If the East became the great love of Pickthall’s life from the moment he set foot on Egyptian soil in 1894, it wasn’t until the outbreak of the Ottoman constitutional revolution in 1908 that this love took on an intense political focus. In this essay I intend to distinguish the factors that differentiate Pickthall’s early travels in Egypt-Syria-Palestine, the key experience behind his subsequent fictional representation of Arabs, from the impulse that led to a decade or more of political and religious struggle on behalf of Ottoman Turkey. Turning points in Pickthall’s love affair with the East, other than the two just mentioned, included the success of his first oriental novel, Saïd the Fisherman (1903); his public declaration of Islam in 1917; and the defeat of Turkey and fall of the Young Turks in 1918. If, as Peter Clark argued, writings such as The Valley of the Kings and Oriental Encounters demonstrate Pickthall’s awareness of a nascent Arab nationalism,1 The Early Hours, his retrospective novelistic paean to the cause of the Young Turk revolution which did not appear until 1921, re-creates his belief in the destiny of the Turks to bring about a renovation of Islam. This chapter sets out to demonstrate not so much Pickthall’s passionate engagement with and anger and bitterness at the eventual defeat of the Young Turks and their project for Turkey – the entire range of his articles in New Age amply demonstrate that – as the manner in which his early immersion in Arab and Islamic subjects in his fiction gave way to the creation of a discourse almost wholly centred on Ottoman Turkey’s aspiration toward taking its place in modern civilisation underscored by a renewed Islam. It is necessary to consider the journalistic writings, beginning in 1911, to appreciate how the imaginative inspiration of Arabia and Arabian Islam eventually ceded to near obsessive identification with the religio-political fate of Ottoman Turkey.
Before looking in more detail at the changing stances Pickthall adopted toward Ottoman Arabs and Turks, I want to advert briefly to earlier, Victorian valorisations of Arabia and Turkey, specifically as these relate to the penetration of the modern (Western) world into the East. Though it would be difficult to discuss these outside of the terms set out by Edward Said in Orientalism, most are aware that the thesis of this work has been quite considerably revised
With Pickthall, one of the enigmas to emerge from his individual engagement with the East is the apparent aporia contained in the epithet Aubrey Herbert gave to him – “loyal enemy”.4 If we apply that conundrum to Pickthall’s ambiguous engagement with British foreign policy, we see how in one context – the imperial imposition over Arabic-speaking Egyptians – it is endorsed, and in another – its calculated non-intervention on behalf of the Ottoman Empire in 1908, and from 1914–1921 active pursual of that empire’s demolition – it is denounced. As regards Egypt, “Pickthall combined a respect for Cromer’s firm rule with a disdain for the slogans of the Nationalists”. Over the punishment of the villagers of Denshawai in 1907 his stance “coincided with that of the more imperially-minded British officials of Cairo”.5Children of the Nile published
An Ardent Hope: Progressive Islam in Turkey
Our main sources for Pickthall’s engagement with Islam in Turkey are With the Turk in Wartime, the political diary he composed during his visit to Istanbul in the early months of 1913;9 the letters he wrote home to his wife Muriel during the same period, and the articles he published in the periodicals New Age and The Nineteenth Century and After. Much of this material propagandises on behalf of Turkey against the Balkan nations and their supporters in Britain in a manner already passionately set out in the 1912 pieces “The Black Crusade”.10With the Turk discloses the rapid process by which Pickthall embraced a faith in the cause of the Young Turks or to be more precise that of the Committee of Union and Progress (cup), and came to identify this almost completely with Islam itself. To properly focus his adherence to the Young Turks’ brand of Islam we need to scrutinise his involvement with a wider process by which politics and religion were welded together by the watchwords “modern”, “progress”, and “freedom” bequeathed by the Young Ottomans to the makers of the
Pickthall endorsed the message cementing Ottomanism, Islam and progress together, in his description of another tutor in Turkish, a young mullah to whom he gave the epithet “Modern Khôja”.15 Like him Pickthall believed Islam and Ottoman patriotism to be instrumental in creating “a nation out of diverse elements […] a work of education which requires at least a generation to bear any fruit”.16 Also like the khôja, Pickthall had by then come to subscribe to the
