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.
Ottoman original by Asmay, published in Cairo in 1896.
Islam in Victorian Liverpool is a unique eyewitness account dating from 1895 of Britain’s first mosque community by an Ottoman intellectual. What can we learn from it today and how does it relate to Liverpool’s Muslims?
It's a translation of an 1895 travelogue, Liverpool Müslümanlığı or Islam in Liverpool. It casts new light on the early Liverpool Muslims and caused a stir among them, and was eventually banned by the Ottoman authorities in 1898. The author was a journalist and travel writer, Yusuf Samih Asmay (d.1942), who started a pro-Ottoman newspaper in Cairo, Misr, in 1889. He was quite fiercely anti-British and wanted the Ottomans to reassert authority over Egypt after it had become a British protectorate. It’s a witty and engaging first-hand account based on his 33-day stay, through which we meet an extraordinary cast of characters, most notably the lawyer-journalist, Good Templar and convert Quilliam, who lies at the centre of Asmay’s critique of the Institute.
Asmay’s travelogue throws up three issues that resonate with today’s Muslims. The first is how much can conversion to Islam be a process of gradual adaption rather than an instant adoption of the expectations of “born Muslims”? After all, Quilliam was largely self-taught from meagre resources and his community faced familiar questions about their adoption of an Anglo-Islamic synthesis with Protestant liturgical forms. The second is where do British Muslims stand regarding the politics of the Ummah and the nation? For Quilliam’s community, this wasn’t yet a post-caliphate conundrum, but the debate about dual loyalties then provides an instructive mirror for our times now. The third is how do we respond if we find out that our religious leaders are not the role models we would like them to be? Asmay’s account questions Quilliam’s fitness as a religious leader in ways that fascinatingly echo the “Me Too” moment today.
Tell us about your most recent work on The Collected Poems of Abdullah Quilliam.
This book has been some years in the making with my co-editor, Ron Geaves, and it was delayed when the lockdown stopped us from accessing obscure materials in the research archives. Quilliam was an occasional poet, but he wrote continuously over a period of four decades from his conversion right up to the end of his life. From disparate sources, we have brought together all his published poetry, both secular and religious, for the first time between the covers of a single volume. Of greatest interest is his religious poetry, which reflects his roles as an imam, community leader and political advocate. We also discovered that Quilliam published his own poetry under the guise of a sixteenth-century Mevlevi poet in 1916, Sheikh Haroon Abdullah. This showcases a mystical turn in his later life and reflects a serious interest in Ottoman culture.
John Houlding, founder of Liverpool FC.
The Order of the Imtiaz, awarded to the Liverpool FC founder by the caliph in 1896
A lot of your research is focused on remembering early Muslim communities and early converts in Britain. What led you to pursue this research and are there some particularly interesting stories you can share?
One of the great pleasures of research among the archives is how it throws up the completely unexpected! When I started, I had no inkling that I would find a connection between Liverpool Football Club and the Ottoman caliphate. Quilliam had a long friendship with the founder of Liverpool FC, John Houlding (1833‒1902): they worked together in local politics and as trade unionists for over a quarter of a century. Elected as Lord Mayor in 1897, Houlding became the first ever civic official to visit a mosque, the Liverpool Muslim Institute for Eid-ul-Fitr in 1898, where he stressed the importance of religious tolerance. Furthermore, Quilliam ensured through his contacts that when Houlding was on a tour of the East in 1896 that he was received by officials and was awarded the Order of the Imtiaz by the caliph, Sultan Abdulhamid II for services to the Ottoman Empire.
How important is it that there is a dedicated museum of British Muslim history where narratives and artefacts may be preserved and displayed to the public?
Yes, I think it's extremely important: if we don’t know where we came from then how we know who we are and where we are going? Although there are some preliminary efforts in this regard, none of them are well advanced. We haven't even got an archival inventory of key artefacts relating to British Muslim history. There are some dedicated community archives now such as Everyday Muslim, East London Mosque Archives, and the Cambridge Muslim College. My hope is that the universities that specialise in British Muslim studies like Cardiff, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge will also step up and dedicate resources and expertise to building dedicated archives. All these are preliminary steps in working towards a Museum of British Muslim History.
Islam has different forms of cultural expression. How may this be reflected through diverse artistic genres?
This is an interesting question. All I will say is that Eurocentric forms of artistic expression should expand to include diverse Islamic forms such as calligraphy, geometry, the ghazal, qawwali, and many others not only as part of an Orientalized past but as a living, evolving part of Europe’s present and future. In other words, what counts as a genre in the first place should be decolonized. This is not to ignore the issue of what counts as Islamicate genres of art. In the West, we have had Muslim creators of great importance in jazz, hip-hop, rap, folk, architecture, literature, and spoken word to name but a few.
What are your thoughts on the representation and inclusion of Muslims in mainstream arts, heritage, and cultural spaces?
Representation and inclusion of Muslims in culture and the arts matters, but everyone realises that we need to move beyond both stereotypes and tokenism. What really matters is having Muslim creators in the mainstream humanising the Muslim experience and expanding what it means to be human in the first place.
Why is it important for Muslims to have their own creative outputs for narratives and history? Do you think as Muslim community there is a need for independent art spaces?
There is constant pressure to domesticate Muslim history and to curtail the formation of our own narratives in the name of protecting Britain security or reaffirming the superiority of western civilization. It is essential that we create and sustain “third spaces” (beyond community or mainstream strictures) that will allow us to think radically and to create freely without fear or favour. It is essential for us to research, curate, and teach our own history and narratives, and as it stands currently, the mainstream education system will never provide that to us, nor should we expect it to, nor is it desirable that it do so in its current configuration. Rather, we have to do it ourselves.
Can the arts help to develop more socially conscious communities?
Yes, but only if our Muslim creative impulses are tied to deeper Islamic principles of justice and truth-telling rather than to capitalist commodification, the politics of respectability, personal ambition, or cultural and political assimilation.
Tell us more about your most recent work, your poetry collection Pandemic Pilgrimage. What was the intention behind it and what was the creative process?
Pandemic Pilgrimage is my first-ever poetry collection. It features 25 poems about my own Umra, or Lesser Pilgrimage, to Makka and Medina, in December 2021 and January 2022, during the Covid pandemic. It was totally unplanned. I was sitting in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina on Boxing Day, watching a swallow singing and soaring above his blessed tomb, and I was inspired to write a poem about it, “Swallow by the Green Dome”, after which more followed every day. My intention was to keep switching between the sights and sounds of the holy cities and my attempts at an inner journey so that it felt grounded in my personal experience. I tried my best to write as honestly as I could.
Little swallow, you sing
A song of praise,
Of He who made us all.
You fulfil your purpose:
I do not fulfil mine.
Darting swift, you sweep
Above the Chosen One,
Above a garden of Paradise.
Your spirit soars:
Mine remains earthbound.
Fleeting bird, your gift
Is to do, to be;
We bear the trust,
The one the mountains refused:
May we soar too on the wings of the Beloved
Your commentary has been cited in a number of newspapers, how does it feel to have this recognition?
I don’t think such recognition matters at all without checking one’s own intentions first and foremost. Whose recognition really matters most? This sort of citation only matters if it serves a higher purpose.
About Yahya Birt
Yahya Birt has published over a dozen peer-reviewed articles on Islam in Britain and co-edited British Secularism and Religion (2016), Islam in Victorian Liverpool (2021) and The Collected Poems of Abdullah Quilliam (2021). In 2022, he published his first poetry collection, Pandemic Pilgrimage. He lives in West Yorkshire with his family and cat. He likes walking and being grumpy about the state of the world. He can be reached on Twitter @ybirt.
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