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Abdullah Quilliam and Britain’s First Mosque

Abdullah Quilliam and Britain’s First Mosque

Faith is important to the people of Liverpool and Merseyside. Even if we don't subscribe to any particular religious doctrine, we have an innate spirituality. I think this comes from our ethnic and cultural diversity, and the breadth of life experience that this has brought with it. This is celebrated in many, special places of worship. We have our two, Christian Cathedrals, of course, as well as the magnificent Princes Park Synagogue. Amongst other religions that are represented in the City, we also have the Al Rahma Mosque, in Toxteth. However, this was not the first Moslem temple in the city ~ far from it: And its origins are surprising.

Just along West Derby Road from the magnificent Olympia Theatre (also known as The Locarno), is a short row of mid-Victorian houses named Brougham Terrace. For most of the 20th century, much of this row of properties served as the principal location for the Liverpool City Registrars of Births, Marriages, and Deaths.

However, the Terrace has a different significance for many residents of the City, in that it was also the location for Britain’s first Mosque. In fact, the history of the now thriving Muslim community in Britain has quite an unorthodox beginning, being founded as it was by a Liverpudlian!

William Henry Quilliam was born, on 10th April 1856, at 22 Elliot Street in the centre of Liverpool. He was the son of a Manx watchmaker and a descendant of Captain John Quilliam RN, who was First Lieutenant aboard HMS Victory, serving under Admiral Horatio Nelson. Known as Henry by his family, Quilliam was educated at Liverpool Institute School for Boys (now Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts; the ‘Fame’ School). After leaving school he trained and qualified as a solicitor.

Fervently anti-alcohol Henry was a dedicated Socialist and a Trade Unionist who dedicated himself to supporting the working-classes of Liverpool. In 1882, he went to Morocco to recover from an illness brought on by overwork. Here, he developed an interest in the Islamic faith and culture and, in 1887, at the age of thirty-one, he proclaimed himself a Muslim convert.

He took the name of Abdullah and, after returning to Liverpool, he gave a lecture on Islam at the Temperance League Hall in Mount Vernon Street. He began to hold regular meetings there, and soon he had his first convert in Mrs Elisabeth Cates, who took the Islamic name of Fatima.

It was then that the ‘Liverpool Muslim Institute’ was founded, by Quilliam, Cates, and their supporters. In 1889, the expanding group moved to their own premises at number 8 Brougham Terrace, where they established a small Mosque in the building; the first Mosque in Britain. The money to achieve this came from a donation of 2,300 guineas, given to Abdullah by the Amir (ruler) of Afghanistan.

In 1893, this fledgling, British Muslim community began to publish a weekly newspaper, ‘The Crescent’, and later the monthly journal, ‘The Islamic World’. This latter publication was distributed to more than twenty countries around the world, and was produced using their own printing press, which was operated from the basement in Brougham Terrace.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Liverpool Muslim Institute had 150 members from all walks of life; men, women, and children. Soon, they purchased the rest of Brougham Terrace and established a boarding school for boys, a day school for girls, a library, a reading room, a museum, and a scientific laboratory. Classes were held in the evenings in a variety of subjects and these were available to all whether Muslim or not.

The achievements of Abdullah, and his renown, soon spread throughout the Muslim world and, on a visit to Liverpool, in 1895, the Sultan of Turkey, who was a leading Muslim, conferred on Quilliam the title of ‘Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles’. This title was subsequently confirmed by the Amir of Afghanistan. Now, Muslims of all classes, but especially seamen from all over the world, came to the Brougham Terrace mosque to pray and to meet Abdullah Quilliam, who was now well-known and respected throughout the Muslim world.

Abdullah continued to help these people with legal and personal matters. If they were sick he saw to their care. If they died he guaranteed them a Muslim funeral. He even bought land in Liverpool’s cemeteries especially for this purpose. He also undertook to contact their relatives and to pass on any property or effects belonging to the deceased.

By 1907, Islam had begun to spread so widely across Britain that the Liverpool Muslim Institute became the ‘British Muslim Institute’ and, in 1908, Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam left England on an extended visit to Turkey.

Quilliam was such a dynamic personality that, soon after his departure, the Institute went into a decline. The buildings at Brougham Terrace were then vacated and the group dispersed. For reasons that have never been discovered, Abdullah never returned to Liverpool, and died in 1932, in London.

He was buried in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking. It was to this town that many of the members of the original Liverpool group had moved, and it was also in Woking that a new Muslim community and Mosque were established. Quilliam is buried alongside other prominent British Muslims, including Abdullah Yousif Ali (1872-1953) and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936), who separately translated the Koran from Arabic into English; for the first time, by Pickthall in 1930, and then by Ali, in 1934.

In 1998, a small group of Liverpool Muslims formed the ‘Abdullah Quilliam Society’. Their first significant act was to place a plaque on the front wall of Number 8 Brougham Terrace commemorating the life and works of Sheikh Abdullah. An additional plaque was unveiled outside the prayer room, which had survived in the building, by Mrs Patricia Gordon, Quilliam’s granddaughter. The history of the terrace was the subject of a BBC documentary, in 2004, when for the first time and after a lapse of a hundred years formal prayers (Salat) were said in the original mosque. These were led by the late Dr M Akbar Ali (1925-2016), the renowned Indian poet and professor, and at the time the Chairman of the Abdullah Quilliam Society.

The present owners of the properties at Brougham Terrace are Liverpool City Council who operated the Register Office from the premises. The Council moved out some years ago and, recognising the historical importance and the cultural potential of the buildings, they offered Brougham Terrace to the Abdullah Quilliam Society at a peppercorn rent. This enabled the Society to establish the ‘Abdullah Quilliam Heritage Centre’. Thus, Number 8 Brougham Terrace has once again come into the care and management of the local Muslim Community.

The Abdullah Quilliam Society has now successfully, and beautifully, restored the original mosque in the building, together with a number of other rooms. These play a full part in the lives of the Muslim community of Liverpool and beyond. Also, the Heritage Centre is now part of the wider, non-Muslim community too, taking an active role in the cultural growth and spiritual evolution of the City.

The Society also established educational, research, and community facilities, to promote greater understanding of the Muslim faith and of its relationship with other religions and traditions. They also provide a place for exhibitions, lectures, and seminars; for courses in the Arabic language; study workshops; Islamic classes for children and converts; and counselling services. The Muslim community right across Merseyside is now a large and thriving one, and numbers approximately 30,000 people.

Most Merseyside Muslims now regularly worship at the Al-Rahma Mosque in Hatherley Street, in Toxteth, and at the smaller mosques near Penny Lane in Liverpool, and in Birkenhead on the Wirral. However, Brougham Terrace has now taken its place as a centre of excellence in the many diverse faith communities of Liverpool, and the re-opened original British Mosque is providing interested visitors with an opportunity to gain a closer understanding of and friendship with the Muslim faith and people.

Liverpool-born Abdullah (William) Quilliam (1856-1932), founder of Britain's first Mosque.
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