Charting a very Muslim gentleman.
Issue 89 February 2012
When Professor Ron Geaves embarked on a biography of Victorian Muslim Abdullah William Quilliam, he could not have imagined how profoundly he would be affected. Nadia Tariq discovers the obsession behind the story.
“Now that’s a big question” sighed Professor Ron Geaves when asked what fascinated him most about the subject of his latest, and self-confessed, favourite book. Islam in Victorian Britain, the Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam recounts the life of Victorian solicitor, Abdullah William Henry Quilliam. There is no doubt that the story touches Geaves on a personal as well as professional level. “His physical travelling was also a part of his spiritual travelling—his journeys to Morocco and Algeria— and this very much modelled my own life in some way. A lot of my own spiritual journeying has been through travel, and was my first contact with Islam. I could empathise with him, as I too went through a journey moving away from my Christianity and my own Christian roots.”
Driven by passion, Geaves’ level of involvement in his projectis extraordinary, something he laughingly describes as “almost obsessive”. On our 15 minute walk from the station to a city campus of his current employer, Liverpool Hope University, my guide recounts a remarkable phenomenon. Later in an empty classroom with the tape rolling, he is keen to relate further. “The whole of the city of Liverpool was transformed for me, and I began to see the city through his eyes; buildings that were built after his death, or after he left the city, disappeared out of my sight.” So much did the biographer begin to embody his work that boundaries, not just between past and present, but between subject and self began to blur. Ron confesses that he used to dream of Quilliam, and perhaps even more telling, his patient wife once told him, “I’m not sure who I’m married to anymore, whether I’m actually married to Abdullah Quilliam at this point in time.”