LIVERPOOL – It’s Friday morning, sitting on the carpet of a large side room in a rather grand Victorian-era building, I sip tea. I am attending Friday morning azkar [invocation] at England’s first Mosque in Brougham Terrace, Liverpool. The Quilliam Mosque is named after its famous founder and in recent years has been renovated to something near its original beauty.
Crossed legged on the floor, my ears navigate the curious strains of a Manx (Isle of Man) folk tune, reworded to praise Allah, sung by women with Scouse accents.
On my lap sits a book of sheet music and lyrics titled: ‘Muslim Songs of the British Isles by Abdul Hakim Murad (Timothy Winters).’
One hundred and thirty years after the founding of the mosque, an all-female choir is bringing Quilliam’s inclusive ethos back to life. The choir blends Yemeni and British folk music traditions and the weekly gathering is the brainchild of Muslim convert and volunteer at the center, Amirah Scarisbrick. She told AboutIslam.net:
“It started with me wanting to revive the tradition Quilliam had of singing Islamic hymns with the local congregation of several hundred. He was a wise man. He’d rewrite songs they recognized and Islamize them. Such as ‘God Save The Deen’ and a song for the Prophet’s birthday with English words.’
William Henry (Abdullah) Quilliam, was a Victorian gentleman who converted to Islam from Christianity in 1887. His knowledge of the deen [faith], matched by his effectiveness as a Da’ee [one who introduces others to the tenets of Islam] earned him the title Shaikhul Islam of the British Isles, awarded by the last Ottoman Caliph.
Quilliam was confident in his cultural duality as a Manx heritage Muslim. This confidence allowed him to explore combinations of Eastern and English traditions with the aim that his peers discover Islam in a way which adorned, rather than removed, the best of their already existing social mores. Quilliam even included a Sunday hymn service in a room of the mosque for new Muslims and local people interested in finding out more about Islamic monotheism.
Now, the revived choir, just three months old, has seen the sisters invited to perform in London, Bradford, Hull, and Manchester.
Zaynab is the choir leader. An Anglo Chinese convert to Islam. She lived in Yemen where she took part in the intense study offered in a religious town. A daily routine where zikr started an hour before Fajr and the faith led day ended only after Isha prayer.
“I lived in Tarim for 7 years where I learned to play the duff drum and sing the burdah in the Tarimi style,” she told AboutIslam.
The intention behind the choir is not performance, but supporting the women’s well being, to help them build confidence, self-esteem, and to find their voice.
“It’s very much a healing circle,” said Scarisbrick.
In recent years, there has been a growth in Islamic lyrical material, composed in the tradition of western folk songs, which owes a debt to the Canadian singer and composer Dawud Wharmsby.
The material is emerging at a time when converts in the US and the UK are increasingly looking for their own positive cultural elements to be recognized, including the incorporation of folk music traditions into the realm of nasheeds [Islamic songs].
Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad is the Dean of Cambridge Muslim College. He writes that the “small number of modes and rhythmic patterns” used in western music has not found fans across the Muslim world. However, the songs largely composed by Abdullah Quilliam are a moving reminder to converts that our own traditions have a place in our lives after conversion.
“The emphasis has been on matching the poetic voice of the traditional Islam of the British Isles with much older harmonics of the local song,” writes Shaykh Murad.
At the same time as the Muslim choir in Liverpool is growing in popularity and confidence, other creative women in the UK are also seeking ways to combine British traditions with messages on ethics and manners from the Muslim tradition.
Enter stage left, the first ever ‘Muslim Panto.’ Backed by the British charity Penny Appeal, “If The Shoe fits” has just completed a sell-out six-city tour. It was an instant hit with audiences from all walks of life, capturing the national and the media imagination.
The pantomime was the brain-child of the Anisa Kissoon, who created roles for her singer/songwriter husband Chux and the households five children.
“If The Shoe Fits” is a jolly tale which has all the elements of child-friendly fun that families would expect from a panto, minus the innuendo and crudity.
Writer and director of the show, Anisa, herself a convert of Anglo Jamaican heritage, told AboutIslam:
“The show is a tool. We put good morals and manners at the heart of the pantomime yet all done in a very British and very fun way.”
Anisa sees performing arts as a route to uniting communities.
“I wanted the show to be a bridge. So our world and the non-Muslim world doesn’t look too different. We need to have positive elements which are the same or the kids will leave. Because the heart needs to be joyful and free and not only to study all the time.”
The Muslim pantomime has captured the zeitgeist. The desire and the need for family-friendly entertainment which is joyful, contains good sound messages and provides an indigenous feel.
Back in Liverpool, at the Quilliam mosque, Jummah morning began with traditional dhikr to warm up our hearts – and our vocal chords. Six women gently sang ‘Anthem For the Prophet’s Birthday’. A traditional tune from the Isle of man set to new words.
“We watch with gentle fostering care
The seed that thou hast sown:
And trust to hear the world declare,
God’s prophet at its own.”
Healing hearts in a way that enhances rather than eradicates local culture is something Islam has always fulfilled from the Gulf of Arabia to China and from Portugal to the Balkans.
It seems that 2017 was the year in which Islamic converts in the Britain Isles began to find their voice.