How a Victorian Muslim woman has inspired me

by | Feb 8, 2023

Last week, the launch of a new book, ‘Our Fatima of Liverpool’ took place at the first Mosque in England that we know of, built there in 1887.

Amirah Scarisbrick is proud to be from Liverpool, a Muslim, a woman. She talks here about her connection to Fatima and what the last few years of discovery have meant to her. At the end of her piece, you will see links to the story to find out more and to keep Fatima’s memory alive. 

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“I first became acquainted with Fatima Cates in Professor Ron Geaves book back in 2010 sharing his research on Abdullah Quilliam who was among the first English converts in the 1800’s. Then I really connected with Fatima in a deep way about 6 years ago after being asked to play her, in a short play for an interfaith event at the Quilliam Mosque. It was a profound experience and I remember completely being absorbed in the role, in an experiential way.

Around that time, I had formed Quilliam Choir with my friend Zaynab, who had kindly agreed to lead it. We had taken shahada at a similar time over 20 years ago and had been on a journey of self discovery together. The choir allowed us to celebrate our Britishness and Islamic identities at the same time.

We sang Qasida’s (songs of praise of the Prophet, peace be upon him) in English and Arabic. Zaynab played the Daff very well and had learned how to sing and play whilst living in Tarim in Yemen.

The choir was very therapeutic and healing for those in attendance, a mix of convert and born Muslim women. We performed in a variety of settings with Muslims and people from all backgrounds.

Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad had sent me copies of his British Islamic Hymn Book, after me writing to tell him about our project. Much of the material in the hymn book was taken from Victorian times.

The original choir in those times was formed by convert women and I’d wanted to revive this tradition.

We were invited by the teacher and founder of the Fatima Cates Madrassa in East London to do two assemblies. At the time, it was difficult for other choir members to attend, so I went and was so impressed that a madrassa was named after a convert from Liverpool. I spoke about being a convert from Liverpool and sang to the children some of the material we had practiced. They then went on to form their own choir. At the recent book launch and commemoration event, they sang one of the poems Fatima had written, it was very beautiful seeing it all come together.

I built a bond with the teacher, Hamid and he would periodically visit Liverpool to research Fatima’s life.  I followed his efforts with great interest. At the point of him discovering her unmarked grave at Anfield Cemetery, I felt motivated to raise the funds for a headstone last Ramadan. It seemed fitting for this to be led by the Liverpool Muslim convert community. We raised the funds from far and wide in just 24 hours.

I have visited Fatima’s grave many times and felt a very strong connection with her. A bus load of ladies from Luton wanted to visit one Ramadan. Another time some descendents of the Prophet (pbuh) wanted to visit her to make dua. 

At the grave I imagined her life, having myself lived in Wirral for 30 years, also having strong connections with Liverpool. I imagined and understood quite well her struggles, being in awe of how much more difficult it must have been back then, to be one of the first to embrace Islam.  

I would go to her grave thinking about how her son would have stood, aged four, having lost his mother, with Abdullah Quilliam leading her janazah, also considering the pain of Fatima’s mother having to bury a child. And there would have been others there such as orphaned children from the children’s home, Medina House. 

What struck me is how three plots along from Fatima, there is a Scarisbrick, who died exactly a week after Fatima. I find this rather surreal because I’ve never seen my family name on a headstone before and it is quite a rare name, I believe with Scandinavian roots. Then here we were 120 years later with another Scarisbrick marking Fatima’s grave, with a piece of her poetry, enabling others to hear her voice from the grave.

Our Fatima of Liverpool

On the day of the book launch, we held a commemoration event starting at Fatima’s grave. As we came together that beautiful frosty morning to remember Fatima, an amazing sunrise warmed the cemetery with beautiful shades of orange. A local police woman was in attendance with colleagues who to my astonishment asked ‘are you Jean’s grand daughter?’ She was referring to my father’s mother who was a Scarisbrick. Apparently, she had known my grand mother. Her mother had helped to care for my grand mother, and Sophie the policewoman had helped at times to give her tablets!  I couldn’t help but feel my ancestors were reaching out to me from that other realm.

I see Fatima as an inspiration, a scouser like me, who trod a similar path, but in the most bold and pioneering way. May God rest her soul and raise her rank and may we be reunited in the best of places with beloved God”

 ‘Our Fatima of Liverpool’ – Hamid Mahmood,  co-author’s interview on Islam Channel:

To buy your copy of the book, please visit Beacon Books:

Amirah and Hamid on BBC radio talking about the book and the commemoration event:

Julie Siddiqi speaking about Fatima on Radio 4’s Today programme in the ‘Thought For The Day‘ slot: