- Victorian Muslim: Abdullah Quilliam and Islam in the West ed. by Jamie Gilham and Ron Geaves
By any measure, Abdullah Quilliam's was an extraordinary life: lawyer and civic leader, member of numerous fringe esoteric Masonic lodges, a public and prolific convert and propagator of Islam in Britain, and the first (and last) "Shaykh al-Islam of the British isles," he was later accused of malpractice and abandoned his law practice and the Muslim community he had built to live quietly for over twenty years under an assumed name. The life and work of this fascinating figure are explored in this collected volume, co-edited by Jamie Gilham and Ron Geaves. As the editors note in the introduction, in recent years scholars and British Muslims have taken a new interest in Quilliam and his Liverpool Muslim Institute. This is due in part to the fact that his story demonstrates a rather longer history of Islamic identity in Britain than was long assumed, and one rooted in religious conversion rather than post-war migration. For others, Quilliam offers some lessons on living nationally and transnationally in Britain in a post 9/11 world, combining within oneself loyalty to both the umma and a British state engaged in military conflict with Muslims in other countries.
The eight chapters in this book explore three general themes: influences on Quilliam's life and thought, the substance of his thought and writings, and his international status during his lifetime and after. In the first chapter, Mohammad Siddique Seldon explores the various means by which Quilliam sought to accommodate his proselytizing to suit popular sensibilities in the age of the new imperialism. In the first place, this involved treading a narrow path between outspoken criticism of British military intervention in the Sudan and hostility toward the Ottomans and professions of loyalty to Queen and country. Even more interesting, it also involved a program of social activism that accommodated the ideals of the other major interest of his mainly working class converts—revolutionary socialism. Patrick D. Bowen then offers a fascinating investigation of Quilliam's lifelong association with Freemasonry, especially fringe esoteric lodges. Bowen suggests that his experiences in these lodges likely played an important role in drawing Quilliam to Islam both because of their Islamophilia and the fact that they offered members a safe space to experiment and "form boundaries for new identities" (39). [End Page 1474]
The second group of chapters explore Quilliam's large body of writings, his attempts to present a new vision of Muslim gender relationships, and his views on Ottoman Turkey. In his review of Quilliam's publications, Ron Geaves demonstrates how he both challenged common misconceptions about his faith and sought to recast Islam as an essentially rational religion, more in keeping with the spirit of the late-Victorian age than Christianity and its many debunked myths. Interestingly, Geaves notes that Quilliam touched on many of the same themes as Western Islamic converts today, probably because many of the challenges of promoting Islam in Britain remain the same. One of the most common preconceptions of Islam in British society held that it oppressed women. Quilliam challenged these notions by recasting Muslim gender relations and calling for limited polygyny, which he argued would improve both individual lives and the wider society. Polygyny, he claimed, was not only "fairer to the ladies," because it would end the problem of unwed mothers, but would also produce more children to help maintain Britain's global empire. Quilliam merged this discourse with a celebration of medieval chivalry and courtly love poetry, illustrating his position as a transcultural figure, straddling East and West. Geoffrey Nash's comparative study of how Quilliam and his convert contemporary Marmaduke Pitchall imagined the relationship between Turkey and the Christian West further demonstrates his role as an international Muslim. Quilliam and Pitchall differed on whom they thought should be leading the Ottoman Empire, but agreed that it was the legitimate leader of the Sunni world. Both bemoaned the fact...