Introduction: Pickthall, Islam and the Modern World

in Marmaduke Pickthall: Islam and the Modern World
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The present volume, a commissioned collection of essays from specialists in the field of British Muslim studies, was originally intended as a commemoration of two of the important anniversaries connected to one of its outstanding figures – Marmaduke Pickthall. 2016 marks the eightieth anniversary of his death and the thirtieth since the publication of Peter Clark’s groundbreaking study: Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim. The present volume owes much to this biography’s pioneering scholarship. While not serving as a blueprint its divisions – the arrival of a writer, Pickthall and Turkey, Pickthall and Islam, servant of Islam, Quran translator, writer of fiction – could not but exert a salient influence over the topics addressed in these pages. Peter Clark’s work also includes a bibliography of Pickthall’s writings that has proved invaluable to later scholars. As we have seen in his “Foreword” to the present volume, his work was preceded by Anne Fremantle’s pioneer biography of Pickthall, a tome that remains a mine of information for Pickthall scholars. This is especially the case given that he left behind him no personal papers. However the broader topic of Pickthall’s place among British Muslims of the early twentieth century had to wait until Jamie Gilham’s masterful Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850–1950 was published in 2014. Gilham’s study confirms that Pickthall’s exploits did not occur in a vacuum. For a long time he was an obscure figure known chiefly as an English translator of the Quran. Gilham focuses the Muslim community which he joined as a convert during the First World War quickly becoming an important representative of a new form of “British” Islam. Nowadays he is increasingly in the spotlight along with such contemporaries in the British Muslim community as Abdullah Quilliam, Lord Headley, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din and Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Pickthall’s putative status as a “loyal enemy” in relation to British foreign policy in the Muslim world, and his mission in the field of political journalism as a passionate advocate of Turkey has received a lot of attention too. However, there is still a great deal more to say about him. This volume therefore has two main focuses. Firstly, there is Pickthall himself, a standout Muslim convert, and the factors behind his conversion to Islam, how they were inflected by his personality, background and the context of the period in which he lived. Second, but equally important is Pickthall’s broader significance as a Muslim in the world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, variously designated as the period of late colonialism, the modern liberal age, or a turning point in the longer engagement between the Islamicate world and Western Christendom/the secular West.

Pickthall was born in Suffolk in 1875; aged five on the death of his clergyman father he moved with his family to London. After Harrow, he attempted unsuccessfully to pass the Foreign Office exam. Still under eighteen, seeking a consular job in Palestine, he travelled to Egypt and Jerusalem with introductions to European residents and missionaries who he shocked by donning Arab clothing and travelling around Palestine with local guides. His partially fictionalised account of this adventure, Oriental Encounters, was published in 1918. In Damascus he was tempted to convert to Islam but returned to England and married Muriel Smith in September 1896. Adopting a writing career, Pickthall’s most successful piece of oriental fiction Said the Fisherman was published by Methuen in 1903; The House of Islam (1906) and Children of the Nile (1908) followed. The same year the latter was published Pickthall welcomed the Young Turk revolution and when the Balkan Wars broke out in 1912 he embarked upon a journalistic crusade on Turkey’s behalf that led to a four-month sojourn in Istanbul in the spring of 1913. With the Turk in War Time appeared on the eve of the outbreak of the Great War, during which Pickthall maintained his pro-Turk position by calling for a separate peace with Turkey. Also during this period he drew ever closer to faith in Islam eventually making public declaration of this in November 1917. He now entered the London and Woking Muslim community, acting as Imam and preaching Friday sermons. After the war he continued to invest in Muslim causes and was invited by leaders of the Khilafat movement to come to India and edit the Bombay Chronicle. He arrived there in 1920 and continued the paper’s nationalist position; collaborating with Gandhi he addressed large meetings and played his part in what has been described as the largest Muslim-Hindu agitation against British rule since the 1857 Mutiny. When the newspaper lost a government-instigated court case and received a huge fine Pickthall resigned, but he soon found employment as an educator and later editor of the journal Islamic Culture in the “native” state of Hyderabad ruled by the Muslim Nizam. Under the prince’s patronage he found time to complete a ground breaking English translation of the Quran, published in 1930. Pickthall retired from service in Hyderabad in 1935, returned to England, and died the following year. He is buried in the Muslim cemetery at Brookwood, Surrey.

This volume probes different facets of Pickthall’s life, personality and career, and in addition places him with respect to his own time. It was as a fiction writer, who between 1900 and 1922 wrote three volumes of short stories, fourteen novels and one fictionalised memoir, that he first became known.1 His journalist’s career, which began around 1908, consisted for several years of publishing unsigned reviews of volumes of fiction and travel writing, often with eastern subjects, before exploding into life over a foreign policy issue: Turkey’s perilous position in the first Balkan War that broke out in 1912. Suddenly, he became fixated on a distinct current of his time, a subject in which Islam played a major role. However, the journalism that arose out of Pickthall’s personal interest in eastern politics cannot easily be disentwined from his earlier experiences as a traveller, which also provided the aliment for his oriental fiction. His contribution to the genre of travel writing, long viewed as a sub-set of both fictional and journalistic writing, is nonetheless significant when viewed as part of the canon of western travel literature on the East. All these aspects were progressively infused by his engagement with the cultures of belief of those Muslims he interfaced with and his growing personal interest in and eventual commitment to faith in Islam. His renditions into English of verses from the Quran, begun before his conversion and carried on for a decade after, until he considered publishing a complete English version of the holy book, was the product of innate linguistic abilities joined to his faith-interest, and until recently was marked by posterity as the major achievement of his life.

