An enquiry into the status of the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles

What was the status of the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles? Evidentially there is no definitive answer to this and my Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Islestentative conclusions are provisional as I do not have the immediate means to get to the bottom of what most would probably regard as an “historical footnote”.

The office has only had one incumbent: Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932). The Ottoman caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, granted Quilliam the position in 1894 and Quilliam effectively had to relinquish the post when he left Britain in 1908 and could only return a few years later pseudononymously. (Yaqub Zaki dates Quilliam’s return as early as 1910. [1]) This probably means that we have to distinguish between how the Ottomans saw the role and how Quilliam himself viewed it.

The Ottoman View

Whatever has thus so far been retrieved from the Ottoman archives [2] concerning Quilliam tells us three things:

(i) The Ottoman bureaucracy valued Quilliam as a source of information about the reporting of Ottoman affairs in the British press.
(ii) Sultan Abdul Hamid II trusted Quilliam as a competent and impartial figure given the fact that the caliph sent him on a fact-finding mission to Macedonia to report back objectively given his detachment from the internal politics of the administration there.
(iii) The granting of the title Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles in 1894 (the addition “and Dominions” appears very late towards the end of the Liverpool period and may not have been an official caliphal designation) was seen in the context of supporting minority Muslim populations outside of Ottoman control. The key example of this was the earlier deal struck between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs over Bosnia in 1878.

The Bosnian Parallel

This third and most important point justifies more elaboration. Bosnian Muslim elites in the nineteenth century were part and parcel of centralised Ottoman power and furnished it with significant military and administrative personnel. However these elites also resisted the tanzimat reforms that compromised their independence, e.g. the uprising against Mahmud II in 1831 by Kapetan Gradascevic. Between 1878-1909, the deal with the Hapsburgs left Ottoman-style institutions in Bosnia under Austro-Hungarian control, even though legally Bosnia was still part of the Ottoman state until 1908. After 1909, the Bosniaks (or “Bosnian Muslims”) achieved an autonomous millet-style status, with their links restored to the Sheikh-ul-Islam in Istanbul, even though between 1908 and 1918, Bosnia was legally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Of course, the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 rendered all such ties to whatever vestigal Ottoman structures remained completely moot. [3]

In any case, after 1878, the sovereign writ of the Sultan in Bosnia was an unexecuted right (nudum jus): imperial prerogatives became merely symbolic in a manner redolent of the later Abbasids when they no longer controlled the more distant provinces. Firstly the khutba in Bosnia would be read out in the caliph’s name and secondly Ottoman currency would remain in circulation there (like the late Abbasid claim to sikka, or to have their name stamped on the coinage of those distant provinces no longer under their control). Thus the Bosniaks were effectively to deal with the Hapsburgs alone. [4]

In the Ottoman state, religious administration came to be intertwined with the state, and within this a complex hierarchy of ulema developed, at the top of which stood the Sheikh-ul-Islam. Originally the mufti of Istanbul, the holder of this post came to be regarded as the most senior Sunni authority by the nineteenth century. However, under the Dual Monarchy, as religious and political authority was separate, the Bosniaks sought a creative institutional solution “in the views of Hanafi jurists regarding the position of Muslims under non-Muslim rule, the Osmanli hierarchy of ulema, practical demands and the interests of new rulers.” [5]

The main change was to keep religious institutions in place but under the formal control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; after 1909, the Bosniaks administered their religious, waqf and educational affairs autonomously. The Sharia courts were, however, largely separate from this arrangement and were considered part of the state judiciary.

The primary interest here lies in the post-Ottoman office of Ra’is-ul-Ulema, for this is more likely to reveal how the Ottomans might have considered the post of Shiekh-ul-Islam of the British Isles than would any quick association with the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the Ottoman caliphate in a spirit of Osmanli nostalgia. Why? The main supposition is a chronological one. The example of Bosnia from the previous decade might have been in the minds of the Ottomans when granting Quilliam his title. It was only later on after the war of 1912-1913 that a more uniform solution to the post-Ottoman status of Balkan Muslims (in Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Romania) suggested itself in the form of national religious administrations headed by chief muftis whose role went beyond the giving of ifta’.

In early Ottoman times, Ra’is-ul-Ulema “was an honorific title (`unwan), not an office.” [6] Later the title was given to military judges in the European part of the caliphate, and over time it came to be divorced from the requirement for scholarly competence and therefore, in loosing prestige, came to be seen as a subordinate role to the Sheikh-ul-Islam. It also came to be associated with Bosnia during this period. After 1882 under the Hapsburgs, the rights and prerogatives of the office came to be fixed, and the Ra’is-ul-Ulema became the highest (and independent) post among the Bosniaks. Baş Mufti or Grand Mufti was now used interchangeably with Ra’is-ul-Ulema.

As was not the case with Albania at the time, the Bosniaks insisted upon the continued authorization of the post of Ra’is-ul-Ulema between 1882 and 1924 by the Sheikh-ul-Islam in Istanbul by a letter of appointment known as a manshur. A manshur, in this instance, is a formal legal document that confirms that a certain person is authorised as Ra’is and who is granted authority to issue similar letters of appointment to subordinate religious officials. These letters of appointment had been issued to the provincial muftis of Bosnia during the period of direct Ottoman control, who were then the highest religious officials in the region.

However, this manshur appears to have been a symbolic formality in the case of the Ra’is. After 1882, any candidate for the post once it had fallen vacant was selected and appointed by the Austrian monarch from a shortlist of three, drawn up by a special electoral body (curia) of Bosnian ulema. Only after the appointment of the Ra’is did the curia request that a manshur be issued by the Sheikh-ul-Islam in Istanbul confirming the new appointee. From 1930 until present times, a special body comprised of national Muslim dignitaries is now charged with issuing the letter of appointment to the Ra’is-ul-Ulema until a legal caliphate is re-established. A similar use of the manshur after a national appointment process for the head Mufti was also adopted by other Balkan Muslim minority groups after 1913.

Sheikh Abdullah QuilliamDoes any of this shed much light on the case of Quilliam’s investiture as Sheikh-ul-Islam in 1894? Well it does tell us that in the final years of the Ottoman caliphate, the Ottomans were prepared at least to expend whatever symbolic authority they still possessed to allow Muslim minorities in Europe to organise themselves better institutionally in ways that were inspired by a vision of Muslim minorities according to the jurisprudential principle al-muslim bi-dhimmati l-kafir, or essentially a millet in reverse. Perhaps Quilliam’s role was technically granted through a manshur, and so was thus allowed to read the khutba in the Caliph’s name, to organise and lead his community, to offer it religious guidance and so on as he best saw fit. Clearly the Ra’is-ul-Ulema inherited established religious institutions that had come out of the Ottoman period; Quilliam, however, even if his models of religious institionalisation and authority were Ottoman by inspiration, had to create such facts on the ground from scratch. Furthermore, there is a lack of official and primary evidence of any formal agreement (as has yet to come to light at any rate) between the Sultan and Queen Victoria to formalise the role of Sheikh-ul-Islam in a manner similar to the Ra’is-ul-Ulema. [7] The position of Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles had honorary and symbolic significance but no historical continuity to draw upon — unlike the Ra’is-ul-Ulema — and in the context of the Balkan experience generally, the honorary appointment of the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles appears to have been a one-off in terms of the Ottoman practice of recognising Muslim minorities outside of its formal control during this period.

The View from Liverpool

Leaving aside the Ottoman view, there is also the separate question of what Quilliam made of the position of Sheikh-ul-Islam, and how he saw his mission and his role. As far as can be ascertained, the main points are as follows:

(i) Authorisation to read the khutba in the name of the caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid, and, as mentioned above, this was an honorary and symbolic act when agreed for lands under which the caliph no longer had jurisdiction, a practice dating back to the late Abbasids. The Liverpool Muslim Institute under Quilliam held services according to the Hanafi School, another indication of Ottoman allegiance, and made prayers for the Sultan as “Head of the Muslim Church” regularly during the English-language prayers held in the evenings. [8] Quilliam’s own description of the post to the Lord Mayor of Liverpool in 1903 reads: “I do not officially represent Turkey in Liverpool, but I do represent the Muslim Faith, and am the Sheikh of the Mussulmans in the British Isles. I do not receive one penny from the Turkish government.” (The Crescent, XXII, No. 565, 11th November 1903, 309.)
(ii) The role included the duty to issue fatwas. In the case of his 1896 ruling on the British invasion of the Sudan, Quilliam uses the terms “Fetva”, “proclamation” and “declaration” interchangeably. [9] Quilliam saw himself as competent to give fatwas: he was fluent in several languages, including Arabic and Persian, had studied Islam in Morocco for two years and in 1893 the Sultan of Morocco had “conferred on him an honorary `alimiyya (of Fez). The title came accompanied by a robe and a turban.” [10]
(iii) The role included the mission to preach Islam. Quilliam kept meticulous records of the number of converts and worked through several channels — like the temperance movement, which was strong in Liverpool, the Unitarians and other such avenues — to spread Islam in what was often a hostile environment. His real success in this regard was in Liverpool itself and less so outside of it.
(iv) The role included the duty to speak out on the current affairs of the day but from a sense of religious conviction, this much is clear from Quilliam’s commentary on his own “Fetva” of 1896, allowing for the essential proviso that he did not separate politics from the purview of religion. [11]
(v) The role was non-stipendiary. [12]
(vi) The role was an office that would be passed on to a successor. [13]

It seems evident enough then that Quilliam did see the honorary title of Sheikh-ul-Islam as a serious means by which to found Islam in Britain and to create a permanent office. This non-stipendiary office, as Quilliam saw it, included the duties of legal guidance, preaching and the mobilisation of the Muslim diaspora in support of the Ottoman caliph. In that sense the Ottomans not only bestowed Quilliam with symbolic legitimacy but with a model of religious institutionalisation in Britain and a pan-Islamism [14] defined by a last-ditch defence of the caliphate in its final years.


I’d like to thank the following for their helpful comments and assistance: Batool Al-Toma, Humeyra Ceylan, Prof. Ron Geaves, Muhammad Akram Khan-Cheema, Dr H. A. Hellyer, Daoud Rosser-Owen, Dr Muhammad Isa Waley and Dr T. J. Winter. Special thanks go to Dr Yaqub Zaki who most generously lent me a draft version of Chapter 23, “The Apostle of Merseyside”, from his forthcoming work, The Shadow of the Cresent: Islam in Britain, 1770-1918, which has been essential in casting some light on this obscure issue. All errors of fact or judgement are of course my own.


[1] Yaqub Zaki, The Shadow of the Crescent: Islam in Britain, 1770-1918, Ch. 23, forthcoming. Nineteen hundred and ten is four years earlier than the previous estimate of 1914, see my earlier blog entry here.

[2] Personal email communication from Dr T. J. Winter, 28th January 2008.

[3] Xavier Bougarel, “From Young Muslims to Party of Democratic Action: The Emergence of a Pan-Islamist Trend in Bosnia-Herzegovina”, Islamic Studies (Islamabad), 36/2, 3 (1997), 533-549; Fikret Karčić, The Bosniaks and the Challenges of Modernity: Late Ottoman and Hapsburg Times (Sarajevo: El-Kalem, 1991), 111.

[4] Fikret Karčić, The Bosniaks, 81.

[5] Fikret Karčić, “The Office of Ra’is al-`Ulama’ Among the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims)”, Intellectual Discourse, 5/2 (1997), 109-120, citation at 110.

[6] Fikret Karčić, “The Office”, 111.

[7] The website of the Association for British Muslims argues for this official recongition:

“The ABM is the oldest extant organisation of British Muslims. Founded originally in Liverpool in 1889 as The English Islamic Association by HE Shaykhu-l Islam Abdullah Quilliam Bey, Shaykhu-l Islam of the British Isles by appointment of the Caliph, HIM Sultan Abdul Hamid II, jannat makan, (which appointment was endorsed by the Queen-Empress, HM Queen Victoria, and also by HE the Emir of Morocco, HM the King of Afghanistan, and HIM the Qajar Shah of Iran). The organisation was revived in London’s Notting Hill in 1927 as The Western Islamic Association, with HE Khalid Sheldrake, sometime Emir of Kashgar, Eastern Turkestan, as Amir. It was reconstituted at the London Central Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre in Regent’s Park in 1974 as The Association Of British Muslims with Imam Daoud Rosser-Owen as Amir, and again in 1978 as The Association For British Muslims with Imam Hajji Abdul Rasjid Skinner as Amir. [my italics]” Available online at:, accessed 4th February 2008.

Professor Henri Mustafa LeonIn a conversation in late January 2008, Sheikh Daoud Rosser-Owen mentioned that the late Professor Safa al-Khulusi (1917-1995) had been his source for this information. However, the reference is not a literary one: in the first edition of Islam: Our Choice (Woking, Surrey: Woking Muslim Mission & Literary Trust, 1961), the first unabridged edition, edited by Professor Khulusi, there is no separate entry for either Quilliam or under his pseudonym of Professor Haroun Mustafa Leon, and thus no light is shed on the matter at all. Quilliam did, however, write the entry on the life of Marmaduke Pickthall, and oddly a photograph of Prof. Leon (102) is included as part of the entry, unrecognisable here as the Sheikh-ul-Islam and looking appropriately, given his pseudonym, more like a well-decorated continental professor, complete with handlebar moustache. The second version of Islam: Our Choice (Karachi: Begum Aisha Bawany Waqf, 1961), abridged by Ebrahim Ahmad Bawany, does have an entry on Leon (18-21), but not on Quilliam, and there is certainly no mention of the Sheikh-ul-Islam, let alone Queen Victoria, but only the vague mention of receiving “many decorations from Sultan Abdul Hamid Khan , the late Shah, and the Emperor of Austria” (21).

Liverpool Muslim Institute (interior)[8] Yaqub Zaki, Shadow, Ch. 23, catalogues several architectural allusions and gifted features (from the Sultan himself) of the Liverpool Muslim Institute that emphasized the Ottoman connection, the source of Quilliam’s status as Sheikh-ul-Islam. Solid silver candelabras from the Sultan flanked the mihrab (Zaki, Shadow, citing The Crescent, XI (1898), 391); he also donated eight calligraphic roundels. There was also a gilt Osmanli crescent and star on the facade of the Institute, a motif repeated in the main lecture hall. Bunting, including the Ottoman flag, was put out annually for the mawlid al-Nabi, the two Eids and the Sultan’s birthday.

[9] Abdullah Quilliam, “The Union of Islam”, The Islamic World, IV, 39, July 1896, 84-90; “proclamation” (86), “declaration” (87) and “Fetva” (88) are used respectively to describe the same document.

[10] Yaqub Zaki, Shadow, Ch. 23.

[11] Quilliam, “Union”, 89:

“… and only one [Indian Muslim critic] … advised me ‘to leave politics alone and confine myself simply to preaching Islam.’ This is not and has never been a question of politics with me. It is purely and solely a question of religion. I decline to stand dumb and see Muslim set against Muslim in fratricidal strife, embroiled in a quarrel for which there is no cause, at the bidding of any Giaour [misbeliever] or nation of Giaours. The person who would cowardly hold his peace on such an occasion I regard as unworthy of the name of a man and a True-Believer. I believe in the complete union of Islam, and of all Muslim peoples; for this I pray, for this I work, and this I believe will yet be accomplished. In England we enjoy the blessed privilege of a free press, with liberty to express our thoughts in a reasonable way, and this advantageous position can be used for the purpose of promoting the entire re-union of Muslim peoples.”

