By Jonathan Walsh
By Jonathan Walsh
Rabat – At a time of rising Islamophobia in Britain, we look back to the forgotten story of Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam whose journey to Morocco led him down the road to becoming the first British man to convert to Islam.
Born in 1856 in Liverpool, Quilliam, the son of a Methodist preacher, lived a very typical life as a young man in the city. But at the age of 17, after making the journey to Morocco to recover from an illness, he found himself inspired by the Islamic way of life.
He returned to Liverpool at age 31, having changed his name to Abdullah. Two years later opened the first registered mosque on British soil.
From the outside, the mosque appears to be a normal terrace house set in working-class Liverpool with no special significance. But over time it came to symbolise a vast cultural change.
Named the Liverpool Muslim Institute, it quickly became the centre of the small but strong Islamic community in the city. Over his lifetime it is estimated that Quilliam was directly responsible for the conversion of around 600 people.
Quilliam used his influence to set up centres for orphaned children, and used the mosque as a publishing centre for his many well-respected writings on Islamic teachings. It is even suggested that Queen Victoria herself took an interest, ordering copies of his text ‘Faith in Islam’ for both herself and her grandchildren.
The Muslim population grew steadily under his leadership, with Quilliam becoming a respected figure in both the English media and to Muslims all over the world. In 1894, Ottoman caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid II granted him the title of Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles.
He became widely accepted as the leader of British Muslims, and was thus often invited to represent Islamic groups. In an interview with BBC, Professor Ron Geaves, author of the book ‘Islam in Victorian Times’, recounted a situation when Quilliam, dressed in robes and a turban, welcomed foreign dignitaries, including many world leaders, as they arrived into England.
“Hundreds of guests had gathered in the Great Hall, in the Empire building, including foreign troops. When they saw him the whole regiment rose and offered him not the British military salute but the Islamic ‘Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar’. (God is great).” He said.
Unfortunately after being sacked from his job as a solicitor, and after experiencing what is probably the first example of Islamophobia in Britain, Quilliam left the country in 1908. Without his influence, the Liverpool Muslim Insitute was forced to close and the Islamic community slowly dispersed.
He returned to England six years later under the name of Haroun Mustapha Leon, and died in 1932.
Quilliam’s legacy lives on through the Abdullah Quilliam Society, which was formed in 1996 and aims to restore the old Mosque to its former glory to act as an educational centre, and to celebrate the life of the founder of British Islam.
Edited by Timothy Filla