Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam 1850-1950
Oxford University Press, 2014
256 pp., 30.00
In a speech in 1937, an Englishman who had converted to Islam, Mohammad (born Marmaduke) Pickthall, proposed a "Council of Islam in England." This energetic plan prompted the Methodist Recorder to warn that "it is the avowed object of certain Muslim propagandists to paralyse Christian enterprise at its base." Less than eighty years later, the land of John Wesley now has merely some 200,000 Methodists, and their number is in rapid decline, while Britain has over 2.7 million Muslims, a population that is steadily growing.
The story of that dramatic demographic rise—the result of immigration—is not the one that Jamie Gilham tells. For him, the "British" in the term "British Muslim" is not used in its standard sense today as a national identity, but rather as an ethnic one. The Pickthalls had been in England ever since a forefather had been a knight of William the Conqueror, and those are the kind of pedigrees that populate Loyal Enemies.
Indeed, Islamophilia was an extremely rare condition in Britain in the century before 1950, but it would seem that the aristocracy was particularly susceptible. Before he finally made his submission, Pickthall was almost persuaded to become a Muslim by Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the daughter of the Earl of Dunmore, over dinner at Claridge's, the Mayfair hotel preferred by royalty. The cunning lady had even enlisted the aid of two bemused waiters to serve as the witnesses that would make his conversion valid in Islamic law. Lord Headley's conversion was announced at a meeting at the Waldorf Hotel.
Indeed, the only major figure in this book who is not from the Eton-going élite is Adullah (William Henry) Quilliam, and, as he had the largest solicitor's practice in the north of England, his less august social standing hardly gives us a glimpse into the lives of the working-class women who married foreign-born sailors who are mentioned in passing.
Gilham has an admirable evenness to his presentation—never tipping into either snickering at his subjects or covering up their dubious traits. He tries his hardest to not allow them to be dismissed as "eccentrics," but the grain of the wood he has to work with makes that a near hopeless task.
The book begins—as does the story of Britons choosing to live in England as adherents of Islam—with a full chapter on Lord Stanley of Alderley. Again, one must be struck by the fact that the pioneer was a peer of the realm. Championing alternatives to their Anglican birthright was a family trait: his youngest brother was received into the Catholic Church and rose to be an Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, and a nephew was Bertrand Russell, author of Why I Am Not a Christian.
Traveling in the Ottoman Empire, Stanley apparently converted to Islam in 1859, if not earlier. This was reported in letters from Britons abroad and in the press. The outrage in these accounts absurdly fell with equal force on his wearing Turkish costumes. Stanley denied that he had changed his faith and his fashion. His mother seems to have understood the situation aright: "I am afraid he wishes us to slide into the understanding that he is a Mussulman without the shame of avowing it."
Gilham asserts that upon his father's death Stanley became "Britain's first Muslim member of the House of Lords." This is a deceptive claim, however. Such firsts are standardly counted in British history when they are avowedly made. Britain by this time had already had its first adherents of Judaism in Parliament, but they showed their fidelity by swearing on a Hebrew copy of the Pentateuch. The fact that Stanley swore on a Christian Bible makes this claim to priority a hollow one.
The best evidence that Stanley was a Muslim from 1859 onward is that in his will he requested a Muslim burial. The best evidence that he was eccentric comes from the fact that he was also a staunch champion of the legal prerogatives of the Church of England. A member of the Church Defence Institution, he stood resolutely against the "conscience clause" in the 1870 Education Act. He was indignant that Baptists and Catholics might imagine that their religious identities should be treated equally under the law, so presumably departing so far as Islam was, in his mind, an aristocratic rather than a human right.
Stanley joined Anglican services for worship and, in a rare example of a rigged discussion, Gilham takes his donations to churches as evidence that he was fulfilling the Muslim duty of almsgiving. Then there is his partner, Fabia, a Spanish Catholic who was already married. Stanley wed her in four different ceremonies over the years—two Islamic, one secular, and the last one Catholic, none of them valid in British law. His family was under the impression that he was about to be received into the Catholic Church when he died. (Sir Hubert Rankin, a convert who rose to be president of the Muslim Society of Great Britain, actually did go on to become a Buddhist.)
