Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2010
This programme explores the life of one of the most extraordinary and controversial of all Victorians – William ‘Abdullah’ Quilliam, who established the first community of English Muslims in Liverpool in the 1890s. Born in 1856 he came from a prominent Manx family, and by the early 1880s he had established himself on Merseyside as a successful and politically radical solicitor. He was active in both Unitarian circles and in the Temperance movement. In 1882 he travelled in the Mediterranean, visiting both Morocco and Algeria, and he developed a deep fascination with Islam.In 1887 he converted, taking the name Abdullah. In 1889 he established a mosque – quite probably Britain’s earliest – on the West Derby Road.
Quilliam saw Liverpool’s social ills – poverty, prostitution, alcoholism – as a sign that Christian culture had failed. He opened a home for abandoned children, and he pointedly used the mosque to provide a free Christmas breakfast for the poor. He felt that most British Christians were ignorantly prejudiced against Islam, and he used Temperance speeches to introduce audiences to a religion that banned alcohol. His short book The Faith of Islam (1889) became a best-seller. He published a weekly paper, the Crescent, that came to be known throughout the Muslim world, and he adapted Christian hymns for Muslim worship. He pulled no punches in his critique of Christian theology, which he regarded as a mixture of the sentimental and the ridiculous. His mosque, needless to say, was often attacked by Liverpool mobs.
Quilliam was recognised by Muslim rulers around the world, and the Ottoman Sultan conferred on him the title of ‘Sheikh al Islam of Great Britain.’ Quilliam supported the idea of world Islamic government centred on Constantinople – and this was unavoidably controversial at a time when British foreign policy was repeatedly involved in conflicts with Muslim powers – in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and in the Sudan. Many came to view him as a traitor.
In 1908 he was found guilty of rigging the evidence in a divorce case, and he left Britain in disgrace – eventually returning under an assumed French name.
Written and presented by Mark Whitaker, the programme is a Square Dog Radio production for BBC Radio 4.
N.B. Some music & extracts have been edited from the original broadcast version due to copyright restrictions