Thursday, 9 May 2013

‘Pilgrimage to Mecca’: The first British Muslim woman on record to have visited the Holy Cities of Madinah and Makkah

During the 19th century, many women, particularly Englishwomen, were fascinated by the Arab world. Most of these female travelers, like Lucie Duff Gordon, Lady Ann Blunt, Gertrude Bell, Isabelle Eberhardt and Freya Stark, to name but a few, are known to us through their impassioned travelogues.
However, one name, Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867 – 1963) failed inexplicably to achieve a proper recognition. William Facey finally does justice to this remarkable woman, the first British Muslim woman on record to have visited the Holy Cities of Madinah and Makkah and to have written about her pilgrimage.
In the excellent introduction, co-written with Miranda Taylor, Facey highlights for the first time the family link between Lady Evelyn and her great-aunt, the formidable Jane Digby (1807-1881) who was successively Lady Ellenborough, Baroness Venningen, and Countess Theotoky before she married her fourth and last husband, a Syrian Bedouin, Sheikh Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab. With him, she lived happily for 30 years until she died at the age of 74.
Both women shared a love of the Arab world. Jane Digby swiftly adopted the Arab way of life, smoking the narghile, wearing traditional clothes and outlining her blue eyes with kohl. Unlike Lady Evelyn, the highly unconventional Jane Digby, who was equally at ease speaking nine languages and milking camels, never wrote a book and never intended to convert to Islam. Lesley Blanch, who wrote her biography in “The Wilder Shores of Love,” tells us that her husband’s “deep inbred piety awoke her own dormant religious principles” and “she came to redouble her now active participation in church affairs.”
For Lady Evelyn, things were completely different. In fact, she didn’t even remember the exact time when she decided to become a Muslim. “It seems that I have always been a Muslim. This is not so strange when one remembers that Islam is the natural religion that a child left to itself would develop,” she said.
Lady Evelyn spent most of her childhood in a Moorish villa perched on a hill outside Algiers. She learned to speak Arabic, and her favorite pastime was to escape her governess and visit the mosques with her Algerian friends.
A few years later, while staying in Rome, she had the opportunity to visit the Pope. She recounts in the introduction of “Pilgrimage to Mecca” that “when His Holiness suddenly addressed me, asking if I was a Catholic, I was taken aback for a moment and then replied that I was a Muslim… A match was lit and I then and there determined to read up and study the faith. The more I read and the more I studied, the more convinced I became that Islam was the most practical religion… Since then I have never wavered in my belief that there is but one God.”
Indeed, this belief in the Oneness of God never left her. And like many Westerners, Lady Evelyn was deeply touched by Islamic spirituality, the inner side of faith. Two years before her marriage to John Cobbold in Cairo, she wrote a poem in which she evoked the fundamental principle of Tawhid (belief in one God) in a prayer, “To Him, the One. The Essence of all” and “His Presence within and around.”
I was particularly moved by the passage about her funeral. Lady Evelyn spent the last twenty years of her life quasi-secluded on her estate at Glencarron, and then in a nursing home in Inverness. Yet it is obvious that, despite the fact she had lost touch with other Muslims, she must have insisted on many occasions that her written instructions for her Muslim funeral be followed.
Sheikh Muhammad Tufail, the imam of the Woking Mosque, was dispatched to Glencarron, in Scotland, to perform the funeral prayer on Monday Jan. 28, 1963. When he arrived, he discovered Lady Evelyn’s wishes. She had clearly instructed that a specific verse from the Surah Al Nur (light), “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth,” be inscribed on a flat slab and placed on her grave.
This verse reminds me of a beautiful passage she wrote, about the same surah, in “Pilgrimage to Mecca:” “I read entranced, it is impossible to give a translation that can convey the poetry, the subtle meaning that floods the soul when read in the original. To me the simple grandeur of the diction, the variety of the imageries, the splendor of the word painting differentiates the Qur’an from all other scriptures…”
Lady Evelyn was able to see and describe the way women lived in Madinah and Makkah, something no writer had ever done before her. Facey also remarks that, “as an eminent and distinguished personage in her own right, she had equal access to the male side of life, being regarded like Gertrude Bell or Freya Stark (or indeed Margaret Thatcher in our own day), as a kind of honorary man.”
Lady Evelyn Cobbold was also known as Sayyidah Zainab, her Muslim name, and wrote an honest and sincere account of her pilgrimage to Makkah. She was excited to be the first British woman on record to have made her pilgrimage, but that gave way to a deeper emotion as she prayed in the Haram (the Holy Mosque) in Makkah.
One cannot fail to be touched by the way she expresses her feelings in those sublime moments: “It would require a master pen to describe that scene, poignant in its intensity of that great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in a fervor of religious enthusiasm. Many of the pilgrims had tears streaming down their cheeks; others raised their faces to the starlit sky that had witnessed this drama so often in the past centuries. The shining eyes, the passionate appeals, the pitiful hands outstretched in prayer moved me in a way that nothing had ever done before, and I felt caught up in a strong wave of spiritual exaltation. I was one with the rest of the pilgrims in a sublime act of complete surrender to the Supreme Will, which is Islam.”
Very little has been written about the history of Islam and British Muslims in the United Kingdom, and this book makes a valuable contribution to a little known subject. One often overlooks the fact that becoming a Muslim in Europe is still not easy. Islam dictates a way of life whose social norms and legislations are resented by secular regimes. A citizen has the right to choose his faith, but is not given the means to follow it. Converting to Islam is also socially alienating, especially for practicing Muslims whose refusal to drink alcohol is too often seen as a rejection of the most basic expression of Christianity and, by extension, Western conviviality.
Even if Lady Evelyn was not a practicing Muslim in Britain, her conversion to Islam did not go well with her in-laws and worsened after the death of her husband. However, she hung onto her faith until the very end. “When I look into my journal I shall live it all again. Time cannot rob me of the memories that I treasure in my heart… the countless pilgrims who passed me with shining eyes of faith, the wonder and glory of the Haram of Makkah, the great pilgrimage through the desert and the hills to Arafaat, and above all the abiding sense of joy and fulfillment that possesses the soul.”
I cannot but imagine Lady Evelyn reliving the exalted beauty of her Haj toward the end of her life. And she carried those memories with her on the majestic slopes of Glencarron, where a humble headstone is inscribed with the verse from Surah Al Nur that moved her so much, “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.”