The second chapter, on Quilliam, is the only other one dedicated to one person. He had been raised a Methodist and married in a Wesleyan chapel. He publicly announced his conversion to Islam in 1887 but later claimed it had happened in 1882, when he had been inspired by a visit to Morocco.
Gilham makes various attempts to help to explain these conversions by noticing larger religious changes happening in British society, but these are often belied by the quirkiness of the case to hand. Thus we are told: "Like other late Victorian Wesleyans, [Quilliam] might also have felt stifled by the community life of the chapels or by the basic unit of the Wesleyan connexion, the class, which had undergone radical change in the wake of complaints about repetitious meetings, inadequate leaders and the lack of mixing between different social groups."
As Quilliam, while breeding four children with his wife, had also set up a second household with a chorus girl named Mary, who bore him five more children, it would seem that a weekly meeting focused on personal holiness as understood by the people called Methodists might have been uncongenial to him in ways that went beyond boredom.
Quilliam founded the Liverpool Muslim Institute, and the Islamic world became enthralled with him. Its leading figures—the Ottoman sultan-caliph, the amir of Afghanistan, the sultan of Morocco, the khedive of Egypt, and the shah of Persia—all recognized a Liverpudlian lad baptized William Henry as the "Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles." Befitting this position, he issued fatwas.
When his wife died, Quilliam duly married Mary, but he then set up another alternative household with a new mistress. He was accused of fabricating evidence in one of his legal cases and chose to flee the country rather than face prosecution. After he slunk back to Britain, he lived out the last decades of his life under the pseudonym Professor Léon. Muslims in Britain today honor him through the Abdullah Quilliam Society. The biography of him on their website claims that he left the country because he was facing religious persecution ("the first Muslim experience of 'Islamophobia' in the UK") and makes no mention of any wives or mistresses.
When Gilham presents the reasons the converts gave for leaving Christianity for Islam, these often reveal "Islam" to have been a fantasy of their own making. Pickthall averred that the veiling of women was "un-Islamic" and that "the Prophet of Islam was perhaps the greatest feminist the world has ever known." (Gilham faithfully reports that the Islamic worship which was offered to those British women who married foreign-born Muslims had marked gender inequalities.) Simply ignoring the Sunni-Shi'a division, Lord Headley argued that Christianity was split between Catholics and Protestants while Islam was united. The converts also tended to ignore observances they found inconvenient, improvising their own "bacon and beer" version of Islam.
Similarly, Gilham's efforts to explain the spiritual journeys of these converts by reference to wider social trends often founder on the irrepressible idiosyncrasies of his subjects. For example, the role of biblical criticism in undermining Christianity is repeatedly cited, but we are left to wonder how Britons who were ostensibly driven to Islam in order to evade this critique went on to affirm cheerfully, in the words of a convert, the secretary of the British Muslim Society: "All Muslims believe that the Qur-án is word by word the revealed guidance from God to humanity."
As its title suggests, Loyal Enemies is preoccupied with the question of whether or not British Muslims could be accepted as patriotic citizens. Even here, Gilham cannot tell a straight story of unwarranted suspicion of religious minorities because—fair-minded as he is throughout—he has to concede that some of them really were traitors.
The most fascinating of these turncoats is St John Philby (aka Sheikh Abdullah). His vocal repudiation of the British government and his self-identification as a subject of King Saud led, as World War II set in, to his being detained under the Defence of the Realm Act. Given this background, it defies comprehension that his son, Kim Philby, could become a top officer in British intelligence before finally being exposed as the biggest traitor in the country's history. As both father and son had been educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, it was apparently considered inconceivable that they really could be fundamentally disloyal to king and country.
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College. His sixth monograph, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith, was recently published by Oxford University Press.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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