Loyal Enemies; British Converts to Islam, 1850-1950
by Jamie Gilham
published by Hurst & Co, London; ISBN 978-1849042758
Published in TLS, November 28 2014
Loyal Enemies is a carefully researched and fascinatingly detailed investigation of the British individuals who converted to Islam during the century-long territorial apogee of the British Empire. The hundred years between the suppression of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, for all its embedded attitudes of imperial superiority, also witnessed an intriguing succession of British-born converts to Islam. Marmaduke Pickthall, St John Philby, Lord Stanley, Sergeant Sheldrake, Lord Headley, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, and William Quilliam are the most celebrated. It might be imagined that this story would have great resonance for the two and half million Muslims who now live in the British Isles; that it encouraged a gradual evolution of Islamic practice in England and established patterns of belief, styles of thought and well-rooted institutions that still influence this fast-growing community. But this book reveals that virtually the whole experiment of Anglo-Islam proved to be a cultural cul-de-sac and led nowhere. Whilst revealing this sad truth, one of the underlying purposes of Jamie Gilham’s book is surely to reverse this, and by celebrating this pantheon of Anglo-Muslims to allow Muslims in Britain to feel part of an older indigenous tradition.
Although hereditary Lords, controversialists and writers dominate this book, the largest group of Muslim converts in Britain - and the most enduring and possibly endearing - came from the very bottom of society. These were the so-called ‘Arabs’ women’ ; poor, young white girls working in cafés and rackety boarding houses near the docks who ended up marrying a Yemeni or Somali sailor and converting to Islam. Some of these sailors died at sea, or ended up stranded in a distant foreign port, but enough remained to create distinctive communities, in Butetown at Cardiff and in South Shields. The first generation of English female converts were not expected to pray at the mosques but they often attended, sitting at the back with their knitting, and their children did become practicing Muslims, and were often encouraged to marry within the community.
A different class of love-induced conversions occurred when educated male Muslim students started attending the universities of Britain - especially after the religious bar had been removed in 1871 - and brought not just a degree, but a bride back home with them. This strand of Anglo-Islam is highly diverse and difficult to keep track of, yet in certain cases reaped rich cultural dividends such as with the Shah family, which has produced three generations of Anglo-Afghan writers, story-tellers and spiritual teachers from out of the marriage of a young Afghan medical student attending Edinburgh University.
By contrast, most of the social and intellectually prominent converts have left no genealogical trail of Muslim descendants behind them, for they either failed to have children, converted late in life (too late to influence either their partners or progeny) or were such indifferent and distracted parents that their children found it very tempting to reject both them and their religion. Numbers were also small. The three organised centres of Islamic life in turn-of-the-century Britain - the Liverpool Muslim Institute, the Woking Mosque and the London Mosque - never achieved much more than 300 signed-up followers in their heyday. And all these communities were animated by a charismatic founder-preacher whose work was often underpinned by the munificent gift of a foreign prince, such as Sultan Abdul Hamid and the Amir of Afghanistan’s brother supporting Quilliam’s work in Liverpool and the Nizam of Hyderabad supporting Pickthall. When the money ran out, or the founder-preacher left, the communities rapidly dwindled away. At first encounter, Quilliam appears to be a potential hero of British Islam, but in detail he failed. His passionate preaching of spiritual equality and of a pure faith without need of a priesthood was directly contradicted by his own autocratic example, his love of titles, secrecy, double-dealing and his urgent desire to be acknowledged as a national imam-sheikh.
The late 19th-century had some advantages for a homegrown Muslim missionary of talent, for the tiresome quarrels between rival sectarian churches had alienated many Christian believers. This faith had been further eroded by the evolutionary theories of Darwin and textual scholarship into the authorship of the Bible. There was also widespread concern about how the interlinked evils of alcohol, gambling and institutionalised usury was destroying the soul of the working man in the industrial cities, which only the Muslim faith seemed to emphatically condemn. So the most able of the British Muslim preachers were able to use such existing platforms as the Temperance Movement, the Unitarian church, Quaker meeting halls, Theosophist assemblies and Spiritualist chapels to address audiences that already shared many of their concerns. In the general climate of historical ignorance about Islam, British Muslim’s were also able to project a very sympathetic version of their faith, air-brushed of Islam’s own sectarian passions, light on absolute commitment and able to contend that Islam had always been allied to scientific discovery and free of priest-craft. So a turn-of-the-century English Muslim was free to drop in and listen, to assemble in mixed congregations (of both men and women), keep their shoes on and sit in pew-like seats. Some of their leaders even allowed for moderate drinking (Lord Headley advised just two bottles of stout a day) and most agreed that two sets of prayers a day was the most that could be fitted into the busy English working day (the others could be said in the mind, not through the body). They also accepted the fact that the major Muslim annual festivals would only be attended in force if they coincided with the British weekend.
But beneath this cosy English simplicity, the “at home” talks about faith over a pot of tea, and the public lectures on the equality, clarity and simplicity of Islamic worship, there were other older themes at play. For conversion to Islam had an older history, of both degradation and exotic self-advancement. Over the 17th and 18th century some 20,000 Britons had been captured by Barbary corsairs and worked as white slaves in the states of North Africa. Three-quarters of these ‘turned Turk’ and never came home. In direct contrast, in India a number of adventurous Britons, such as Colonel Gardner and Major James Kirkpatrick had converted to Islam, to become Muslims of the night, in order to marry their Muslim girlfriends and co-opt themselves into the Mughal aristocracy.
Jamie Gilham follows this wilful strand into the 19th century, identifying the youthful travel experiences of Evelyn Cobbold (in the Algerian Sahara), Marmaduke Pickthall (in the Levant), St John Philby (in Iraq and Arabia during the First World War) and Lord Stanley (as a young linguist in the diplomatic corps) as the defining inspiration for their subsequent conversion. These individuals were not alone but existed within the larger world of sympathetic Orientalistic scholarship that encompassed Austen Layard, Wilfrid Blunt and Gottlibe Leitner (founder of the Oriental Nobility Institute at Woking) and which could happily march beside the pro-Ottoman policy of such Tories as Palmerston. Indeed the most bitter enemy of this whole school could be summed up in one word – ‘Gladstone’. He was heartily despised for his mad distaste for the Turk “the one great anti-human specimen of humanity” and his impassioned, highly partisan and emotive championing of all their enemies, be they Bulgar, Greek or Armenian.
The turning point of this intellectual caravan was the First World War, where despite the most skillful window-dressing, sincere British Muslims such as Pickthall (the original ‘Loyal Enemy’ of the book title) found themselves torn in two as their homeland pitted itself against the Ottoman Sultan. Things only got worse when Britain behaved like a jackal at the peace talks, becoming the barbarian who dismembered the Caliphate and enabled a Zionist colony to take root in the heart of the Levant.
The massacre at Amritsar in 1919 was another signpost marking the end of the Anglo-Islam Orientalistic dream of two cultures and two Empires in alliance. Instead the Khilifat movement was born out of the blood on the streets: innately Indian, anti-British and locked into dreams of a worldwide Caliphate. In England itself, the fledgling apparatus of homegrown Islam was also taken over by Indians, by Ahamadiyya missionaries from the Punjab (heretical sectarians in the eyes of most Muslims whatever their personal charms in the eyes of the English) who greatly confused matters by dividing into two camps, the liberal Lahoris opposed to the Khalifa-led Qadianis.
So as the 20th century ripened, the future direction of Muslim Britain lay not with homegrown converts but with activists from Gujarat, Bengal and the Punjab, tempered by a handful of homegrown intellectuals inspired by chance encounters with Sufi brotherhoods at work in Egypt, Algeria, Turkey and Malaysia. Whilst relishing this work, I also keenly look forward to Volume Two, the post 1950’s world of British Islam, that fractured but fascinating world peopled by Martin Lings, Idries Shah, Cat Stevens, Rauf Bulent and Timothy Winter scented by the followers of P.J. Bennet, Frithjof Schuon and René Guénon.
Back to Reviews page
by Barnaby Rogerson