Monthly Archives: January 2008

Abdullah Quilliam: Britain's First Islamist?

The choice of Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932), ennobled as the Sheikh of Islam of the British Isles in 1894 by the Ottoman caliph and by the Emir of Afghanistan, as a symbolic flag-bearer for British Islam is less straightforward than it might appear. One recent appropriation of his legacy presents him as a kind of proto-Brownite patriot, a social entrepreneur working in the third sector (and of course he did great social works like setting up a school, an orphanage and many other institutions in building up his unique community in Liverpool at the end of the nineteenth century), larded with Brownite-style explicit invocations of Britishness. Seen by the new eponymous foundation as a “forebearer” for British Islam, (a retrieval that should not be “blurred” by the complications of the great postwar migrations from the Commonwealth,) Quilliam’s name is invoked “to help foster a genuine British Islam, native to these islands, free from the bitter politics of the Arab and Muslim world”.

But even a cursory glance at Quilliam’s life immediately reveals a more complicated personality than the simpler invocations of British Muslim patriotism will allow.

For instance, Quilliam’s community called the adhan out aloud, which would surely have fallen foul of the Bishop of Rochester, who is not a fan of the amplified call to prayer. We can hear the echoes of the Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali in the complaint of the Liverpool Review of 1891:

To hear the muezzin here it is most incongruous, unusual, silly and unwelcome, and the man who stands howling on the first floor of a balcony in such a fashion is certain to collect a ribald crowd, anxious to offer a copper or two to go into the next street, or even ready to respond to his invitation with something more than jeers. [1]

Quilliam lived during the high noon of European colonialism, and, in particular, of the British Empire. In 1900, eleven (mostly) European empires had 160 million Muslim subjects (or 80% of the umma); the British Empire itself had 100 million Muslims stretching from northern Ghana to Kelantan in SE Asia (so half of all Muslims were subjects of the Crown). By contrast, the independent Muslim states — the Ottoman Empire, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Morocco and Afghanistan — had a mere 41 million Muslims. [2] After 1870, the European denial of “progress” in Muslim terms (for “progress” could only truly be European in character) fed the growth of the Salafiyya movement, which advocated a return to the ways of the earliest generations of Islam. In some ways, Salafiyya was an analogue of nineteenth-century European classicism, and it tended, at this time, towards nationalism and was critical of what it saw as Ottoman despotism. This general pessimism towards the Ottoman Empire grew with the Balkan Crisis of the 1870s and the loss of Tunisia to the French and Egypt to the British in the 1880s, and much Muslim public opinion turned against it. The idea of the sultanate was still promoted in the independent Muslims states while stressing the religious dimensions of the role as amir al-mu’minin (in some ways close to the European idea of ‘defender of the faith’), while British royalty was also known to invoke caliphal authority at the same time. But generally, Muslim political elites began to detach the idea of sovereignty from the sultan (or empire), and to invest it in the nation-state, expressed in the constitutional movements of the early twentieth century.

Quilliam, based in the colonial metropole, was seen to be an anti-imperial agitator. He was unashamedly pro-Ottoman and a supporter of the Emirate of Afghanistan, a fact naturally reflected in the string of scholarly, religious and diplomatic titles and honours he had acquired by 1908:

His Excellency Abdullah Quilliam Bey Effendi, Faziletlu Hazratlaree, B.A., F.G.S., LL.D., Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles and Dominions, Turkish Consul and Persian Vice-Consul [3]

He opened the pages of his publications to George Rule, the Honourary Ottoman Consul in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and to Enver Bey, the Ottoman Consul in Liverpool. His interventions on foreign policy were generally regarded as “un-British” by the press of the day. He questioned the virtue of Muslim imperial subjects fighting on behalf of the Empire against their fellow brethren in the Sudan (see the original text below). He defended the Ottomans from criticisms he regarded as unbalanced or unfair over the Armenian uprisings in 1895. And as British foreign policy began to move away from support of the Ottomans at the beginning of the twentieth century, Quilliam was seen to be out of step.

After Quilliam left Britain in 1908 for Istanbul, it would have been impossible for him to return to Britain as Sheikh-ul-Islam particularly during the First World War (when the Turks sided with Germany). Yet there is some evidence that he did return under the pseudonym of H. Mustapha Leon or Henri M. Leon, some dating the return as early as December 1914 while others place it after the war in 1922. [4] Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, the famous translator of the Qur’an, before and after his conversion to Islam in 1917, was seen as “a security risk” in official circles. [5] Indeed, in this whole period, according to the leading historian of British Islam,

British Muslims were greatly affected by the First World War. Turkey’s involvement on the side of Germany caused immediate doubts about the loyalties of all classes of Muslims within the empire, which reinforced perceptions that Muslims were essentially “un-British”. [6]

How contemporary that predicament sounds! And it indicates that Quilliam’s experiences are more poignantly pertinent a hundred years later than hasty patriotic appropriations would crudely suggest.

