How did Victorian Muslims celebrate Christmas?
By Tharik Hussain
Al Jazeera, 15 December 2017
At 6am on December 25, 1888, the winter sun was yet to rise over the English city of Liverpool.
A Victorian terrace house was feverish with activity.
The soft glow of candlelight emanating from 8 Brougham Terrace revealed men and women busily putting up decorations and preparing food for the big celebration ahead, Christmas Day.
In one corner, a familiar Victorian scene of a woman playing the piano and directing hymn rehearsals, the singers’ voices muted by the howling of a bitter north-easterly wind as it rattled the thin panes of glass.
This was Britain’s first mosque and Muslim community preparing for their very first Christmas Day.
At 8am, having led the tiny congregation in the early morning prayer, the Imam finally opened the mosque doors.
Imam William Henry “Abdullah” Quilliam founded the mosque after embracing Islam in 1887, aged 31 years old.
He was greeted by more than 100 of the city’s poor, who had been invited to enjoy a charitable Christmas breakfast inside what locals called “Islam Church”.
As the group of recent converts served the paupers a hearty meal of “sandwiches, bread and meat, seedloaf, bunloaf, bread and butter, tea and coffee,” the music began.
Hymns praising the birth of the Prophet Isa, or Jesus, rung out through the venue. By evening, numbers swelled. Word had got around, and the Muslims offered a “substantial tea” and small musical concert to the visitors.
The entertainment began with “mesmeric performances” by two young Muslims before “some delightful airs upon the zither, the fairy bells and the mandolin” by one Miss Warren.
The finale was a “magic lantern” show and photo series from the imam’s recent tour across distant Muslim lands.
These descriptions of Victorian Muslims at Christmas were taken from the pages of The Crescent, the country’s first Muslim newspaper.
It was published by the Liverpool Moslem Institute between 1893 and 1907 and was recently made available online by the Abdullah Quilliam Society – which is based at the historic mosque – in partnership with the British Library.
“This reminds us there was an earlier generation of Muslims, looking to spread the word of Islam through finding points in common rather than things to argue about,” said Timothy Winter, a prominent British Muslim scholar.
Winter, the dean of Cambridge Muslim College and lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, converted to Islam in 1979. He has worked extensively with the archives.
Britain’s first Muslim community mostly comprised English converts.
The Christmas scenes, described in every January issue of The Crescent, may come as a surprise.
Winter said the festivities demonstrated a willingness to appropriate local traditions, something that was easier because the group had grown up with them.
“They possessed a spirit of openness and hospitality and were more concerned with God and truth and conveying the word [as opposed to] boundary issues and questions of identity and difference,” Winter told Al Jazeera.
The Victorian Muslims were not celebrating Christmas in the Christian sense, said Humayun Ansari, professor and author of The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800.
They simply wanted to reach out to the community.
In doing so, Ansari said, Quilliam and the early British Muslims were “indigenising” their Muslim identities.
“What Quilliam is doing in these early examples is trying to communicate that Islam is more familiar to the Christians of Britain then they think. He is trying to show that it is not something foreign and alien, but part of the Abrahamic tradition,” Ansari told Al Jazeera.
“These early British Muslims were taking elements of British indigenous culture deemed acceptable within the Islamic framework and marrying them with their religious identities. In doing so, they offer a roadmap and blueprint for what an indigenous British Muslim identity might look like today.”
In addition to the mosque, the Muslims of Liverpool founded a school, orphanage and a museum
At school, students were taught a curriculum that integrated Islam with mainstream British education, including music classes.
They took part in literary and debating events titled A night with Charles Dickens, Oliver Cromwell and Ancient Britons.
In the playground, boys played football and cricket.
The Crescent newspaper, edited by Quilliam, regularly published inspiring quotes of notable Brits such as Shakespeare and Lord Tennyson.
Quilliam’s role and influence were such that he was given the title of Sheikh Ul Islam of Britain by the Ottomans, and when he left Liverpool in 1908, it seems his community disbanded too.
Today, there are more than 2.5 million Muslims in Britain and, unlike Quilliam’s community, they hail from a multitude of ethnic and cultural backgrounds and observe Islam differently.
“The Victorian Muslims were a small community, almost exclusively white English,” said Sadiya Ahmed, founder of Everyday Muslim – an organisation which preserves Britain’s Muslim heritage.
“Today, we have Muslims in Britain whose families have come from all over the world as well as those who are ethnically English, and this inevitably means they approach Christmas in a number of ways,” she told Al Jazeera.
The issue recently came to the fore when Tesco, a supermarket brand, released its festive advertising campaign featuring a Muslim family celebrating Christmas.
Critics threatened to boycott the company because they saw Islam as incompatible with Christmas.However, others welcome the advert as embracing multiculturalism
“Some [Muslims] will completely shun it as a Christian festival, believing it has nothing to do with Islam,” said Ahmed.”Others will embrace it as a secular British tradition, putting up trees, exchanging presents and eating a halal turkey on Christmas Day. And then there will be those viewing it as a celebration of the birth of an important prophet of Islam.”Britain’s Muslim community is far more diverse today than it was when Quilliam was alive, and this is why their views on Christmas are equally diverse.”
Picture: The Liverpool Muslim Institute was founded by the Liverpudlian William ‘Abdullah’ Quilliam [Courtesy: Abdullah Quilliam Society]