Reflections of young Muslim thinkers in Britain

Islam in the Victorian Age

If we were to traverse through the streets and times of Victorian and Edwardian Britain who would we meet? Here’s a small insight into a few key prominent British Muslim personalities of that period.

The year is 1902. The atmosphere – one of jubilation as the Coronation celebrations of Edward VII are about to take place. London is the place to be and a thousand Indian soldiers have just arrived from Bombay in the port-city of Liverpool. Before proceeding to the capital, they parade through the city and attend a civic reception at St George’s Hall. The hall is brimming with Liverpool’s most important individuals and press teams. It isn’t every day that such a display of foreign regiments grace the streets of what has been recognised to be the second city of the British Empire. The soldiers take their seats in the hall – they are polite, disciplined and distinctly foreign. Their heads turn to the entrance towards a man who has the peculiar aura of one who is too foreign to be familiar yet too familiar to be foreign. An Englishman has just walked in – a Liverpudlian lawyer to be exact, yet his garb is not that of gentleman but that of the Turks. Addressing this man dressed in the robes and turban of the Ottomans, five hundred of the soldiers stand up and shout “All ahu Akbar”[God is the Greatest] in response to a takbir that has been proclaimed in respect of the Englishman. A loud silence follows and they take their seats.

Who is this man for whom the Indian seypoy’s are fully aware of and most unusually chose to break their ranks out of respect for? A later copy of a local newspaper depicts a caricature of the man riding a white steed – it turns out he is called Abdullah Quilliam – a respectable gentleman who converted to Islam in 1887 after a trip to Morocco. The white stallion has a semblance of truth to it in that it was presented to Quilliam’s oldest son by Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman empire.  Yet he is the same Englishman that he was before he converted and apart from special occasions would wear the attire of (and travel through the same means as) respectable gentlemen of his day.

I cannot contain my surprise and awe of this Brit who had both the Caliph of the Ottomans and the Amir of Afghanistan confer upon him the title of Sheikh-Al-Islam of the British Isles! How had this lone Englishman converted over 500 people according to his records and established a small yet flourishing Muslim community in the middle of Christian England?

The year is 1887. I want to see who his first British Muslim companions are. The location is a Temperance meeting in Birkenhead where Quilliam has been invited to speak. It is only at the end of his speech that he comments on Islam’s attitudes towards alcohol consumption.  After some polite mingling, a man called Mr Hamilton approaches Quilliam with questions about the Prophet (saw) and they decide to walk home together. This conversation has become far too interesting and I follow them onto the street. Mr Hamilton obviously has no idea that William Quilliam has now become Abdullah Quilliam and after much theological discussion asks him why he has not become Muslim since he seems so convinced regarding the Islamic doctrine. On hearing that the Sheikh was actually a Muslim he expressed a desire to become so too since the Sheikh seemed so ‘normal’ he saw no reason not too.

I am captivated by the scene, wondering where the Sheikh will take him to convert so that there are witnesses present – as is the Islamic stipulation. But he gives no suggestion to go anywhere else and Mr Hamilton takes the shahadah [testimony of faith] there and then. I have to take a step back in amazement and think about what the Sheikh says next – he explains that it is not possible for there to be two witnesses to the conversion because to his knowledge, he was the only Muslim in the country.

The year is still 1887 and I am intrigued as to if there are any women converts. I see a young lady – but nineteen – called Elizabeth Murray – she is a friend of Mr Hamilton and he has taken her to meet the Sheikh who lends her his Qur’an. She slips it in her bag and eagerly starts reading it on returning home. She must realise how controversial reading such a ‘heretical’ text in a Christian household would be, but she does so anyway. Her mother walks in and asks what she is reading. Elizabeth answers, “The Muhammedan Bible”. Her mother angrily retorts, “How dare you read such a vile and wicked book? Give it to me this minute and let me burn it. I will not allow such trash into my house.” Elizabeth clutches the book more firmly and with the wisdom of an open and inquisitive mind says,“No, I will not. How can I know whether it is a wicked book or not until I read it?”

