Liverpool strikes a happy balance for Muslims living in the birthplace of Islam in Britain

An English convert opened Britain’s first mosque in 1887, but has since been largely forgotten in a city embracing Muslims today

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Walk through Liverpool and you will see, among the red flags fluttering in the wind, Mohamed Salah scarves sold by market traders proud of the city’s new Muslim hero.

But while Salah is an established figure in a city renowned for its embrace of Muslims, Islam in Britain can trace its beginnings to a long-forgotten Englishman, crowned as the Ottoman Caliph’s representative in the UK, and responsible for building Britain’s first mosque.

Born in 1856 in Liverpool and raised there, solicitor William Henry Quilliam grew up in an educated, aristocratic, Methodist Christian family of watchmakers. But he was raised in a city where every seventh house was a pub selling alcohol, crime was high and housing was squalid – conditions that troubled Quilliam.

This, and a chance voyage to Morocco in 1887, changed his life. While at sea, he was inspired while watching Muslims praying on the ship’s deck, despite high winds and treacherous conditions.

"There was so much emotion in prayer, in silence, despite the dangers. They weren't afraid," Mumin Khan, the chief executive of Abdullah Quilliam Mosque in Liverpool, tells The National.

Quilliam converted to Islam and changed his first name to Abdullah, despite there being no requirement for converts to do so. In the same year, Quilliam opened a mosque at 8 Brougham Terrace, Liverpool. This tiny, unassuming Victorian building became the first active mosque in Britain.

It also served as a centre to address social needs. By helping non-Muslim, English orphans on his doorstep – about 200 boys and 300 girls were given day schooling – Quilliam showed “the beauty of Islam”, Mr Khan says.

“He did exactly what our Prophet would have done – serving humanity, serving the poor, serving the needy.”

Quilliam converted more than 650 people to Islam in his lifetime, and led England’s first official Muslim marriage in 1891. In one picture uncovered by Mr Khan, Quilliam officiates at a wedding between an English woman and an Indian man, sign of an active, cosmopolitan Muslim community in Liverpool.

In the layout of Britain’s first mosque, Quilliam retained a traditional English architectural style – including a piano on an elevated platform that symbolised his transition from Christianity to Islam.

“He was very sensitive that Islam is not about hard and fast rules. It’s about how easy you want to go, as long as you believe in Allah’s message,” Mr Khan says.

Nonetheless, this tiny Muslim community was tested from the outset and targeted by those suspicious of the unfamiliar place of worship.

“To disseminate information about Islam to the public, that was difficult for him because he faced a lot of stigma and a lot of Islamophobia,” Mr Khan says.

“People were outside the gate throwing cow dung. When the muezzin was giving the call to prayer through the window, the public would say ‘take your song somewhere else, we won’t have it here in Liverpool’.”

The Victorians that converted were very strong...I congratulate them because they stood against an empire

Mumin Khan, Abdullah Quilliam Mosque CEO

From its early days the mosque served 80-90 worshippers, including Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa who had flocked to Liverpool as traders and seaman.

Quilliam overcame the hostility and made an impact nationwide. Using a printing press at the mosque, he penned hundreds of magazines and newsletters including ‘The Crescent’, recording Islam in Britain which had attracted subscriptions globally. Queen Victoria is said to have been a subscriber to his magazine.

The mosque’s precarious success didn’t last long. Quilliam left in 1908 to visit Constantinople, perhaps to visit the Ottoman Sultan who had bestowed him the title of Britain’s ‘Sheikh al-Islam’ (the only person in the British Isles ever to have been given that title). He never returned to Liverpool having faced persecution.

His son closed the mosque and sold it to the local authorities in 1908, who in turn used the premises as a storage depot for local marriage, birth and death certificates for the best part of a century.

This in itself, Mr Khan says, was a miracle, for the former place of worship was fireproofed to protect it and in doing so, became “the safest room in the city”.

Council workers unknowingly referred to the room as “the little mosque”.

Liverpool’s modern-day Muslim community reclaimed the premises in 2002 and have been faithfully restoring it to its former glory since 2014, to the tune of £1.5 million (Dh6.98m) so far.

About £750,000 is still needed to finish this restoration and build a hammam, women’s centre, cafe, library and museum. Proposals are also being drawn up to revive Quilliam’s Victorian kitchen underneath the mosque, which today holds regular prayers.

New women's wudu space. Courtesy Abdullah Quilliam Society

Among today’s worshippers is rumoured to be footballer Mohamed Salah, although Mr Khan says he has not seen the Egyptian star himself.

A caretaker of the mosque tells The National that he has seen Salah perform ablution, but it is clear that although the Liverpool forward likes to keep a low profile, he has done wonders for changing perceptions.

“Mo Salah has made a profound difference in the habitual, the psychological thinking of the fans,” he says.

“What he has done in a short space of time, the government would spend millions on, and what a politician could not do, he has done. He has changed the perception of people who view Muslims as bad, dirty, sick or a terrorist. All that negativity is on one side, and Mo Salah is on the other.”

While Salah and Quilliam are figureheads in very different ways, Mr Khan hesitates to put the two on an equal pedestal.

“Salah is Muslim, but he’s not preaching it. His act of worship automatically preaches itself,” Mr Khan says.

Quilliam’s reach arguably continued shaping Islam into the 20th century. He inspired Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, a British scholar who translated the Quran into English in 1930 and who, six years later, was buried near the one-time solicitor outside London.

“How did he not influence the 19th-century Muslims to be the pioneers of Islam, for Islam to progress in the West? Imagine Marmaduke Pickthall didn’t translate the Quran into easy English,” Mr Khan says. “A lot of our people today, and western people of that time, wouldn’t have understood Islam at all.”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24: Mohamed Salah of Liverpool prays during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford on February 24, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)

Today’s British Muslims face increasing Islamophobia, but for Quilliam and his tiny band of Muslim peers, their defiance against threats remains inspirational.

“The Victorians that converted were very strong,” Mr Khan says. “I congratulate them because they stood against an empire.”

Mr Khan fears that Quilliam’s legacy was suppressed by historians. More people around the world know about Quilliam’s legacy than do today’s British Muslims, he says.

At the height of the British Empire, Liverpool was considered to be its second city and it remains an international hub to this day.

As the wind whips in from docks transformed into an arts centre, Chinese and US students pose near a statue of The Beatles. Third-generation Yemenis and Bangladeshis can be heard speaking with the Scouse accent.

And although Liverpool today praises its own “Egyptian King”, let it not be forgotten that it was an Englishman who fostered the beginnings of Islam in Britain.