At a time when the British identity was tied exclusively with Christianity, converting to any other religion was viewed as an extremely controversial and peculiar act. The Victorian era – which dates from 1837 to 1901 – witnessed exponential growth in areas such as inventions, expansion of railways, and poetry. But despite this, there was one thing that remained a constant; religion.
The story of these three individuals challenges the biased narrative that we come across today. Indeed British history is replete with examples of conversions to Islam as well as many Muslims who served the country. As the list of such individuals is rather lengthy, below we’ve selected three of the most legendary Victorian converts who decided to embrace Islam at a time when such endeavours were met with scepticism. Unlike the problematic world they were living in at the time, these three individuals chose Islam due to its simplicity and peaceful nature.
A successful solicitor and son of a Methodist preacher, Abdullah Quilliam was born in Liverpool in the year 1856. Due to an illness, Quilliam departed from his hometown in Liverpool and embarked on a journey to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. It was on this journey that he started to become keen on the way of life in Muslim countries. After converting to Islam in Morocco, Quliiam returned to Liverpool, changed his name to Abdullah and began preaching and propagating Islam.
But this was not an easy task as Quilliam mentions, “When I returned to England, I became preoccupied with thinking about what Dawah methods would be appropriate to use when inviting people to accept Islam and to convince them of the truth of the deen. I was aware that the English people were already filled with a hostility towards Islam which had been fed to them by European anti-Islam ideologists. This was a strong barrier in my way, which prevented me from openly exchanging my ideas and views with English people. If you talk to English people about Islam, they think you are talking to them about some heathen religion.”
Despite this, Quilliam was notably known for founding the first mosque in Britain and was titled leader of Britain’s Muslims by the Ottoman caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. What’s more, Quilliam had pamphlets about Islam sent to Queen Victoria who ordered more after having enjoyed reading them.
Lady Evelyn Cobbold
Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1868 – 1963) was an Anglo-Scottish aristocrat and traveller who had a peculiar interest in deer stalking.
Lady Evelyn first began gaining interest in Islam after she visited North Africa. It was there that she immersed herself into the Muslim way of life and fell in love with Islam. Whilst there is no record of her converting, her book tells us enough. She was a Muslim at heart and passionately embarked on an unparalleled journey across the Arab world to perform Hajj.
“I am often asked when and why I became a Moslem. I can only reply that I do not know the precise moment when the truth of Islam dawned on me. It seems that I have always been a Moslem.”
Much of what she saw and experienced has been documented in her travelogue, Pilgrimage to Mecca. But her book was not just about the physical journey. Lady Evelyn took the chance to discuss
and share the finer details of her journey towards spirituality and Islam which also takes the reader on a tour of the context of Mecca and Medina in the early 20th century.
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall
Born in rural Suffolk, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall was notably known for producing one of the earliest and most profound English translations of the Holy Qur’an. The translation was perused and authorised by Cairo’s Azhar University and continues to stand as a central reference for those involved in studying the translation of the Holy Qur’an.
This accomplishment – which led to the Times Literary Supplement referring to it as ‘a great literary achievement’ – paved the way for increased veneration. Soon after, Pickthall saw himself being asked for fatwas and was even requested to conduct high-profile marriages.
Pickthall was devoted to India after having worked there for many years. Engaged in activities such as becoming a headmastership of a boy’s school in Hyderabad and serving as editor of the Bombay Chronicle, he left an impression on many people, including Gandhi.
The following words were written by Gandhi to Pickthall’s widow:
‘Your husband and I met often enough to grow to love each other and I found Mr. Pickthall a most amiable and deeply religious man. And although he was a convert he had nothing of the fanatic in him that most converts, no matter to what faith they are converted, betray in their speech and act. Mr. Pickthall seemed to me to live his faith unobtrusively.’