Our Fatima of Liverpool: The Victorian woman who helped found British Islam

Our Fatima of Liverpool: The Victorian woman who helped found British Islam
Book Club: Each year we learn more about the history of Islam in Britain and how it came to be. Yahya Birt and Hamid Mahmood's book 'Our Fatima of Liverpool' is one such resource, with Fatima Cates' story a particularly symbolic case study.
6 min read
22 March, 2023
Hamid Mahmood and Yahya Birt's book uncovers the forgotten history of one of Britain's Muslim pioneers [Beacon Books]

Last month, an important ceremony was organised by British Muslims to celebrate the life of Fatima Cates (1865-1900), a Victorian-era Liverpudlian who helped establish the UK's first functioning mosque.

Described as a transformational convert, the story of Our Fatima of Liverpool makes a welcome addition to the growing literature on early British Muslims.  

Excepting the hajj travelogue by the aristocratic Lady Evelyn Zainab Cobbold(1867-1963), the first European woman to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, it seems that all of the books written on pioneering British Muslims over the last decade are on prominent male converts such as  Abdullah Quilliam, Lord Headley and Marmaduke Pickthall. This is likely to change as the interest in Islam in Britain during this period continues to grow.

"The book adds another brick to help understand the foundations of Islam in Britain that were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s"

The hidden history presented in this book is co-written by Hamid Mahmood, a teacher and founder of the Fatima Elizabeth Cates Phrontistery in London and Yahya Birt, a writer and community historian who has produced publications such as Islam in Victorian Liverpool and The Collected Poems of Abdullah Quilliam.

They have done a great service by providing a  moving account of Fatima’s life and have helped highlight the role played by women in the establishment of early British Muslim communities.

Born Frances Elizabeth Murray, she lived in a time when her native city of Liverpool had become associated with drunkenness and criminality.

Frances was a socially conscious, devout Christian, and become active in the Temperance movement which campaigned against the liquor trade and the social harms caused by alcohol. By the age of 19, she became the secretary of the Association of Prohibition of Alcohol in Birkenhead, a position which eventually led her to attend a public talk on “The great Arabian teetotaler” by the well-known Muslim convert William Henry (Abdullah) Quilliam.

Frances was intrigued by his suggestion that the Prophet Muhammad occupied “a far greater page in the history of the world.” Surprised that Islam advocated an alcohol-free lifestyle, she remarked that “I never knew that Muhammadans were teetotalers. I should like to know more about this religion.”  

After the event, Frances sought to clear her misconceptions about Islam with Quilliam and he encouraged her to learn more about the faith by giving her a translated copy of the Quran and some of his writings.

Unfortunately, Frances’s mother was not as open-minded and after seeing her daughter with the “Mahommedan Bible,” and exploded into a fit of anger, castigated her for reading it.

Frances was forced to lock herself in her room and even though her mother continued to threaten her with various punishments, patiently persisted in reading the Quran and drew closer to the faith.

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Frances soon converted to Islam and adopted the name Fatima and helped Abdullah Quilliam form the Liverpool Muslim Society (LMS)  at 8 Brougham Terrace in 1887. 

She was appointed to the role of treasurer, a position which she held for eight years and was probably the second most significant person in that Muslim community after Quilliam in its first decade.

The LMS became a hub for new Muslims and offered a range of educational services and cared for orphans. As the activities of the mosque increased, so did the number of people who converted including her sisters and husband.

"Fatima was instrumental in helping to promote Islam and supported other female converts who made a quarter of the total number of converts in the Liverpool community"

Unfortunately, the nascent community was viewed with suspicion by locals and faced ridicule, suffered physical abuse and numerous acts of vandalism upon their mosque.

Fatima’s conviction and courage in the face of violent opposition remind us of the persecution suffered by the first converts of Islam during the Prophetic era.

These difficult experiences will also resonate with modern converts whose families and friends become hostile and reject them. It also mirrors the vicious Islamophobia that can be seen on the streets of Britain today.

Sadly, Fatima would also endure personal challenges at the hands of her abusive husband and be forced to divorce him. Abdullah Quilliam was known to advocate Islamic polygyny and would later marry Fatima and have a son with her.

Fatima was instrumental in helping to promote Islam and supported other female converts who made a quarter of the total number of converts in the Liverpool community.

She also played a role overseas and represented the LMS to Indian Muslims, her writings were published in international journals such as the Allahabad Review and engaged with the Ottoman Trade Consul for Liverpool alongside Quilliam. Fatima and also travelled to the lands of Islam for several months in 1892, visiting Gibraltar, Malta along the way and appearing to have a special affection for Muslims from India.

Tragically  Fatima passed away at the young age of 35 in 1900 after a short period of illness. Abdullah Quilliam fondly remembers her and the support she gave him during the establishment of the LMS and compares her role to that of the Prophet’s first wife Khadijah.

While the memory of Fatima’s achievements faded in the years after her death -it has experienced a rediscovery in recent years after the increased interest in the dramatic life of Quilliam.

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This is directly linked to the publication of this book through the efforts of the co-author, Hamid Mahmood who spent years searching primary sources for information about Fatima’s life.

Her story has also influenced contemporary female Muslim converts from Liverpool such as Amirah Scarisbrick, who helped raise money for Fatima’s graveside headstone at the commemoration mentioned at the beginning of this review.

The book adds another brick to help understand the foundations of Islam in Britain that were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It also contains two valuable appendices that contain key documents about Fatima’s life and some of her writings and poetry. 

The lives of these amazing early British Muslims will continue to inspire contemporary Muslims and the legacy of the first Liverpool Muslim community lives on in the work of The Abdullah Quilliam Society. It would be great to see Fatima’s biography and other trailblazing British Muslims made into movies or television series.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of  Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.

Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid