A Brief History of Islam in Britain

John Nelson & Alexander Ross

Muslims in Britain go back to the 16th century – whereby, the first recorded Englishman to practise the teachings of this religion here on British soil, was a gentleman by the name of John Nelson.

Soon after in 1649, came the first English version of the Qur’an. It was one of the most significant accomplishments and notable works of Alexander Ross in his illustrious career of translation of many religious oeuvres.

Edward Montagu

As we move through the modern era, there were a number of famous individuals to embrace Islam amongst the English upper classes/aristocracy. Conversion included that of MP Edward Montagu, who was the son of the MP Sir Edward Wortley Montagu – also British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and great grandson of Edward Montagu, the first Earl of Sandwich.

Abdullah Quilliam

The growth of Islam in Victorian Britain is accredited to William Henry Quilliam, a local Liverpool solicitor and resident who embraced Islam in 1887 (aged 31), and took on the name Abdullah Quilliam, He was described as someone who was generous, working tirelessly to give back to his community; both the poor and the needy, but also those who were well established, intelligent and wealthy.

By birth an aristocratic Christian and the son of a wealthy watch maker, he was described as the “unofficial Attorney-General of Liverpool”. Besides being that, he was a: public speaker, founder and editor of many journals, an advocate for the lower classes and the destitute and an avid philanthropist.


An Issue that was close to Quilliams heart and of personal value, was that of Liverpool’s social ills ‘poverty, prostitution and alcoholism’ and he went to great efforts, devoting large amounts of his time, attention and wealth into eradicating this. Quilliam was known as a ‘poor man’s solicitor’ as he would contest the cases, free of charge of many women with illegitimate children. They would go to Quilliam to get paternity orders, in order to get the fathers to pay for their disowned children. He would also take ladies working the streets into his own care, along with their children, providing them with shelter, food and protection.


Quilliams concern and generosity towards the destitute and deprived was appreciated by the impoverished, and as he went through the streets of Liverpool, through gratitude the flower women would shower his carriage with flowers.

In 1894, the Ottoman Caliph at the time, Sultan Abdul Hameed gave him the official title as the leader of Muslims in Britain – he became a world renowned, leading figure of Islam often described as the most passionate advocate of Islam in the Western world . Amongst his achievements was the establishment of Liverpool Muslim Institute which is among the first Muslim religious buildings in Britain. It is present and thriving until this day.

Lord Headley on Hajj

Lord Headley al-Farooq

Lord Headley was the 5th Baron Headley and was one of the most influential figures of his generation to embrace Islam. Born in 1855 A.D; he was a leading British peer, statesman and author.

Lord Headley was born in London and received his education at various leading institutes, including Westminster School, Trinity College and Cambridge University. He went onto study at the prestigious Middle Temple as a barrister, before commencing studies at King’s College London. He served in the army as a captain and later on as Lieutenant. Colonel in 4th Battalion of North Minister Fusiliers.

After embracing Islam in 1913, he established the British Muslim Society shortly afterwards. He was also the author of several books, most well-known amongst them being: A Western Awakening to Islam (1914) and Three Great Prophets of the World. His prominence lead him to be offered the throne of Albania in 1925, to which he refused.

He said his conversion wasn’t as a result of Muslim influence, but his conviction to Islam was solely the outcome of many years of thought.

“My actual conversations with educated Muslims on the subject of religion only commenced a few weeks ago, and need I say that I am overjoyed to find that all my theories and conclusions are entirely in accord with Islam”

After his conversion he expressed his views on this topic in the following two paragraphs:

“There are thousands of men – and women, too, I believe — who are at heart Muslims, but convention, fear of adverse comments, and desire to avoid any worry or change, conspire to keep them from openly admitting the fact. I have taken the step, though I am quite aware that many friends and relatives now look upon me as a lost soul and past praying for. And yet I am just the same in my beliefs as I was twenty years ago; it is the outspoken utterance which has lost me their good opinion.

In adopting the teachings of Islam, and having explained that I consider myself by that very act a far better Christian than I was before, I can only hope that others will follow the example — which I honestly believe is a good one – which will bring happiness to anyone looking upon the step as one in advance”

Lady Evelyn Murray Cobbold

Lady Evelyn Murray Zainab Cobbold was a Scottish noblewoman who embraced Islam in April 1933.  Born in Edinburgh in 1867, she was the eldest daughter of Charles Adolphus Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore and Lady Gertrude Coke, daughter of the Second Earl of Leicester and the great grandmother of Major Philip Hope-Cobbold.

Lady Evelyn achieved eminence at age 66 in 1933, when she became the first British-born Muslim woman to perform the pilgrimage to Makkah, after requesting formal permission from the King of Saudi Arabia. Whilst on the pilgrimage she also had the honour to meet and have tea with Prince Faisal at the royal household, who later become the future King.

She was fluent in the Arabic language, which she had cultured from her winter family holidays in Algeria and Egypt. Her personal attraction of Islam lay in its mystical dimension represented by Sufism. On her return, a personal account of her trip was published entitled “Pilgrimage to Mecca”, originally published in 1934 and again in 2009 (available on amazon), documents her physical and spiritual passage to the very heart of the Islamic world.

An excerpt from her work can be found in Michael Wolfe’s book One Thousand Roads to Mecca. A snippet of it is here, where she claims to have been Muslim from as early she could remember, yet she was not born into a Muslim family.

The book contains passages that included a vivid account of her relief at finally being granted special permission by King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia to perform the Haj pilgrimage – “I had for so long lived in alternate fits of hope and despair, that I can scarcely credit that my great wish is at last to be fulfilled” – and of entering the Mosque of Mecca for the first time – “I am lost to my surroundings because of the wonder of it … I had never imagined anything so stupendous”.

Lady Evelyn was laid to rest in 1963, as she stipulated, on a remote hillside on her Glencarron estate in Wester Ross, Scotland. Her splendidly Islamo-Caledonian interment symbolised her two worlds: a piper played, whilst the chapter on “Light” from the Qur’an was recited in Arabic which she had found so moving in Makkah by an Imam of the Woking Mosque in London. A verse from the same section of Qur’anic revelation were among lady Evelyn’s last wishes as she had clearly instructed that a specific verse to be inscribed on a flat slab and placed on her grave;

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth,”

Timothy Winter (Sheikh Abdal-Hakim Murad)

Timothy John Winter (born 1960) is a British Muslim academic, professor, translator and Britain’s most influential Muslim.

In 2003, he was awarded the “Pilkington Teaching Prize” by Cambridge University, in 2007 he was awarded the “King Abdullah I Prize for Islamic Thought”. He has had the privilege of consistently being included in the “The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims”, a list published annually by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre and is currently ranked 47th in 2013/14 most influential Muslims.


Dr. Winter graduated with a double-first in Arabic from Cambridge University and then went on to study at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He then studied under the direct tutelage of some of the greatest Islamic scholars. Dr. Winter conveys his knowledge to the English-speaking world through his articles, lectures and translations of many classical and contemporary works. He is a voice of wisdom and moderation, representative of the vast majority of Muslims. He is considered, in his own right, to be one of the foremost English-speaking Islamic scholars of the world today.


Dr. Winter was the force behind laying the foundation of the ‘Cambridge Muslim College’ – a pioneering institute which supports the development of training and Islamic scholarship to help meet the many challenges facing Britain today. Other pioneering projects include: a Muslim Choir and publication of Muslim Songs of the British Isles. He has also founded and is working on “Travelling Light” which is a 40 episode, international lecture series shot at various locations throughout the world.