Restoring Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam’s Seal – Keeping Islamic Heritage alive in UK

Ever since the Prophet (peace be upon him) had his famous seal ring made of silver, carved with the words “Muhammad rasul Allah”, seals have been used by Muslim leaders as symbols of authority. It is no surprise therefore that Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam used a seal, especially since he held the prominent title of Sheikh Ul Islam of the British Isles.

This article is about how I discovered and recreated Quilliam’s lost seal after 130 years and combined Islamic artistic traditions with contemporary technological design techniques. The task takes me to Turkey and presents some challenges but it was very worthwhile to reveal a hidden gem which at the same time would have held immense significance in its time but also shows Quilliam’s appreciation of beauty.

The original

The distinguished Quilliam scholar, Yahya Birt, chanced upon a historical document displaying Sheikh Quilliam’s seal in use (a letter from Liverpool in Arabic asking the Ottoman Sheikh-ul-Islam for advice regarding criticisms made of the Sheikh Quilliam’s fatwa on the British invasion of Sudan and what ought to be the Muslim response to it). This arouses speculation that it may have been produced when he was acting as an Emissary of the Ottoman Caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid II. As you can see the seal is faded and is hard to read so I set myself the worthy challenge try to reconstruct the seal in all its glory for posterity.

Enhancing the original

The first task was to make the seal more legible and easier to read. I applied specialist Photoshop techniques, to change the contrast, exposure, curves and level settings to achieve more definition of the writing to enable us to decipher what was written.

Recreating the seal in Calligraphy

Having identified that the seal read “Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam” in Arabic, I travelled to Istanbul to seek out the expertise of an Arabic calligraphy artist trained in the Ottoman style which the seal resembled.

Calligraphy is the highest Islamic art form owing to the special role of the Arabic script in conveying the word of Allah in the Qur’an. The beauty and skill of the calligraphy on an Islamic seal determine their artistic merit.

It wasn’t easy to find someone and while I was there, thoughts came to my mind of how Sheikh Quilliam would have been sojourning with Caliph Sultan Hameed II in this very city. When I did find someone, I was very happy with the way the calligrapher recreated the seal, although he did use a certain degree of poetic licence to embellish the original which is not what I was after.

Arabic text created by Calligraphy artist

Revamping the Seal into the modern age

In order to recreate a seal as close to the original as possible, the embellishments were edited out. Then the document was scanned into a digital format. This created many distortions, extra marks and unnecessary pixels which needed touching up.

Unveiling Quilliam’s seal

The final stage in the process involved converting the bitmap image into a vector using Adobe Illustrator. This meant that the Arabic text could now be easily coloured and adding an exterior orb throws the writing into relief, making it more distinctive.

Completed Image

16 Responses

  1. Avatar
    chris longden
    | Reply

    Well done on your excellent efforts! An important piece of work. Thank you.

    • Avatar
      Afzal
      | Reply

      Thank-you. Much appreciated.

  2. Avatar
    Ahmed Ajmi
    | Reply

    This contribution to documenting the history of Islam in the British Isles and its key personalities is invaluable. Often the history is told in a broad sense, without the required detail to bring to life such important narratives.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • Avatar
      Afzal
      | Reply

      Jzk Ahmed Ajmi.

  3. Avatar
    Salim patel
    | Reply

    Excellent work and something many muslims and non Muslims should value as part of the British heritage.

    • Avatar
      Afzal
      | Reply

      Jzk Salim

  4. Avatar
    Rehab Hassan
    | Reply

    Well done brother and thank you for the continuous effort.

    • Avatar
      Afzal
      | Reply

      Jzk Sister Rehab

  5. Avatar
    Nasir Hafezi
    | Reply

    Salam Afzal

    Very interesting and informative account of how you brought to “life” the “seal” of such an iconic Muslim leader who helped promote Islam in creative and imaginative ways to these shores.

    The great efforts you personally undertook to produce the results of your work on the “seal” is inspirational!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and the life of Abdullah Quilliam.

    It would be great if you could produce a short video of the transformation.

    Kind regards

    Nasir Hafezi

    • Avatar
      Afzal
      | Reply

      Walaykumsalam warahmallahu Br.Nasir. Thank-you so much. The video idea is great.

  6. Avatar
    Ron Geaves
    | Reply

    Brilliant! Wonderful discovery that helps to build the body of evidence that affirms the Shaikh’s significance and the respect given him in the Ottoman court. Truly well done!

    • Avatar
      Afzal
      | Reply

      Thank-you so much Ron. Do you know of any official Ottoman document appointing the Sheikh as “The Sheikh of the British Isles”?

      • Avatar
        Yahya Birt
        | Reply

        No such document has come to light. What evidence there is tells us that the title was given to Sheikh Quilliam by the popular vote of members of the Liverpool Muslim Institute on 26 September 1894. It was not an appointment as such. Over the next few years, it may be that tacit acceptance (or at least a lack of censure) was interpreted as a de facto “appointment” by Quilliam. The gifting of the seal may be one such token. Note, however, that it says “Sheikh” and not “Sheikh-ul-Islam” on the seal.

        26 September 1894 — Reception for Q. at LMI on return from West Africa. Presided over by Essad Kenan Bey, the Ottoman Consul-General in Liverpool, representing Abdulhamid II (Liverpool Mercury, 27/09/1894, p6) “Brother Mahommed Barakat-Ullah proposed the following resolution: ‘That this meeting of believers in the One and Only God and in His Holy Prophet Mahommed, cordially welcome home our trusted leader, companion, brother, and friend, Bro. W.H. Abdullah Quilliam, Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, and trust he will long be spared to lead this Institution on to continued victories for the Faith.’
        He said that the services of Bro. Quilliam on behalf of Islam were well known to them, and he had now proved that he was even more ready to risk his life for the benefit of the faith most excellent. Without him Islam might, and probably never would have been introduced into England, and certainly never could have met with the success it had done. No man had ever more truly merited the title of Sheik-ul-Islam than their president; and he was glad to tell them that his Highness the Ameer of Afghanistan had recognised Bro. Quilliam’s work, and addressed him with that honourable distinction.
        Mr N. Stephen, in supporting the resolution, said he had worked side by side with Bro. Quilliam in temperance work long before the advent of Islam in England, and that many a home had been made brighter by the inculcation of lessons of temperance and self-control then taught and still practised by Bro. Quilliam.
        The resolution was carried with enthusiasm.
        Bro. Quilliam, in responding, spoke of the seven and a half years’ pitiless persecution he had borne, and said that the welcome accorded him was sufficient to make him forget it. He believed that the future was pregnant with the greatest triumphs for the faith, and asked all to work in harmony and unity to strengthen and extend Islam in England.” (Mona’s Herald (IoM), 10/10/1894, p5)

        In the following month, in the October issue of Quilliam’s periodical, The Islamic World, a letter from the Amir of Afghanistan is published. Addressed to “the leader of the faithful (in England) Sheikh Abdullah W. Quilliam”. The letter is mostly full of pieties and prayers. The Amir pleased to hear about the progress of the community in Liverpool, to hear of further news, and promises “we are ready to do what we can for you whenever you will need our assistance.” Dated 7 Muharram 1312/[23 July 1894]. (IW, 18, Oct 1894, p189)

        Please note that the title the Amir addresses Quilliam with here is “leader of the faithful (in England)”. Obviously the members of the Liverpool Muslim Institute thought that “Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles” was an appropriate way to title this role, but clearly they are equivalent in function if not in actual wording. Let us also note that if recognition of sorts came it came firstly from the Amir of Afghanistan.

        We can also point to three other factors in this same year. Firstly that the caliph-sultan asked Quilliam to be his representative in officiating at the opening of the Shitta Bey mosque in Lagos in July of that same year. And secondly that before that in February 1894 the Muslims of Lagos had written to Q. asking him to intercede with the caliph on their behalf to have the Muhammad Shitta recognised for the founding of the mosque and his services for Islam in the region. In this letter they address Quilliam as “Sheikh al-Islam”. This is the earliest evidence I have found of this title being given to Quilliam by someone else. Finally, and this needs more research, but there is also evidence that a group of Muslims broke away from the leadership of Alexander Russell Webb in America and affiliated themselves to the Liverpool Muslim Institute, at least for a time, during 1894-5. One of the earliest and variant uses of this title appears in December 1894 as “Sheikh of the United Societies of English-speaking Muslims of England and America”. But this format only appears for a relatively short period, after which use of “Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles” becomes more prevalent.

        And Allah knows best the truth of matters.

        For more details see here: https://medium.com/@yahyabirt/1894-reconstructing-a-crucial-year-in-sheikh-abdullah-quilliams-life-1f1a38927878

        • Avatar
          Afzal
          | Reply

          Jazakamallahu Khairan Yahya for this clarification.

  7. Avatar
    Yahya Birt
    | Reply

    Dear Afzal, this is tremendous work, and I appreciate the care and time you have taken to produce something that has integrity with the original. Just to make one correction, the document to which the stamp of the seal is made is a letter written from Liverpool in Arabic asking the Ottoman Sheikh-ul-Islam for some advice regarding the criticisms made of the Sheikh Quilliam’s own proclamation or fatwa on the British invasion of the Sudan and what ought to be the Muslim response to it. So the document is about the Sudan but not from the Sudan, if you can make that correction to your article.

    Keep up the good work!

    Wa s-salam, Yahya

    • Avatar
      Afzal
      | Reply

      Jazakamallahu Khairan Yahya for this correction. I have amended the article by inserting a line from your text.

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