How did England’s Victorian Muslims celebrate Christmas?

On December 25, 1888, Hymns praising the birth of the Prophet Isa, or Jesus, rung out through the Liverpool Mosque. By evening, numbers swelled. Word had got around, and the Muslims offered a “substantial tea” and small musical concert to the visitors. Read more about England’s first Mosque.


 

The Liverpool Muslim Institute was founded by the Liverpudlian William ‘Abdullah’ Quilliam

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 northeasterly wind as it rattled the thin panes of glass.

 


This was Britain’s first mosque and the 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.

 

 

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.

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