1000 years of Islam in Britain

By Farrukh I. Younus
Many of us hold the perception that the Muslim communities of Britain were the result of post-war mass migration, and to some extent this is true. But among the talks during the Islam Awareness Week—an annual week of activities aimed at encouraging knowledge and understanding of Islam across the United Kingdom by engaging local communities—was “1000 years of Islam in Britain” by Mohammad Siddique Seddon of the Islamic Foundation.*
Imagine that, a thousand years of Islam in Britain! Well, while this statement needs to be nuanced, it is, however, clear that there has been an Islamic influence in this country for more than a millennium, a heritage that belongs not only to myself as a second generation British Pakistani Muslim, but also to the “native” English who can trace their genealogy on the island back for generations.
The first hint of Islamic influence that the speaker referred to was that felt under the leadership of King Offa of Mercia, a wealthy Anglo-Saxon king who ruled until the end of the 8th century CE. He is perhaps more famously known for commissioning Offa’s dyke, a massive wall built to separate England from Wales, compared by many to the building of the pyramids in terms of the resources employed.
King Offa commissioned a gold coin using the Islamic gold standard. On the one side it reads “There is no deity but God, without partners.” On the other, one way up it reads “Offa Rex” (King Offa). When rotated 180 degrees, it reads “Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” There are a number of theories about the coins: the need to align with one of the two Muslim authorities of his time and to facilitate business with Muslim traders. However, the one that I am partial to is the need to pay the Pope his dues—a process perhaps best illustrated in the Robin Hood movies. Having accepted the need to pay tribute, King Offa did so willingly but with tongue in cheek by marking the coins with the testimony of the belief in one God, quite contrary to the Trinitarian belief of Christianity of which the Pope was the supreme authority. Then again, perhaps he even accepted Islam. Whatever the hypothesis, what cannot be denied is the minting of a coin bearing the mark of one of the most powerful English kings and the Muslim testimony of faith.
At the turn of the 9th and 10th centuries, we find another anomaly: the Ballycottin Cross. Found on the south coast of Ireland, it is a brooch in the shape of a symmetrical cross at the center of which sits a glass bead that reads “In the name of Allah.” It is assumed to be a decorative Celtic brooch that leaves many questions unanswered: Who made it? To whom did it belong? How did it get there? What influence was the owner under to have worn something which conflicted so staunchly with the ideology of Christian belief?
Two centuries later, the younger brother of the famed Richard the Lion Heart, King John, is reported to have undertaken an unusual diplomatic move. After having quarreled with the Pope, he was excommunicated. Further struggles with the land barons led him to send an emissary to the Muslim ruler of Spain, Muhammad An-Nasr, in which he offered to accept Islam. King John was willing to submit himself and his kingdom to the rule of Islam under one condition: that An-Nasr would send an army of Muslim soldiers to help him in his battles against the land barons. After much deliberation An-Nasr declined, but imagine how different life would have been had he accepted King John’s offer.
During this same period, the late 12th century, a famous monk and Knight Templar, Robert of St. Albans, travelled to Jerusalem with the Crusaders. Intending to recapture the city from the Muslim “savages,” what he found instead was the honorable values and rich heritage of Islamic civilization. This appeal not only led him to accept Islam but to marry the grandaughter of the famous Salah Ad-Din Al-Ayyubi (Saladin).
A few centuries later we find John Ward, a famous pirate, who lived in the late 16th century. This is a period when the Islamic civilization was at the height of its abundance of knowledge and wealth, with cities such as Baghdad and Damascus conjuring up the same grand associations as London, New York, and Paris do today. Algiers was no exception. An account reads how a British ambassador to Algeria, William Lithgow, visited the British convert to Islam John Ward and was shocked to see that the apostate had a higher standard of living than he himself! Records also show that there were about 15,000 converts who were living in Algiers at the time.
In the 17th century we find Dr. Henry Stubbe, a theologian who mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and who authored a text entitled An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mohametism and a Vindication of His Religion From the Calumnies of the Christians. Imprisoned for heresy, Dr. Stubbe attempted to publish his book three times, but failed. The text, which was eventually published in the 19th century, intended to expose that the core teachings of Islam were not dissimilar to the post-reformation Unitarian Christian beliefs.
In the same period we also read of Joseph Pitts, a sailor from Exeter captured by Algerian pirates who was taken to Algiers and sold as a slave. His slave master was kind enough to teach him Islam. Having been convinced of its truth, Pitts accepted Islam and was set free. His former slave master furthermore paid for him to go on pilgrimage to Makkah. Pitts documented his experience in a book entitled A Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of Mohametism, which is the first recorded Hajj carried out by an Englishman.
In terms of social dynamics, the 17th century saw intensified trade with the East and the introduction of coffee by Muslim traders, which fuelled the Starbucks of that century with more than 350 coffee houses in London alone by 1650 CE. These coffee houses created a sober environment, a center for business dealings, contrasting the public houses attended in the evenings where people would go for entertainment.
Between the 19th and 20th centuries we come across the story of Abdullah William Henry Quilliam, reportedly the first Englishman to reach the town of Wazan, located in the Sahara Desert. He accepted Islam when travelling in Morocco in 1889 and later studied Islam at the University of Fez. He was famed for establishing a mosque, a publishing house, a library, a debating society, a school, and even an orphanage in Liverpool named the Medina Children’s Home.
We also find, at the beginning of the 20th century, the story of Robert Rashid Stanley who, born in Cardiff to wealthy tea traders, was engaged in Turkish-British trade relations. Twice the mayor of Staylbridge, he was profiled in The Crescent—a weekly record of Islam in England that can be found at the British Library—in April 1907. Robert’s great-great grandson is also a Muslim.
Finally, there is Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, who was educated at Harrow—one of England’s leading private schools—and traveled the world extensively. He accepted Islam in 1917, studied Arabic, and became the imam at the first purpose-built mosque in England, based in Woking, approximately 30 minutes by car from central London. He is perhaps more famously known for having produced an English translation of the Qur’an, entitled The Meaning of the Glorious Quran, in 1928.
While the accounts above are by no means comprehensive, they do shed light on a heritage that many of us living in the United Kingdom are oblivious of. Perhaps with time, and a greater deal of research, we can learn more about the interaction between the Muslim world and Britain. One thing is certain: I attended the talk hoping to find some answers to the questions raised by the program, only to leave the lecture hall with even more questions that I hope to answer one day.
 * This is a review of a lecture that was delivered by Mohammad Siddique Seddon of the Islamic Foundation and was part of the program of the Islam Awareness Week, which took place in Great Britain from Monday the 21st – Sunday the 27th of November 2005. 
** Farrukh I. Younus holds a masters degree in international business management and works in the emerging telecom industry. He resides in Surrey, UK. His interests include travel, nouvelle cuisine, and chocolate. You can contact him at

A Poetry Event this Sunday 12th May 2013