From Liverpool, Quilliam worked alongside Joosub Moulvi Hamid Gool of Cape Town and Hassan Musa Khan of Perth to unite together the diasporic Indian Muslim communities in places as far afield as Australia and South Africa, on the basis of a strong rhetoric of international brotherhood mobilised in support of the Caliphate. His strongest support came from the NW part of the British Raj in Gujrat, the Punjab and the NW Frontier Province, and particularly from the Afghans. However, the elite of the Indian Muslim diaspora couched their pan-Islamism in Anglophilia, claiming their Britishness as they sought to claim their equal status and worth. (And it is the Anglophilia rather than the context or the substance that seems of utility to hasty appropriators.)

In the high tide of Empire, Quilliam wrote his subversive pan-Islamist tracts in favour of defensive jihad, ummatic solidarity and the support and defence of the beleaguered caliphate. At least in the mid-1890s, he seemed to be a staunch Islamist, to use the current terminology, and thus seems an unlikely candidate for the latest fashion in Britslam-makeovers.

Despite the context, Quilliam was certainly unabashed and unapologetic about his loyalties. Here, in the two texts from 1896, he calls upon Muslims not to fight on behalf of the British Empire against fellow Muslims, and argues that supporting the caliphate is the mark of the mu’min (believer) and the only guarantor of Muslim unity. Given the current climate, it seems more than likely that his writing of the period would have fallen foul of current anti-terrorism laws on incitement and propagandising. The Daily Mail might even have seen him as one of those “preachers of hate”!


Text One: Quilliam on Jihad

In the name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful!

Peace be to all True-Believers to whom this shall come!

Know ye, O Muslims, that the British Government has decided to commence military and warlike operations against the Muslims of the Soudan, who have taken up arms to defend their country and their faith. And it is in contemplation to employ Muslim soldiers to fight against these Muslims of the Soudan.

For any True Believer to take up arms and fight against another Muslim is contrary to the Shariat, and against the law of God and his holy prophet.

I warn every True-Believer that if he gives the slightest assistance in this projected expedition against the Muslims of the Soudan, even to the extent of carrying a parcel, or giving a bite of bread to eat or a drink of water to any person taking part in the expedition against these Muslims that he thereby helps the Giaour against the Muslim, and his name will be unworthy to be continued upon the roll of the faithful.

Signed at the Mosque in Liverpool, England, this 10th day of Shawwal, 1313 (which Christians erroneously in their ignorance call the 24th day of March, 1896),

W.H. ABDULLAH QUILLIAM, Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles.

[Source: The Crescent, March 25th 1896, Vol. VII, No. 167, p. 617; original punctuation and spelling retained.]


Text Two: Quilliam on the Caliphate

[681] In the name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful!

Peace be to all the faithful everywhere!

“O True-Believers, fear God with His true fear; and die not unless ye also be True-Believers. And cleave all of you unto the covenant of God, and depart not from it; and remember the favour of God towards you.” Sura 3, “The Family of Imran,” Ayat, 103

All praise be to God Who, in His unlimited goodness, has favoured us with the gift of the True religion of Islam, and Who has ordered the brethren to be united, and declared this to be His law in the before-quoted Ayat of the Holy and Imperishable Koran!

Among Muslims none should be known as Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Ajem, Afghans, Indians or English. They are all Muslims, and verily the True-Believers are brethren. Islam is erected on the Unity of God, the unity of His religion, and the unity of the Muslims. History demonstrates that the True-Believers were never defeated while they remained united, but only when disunion crept into their ranks.

At the present time, union is more than ever necessary among Muslims. The Christian powers are preparing a new crusade in order to shatter the Muslim powers, under the pretext that they desire to civilise the world.

This is nothing but hypocrisy, but armed as they are with the resources of Western civilisation it will be impossible to resist them unless the Muslims stand united in one solid phalanx.

O Muslims, do not be deceived by this hypocrisy. Unite yourselves as one man. Let us no longer be separated. The rendevous of Islam is under the shadow of the Khalifate. The Khebla of the True-Believer who desires happiness for himself and prosperity to Islam is the holy seat of the Khalifate.

It is with the deepest regret that we see [682] some persons seeking to disseminate disunion among Muslims by publications issued in Egypt, Paris and London. “Verily, they are in a manifest error.”

If their object – as they allege it – be the welfare of Islam, then let them reconsider their action and they will perceive that instead of bringing a blessing to Islam their actions will have a contrary effect, and only further disseminate disunion where it is – alas that it should be said – only too apparent.

We fraternally invite these brethren to return their allegiance, and call them to the sacred name of Islam to re-unite with the Faithful.

Muslims all! Arsh is under the standard of the Khalifate. Let us unite there, one and all, and at once!