Placing Pickthall in the context of his time requires inquiry into his connections to movements contributing to new developments in Islam both in Britain and the wider world, and exploration of his various depictions of Muslim identity within colonial and anti-colonial contexts. It was frequently reiterated in the last quarter of the nineteenth century how Britain was the first among empires as far as ruling the largest Muslim population was concerned. “As the ‘great Muhammadan Power’” she “could not be seen to act against the interests of Islam”.2 Recent research has emphasised the commonalities in the treatment of their Muslim populations by the respective European empires. David Motadel’s introduction to Islam and the European Empires stresses the ways in which Muslims were integrated into the colonial state, often by actively employing existing Islamic structures.3 However the British, alongside officials in the French, Russian and Dutch colonial administrations regarded the hajj with suspicion as a means of spreading pan-Islamic ideas which brought home by pilgrims had the potential to prove subversive. The danger that some imperialist administrators believed Islam constituted to India could create a paranoiac fear of Muslim “fanaticism” that in the Victorian period was fed by the Mutiny, the reverses in Afghanistan, continuing problems on the North-West frontier and Gordon’s fate at Khartoum. In the great late-Victorian battles over the fate of the Ottoman Empire Conservatives and Liberals took it for granted that the last significant Muslim power was on the way out; in broader terms, “British opinion, whether sympathetic or not, tended to regard Islam as a culture of decline”.4

However, besides Britain’s and other European empires’ policies towards the Muslim world, the colonial context with respect to Muslims coming to Europe and establishing new intellectual networks has also exercised recent scholarship. In particular, the missionary momentum created by the Indian Ahmadiyya movement has exercised a major part of this, especially as to how individuals from the Lahori-Ahmadi anjuman succeeded in providing institutional consolidation of the impetus that led native Britons’ to convert to faith in Islam. It is noticeable, on the one hand, that the latter consisted for the most part of “a few, rich mostly well-educated Europeans” who “adopted Islam as a new faith as a result of their search for spiritual pathways beyond their original culture and beliefs”.5 On the other it is apparent that the Indian missionaries utilised colonial networks and were mostly assiduous in declaring their loyalty to Empire. While heterodox to mainstream Sunni Muslims, Ahmadi missions in London, Berlin and other European centres, were held up more widely by Muslim thinkers as proof that the Christian missionaries in Islamic lands had failed.6 Jamie Gilham’s detailed in-depth case studies of British Muslim converts – featuring a strong portrayal of Pickthall himself – confirm their disaffection toward Christianity as well as the many imperial tie-ins that helped bring them to Islam.

Four major areas of Pickthall’s involvement in Muslim life are relatively easy to demarcate. The Arabic-speaking world of Egypt and Greater Syria, which after his youthful journey of 1894–6 he returned to quite regularly up to 1908, was a theatre acted upon by the West into which he threw himself, at the same time, as Peter Clark noted,7 observing with great care the behaviours and customs of its peoples and its currents of change, while mainly accepting the status quo. On the other hand, the heart of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, to which his attention switched at the beginning of the Young Turk revolution, and where he visited in the spring of 1913, became the focus of almost all his spiritual and intellectual aspirations. It set into rotation the previously settled view Pickthall had of the Islamic world in which Britain’s provenance was largely benign if magisterial – when embodied in consular officials – but sometimes odious when it took the form of bigoted individuals like missionaries. A Conservative by upbringing, he oriented his world view according to an ultimately unworkable because discarded formula which he ascribed to Benjamin Disraeli, according to which it was the British Empire’s destiny to protect Muslims the world over. Marked out as special recipients of this favour on account of the huge number of Muslim subjects they ruled were the Ottoman Turks. However, the Young Turks became in Pickthall’s eyes the pivot of Islamic activism as reformers first of Ottoman Turkey, and thence potentially of the wider Muslim world. As a Muslim people they now acquired an agency they had never possessed in the Victorian scheme of things.

Two other areas in which Pickthall became active by then as a fully signed up Muslim also turned out to be innovative. Missionised by a few apostles of modernist Islam from South Asia, Britain, or more narrowly Woking and London, was a newly emerging centre of Muslim activity. However Pickthall’s path to Islam, it needs to be emphasised, was one he had already forged almost entirely on his own. (Jamie Gilham writes in Chaper Three of Pickthall’s already “deep study and experience of Islam” at the time of his conversion). It seems adventitious that the opportunity arose soon after his conversion for him to develop leadership skills in the British Muslim community around the end of the Great War. Chance also took a hand in Pickthall’s move to India in 1920, where he assisted in a new ferment, an expansive anti-colonial movement which would spark one of the notable trends of later twentieth-century Islamic revivalism.