Indeed, there has always been a number of devout Mohammedans who regard an unbridled despotism as of nature irreligious and disastrous to Islam. Learned doctors of Islam had a large hand in drawing up Midhat Pasha’s Constitution, and the theological students in the capital were its fierce supporters. It is, therefore, a mistake to speak of El-Islam as unprogressive save by force of circumstances.14
However, owing in part to his coming from outside and his immersion within the excitement of the moment, the Englishman’s assessment of the cup has an unnuanced look to us today. For example, General Mahmut Şevket Pasha (1856–1913), commander of the Third Army in Macedonia that quashed the counter-revolution in 1909 and who headed the cabinet for the next three years, was someone Pickthall hero-worshipped. Şevket, who led his government from the front with cup ministers like Talaat Pasha (1874–1921) taking a back seat, was assassinated in June 1913 in an attempted coup. Pickthall had personally received chilling advance notice of this but was apparently unaware that the General distrusted and scorned the cup.20 We can understand Pickthall taking up an opposite stance in face of the forces that assailed the cup – the Western press and internal enemies like the Liberals. But what of the slogan of the Muhammadan Union, the group consisting mainly of conservative Muslim students, which demonstrated against the “godless, atheistic Unionists” during the attempted counter-revolution?21 Was his attribution of strong Islamic credentials to the cup grounded in reality? In practical terms, that is in relation to an English Tory who at the time styled himself as “an Englishman devoted to the cause of Moslem progress”,22 and who up to his death held to a Disraelian formula that Britain was the “mentor of the Islamic world, […] foster[ing] and assist[ing] its revival, using Turkey as interpreter and intermediary”,23 the question is largely academic.
There is no evidence, however, to suggest any of this influenced Pickthall’s espousal of the cup’s programme as one of Ottomanism and modernisation, although he must have had some appreciation of the ground of the early twentieth-century politics of Turkey. A discourse conjoining progressive political ideals and Islamic belief had operated among Young Ottoman thinkers from the time of Namık Kemal (1840–1888), whose poetry in particular famously invoked hurriyet, “freedom”, and whose prose was instrumental in forming the debate over Islam’s endorsement of the constitutional state.28 How conversant Pickthall actually was with the tumult of ideas surrounding
The one exception as far as Pickthall’s engagement with cup thinkers is concerned is Mehmet Saïd Halim Pasha (1865–1921), great grandson of Mehmet Ali Pasha, Governor and later Khedive of Egypt. Pickthall met him while in Istanbul soon after which he became grand vizier, a position he held until 1917. However Said Halim’s influence as a thinker did not impact on Pickthall until later.31 By then the Young Turks had been defeated and Ottomanism was on the way to being proscribed in Atatürk’s republic. However, being an Egyptian Saïd Halim had no interest in Turkism and had ceased to hold personal credence in Ottomanism after the outbreak of the Balkan Wars. At that moment the cup’s ideological orientation also changed: “it tried to make Turkism the formal ideology of the state while still upholding Ottomanism and Islamism, and from that point on, the relationship among the three identities of modern Turks has been subject to debate”.32 It is as an Islamist that Saïd Halim’s ideas later held appeal for Pickthall. He would in time distance himself from the Young Turks. In his 1927 articles titled “Islamic Culture”, he delimited the role of Turkey in
Speaking to an audience largely comprised of Indian Muslims – a community which had long held the Ottoman Empire in high esteem – the passage encapsulates Pictkhall’s attachment to the cup and his own brand of Ottomanism which for him at the time had embodied the hopes of Islam. Talaat, who he had met in Istanbul in 1913, was part of the cup triumvirate which ruled Turkey during the Great War and according to some was a key mover of the Armenian genocide. Here he is presented as a hero engaged in a struggle for Islam. It would be pointless to question the extent of Talaat’s religious belief, let alone attempt to assess his heroic status. For Pickthall these were incorporated into his personal faith.
[He] was a great friend of mine […] There was a memorial meeting for him in the old cemetery in the Muslim quarter, at which I presided and had to address more than ten thousand people. I tried to tell them what a brave man Talaat was, and how […] such a death, while working for the cause of Islam […] was really a most glorious martyrdom.34
When he revived the figure of Marmaduke Pickthall in his landmark biography thirty years ago, Peter Clark referred to the conundrum of his subject’s endorsement of British imperialism in Egypt, his support for Turkey’s revolution and his consequent disaffection with his own government when he felt Britain’s foreign policies worked against it. In a chapter written some years ago, trying to account for this apparently strange doubling I wrote of Pickthall’s “curious
Whether coded in secular or Islamic terms, Ottoman reformers acknowledge the subject position of the empire as the “sick man of Europe” only to […] articulate an Ottoman modernity: a state and civilization technologically equal to and temporally coeval with the West but culturally distinct from and politically independent of it. This ambivalent relationship with the West was mirrored by an equally ambivalent relationship between Ottoman rulers and subjects […] [who] they saw as fellow victims of European intrigue and imperialism [yet] at the same time […] regarded […] as backward and as not-yet-Ottoman, as hindrances as well as objects of imperial reform.38
Makdisi argues “the nineteenth century saw a fundamental shift from [an] earlier imperial paradigm [the supposedly stable Ottoman imperial system] into an imperial view suffused with nationalist modernization […] an advanced imperial center reformed and disciplined backward peripheries of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. This led to the birth of Ottoman Orientalism”.39 Deringal demonstrated how “[d]uring the reign of Abdul Hamid ii there occurred a self-conscious attempt on the part of the Ottoman bureaucrat/intellectuals to recharge and redefine basic Islamic institutions, namely the Şeriat and the caliphate as the basis for a new Imperial/national identity”.40 The Ottoman ruling elite “subsumed a discourse of Islam within the imperative of Ottoman modernization”.41
These points are significant when considering the demarcation I have already made regarding Pickthall’s promotion of a progressive type of Orientalism in comparison with the static kind favoured by other “pro-oriental” travellers. It would be fair to say that very few westerners valorised the modernisation process put into place by successive late Ottoman rulers either in terms of the sincerity with which it was implemented or its viability for success. Fewer still understood the significance of the dimension of Islamic modernism given the currency of Western Orientalist ideas denigrating Islam as backward and beyond reform. Yet these are the areas where the educated reader of With the Turk can see Pickthall’s Ottomanism confirmed. In whichever way he
To speak of Pickthall adopting an Ottoman Orientalist discourse would require observing him defending the Ottoman Empire’s progress toward modernity against Western Orientalism’s claims that it was incapable of applying reforms of an effective kind. Then, moving to relations within the empire, it would be apparent that he adjudged the Ottoman bureaucracy as proactive in reforming those peoples of the empire deemed in need of reform. Such a formulation however is mainly applicable to his journalism on behalf of Ottoman Turkey; it is less relevant to his largely fictional representations of Egypt-Syria-Palestine and their Arab populations. It features mainly in the articles he wrote asserting the significance of Ottomanism as a unifying force among Muslims; later in his lecturers titled “Islamic Culture” delivered in India this approach softened.
As regards the non-journalistic writing, outside of the entirely Young Turk framing of The Early Hours, which is his last published novel, and to some extent House of War, Turkish characters do not feature centrally within Pickthall’s oriental fiction. This is not so surprising given that the setting is almost entirely Arabic-speaking lands (Egypt, greater Syria and Yemen). Furthermore, it might be argued these works are predominantly concerned with juxtaposition of mainly pre-modern Middle Eastern societies with modernising trends introduced by the Frank. This is a largely two-way process and the setting is one that involves encounter between indigenous, mainly Arab characters – Christian and Muslim – and Europeans, mainly British. The Ottoman dimension is mostly absent, and Pickthall is not much concerned with a tripartite division that includes the Turk. For that reason it is difficult to apply Ottoman Orientalism to these works. Moreover there is an implicit refusal to project these societies as exotic or as stagnant. Indeed there is a positive dimension in which his intent is to validate and defend the people who populate the novels against Orientalist Frankish arrogance and charges of deceit, backwardness and imperviousness to reform.
Pickthall wrote in 1913: “It had been my lot in early youth to be immersed in the unconsciousness of the old East, to receive its spirit for a season and to know its charm”.42 As well as in the fiction this position particularly comes across in Oriental Encounters – a text we should remember was written towards
The passage embeds a point of view not inconsistent with the political articles which largely predate it. In these too, Arabs can be celebrated but they are also placed under Turkish governance. British machinations towards unravelling this state of affairs – replacing the Ottoman Empire with Arab self-government under British tutelage – are roundly condemned. Pickthall’s strong endorsement of Ottoman aspirations toward modernization contrast with the Western Orientalism of Turkophiles such as Mark Sykes;45 this position also
The Turks, as a white race, have a natural precedence over the many white races of the Muslim world […] That the Turks are capable of understanding Europe more than any other race of Muslims is deserving of remembrance […] If progressive Turkey must be crushed, as Europe says, then one day Europe will behold an Arab Empire, with little of the toleration and good temper of the Turks. Much as I love the Arabs and respect their many virtues, I recognize a difference in their mentality, which makes it most desirable, from Europe’s standpoint, that the Turks should long remain the leaders of the Muslim world.49
Positions cognate to Ottoman Orientalism were affirmed strongly by Pickthall when the chips were down: that is immediately before and during the Great War when the struggle was directly about the survival of the cup and the disloyalty of those Arabs who were swayed by British gold and blandishments to raise the “Arab Revolt”. In India twenty years later reviewing Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Pickthall looked back with barely concealed contempt at the British colonel’s putative project to create the “Great Arab Empire”.51 Otherwise it is fair to say on Pickthall’s behalf that he rarely descended to the caricature of Easterners necessarily encoded in whatever brand of Orientalism was being employed. Still, in his rejection of Western Orientalism as applied to Ottomanism, and in his insistence on Ottoman Turkey’s membership of the community of modern, civilised nations, together with his assertion of the Turks’ superior skills of governance over the non-white peoples in the empire, his position runs close to Ottoman Orientalism. It may be that the component of Islam, which Pickthall needless to say took very seriously, held him back from caricaturing his fellow Muslims, in this case Arab ones. Some in the cup whose Islamism he tended to take at face value might not always have risen to the same standards.52 By the time he arrived in Hyderabad and took up the editorship of Islamic Culture, we could say Pickthall’s Ottoman Orientalism had become softened, if not transmuted. The Young Turk episode was now a matter of the past, and the direction Turkey had begun to follow – as we shall see below – gave no immediate hope that the modernising Islamising trends he associated with Ottomanism would come back anytime soon.
Post- Ottoman Turkey: The Revival of Islam
The fruit of the cross-fertilisation between the reformist positions Pickthall adopted via his interface with Turkey and his new experience in India is to be viewed in the two articles “Islamic Culture” and “Islamic Culture: Causes of its Rise and Decline” based on the Madras lectures he gave in 1925. These should also be viewed with a companion article titled “Muslim Education”. Together they are perhaps the clearest epitome of Pickthall’s post-Orientalism, in which he consigns to history the “old, beautiful, decaying fabric” which he had observed as a young man, and which many Muslims still regarded as Islam itself (“deeming it impious to […] renovate or improve it”). Gently, though firmly, he gives the lie to Cromer’s adage “if Islam were modernised it would cease to be Islam”.53 The hope of Islamic revival rested in obtaining a true vision of Islam as of the present, and this was achievable only through Muslim education. Together these articles are all the more remarkable for their projection of an optimistic, almost utopian vision of Islam’s power and potential. “Islam is a religion which specifically aims at human progress”; it “foresees, and works for, a radiant future for the human race”; it promises success in this world if its laws are followed and applied but “not the success of one human being at the expense of others, nor of one nation to the despair of others, but the success of mankind as a whole”.54 Revisiting the great medieval period of Muslim scientific and mathematical inquiry Pickthall also gives renewed flourish to the modernist axiom that Islam can only be in accord with reason and science. The rationality of Islam’s teachings is contrasted – a ploy already adopted by Syed Ameer Ali (a contributor to the periodical) and Abdullah Quilliam (also a contributor in his incarnation of Haroun Mustafa Léon) – with the irrationality of Christian dogma, and deemed in accordance with modern thought. “Are the two things, the living faith in God and the large measure of free thought, incompatible? A considerable school of thought in the West seems to think that they are incompatible. Islam has proved that they are perfectly compatible”. This was evidenced “in the early, successful centuries of Islam” when “nothing upon earth [was considered] so sacred as to be immune from criticism”. God “had bestowed on man the gift of reason […] to be used quite freely in the name of Allah”.55
