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Centre Blog

Sophie Gilliat-Ray: Remembering Fatima Cates…a transformational convert of her time

23 January 2023

I can’t quite put my finger on it…but there is something rather compelling about the story of Fatima Cates (1865-1900) one of the first women to convert to Islam in Britain in the late 19th century. I was privileged to attend a commemorative event for Fatima at the Abdullah Quilliam Society Mosque and Heritage Centre in Liverpool on Saturday 21st January 2023. The occasion also marked the launch of a biography about her life, Our Fatima of Liverpool, by the distinguished community historians Yahya Birt and Hamid Mahmood (published by Beacon Books).

This very special event brought some 200 people to Liverpool from around the country, many of them associated with the numerous Muslim convert support groups around the UK. Under the splendid leadership of Batool al-Toma from the Convert Muslim Foundation and the team of the Abdullah Quilliam Society, those who gathered at no.1-7 Brougham Terrace were treated to generous hospitality and a series of talks and performances that enabled us to appreciate the significance of Fatima’s life and her contribution to the flourishing of Islam in Britain.

As an ardent Temperance Movement activist, Fatima was intrigued to learn about the prohibition of alcohol in Islam. She attended a talk by Abdullah Quillam and subsequently converted, aged 19. Despite the disapproval of her family and the abuse she suffered, Fatima was central to the life of the early Liverpool Muslim community, serving as the mosque treasurer, leader of the women’s group, as well as delivering talks and lectures about Islam. In the span of her relatively short life, she had a transformational impact on the flourishing and growth of Islam in Britain.

Image from a BBC Lancashire news film about the erecting of a gravestone for Fatima Cates at a Liverpool graveyard. It is a bright winder day - bare trees are lit pink in sunshine in the background, and people gather in winter clothes to the right amidst several gravestones.
Image from BBC Lancashire news film of the event.

It would be hard to identify a high point from the event to commemorate Fatima’s life, but there are many moments that I will not forget. Amirah Scarisbrick – herself a convert to Islam and hailing from Liverpool, gave a moving personal account of why Fatima was such an inspiration for her (and of course, delivered in the same Liverpudlian accent that Fatima would herself have used). I have always wanted to meet the well-known British Muslim scholar, Shaykha Aisha Bewley. Saturday gave me that chance. With the freedom that comes with retirement from university employment, Prof Ron Geaves was able to share his academic journey to research about the Liverpool Muslim community, and the importance of reaching a Muslim readership for his publications. It was one thing to learn some of the ‘facts’ about Fatima’s life, but to hear them rendered in the form of a story by Sr Jumana Moon was inspirational. The day was a wonderful celebration not only of Fatima’s life, but also the energy of so many Muslim converts in Britain today who are shaping new narratives about Islam in Britain.

There was considerable Muslim and mainstream media coverage of the event and any ‘google’ search will bring up news articles and news clips. They are all worth watching.

For more details about an Islam-UK Centre research project about ‘Transformational: Converts in British Muslim Life’, please follow this link here.

Prof. Sophie Gilliat-Ray OBE is Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK.