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William Quilliam was born in Liverpool to a wealthy Manx family in 1856. His father, Robert Quilliam, was a watch manufacturer. William was educated at the Liverpool Institute and King William's College on the Isle of Man. He began work as a solicitor in 1878, building a successful legal practice in Liverpool. He married Hannah Johnstone in 1879.
Quilliam was brought up a Methodist but converted to Islam after visiting Morocco to recover from an illness at the age of 17. Returning to Liverpool, he began to promote Islam in Britain as Abdullah Quilliam. He had earlier learned about Islam while visiting southern France in 1882 and crossing over to Algeria and Tunisia.
Quilliam established the Liverpool Muslim Institute at 8 Brougham Terrace, West Derby Road, Liverpool in 1889, opening on Christmas Day. This was England's first mosque, accommodating around a hundred Muslims, This was followed by a Muslim college, headed by Haschem Wilde and Nasrullah Warren, which offered courses for both Muslims and non-Muslims. A weekly Debating and Literary Society within the college attracted non-Muslims.
Quilliam influenced the paths of other converts, including his mother Harriet, his sons, and scientists and intellectuals and his example lead to the conversion of over 150 Englishmen to Islam. Quilliam was influential in advancing knowledge of Islam within the United Kingdom and gained converts through his literary works and the charitable institutions he founded.
An active writer and essayist, he produced a weekly paper, The Crescent, from 1893 until 1908. He published three editions of his The Faith of Islam which, translated into thirteen languages, gained him fame across the Islamic world.
He travelled extensively and received many honours from the leaders of the Islamic world. He had contact with English-speaking West African Muslims and toured the region's coastal cities on his way to Lagos to attend the consecration of the Shitta Bey Mosque in 1894. He was appointed Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles by the Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid II in 1894 and Persian Vice Consul to Liverpool by the Shah. He also received money from the Emir of Afghanistan to help fund the Islamic Institute in Liverpool.
Quilliam's work in Liverpool stopped when he left England in 1908 in advance of being struck off as a solicitor. His son swiftly disposed of the property that had been used as a mosque and Islamic centre. Without Quilliam's influence and funding, the Muslim community in Liverpool dispersed.
He had returned to the UK by December 1914 under the name of H. M. Leon. He spent much of his time at Onchan on the Isle of Man. He died in Taviton Street, Bloomsbury, London in 1932 and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking. The prominent Anglo-Muslims Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (who each translated the Qur'an), and Lord Headley were later buried near him.
Western Muslims, particularly converts to Islam, see Quilliam as a pioneer of the path they have taken. His legacy is maintained by the Abdullah Quilliam Society which was formed in 1996. The Society is raising funds to restore 8-10 Brougham Terrace to re-open the historic mosque and establish an educational centre.