Born William Henry Quilliam on 10 April 1856 in Liverpool, England. Born into a wealthy Methodist family, he spent most of his childhood on the Isle of Man.
Quilliam studied at the Liverpool Institute and King William's College. He became a solicitor in 1878, specialising in criminal law. He began his practice in Liverpool where he defended suspects in many high-profile murder cases.
In 1879 he married Hannah Johnstone. At this time, Quilliam was a devout Methodist and a key member of the temperance movement in the United Kingdom.
While travelling to Morocco to recover from an illness, Quilliam encountered Muslims praying for the first time. He immediately became intrigued and it led him to acquire knowledge about Islam and Muslims. He enquired from friends about the religion and had read a translated copy of the Quran. Quilliam converted to Islam in 1887.
He wrote: “I read the translated Holy Quran...and many other books. When I left Tangier, I was a believer of Islam...and confessed it was the true religion.”
Following his conversion, Quilliam returned to England and purchased numbers 8, 11 and 12 Brougham Terrace, Liverpool, thanks to a donation from Nasrullah Khan, Crown Prince of Afghanistan. Here, he established the Liverpool Muslim Institute, the first functioning mosque in Britain; it opened on the 25th December 1889.
Abdullah Quilliam also opened a boarding school for boys and a day school for girls, as well as an orphanage, Medina House, for non-Muslim parents who were unable to look after their children and agreed for them to be brought up as Muslims. In addition, the Institute hosted educational classes covering a wide range of subjects and included a museum and science laboratory.
In 1889, he first published The Faith of Islam, which was concerned with the message of Islam and its key principles. Initially, 2000 copies were published, but a further 3000 copies were produced in 1890. Quilliam also published The Crescent, a weekly account of Muslims in Britain, and the Islamic World, a monthly publication with a worldwide audience.
He travelled extensively and received many honours from the leaders of the Islamic world. Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the 26th Ottoman Caliph, granted Quilliam the title of Shaykh al-Islam for the British Isles. The Emir of Afghanistan recognised him as the Leader of the Muslims in Britain and he was appointed as Persian Vice Consul in Liverpool by the Shah. He had contact with English-speaking West African Muslims and toured the region's coastal cities on his way to Lagos to attend the consecration of the Shitta Bey Mosque in 1894.
He died in Taviton Street, Bloomsbury, London in 1932, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Brookwood Cemetery near Woking. The prominent Anglo-Muslims Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (who each translated the Qur'an), were later buried near him.