By Haseeb Khan, Graduate Research Assistant for the MCPHH and PhD candidate in History at MMU
“the Indian Mussulmans are deeply irritated to learn of the proposed mockery of the prophet on the stage of a country which has pledged itself to respect their religious feelings”
Letter in The Times protesting the performance of “Mahomet”
The above quote is remarkably relevant today, yet it is not a recent one. It is in fact a response to the 1890 play “Mahomet”, which was due to be performed in the Lyceum Theatre, London. A letter in The Times, signed by the vice president of the Liverpool Muslim Institute (LMI) with the hall mark of the Victorian convert Abdullah Quilliam, urged that the play be cancelled. By the summer of 1890 news of the play had reached India. It was met with protests matched in size by those protesting Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses around a century later. The Satanic Verses have been depicted as a turning point for the development of a British Muslim identity, and the symbolism of such a similar event occurring one hundred years earlier is important.
Not to be confused with the Quilliam foundation, who have arguably co-opted the Quilliam name to further their own political ends, Abdullah Quilliam is starkly understudied. He is a vital figure in the history of Muslims in Britain. This history did not start with migration from the collapsing British empire in the 1950s. Whether as slaves, prisoners, travellers, diplomats, traders, students or lascars (sailors), Muslims have existed in Britain for several centuries. Towards the end of the nineteenth century settled Muslim communities began to emerge in port towns such as Cardiff, Liverpool and South Shields. The Muslim community in Liverpool was diverse. Alongside lascars, visiting students, and dignitaries from the Muslim world were a group of Victorian converts, led by the lawyer and philanthropist Abdullah William Quilliam. These early British Muslims founded the LMI in 1891. They established a fully-fledged community and had a mosque, school, library, lecture hall, provided accommodation and Islamic marriage and funeral services. The LMI left behind a plentiful array of sources including their own regular newspapers, The Crescent and Islamic World, and many of Quilliam’s own writings. These sources formed the basis of Ron Geaves’ work which recounted the story of Quilliam and the Liverpool Muslims. The availability of such valuable source material makes it more surprising that only a handful of historians have tackled this seemingly forgotten history.
My research seeks to question the accepted historiographical timeline of British Muslim identity. That being, it was not until the 1990s and events such as the Rushdie Affair and the War on Terror that a British Muslim identity emerged. Rather before this, Muslims in Britain identified themselves and were identified by state and society in terms of their “race” or country of origin. The use of “race” in the previous sentence appears to assume that religion cannot be racialised. Can “race” not subsume religious identities? There have been studies of this topic in relation to Catholic and Jewish communities in Britain but less so for Muslims. Accordingly, I will engage with theories of race and religion and apply them to Muslim groups.
The Abdullah Quilliam Society in Liverpool have restored the LMI’s mosque on Brougham Street. With help from the British Library they have also digitised many of the available sources on Quilliam and the Victorian Liverpudlian Muslim community. I hope to utilise this material in the pursuit of uncovering some of the lost history of Muslims in Britain.
You can learn more about the Abdullah Quilliam Society’s work here.