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Abdullah Quilliam and The Story of Britain’s Oldest Mosque

The present exterior of 8 Brougham Terrace. Credit: Abdullah Quilliam Foundation.

Liverpool is a British city with a history like few others. It’s home to The Beatles, one of the biggest footballing rivalries in the world, and a shipping dock that was once a cornerstone of international trade in this country. Nestled within this rich heritage is another fact, too. Liverpool is also home to the country’s oldest mosque.

At 8 Brougham Terrace, an unassuming house in the Kensington area of Liverpool, a local lawyer opened Britain’s first ever mosque in 1889. The history of the mosque is the history of the man for whom it’s currently named: Abdullah Quilliam. Let’s go back to see how this Liverpudlian son of a watchmaker went on to write this pivotal chapter in the story of Islam in Britain

Born in 1856, William Quilliam was raised in Liverpool. After school, he went on to study law at King William’s College in the Isle of Man. He worked in the legal profession for several decades, making his name as a defense lawyer in a number of high profile murder cases. During this time, he became heavily associated with the temperance movement, which called for the regulation and legal prohibition of alcohol.

Sadly, defending murderers and telling folks to avoid the sesh got the better of Quilliam, and he fell ill in 1887. As it was the Victorian era and Quilliam was reasonably well-to-do, he was packed off to Morocco to recover (Victorians figured climate and/or leeches could cure anything). It was while in Morocco that he would convert to Islam. He changed his name to Abdullah prior to returning to England.

When he got back to Liverpool he threw himself into the faith, studying tirelessly, hosting lectures on Islam and writing books on the religion. Thanks to his legal work, he had a bit of money to secure a place of worship, so he purchased 8 Brougham terrace, naming it the Liverpool Muslim Institute in 1889.

The plaque on 8 Brougham Terrace. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In the coming years, the Institute would host Muslim funerals and weddings, while serving as a place of worship and space for more general community activities – a mosque, basically. Depressingly, like many mosques throughout British history, it was occasionally vandalised; and like many of those mosques, it persevered. Unlike a lot of those mosques, it was once attacked with snowballs by a Sunday school teacher.

Over the next few decades many eminent Muslims would visit the mosque from all over the world. One guest, the son of the Emir of Afghanistan, was so impressed by his visit that he had his father declare Quilliam the Sheikh of Muslims in Britain. Quilliam died in 1932, and Brougham terrace was eventually purchased by the council and used for civil weddings.

The building fell into disuse despite the enduring strength of Quilliam’s legacy. But in 2009, the newly founded Quilliam Foundation – a think tank tackling extremist ideologies – set about restoring the original mosque with money raised through decades of donations. It reopened in 2014, reestablishing this crucial part of the community, not to mention an invaluable symbol of Muslim – and British – history.

Abdullah Quilliam might not be the biggest name, but he certainly played a huge role in promoting Islam in the UK. To commemorate the work of Quilliam and the mosque itself, a plaque was placed on 8 Brougham Terrace in 1997.

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