British Muslim Heritage

The Great Dive

the unusual life of William Williamson
by Abdal Hakim Murad

The Anglo-Muslim community has produced many stormy petrels over the centuries. Religious dissidents, adventurers, romancers, scholar-pilgrims – all have enriched the diverse and colourful story that is British Islam. Peter Lyall, the Scotsman who became an admiral in the Ottoman navy; Abdullah Quilliam, the Liverpool solicitor who founded a mosque and orphanage in which Christian waifs were raised as Muslims; Benjamin Bishop, His Majesty’s consul in Cairo who turned Muslim and mysteriously disappeared; Lord Headley the peer; Lady Evelyn Cobbold the explorer and pilgrim to Mecca; Mubarak Churchward, the stage-painter and friend of Lily Langtry; the anonymous Scotsman who became governor of Madina; and many more. Few, however, lived such adventurous lives as the celebrated Hajji Abdullah Fadhil al-Zubayr, born William Williamson, remembered even today in the Gulf and Iraq, where his many descendents still retell his exploits.

Williamson was born in Bristol in 1872, and when still a boy demonstrated a rebellious nature that sat easily with a passionate hatred of injustice. While a pupil at Clifton School he repeatedly courted both danger and the ire of headmasters by climbing the famous Clifton suspension bridge which soars over the Avon gorge. Beaten regularly by his father, he was overjoyed when an uncle found him a place on a tea-clipper bound for Australia. The family’s hope was that the rigours of shipboard life would soon cause the thirteen-year old to pine for the comparative comforts of a boarding school. But although the new ship’s boy was flogged and regularly ‘mastheaded’ for his lubber’s clumsiness in Biscay gales, he resolved never to return.

The barque landed its cargo in New South Wales, and set course for Bristol via San Diego. Ashore in the Californian port, the ship’s mates scattered in the traditional quest for beer and beauty. Williamson, however, clutching two dollars, took ‘French leave’, and ran inland, praying that he would not be spotted by his shipmates, who were likely to force him back on board. He found work on a farm just south of Los Angeles, and then worked for his Aunt Amy, who had married a local homesteader. A devout Seventh Day Adventist, she would regularly dress in white robes and sing on nearby hilltops; but she came to admire her nephew, who soon mastered all the usual cowboy skills, including gunslinging and bronco-breaking, but refused to accompany the other ranch-hands on their regular ‘busts’ in the vice-dens of neighbouring towns. Receptive to California’s natural beauty, he had developed a strong belief in God, and a dislike for throwing away what slender financial means he possessed.

Although gifted with a natural aptitude for the cowboy life, Williamson’s imagination was soon fired by tales of gold; and once he had acquired an old mule, an even older Mexican shotgun, and a handful of dollars, he joined another cowboy, Jim Cook, and took the gold trail to the Nevadas. They had covered only a hundred miles before they were robbed while sleeping innocently beneath the stars. The silent thieves had taken their mule, the money in their pockets, and even their shoes. Cook turned back, disheartened, but the barefoot Williamson was not beaten so easily. He pressed on, pausing to work for a while as assistant to a quack doctor in a ten-gallon hat. At last he reached the Nevadas, where he staked a claim to a mine which, unlike many of its neighbours, seemed to contain only limestone, quartz, and an inexhaustible supply of Californian mud.

This new setback drove Williamson back to San Francisco, where he enlisted on a cargo ship bound for Bordeaux. A disastrous and near-lethal passage via the Horn did nothing to dampen his love of adventure, and after touching briefly in France, he joined an Irish fire-fighter who planned to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. Fifty men a day were dying of malaria in this first, ill-fated attempt to cut a channel across the Isthmus, and wages were high; but the fire-fighter’s wife was soon convinced that Panama was ‘no country for a white man’, and the threesome, afflicted with the malaria that was to dog Williamson for the rest of his life, travelled on to California. The bankruptcy of the railroad company that took them on left them penniless; but under Williamson’s direction they formed a travelling theatrical troupe, barnstorming out-of-the-way settlements with a vaudeville act whose highlight was Williamson’s unusual gift for juggling. A severe winter trapped the party in the Nevadas, but they reached the coast safely on skis made for them by a sympathetic Swede. Here Williamson struck out alone yet again, this time trying his luck as an amateur boxer. He won his first three bouts in the San Francisco championships, but his career as a pugilist was cut short when he accepted a beer laced with opium in the city’s red light district (the ‘Sodom of the Pacific’, and, in the view of local preachers, the probable cause of the 1906 earthquake). He awoke with a hangover, in the fo’c’sle of a ship, and realised that he had been ‘crimped’ – his senseless form sold to a short-handed and unscrupulous captain.

The Sitka Brave turned out to be a whaler. Crewed mainly by shanghai’d landsmen, the large, square-rigged brig welcomed Williamson as a seasoned mariner, and he soon became fourth mate on a journey which scoured the ironbound coasts of the Bering Straits. While the captain was ashore, wearing a wig to charm the Eskimo ladies of easy virtue who eked out a living in the Alaska settlements, the brig was often left in Williamson’s charge. Eight months later the Sitka Brave returned to ’Frisco for a long-overdue refit, but Williamson chose to remain with her for a second tour of the frozen Northern waters. After this, another visit to inland California ended with a fruitless search for work with his Aunt Amy, who was now somewhere in the high hills, awaiting the Second Coming. He returned to San Francisco, where he signed up with the former captain of the Sitka Brave, now the proud owner of a schooner, for a trading voyage to the South Seas. He was eighteen years old.

Williamson now set up as a small trader in the Caroline Islands, specialising in the sea-cucumbers which are a delicacy for the Chinese palate the world over. He soon acquired considerable expertise in the harvesting and storage of the creatures; but again, as so often before, his fortunes were suddenly overturned. Arrested in his outrigger canoe by the Spanish colonial authorities, he was accused of selling rifles to rebel tribesmen, and thrown into a Manila jail.

Conditions in the prison were appalling, and Williamson later recalled this period behind Spanish bars as the worst in his life. Detainees lived in constant fear of beating, interrogation, or death by garrotting. On one occasion Williamson was punished by being placed in a metal tank which gradually filled with water, and he could only save himself from drowning by desperately working a pump, a torment which was prolonged for several hours. After this ordeal he was forced to work in a chain gang, hobbling to work in the docks each morning holding an iron ball.

Famously, the Englishman’s instinct in a prison is to attempt to escape. Williamson managed to bribe a guard to leave his shackles unlocked, and then, judging his moment, raced past the guards and down an alley. Shots rang out all around him, but he reached his destination, the United States consulate, unharmed. ‘Help me!’ he cried, as he raced in, and the employees rushed to bolt the door behind him. On the other side, the Spanish soldiers were shouting and banging at the door.

The consul who now coolly surveyed the desperate and ragged escapee was Alexander Russell Webb (1846-1916), later to win fame as one of America’s leading converts to Islam. Having heard his story, Webb contacted the British consulate, only to learn that the British authorities were so anxious to avoid association with a possible rebel that they would not lift a finger to help. But a visit by the American consul to the docks turned up the English captain of a tramp steamer. Disguised as a drunken sailor, Williamson lurched down to the docks, and was hidden on board until the ship was warped from the quay, and laid a course for the British colony of Hong Kong.

Williamson’s nautical skills were by now sufficiently developed to land him the position of quartermaster on a crack liner, the SS Chusan, heading for Singapore and India. In Bombay he was paid off, and found work in the P and O offices. His spare time was spent wandering the streets of the Gateway to India, where he contemplated, as thousands of others have done before and since, the extremes of the human condition which the city displays to passers-by. All the religions of the world were present, their conspicuous performers side-by-side with hawkers, beggars, scorpion-eaters, and prostitutes in cages. Temples, churches and mosques offered havens of peace, and everywhere there was the mingling of sanctity, destitution and indulgence for which India is famous. The spiritual yearning kindled during his solitary wanderings in the Californian sierra broke surface again, and he took to wondering when God would send him a sign. He was still a teenager, but he had seen much of the world and of humanity. Which of the many roads should he take? Which would lead him most surely towards the Maker of such marvels?

