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: http://www.wokingmuslim.org/work/bm-soc1.htm. 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

7 responses to “Abdullah Quilliam: Britain's First Islamist?

  1. Pingback: Yahya Birt Beat us to it! « Traditionalislamism’s Weblog

  2. Pingback: The Real Abdullah Quilliam « Random Musings of an Enlightened Fundamentalist

  3. Pingback: Shaykh-Ul-Islam of the British Isles: Abdullah Quilliam « M A Q A S I D -ABDULLAH AL-HASAN’S BLOG PAGE - مقاصد

  4. muhammad khalil

    If Brother Quilliam was a Scouser, and i know some of his ancestors who are, how can Akbar Ali, and the people supposedly campaigning for money to rebuild his mosque say to the Scouser that they hired to do their publicity film, who is a white non-Muslim, and a Scouser with all the openness and good will in the World, that they don’t want any Scousers in their film, meaning Scouse Muslims. This not only insulted the film amker, who then feeling insulted, withdrew his efforts and rightly accused then of racism, which any true Muslim knows is an anathema to the Prophet Muhammad saws. These same people who have already given Muslims a bad name, are continuing to perpetuate their dispicable racist cult for material ends, glibly insulting the graciousness of their host country, and old Arab proverb is “never insult a man in his own house” a Yemeni proverb tells us ” The foriegner shoudl be polite”, these peole are not true Muslims they are what Rasulullah called the identity of a dung beetle. This poor Englushman came to me with his story as I am a true non-racist Muslim, and a Scouser born and bred, and he offered me the footage of these people as proof, he is a film maker, an investigative journalist, and a man of conscience and integrity, which the racist Abdullah Quilliam carpet baggers obviously are not. I felt so shamed. This happened a long time ago, and I had meant to keep it to myself, but even now the truth, the indignation, the injustice, and the contempt for these dung beetles is bursting out of me. Allahu Alim may they know in no uncertain terms the dung beetles, and racist, corrupt scum that they are. For this footage will be the end of them if Allah so wills it. Peace be upon you. Muhammad Khalil.

  5. Adil Ali

    Muhammad Khalil – you know nothing about Akbar Ali. Prove to me where they said they do not want scousers in this film. Prove it and show me the person who said it. Akbar Ali has lived in Liverpool for over 50 years – he IS a muslim scouser. Dung Beetle ? You are a pretened Muslim . An anathema who holds a personal grudge. You know very little, and are quite uneducated.

  6. naz

    Just an update the mosque that Abdullah Quilliam founded in liverpool has been granted planning permission for its £4 million restoration as a mosque and museum. 16/06/2010

  7. Pingback: House Muslims, Think-Tanks, and Muslims who are White | THE BANDUNG2 BLOG

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