Given at the Mosque at Liverpool, this 5th day of Dhulkada, 1313, which Christians in their error call the 20th day of April, 1896

W.H. ABDULLAH QUILLIAM, Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles.

[Source: The Crescent, Vol. VII, No. 171, April 22nd 1896, pp. 681-682, original punctuation and spelling retained, pagination indicated in square brackets in the text.]


Far from being “free” of the “bitter politics” of the Muslim world, Quilliam seemed fully engaged, working not only against the British Empire but also the tide of opinion in the Muslim world that had become anti-Ottoman, rallying the Muslims of the diaspora to a defiant defence of the caliphate. In a way, his mixture of local public service and global political concern makes Quilliam an oddly resonant figure for young British Muslims today — a marionette for our anachronistic fears and hopes.


[1] H. Ansari, The Infidel Within (London: Hurst, 2004), 83.
[2] R. Schulze, A Modern History of the Islamic World (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), 25.
[3] E. Germain, ‘Southern Hemisphere Diasporic Communities in the Building of International Muslim Public Opinion at the Turn of the Twentieth Century’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27/1, 2007, 126-138, citation at 130, n. 30.
[4] Germain, 134, notes an attestation to 1922, but there is the Islamic Review, January 1915, pp. 4-7, that records a speech by Prof. H. Mustafa Leon in London in December 1914, which was in fact the inaugural address to the newly-formd British Muslim Society, based in London. The speech is reproduced here online: Quilliam’s vision for the new Society sounds very similar to how he had envisaged the role of the Liverpool Muslim Institute in the previous decade: “The Society will, I trust, keep us in touch with each, though separated by miles of land; bind us together into one great brotherhood; help us along the Islamic pathway; and strengthen each and all of us to play our part in the battle of life and the defence and exposition of those eternal principles of human conduct and Islamic religion and doctrine for which we are fighting. It. will, I hope, also serve to keep us in touch with the other parts of our world-wide brotherhood. Union is strength. May it be a uniting link not only between every British Muslim but between us and the Muslims everywhere, consolidating and binding the whole into one unbroken and unbreakable chain, stretching through the Orient and Occident, Africa, and the South and North American States. We have now planted the banner of Islam in the heart of the British Empire, its silken folds are fluttering on the breeze, good and noble men and true and gentle women are rallying beneath it. Let us keep it flying on the winds unstained, untarnished, as spotless as when it was first unfurled on Arabia’s burning sands over fourteen hundreds years ago.”

[5] P. Clarke, Marmaduke Pickthall (London: Quartet, 1986), 31.
[6] H. Ansari, 89.


Filed under History, UK Politics, Umma

A Note to the Bishop: Self Segregation is a Myth

As Atif Imtiaz reminds us, Britain is the land of Hume. So, in response to the Bishop of Rochester, let’s look at some empirical evidence, which shows that self-segregation is a myth.

The most accurate data set around is the decennial national census. There are around 8000 electoral wards in England. In 1991, 57 wards had a minority white population and 15% of all non-white residents lived in them. In 2001, 118 wards had a minority white population and 23% of non-white residents lived in them. In the year before the last census in 2001, more non-white residents moved out of these 118 wards than white ones (14,716 verses 9747 respectively).

So we don’t have self-segregation at all. We have the mundane phenomenon of dispersal.

First, white and non-white residents move out of the inner cities when they can afford better housing and commuting costs. This usually happens in middle age. So if everyone generally moves when they can afford to, it can’t necessarily be put down to cultural tensions.

Second, the number of mixed neighbourhoods (or electoral wards) is increasing. Between 1991 and 2001, they grew from 864 to 1070. Also minority white wards are also still mixed wards: they are not segregated. So we’re getting less not more segregated.

Third, inequalities experienced by non-white residents whether in majority-white, mixed or minority-white wards are broadly similar. This shows that geography and ethnic mix are not salient factors in creating inequality. The employment rate of non-whites is roughly twice as high as whites in all these three sorts of ward. So ethnic differentials in poverty aren’t a function of these mythical ghettos either!

So it seems that if there aren’t really any no-go areas as such, just the ones that people like the Bishop of Rochester like to dream up in their heads.

Source: Ludi Simpson, “The Numerical Liberation of Dark Areas”, Sage Race Relations Abstracts, 31/2: 5-25 (2006).

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Filed under Inequality, Multiculturalism, Racism and Islamophobia

Leicester brings you instant chai

It’s usually a hopeful sign if an Indian restaurant has a small menu. It’s less likely that a standard masala base has been used to cook all the (fast food) dishes and instead a fresh and distinctive masala has been cooked for each dish — as it should be. But I save my real test to end. Does the restaurant serve proper masala chai or not? All too often the answer is no: we do tea with a teabag, sir. However there are exceptions: I am happy to report that Mumtaz up in Bradford does a wonderful chai, no problem. No wonder the Queen has visited the place.

Instant ChaiHelp may soon be on the way to solving the general paucity of chai in Indian restaurants. A company in my town of Leicester has started to produce instant chai. (No, I’m not on commission.) What heresy is this, I hear you ask? Out of curiosity we tried some at home just before Eid, and much to our surprise it was really rather good. They are producing it in cardamom, ginger and masala varieties, all with a nice zing to them and all you have to do is to add water (and a bit of milk to get a properly creamy effect). It might not beat the homemade variety but it gets pretty close — and only takes a minute to make. Surely that’s efficient enough to tempt any restaurateur?

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Filed under Culture and the Arts

Are We 'Eding in the Right Direction?

The biggest political problem British Muslims have faced since 9/11 has been the division of their glorious multiplicity into the simplistic binary code of “moderates” and “extremists”. This has led to a conflation of the agendas around integration and terrorism. The millions now flowing into what will basically be ‘mainstreaming” Muslim communities only becomes politically palatable if it is also seen to tackle extremism too. Of course the last census in 2001 showed that many British Muslims, on all the major measures of social and economic exclusion, are part of an underclass. Muslim organisations expected to deal with these in the more usual manner now have to find post-9/11 reasons for doing so.

The government, at least according a civil servant I heard last year at a conference in Berlin, also categorises Muslim organisations as either extremist, anti-integrationist or pro-integrationist.

Leaving those that operate outside the law, those dubbed “extremist” but legal organisations are not liaised with by government to avoid lending them credibility, although interaction with other agencies like the police is likely. They are seen to undermine the project of “winning hearts and minds against extremism”, even if they are not directly part of the terrorist problem. They are seen as subversive, rejecting democratic values, and not just as anti-integrationist.

Those organisations judged “anti-integrationist” may represent mainstream community views, but are seen to be too socially conservative. They are the proper subject of participatory and robust dialogue with government, but not of public funding, or of government endorsement or promotion. Finally, integrationist organisations judged to represent mainstream community views and to promote integration are conversely the proper subject of government liaison, funding, endorsement and promotion.

This blending of integration and counter-terrorism has vitiated the political dividends that should have flowed from splitting the communities strand from the Home Office with the creation of the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2006. If one considers the social conservatism to be found in the constituencies that the British Muslim Forum and the Muslim Council of Britain both serve, a range of attitudes to integration can be found. While the boycotting of the MCB in Ruth Kelly’s time at the DCLG may have ended, the rationale that would label a big umbrella body as either pro- or anti-integrationist seems rather ham-fisted. It is the tone and stance on hot-button political issues that has been more salient in ultimately deciding the government’s mode of interaction.

In public debate, a similar confusion can be observed in the twin uses of “extremist” that obscures rather than explains the phenomenon at hand. “Extremist” is used both in a cultural sense to mean “non-liberal” and in a political register to mean “violent”. The ongoing fashion in much journalese, policy jargon or political rhetoric in establishing a binary category: “extremist”/”moderate”, or its analogues, “Islamist”/”non-Islamist”, “jihadist”/”non-jihadist” and so on is depressingly common, rather than attending to the more complex task of understanding the internal dynamics and evolution within British Islam. A rigid ideological or cultural stereotype is preferred to a decent historical and political analysis. This isn’t accidental as “culture talk” not only obviates the need for a more serious multi-causal dissection of extremism and violent radicalisation but effectively sidelines most democratic forms of Muslim political mobilisation. The argument that Muslim identity politics has roots in marginalisation and exclusion is therefore lost from the very beginning.

In the search for the liberal Muslim interlocutor, the most important constituency affected is the large bulk of socially conservative British Muslim opinion. The latest candidate is rejected as too compromised in liberal terms or as too uninfluential among Muslims to have utility. Ayaan Hirsi Ali may endorse Enlightenment anti-clericalism in comforting ways but her rejection of Islam leaves her without influence while Tariq Ramadan, despite a clearly integrationist stance, is rejected too for keeping a dialogue open with conservative Muslim opinion.

Ed Husain has recently attempted to avoid the fate of either Hirsi Ali or Ramadan by promoting liberal Islam. However this has left him with very little influence among British Muslims for two reasons. Firstly his lumping together of conservative Muslims, Islamists, jihadists and terrorists as “extremist” in one way or another, while gaining approval in Westminster, Whitehall and Fleet Street, is merely symptomatic of the current political isolation of British Muslims. Secondly his echoing of the liberal dislike of Muslim conservatism and support for sterner measures reflects a dangerously polarised climate.

Endorsing the new Kulturkampf between Islam and the West instead of more serious politics is not going to do much to tackle either exclusion or extremism in Muslim communities. A new formula for engagement on all sides is the need of the hour.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, January 2008, Issue no. 40.

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Filed under UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics