Author:  Ron Geaves

Publisher: Kube Publishing, 2010


Ron Geaves’s scholarship reveals many new and unexpected aspects of a man whom some consider the ‘quintessential British Muslim’.  The bare bones of the Quilliam story have been known for some time: that of an intrepid and courageous Manx solicitor who called the adhan from his balcony, established a community of converts and offered passionate defences of the Ottomans when the dominant politician of the times, William Gladstone, was whipping up anti-Turk hysteria. Geaves’s biography now provides the first comprehensive account and his publishers are to be commended for this significant biography of a charismatic personality whose story forms part of the history of Muslims in Britain. The book goes a long way in lifting the veil on some mysteries, such as Quilliam’s sudden disappearance from British public life in 1908, and the further lines of enquiry suggested by Professor Geaves at various points in the text will hopefully be pursued by historians in time to come. In his own words, “there remain gaps in the narrative for further research”.

The biography stands true to its title of describing Quilliam’s ‘life and times’. It is a rich source of social history of life in Liverpool and its socio-economic and religious landscape.  Quilliam’s parents were non-conformist Christians in not belonging to the Anglican Church, and also Wesleyan Methodists, a denomination that placed emphasis on lay preachers and took a robust stand against slavery, and personal vices such as gambling and drinking. The young William Henry Quilliam, born in 1856, began preaching as a teenager. Geave writes, “on 6th December 1871, when just sixteen years old, he spoke on the platform alongside well-known orators…in support of ‘The Permissive Prohibitory Liquor Bill”. By the age of nineteen “he was elected as Secretary to the East Liverpool Convention of the Good Templars…Secretary of the Kensington Working Men’s Concerts, Superintendent of the Fairfield Junior Temple and active member of the Liverpool Permissive Bill Association”.  William Quilliam found further outlets for his reservoir of  nervous energy by  also becoming “something of an amateur theologian and Biblical scholar”. Geave comments, “all of this remarkable when one considers that the young man was articled, studying law and working as a reporter at the same time”.  He suggests that what made Quilliam tick was “an idealistic longing for serious social reform”. 

Quilliam married Hannah Johnstone in the Fairfield Wesleyan Chapel in July 1879, and curiously their first child was born in September 1879. Given the Methodist emphasis on Biblical core values, this pre-marital relationship serves as the first indicator of a more complex personality of a man who could play fast and loose with the rules, with additional enigmatic facets to unfold in later life. Of Isle of Man origin, he was perhaps more of a Celt than an Englishman and could distance himself from the milieu around him. 

Quilliam’s path to Islam is not entirely clear, though it may have commenced with the appeal of Unitarianism.  Geave cites John Pool, “a late nineteenth century writer [who] recorded that Quilliam visited Morocco in 1887 and was struck by the lack of depravity that existed in British cities. On his return, he studied the Qur’and other works on Islam until he was convinced….his interest in Islam seems to have grown gradually. As late as 1886 he opened the Vernon Temperance Hall and engaged in vigils in 1887 and 1888”.  In July 1887 Quilliam delivered a lecture on ‘Fanatics and Fanaticism’ at Vernon Hall in Livepool, “his very first speech’ to interest people in Islam.  He renounced Christianity  in the Liverpool media in 1888 and announced his change of name to Abdullah.”  In 1889 Quilliam published a pamphlet ‘The Faith of Islam’ that rapidly went through two editions.  Geaves has uncovered that Queen Victoria knew of this publication – perhaps it was introduced to her by Maulvi Rafiuddin – and ordered copies for her family members.

The courage and persistence of the tiny band was awesome. Among his earliest converts was Elizabeth (Fatima) Cates, and their correspondence provided the basis for Quilliam’s ‘The Faith of Islam’.  Ron Geaves has uncovered an account by Fatima Cates that reads like an episode from the Meccan period and remains timeless in its import: 

“I accordingly took it [Quilliam’s Qur’an that he had loaned her] and commenced carefully reading it.  My mother was a most bigoted Christian, on perceiving this asked me what I was reading. I answered, ‘The Muhammedan Bible’.  She replied, angrily, ‘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’.  I answered, ‘No, I will not. How can I know whether it is a wicked book  or not until I read it?’ She tried to take the book from me, but I escaped to my bedroom and locked myself in, and went on reading what I now consider the most precious book that could be bought”. 

The small band around Quilliam were subject to vicious anti-Muslim hatred:

“not only were the first Muslim converts pelted with eggs and stones, but [that the] windows of the small mosque were frequently broken and on many occasions ruffians would enter the meetings.  Horse manure was taken from the road and rubbed into the face of  Fatima Cates on more that none occasion. However, she remained steadfast, bringing her husband to Islam along with her two sisters, who both married Muslims from India”.  

Quilliam’s association came to the attention of the Ottoman Ambassador in London in September 1890, possibly as a result of a letter of protest sent by Maulvi Rafiuddin Ahmed to The Times – describing himself as the vice-president of the Liverpool association – over a play entitled ‘Mahomet’.  Geave notes that Sultan Abdul Hamid II sent a telegram to Liverpool in December 1890 congratulating Quilliam for his efforts to establish Islam in Britain. In 1891 both Quilliam and his eldest son Ahmed were invited as guests of the Sultan and stayed at Yildiz Palace. Significantly, on being offered an honour, Quilliam declined at this stage, perhaps aware of the protocol that he needed British Government permission before accepting a foreign award.

Among the gifts from the Ottoman Sultan was a white Arab stallion, possibly the last thing which the Liverpool Muslims would wish to be burdened with when their priorities rested elsewhere. Appeals for financial support radiated across the Muslim world.  Indian Muslims in India were particularly active in supporting Quilliam’s work, and though not cited by Professor Geaves, one Maulvi Hasan Ali raised “10,000 rupees at Hyderabad, 2000 at Bangalore and large sums elsewhere”. [1] Geaves however does acknowledge that “in 1893, the printing press paid for by Indian donations was up and running and Abdullah Quilliam was able to expand his activities such as regular publication of ‘The Crescent’. Were it not for this early Indian Muslim enthusiasm and financial support, the Liverpool Muslim community would have remained just one more characteristic and short-lived English eccentricity of the John Bennett Coombe Springs variety.

A further fillip came from a donation of £2, 500 from the Crown Prince of Afghanistan during his visit to Britain in July 1895. This enabled the Liverpool Muslim Association to purchase 8 Brougham Terrace and pay of the mortgages on 11 and 12 Brougham Terrace.   Continuing his professional work as a  solicitor, Abdullah Quilliam and his community pitched themselves in work serving as a witness to Islam and embarking on forms  of social activism that remain inspiring to this day. Visiting Muslim princes, diplomats and dignitaries – adulatory then as now towards an English Muslim celebrity – became regular visitors, witnessing the celebration of Muslim festivals, the help given to destitute lascars, and the establishment of a school and an orphanage.  Among the first students at the school was Omar Dollie, whose father Muhammad Dollie was a kindred spirit and a sort of maverick figure within London’s Muslim community.

The British public was however turning increasingly anti-Ottoman and Muslim-hostile, particularly from the coverage in the media about ‘atrocities’ in Bulgaria and Armenia.  Sultan Abdul Hamid II responded with his own campaign of rebuttals, in which the London Anjuman-e-Islam and Rafiuddin Ahmed played the lead role in organising public meetings.  

Why did the Ottomans confer Abdullah Quilliam the title of ‘Shaikh ul Islam of Britain’ in 1894, when there was already the well-established Anjuman-i-Islam in the capital city London under the leadership of one Maulvi Mohamed Ibrahim? The Anjuman was active in defending Ottoman interests, organising  meetings to protest “against the gross misrepresentation of the Muslim law and religion which is now being made in this country for political purposes in connection with the alleged Armenian atrocities” [2].  Perhaps the accolade would have deterred a less flamboyant personality and is unlikely to have been possible without home approval – though these conjectures may be  one of those  “gaps in the narrative” referred to by Professor Geaves.  

This however does not detract from the courage of the hundred or so Muslim converts in Liverpool when the mosque at Brougham Terrace was opened in 1895. The conditions were hostile:

“the building immediately attracted Islamophobic vandalism.  This began with stones being thrown at the back windows, scattering glass over the carpet upon which prayers were held….in June of the same year, a crowd gathered outside the mosque and two more windows were broken.  The mob had been attracted by a Muslim wedding between Karim Buksh of Lahore and Miss Ellen Lena Hallemalden of Stamford Hill, London.”

On one occasion a crowd outside the mosque were shouting slogans like ‘remember Armenia’, ‘Down with the Turks’, and ‘to hell with Muhammadans’.  Geaves also describes several incidents in 1895 that would sound comical in 2010 if not for the recent emergence of the English Defence League.  

“Whilst Quilliam was delivering a public lecture on the demerits of eating pork in the lecture hall of the Liverpool Muslim Institute a cry went up, ‘I love pig! I love pork! and black puddings were thrown at the Muslims present. The following week, whilst lecturing on the abuse of alcohol, Quilliam showed a model of a pig made from sausage that had been sent to a mosque labelled ‘Turkish Delight’. He reported that anonymous hate mail would often arrive with very abusive language…the attacks continued into the twentieth century, and in march 1902 on the occasion of  Eid al-Adha, some ruffians attempted once again to force their way into the mosque only to be repelled by the worshippers.  They then pelted the building with mud and stones, breaking windows and a fanlight.  Four Muslim women were hurt by the stones….the mob dispersed when the rain began to fall late into the night”.  

Throughout this period Quilliam’s law practice was also growing and he began to specialise in criminal law and also in defence of Irish nationalists. It was a virtuoso performance, facing down anti-Muslim crowds at public meetings, officiating at Muslim weddings and funerals, editing ‘The Crescent’ and at the same time taking on demanding and high-publicity cases in the courts.  The latter included acting as defence lawyer for Henry Burton and James Gilbert Cunningham, Irish nationalists, tried in London for being involved in conspiracy to cause bomb explosions through out the land in 1895. Geaves notes that during the high profile trail, Quilliam was guarded day and night by both the nationalists and Government officials. 

Quilliam also commenced issuing fatawas on political issues,  that combined flamboyant defiance with empire-loyalism. Several are quoted in ‘Life and Times’.  In one, issued in 1898, Quilliam declared:

“….know, O my brethren, that it hath pleased the Almighty to give triumph to the armies of the faithful in Greece, whereby the name and memory of the Holy Prophet has been once more exalted, the sneers and boastings of the unbelievers brought to naught, and the Giaour driven back before the triumphant soldiers of the Emir al-Mumeneen…..

Those of you who reside in lands under the dominion of those of an alien faith should be doubly careful in the presence of this crisis. Ye dwell among strangers: ‘They worship not that which ye worship….

Yet every Mussulman who resides in any land over which the British flag cloth floats by law has the unalienable right to petition his sovereign, the Queen-Empress, and the Imperial Parliament of the British Isles….”

There is also a sense of the theatre in the march past which Quilliam organised in the Eid al-Fitr celebrations of 1898. The boys at the school were dressed as an Ottoman regiment and formed squares and drilled with swords, providing an official escort to the Lord Mayor. No doubt with the white Arab stallion in full dressage.

To top it all, Quilliam’s propensities also drew him to the arcane rituals of Freemasonry – even “shortly before his public announcement of conversion to Islam he had been initiated into the Masonic Royal Oriental Order of the Sat Bhai” and by 1904 sufficiently senior to be elected a ‘Worshipful Master’ and ‘Grand Deacon of the Grand Council of Allied Masonic Degrees of the Grand Council of the Allied Masonic Degrees of Great Britain and its Dependencies beyond the Seas”.  In a footnote Professor Geaves wonders aloud, “one line of enquiry worth undertaking in the future would be to ascertain whether one potential avenue that allowed Quilliam to obtain initial access to Yildiz was his Freemason credentials”. 

Professor Geaves touches on the complexities of Quilliam’s family life, referring to his association with one Mary Lyons (referred to with this spelling on page 53, but as ‘Mary Lyon’ elsewhere in the book, for example page 259) with whom he had started a relationship and raised children while also  married to Hannah Johnstone in 1879.  Ron Geaves indicates that it was only after Hannah’s death in 1909 that Quilliam registered his marriage to Mary Lyon at the Preston Registry Office. Professor Geaves rightly observes that “the mystery is how he managed to keep his two families out of the media spotlight considering the scrutiny he was under from 1893 to 1907”. Moreover, in a remarkable effort of detective work, Geaves has uncovered a third woman in his life, Edith Miriam de Leon, with whom he lived from around 1913 till his death in 1932. Geaves reports that both Mary Lyon and  Edith Miriam de Leon (the phonetic similarity in their names is extraordinary) mourned together at Quilliam’s funeral!  Geaves believes that  Edith Miriam de Leon expected to be left some money from the estate, but “she was only left his papers, and it is speculated that, in a fit of pique , she destroyed them in a fire”.

How reminiscent of the fate of Munshi’s papers!

Geaves also examines the mystery of Quilliam’s disappearance from Britain in 1908 and relates this to a potential perjury charge in a divorce case in which he was serving as solicitor.  This led to him being barred from practice and he sought refuge in  Istanbul, itself a city gripped in crisis between different factions of the Young Turks. Quilliam had given one of his sons power of attorney over the various properties in Liverpool, but “Bilal quickly disposed of the property that had been used so successfully as a mosque and Islamic centre, leaving the already reeling Muslim community bereft of a base.  Over the next few years, the more mobile members migrated to London….the Liverpool Muslim Institute never recovered”.  

By 1910 Quilliam was back in England, and in 1913 living in Nottingham with Edith Miriam, registered as a Dr de Leon. Quilliam had taken on a different identity – that of Professor H. Mustafa Leon. Geaves suggests that Miriam was the widow of Dr Henri de Leon, one of Quilliam’s closest confidants. Why he should have taken on this identity is yet another mystery. Geaves has found that the Who’s Who entries for Quilliam and Henri de Leon were identical. The next two decades did not see Quilliam make any specific contributions to Muslim community life, though he delivered expert lectures on a range of subjects from geology to philology. 

Another of his sons, Ahmed Quilliam, proved more worthy than Bilal and “became involved with the interests of migrant Muslims more than two decades later, when he supported the efforts of an Indian Muslim to become a city councillor”.  Quilliam or Dr de Leon soon became a sorry sight, much like that other anguished man of letters Abdullah Yusuf Ali in his own twilight years. Geaves notes, “witnesses described him as a scruffy, unkempt man who passed many of his days in the reading room of the British Museum”.   

Professor Geaves concludes with the suggestion that Abdullah Quilliam is an “iconic figure for British Muslims”.  Perhaps it would be more prudent to await further research in the many mysteries and gaps he has identified in his path-breaking work.

Some preliminary work by other researchers has uncovered additional material that may in the fullness of time complement Geaves’ work.

For example there is a letter in Quilliam’s own hand dated 11th May 1900 in the Ottoman Archives in Gulhane, Istanbul in which he declares in a statement witnessed, amongst others, by his friend Bokhary Jeffrey:

  “The respectful memorial of William Henry Abdullah Quilliam Effendi Sheikh of the True-Believers in the British Isles and Mariam Lyon otherwise Quilliam his wife showeth: 

1.            Your memorialist William Henry Abdullah Qulliam is the only son of Robert Quilliam formerly of the City of Liverpool England now deceased and was born on the 10th day of April 1856.  

2.            Your memorialist Mariam Lyon or Quilliam is the only surviving child of Thomas Lyon also formerly of Liverpool afore said also now deceased  and she was born on the 16th day of June 1863  

3.            On the 21st day of September 1883 your said memorialists with the knowledge and consent of their respective parents exchanged mutual vows and promises and of their own free will and accord intermarried one with the other according to Muslim custom & usage. At the time of such marriage of our said memorialists there was no Qadi, Hodja, Imam or Sheikh in the city of Liverpool and no properly organised Muslim community in Liverpool or in England and it was therefore impossible to have such marriage registered and the English law does not recognise marriages contracted between Muslims in accordance with Islamic usage in fact the law of England has been solemnly declared to be that “the English law only recognises as a marriage the union for life of one man with one woman according to the Christian faith….”[3]    

If  Quilliam was already married in 1879, and was to remain so till widowed in 1909, how come the parents of ‘Mariam Lyon’ (Mary Lyon or Lyons) did not object to their daughter’s association in a bigamous relationship? Moreover, if Quilliam did not convert to Islam till around 1887 or 1888, how could he have contracted a marriage according to “Muslim custom & usage” in 1883?  

Quilliam had a track record of playing fast and loose with the rules, and Muslims in Britain would rather he join their pantheon of maverick characters and likeable rogues rather than role models. If there is an iconic figure emerging from these two biographies, then perhaps it is of the believing Fatima Cates, who held to her faith in difficult times and died in 1900 with the shahada on her lips. Here was a  woman who remained true to her inner voice, much like the Empress of the day.

Geaves’ pioneering study opens up very many lines of enquiry, in particular the way Muslim institutions and networks evolved and interacted in Britain. Workers in the field will remain indebted for this path-breaking scholarship. 

M A Sherif , April 2010

 [1]. Pall Mall Gazette, February 5, 1891; Issue 8075  

[2]. The Times, 22nd December 1894  

[3]. Y. PRK.A 12/54/1318, Ottoman Archives, Gulhane, Istanbul