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Islam in Victorian Britain

Anthony McRoy

The life and times of Abdullah Quilliam
Ron Geaves
Kube Publishing, 208pp, ISBN 9781847740106

In recent years British Muslims have increasingly referred to the story of Abdullah Quilliam, the Victorian convert to Islam, as a possible paradigm for their community. The fact that he was a native Briton suggests that to be a British Muslim is not a cultural oxymoron, and that Muslims need not be seen as an Asian  implant. A 'Quilliam Institute' is sponsored by the government to promote 'moderate' Islam - presumably, the kind that Quilliam would have promoted.

This sympathetic, informative and lucid book demonstrates that this image is open to question.

Quilliam came from a Wesleyan temperance family, and was influenced by liberal Bible scholarship, which he later used in his Islamic polemics against Christianity, a practice Muslim propagandists follow today. Geaves mentions two other points that influenced Quilliam: Christian disunity and the problem of evolution. Yet Quilliam must have been aware of the severities of the Sunni-Shia split which often leads to violence, and Muslim apologists are as insistent upon the rejection of evolution as their Christian equivalents.

Quilliam converted to Islam in 1887 after several trips to North Africa. He became a forceful and successful missionary for Islam in Britain, and encountered severe opposition from Christians - not least because he backed the Ottoman regime persecution of Christians in Armenia, Crete and Macedonia.

The latter problem is still with us. It is difficult to credit British Muslim pleas of 'community cohesion' and 'tolerance' when they take ideological funds from Saudi Arabia, and invite Saudi officials to their mosques, considering the total lack of religious liberty in that country. When Christians disrupted his speeches, Quilliam would demand 'British fair play', yet such fair play was not found in Ottoman religious policy, just as it is absent in Saudi Arabia. Equally, Quilliam, who converted from one religion to another, did not accept that Muslims could convert, supporting Islamic punishments for 'apostasy', an issue that still bedevils Christian-Muslim relations, not least in Britain.

British Muslims often wrestle with the same test of dual loyalties that Quilliam faced. The most extreme (albeit minority) expression of this was seen on 7/7. Even without the issue of violence, the problem of dual allegiance and conformity to British law, which they often denounce as 'manmade', continues. Quilliam broke that law by becoming a polygamist, indicating that he saw Islamic law as giving him the right to disobey UK law. His position on missionary activity and conversion was, to say the least, hypocritical. He supported a sectarian, persecuting regime. These are all issues that modern British Muslims have to consider, and the life of Quilliam suggests that the answers he offered were often the wrong ones.

Anthony McRoy