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Understanding a new community: the history of British Muslims

Frank Gelli reports on the ‘British Muslim History Symposium’ held at The Cambridge Muslim College last September

The Cambridge Muslim College should be congratulated for holding a stimulating symposium on the history of British Muslims. It was a fascinating and popular academic event, so oversubscribed that it had to be held in the large St Paul’s Church, just next door to the College. The contributions and discussions sparkled with ideas, stories and personalities pertaining to the often neglected narratives of British Islam. For instance, how many Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, have heard of aristocratic converts like Lord Rowland Farooq Headley and Lady Evelyn Zaynab Cobbold, the Scottish noblewoman who, aged 65, went on the Hajj? Obviously, some papers overlapped in subject matter – what follows is only a selection.

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For centuries there have been Muslims in Britain. They were mostly diplomats and merchants from various parts of the Islamic world, not long-term residents. Professor Ron Geaves spoke about ‘The Challenge to create a British Islam 1880-1918’.

abdullah-quilliamHis hero was Abdullah Quilliam, an energetic Liverpool solicitor and freemason. After embracing Islam in 1887 he founded the Liverpool Muslim Institute, produced a flood of newspapers and pamphlets, set up a madrasa and actively engaged in da’wa. Over the years he made at least 150 converts, many from an educated middle class background. He was convinced that it was primarily the English who should establish Islam in these isles. The religion should be revived from the West, not the East, he claimed. With the support of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, Quilliam assumed the title of Sheikh-ul-Islam of Great Britain. Under attack from hostile critics, he defended his patriotism as a Brit. Nonetheless one of his fatawa warned that ‘Harm one Muslim and you harm us all’. Unfortunately, after he left Britain for Turkey the Liverpool Mission came to an end. Today he lies buried in the Muslim section of the Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

As Sheikh Abdullah heartily upheld the idea of a worldwide Caliphate, it is perhaps ironic that recently his name was adopted by the controversial Quilliam Foundation, whose declared aim is to combat radicalisation and extremism. However, as Yahya Birt pointed out in his own paper, Quilliam also appeals to some in the advocacy group Cage, who admire his pioneering example in taking up controversial causes. A figure for all believers then?

Mohammed Seddon examined another key Muslim convert and ‘dissident’, Muhammad Marmaduke muhammad-marmaduke-pickthallPickthall, son of an Anglican Vicar, novelist and famous for his ‘Meaning of the Glorious Koran’. By no means unpatriotic, Pickthall defended Britain’s rule in Egypt, as well as Ottoman suppression of the Armenians. It was down to the Church demonising the Turks, he believed. Islam was genuinely part of Turkish heritage, as opposed to the alien creed taught by Christian missionaries. Britain’s condemnation of the Ottomans ‘broke his heart’. He later became Imam of the seminal Woking Muslim Mission but eventually migrated to India, to return to Britain to die in 1936. He too is buried at Brookwood.

Professor Nabil Matar introduced the character of Englishman Joseph Morgan (d.1750). Having spent time as a war captive of the Spaniards, Morgan came to appreciate Spain’s Moorish enemies from North Africa. Thoroughly sympathetic to the Moors, he praised Islamic behaviour and ethics, compared to those of the Spaniards. He also deplored King Philip III’s violent expulsion of Muslims from Spain. By contrast, he invoked the name of the philosopher John Locke, whose tolerance extended to Muslims and Jews. (Yet, as someone pointed out in the Q&A, Locke excluded from toleration atheists and Catholics.) After learning Arabic, Morgan produced many translations from Islamic texts. One was a Sufi-influenced biography of the Prophet Muhammad, with special emphasis on the Mi^raj -the Prophet’s night journey to Heaven. Matar compared it to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Lubaaba al-Azami’s paper was ‘The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe: Anglo Indian Engagements in an Age before Empire’. Roe was sent by King James I as Ambassador to the Grand Mughal, Jahangir, becoming the ruler’s personal friend. She argued that the narratives of Anglo-Indian relations were somewhat influenced and prejudiced by later British Raj rule. After Edward Said’s book, the category of ‘Orientalism’ has become instrumental in exposing those biases. Lubaaba ably showed how alternative accounts were helpful in dispelling stereotypes and prejudice.

Abdul Hakim Murad, head of the Cambridge College, introduced the little-known figure of Scotsman Yahya Parkinson (1874-1918). ‘Can there be a symbiosis between Muslim and British?’ Sheikh Murad asked. ‘Can Islam in Britain be chiefly established by external migration only?’ Parkinson’s example would suggest one can combine both identities. A solid British loyalist, his verse was influenced by quintessentially Scottish poet Robbie Burns. A Darwinian and evolutionist, the poet held that Islam was a rational and humane religion. Also an unmarried and unmilitary man, Parkinson believed that Islam exemplified both Eros and the warrior spirit, or martial prowess. Parkinson never travelled outside his native Scotland, worked in a spinning factory and lived his whole life in his grandparents’ house in Ayrshire. A wee bit eccentric? Well, he was a poet, wasn’t he?

In conclusion, this writer enjoyed the Cambridge Conference greatly. It was perhaps a little odd that there was no reference to British Muslims from the Shi‘a tradition. Surely they must have existed? Nevertheless, it was an intellectual and pleasurable event.

 

 

Gelli bio

 

 

 

 

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