Forgotten Champion Of Islam: One Man And His Mosque


The Independent/UK
Published: 02 August 2007

A crumbling house in Liverpool conceals a curious secret: the
vandalised remains of Britain’s first mosque. Now, finally, the city
is set to restore it – and to honour the eccentric lawyer who created
it. Michael Savage discovers his remarkable story

Number 8 Brougham Terrace in Liverpool is a derelict semi-detached

Its whitewashed facade is filthy, its front door scratched and swollen
and its rear gates are covered in graffiti. Pigeons have made the
roof their home. The condition of the interior is even worse. Large,
orange rings of dry-rot fungus cling to the walls. Pieces of the roof
are scattered across the floor.

There is little to suggest that No 8 Brougham Terrace is anything

But underneath the dust and the mould is a building of extraordinary
historical and social significance. This was Britain’s first true

And following years of neglect, it could finally be about to receive
the restoration treatment that, given its place in the nation’s
history, it surely deserves. The Bishop of Liverpool has called for
action. The Saudi and Kuwait governments are interested in helping
to fund a project that would cost £2.4m.

With Liverpool gearing up to be European Capital of Culture next year,
the plight of the forgotten mosque is attracting attention again. That,
in turn, has shed light on the astonishing character who founded it
on Christmas Day 1889.

William Quilliam was a solicitor. But in late 19th century Britain
there was no other solicitor quite like him. He is said to have
appeared in court wearing Turkish ceremonial dress. Others claim he
travelled through Liverpool on a white Arab horse, or that he was
descended from a first lieutenant who fought with Nelson at Trafalgar.

Such stories may well be apocryphal, yet Quilliam was a man whose life
needs no embellishing. Few religious figures have championed their
faith the way the man who became Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam did. He
did so despite often facing hostility from his own countrymen. He
was made the Sheikh of Britain by the last Ottoman emperor, converted
hundreds to his religion, and was honoured by the Sultan of Morocco,
the Shah of Persia and the Sultan of Afghanistan. The mosque at 8
Brougham Terrace was his crowning achievement.

Born in 1856, Quilliam was the son of a wealthy watchmaker, and became
a solicitor after training at the Liverpool Institute. But life as
a lawyer took its toll on Quilliam and in 1882 he travelled to the
south of France to recover from stress. While he was recuperating,
he decided to cross the Mediterranean to Morocco and Algeria and it
was there that his fascination with Islam began. At the age of 31 he
converted to the religion, changed his name to Abdullah and bought
a marmoset as a pet.

"He never went anywhere without that monkey," said Quilliam’s
granddaughter, Patricia Gordon. "It used to sit on his shoulder. He had
a little fez made for it and would even take it to the British Museum
when he was studying there. He was an old Victorian eccentric. He
was his own man and he did what he wanted to do all his life. When he
walked into a room, everyone would go quiet. He was a very colourful

His love of exotic animals turned his home into a zoo – he reportedly
kept a jackal, a wolf, a fox and even a crocodile.

For Quilliam, his own conversion was just the start of his loud
and proud association with Islam. He soon found he had the knack of
convincing others of its merits. He first began holding lectures on
his new religion and then founded the Liverpool Mosque and Institute
in the small semi on Brougham Terrace, West Derby Street, in 1889.

Within 10 years of his return to the city, he assembled a
following of about 150 Muslims, almost entirely made up of British
converts. Scientists and professionals were among Quilliam’s group,
along with his sons and his mother, who had spent most of her life as
a Christian activist. He also produced two journals, The Crescent and
The Islamic Review, on a printing press in the mosque’s cellar. Both
were circulated internationally.

But Quilliam’s misssion did not stop at publishing. He 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 the Muslim College, a weekly debating society and also wrote
a book of Muslim hymns in English.

He still found time to write a book. The Faith of Islam was published
in 1899 by a small local printer and was translated into 13 languages,
with three editions published. Quilliam proudly said that it had been
read by Queen Victoria and the ruler of Egypt.

But not everyone appreciated Quilliam’s vigour. Soon after he converted
to Islam, he was evicted from his house by his landlord, who took
exception to his rejection of Christianity. The timing of his book
on Islam compounded the vitriolic hatred that some in the Christian
community felt for him. "The ongoing conflict with Sudan meant that
the very mention of Islam in Britain was like a red rag to a bull,"
says Professor Humayun Ansari, an expert in British Islamic history
from Royal Holloway College, London.

