It is possibly because I care so much about the British Empire in the East, and from the circumstances of my life can see things from the Muslim point of view…I realised the terrible effect which such a policy [the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and its allies], executed at the moment when the Turks sincerely aimed at progress, could have upon my Oriental fellow-subjects. And in my small way I have been trying to make England realise it.1
Pickthall’s journey to Islam was less to do with theological contentions within his original Protestant Christian faith, and more to do with the rise in anti-Ottomanism, a self-asserted British imperialism and the future of Europe and the Islamic world. This chapter explores the political motivations behind Pickthall’s very public conversion to Islam and explores how such dissenters were seen, and “placed”, in early-twentieth century, Imperial Britain. Pickthall was an odd rarity amongst his peers and fellow writers in that he appears not to have been motivated by the exoticism of the oriental “other”, so often a feature of British high-imperial writings on the subject. Rather, he seems to have been spiritually and existentially drawn to the cultures and religion of the region. His novels bear much of the ethnographer about them, rich and informed in their intimate details of everyday, ordinary life in early-twentieth century Arabia. Peter Clark, Pickthall’s most detailed biographer, has said that what was unique about him amongst his contemporaries was his empathetic and well-informed writing coupled with his Muslim faith, which produced a “mature and accomplished author writing the English Islamic novel”.2
Pickthall was born in London, on 7 April 1875, into a middle-class family of Anglican clerics on his father’s side. His urbane, comfortable religious family fully bought into the supremacy of British imperial, Church and State hegemony. Whilst both Pickthall’s father and grandfather were Anglican vicars and a number of his step-sisters were nuns, he appears to have become increasingly
In Egypt Pickthall developed a paradoxical admiration for British imperial-rule which he found distinctly manifest in Cromer, who had been British Consul General for twenty years. Pickthall was staunchly in favour of British-rule in Egypt, believing that their presence had brought both order and tolerance to the country, two important facets he felt were sadly lacking elsewhere in the Middle East. His views ran contrary to the increasing nationalist sentiments of the Egyptian people, as did his conviction that the Ottoman Empire be more closely associated with British rule as a means of both reducing the power of the Egyptian Khedive and enamouring ordinary Egyptians towards their British colonial occupiers.4 But as events in the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina witnessed Austria’s annexation, shortly after the Young Turk revolution in Turkey, Pickthall became evermore empathetic towards the rapidly westernising Ottoman Empire and increasingly more frustrated at Britain and Europe’s betrayal of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin.
As Pickthall developed his academic writing in parallel with his increasingly popular fictional works, his pro-Ottoman affiliations became evermore focused and publicly committed along with other Turkophile contemporaries such as, shaykh al-Islam, Abdullah William Henry Quilliam, Robert “Rachid” Stanley, an outspoken Turcophile and anti-Armenian activist who was twice Lord Mayor of Stalybridge, Greater Manchester, and Lady Evelyn “Zeinab” Cobbold, who tried to convince Pickthall to accept Islam during one of their luncheon dates at Claridges, in 1914.5 A year before he wrote With the Turk in Wartime in which he furiously berated the British press and public for its blind fanaticism in responding to “the call of a crusade against the Turk” at which he retorted “the solidarity of Christendom against a Muslim power was reckoned a fine thing by many people, but it broke the heart of Englishmen who loved the East”.6 His informed articulations on political affairs in Ottoman Turkey
Pickthall contributed a number of articles covering events in Egypt, Palestine, Turkey and the Balkans. His dissenting voice and pro-Ottoman discourse was continuously published throughout the First World War, displaying an, at the time, astonishing tolerance by the British government who withheld any censorship of such, then, contentious sentiments. Whilst the groundwork for the First World War was being prepared in Britain and Europe, Pickthall’s own political convictions became further polarised by the rise of anti-Muslim propaganda primarily legitimised by the Anglican (State) Church, which demonised the Ottoman Empire as “satanic” for its assumed suppression of eastern European, Christian dhimma (religious minority) within its dominions. In response to this stark Islamophobia, the New Age Press printed a series of articles by Pickthall collectively titled, “The Black Crusade”, in which he spelt out the case for increased British-Ottoman alliances. His main arguments centred round the Turks’ continued compliance with the Treaty of Berlin (1878), despite Austria’s colonisation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy’s invasion of Tripoli and the Balkan Christian states invading European Turkey.7 He also argued that the progressive revolution of the Young Turk movement towards the establishment of a modern, secular nation-state based on a European model was a clear indication that Turkey did not represent a threat to Britain or Europe, to which it aspired to belong. In an effort to develop a greater informed view of the impending hostilities against the Turks, in 1913 Pickthall decided to visit Turkey on a fact finding mission.