Central to all of these activities was Pickthall’s identity as a Muslim. Contributors to this volume tackle a variety of questions linked to this:

What kind of Muslim was he?

What factors lay behind his attraction to Islam?

Which brand(s) of Islam did he espouse and how were these inflected by his experience of the Muslim world?

Assuming this faith starting point, and its essential connection with culture and politics, more specialised questions follow:

How did Islam mould, and how was it expressed in, the various modes of activity Pickthall performed during his lifetime?

How should we assess him as novelist, traveller, and translator of the Quran?

What was the significance of his Islamic politics?

How is his speech and writing to be situated with respect to contemporary and later developments in the interface between Islam and the modern world?

Pickthall and Islam

The first thing to note is that those of his writings on the East that pre-date his conversion to Islam are of equal importance for his stance as a writer on Islamic themes as those that came from the pen of a declared believer. His engagement with Islam stretches at least as far back as his two years of travel in the Levant as a young man, highlighted by the story he later told of his stalled would-be conversion in Damascus.8 We can safely say that from the time of his early manhood and for the rest of his life, taking in such milestones as the publication of his most admired novel, Saïd the Fisherman (1903), his journalism on Turkey’s behalf, the publication of his English translation of the Quran (1930), and his review articles in Islamic Culture, Pickthall’s world-view was lighted by the torch of Islam. This being the case, some questions arise concerning the time and nature of his conversion. The first factor to consider is when precisely this took place. In line with a report in the Islamic Review, Peter Clark states that “he declared openly and publicly his acceptance of Islam” on 29 November 1917. However, Anne Fremantle gave an earlier date, December 1914. Jamie Gilham believes his conversion was protracted “although he edged towards Islam at the beginning of the war [he] continued to resist conversion” until November 1917.9 This leaves matters open as to why, if he privately considered himself a believer in 1914, it took him three years to make this public. As he was a private man who left few if any personal papers, we might never know the answer to this question.

Inextricably linked with the dates is the larger matter of Pickthall’s motivation for becoming a Muslim. What led someone from a very conventional, upper middle-class British background (steeped in connections with the Church of England) to become a Muslim, and in his later years interact mainly with peoples from the East? One line of thinking that Fremantle’s biography favoured is that Pickthall simply became severely disaffected from Christianity on account of Christians in Britain supporting the Balkan states in their wars against the Ottoman Empire. Another way to look at the matter is to compare him to other nineteenth-century travellers who journeyed to the East. It has been suggested, not only did they do so because they were interested in cultures and peoples other than their own, but some appear to have been on a search to fill lacks within their own personalities and backgrounds.10 Like Charles Doughty – while not handicapped to the same degree – Pickthall was through his sensitivity and introvert character ill-suited to making a successful career within the caste into which he was born, though not inheriting wealth he certainly felt the need to do so. At the same time however, he did not in the least lack the confidence, resource, or inclination for maintaining friendly relations with the likes of Lord Cromer, Aubrey Herbert, and George (later Lord) Lloyd. Nevertheless, with the exception perhaps of his brief period working with the Islamic Information Bureau in London, he invariably got on very well with and may even have preferred the company of people of oriental backgrounds, as is clear from reports of people who knew him.11 From the moment he set foot in Egypt in 1894, evidenced by his fictionalised account of his travels in Oriental Encounters (1918), as well as in his novels and short stories, Pickthall displays a facility, which E. M. Forster was the first to note, of creating writing which saw the East from the inside.12 There can therefore be little doubt that his initial attraction to Islam was closely connected to the “happy people” he met on his journeys in the Levant whose way of life he contrasted with that of Europeans.13 The faith that helped inform the lives of these warm people impacted on a young man released from the stifling norms of his own land. It is also clear from his later writings that the spiritual and intellectual power of Islam which he was able to access directly through the Arabic he acquired as a traveller played an essential part and enabled him to perform the function of imam of the Notting Hill mosque in London and edit Muslim periodicals.14

What kind of Muslim was Pickthall?

Three streams of Islamic thought and culture impacted intimately upon the thought and writings of Pickthall the English Muslim convert, each one mediated through direct, personal life experience. These were: the traditional Arab Islam practised in al-bilad al-Sham that he encountered as a young man in the 1890s; the modernising form he scrutinised during his short stay in Istanbul in 1913; and the versions of modernist and revived Islam he encountered among Muslims of South Asia with whom he interacted under the special conditions surrounding the emergence of the British Muslim community of the first few decades of the new century, and during his long period in India from 1920 to 1935.

