‘The birthplace of Islam in Britain’: Kensington’s Victorian mosque reopens

The mosque at 8 Brougham Terrace opened in 1889, two years after Abdullah Quilliam converted to Islam

Image copyright Abdullah Quilliam Society Image caption

The first mosque founded in England, which has stood as a derelict shell for many years, has been refurbished and reopened to Merseyside’s 20,000 Muslims. But how did it come to be there in the first place?

The mid-terrace house in Liverpool, with its broken windows and peeling paint, had given no clue it was, as one of the men behind its renovation put it, the “birthplace of Islam in Britain”.

The building, in Brougham Terrace, Kensington, was once owned by Abdullah Quilliam, who opened it as Liverpool Muslim Institute in 1889.

A prominent English solicitor who had been educated on the Isle of Man and the son of a Methodist preacher, William Henry Quilliam converted to Islam two years earlier, taking the name Abdullah and claiming to be the first native Englishman to embrace the religion.

Jahangir Mohammed says Quilliam was “the first media Muslim”, using newspapers to fight prejudice

Image copyright Abdullah Quilliam Society Image caption

The Abdullah Quilliam Society’s Jahangir Mohammed says it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the man or the courage he showed in becoming a Muslim, a step he took while on a trip to Morocco.

England’s first mosques

Image copyright Colin Smith

  • The Liverpool Muslim Institute was England’s first recorded mosque, opening on Christmas Day 1889
  • The first purpose-built mosque was the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, which was constructed in the same year
  • Only a handful of other mosques were built before the 1960s, including the Fazl Mosque at Southfields, London in 1926. Up to that point, the majority were house-mosques, like Quilliam’s

Source: English Heritage

“On his way, he saw some Hajjis, who had been on pilgrimage, and was intrigued at how peaceful they were when he saw them praying,” he said.

“A Muslim colleague explained that Islam was simply a continuation of previous faiths, Judaism and Christianity. It all seemed logical to him so he became a Muslim at that point.

“When he came back, he decided that he wanted to promote Islam. At the time, it was seen as the religion of the Devil here, so it was a very brave step to take.”

‘Very unusual’

The Royal Holloway University of London’s Professor of the History of Islam, Humayun Ansari, says the life Quilliam saw in Morocco appealed to him.

“He felt that people lived simple lives – they lived, in his view, quite moral lives and there was an environment of solidarity, depending very little on whether they were wealthy or poor.

“That was something that was of immense significance for him.”

The institute incorporated an orphanage, college, madrasa, hotel, museum and library

Image copyright Abdullah Quilliam Society Image caption

However, Prof Ansari says that deciding to convert to Islam was not a simple choice for Quilliam.

“Islam in the 19th Century was seen as a Christian heresy and there were these ideas about Islam being a violent faith.

“So it would have been very unusual for a person from his class background to convert at that time.”

‘First media Muslim’

Quilliam’s work was met in some quarters by anger and hatred, which Mr Mohammed says intensified after the founding of the mosque and his conversion successes.

“He converted 200 locals and 600 people in the whole of the UK and spent a lot of his time persuading people about the merits of Islam and how it wasn’t the evil religion it was presented to be,” he said.

Quilliam converted 200 locals and 600 people across the UK

Image copyright Abdullah Quilliam Society Image caption

“Because he was successful and Christians were converting to Islam, that produced a lot of hostility.

“People would come in here and attack him. They would throw pigs’ heads, razor wire, stones. Some were incited by priests, some were incited by the media, but he stood up to that.”

More than simply facing down his detractors, Mr Mohammed says Quilliam turned to the instruments being used to denigrate him and became “the first media Muslim”.

“He would respond to attacks in the media and he produced the first Muslim attempts at journalism.

A plaque celebrating Quilliam’s life and the mosque is attached to the building

“He encouraged Muslims to write and speak. He would petition Queen Victoria and make his views known, expressing opposition to what was going on around the world.

“He was an articulate, responsible citizen, but he never hid his views and would write about them in his monthly journal and weekly newspaper.”

Scientific lectures

His writings became essential reading, so much so that one book, the Faith of Islam, had three editions translated into 13 different languages and was so popular that Queen Victoria ordered the book and then ordered copies for her grandchildren.

By Rahila Bano, BBC Asian Network

Abdullah Quilliam is seen as a positive role model by British Muslims, especially the younger generation.

He fought against injustice and slavery and encouraged everyone to pray together at his mosque, which included followers of Islam from around the world who would arrive at the Liverpool docks and visit the place of worship.

He transcended sectarianism and was known for his regular interaction with non-Muslims.

Some feel that no one person in the UK could be pointed out, during recent times, as someone who represents Islam and what Muslims should be.

It is felt that Sheikh-ul-Islam could potentially fulfil this important role by the legacy he has left behind.

Liverpool Hope University’s Professor of Religion Ron Geaves says it was not just his writings that helped change the public’s view of Islam.

He says Quilliam looked at why the religion was unpopular with the British public and tailored lectures at the mosque to combat the problem.

“It is interesting to look at the topics of the lectures. You might expect them to be religious and promoting Islam but what we find are lectures with experiments, science lectures.

“So he’s presenting Islam in a very rational way that’s going to appeal to the new scientific consciousness of Victorian Britain.”

Quilliam’s work and reputation led him to be appointed Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles by the last Ottoman ruler Sultan Abdul Hamid ll in 1894 and recognised by the Shah of Persia and the Emir of Afghanistan as the leader of British Muslims.

Building in disrepair

In Liverpool, the institute grew to incorporate an orphanage, college, madrasa, hotel, museum and library.

But the religious intolerance which Quilliam and his converts faced proved too much for him and in 1908, he left England for Istanbul, returning much later under the name Haroun Mustapha Leon and settling in Woking, where he died in 1932.

There was extensive dry rot in the building when the Abdullah Quilliam Society took it over

Quilliam’s departure saw 8 Brougham Terrace change and from 1908, the buildings were used as council registry for births, deaths and marriages, including records of the marriage of John Lennon and his first wife, Cynthia.

Later the building fell into disrepair.

In 1999, a group of Muslims from Merseyside set up the Abdullah Quilliam Society in order to preserve his legacy and a year later, they took over responsibility for the building, which was in a poor state and had been broken in by thieves stealing lead and other metals.

The restoration project has seen the society raise more than £400,000 from donations and it plans to eventually spend £3.8m restoring the buildings and setting up a museum and heritage centre.

Mr Mohammed says Quilliam’s vision deserves nothing less.

“It’s very important because this is the first mosque in Britain. It was the centre of Islamic activity in Victorian times and the birthplace of Islam in Britain.

“[Quilliam] showed how it was possible to be a Muslim in this country. He’s a role model.”

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