Quilliam was never one to go quietly and launched a series of attacks
on the British government. When the Prime Minister, William Gladstone,
was due to give a speech in Liverpool urging action against the Ottoman
Empire for its treatment of Armenians, Quilliam leapt to the emperor’s
defence. He gathered his congregation at the mosque to make a rival
speech, during which he declared the West was quite happy to ignore
"Christian atrocities" elsewhere.

"An American explodes a bomb in the crowded streets of Constantinople
and slays innocent women and children and, because he calls
himself a Christian he is extolled in England as a hero and as a
patriot!" Quilliam wrote. "An Afghan fights for his fatherland in the
Khyber Pass, and because he is a Muslim he is denounced as a traitor
and a rebel."

According to Professor Ansari, Quilliam paid a price for his
stance. "Of course, he was lampooned, but it showed that he was
a courageous man, as well as a controversial figure. Although
other English people had converted, they tended to keep a low
profile. Quilliam on the other hand was much more forthright and
challenging, making him a high-profile public figure in the process."

Unsurprisingly, Quilliam developed a difficult relationship with
the press.

The Liverpool Review described his quest to convert the city to
Islam as "silly and unwelcome". He became a regular contributor to
the letters pages, attempting to right what he saw as the incorrect
popular view of Islam, derived from myths dating back to the Crusades.

He wrote: "When we consider that Islam is so much mixed up with the
British Empire, and the many millions of Muslim fellow subjects who
live under the same rule, it is very extraordinary that so little
should be generally known about this religion. And consequently the
gross ignorance of the masses on the subject allows them to be easily
deceived, and their judgement led astray."

His outspoken stance also made his mosque a target of abuse. During
one confrontation, a crowd of 400 protesters gathered outside the
building, hurling mud, stones and rotten vegetables at those leaving
the prayer hall.

In 1895, a group threatened to burn Quilliam alive.

His efforts to promote Islam brought him praise and powerful friends
throughout the Muslim world. The Shah of Persia made him a consul
to his country. In 1894, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the last Ottoman
emperor, gave Quilliam the title of "Sheikh al-Islam of Britain",
leader of British Muslims. The Sultan of Afghanistan gave him a £2,500
"personal gift", to help him continue his good works.

By the turn of the century, Quilliam had developed ambitious plans to
build a mosque from scratch, complete with a dome and minarets. But
true to his eccentric character, he took a sudden decision in 1908 to
leave Britain, mysteriously heading back to the east and not returning
until shortly before his death in 1932.

When Quilliam left Britain, he took with him the energy that had
sustained his one-man mission so successfully. Without him at the helm,
the institutions he had set up declined, including the mosque. It
eventually ended up in the hands of Liverpool City Council. When the
authority moved out, it fell further into disrepair, "probably because
water got in after thieves took the lead from the roof", said Galib
Khan, a leading member of the group attempting to restore the mosque.

Mohammad Akbar Ali, chairman of the Abdullah Quilliam Society set up
to campaign for the restoration, added: "Quilliam officially opened
it on Christmas Day in 1889 with a special breakfast for 130 of the
city’s children."

A fundraising meeting earlier this month was attended by the
ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But for Mr Ali, there is
a wider principle behind finding British money to restore Abdullah
Quilliam’s legacy.

"Part of the problem faced by young British Muslims now is that
they have no Islamic heritage they can truly call their own," he
said. "When Muslims born and bred in the UK want to revisit their
Islamic roots, they go back to the countries of their ancestors like
India, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But Quilliam is proof that Britain
has its own Islamic heritage. Repairing his mosque with British money,
either from the Government or the Muslim community, would act as a
powerful symbol of British Islam. It is a religious heritage that
all British Muslims can be proud of."

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones, is now patron
of the fundraising campaign. He admits that being asked to take up
the cause presented a "theological challenge" to him, but he was
compelled by Quilliam’s example. "One of the challenges in today’s
world is concentrating on the best examples of each other’s religions
and finding common ground," he said. "Quilliam was a man who did a
huge amount of good work that all religious leaders should appreciate
and the campaign to restore his institute is worth supporting, both
nationally and locally."

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