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Quilliam, William Henry [known as Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam; Haroon Mustapha Leon]locked

  • John Guilford

Quilliam, William Henry [known as Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam; Haroon Mustapha Leon] (1856–1932), lawyer and Muslim leader, was born on 10 April 1856 at 22 Elliot Street, Liverpool, the son of Robert Quilliam, watch manufacturer, and his wife, Harriet, née Burrows. He was of Manx descent (and at one point active in the Liverpool Manx Society), and among his ancestors was John Quilliam, first lieutenant on HMS Victory at the battle of Trafalgar and one of the pallbearers at Nelson's funeral.

Quilliam's parents were Wesleyan Methodists, and he was brought up in that denomination. He was educated at the Liverpool Institute, and there were early signs not only of a brilliant academic mind but also of an interest in theology. As a teenager he met and came under the influence of Charles Beard, a well-known Unitarian pastor, who may have sown the seeds of Quilliam's later attitude to Christianity. After leaving the Liverpool Institute he was articled to a solicitor in the city, and qualified as a solicitor himself in 1878. He then built up one of the largest and most successful legal practices in the north of England at his chambers at 15 Manchester Street, Liverpool. It is clear from an entry in B. Guinness Orchard's Liverpool's Legion of Honour (1893) that Quilliam was a highly regarded member of Liverpool society. On 2 July 1879 he married Hannah Johnstone (b. 1857/8), daughter of William Johnstone, provision merchant; they had at least one son. He is also thought to have married, in Liverpool, Ethel Mary Burrows, an Irishwoman with whom he had further children.

In 1882 Quilliam became ill, and was advised to recuperate in north Africa. It was while travelling in Morocco that he developed an interest in Islam, though it was not until 1887 that he publicly renounced Christianity and declared himself a Muslim, taking the name Abdullah Quilliam. He gave his first lecture on the Muslim faith to the Temperance League at their premises in Mount Vernon Street, Liverpool, and the lecture was so well received that he began to hold weekly meetings there. Converts to the faith grew to such an extent that in 1891 Quilliam was able to purchase a large Georgian terraced house at 8 Brougham Terrace, West Derby Road, as premises for his ‘Muslim Institute’. With gifts from the Ottoman sultan and the shah of Afghanistan, the institute soon expanded to include a mosque, library, lecture hall, boys' day and boarding-school, girls' day school, the Medina Home for Children (for illegitimate children from the Liverpool area), and a printing press. The latter was used to print numerous pamphlets and lectures, and also two periodicals, the weekly Crescent and monthly Islamic World, which were soon circulated throughout the Muslim world. The existence of the institute excited considerable local hostility, and fireworks and other missiles were thrown at the new mosque in 1891, in a near riot. Quilliam also faced hostility from several prominent Muslims abroad, who criticized him for diluting the Islamic faith and rituals in his attempts to proselytize.

Quilliam continued to travel extensively throughout the Middle East. In 1893 he was recognized by the Islamic University of Fez as an Alim (qualified to offer opinions as an Islamic jurist), and in 1894 the Ottoman sultan honoured him as sheikh-ul-Islam (leader of the Muslims) of the British Isles. In 1899 he was appointed Persian consul in Liverpool. His writings on Islam were widely circulated: one pamphlet, Fanatics and Fanaticism (1890), was translated into thirteen languages. He also published numerous articles on geology, palaeontology, philology, and Manx history, sometimes under the pseudonyms Haroon Mustapha Leon or Henri Marcel Léon. He described himself as 'a loyal British subject by birth, and a sincere Muslim from conviction' (Beckerlegge, 262), but he frequently encountered difficulties in reconciling the two identities. His defence of Turkish policy and of the legitimacy of the Turkish caliphate provoked controversy at the height of the Armenian crisis, and in 1896 his fatwa against the Sudanese campaign led to further local demonstrations and his vilification in some parts of the national press.

In 1908 Quilliam was struck off the roll of solicitors, for falsifying evidence in a divorce case. He left Liverpool, and the Brougham Street mosque and Muslim Institute went into rapid decline and closed shortly afterwards. Little is known of his activities over the next few years, though some versions of his life claim that he spent the First World War in Turkey, spying for the allied cause. In 1919 he resurfaced in the Isle of Man, where in 1903 he had bought a substantial property, Woodland Towers, in Onchan. He became well known around the village and island, where he was never seen without his scarlet fez; local society was frequently scandalized by tales of orgies and multiple marriages, and it seemed that Quilliam could hardly step outside the front door of Woodland Towers without starting another colourful story. He continued to live at Woodland Towers while also retaining a base in London, where (as Henri Marcel Léon) he worked as secretary-general of the Société Internationale de Philologie, Sciences, et Beaux-Arts, and editor of its journal, The Philomath. He also (as Haroon Mustapha or Mustafa Leon) was closely involved in the running of the Shah Jahan mosque in Woking. He died at 23 Wellbeck Street, London, on 23 April 1932, after an operation for intestinal obstruction and an enlarged prostate, and was survived by his third wife, Miriam. He was buried with full Muslim rites at Brookwood cemetery, Woking. In October 1997 his granddaughter Patricia Gordon unveiled a plaque at the former site of the Muslim mosque and institute, 8 Brougham Terrace, Liverpool, to commemorate his achievements, in a ceremony organized by members of the local Abdullah Quilliam Society.


  • ‘Spotlight on topics, personalities and places’, Ramsey Courier (Aug 1967) [Isle of Man]
  • Isle of Man Examiner (14 April 1978)
  • Liverpool Review (13 Dec 1902)
  • B. Guinness Orchard, Liverpool's legion of honour [privately published, 1893]
  • ‘The unveiling of an historic mosque’, Muslim News (31 Oct 1997)
  • G. Beckerlegge, ‘Followers of “Mohammed, Kalee and Dada Nanuk”: the presence of Islam and south Asian religions in Victorian Britain’, Religion in Victorian England, ed. I. Wolffe, 5 (1997), 222–67
  • ‘Men who are talked about’, Islamic World, 4/43 (Nov 1896), 212–15
  • ‘Sheik Abdullah Quilliam’, Porcupine (7 April 1900)
  • ‘A man of many parts: Mr W. H. Quilliam and his varied life’, Liverpool Freeman (8 July 1905)
  • M. A. Khan-Cheema, ‘Islam and the Muslims in Liverpool’, MA diss., U. Lpool, 1979
  • private information, 2004 [Abdullah Quilliam Society; William Kerruish, grandson]
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert. [Hannah Johnstone]
  • d. cert.


  • photograph, repro. in Wolffe, ed., Religion, 221

Wealth at Death

£501 17s. 5d.: probate, 23 Aug 1932, CGPLA Eng. & Wales