It is not obviously the case that any one strand in particular predominated in Pickthall’s statements concerning Islamic belief and doctrine. On the contrary, together each one made an important contribution to his particular style of Muslim faith. While the early contacts with a traditional Arab Muslim world (there is little evidence to suggest that the Egyptian reformers had any impact on him as a young man) were foundational in helping to form his knowledge of Islam and the Quran, the Turkish and Indian influences brought him into contact at first hand with two of the major thrusts of Islamic modernism. The Indian trend in modern Islam had started with Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aligarh movement, moved on in the writings of Syed Ameer Ali, and came to a peak in the thought of Muhammad Iqbal.15 This broad development in Islam largely infused the Muslims of South Asian extraction who Pickthall met first in Britain and later in India. For their part, the Turkish reformers who directed the Young Turk revolution – some of whose leaders he met in 1913 – took their cue from the long heritage of the Tanzimat, Midhat Pasha and the Young Ottomans, and endeavoured to blend Islamic and modern European currents in a manner that clearly engaged Pickthall’s attention. (The impact Indian and Ottoman modes had upon Pickthall’s thought is discussed in K. Humayun Ansari, Mohammad Siddique Seddon, M.A. Sherif and Geoffrey Nash’s chapters).

Contributors to this volume adduce a variety of perspectives on Pickthall that lay claim for his belonging to strands ranging through traditionalist, modernist and revivalist Islam. Seminal authority on the history of Muslims in Britain, Ansari stresses the modernist aspects of Pickthall’s Islam, which Gilham echoes with reference to his sermons at the London Muslim Prayer House. He writes about Pickthall delivering (in 1918) “a bold lecture on ‘Islam and Modernism’, once more demonstrating his deep knowledge and engagement with the Islamic sources”. He goes on to emphasise how quickly after his conversion to Islam in November 1917, at the age of forty-two, Pickthall stepped into the role of imam to the fledgling London Muslim community. He also opines that Pickthall “always felt at ease with and mixed freely in Britain with Muslims from overseas”. Nonetheless Ansari detects colonial overtones in his relationship with South Asian Muslims at the Islamic Information Bureau before his departure for India in 1920, and believes Pickthall was “never able entirely to move away from assumptions about the ‘Orient’…deeply embedded during the formative period of his life”. Given the significant role played by Lahori-Ahmadi Muslims in the foundation of the British Muslim community in London the question of Ahmadi influence on Pickthall himself has been very much a topic of discussion for researchers. As Eric Germain has accurately documented, the early English Muslims were in part beholden to the missionary activities of Lahori-Ahmadis, most notably Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din for his leadership role at the Woking Mosque.16

Leading expert on Quran translations in English, A.R. Kidwai speaks in his chapter from a now mainstream Muslim point of view when he considers Pickthall at the very least too lenient towards the Ahmadi leader and Quran translator Maulana Muhammad Ali. It is certainly the case that advertisements for Ahmadi publications and praise for the Maulana are evident in successive volumes of Islamic Culture,17 indicating an earlier stage of tolerance (at least among some modernists, since Islamic Culture is undeniably a modernist periodical) before condemnation of Ahmadis became general among Sunni Muslims. A Christian observer of the 1920s Woking Mosque in London emphasises its non-sectarian character:

Writing in 1927 […] the acting Imam of the mosque at Woking declares that “the Woking Mosque deprecates in very strong terms the idea that the late Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a Prophet of God”. Moreover, in the published works of British converts, few, if any references to Ahmad are found. In other words, whatever its pedigree, the Lahori party is now simply a modern liberal missionary group […] The student will note its likeness to the liberal group represented by Ameer Ali, to whose influential work it is undoubtedly indebted.18

Gilham states that orthodox Sunni as he was, Pickthall “tolerated the liberal Lahori Ahmadis” but “was critical of their rivals, the Qadiani Ahmadis”. For his part, as Gilham points out: “Kamal-ud-Din appreciated and exploited” Pickthall’s deep knowledge for what we might nowadays call da’wa purposes. Re-emphasising this and the liberal, modernist orientation of the two Lahoris, Jeremy Shearmur has pointed out the non-denominational, tolerant outlook of the very much minoritarian English Muslim community centred on the Woking Mosque circa 1919.19

Another influence on Pickthall was the Turco-Egyptian aristocrat, politician and sometime Ottoman grand vizier, Prince Saïd Halim Pasha, who the Englishman met in Istanbul in 1913, but whose thought he only discovered later in India. An individualistic Muslim usually termed “Islamist” or “revivalist”, Saïd Halim according to Ismail Kara, was “an original thinker but without influence” on the Turkish Islamist writers of his era.20 Nonetheless he seems an apt mentor for the equally individualistic English convert. Writer on Pickthall and Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s biographer, M.A. Sherif, in his chapter on Pickthall’s Islamic politics, tracks Pickthall’s somewhat chequered interest in Saïd Halim and demonstrates key similarities between their thinking on Islamlaşmaq (islamise). Of Saïd Halim’s article in the first number of Islamic Culture, Sherif states, “it was directly responsible for bringing Halim Pasha to an Urdu-reading public”. Other Islamic strands are animated by Adnan Ashraf, who tests the possibility that several of Pickthall’s novels embed Ghazalian codifications of human personality, and Faruk Kökoğlu who probes his fiction to find and articulate reforming ideas surrounding treatment of women. Overall, Jeremy Shearmur’s emphasis is correct: Pickthall’s Islam was “self-taught”,21 and drew inspiration from a variety of Islamic sources.

Pickthall’s Islamic Politics and the Modern World

In addition to his significance as member of the earlier twentieth-century British Muslim community and first British Muslim to translate the Quran into English, Pickthall straddles one of the major imagined boundaries of the modern world: between Islam and the West. The positions we might claim for him as a Muslim – modernist, reformer, revivalist – should be seen within the broader context of this interface which in the period he lived was a colonial one. The British context in which Pickthall’s contribution to Islamic politics should be viewed has already been amplified by studies on other prominent Muslim contemporaries, of the British Muslim community collectively and as a collective of individuals. (Humayun Ansari has pointed out homogenous British Muslim identity did not then exist.)22

It was as an individual with British upper-class connections that the young Pickthall moved in the modern world. Although these connections have already been mentioned as personally sustaining (and of course privileged), any cursory reading of his Arab fiction cannot fail to reveal the tensions between this elite British identity and “a love for Arabs which [he] was made to understand, was hardly decent”.23 Pickthall scholarship thus far has had little to say about the background environment in which his youthful travels were made. By close textual analysis of Pickthall’s own take on these in Oriental Encounters, James Canton’s chapter brings out perhaps more clearly than has been done before the author’s awareness – looking back – of choices to be made. In the first instant the English youth had the problem of in whom to put his trust – his Arab co-travellers or an English missionary?

Pickthall’s presentation of a clash of two cultures – the one local and in spite of the writings of western travellers like himself, as yet still to be deconstructed by the modern world, the other colonial, racially segregating, and hegemonic in intent – gains extra resonance when viewed alongside recent scholarship on Victorian British activities in Palestine. For example, Lorenzo Kamel’s examination of the activities of the Palestine Exploration Fund argues the values its members derived from reading the Old Testament did not so much favour Zionism as exalt the superiority of the European; in fact they envisaged for the Holy Land a British Israelite dispensation (i.e. considering their own nation to be the spiritual descendants of the original chosen people). A corollary of this was to validate the Christian and invalidate the local Muslim populations. For example, in one of the Palestine Exploration Fund’s publications, The Surveys of Western Palestine, a section titled “The peasantry of Western Palestine”, provides a telling example of the atmosphere created by the propaganda of the pef whose founders included “prominent evangelists” and “well-known imperialists”:

the physical and mental degeneration of the women, who are mere animals, proletaires, beasts of burden cannot but have a most injurious affect upon the children […] the fellaheen are, all in all, the worst type of humanity I have come across in the East […] the fellah is totally destitute of all moral sense24

The young traveller’s decision to stay with his Arab friends and turn his back on the contemptuous missionary is, as Canton’s reading argues, not merely an instance of youthful romanticism, but a considered declaration of allegiance made in retrospect by the mature Pickthall, who had recently become a Muslim. Around the same time (1917) he was arguing that he “should regard it as a world-disaster if that country [Palestine] should be taken from Muslim government”.25

The Great War period was the moment when Pickthall’s Islamic politics led him to earn his “loyal enemy” sobriquet. Writer on Muslim Affairs Mohammad Siddique Seddon’s chapter provides an overview of the sequence of events and incidents that fuelled this disaffection centred on his dissident position as a defender of Ottoman Turkey. Seddon emphasises his connection immediately before and during the First World War with the radical pan-African, pan-Islamist activist, Dusé Mohamed Ali. Whereas a figure such as Lord Headley could keep his faith as a Muslim and his membership and allegiance to the British establishment more or less in tact, Pickthall found this much more difficult.26 The fracture the Young Turk revolution brought about in his erstwhile colonial political outlook was not a unique occurrence – on the outbreak of war in September-October 1914, as a white British Muslim he found himself potentially aligned with a huge number of ethnically non-British citizens of the British Empire, the very people his Disraelian formula imagined him sharing a notional brotherhood with. Ansari’s chapter confirms that with the outbreak of war Pickthall did indeed grow closer to the South Asian Muslims in Britain, particularly the politically active ones. In fact he came closer to their pan-Islamic view than he had been before. Gilham’s Loyal Enemies brings this orientation down to reality in its documentation of the cat and mouse game between British intelligence and “politically-minded [Muslim] converts and their associates” (with Pickthall at the forefront).27 He shows how on key issues – most notably the conclusion of a separate peace between Britain and Turkey, but also cognate ones such as the creation of a Zionist state in Palestine – Pickthall proposed initiatives with “enemy” aliens, and/or wrote articles and letters in newspapers and delivered speeches at public meetings creating considerable irritation if not anxiety for the authorities.

Another figure in the British Muslim community with whom Pickthall invites comparison is Abdullah Quilliam/Henri de Léon. Quilliam’s biographer Ron Geaves suggests together they were arguably the most significant British converts of the late Victorian/early twentieth-century period. His chapter addresses the commonalities and divergences in their positions on Ottoman Turkey, which although these did not precisely define their allegiances to Islam, underpinned their respective conceptions of its place in the modern world. They were united in their disquiet at the direction British foreign policy had taken, in reality since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, progressively dismantling Britain’s previous protection of the Ottoman Empire. Quilliam ran effectively a one-man campaign against this, becoming the Sultan’s most conspicuous ally in England while Pickthall was still a young man travelling around the Levant. The latter caught up in 1912 when he started his own pro-Ottoman agitation in journals like The Nineteenth Century and After and New Age. According to Mohammad Seddon, Pickthall “understood nationalism (qawmiyyah) as being distinctly un-Islamic and, unlike his modernising Turkish reformer allies, saw Islam, and not nationality, as the prime marker of Muslim identity”. However, Geaves suggests whereas Quilliam supported the caliphate as an article of his Sunni faith Pickthall’s support for Turkey at this stage was mainly cultural. Quilliam blamed the Young Turks for steering Turkey into the arms of the Axis powers in 1914 and this held him aloof from Pickthall’s continuing public stance in favour of a separate peace with Turkey.

Turkey had overwhelmingly been the focus, and with the evaporation of the Young Turk project Pickthall channelled his reformist political dream through his novelist’s imagination in The Early Hours (1921), “present[ing] the case for the Young Turks that [he] had been making for the previous eight years elsewhere”.28 There was a danger that the trauma of the defeat of Turkey would sour the last two decades of his life if his bitter invective against the Armenians at the time is anything to go by. When Pickthall had failed to convince Britain, with its perceived tradition of toleration and fair play and – as he had so frequently argued in the past – its imperial disposition to protect Muslim peoples, what purchase could his pro-Turk idea carry with the newly emerging (albeit limited) United States presence in the Middle East? A 1919 article in New Age titled “America and the Near East” presents the views of two Americans, a missionary and a vice-consul general. Both have experienced living in the region, in Anatolia and Syria respectively. The missionary presents the prognosis that: “‘Barbarism and fanaticism will retreat before the inexorable advance of civilisation’(!)”. As for the consul, Pickthall writes: “I cannot share in Major Powell’s enthusiasm for the notion of a Constantinople, ‘neither Turkish nor Teuton, but a free city under the Stars and Stripes,’ if these two articles are typical of American understanding of the problems of the Near East. For the world’s peace I would pay America whatever sum she asked to keep away from Asia”.29

The long fifteen years spent in India, sketched out in some detail in Fremantle’s biography appeared to start with a short blaze of political activity before in the last decade of Pickthall’s life dying down to the embers. He arrived in India at the moment when British control was growing more tenuous. Taking up a pro-Nationalist stance that went with his position as editor of the Bombay Chronicle, he worked with Gandhi and alongside the Ali brothers in the Khilafatist movement. M.A. Sherif’s meticulously researched chapter adds new detail to the picture presented by Fremantle, including amplification of connections with opposite ends of a political continuum – liberal E.M. Forster on the one hand and rising Islamist Maududi Abul A’la on the other – both of whom however pronounced the impending close of British imperialism in India. Sherif proposes a limit to the qualifier in the sobriquet (“loyal”), drawing by no means tenuous links between the anti-colonial positions Pickthall took up in India and the nascent revivalism of Maududi. His chapter closes with a fascinating and thought-provoking comparison of Pickthall with Abdullah Yusuf Ali, a figure whose uneasy relationship with British imperialism provides an intriguing foil to his own.

It was however for financial rather than any ideological reasons that Pickthall took up employment under the Nizam of Hyderabad. He had been required to sign a pledge of non-involvement in politics by the Resident, but the Nizam’s domain was hardly a hotbed of Islamic radicalism; he followed strictly in the long line of his ancestors going back to the time of James Kirkpatrick in being emollient towards the British. According to Nehru, “the premier [Princely] state, [Hyderabad] still carrie[d] on with a typical feudal regime supported by an almost complete denial of civil liberties”. However, visiting in the autumn of 1921, Forster considered Hyderabad “more enlightened and progressive” than Dewas where he had worked as private secretary to the Maharajah.30

If the […] Nizam lived frugally for one reputed to be the richest man in the world, the legend of his parsimony has nevertheless been grossly exaggerated.[…] [H]e was second to none [among Indian princes] in spending money on schools, hospitals and other projects that would benefit his people.31

The figure of a mature Pickthall moving gracefully around the native state of Hyderabad playing his part in some of these projects while appearing to hold himself with splendid detachment aloof from the political fray, is one snap-shot of the last stage of his engagement with the Muslim world.

Legacy as Novelist and Translator of the Quran

In his groundbreaking study of Marmaduke Pickthall, Peter Clark took care to rehabilitate Pickthall the writer of novels and shorter fiction as well as the prominent Muslim. The present volume also attempts to do justice to this side of his career, which was after all the source of his livelihood for nearly two decades. Literary critics Andrew C. Long and Faruk Kökoğlu together probe a handful of the novels in order to articulate aspects such as travel, sexuality, gender and Orientalism, which have become the stock in trade of recent postcolonial and cultural-theory-inflected approaches to literature. Adnan Ashraf adopts a “Ghazalian” approach testing out the possibility that by his knowledge of Arabic, Pickthall might have constructed several of his characters with Al-Ghazali’s categorisation of different stages of the soul in mind. In a footnote he raises a topical issue of today concerning figural representation of the Prophet in Saïd the Fisherman. By extension, this brings out the question of faith and art, albeit retrospectively since Pickthall was not a Muslim when he wrote Saïd. From a technical point of view the narrative at this point is focalised upon Saïd and, as Ashraf’s chapter intriguingly argues, the eponymous anti-hero, a reprobate who possesses very little regard for Islamic moral character, can be read as an embodiment of nafs, the lowest type of desiring soul in Ghazali’s schema. (Kökoğlu suggests “the word ‘fisherman’ in the title of the novel seems to be a euphemism for a womanizer since we never see Saïd fishing at sea and the only time he is on board he is dreaming of a school of women”). Saïd dreaming of the Prophet in the manner he does could well make extremely upsetting reading for a committed believer, but it might also be argued that as far as Saïd is concerned such a sequence is “in character”. Coming from the pen of a European author, the novel as a whole could be classified as an unexceptional exercise in naturalism. However Ashraf’s point – “one can infer, since he became a Muslim, that the author might have later regretted writing this description” – certainly warrants scrutiny. It seems, for instance, highly unlikely that such a passage could have featured in Pickthall’s later, engaged Muslim fiction – in The House of War, The Early Hours, or Knights of Araby, (discussed respectively by Kökoğlu and Ashraf). What we can say is Pickthall clearly did not choose to edit the dream out of later editions of Saïd, but that his later fiction clearly proclaims where his loyalties lay.

Andrew Long, on the other hand, makes a reading of Valley of the Kings that contextualises the novel according to Cooks’ tours and nineteenth-century travel writing, and of Veiled Women that places it alongside the subgenres of harem literature, captivity tales and conversion narratives. Seen through these frames, Pickthall’s novels are distinctive though not sans pareille, nor out of sync with the times in which they were written, which we should not find surprising given the appeal they obviously held for certain types of readers in their day. One of the points these chapters raise is that Pickthall’s novels continue to be worthy of further critical analysis, and not only in the context of their “Muslimness”. Indeed Long’s conclusion connects the novels to problems still very much with us today:

[…] we can accept these two novels in the religious spirit with which Pickthall intended them, and still find something here which is refreshing and (still) new and, in a productive sense, disturbing and unresolved. […] [They], and Pickthall’s other Near Eastern fiction is meaningful today because he takes on […] intractable problems, in a sense, more than he can handle. Indeed, Pickthall is most authentic in the way he presents his readers with characters and plot dilemmas which offer no “way exit” in the usual acceptable sense.


Presenting in the early 1990s a reordered version of J.M. Rodwell’s 1909 Quran translation, Professor Alan Jones of the Oriental Institute in Oxford listed four important translations by non-Muslim scholars and over thirty by Muslims, mainly from the Indian sub-continent, and concluded that Pickthall’s was “the best and most influential”.32 Pickthall’s effort certainly has to be judged according to the context in which it was written, and he himself provided a quite lengthy and engaged account of his struggle against traditionalism as embodied by authorities at Al-Azhar in Cairo who embargoed his project tout court.33 The first translation by an English Muslim, to who was Pickthall’s diplomatically entitled The Meaning of the Glorious Koran addressed? What was its purpose? Why did the translator write an introduction but, unlike Abdullah Yusuf Ali, add no explanatory notes? Where did he stand in relation to Quranic commentary? Did he adopt a modern reading of the miracles related in the Quran, or retain the literal sense? These questions are raised and deliberated upon by A.R. Kidwai, an outstanding authority on English translations of the Quran, in the final chapter of this volume. He demonstrates, among other things, how in his employment of archaic language Pickthall appears to have exceeded the early twentieth-century rendition of churchman Rodwell;34 and how, while translating verses literally, he occasionally leaned towards modernist interpretation. Overall, Kidwai emphasises the faithfulness of Pickthall’s translation – “he adheres closely to the Quranic text in his rendering and succeeds largely in avoiding the pitfall of offering a literal, soulless version” – and records the debt Muslims have felt they owe him as deliverer from the Quran translations of Western Orientalists.


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  • PickthallMarmaduke. Oriental Encounters: Palestine and Syria (1894-5-6). London: Collins1918.

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  • SherifM.A.Searching for Solace: A Biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali Interpreter of the Quran. (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust) 1994.

  • SherifM.A.Brave Hearts: Pickthall and Philby Two English Muslims in a Changing World.SelangorMalaysia, Islamic Book Trust2011.

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1He resumed fiction writing very much on a part time basis in India during the last fifteen years of his life, producing several short stories and an unpublished novel.
2John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 296.
3David Motadel, ed., Islam and the European Empires (Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press, 2014).
4Darwin, Empire Project, 296.
5Umar Ryad, “Salafiyya, Ahmadiyya, and European converts to Islam in the Interwar Period”, in Bekim Agai, Umar Ryad and Mehdi Sajid, eds., Muslims in Interwar Europe: A Transhistorical Perspective (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 47.
6Ryad, “Salafiyya, Ahmadiyya”, 53, 63.
7Peter Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim (London: Quartet Books, 1986).
8Marmaduke Pickthall, The New Age [hereafter cited as na] xii (5 December 1912), 103; Peter Clark, “A Man of Two Cities: Pickthall, Damascus, Hyderabad”, Asian Affairs, xxv (1994), 284.
9Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall, 38; Anne Fremantle, Loyal Enemy (London: Hutchinson, 1938), 252; Jamie Gilham, Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850–1950 (London: Hurst, 2014), 153.
10Kathryn Tidrick, Heart-beguiling Araby: The English Romance with Arabia (London: I.B. Tauris, 1989); Geoffrey Nash, “Politics, Aesthetics and Quest in English Travel Writing on The Middle East”, in Tim Youngs, ed. Travel Writing in the Nineteenth Century: Filling the Blank Spaces (London: Anthem): 55–69.
11Clark, “Man of Two Cities”, 288–89.
12“Islam is indeed his spiritual home […] He does not sentimentalize about the East, because he is part of it, and only incidentally does his passionate love shine out”, E.M. Forster, Abinger Harvest (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 279.
13Fremantle, Loyal, 30; Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall, 12.
14The Woking Islamic Review, The Muslim Outlook and the Hyderabad Islamic Culture. See Haifaa A. Jawad, Towards Building a British Islam: New Muslims’ Perspectives (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 66–7.
15A detailed survey of the thought of these figures, of particular interest because it was written relatively close to the period Pickthall was in India, is found in Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Modern Islām in India: A Social Analysis (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946). On the impact of modernist Indian Muslims in Britain in the early 1900s, see Humayun Ansari, “The Infidel Within”: Muslims in Britain since 1800 (London: Hurst, 2004).
16Eric Germain, “The First Muslim Mission on a European Scale: Ahmadi-Lahori Networks in the Inter-war period”, in Natalie Clayer and Eric Germain, eds. Islam in Inter-War Europe (London: Hurst, 2008), 89–118.
17Muhammad Ali was a contributor to Islamic Culture [hereafter ic]; see for example his article “Universality of Islam”, ic, ii (1928), 444–52. Pickthall favourably reviewed his book The Religion of Islam in “The Perfect Polity”, ic, x (1936), 659–62 where he wrote: “We do not always agree with Maulana Muhammad Ali’s conclusions upon minor points – sometimes they appear to us eccentric – but his premises are always sound, we are always conscious of his deep sincerity; and his reverence for the holy Quran is sufficient in itself to guarantee his work in all essentials. There are some, no doubt, who will disagree with his general findings, but they will not be those from whom Al-Islam has anything to hope in the future”.
18James Thayer Addison, “The Ahmadiyah Movement and Its Western Propaganda”, The Harvard Theological Review, 2, 1 (Jan 1929), 1–32, 24.
19Jeremy Shearmur, “The Woking Mosque Muslims: British Islam in the Early Twentieth Century”, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 34, 2(2014), 165–73.
20Quoted in Michelangelo Guida, “The Life and Political Ideas of Grand Vezir Said Halim Pasha”, Turkish Journal of Islamic Studies, 18 (2007), 101–18, 104.
21Shearmur, “Woking Mosque”, 171. According to Addison, (“Ahmadiyya Movement”, 25) Pickthall stood out from the other British converts and as a Muslim polemicist was on a par with Maulana Muhammad Ali and Kamal-ud-Din who were “excellent controversialists”.
22See Ansari, “The Infidel Within”; see also Ron Geaves, Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam (Markfield: Kube, 2010); Gilham, Loyal Enemies; M.A. Sherif, Searching for Solace: A Biography of Abdullah Yusuf Ali Interpreter of the Quran (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 1994) and Brave Hearts: Pickthall and Philby, Two English Muslims in a Changing World (Selangor, Malaysia, Islamic Book Trust, 2011); Jawad, Building a British Islam.
23Marmaduke Pickthall, Oriental Encounters: Palestine and Syria (1894-5-6) (London: Collins 1918), 7.
24Quoted in Lorenzo Kamel, “The Impact of ‘Biblical Orientalism’ in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Palestine”, British Journal of Middle East Studies, 4 (2014): 1–15, 6, 11.
25Quoted in Gilham, Loyal Enemies, 221.
26See ibid., ch.6.
27Ibid., 221; “As the main voice of dissent within the British Muslim community, Pickthall was considered by the authorities to be the most troublesome convert in this period”, 222.
28Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall, 104.
29N A, xxv (15 May 1919), 36–37.
30G.K. Das, E.M. Forster’s India (London: Macmillan, 1977) 17, 66.
31Mark Bence-Jones, Palaces of the Raj: Magnificence and Misery of the Lord Sahibs (London: Allen and Unwin, 1973), 107.
32Alan Jones, Foreword and Introduction, The Koran, trans. J.M. Rodwell, London: Phoenix, 2001, xxvi.
33Marmaduke Pickthall, “Arabs and Non-Arabs and the Question of Translating the Koran”, ic, v (1931), 422–33.
34“While Pickthall’s work was popular in the first half of the twentieth century and, therefore, historically important, its current demand is limited by its archaic prose and lack of annotation”. Khaleel Mohammed, “Assessing English Translations of the Qur’an”, Middle East Quarterly 12, 2 (2005), 58–71.

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