Sherif asserts that it was only after his return from Turkey that Pickthall joined the Freemasons’ Misercadia Lodge, “at the invitation of Dr Rosedale, DD”, as a means of belonging to a fraternity that “at the time provided a fellowship that overcame barriers of race and class”.8 However, for someone of Pickthall’s middle-class background, becoming a Freemason would be an expectation as well as a means of forging important economic, political and social links and acquaintances that would facilitate any number of often-needed aid and assistance. Pickthall’s views regarding imperialism and colonialism appear to be universally consistent in that, for him, both the British and Ottoman Empires were forces for global good and, again, in his considered opinion both should have allied economically, militarily and politically
The first is the so-called Denshawi incident which happened under British colonial rule in Egypt in June 1906. A small group of colonial officers decided to undertake a pigeon shoot near the rural village of Denshawi. One of the British officers soon became embroiled in a dispute with local pigeon breeders, possibly over an agreed price for shooting the birds or, perhaps, for doing so without the breeders’ consent. In the subsequent furore, a local Egyptian woman and four Arab men were peppered with shotgun pellets. The village fellahin responded with sticks and batons and in the milieu one British officer, Captain Bull, escaped to get help but is alleged to have subsequently died of sunstroke. When another local Egyptian tried to assist the ailing officer, the other British officers assumed that Bull had been murdered by the local. The officers in turn beat the man to death. Ironically, no British officers were charged with the man’s murder but, however, four further local Egyptian men were hanged and other “offenders” were either lashed or jailed. Both Clark and Sherif agree that Pickthall’s reaction to the British handling of the Denshawi incident was stock imperialist but he was overly harsh in his endorsement of the imperial justice handed out to the pigeon breeders, arguing that the punishment was even handed and that pigeon breeders were the most contemptible and turbulent amongst Egyptian villagers.9
In an earlier article he described the Armenians as a “race of traitors, liars, utterly devoid of shame or honour…to kill them is as good a deed as to kill scorpions. They defile the globe. It is not a pleasant thing to write, but it is true”.11
In the early spring of 1909, the arrogant and war-like attitude of the Armenian Revolutionaries in the vilayet [province] of Adana and a discovery of bombs enraged the Muslim population and made them listen
to the preaching of reactionary agents, who failed in every other province of the empire to provoke disorders. The result was a panic struggle ending in massacre.10
Pickthall was adamant that Ottoman religious minorities were privileged in comparison with other, ordinary Muslim subjects, believing that European powers were encouraging the Armenians to revolt as means of weakening the might of the Ottomans. He noted that Europeans were never in danger from the Turks but, rather, that, “rumours current in the West are due to the reports of Armenians, Greeks and other Levantines”.12 In 1914, Pickthall wrote, “a fine race is being hounded to its death by Europe because it is too proud to plead, and cannot beg”.13 Clark asserts that Pickthall was “never fair” to Ottoman Christians, whom he says, appeared to be “arrogant, insinuating and self-deluding”.14 For Pickthall it appears that a post-reformist, re-particularised Turkey was the only way forward for the Muslim umma. In a letter to his wife written during his fact finding visit to Turkey, he stated, “Turkey is the present head of a progressive movement extending throughout Asia and North Africa. She is also the one hope for the Islamic world”.15 Like the progressive ‘ulema, Pickthall saw no conflict between modernisation and Islam, believing instead that Turks should embrace their Islamic heritage rather than sheepishly imitate their European counterparts.