The sign he was praying for came during his next sea-crossing. On the SS Siam, en route to Aden, Williamson found in the small ship’s library a book by Imam Abdullah Quilliam, then the Shaykh al-Islam of the British Isles. He read it again and again, fascinated. Here, it seemed, was the answer to the questions which had been raised in his mind during years of spectacular experience, energised by the earnestness of which the teenage mind is so often capable. Here was a monotheism far closer to his practical, English outlook than the mysteries of Trinity, reinforced by a no-nonsense set of clear rules for worship and the conduct of his life. This was no religion for dreamers or nancy-boys. It was a faith for tough, single-minded men of independent spirit.

On landing at Aden his luck suddenly began to change. An Arab runner brought him a request to pay a visit to the Assistant Resident. The official turned out to be an old friend of his father, and immediately offered him a position with the Aden Constabulary. Discreetly adding two years to his official age, Williamson accepted with alacrity. Here was a chance to earn good money, which at the same time afforded the opportunity to live among Muslims and to see how their faith worked in practice. The work was dangerous, particularly in the harbour district, but Williamson’s skill with his fists and his Service revolver, acquired in the hard school of the Wild West, soon made him an exemplary policeman in the eyes of the authorities.

Less satisfactory was the youth’s inexplicable desire to associate with the natives. Aden was administered from British India, and a stern social apartheid dictated how burra sahibs might behave in the presence of the local population. Williamson visited the mosque and the tomb of Imam Abu Bakr al-Aydarus, as well as making the acquaintance of the sayyids and other religious notables of the Arabian port. Although the ulema advised him to take his time and not rush into an ill-considered conversion, the colonial authorities came to the opinion that the brawny Bristol policeman was Not Quite The Thing. A crisis flared when another constable who had publicly converted and announced that he had memorised much of the Qur’an even before joining the Faith, was deported to India. Williamson was summoned to the Assistant Resident, and to various Army padres, and was given a good talking-to about the Christian duties of all white servants of the Raj. If he did not pull his socks up, he might be deported like his predecessor.

He paid no attention. After a year of study under the courteous and patient ulema of Aden, Williamson wrote passionate letters to his father and his Aunt Amy, inviting them to the truth of Islam. He then travelled to the court of the Sultan of the neighbouring town of Lahj, where he made his formal shahada, and was circumcised using the wire-and-egg method familiar to many converts of the time. Henceforth he was Abdullah Fadhil, a fact which, on his return to Aden, he lost no time in proclaiming to the local European community.

The reaction of the colonial authorities was swift. The Muslim constable was packed off to India, and it was put about that he was suffering from ‘a touch of the sun’. In Bombay, his request to be released from the police was granted, and he was offered a free passage back to England. This he refused, since his heart was set on returning to the Middle East. However he soon found that invisible hands obstructed his plans. No shipmaster heading for Arabia would take him on, thanks to the determined efficiency of the Raj authorities. Yet he eluded official scrutiny by buying the ticket of a Basra-bound horse-dealer, and soon found himself in the great Ottoman city, exploring its bazaars and mosques, and improving his Arabic with every hour that passed.

At the time, Basra was a centre of Protestant missionary activity. This had made no discernable impression on the Muslim population, but had made significant inroads among the local Ottoman Christians. Abdullah Fadhil soon found himself at the centre of religious controversies, with the local Arabs recognising him as their natural spokesman when confronted with Westerners. One of these debates took place in the house of a Basran notable, who had invited Sunnis, Shi‘a, Jews, Sabians and two American missionaries to celebrate a feast day under his roof. One of the Americans turned out to be Samuel Zwemer, probably the best-known missionary in the Middle East in those days. Zwemer demanded a debate, and although the missionary’s fluent Arabic placed him on the linguistic high ground, Abdullah defended, without much difficulty, the Qur’anic doctrine of the absolute Unity of God against Zwemer’s insistence that within God there are three distinct persons. A further point to which Hajji Abdullah adverted was the unity which characterised the Muslim world. Southern Iraq contained both Shi‘i and Sunni Muslims, who rarely intermarried, but who treated one another as brother Muslims; in stark contrast to the deep divisions separating the Christians of Basra, who were divided between Protestant, Jesuit and Chaldean churches, between whom there lurked a bitter and sometimes fatal rivalry.

