VICTORIAN MUSLIM: Abdullah Quilliam and Islam in the West
published by Hurst, ISBN 978-1-84904-704-3
review for Country Life, December 13, 2017
Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932) is one of the five famous British converts to Islam, alongside Lady Evelyn Cobbold, Lord Headley, Marmaduke Pikthall and St John Philby.
He was forgotten for fifty years after his death, but there has been an understandable recent revival of interest in him over the last decade. His role as a community leader and creator of Muslim institutes, journals and an orphanage, combined with a public career as a lawyer, freelance journalist and lecturer, makes him the very model of a modern Islamic intellectual. His biography was followed by 35 further public lectures, there is an Abdullah Quilliam Society (based on a Liverpool bookshop), an independent Quilliam Press (run by a respected Cambridge don, Timothy Winters) and the quite separate Quilliam Foundation which marshals arguments for counter-terrorism and Islamic moderation. The community buildings associated with Quilliam’s working life in Liverpool have been preserved and are being restored to new life.
This current work (edited by Jamie Gilham and Ron Geaves) is a collection of eight free-standing essays by prominent scholars. It brings together recent research, and points out gaps in our knowledge before another full-scale biography is attempted. I learned that he was a role model for the emergence of the indigenous American Muslim community, was an enthusiastic free-mason and a morale-boosting energiser of West African Islam. I longed to know more about his first exposure to pre-colonial Morocco in 1884 which inspired him to look closely at Islam.
Although Quilliam made no effort to include the Muslim communities of lascars (Arabian sailors) emerging in Cardiff and Southshields. in every other way proves himself impressively free of the prevailing racism of the time. The natural ease and empathy with which he treated Muslim scholars, either in Liverpool or as their guest in Liberia or Sierra Leone, was clearly exceptional and created lasting friendships.
The complexities of Quilliam’s relationship with Freemasonry have also now been documented. The affinity between the masonic lodges and the Sufi brotherhoods of the traditional Islamic world, which both offered dignity, brotherhood, a sense of community and ritual is apparent. In the 19th century there were Masonic lodges in Egypt, Syria, Tunis and Turkey, where different faiths came together on the shared bedrock of a deist monotheism.
After an early, combative public discourse with Christian theology (especially directed against the mad, sad doctrine of Original Sin) Quilliam learned to adapt his missionary work in Liverpool. He used existing areas of local concern (such as the perils of drink and the fate of orphans and single mothers) as opportunities for constructive dialogue. He made thoughtful use of such ingrown British habits as hymn singing, Sunday worship and Christmas Day which he successfully incorporated in the ritual calendar of his nascent Muslim community, which he eventually grew to a parish of 300 strong.
By comparison with modern Muslim reformers Quilliam was also refreshingly upbeat about the advantages of polygamy, whilst understanding that few men had either the physical, emotional or financial stamina to support two equal households. Quilliam did just that but his children were effectively one family. He seems to have avoiding the hypocrisy, secrecy and guilt that underwrote the family lives of such contemporaries as Charles Dickens and the parents of T.E.Lawrence.
Despite Quilliam’s fondness for collecting titles and medals from foreign Muslim monarchs, he was never a totally Walter Mitty character. He worked in the city in which he was born and educated, proud of the faith and activism of his Wesleyan parents and teetotal grandmother, which he felt had been taken to its logical conclusion in his profession of Islam. He was conscious of his families Manx origins and bought a holiday home on the island, so that his children and grandchildren could know their roots. Here he also pursued his passion for geology which allowed him not only to endorse the truths of Darwinism (without any conflict with his faith) but also to be elected a fellow of the London Geological Society. In his professional life as a Liverpool lawyer he built up a large and profitable practice, but it was also one that followed a clear liberal agenda, supporting the anti-slavery movement, the end of capital punishment, civil rights for African-Americans and working with three trade unions.
There is a valuable description by Mian Fazl-i-Husain of visiting Quilliam in his Liverpool heyday. Coming from the magnificence of Islamic scholarship in India, he was struck by the poverty of the mosque, Quilliam’s shabby offices and the ignorance of the maid who ran the Medina House orphanage. He found Quilliam ‘an unassuming sort of man. There is no fire in him. But Fazl did detect ‘immense applicaton, perseverance and untiring energy and one great virtue – common sense.’
The big, as yet unanswered question, to my mind, is whether Quilliam’s legal disgrace in 1908 was engineered by agents of the British state.
Quilliam was a public champion of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, but this was not treasonable. Indeed until 1878 such an opinion was one of the mainstays of British foreign policy. Nor was Quilliam’s call for Muslim soldiers not to assist in the Sudan campaign of 1896 was no different from those of such prominent anti-colonialists as Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Edward Granville-Brown. Quilliam did spend a month within the walls of the Yildiz Palace in 1891 ( as a guest of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid), undertook a West African tour on behalf of this Sultan in 1894 and in July 1897 met with Fereydon Bey, from the Ottoman Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But all this activity seemed to be part of Quilliam’s spiritual role as the Caliph’s chosen Shaykh al-Islam for the British Isles, a title created specifically for him and endorsed by the Shah of Persia, the Amir of Afghanistan and the Sultan of Morocco. Queen Victoria not only read Quilliams book on Islam but bought copies for all her children.
Yet what has never been satisfactorily explained is why Quilliam thought it appropriate to meet Ahmed Pasha, the Ottoman chief naval architect in 1904. Nor why a man of spiritual interests felt it necessary to comment on the Royal Naval manoeuvres of 1906. These years were critical for the Royal Navy, which was creating steam turbine powered ships that could be fuelled by oil (not just coal) as well as developing a revolutionary new battleship, HMS Dreadnought, under conditions of great speed and secrecy. It was also the period when British foreign policy was stood on its head, as the ancient rivalry with France and Russia was replaced with a military alliance which must have looked a dangerous development to the Turks. Had Quilliam drifted from being a faithful ally of the Caliph of Islam to becoming an agent of the Ottoman Sultan?
Some day the Turkish archives may reveal why Quilliam felt it necessary to flee to the safety of the Sultans palace in Istanbul in 1908. He instructed his son to sell up all his various Liverpool properties and so effectively close down this nascent British Muslim community. The fall from power of his patron (deposed in the Young Turk coup) meant that he had to return home, but by 1913 he had assumed the identity of the retired scholar physician Henri de Leon living in London until his death in 1932.
Victorian Muslim is an admirable work of collective scholarship, for its multiplicity of voices is entirely suitable to the slow exploration of Quilliam, a man for our times. Is he an exemplar for multi-racial, multi-ethnic Britain or a bigamist lawyer tainted with duplicity and treason? The jury is still out.
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