As the work of Eric Germain indicates, Quilliam used Liverpool as the hub of a transnational network linking disaporic Indian Muslim communities with supporters in British India that promoted pan-Islamism and the Caliphate and heavily criticised British and European imperial action against the independent Muslim states, see Germain’s ‘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.

[12] The Crescent, XXII, No. 565, 11th November 1903, 309, with thanks to Yaqub Zaki for forwarding this reference to me which comes in the context of an account of a public debate in Liverpool about the Macedonian question.

[13] Quilliam groomed one of his sons, Ahmed, as his successor, taking him to Istanbul on a number of occassions. He also had plans to build a grand jami` mosque in Liverpool which came to naught due to a lack of financial support from the caliph. In the first and grander version of the planned mosque, Yaqub Zaki notes the inclusion of a detached Turkish Ottoman-style türbe (tomb) for Quilliam: “…it is intended to have a tomb on the terraced courtyard in front of the projected Mosque for the last resting-place of the mortal remains of Shiekh W.H. Abdullah Quillliam, the first Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, and founder of Islam in this country, a dome will be built in connection with the mosque.” (Yaqub, Shadow, Ch. 23, citing The Islamic World, III, no. 36, Apr. 1896, 367.) Zaki notes too that the proposed tomb was large enough to hold his progeny and indeed successors to the office of Sheikh-ul-Islam. One of the final notices (The Crescent, 13th May 1908, 313) informs us that Quilliam and his son were “summoned” to the Sultan’s private residence at Yildiz and could expect a warm welcome and further honours, even as “the Sultan’s first secretary”. This optimism would shortly prove to be unfounded.

[14] Liverpool, as the cosmopolitan imperial entrepôt, the gateway for trade with Eygpt and India, handling forty per cent of worldwide maritime trade, was an amenable milieu for pan-Islamism and as strange a phenomenon as an English Muslim community. See Diane Robinson-Dunne, “Lascar Sailors and English Converts: The Imperial Port and Islam in late 19th-Century England”, Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges. 12-15 Feb. 2003. Library of Congress, Washington D.C., 29 Jan. 2008 <;. Quilliam echoes this view of Liverpool is his 1896 speech on “The Union of Islam”, 89-90, that:

“The True-Believers are scattered all over the world, in the ice-bound land of the white Czar, as well as under the burning sun at the Equator. In the Islands of the West Indies and in British Guiana, in the sandy desserts of Western Australia or the fertile valley of the Nile, the Negro, the Arab, the Indian, the warlike African, brave Turk, polite Persian, and the Moor all join in the Fatheha and turn their face Meccawards five times each twenty four hours. From Liverpool our steamers and trading vessels journey to each part of the world, and here within the walls of this Institution who knows but that the scattered cords may not be able to be gathered together and woven into a strong rope, Al-Hablul-mateen, of fraternal union.

“There’s a light about to glow,
There’s a fount about to flow,
There’s a midnight blackness changing into grey:
Men of thought and men of action clear the way.”

This is no idle dream on my part; it is a feasible project, which only requires unity of purpose and effort on the part of True Muslims to be made an accomplished effort. Here in Liverpool, brethren, let us do our part to bring about this glorious consumation of our hopes. ‘Tis true that it is not in mortals to command success, but all can work to deserve it (applause).”


Filed under History, UK Muslim Politics, Umma

3 responses to “An enquiry into the status of the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles

  1. Pingback: Ed Husain, stupid « Critically Unstable Muslim

  2. N. Otley


    Excellent article about Abdullah Quiliam.

    I am trying to find out more information regarding the George Otley referred to in “The Crescent, XVI, no.391 (July 11, 1900)”

    It would be great if I was not the first Muslim in my family afterall. 🙂

  3. As salam ‘aleykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.

    Jazakum khairn for featuring this article. I miss the Ottomans. Wasalam.


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