This chapter considers Marmaduke Pickthall’s connections and relationships with other converts to Islam in Britain from the period immediately prior to the First World War to his death in 1936. During those last twenty-five years of his life, Pickthall fought tirelessly to defend the Ottoman Empire, converted to Islam and became a leading figure in the British Muslim community. The chapter first documents Pickthall’s early encounters with other British Muslim converts, then focuses on the four years between Pickthall’s own conversion to Islam in 1917 and his emigration to India in 1920, and finally considers his latter years as an émigré. It explores Pickthall’s interactions and relationships with other British Muslim converts who belonged to the contemporary “mainstream” British Muslim community, which was organised through the Woking Muslim Mission (wmm) at Woking, Surrey, and in nearby London.1 As is the case for most “Woking” converts, there is no evidence that Pickthall visited or corresponded with the well-established, immigrant-led Muslim communities outside of the metropolis – in, for example, South Shields and Cardiff, where local white women converted to Islam and married predominantly Arab and South Asian Muslims.2 Rather, Pickthall’s small circle of British Muslim friends and acquaintances before and after 1920 were mostly to be found in and around London. They included both high-profile converts such as William Henry/Abdullah Quilliam (1856–1932; generally known in this period as Professor Henri M. Léon), Lady Evelyn/Zainab Cobbold (1867–1963) and Lord Headley/Al-Farooq (1855–1935; Rowland George Allanson Allanson-Winn), and lesser-known co-religionists such as Bertram/Khalid Sheldrake (1888–1947) and Dudley/Mohammad Sadiq Wright (1868–1949).3
Strange to say, perhaps, for a man who has been the subject of two lengthy biographies and, in recent years, numerous other studies,5 but evidence of Pickthall’s character and details of his private life are scarce. This seems to be indicative of the man – one who, as his friend and first biographer, Anne Fremantle (1910–2002), noted in the preface to her biography of him, “kept few records even of his outward life”,6 and who had no direct heirs to embellish the rare documented character sketches and anecdotes. It is also, perhaps, no coincidence that only a handful of portrait photographs survive, and just one of Pickthall at the Woking mosque.7 What we do know is that, although he was networked and a politically astute and outspoken man, he was also, as Fremantle highlighted, “shy” and, according to his good friend in India, the scholar and poet Professor Ernest E. Speight (1871–1949), an essentially “private man”.8 Pickthall always felt at ease with and mixed freely in Britain with Muslims from overseas, including the Indian scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872–1953) and the charismatic Sufi musician and publisher Inayat Khan (1882–1927), perhaps more comfortable with them than with the many British converts who
Politics and the Path to Islam
Pickthall’s conversion to Islam was protracted (he had first toyed with converting during his 1894–5 trip to the Middle East11), but became more likely in the period immediately prior to the First World War. His early travels to the Middle East and return to Egypt in 1907 and 1908 forged a strong emotional attachment to and intellectual and political engagement with Muslims and Islam. Moreover, Pickthall’s interest in Islam and admiration for Ottoman lands and its Muslim peoples made him a committed Turcophile who saw Turkey as the hope of the Islamic world. As Ron Geaves shows in Chapter Four of this book, it was over the issue of the Young Turks that Pickthall and Quilliam/Léon differed, though there is little evidence to suggest that their disagreement got out of hand, and they remained friends throughout their lives. The traditionalist Quilliam, who had converted in the 1880s, had always championed the Ottoman sultan-caliph, even when, during the mid-1890s, the British press and politicians launched vitriolic campaigns against the Sultan (Abdul Hamid ii, 1842–1918) in the wake of the massacre of “dissident” Armenians by Ottoman troops.12 Quilliam would never accept the legitimacy of the Young Turk revolution which, in 1908, had deposed the Sultan. But, for the modernist Pickthall, the Young Turks promised an age of reform – in matters of education, social improvement and enhancement of the status of women – and from this he anticipated an improved and educated, modernised Islam.13
