Islam in Victorian Liverpool: An Ottoman Account of Britain's First Mosque Community

Islam in Victorian Liverpool: An Ottoman Account of Britain's First Mosque Community
6 min read
17 February, 2022
Book Club: Written through the lens of an Ottoman intellectual, Islam in Victorian Liverpool is not only an eyewitnesses account of how Britain's first mosque community came into being but brings into life their daily lives and religious practices.
'Islam in Victorian Liverpool' is a fascinating account into the early development of Islam in Britain [Claritas Books]

Interest in Islam in Victorian-era Britain has grown substantially over the last decade after the first book-length treatment of its most well-known personality Abdullah Quilliam (1856–1932).

Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam – a trailblazing biography by Ron Geaves, has been complemented by numerous studies of Quilliam and other prominent figures who emerged at the turn of the 20th Century.

The life of this iconic individual was largely forgotten until the recent revival of interest in his work. The translation of Islam in Victorian Liverpool, a travelogue by Turkish journalist Yusuf Samih Asmay, makes a welcome contribution to this literature by offering valuable new insights into Quilliam’s colourful life and allows readers to ‘eavesdrop upon the great Muslim debates about the political and religious revival at the apogee of European colonialism… conducted right at the margins of the ummah,’ and will surprise readers for its critical account of the early Liverpool Muslim community.

"Islam in Victorian Britain offers a fascinating window into the debates within this high profile Victorian British Muslim community, which display strong resemblances to some of the challenges faced by contemporary Muslim Britons"

Before becoming Abdullah Quilliam, he was born William Henry and raised in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. Well known as a lawyer for the poor and advocate of temperance, various factors appear to have influenced his decision to become a Muslim in 1887.

As a young man, he became uncomfortable with Christian doctrines and his visit to Morocco after an illness became pivotal to his conversion. His new faith energised his charismatic public proselytising for the next twenty years and led to him establishing the Liverpool Muslim Institute (LMI), the Crescent, a weekly magazine, and a monthly journal called The Islamic World.

The two publications gained large readerships across English speaking Muslim communities in India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. During this period, Quilliam became a spokesperson for Muslim public opinion within the British Empire.

William Quilliam was born in Liverpool to a wealthy Manx family in 1856. His father, Robert Quilliam, was a watch manufacturer. William was educated at the Liverpool Institute and King William's College on the Isle of Man. He began work as a solicitor in 1878, building a successful legal practice in Liverpool. He married Hannah Johnstone in 1879. Quilliam was brought up a Methodist, but converted to Islam after visiting Morocco to recover from an illness at the age of 17. Returning to Liverpool, he began to
William Quilliam began work as a solicitor in 1878, building a successful legal practice in Liverpool. However, after recovering from an illness in Morocco, Quilliam converted to Islam. Returning to Liverpool, he began to promote Islam in Britain as Abdullah Quilliam [Getty Images]

Quilliam’s public lectures and publications had a dual intended audience – Muslim and non-Muslims to which he presented Islamic civilisation as an equal to the West – a global religion with a glorious past, in harmony with principles of reason and science. 

As the leader of his small convert community, he was at the forefront of the earliest attempt to craft an indigenous iteration of British Islam.

These activities helped Quilliam become well known both within British society and the Muslim world – this led to him being appointed as Persian Vice-Consul in Liverpool by the Shah.

He was also bestowed with the honorary title of “Sheikh ul-Islam of the British Isles” by Sultan Abduhamid of the Ottoman Empire, a role also recognised by The Emir of Afghanistan.

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The author of the original text Liverpool Müslümanlığı (Islam in Liverpool), Yusuf Samih Asmay (d.1942), was a journalist and travel writer who based his book on observations, interviews and post-visit correspondence from a 33-day visit to Liverpool in 1895.

Asmay’s account of these early Liverpudlian Muslims sharply contrasts with how Quilliam and his community were presented in the Crescent.

Asmay’s slim text provides fascinating insights into its early community formation but also reveal the author’s pro-Ottoman bias and perceptions which border on racism when he discusses the “The British Character,” in which ‘vulgarity is observable in every act of the common people in England.’

He also thought they ‘are very filthy to such a degree that if a man of refinement happened to walk through their neighbourhoods, he would feel like vomiting for hours.’

"He [Asmay] considered Quilliam’s work to be an attempt to counter Islam as a unifying anti-colonial force and to assimilate Muslims as imperial subjects"

Asmay’s observations of Quilliam’s fledgling community are no less flattering as he makes numerous criticisms of the LMI and its leader on issues of religious orthodoxy, organisational governance, political legitimacy and the personal ethics of its leader.

He is particularly disturbed by the manner in which Islamic ritual was performed at the LMI and opposes the religious syncretism employed to placate newcomers from Anglican backgrounds.

At the same time, he considered some of the views promoted by the LMI to be anti-Christian polemics that would alienate the very people they were trying to reach out to.

Asmay believed that the LMI did not have a credible religious scholarship that should have been constituted as a charitable institution and managed accordingly. Asmay appears to have held a personal animosity toward Quilliam and regarded him as a skilled charlatan who had dubious morality, financial impropriety and was power-hungry.

He considered Quilliam’s work to be an attempt to ‘counter Islam as a unifying anti-colonial force and to assimilate Muslims as imperial subjects.’ Feeding this judgment was Quilliam’s efforts to balance loyalty to both Crown and Caliph in which he straddled a difficult line between his support for the British Empire whilst also advocating for a British-Ottoman alliance against mutual enemies.

This was an obvious tension that Asmay saw as giving Britain excessive legitimacy in its imperial domains and one which he increasingly wanted to contest in British occupied Egypt.

In the end, Asmay’s book caused a crisis of legitimacy both for Quilliam and the LMI but, inadvertently helped improve its governance mechanisms and forced it to have greater transparency.

 In an effort to limit the damage, Quilliam met with Sultan Abduhamid and convinced him to ban the book within the Ottoman domains. Though Asmay’s critique was rebutted by the LMI, it would have been interesting to learn what Quilliam thought of the criticism and how Asmay reacted to the censure.  

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This annotated translation comes with an excellent introduction, contains relevant archival documents and short biographical notices of key members of the LMI.

It offers a fascinating window into the debates within this high profile Victorian British Muslim community, which display strong resemblances to some of the challenges faced by contemporary Muslim Britons. 

As one of the translators Yahya Birt argues, Quilliam’s story raises three questions that deeply resonate with British Muslims today ‘how much can conversion to Islam be a process of gradual adaption rather than an instant adoption of the expectations of “born Muslims”? …Where do British Muslims stand with regard to the politics of the ummah and nation?’  And ‘how do we respond if we find out that our religious leaders are not the role models we would like them to be?

The life of this intriguing figure certainly does hold an instructive mirror for our times. In addition to the titles indicated already, readers may also want to see the recently published collection of poems written by Quilliam, who will no doubt continue to generate interest among academics and observers of Islam in Britain.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of  Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.

Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid