Is the History of British Muslims Exceptional?

One of the surprising facts about the history of British Muslims is the story of the early converts.

Many British Muslims of today are amazed by the stories of the men and women who came to Islam in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.

There are many such examples including William Quilliam, Marmaduke Pickthall, Yahya Parkinson, Lady Zainab Cobbold, Sir Archibald Hamilton, Lord Henry Stanley and Lord Headley.

Each of these early converts has a unique story to tell and only now are scholars beginning to find out more about their very interesting lives.

Even before these Victorian and Edwardian era converts, there is the story of John Ward the Pirate. It is suggested that Jack Sparrow – the lead character of the blockbuster Hollywood film Pirates of the Caribbean – is based upon John Ward.

William Quilliam is no less interesting, a leading solicitor in the Liverpool area he became Muslim and formed a mosque and Muslim community of converts in late nineteenth century Liverpool.

There are suggestions that at its peak there were 200 members of this Liverpudlian community including Professor Nasrullah Warren and Professor Haschem Wilde. He became so well-known that the Ottoman caliph of the time gave him the title of ‘The Shaykh of the British Isles’.

Marmaduke Pickthall was a prominent writer who after conversion translated the Quran and his translation is still rated highly.

Yahya Parkinson is another writer and poet from this period who became Muslim.

There was also a group of aristocrats focused around the Woking mosque – the country’s first purpose built mosque. This mosque had been paid for by Shah Jahan Begum, the princess of Bhopal in India and it became a centre for Muslim activities for a large group of converts who would mix with Muslim students who were living in London. This group of aristocrats included Lord Headley, Sir Archibald Hamilton and Lady Zainab Cobbold.

What makes all of this interesting, is that this experience of conversion in substantial numbers in a European country is as far as we can tell unique. France, Germany, Austria and Italy do not have such a legacy though there have been prominent and influential converts from these countries such as Rene Guenon from France and Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss) from Austria.

For British Muslims it is a cause of surprise and wonder that such examples of early Muslims exist. They leave behind books (Quilliam wrote many books), translations, poetry and a journal.

There have been some books published on these early Muslims as we now have a biography of Quilliam by Ron Geaves and Jamie Gilham has written a book on the London-centred convert community but there is still a lot more to find out about these early Muslims.

And it may just be that there are other prominent or important converts who we haven’t heard of yet, it certainly is an exciting time for historical researchers.

To watch the videos of the 2016 Symposium on the History of British Muslims, organized by the Cambridge Muslim College, where the lives of some of the early British converts to Islam were presented, click here.

About Atif Imtiaz
Atif Imtiaz is the Academic Director at the Cambridge Muslim College. He has a PhD in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics on ‘Identity and the Politics of Representation: The Case of Muslim Youth in Bradford’. He has worked as an Equality and Diversity manager at NHS Bradford and Airedale, advised Bradford Council on integration and advised the British government on deradicalization. He has also published a book on British Muslims called Wandering Lonely in a Crowd. Email:[email protected]