Muslims in BritianAlthough Muslim migration to Britain began from the mid nineteenth century, the immediate opportunity was brought about in 1869 by the opening of the Suez Canal. This facilitated increased trade between Britain and its colonies, and a contingent force of labourers to work on the ships and in the ports. The obvious choice of such labourers were the Yemenis. They were the first group of Muslim migrants who arrived at the British ports of Cardiff, Liverpool, Pollockshields and London. Between 1890-1903, nearly forty thousand seaman arrived on British shores and about thirty thousand of them, according to one report, spent some part of their lives in Britain.
Inevitably, there was a language barrier between the Yemeni workers and their British employers. This, the Yemenis solved in tribal fashion. Yemeni workers, upon their arrival at British ports, assigned themselves to a particular leader for their daily needs and work requirements. The leaders were usually chosen because of their relatively better communication skills, and their awareness of employers’ needs and government requirements. Sometimes this transit period could be extended by months, and this could be a very difficult time for Yemeni sailors. Bit by bit, some of them began to settle for longer periods and married local British girls. In port cities like Cardiff and Liverpool, there are now several generations of Muslims in the community.
Additionally there were others who migrated and settled in Britain. Civil servants of the British Raj used to visit Britain either to acquire work experience or to take civil service examination in order to gain promotion in their jobs. A small number of them settled in Britain. People such as Abdullah Yusuf Ali, a civil servant and translator of the Qur’an into English, lived, married and died in Britain.
On the one hand, then, we have the British Empire, which attracted increasing numbers of immigrants to Britain, whilst on the other, we have native Britons who were attracted to the faith and beliefs of these immigrants. Pursuant to their regular visits to Muslim countries, these Britons were attracted by the mystical dimension of Islam. Others came into contact with Muslim professionals and students in Britain because they mingled with the British aristocracy; they shared a similar background. These two factors played an important role in establishing Islam in Britain.
During the latter part of the last century and until the beginning of the Second World War, two key institutions emerged, one in Liverpool and the other in Surrey. William H Quilliam, a lawyer in Liverpool, visited Morocco in 1887. There he was attracted to Islam, and soon became a Muslim, founding The Liverpool Mosque and The Muslim Institute. He edited The Islamic World (begun in 1890) and The Crescent, a weekly publication in which he wrote extensively about Islam and Muslims. A number of tracts were also published. Quilliam also established Madina House, a house for orphans in Liverpool. His works attracted both Muslims and non-Muslims alike and also seem to have had a lasting audience abroad. He received a personal gift from the Amir of Afghanistan and the Ottoman Sultan invited him to visit Istanbul and soon appointed him Shaykh al-Islam. The Muslim Institute established a Muslim College where it enrolled both Muslim and non-Muslim students. Quilliam’s activities attracted a large number of critics and eventually he left Liverpool for Jersey, later returning to work under a pseudonym.