Yahya Birt is a community historian who has taught at the University of Leeds. He has an M.Phil. in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Oxford. A convert to Islam, his academic research is focused on contemporary Islam in general, and British Islam in particular.
We talk to Yahya about British Muslim identity, the history of Muslims in Britain and the inclusion of Muslims in arts and culture.
Your academic research is focused on contemporary Islam in general, and British Islam in particular. Can you tell us about your journey into academia and what interested you in pursuing these research areas?
My own interest in British Islam grew out of my own journey into Islam as a “white” British person. I wanted to understand better the incredibly complicated set of communities I joined in 1989 when I embraced Islam. Each had its own language, culture, heritage, and history. I realised that it would be a lifetime's work to even do justice to some of that complexity. The cosmopolitan Ummah reflects the world at large. At the time, the Rushdie affair and the Iraq war were great mobilizing issues that helped to form the sense of British Muslim identity we have today. I decided that I wanted to get more insight by studying British Muslim history in the modern era, both in the colonial and postcolonial periods. As the great British intellectual Ambalavaner Sivanandan (1923‒2018) put it, “we are here because you were there”. In other words, British Muslim history didn’t start at Heathrow or St Catherine’s Docks in the 1950s. It had much earlier beginnings in Empire, in Britain’s global imperial history.
As a community historian, what have been the most significant changes and developments among British Muslims over the last two decades?
Over the last two decades, two dominant forces have shaped the fortunes of British Muslims. The first was the reaction to 911: this recreated British Muslims as a suspect community. They were recast as a threat to Britain, as “risky” citizens prone to extremism and political violence. The second was the racialization of Muslims. This has a much longer history but in the last decade with Brexit and rising ethno-nationalism it has intensified.
But British Muslims aren’t just passive observers of history. There have been three main developments in our community since 9/11. The first has been the ongoing move away from voluntary sectarian organisation to service-led professional organisation. This is strongest in the philanthropic, education and advocacy sectors with the cultural scene beginning to emerge too. The second has been the greater centrality of Muslima leadership in non-traditional community spaces outside of the traditionally male-dominated sectors of leadership centred on the mosque and the madrasa. The third has been the rise of the third generation, the post-9/11 generation, which is more anti-racist, politically unapologetic and that has moved on from all the forms of Islamic revivalism that shaped the second generation that came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. Its ethos is shaped neither by liberal respectability politics nor by fringe extremism driven by an apocalyptic hope in cathartic violence. It is radical in the original sense of returning to fundamentals with hope and creativity to take on the challenges of our time.
Quilliam, posed as Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles
Official letterhead of the Sheikh-ul-Islam, dated 1902, preserved in the Ottoman archives
As Britain's first Shaykh al-Islam, Abdullah Quilliam is one of the UK's most important, historical Muslim figures stemming from the Victorian era. What were his roles as an imam and community leader and political advocate?
Why is Abdullah Quilliam (1856‒1932), born in Liverpool, an important figure in the history of Islam in Britain? Firstly, he is the first convert in British history to make a concerted effort to call people to Islam. Around 250 people embraced Islam at his hands at a time when Islam was viewed as heretical and dangerous or as strange and unknown. It is hard for us to imagine quite how difficult that was to do. His early community had stones thrown at them, manure heaped on them, and their prayer meetings broken up, sometimes violently. Yet, they persevered. Fatima Cates (1865‒1900), the first female covert in that community, wrote a prayerful poem in 1892 reflecting those early challenges. The first stanza reads:
Beset by numerous foes,
Concealed along the way,
We must those enemies oppose,
And ever work and pray.
The second reason why Quilliam is an historical figure is that he founds Britain's first attested mosque community, the Liverpool Muslim institute, in the summer of 1887. In many ways, this multi-ethnic Muslim community, comprised of coverts as well as sailors, travellers and notables moving in and out of Britain’s great imperial port of Liverpool, was ahead of its time. It fed the local poor, it provided free adult education, it established an orphanage, the Medina Home in 1896, it provided legal representation for Muslim sailors mistreated by the shipping companies, it ran political campaigns – local, national, and international – on issues of concern to Muslims, it published a journal and a newspaper distributed to over eighty nations, and it developed a pan-Islamic network that stretched from Australia to America. News of the Institute’s affairs was reported weekly in Cairo, Istanbul, Bombay, and Rangoon. At times, Quilliam was unafraid to be critical of British imperial expansion, such as into the Sudan in the 1890s and he issued a fatwa condemning any Muslims who would aid the British against their fellow believers.
As for the question of Quilliam being the first Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, this was by the election of the members of his Institute in October 1894, although he was subsequently acknowledged in this role by the Amir of Afghanistan and by some ulama in Egypt, the Ottoman world and British India. It was a self-authorized role rather than an appointment by the Ottoman caliph, although Abdulhamid supported the Liverpool Muslims, sent Quilliam on official missions on two occasions, and awarded him with other titles and honours.
Tell us more about your work on him and what inspired you to undertake this research?
I was drawn to research Quilliam and his community further because I thought there was more to be uncovered than previous scholars had found. There were several unanswered questions about him and his community. I have researched new areas such as Quilliam’s trade unionism, his political links to the Tory Party, his poetry, his role as Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, and the last quarter-century of his life after his left Liverpool in 1908. I have also spent quite a lot of time working with other sources outside of his own publications, not just in English but also in Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish with the assistance of other scholars, notably Riordan Macnamara and Münire Zeyneb Maksudoğlu. It is important not only to see Quilliam as he presented himself but how others saw him. Among the Muslims of the day, he had his critics as well as his supporters.