One member of the Islamic Society not connected with Quilliam’s lmi was Lady Evelyn Cobbold who, like Pickthall, had a strong emotional attachment to Muslims and Islam through early travels to the Middle East. In 1914, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and a European conflict looming, Cobbold’s admiration of Muslims and Islam developed an increasingly political dimension. Further independent study persuaded Cobbold that Islam was the religion, “most calculated to solve the world’s many perplexing problems, and to bring to humanity peace and happiness”.21 Pickthall and Cobbold did not meet until 1914, when they were introduced in London by a mutual friend, the former Grand Vizier (Prime Minister) of the Ottoman Empire, Ibrahim Hakki Pasha (1882–1918). Pickthall had first met Hakki in Berlin en route to Turkey the year before, when Hakki was an Ottoman Ambassador. At their first meeting, Pickthall was not impressed by the direct and rather eccentric, aristocratic Cobbold. He later told his close friend, the Turcophile Conservative mp Aubrey Herbert (1880–1923), that he “didn’t like her much”; but, at their second
Back in London in the autumn of 1913, Pickthall and Quilliam/Léon, alongside the radical pan-Islamic and Pan-African journalist Dusé Mohamed Ali (1866–1945) and the Turcophile Arthur Field (an atheist whom Pickthall, his great friend, described to Fremantle as, “‘in reality, a faithful servant of Allah’”24), helped establish an Ottoman Committee to defend Turkish interests. By the end of 1913, the Committee had split into two organisations, both of which Pickthall joined. He briefly sat on the Ottoman Association’s Executive Committee, which comprised, “British subjects of European descent [with …] special knowledge of Turkey” and was designed to influence policy for, “maintaining the integrity of the Ottoman Empire [and …] promot[ing] a cordial understanding between Great Britain and Turkey”.25 Pickthall became much more closely involved with the second organisation, the Anglo-Ottoman Society (aos), which, in contrast to the Ottoman Association, claimed to be a popular and international formation, composed of all nationalities, Muslim and Christian, proposing “a united movement in British and Continental political and Press circles […] calling for a European defence of Turkey”.26 Pickthall worked so hard for the aos that Fremantle commented that he, “did everything for it except bath the members”.27 In addition to sometime aos Vice-President Quilliam/Léon, the membership included Parkinson and some of Quilliam’s Muslim family, the most active of whom was his eldest son Robert Ahmed Quilliam. In April 1914, the Society organised “A public conversazione and meeting” at the Caxton Hall, Westminster, with one of Quilliam’s daughters, Harriet Hanifa, in “conversazione” and Pickthall joining the company as a main speaker.28 Other social and intellectual networks bound this small group of politically-minded converts and Turcophiles in these years. For example,
Pickthall’s main focus and business, however, was political. As he explained in the letters pages of the Near East, he and other Turcophiles at this time were, “defending an unpopular cause. [We] have had to fear, and have encountered, public ridicule and private abuse”.31 The aos gave Pickthall the platform to write and speak out publicly against British policy and attitudes towards “progressive Turkey” and its Muslims. But, despite their efforts, Pickthall and other Turcophiles were unable to persuade the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey (1862–1933), to keep the peace with Turkey or encourage Turkish neutrality and independence in 1914. This traumatised Pickthall, who felt that Christian Europe had neglected and abused Turkey, and he was furious that little was done to prevent her from turning to Germany. Pickthall still did not rush into adopting Islam, but he began to abandon Christianity when, he felt, Christianity had failed and abandoned him. Writing in the 1930s, Fremantle suggested that Pickthall converted to Islam in December 1914 as, “a protest against the hysterical hate preached in the name of the Christ he had served and loved so long”.32 However, though he edged towards Islam at the beginning of the war, Pickthall resisted conversion. As he told Herbert, Cobbold tried but failed to get him to publicly convert during their lunch at Claridge’s in January 1915 (she proposed using two bemused waiters as witnesses).33
After Turkey entered the war, Pickthall led a hugely ambitious pro-Turk public campaign to win hearts and minds in Whitehall and beyond, and secure a separate peace agreement with Turkey. His efforts were generally channelled through the aos and Islamic Society/Central Islamic Society, which organised protest meetings, public debates and lectures; forwarded countless resolutions
Despite wartime censorship and an increasingly anti-Turk and anti-Muslim sentiment in British society during David Lloyd George’s (1863–1945) premiership from 1916 until 1922, Pickthall lobbied furiously through the aos and alongside a few Muslim converts, especially Sheldrake, Robert Ahmed Quilliam and Parkinson.34 In the months before his conversion, he became more avowedly Pan-Islamic. Pickthall wrote in the New York Times in 1916, for example, that Pan-Islam – “the conscious effort for united progress made by educated Moslems” – was the “cornerstone” of “Disraeli’s great constructive Eastern policy”. For Pickthall, Pan-Islam was, “the most hopeful movement of our day, deserving the support of all enlightened people, and particularly the British Government, since a British Government inspired it in the first place”.35 Pickthall inevitably met other pan-Islamic, mainly Indian, Muslims during his regular trips to London. Importantly, these included the lawyer and Muslim missionary, Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din (1870–1932), who had arrived in Britain from India in 1912. Kamal-ud-Din was a convert to the Ahmadiyya, an unorthodox Muslim sect founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (c.1835–1908). Following a series of visions that drew upon the Islamic belief that a Messiah and a Mahdi would come to lead Muslims against the unbelievers, Ahmad had personally assumed both roles. In 1889, he inaugurated the Ahmadiyyat (Ahmadiyya community) by accepting the allegiance of his first followers – namely those who affirmed standard matters of Islamic belief and swore specific allegiance to Ahmad.36
The Woking Muslim Mission and Conversion to Islam
Once in England, Kamal-ud-Din abandoned his legal career and took it upon himself to promote a fairer hearing of Islam through propaganda written and inspired by Ahmad. In doing so, Kamal-ud-Din was keen to downplay the differences between Ahmadi and orthodox Islam. His main vehicle for this was
The number of converts swelled sufficiently during 1914 for Kamal-ud-Din to establish a British Muslim Society under the Presidency of Headley, with Parkinson his Vice-President and Sheldrake the Hon. Secretary. The wmm and British Muslim Society met regularly at Woking and in London. Closer than ever to conversion to Islam, Pickthall first joined meetings at the Mission’s “London Muslim Prayer House” in Lindsay Hall, Notting Hill Gate in c.1916. Pickthall’s deep study and experience of Islam was evident in his first article for an explicitly Muslim journal, Kamal-ud-Din’s Islamic Review, which he submitted in late 1916. The article, entitled “The Prophet’s Gratitude”, set out the virtues of the Prophet Muhammad, who, “unlike all other prophets, whose proper likeness is concealed from us in mists of reverence, […] is a clear historical character”. Correcting popular misconceptions about Muhammad, Pickthall elaborated on his humanity and reverence for women.38 The article was published in the January 1917 issue of the Islamic Review. On the 6th of January, he accompanied Kamal-ud-Din to the Central Islamic Society’s annual “Prophet’s Birthday Celebration”, held at the grand and fashionable Hotel Cecil in central London. Following prayers recited by Kamal-ud-Din, Pickthall addressed the audience with another short account and defence of Muhammad’s life and character, admitting that, “I have come to love him as one loves a friend”, and also arguing that the Quran “remains a wonder of the world”. Crucially for Pickthall, Muhammad “preached the brotherhood of all believers”. The theme of “brotherhood” was central to both Pickthall’s and Kamal-ud-Din’s interpretation of Islam. The address was immediately published in the Islamic Review and also
In June 1917, Pickthall delivered his first Central Islamic Society lecture, on “The Muslim Interests in Palestine”, again in the company of Kamal-ud-Din and undoubtedly several British Muslims.40 The following month Kamal-ud-Din republished Pickthall’s influential “Islam and Progress” essays in the Islamic Review (the series had originally been written for the New Age and, in French, for La Revue Politique Internationale).41 The essays confirmed Pickthall’s position as a leading commentator and interpreter of Islam in Britain: he was at ease quoting the hadith (report of the sayings/doings of Muhammad), sunna (custom, or practice, of Muhammad and the early Muslim community) and Quran (in both Arabic and English), and also cited other Islamic scholars (the first “Islam and Progress” essay offers a rare example of Pickthall quoting another British Muslim – in this case, “Professor Léon” in the context of a discussion about “Oriental folk-lore”42). By September 1917, the wmm had republished Pickthall’s “Islam and Progress” in booklet form for wider distribution.
After the lecture, Sheldrake “rose and congratulated Mr. Pickthall on behalf of British Muslims, who, he added, looked upon him as a tower of strength”.45 Indeed, what is striking is that, already known and well-regarded for his public speaking and prose, and a mature forty-two years old at the time of his conversion, Pickthall was immediately adopted by other Muslims, especially converts, as an intellectual leader. Other influential converts like Headley, Sheldrake and the, by now, semi-reclusive Quilliam/Léon, could not match Pickthall’s intellectual range. Kamal-ud-Din appreciated and exploited this. Tellingly, just days after his “Islam and Modernism” lecture, Pickthall was asked to chair a lecture by Kamal-ud-Din, attended a Central Islamic Society lecture by Headley, and accepted the position of Vice-President of the Muslim Literary Society (Yusuf Ali was President). Although, in the final months of the war, he was conscripted and posted to rural Suffolk to help defend the East coast, where he stayed until 1919 (and then moved back to Sussex), Pickthall published regularly in the Islamic Review throughout 1918 and joined wmm events in London. He was also one of the first and few converts to give an address and deliver sermons at the London Muslim Prayer House in the summer of 1918.46 He visited Woking mosque occasionally, including the eid al-fitr (feast to end Ramadan) celebrations in July 1918, along with Headley, Wright and other converts.
The Lecturer was listened to in rapt silence. His intonation of suitable verses from the Holy Qur-an in the original text to illustrate the beauties
of Islam, with which he frequently punctuated his most learned discourse, threw those who were not used to listening to such recitations from a Western’s lips, into ecstasies. From start to finish Mr. Pickthall held his audience as if in a spell by his erudition, by his deep thinking, and lastly by the most genuine and rock-like faith which every word of his breathed into the splendour and beneficence of Islam.44
Like many British converts (Quilliam/Léon included), Pickthall identified as an orthodox Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. This was typical of the early “Woking” converts because Kamal-ud-Din and his missionaries always downplayed the differences between Ahmadi and orthodox Islam and, in contrast to the Christian Church from which most British converts came,
Whilst Pickthall tolerated the liberal Lahori Ahmadis, he was critical of their rivals, the Qadiani Ahmadis, who in 1914 had broken away from the Lahoris by declaring Mirza Ghulam Ahmad a prophet and claiming that his successors would also have the gift of prophecy.50 For Pickthall, the conservative Qadianis were too far removed from the mainstream of Islam. Most contemporaries agreed with Pickthall, though Quilliam/Léon and Sheldrake were more sympathetic to the diversity of Islam to be found on British shores and anxious to avoid the sectarianism they had found in Christianity. Sheldrake also had a troubled relationship with Kamal-ud-Din and the wmm, eventually breaking away permanently in 1926 to establish his own Western Islamic Association.51 Quilliam/Léon became a patron of Sheldrake’s new organisation. It is not clear if Pickthall was asked, and although he did not join the wia, he remained friends with Sheldrake and, as is related below, they continued to meet in London. Meanwhile, whilst Pickthall stayed away, both Quilliam/Léon and Sheldrake visited the Qadiani mosque, which was formally opened in Southfields (south London) in 1926.52 Conversely, Pickthall welcomed the efforts of the “London Mosque Fund” Trustees, among them his good friend from the aos, the former Governor of Bombay Lord Lamington (1860–1940), to build
Typically for Pickthall, who remained committed to the Turkish cause, after his sermon, a resolution was passed urging the Allied Powers and the President of the Peace Conference at Paris to guarantee Turkish sovereignty.60
Punctually at 11.30 the “Takbir” [(term for the Arabic phrase which translates as “God is Great”)] for Eid prayers was called, and there followed a scene the thrill of which will linger for years to come in the hearts of those present. That the Imam, Mr. Pickthall, was a native Englishman imparted a wonderful inspiration to the worshippers which was manifest from their faces. Mr. Pickthall led the service in a beautiful and his characteristically devotional manner. His recitations of the verses of the Holy Al-Quran during service was extremely edifying. Prayers over, he delivered an instructive sermon bearing upon the times through which the world was passing, and held the audience entranced for over an hour. In the purity of style and loftiness of interpretation the address of the Imam was an unsurpassed effort.59
Pickthall was characteristically humble as acting imam in 1919, which cemented his position in the British Muslim community. He told fellow Muslims during one of his “Friday Sermons” that, “There is no reason why I should lead your prayer to-day more than any other member of this congregation, except that I possess more Arabic than some of you, and that I have been chosen to act as your Imam during the illness of a much more worthy man”.61 But he was also bold in his mission, seizing every opportunity to emphasise and expand his thoughts regarding Muslim modernisation and revival: “The course of our Jehad is clearly indicated: first for the healing, re-uniting and uplifting of the Muslim brotherhood, so as to set a great example to the world, and secondly by that means to spread Islam throughout the world”.62
The Interwar Years
When Sadr-ud-Din assumed responsibility for the wmm in August 1919, Pickthall continued to visit the London Muslim Prayer House and, occasionally, Woking mosque, but he was free to concentrate on his campaigning for Turkey. Encouraged by Pickthall’s leadership and freed by wartime censorship, a few more British Muslims connected with the wmm were drawn to the Turkish cause in 1919 than had been the case during the war. Pickthall had shown them that the peace negotiations involved the future of the (Ottoman) caliphate, which was integral to the umma and therefore deeply affected all Muslims. For its part, the British government and press sought to convince the millions of Muslims within the Empire that they were not duty-bound to owe allegiance to the Ottoman caliphate. However, following a massacre of peaceful protestors campaigning against the Raj by British soldiers in Amritsar in April 1919, the Khilafat Movement (1919–24) was established to maintain the authority of the caliph at Constantinople and Muslim control of the holy places of Islam, and also end British rule in India. In October 1919, “a large congregation” assembled at the London Muslim Prayer House on the day appointed by the All-India Muslim Conference in Lucknow the previous month, to pray for the preservation of the Ottoman sultan-caliph, or “Khalifa”.63 Chairing the subsequent meeting, Pickthall passionately argued that attempts by Christians to persuade Muslims that the caliphate should be hereditary in Muhammad’s family (that is, pass to a leader more suitable from the Western point of view) were uncalled for, and “roused very angry feelings in the Muslim world […]. The question of the Khilafat is no concern of Christians any more than it is the concern of Muslims to decide who shall be Pope of Rome. The Muslim world as a whole accepts the Ottoman Sultan as its Khalifah with enthusiasm and impassioned sympathy”.64 Encouraged by two pan-Islamists, Mushir Hussain Kidwai (1878–1937) and the Central Islamic Society President, Mirza Hashim Ispahani, Pickthall formed the “Islamic Information Bureau”, to collect and circulate up-to-date, “true information about Turkey and other Muslim matters”. Pickthall secured the support of Sheldrake as Assistant Secretary, and Cobbold donated a generous £50 towards publication costs for the Bureau’s pro-Turkish bulletin, Muslim Outlook, which Pickthall edited.65
Notably, both during and after the war, Pickthall failed to persuade the influential Lord Headley to campaign for Turkey. Headley was a staunchly
But, to the surprise of many British Muslims, by the time the article was published at the end of the year, Pickthall had left England for India. Disillusioned with the Peace Conference and desperately in need of regular paid work, he had accepted editorship of the nationalist newspaper, the Bombay Chronicle.
I am particularly anxious that we, the little band of Muslims of pure English birth, should make a true observance of this fast. I know that it is very hard for those who have never done it to fast the whole of the appointed time in the long summer days. […] I am speaking, of course, of those who are free agents. To those who have to work all day and journey to their work, whose life is dependent on the life of those who are not Muslim, I have no right to speak. They know what they can do. But I beg them to do all that is in their power to obey our Lord’s command on this
occasion, and, at any rate, to manage somehow to say the full number of their prayers each day, and to remember in their prayers the Muslim Empire.71
Émigré and Twilight Years
Although he was absent from Britain for long spells, Pickthall was not forgotten: his old friend, Arthur Field, chose Pickthall’s recently-published novel, The Early Hours, as the first book in a series of reviews for the Islamic Review in 1921.75 Some British Muslims certainly read his novels: Cobbold had copies
the [Indian] administration has been conductive to peace and commercial prosperity. Most of the Indian Muslims with whom I am acquainted realise that without such a rule there would speedily ensue a condition of internal strife and disorder. […] Mistakes there may have been, but where, in the whole of this world of inequalities and enigmas, can we point to a condition of affairs which is independent of, or above, human error? […] At present let us be thankful that we belong to a great Empire of which we have no reason to feel in any way ashamed.74
Pickthall contributed occasional articles to the Islamic Review from India until 1925, when his last, “The Essential Fact of Revelation”, an essay on the authenticity and reasoning of the Quran, was published.83 It is unsurprising that Pickthall’s contributions ended at this point: after leaving the Bombay Chronicle in 1924, he moved to Hyderabad, where he eventually completed an English edition of the Quran and became editor of the monthly Islamic Culture, a scholarly journal produced under the Nizam’s patronage. It was as a friend and editor that Cobbold sent him a copy of her new book, Pilgrimage to Mecca – an account of her 1933 hajj – upon its publication in 1934. Curiously, whilst Cobbold quoted from Pickthall’s The Cultural Side of Islam (on the equality of Islam and his criticism of the system of purdah84), she did not reference his edition of the Quran, published in 1930. It is notable that, due to the nature of the surviving sources for the British Muslim community, which are generally missionary-focused, there are no documented critical responses from within to Pickthall the man or his work for Islam (his lectures, sermons, essays). One observation, not necessarily implying criticism, is that Cobbold was rare amongst the many contemporaries who wrote about Islam in the Islamic Review to quote Pickthall in their writings. David/Dawud Cowan, who converted at Woking in 1931 at the age of sixteen, went on to become a distinguished Arabic scholar. Reflecting on Pickthall late in life, he admitted that Pickthall’s edition of the Quran was “a good translation, but all translations are faulty”.85
Pickthall returned to England in spring 1935, settling in Cornwall. In May, he went to London to “spend the day” with Cobbold, but declined to accompany
[Cobbold] has given us a vivid description of the Harem […]. There follows an excellent, because sympathetic, description of the occupations of the ladies in a Meccan household of the upper class, and of various excursions. […] [S]he has […], incidentally, given a clear general idea of Islam and Muslim history; but it is the little intimate remarks in her diary which give the book such lively human interest, revealing as they do a truly Muslim spirit of goodwill toward every nation of the earth and every class of person.91
It seems odd that, for such an influential and trusted figure, Pickthall’s death warranted just three pages in the Islamic Review for August 1936.95 This might be partly attributed to the fact that Pickthall was physically absent from Britain during most of the final fifteen years of his life. Moreover, his death followed those of other key members of the Woking community – what may be termed the “old guard” – in the early 1930s: Quilliam/Léon died in 1932, Kamal-ud-Din in 1933 and Headley in 1935. Parkinson had died in 1918 and, as we have seen, Sheldrake left the wmm in the 1920s. His other good friend, Cobbold, wrote occasional books but was not a contributor to the Islamic Review, and his brother, Rudolf, made his last contribution to the Islamic Review in 1933 (ironically, an obituary of Kamal-ud-Din).96
Alas, there appear to be no published tributes to Pickthall from British Muslim converts, but it is clear that he was considered and widely embraced within the community as a respected thinker, tutor and mentor. As E.E. Speight (a non-Muslim) wrote shortly after Pickthall’s death, “He went through life as
AnsariHumayun ed. The Making of the East London Mosque 1910–1951: Minutes of the London Mosque Fund and East London Mosque Trust Ltd. Camden Fifth Series Vol. 38Cambridge: Cambridge University Press/Royal Historical Society2011.
FaceyWilliam and TaylorMiranda. “Introduction: From Mayfair to Mecca – The Life of Lady Evelyn Cobbold” in Lady EvelynCobboldPilgrimage to Mecca. London: Arabian Publishing New Edition20081–80.
PickthallMuhammad Marmaduke. “The Essential Fact of Revelation. The Holy Qur-an: A Book for Humanity” The Islamic Review134–5 (1925) 140–5.
Archives and Other Sources
Author’s Interview with David Cowan London 21 October 2002.
East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre Archive Collections East London Mosque Trust Papers.
Private Collection Lady Evelyn Cobbold Papers.
Somerset Archive and Record Service Aubrey Herbert Papers.
The National Archives Foreign Office Records.