During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain became, in the words of a prominent British Orientalist, ‘the greatest Moslem power in the world’.
More than half of the world’s Muslim population lived under British governance at the time. Britain’s involvement and interaction with the Islamic world prompted many Britons to take a closer look at the faith, culture and history of Muslims and in the process, they became fascinated by Islam.
Who was he?
Defying well-established Victorian stereotypes and caricature of the Muslim faith as a religion of the backward and uncivilised people of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, many prominent English men and women openly embraced Islam.
One such individual was William Henry Quilliam – better known as Abdullah Quilliam – who became the first English Muslim in the nineteenth century to establish a mosque and Islamic centre in England. As a result, he became a catalyst for the formation of a thriving community of hundreds of English converts to Islam in the north-western port-city of Liverpool.
The road to Islam
It was whilst Quilliam was busy working as a lawyer, that he – like Alexander Russell Webb, his American contemporary – may have developed doubts about Christianity and its conflicting theological claims. Despite growing up as a Methodist and an active nonconformist, Quilliam’s reservations were nothing unusual.
Scientific discoveries, coupled with growing interests in philosophy and literary criticism, had called into question some of the fundamental tenets of Christianity. This led to widespread agnosticism and loss of faith, not only in Victorian England, but across Western Europe and America. To make matters worse, religious rivalry and in-fighting between the different Christian sects, especially between the Protestants and Catholics, became widespread much to Quilliam’s annoyance and dismay.
In other words, a combination of heavy workload, ill-health, as well as theological doubts about his ancestral faith, coupled with Christian disunity in Liverpool, may have prompted Quilliam to take a break from his legal practice and go abroad to recuperate.
It is worth pointing out here that Quilliam was a well-educated individual who was well-versed in philosophy, theology, history and aspects of science, with a well-stocked personal library of more than two thousand books. His spiritual crisis, if it can be called a crisis at all, was not due to cultural alienation, dislike of things Western or lack of personal success. It was perhaps triggered by his personal study and inquiry into the ultimate meaning of life and its purpose in the wider scheme of things.
He was around 26 when he went to France and from there, proceeded to Algeria and Tunisia where, for the first time, he came in direct contact with Islam and Muslim culture. He was profoundly impressed by what he witnessed: a traditional culture and way of life that revolved around faith, morality and ethics, unlike in late Victorian England where religion had become a major source of disunity, conflict and confusion. This may have inspired him to make another journey in 1883; this time he went to Gibraltar, Spain and Morocco.
Yet again, he was struck by Islam’s ability to foster a culture of spirituality, solace, security and contentment without undermining human reason and rationality. On his return from Morocco in 1884, he began to study Islam seriously for the first time. The more he explored its scriptures, theology, history and culture, the more he admired it.
A year later, he published an article under the title of ‘The Mysteries of Muslim Theology’ before visiting North Africa yet again in 1887. He may have embraced Islam during his stay in Morocco, although he did not publicly announce his conversion until 1888, when he was 32 years old.
What was the main reason for his conversion to Islam?
In his own words,
One of the glories of Islam is that it is founded upon reason, and that it never demands from its followers an abnegation of that important mental faculty. Unlike certain other faiths, which insist upon their votaries implicitly accepting certain dogmas without independent inquiry, but simply on the authority of ‘The Church’, Islam courts inquiry and counsels its disciples to study, search and investigate prior to acceptation.
On another occasion, Quilliam explained,
Those who cannot understand how, ‘Islam can be accepted by a European’, have no proper comprehension of Western peoples. In the British Isles we are taught to be logical, and to think and reason for ourselves. Islam as a reasonable and logical faith appeals to men’s reason, and therefore is likely to be adopted by those who reflect and think and have the courage of their conscience.
In other words, he considered Islam to be a reasonable and logical faith that did not require its adherents to accept or believe in doctrines that did not make sense.
His first-hand experiences of daily life in Muslim North Africa only served to confirm his doubts and misgivings about Christianity and his eventual conversion to Islam. Soon after returning home from North Africa, he began to deliver lectures on a range of topics including religion, history, and social justice, often going out of his way to warn the masses of the dangers of alcohol, gambling and other social vices that were prevalent in Liverpool at the time.
Preaching his beliefs
Keen not to generate any fuss or hostility amongst the public, Quilliam deliberately pursued a subtle and gradualist approach to explaining Islam to the locals. As a popular, learned and eloquent public speaker, he was frequently invited to deliver lectures at churches, public halls and educational institutions across Liverpool. As a result, Quilliam took advantage of these opportunities to point out to his audiences that Islam provided an alternative and more vibrant vision of life, culture and society than the status quo.
Despite his subtlety and careful articulation of Islamic principles and values, his views were often greeted with dismay and hostility by local Christian groups who soon considered him to be a renegade and traitor. That was certainly the case following the public announcement of his conversion to Islam in 1888.
Indeed, his task was compounded by a combination of historical hostility towards Muslims as well as the public’s negative perception of Islam. Undeterred, Quilliam soon gathered around him a handful of followers, all being recent converts to Islam, and they rented a property in Mount Vernon Street, which effectively became their first mosque and meeting place until the landlord discovered, to his utter shock and horror, that his tenants were far from being faithful Christians.
During this period, Quilliam developed his future plans and strategy, which were fourfold: 1) to establish an institution for his followers, 2) the need to expand Islamic work in order to gain more converts and supporters from the wider community, 3) to initiate the publication of Islamic journals, books and magazines to disseminate their message nationally and internationally, and 4) to develop and strengthen their links with the Muslim world.
In 1891, Quilliam and his followers moved into Brougham Terraces in West Derby Road, which became known as the Liverpool Mosque and Institute (LMI), thus marking the beginning of his mission to institutionalise Islam in Britain for the first time.
Read more about Quilliam’s various projects in the LMI, his establishment of the first indigenous Muslim community, and his official recognition as an Islamic scholar by the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco in “Great Muslims of the West” by Muhammad Mojlum Khan.