By 1889 there are about twenty English converts who are striving to keep hold of their faith despite the odds – Elizabeth has changed her name to Fatima and I see her rushing into a small building on Mount Vernon Street in order to get to an Islamic meeting. Under the cover of darkness she tries to avoid the neighbours pelting stones, eggs and verbal abuse. At least it’s not as bad as the week before, when horse manure was taken from the road and rubbed in her face.

The year is 1913. I have frequently heard the name of another woman – this time a Scottish aristocrat and Mayfair socialite – Lady Evelyn Cobbold. I see her having dinner at Claridges with Sir Marmaduke Pickthall – the famous novelist whom even H.G.Wells wrote to saying, “I wish that I could feel as certain about my own work as I do of yours, that it will be alive and interesting people fifty years from now”. Amidst their discourse on life and religion, knowing that Sir Pickthall’s heart was warmed to Islam having worked in Damascus, she tries to convert him. He politely refuses despite her attempts to convince him that the waiters would do perfectly well as witnesses!

Born in 1867 to a Christian family Lady Evelyn claims never to have converted herself but even in her childhood to have always been “a little Moslem at heart”. Her privileged background meant many a winter her family visited a Moorish villa near Algiers and she loved to sneak away from her governess to play and visit the Mosques with her Algerian friends. However, her subconscious belief was only realised years later in Rome on visiting the Pope when she recalls that His Holiness asked her if she was Catholic and quite taken aback by the question, she instinctively replied that she was Muslim.  In 1933 Lady Evelyn goes onto become the first recorded British-born Muslim woman to perform the Hajj and relays her fascinating journey to the British public by publishing a book entitled “Pilgrimage to Mecca”.

The year is 1930 and Sir Marmaduke Pickthall has just published his translation of the Quran into English. A year after his dinner with Lady Evelyn, he took the plunge into Islam. He soon assumed a leadership role of a prayer room in Notting Hill, an Islam Society, a Muslim Literary Society and the Woking Mosque. As well as delivering weekly Friday khutbahs [sermons] he spent a year running an Islamic Information Bureau which issued the The Muslim Outlook as a weekly paper. Pickthall actively engaged not only with fellow native Britons (both Muslim and non-Muslim), but also with international religious and political movements – moving to India in 1919 to become editor of the great newspaper, the Bombay Chronicle and a close associate to Gandhi.

By the late twenties he muses that “All Muslim India seems to be possessed with the idea that I ought to translate the Quran into real English”. Thus having mastered the classical Islamic sources and consulted with leading Orientalists, he seeks Al Azhar’s approval, but his apparent radical proposal is met with conservatism. One Shaykh wrote in the famous Egyptian newspaper, Al Ahram, that those who aided such a project would burn in Hell forever, and suggested that Pickthall translate Tabari’s commentary instead (which would have amounted to at least a hundred volumes in English). He recalls his surprise at such a negative reaction of men who cannot see that “the translation of the Qur’an is for the non-Arabs a necessity” and “who cannot conceive that there are Muslims in India as learned and devout, as capable of judgement and as careful for the safety of Islam, as any to be found in Egypt”.

In the end the battle is won – Pickthall addresses a large gathering of ulema [scholars](including Rashid Rida) in Arabic, and convincingly explains the contemporary position of Islam in the world and the potential of dawah [preaching] amongst English-speakers. Having witnessed his sincerity, Islamic knowledge and motivation, the former Shaykh al-Azhar, al-Maraghi, advises him, “If you feel so strongly convinced that you are right, go on in God’s name in the way that is clear to you, and pay no heed to what any of us say”.

The year is 2011. There are over 2.4 million Muslims in Britain. Roughly a century after some of these remarkable British Muslim personalities lived, the story is still being told.


Islam in Victorian Britain – Ron Geaves

Mayfair to Mecca – William Facey

Marmaduke Pickthall – a brief biography – T.J. Winter

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