Upon his return to England, Pickthall’s highly politicised and pro-Turkish views became evermore vocal both through his writings and activities. In 1914, he became a founder and active official of the Anglo-Ottoman Society (aos) which included a number of British establishment luminaries such as former British Ambassador to Constantinople, Sir Louis Mallet, Conservative mp, Aubrey Herbert, Cambridge Professor, E.G. Browne and shaykh al-Islam,
Dusé, the son of an Egyptian army officer and Sudanese mother, spent most of the early part of his life in Britain and after a distinguished career as an actor, touring with companies across Britain and America, he became an accomplished author and publisher. His book, In the Land of the Pharaohs (1911), launched his writing career and political activism and he went on to found the African Times and Orient Review (1912–1920) and the aos, in 1914. Pickthall had strong associations with both Dusé’s journal and the aos, however, whilst Dusé and Pickthall agreed on Ottoman imperial supremacy as a Pan-Islamist vision for the Muslim world, they must have disagreed over Egypt. Pickthall believed that British colonial rule of Egypt was a force for good but, Dusé was an avid supporter of Mustafa Kemal Pasha and Sa’ad Zaghloul’s Egyptian nationalist, Wafd Party.19 Abdulwahid claims that Dusé’s book “is a fervent declaration in favor of the Egyptian nationalist movement and advocates liberation of Egypt from British occupation”,20 something Pickthall was clearly opposed to. Yet, Dusé and Pickthall appear to have worked closely together, with Dusé becoming vice-president of the cis, in 1913.21 Duse’s contribution
When the war broke out in November 1914, a month later the offices of the cis and aos were raided by the police after a tip-off from MI5.23 Around the same time Pickthall was suspected of being an enemy agent stemming from the time of his return from Turkey just before the war. Pickthall’s Turcophile activities soon brought him personally within the radars of both a Foreign Office official, Sir Maurice de Bunsen, and the architect of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Sir Mark Sykes, the former saying Pickthall should be interned as an enemy alien and the latter responding to Pickthall’s peace initiatives as something that “speak[s] in a distinctly hostile tone of your own government”.24 Refusing to be intimidated, the author continued relentlessly to push his pro-Turkish agenda and campaign for peace between Britain and the Ottomans. Ironically, in the last months of the war he was called up for military service and became a private, and eventually corporal, in the 17th Hampshires, where he was stationed at Southwold in his beloved Suffolk County.25 Another seemingly contradiction was his support of the Young Turks’ reformist movement via his association with the Committee of Union and Progress (cup), which ousted the Ottoman Sultan, and his staunch defence for a continued Ottoman Empire, forcing Clark to conclude, “[H]is short-term specific expectations were woefully fallible, but he was sounder in long-term assessments”.26 Pickthall appears to have resolved his dichotomous support for modernising reforms in Turkey whilst at the same time arguing for the continued integrity of the
Sherif states that Pickthall used his masonic connections to propel his forlorn proposed peace deal between Britain and the Ottomans, and as the pro-Zionist lobby feared that peace with Turkey would derail their plans for a Jewish state in Palestine, Pickthall was considered to be an Ottoman spy and an enemy agent.29 Throughout this period Pickthall remained ever steadfast and unperturbed. The Central Islamic Society (cis), under the leadership of the Indian Muslim advocate and author, Mushir Hosain Kidwai, even appointed Pickthall as its spokesperson for “Muslim Interests on Palestine”.30 At a meeting of the cis, in June 1917, the year in which Pickthall later publicly declared his Islamic faith, he said of plans of a Jewish state in Palestine:
Our unknown rulers seem so far as I can learn to contemplate a full partition of the Turkish empire […] England will have southern Mesopotamia and probably all of the territory southwards roughly of a line drawn on the map from a point little north of Samara on the Tigris to a point a little south of Jaffa on the Coast of Palestine. The whole of the peninsula of Arabia would be included in her ‘sphere of influence’ for gradual absorption. France will have much of Syria’.28
The British intelligence services kept a close monitor on Pickthall’s activities and public addresses with one official, Ormsby-Gore, of the Foreign Office commentating on Pickthall’s assertion that the disruption of the Young Turk Empire would do injustice to the Muslim population, “this is truly an amazing statement such as we might expect from Mr Marmaduke Pickthall and similar anti-Semitic pro-Turks”.32 With regards to Pickthall’s Turcophile, anti-Zionist and Pan-Islamist writing and activities, Gilham asserts that, “as the main voice of dissent within the British Muslim community, Pickthall was considered by the authorities to be the most troublesome [Muslim] convert in this period”.33 Often seen as an “enemy to Christendom” by the British establishment, Pickthall privately realised that his endeavours to bring peace between the British and Ottoman powers was a lost cause, admitting, “the great division in Islam today is that between Progressive and Reactionary; and we are at present supporting the reactionaries, who are bound to lose in the long run”.34
Among the recent Jewish immigrants to Palestine- the Jews of the Zionist movement as distinct from the native Jews – there is an extreme and narrow fanaticism which their enlightened co-religionists in Europe hardly, I think, realise…their avowed intention is to get possession of the Rock (the so-called Mosque of Omar [al-qubbat as-sakhrah]) and the Mosque El Aksa [al-masjid al-aqsa], which is the second Holy Place of Islam – because it was the site of their Temple.31
After the war, in 1919, Pickthall was installed as imam of the Woking Mosque and as editor of the Islamic Review and lent his efforts to other leading Muslims who were arguing for the continuation of the Ottoman Empire, the destruction of which, they believed, would not be in the interests of British imperial rule and would add further troubles in Asia, and more importantly, British India.37 Pickthall’s post-war activities, operating openly as a pro-Ottoman Muslim, brought him even further under the scrutiny of the British intelligence services, who concluded that his association with the newly published, pro-Turkish bulletin, Muslim Outlook, as “to some extent anti-British”.38 Pickthall and his alleged anti-British co-conspirators where collectively termed the “Woking Mosque gang” in several internal intelligence communications. Conversely, Scotland Yard officers, who had been monitoring Pickthall’s activities for a while, asserted that, unlike his other “Bolshevik” agitators, “in all probability
[O]ne of the greatest blessing which Islam brings to an Englishman is the deliverance from this [classist] insanity…irrespective of colour, race or creed, I have just been in the British army in the ranks- pitch-forked so to speak, at forty three, among all sorts of men – and I have found this Muslim point of view a godsend, making me content, where once I should have been extremely miserable.36
It was in 1914, when Britain was finally at war with the Ottoman Empire, against the desires and expectations of Pickthall, that he finally rejected his Anglican faith and privately accepted Islam. Clark recalls a particular incident, according to Pickthall’s own memories that was another catalyst for his rejection of Christianity. It occurred during congregational worship at which Pickthall was present when a hymn by Charles Wesley declared:
In the days when I supposed myself to be a Christian it used to me to seem disgraceful that a country so enlightened as my country claims to be should allow, and, even as it seemed in some instances, encourage Christian missionaries to annoy non-Christians by their attempts to proselytise within the boundaries of the British Empire, an Empire which I had been taught to regard the home or rather the school of civil and religious liberty.40
Clark’s detailed analysis of Pickthall’s writings, both fictional and journalistic, traces the subtle shift from an empathetic, pro-Ottoman Turcophile to an openly, manifest pious Muslim preacher. During this period, Sherif writes that Pickthall was employed by the London-based Islamic Information Bureau, formerly the Islamic Defence League, which was supported by two prominent Indian Muslims; Mushir Hosein Kidwai and Haji M. Hashim Ispahani, which brought him once again under the suspicion and watchful eye of the British intelligence services. Pickthall’s Pan-Islamism was equated with the Bolshevik “People’s Russian Information Bureau” and when added to Pickthall’s other associations; The Anglo-Ottoman Society, the League of Justice for Asia and Africa and the Islamic Society, he was placed high on the list of anti-British undesirables by the British intelligence.42 According to Sherif the Islamic Information Bureau “served as the Khilafatist movement’s [London] base,
…save the souls by that imposter [Muhammad] led;
The Arab thief, as Satan bold,
Who quite destroyed thine Asian fold…41
Sadly for Pickthall and his fellow British, pro-Ottoman associates, their efforts to create a peaceful détente between the then two great superpowers, Britain and Turkey, were fruitless, if not futile. Yet, had it not been for fear of massive unrest in imperial India, Britain and its allies may well have forced the Ottomans from Istanbul.45 It is a strong possibility that after the war Pickthall came to realise that the end of the Ottoman Empire was actually a fait accompli and that his pro-Ottoman antagonism had made him a virtual persona non gratis in Britain. Whatever the exact reasons for Pickthall’s apparently sudden emigration to India, what is clear is that by 1920 Pickthall had shifted his focus and energies from trying to save the flagging and defeated Ottomans to concentrating on the emerging Khilafat Movement which was rapidly gathering a great deal of support amongst the Muslim population of colonial India. Early in 1920, a Khilafat delegation led by Mohamed Ali Jauhar arrived at the Woking Mosque and was enthusiastically received by Pickthall. The delegation’s arrival coincided with the British and allied final draft of their peace terms with Turkey.46 Juahar was also critical of the Islamic Information Bureau’s performance but there is little evidence to suggest that he either advised or encouraged Pickthall to resign from the Bureau and leave Britain for India.47
Clearly, Pickthall was nurturing the idea of British Islam and English Muslimness as a real and distinct possibility but it seems that his aspirations for a burgeoning community of Muslims within the heartland of imperial Britain were thwarted by the political realities of the First World War. Turkey’s defeat, the reformist Young Turk revolution and the post-war dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire had all added to British establishment fears of a Turcophile, Pan-Islamist, fifth column group of indigenous Muslims who posed a threat to the country’s political interests and national security. Pickthall was not the only suspected English Muslim subversive, anti-British activist. Shaykh al-Islam, Abdullah William Henry Quilliam, also a pro-Ottomanist who was decorated, along with his son, Ahmed, by the Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid ii, was a further subject of much scrutiny and monitoring by the British intelligence services. Quilliam, like Pickthall, who was an English imam of his own established Islamic Centre and community in Liverpool, also eventually fled Britain under much controversy and suspicion.51
The temptations which assail newcomers from the East at every turn are inconceivable by Europeans. But the harm done to Islam by the misconduct of a Muslim here in England is inestimable. It gives English people an utterly false idea of Islamic notions of morality.50
Pickthall remained faithful to Islam until his death, just as he was faithful to Christianity until he was torn between his religious beliefs, fidelity to imperial
AliDusé Mohamed. The Autobiography of a Pioneer Pan African and Afro-Asian Activist. Complied and introduced by Mustafa Abdulwahid. New Jersey: The Red Sea Press2011.