The extraordinary life of Abdullah Quilliam [Part 2, 1885-1889]

It was dark, smoggy, and smelt awful. The streets were covered with cobblestones, soon to be drenched with the blood of impoverished women. A mysterious man, born of darkness and who would soon disappear into darkness, took it upon himself to kill these women. He was none other than Jack the Ripper of 1888. But Jack the Ripper did not only kill and spread panic, in what was then called “the autumn of terror”, but he would also inspire a wannabe Jack the Ripper would appear in Liverpool in 1889. 

In the previous article, I covered, but left out many details, of Quilliam’s life from his birth in 1856 until his arrest and subsequent discharge along with his helper-witness who, strangely enough, had a “decided American accent” in 1885 [1]. He returned to Liverpool safe and sound and would, in the future, receive £20 in reparation – around that time a double-barrelled shotgun costed £20 – so just imagine how much £20 is worth today [2]. 

Adventures with legal cases

In the familiarity of his hometown, Quilliam did what he did best: solve legal cases, speak against alcohol and talk politics, but at this time he was debating in the recesses of his mind how to combine Islam with his day-to-day activities. He pondered if Islam would “affect me professionally? I was married, and had a young family dependent upon me, and my profession was the only means of support. For some time I was in doubt. Duty and conscience said one thing, while family ties and self-interest drew me in another direction” [3]. His self-interest and conscience battled away whilst he was battling in courts and on platforms. 

In January of 1885, two complainants, Ellen Ryan and her husband, appeared in front of the judge, suing Isaac Black for “damages for personal injury” because the horse of Black bit Ryan on her arm, which prevented her from working for months. She wanted a pound a week and £100 for the bite (if £20 was a large sum, imagine five-folds of it!). Black insisted that the horse was of calm temperament but Ryan insisted it was of “vicious and unmanageable temper and disposition”. 

She and her husband had been walking down Stanley Road and then entered Benedict Street. Black had a shop that was situated at the corner of Benedict Street and he with his servant were loading their van (not the modern-day vans) with furniture. The couple were minding their own business and wanted to cross the street when, out of nowhere, Black’s horse galloped towards her and bit her arm, or so the story went, based on Ryan’s version of events. 

Quilliam was hired to defend Black. He did not accept Ryan’s version of events and requested that other witnesses must come forward. Witnesses did come forward and told a radically different story. They said that the couple were drunk. The husband tried to punch his wife, but she ducked. The horse was right behind her, so the husband, bang, punched the horse’s face. Expectedly, the horse went wild and bit Ryan’s arm. Black won the case [4].

The moral of the story? Be a teetotaller. 

In October of 1885, Patrick Smyth hired two photographers to take a number of photos of him, which they did. Smyth was unhappy because, according to him, the eyes in the photograph ‘were not his’. He went to court and accused the photographers, Pannell and Gardiner, of supplying him with badly printed photographs: either they were too dark or the eyes were not his. Quilliam was in court defending the photographers.

Quilliam “handed the plaintiff [Smyth] a carte de visite [small photograph], and asked if that was one of the photos — Plaintiff [said]: Yes, mister; but mister, my eyes are not right. (Laughter).” The judged looked at the photo and found no fault. That prompted Quilliam to say “the only fault I can see in it is it makes the plaintiff too good looking. (Renewed laughter).” Smyth insisted in getting compensation. Quilliam asked for what. Smyth replied that he wanted compensation for “going up them stairs” to their office. “I’ve been there five times. (Laughter).” The judge was lost in this bizarre case and ruled in favour of the photographers and that Smyth must pay them. Smyth responded in anger “Look here, that’s not right, mister. My eyes are not right yet, mister (Renewed laughter during which the plaintiff, still expostulating, left the court)” [5].

There are many more hilarious cases and even more serious ones, but those two give you a taste of what Quilliam witnessed in his day-to-day life. 

Quilliam and Islam  

In 1886, Quilliam gave a lecture, entitled “Gibraltar,” in the Free Library on William Brown Street [6]. The lecture was about his time studying the Rock of Gibraltar in 1883.

Of course, Quilliam was still connected to the temperance movement that had been such a large part of his youth. In April 1886, Quilliam attended the tenth annual meeting of the North-Western Grand Lodge and was, along with others, elected as members “for the ensuing year.” The irony about the newspaper that mentions this, is that it has an advert on the righthand-side selling alcohol – they clearly hadn’t got the message [7]. In the same month, he attended the eighth annual session of the North-Western Grand Lodge of England of the Independent Order of Good Templar [8]. In June 1886, Quilliam delivered an open-air lecture in connection to the temperance movement [9]. 

The ongoing question of how to resolve his dilemma of behaving as a Muslim while living normally haunted Quilliam, so he resolved to be open about his belief and to preach Islam. Unsurprisingly, he received ridicule for doing so, was laughed at and his family thought he’d end up in a lunatic asylum [10]. When he tried to introduce Islam as the true religion, people reacted in a way that “they did not care a pin which was the true religion, and that, in their opinion, one was just as good as another” [11]. Clearly, he needed to find a way to introduce Islam more indirectly.

He had long been an advocate of teetotalism, so is Islam. So to “…kill two birds with one stone…”, he decided to “…preach Teetotalism and Islam at the same time.” In 1887, he tested his indirect preaching method in his lecture “Fanatics and Fanaticism”. The lecture began with defining the term “fanatic”: is it a good or bad term? To whom was this term to be applied to? Quilliam listed well-known persons who were once considered fanatics: Rowland Hill, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Granville Sharpe, George Stephenson and Muhammad .

Rowland Hill was considered the ‘father’ of the Post Office. At that time, people had to pay when they sent and received post, and therefore poor people could not receive their letters. The poor had their way to avoid paying for the post yet know what the sender wanted to say. When Hill saw a woman, who could not pay for the post, he “stepped forward and offered to pay the postage for her. Much to his astonishment, the landlady thanked him, but declined his offer; and when the postman had gone, explained to him there was no necessity to pay the postage as she already [k]new what the letter had been about, as it had been arranged between her brother and herself that he should make certain marks on the outside of the envelope by which she would know he was in good health and prospering, and thus avoid the necessity of paying any postage.”

Smart! Hill, however, was disgruntled and proposed a Bill in Parliament to create the Post Office that we know of today. Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and Granville Sharpe played a prominent role in the abolition of the Slave Trade. George Stephenson, the ‘Father of Railways’, persisted despite the name-calling and threats for paving railways for trains. Then Quilliam ended with the last person on his list, the “true-hearted son of the desert”, Muhammad .

After providing a succinct, yet moving, biography, followed by cheering and applause, one man was intrigued and waited until the end of the talk. Quilliam then spoke of the ills of alcohol which reduces a person to a “brute beast” and a slave. “This drink curse is a worse slavery than that which Clarkson and Wilberforce abolished. It is a slavery of the passions—of the soul; the drunkard is a greater slave than the poor negro. He was dragged away and compelled to work for his master against his will. This is not the position of the slavery of the drink traffic. It is a voluntary slavery. No man need be such a slave.” Finally, with force and energy, and cry for freedom, he said:

Then rise, my brethren, never heeding the gibes and the sneers of the thoughtless, but with full determination to prove that, like the reformers of the old, nothing will daunt your spirits, no obstacle will overcome you, and march on to conquer this mighty foe, ‘Shouting the battle cry of freedom’.” [12]

The audience applauded loudly. Quilliam was glad his indirect preaching hadn’t provoked catcalls, and the man in the midst of the audience remained intrigued. With the lecture over, Quilliam planned to head home but that man came forward and introduced himself to Quilliam.

“He [Quilliam] asked me to walk home with him, and I did so. I asked him questions about Muhammed and about Islam. I had always felt there was a considerable puzzle about the question of the Trinity: I could not understand how three could be one, and one could be three. The more I learned about Islam, the more I liked it; so one night I said to Mr. Quilliam— ‘This Islam seems to me to be a most reasonable religion.’ He replied— ‘It certainly is.’ I answered— ‘And more logical than Christianity.’ ‘Considerably so,’ was his reply. ‘Then if you believe that, why don’t you become a Muslim?’ I asked. ‘I am a Muslim,’ he quietly replied. I looked at him in astonishment, and for a little while I did not know what to say. At last I said—‘Well, if you are a Muslim, I see no reason why I should not become one also.’” Djem Ali Hamilton was Quilliam’s first convert [13]. Indirect preaching appeared to have worked wonders for Quilliam.

Being Muslim in 19th century England

Quilliam repeated his talk “a few weeks afterwards”, and this time Hamilton brought a friend with him. She came, sat and listened and, like Hamilton, was intrigued by what she had heard. Hitherto, she only knew Muhammad as an “imposter” and “bloodthirsty” person. However, after Quilliam’s talk, she was “astonished at hearing Mr. Quilliam giving a different account of him.” Afterwards, she asked Quilliam about “more of this religion.”

He gave her a short sketch of Islamic principles and lent her his own translated copy of the Qur’an. She took the Qur’an to her house and started to read it “carefully” but her mother, a “bigoted Christian”, asked her what the book was. She replied “the Muhammedan Bible.” Boiling in anger, her mother threatened to burn the book and lock her up. Notwithstanding, she persisted [14]. To her mother’s shock, Francess Cates converted.

Quilliam thought about how to keep the recently converted Muslims in one spot, a place where they could settle and expand. Around mid-1887, he rented a small upstairs room at the Temperance Hall on Mount Vernon St in Liverpool, which Quilliam himself had helped to establish a year earlier. The three fellow converts: Quilliam, Hamilton, and Cates gathered in the small room to “read the Koran and discuss matters” [15]. They maintained a weekly study circle, came together for Friday prayers, and every Sunday Quilliam gave a public lecture. Gradually more locals embraced Islam and the hate against them increased [16].

Never forget that during this formative period Quilliam was always busy with his legal work and the temperance movement. In 1887, Quilliam defended a solicitor who was accused of fraud [17], defended John Astley Marsden who was accused of obtaining a diamond pin “by false pretence” [18], and Quilliam lost by one vote election to the highest office in one of the divisions of the Independent Order of Good Templars, the international governing body for the Temperance movement that was founded in 1851 [19].

“I’ll do the same to you as Jack the Ripper. If I can’t do that I’ll do the same as Corrigan done to his mother, sponge the blood and give it you to drink. If I get clear I will be a pal of Jack the Ripper”, said John W. Hankinson to his wife, a day after he stabbed her three times on her right wrist whilst she was defending her neck from his knife attacks. He did that under the influence of alcohol. Quilliam was hired to defend him. He failed but had to admit that “there were faults on both sides.” Strange enough, the ruling against Hankinson was a £20 fine to be given to his wife [20]. How light! This would be one of the first things Quilliam would witness in 1889, along with two women, Catherine Curl and Catherine Umbers, threatening to do bodily harm to Margaret Garretty – bite her nose off or throw acid to blind her [21]. It is sobering to ponder upon what Quilliam witnessed in his career as a defence lawyer.

Back at Temperance Hall, Quilliam delivered three separate lectures about the principles of Islam. It proved effective and his “co-religionists suggested that those lectures should be published as a pamphlet for public circulation.” The “pamphlet” would be published as The Faith of Islam [22]. In England and beyond, the pamphlet proved popular for some years, coming out in multiple editions, and would be translated into various languages.

One prominent person would convert to Islam in 1889. It happened to be that a group of “fanatical ruffians” attacked the Muslims and one of the ruffians almost heaved a brick at Quilliam but coincidentally a Christian by the name of Jeffrey was there who managed to stop the hurling, and a group of Muslims came out to stop the mob. Injured and incensed with what just happened, Jeffrey said, “Such conduct as that exhibited by those scoundrels I have just helped to eject proves to me that the religion they hold cannot be correct. From this day forth I am Muslim” [23]. 

In July 1889, a Muslim king from faraway lands appeared in Liverpool. This was unexpected for the small and burgeoning Liverpool Muslim community. The king was none other than the fourth Qajar king (or Shah) of Iran [24]. The Muslims were glad that someone of his status appeared, and without delay, wrote a letter to him and it deserves to be fully quoted:

To His Imperial Highness Nasr-ed-Din, Shah-yn-Shah, Sun of Suns, Knights of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Shah of Persia.

In the name of the most merciful God.

We, the members of the congregation in the city of Liverpool, England, who follow the religion of Abraham, the orthodox, who was no idolater, who believe in God and that which hath been sent down unto us; and that which hath been sent down unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes; and that which was delivered unto Moses, and Jesus, and Mahomet; and that which was delivered unto the prophets from their Lord, and make no distinction between any of them, and to God we are resigned, heartily welcome your Imperial Majesty to this great city, and pray that the Lord of men, the King of men, the God of men, may bless the country over which your Majesty rules and the true believers who reside therein, and that the Lord of the daybreak may deliver your Majesty at all times from the mischief of those things which he hath created, and from the mischief of the night when it cometh on, and from the mischief of women blowing on knots, and from the mischief of the envious when he envieth.— Signed on behalf of the members of the congregation of true believers in Liverpool, England.


JAMES HAMILTON, Vice-President.

WILLIAM WARDLE, Secretary” [25]

It appears that the king never managed to meet the Muslims for his schedule was tight and he quickly headed on to another city. He would return in 1895. 

With two books published, converting non-Muslims, and a Muslim king visiting Liverpool, everything seemed to be going as planned but on 4th August, Quilliam’s father, Robert Quilliam, at the age of 57, would breathe his last at home and passed away. Quilliam was no doubt shattered at the news. Three days later, Robert would be buried in St James’s Cemetery [26]. What happened to Quilliam? Who consoled him? Was he present at his dad’s funeral? What did the Muslims that surrounded him do? These details are at the present time unknown.

Quilliam would disappear from the newspapers for almost a month until the 28th August. It was the Muslim “New Year” on that date, marking the 1307th year since Muhammad had to flee oppression in Mecca and went to Medina to lead the community there– known as the Hijra or Migration. The Muslims of Liverpool, including Quilliam, commemorated such events [27].

In early September, Quilliam defended Michael Maloney in court, who was accused of stealing £3 19s [shillings] 11d [pence] from the Custom House (a building in Liverpool which had a post office, dock office, and collected taxes on food import and export) and therefore the money belonged to the Queen [28]. 

Speaking of money, Quilliam had his own from his legal practice and he got more – not stolen from the Queen – from the inheritance his father had left him. He certainly needed it because some time in autumn, the Muslims of Temperance Hall would suddenly be ejected. The landlord could not accept a person who rejected Jesus Christ as the “Redeemer of the World” [29], and thus the Muslims had no base to operate from.

Stranded and an orphan but with wealth in his pocket and determination in his heart, Quilliam decided to buy a building to settle and expand like he tried in Temperance Hall.

From late 1889, 8 Brougham Terrace on West Derby Rd, Liverpool, opened as the new home of the Liverpool Muslims, and the Liverpool Muslim Institute was born [30].

References and notes:

My thanks also to Yahya Birt for commenting on an earlier draft of this article. Any mistakes are mine alone.

  1. Shields Daily News, 10/3/1885. Could he be the same man who came to Quilliam in the dead of night, requesting him to defend the two prisoners? See, Geaves, R. 2013. Islam in Victorian Britain. 3rd impression. Kube Publishing. p. 31. 
  2. Desmond, A and Moore, J. 1992. Darwin. Penguin. p. 64. For Quilliam receiving £20, see Geaves, p. 32.
  3. The Star, 16/12/1890. Thanks to Matthew Sharp for providing this reference. He is the author of the upcoming doctoral dissertation “On Behalf of the Sultan: The Late Ottoman State and the Cultivation of British and American Converts to Islam”. 
  4. Liverpool Mercury, 20/1/1885. Stanley Rd and Benedict St still exist. Based on Google Maps from 2015, in the corner there is “Neil’s Barber Shop” and in the other corner there is a house. Perhaps Neil’s shop was Black’s shop.  
  5. Liverpool Mercury, 29/10/1885; The British Journal of Photography. 32(1331): 720 (6/11/1885).
  6. Liverpool Mercury, 9/9/1886; Quilliam, W. H. 1886. Gibraltar. Liverpool Geological Association. Transactions. Vol 6. Session 1885-6. Liverpool, UK: Henry Young. pp. 68-76. See also my previous article for more details about its content. 
  7. Montgomeryshire Express, 4/5/1886. 
  8. Liverpool Mercury, 15/4/1886.
  9. Liverpool Mercury, 10/6/1886. 
  10. Ref. 3. 
  11. Quilliam, W. H. 1891. Islam in England. The Religious Review of Reviews. 1(3): 159-166 [162].
  12. For a transcript of the lecture, see Quilliam, W. H. 1890. Fanatics and Fanaticism. 2nd ed. Liverpool, UK: T. Dobb and Co. For information on Wilberforce, Sharpe and Clarkson and their battle against the Slave Trade, see Olusoga, D. 2016. Black and British: A Forgotten History. Pan Books. For a biography of Prophet Muhammad (there are many!) see As-Sallaabee, M. 2005. The Noble Life of the Prophet. 3 vols. Darussalam. 
  13. The Crescent, 26/4/1899, pp. 259-261. His name was James Hamilton.
  14. The Crescent, 21/11/1900, pp. 323-324; Ref 11.
  15. Ibid.
  16. For more detailed work on the attacks the Muslims faced, see Singleton, B. 2017. “Heave Half a Brick at Him”: Hate Crimes and Discrimination against Muslim Converts in Late Victorian Liverpool. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 37(1): 1-13.
  17. Liverpool Daily Post, 15/10/1887.
  18. Liverpool Mercury, 17/8/1887. Initially Mr. Little defended Marsden but it appears that he was switched with Quilliam. See Liverpool Mercury, 15/8/1887.
  19. Liverpool Mercury, 16/6/1887. 
  20. Liverpool Echo, 30/1/1889.
  21. Liverpool Echo, 5/1/1889.
  22. Quilliam, W. H. 1892. The Faith of Islam. 3rd edition. Liverpool, UK: Willmer Brothers & Company. Preface to First Edition.
  23. Ref. 16; see also The Crescent, 23/5/1900, pp. 331-333.
  24. For the biography of Nasir al Din Shah’s early life, 1848-1871 (he would be assassinated in 1896), see Amanat, A. 2008. Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah and the Iranian Monarchy. I. B. Tauris.
  25. Liverpool Mercury, 16/7/1889. The Shah also asked Quilliam for a short history of the movement. Perhaps the letter was longer or Quilliam wrote a separate letter sharing the short history and therefore, somewhere in an Iranian archive, the letter may exist. 
  26. Liverpool Echo, 6/8/1889. See also the registry on St James Cemetery by typing “Quilliam”.
  27. Liverpool Mercury, 28/8/1889. This evidence is inconsistent with what Omar Byrne would say in January 1898. Byrne claims that they were out of Temperance Hall by July but clearly, they stayed longer. 
  28. Liverpool Echo, 2/9/1889. Liverpool Mercury, 3/9/1889.
  29. The Crescent, 19/1/1889, p. 35.
  30. For a chronology of events from his Fanatic and Fanaticism lecture till the purchase of 8 Brougham Terrace, see Birt, Y. Britain’s First Mosque Granted Grade II* Listed Status. (though I disagree with some information but it’s helpful).