Pickthall clearly follows the substance of this thinking when he writes:
If the Shari‘at deserves absolute respect and submission, it is because it contains the Divine Truth as applied to the organization of society – truth precious above all because it alone is able to give social happiness, and because, to be known, it required a Prophet to reveal it.59
The injunctions of the Quran and the Prophet are laws for all mankind – natural laws which men transgress at their peril […]It was because those laws could not be found out by individual experiment, and could only partly be detected in the long run of history by a student and a thinker here and there, that they required to be revealed by a Prophet. Otherwise they are as natural as the physical laws, which govern our existence evidently and which no one would dream of disputing.60
Epilogue: Pickthall on Atatürk and Kemalism
We left Pickthall transferred to a new theatre of activism mourning the death of cup leader Talaat. The episode in which his Indian and Turkish affiliations coalesced by his acting as envoy in the marriage that joined the House of Osman with that of the Nizam of Hyderabad is vividly evoked in M.A. Sherif’s chapter in this volume. Pickthall’s tracking of Turkey’s development after the establishment of the Republic (December 1923) can be followed in review articles he wrote for Islamic Culture. These disclose a muted, outwardly neutral acknowledgment of the new path his former idée fixe was being taken along by an authoritarian nationalist and militantly secular regime. Surprisingly, perhaps, traces of the old enthusiasm for Turkey’s modernisation programme remain, tempered by unavoidable reference to its accompanying secularism. His acknowledgment of the insertion of nationalism and race into an erstwhile Muslim society, tempered by his fear of Bolshevism, also features in the articles. Pickthall, as Anne Fremantle pointed out, was wary of the emergence of Soviet Russia but he realised that in some respects this influence had been beneficial
Pickthall’s late view of the Turkish Republic is expressed in “The Turkish Experiment”, published in the year of his death, 1936. He sees the new republic as a response to the defeat of 1918, paralleled by the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia, opining that the “strong nationalistic position was forced on
Written at the moment when an iron curtain was made to descend between modern Turkey and its Ottoman past, Pickthall’s articles demonstrate a nuance we said was missing from his earlier, pro-Young Turk writing. At a remove from the white heat of cup activity, he was astute enough not to allow his love for Islam to obscure his awareness of the practical achievements of Kemalism, endorsing Atatürk’s construction of a strong, modernised, unified state as a continuation of the project begun by the Young Turks. This political goal Pickthall respected, even if it was decoupled from the religious aims that had been so integral to his dream for Turkey. The reviews in Islamic Culture that touch upon Kemalism are mature and considered. The years of struggle against Britain have been ingested, and anyway, Pickthall signed a pledge of political non-involvement when he took up his employment in Hyderabad. In the background to his remarks on Turkey, however, is his contemptuous rejection of Britain’s Hashemite project in the Arab mashreq. There is no doubt Pickthall retained a strong regard for Turkey. He couldn’t share the regime’s Turkism because for him Islam was still paramount, though he recognised the value of national feeling. Where Turkey is concerned, did he leave a political legacy? One cannot help feeling he would have been pleased to see the relatively recent revival of interest in Turkey’s Ottoman past, and rejection of the previous “narrowly focused Turkish ethnic nationalism”.67 As a man of modern religious faith, we could also see him looking favourably on the emergence (or some have argued, re-emergence) of a democratic, liberal Turkish Islam of the kind that “flourished in the late Ottoman Empire, but […] waned with the destruction of the empire and the colonization of Muslim lands”.68 Even if optimism for this now seems to be once again on the wane.