I knew some of this but you summarised this fascinating character so well. This is some more from a Muslim point of view at:


Liverpool was really important at this time, and the home of some wonderfully weird religious views.

Hels said...

Glen, me too. I came across the Quilliam story totally by accident. But isn't that one of the great joys of blogging?

Re Woking, I also wonder why Britain's own Muslims (as opposed to immigrants from other parts of the Empire) chose that particular town. I recommend reading "A Muslim trail in Woking" in Culture 24 http://www.culture24.org.uk/home

Unknown said...

May I point out a couple of factual errors in the write up about this great man. He did indeed single handed produce two Islamic journals; one being the Crescent but the other was not the Islamic Review but I cannot now recall its name.
The other is that, on the site where the Woking Mosque stands, Dr Leitner had intended to build a place of worship for each indian religion and establish and institute for the study of Indian religions. A forerunner of SOAS, I guess. However, after completion of the mosque Dr Leitner fell ill and died.
The mosque then fell into disrepair. Although it is said that Queen Victoria's Muslim servants sometimes visited it to pray there.
It was not until an Indian lawyer by the name Khawaja Kamal ud Din arrived in England that the Woking mosque's fortunes changed.
The whole plot had been "inherited" by Leitner's children who leased a part of it to a factory. The Khawaja faught a long legal battle against them on the grounds that the plot had been purchased by donations and was not Leitner's personal property. He then wrested its control from Leitner's children and set up The Woking Muslim Mission and Literary Trust. This was in 1912.
When Quilliam returned to the UK he did join this organisation from where operated The British Muslim Society. He played an active part in furthering the Woking Mission's work and wrote for the Islamic Review.
Notwithstanding the above, Quilliam was a great man who fought the rampant prejudice in British Society against Muslims and Islam. It is amazing that while working full time he managed to set up a vibrant British Muslim Community in Liverpool. Faith can achieve great things.
You may also like to know that the first British person to embrace Islam was Lord Stanley. His relatives had him declared insane for embracing a heaten faith which no sane man could possible do.

Hels said...

thanks for that detailed response. I will look at the first issue first. Could the monthly journal have been The Islamic World, rather than the Islamic Review?

Re Lord Stanley, I certainly did know he was the first Muslim member of the House of Lords. But since I couldn't remember when Stanley's conversion occurred, I didn't remember if it was before or after W.A Quilliam (who converted in 1882). It turns out that Lord Stanley converted a few decades earlier, in 1862.

John Hopper said...

What an extraordinary, though fascinating story. It is depressing however, to see Islam treated with the same bewilderment in the Britain of the nineteenth century as it is today.

Hels said...

I think Quilliam was on a hiding to nothing, as we say. If he behaved as if Islam was just a slightly different shade of Anglicanism doing Good Works, he would have had no impact.

If he stressed that millions of people in the British Empire were already Muslims, as he did, he would have been seen as a political radical.

If he did a critique of Christian theology, he would (and did) infuriate the Liverpool church goers.

I wonder what Quilliam could have done differently.

John Hopper said...

I apologise if I am wandering off the subject, but I remember reading somewhere about King John of England having a blazing row with the Pope. The Pope threatened to excomunicate England and King John threatened to convert England to Islam. I believe they both eventually stood down. I wander if John would have gone through with it. Probably not, but intriguing alternative history time lines spring to mind nonetheless.

Unknown said...

The other journal was the Muslim World.
Islamic Review has had several changes of name. Its original name was Islamic Review and Muslim India.

Quilliam's problem was that when Sultan of Turkey visited the UK he gave Quilliam the title of Sheikh ul Islam. Considering that Turkey was in the opposite camp in WWI this did not help. He was appointed Amir of Muslims in England by the ruler of Afghanistan.

From propagation point of view he received support from a small Islamic missionary organisation based in India called the Ahmadiyya Movement. Advertisements in its English journal The Review of Religions appeared for Quilliam's two journals and appeals that Muslims should support his efforts.

The fact that the Ahmadiyya Movement was confronting Christian missionaries in India head-on and were severely critical of many aspects of the teaching in the Testaments did not help either.

Quilliam was in a difficult position. What should he do? As a lawyer I am sometimes faced by the same thing when some discrepancy is found in my client's claim/defence. Do I ignore it and hope for the best or do I meet it head-on and suffer the consequences?

Most of the time I meet the things head-on and suffer the consequences. This was what Quilliam did. I can't see what choice he had.

For more information on the Woking Muslim Mission, please see


Also of interest for those who preach mutual peaceful co-exitence is


Mandy Southgate said...

What a fascinating post! I lived in Liverpool from 1978 to 1982 and considering the ignorance shown at that time, I had no idea there had been a population of Muslims in the area. I used to get called the most horrendous of names simply because I was born in South Africa. What am I saying? The ignorance perseveres to this day.

I have long been wanting to visit the Muslim cemetary in Woking. Here are some photos that a fellow blogger took recently: http://wissyweb.blogspot.com/2010/02/muslim-cemetary.html

Hels said...

I am not strong on early 13th century history. But there were two important differences. All of Europe was Catholic then, with no fiercely Protestant countries defending their religious turf against the Pope. And in any case King John offered to change the country to Islam to cement a military alliance, not because he was convinced of the superiority of Islam.

But your point is a great one. History isn't part of a vast eternal plan. Life changing decisions seem to be scattered, unpredictable and difficult to decipher.

Hels said...


Thank you for those points - it must have been very difficult for Qulliam religiously, but particularly politically. Even now I wonder where else he might have got his support from, so as not to have been politically unpopular inside Britain.

The fact that that Turkey was in the opposite camp in WWI didn't make any difference to Quilliam in the 1890s and right up to 1908. He could not have known that the Ottoman Empire was going to fall apart, nor could he have predicted what side of WW1 Turkey would be on.

I think people with a true mission often have a tough time during their own lifetime.

Hels said...


great link to Wissy's blog - the images of the cemetery are very peaceful. Wissy said that the Muslim Burial Ground was built in 1917 when many troops from the Empire were fighting in France during WW1.

How surreal is that? Only 20 years after Quilliam was being roundly criticised for religious treachery _inside_ Britain, Britain was delighted when so many loyal men and brave came from across the Empire to fight in Europe. I wonder how many of these heroic young soldiers were Muslim?

P. M. Doolan said...

This is one fascintaing post. Thanks Helen.

Hels said...

PM Doolan,

I don't think there is a surprise in not knowing all of British and European history. My education was good, but how much can you squash into undergradate and post grad degrees?

No, the question is which bits of history are left out? and which historical questions are not asked?

Jim said...

This is very interesting.

Hels said...


What a great title - The Infidel Within :) thank you for a terrific reference.

One of the points that the article made was that Dr GW Leitner from the University of Punjab in Lahore had already established the mosque in Woking in 1889, largely for students from the Sub Continent. But it wasn't until the Liverpool community moved down there that the Woking mosque became vital and energetic.

J Bar,
I love it too :)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post Helen. You write very clearly and looked like a lot of research has gone into this!

Thanks for sharing this.

Hels said...

thank you :)
To be honest, I was very dependent on the book Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam. Some stories just have to be told, don't they?

Rina said...

hi Helen, that cover photo of the book of Islam in Victorian British is part of lecture hall of Liverpool Muslim Institute, isn't it?. I wonder if it still exist? I really want to go there someday...Pardon my English ...

Hels said...

as far as I can tell, the image on the book is the prayer space of the original Liverpool mosque, not a lecture hall.

I hope you do get to visit the building which hasn't been used as a mosque since 1908. I wonder if the building has been bought and renovated yet.

jahangir said...

I came across this blog whilst doing some research on Quilliam. The Abdullah Quilliam Society in Liverpool is in charge of the building and currently trying to secure funding to restore the mmosque and building to its orginal features. If you want to knwo more please contact the AQS c/o communicaltd@gmail.com The AQS website is currently being updated.

Hels said...


Thanks for your note. Happy New Year!

I hope your organisation raises money quickly because the building is looking a bit tragic after all the decades since 1889. I hope the prayer hall is beautifully restored, but also the library, archives and all the other facilities that a community centre needs.

Sepakbola Indo said...

hey i'am from indonesian and i'am a muslim, can you add me friend in facebook my email ropik1493@gmail.com ..thank's moom,
i want to know development of Islam in world..

Hels said...


I don´t know the first thing about Facebook, alas. But I would warmly recommend Ron Geaves' book called Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam (Kube Publishing, 2010).

Anonymous said...

If you read HG Wells War of the Worlds then you will find in chapter 9 that 'the pinnacle of the mosque had vanished'. This is how I came to know of the mosque in Woking! Did not realise that there were mosques so long ago in Britain...you learn something new everyday!

Hels said...


The issue with fiction is that it is difficult to know what is totally grounded in fact, what has a nodding acquaintance with fact and what is totally made up. In this case, you were spot on :)