The new convert was safe from the Christians religiously, but he soon discovered that the long arm of the Raj could reach him even in Ottoman lands. The British Consul ordered him to report to the consulate, with a view to returning him to England, and even managed to pressurise the Ottoman governor into accepting this situation. But the former cowboy and gold-panner was not so easily corralled. He apologised to his hosts, and vanished into the Arabian night.

For the next two years, Abdullah studied Arabic and Islam under the ulema of Kuweit. He also spent time travelling through the flat immensities of the northern Arabian deserts, where he learned to love the camel and the Arabian horse. Buying and selling these animals brought him a modest income, with which he was able to contemplate the next great turning-point of his life: joining the Hajj caravan of 1894.

The point of departure was to be the walled city of Zubair, from which three thousand pilgrims would set out through the territories of the Rashid family, hereditary rulers of Najd. In the hajjis’ bazaar of Zubair he bought seven pack camels, and loaded them with a tent, rugs, cooking pots, coffee, rice, flour, ghee and sugar, enough, he hoped, for the first weeks of the journey, which would bring him to the city of Hail.

The caravan assembled in the month of Shawwal. Iranian and Indian pilgrims had joined the Arabs of Iraq, following the bayraq (caliphal banner) carried by the Amir al-Hajj. This spectacular flag would accompany them throughout the pilgrimage. By day it took the form of a nine-foot red and green banner adorned with the crescent and star and the Shahada. At night it was topped by a great lantern. So long as this great symbol was visible, those lost in crowds during the Hajj, or in the northern wilderness of Arabia, could always make their way back to the Amir’s side.

Discipline on the caravan was strict and efficient. Outriders went ahead to check the road for obstacles or Bedouin raiders, while a second group followed up the rear to gather any items of value left behind by the great mass of humanity as it lumbered slowly across the dry terrain. In the evening, scholars would preach, recite the Qur’an, and sing the praises of the Blessed Prophet.

Abdullah had bought a delul, a swift riding camel, and would often ride up to the standard bearer and the drummer who headed the procession, to chat with the Amir’s entourage. He would then rest and watch in fascination as, for a whole hour, the great caravan moved past. Different languages, sects, and genders were united in fellowship as they travelled along the ancient Darb Zubayda, the road fortified and supplied with wells by the great and pious Abbasid princess a thousand years before.

In the month of Dhu al-Qa‘da the pilgrims reached Hail. In a customary act of hospitality, the local Amir, Muhammad al-Rashid, slaughtered enough camels to feed every member of the caravan. The English pilgrim watched as entire camels were tipped into great cauldrons, and as vast hills of rice were served out to the hungry guests. An even greater feast ensued the following day when the Baghdad caravan arrived, punctual to the hour.

Two weeks later the united procession sighted the magnificent city walls of Madina. The spectacle of the well-tended market gardens, filled with melons, oranges and date palms, was a delight to the tired eyes of the English pilgrim. He left his camel at the Manakha, the caravan-plaza between the Mosque and the Ottoman barracks at al-Anbariyya, found a small top-floor apartment in an ancient house, and then, having performed wudu from an earthenware jug, entered the Mosque.

Inside, past the Bab al-Salam, all was peace. The Garden of Fatima, the doves, the rows of quiet pillars, each with its name and venerable associations, formed a fitting environment for the rites of visitation to the presence of the Holy Prophet. All around, too, were scholars; for in those times the mosques of Mecca and Madina were great universities, and pilgrims sojourning in the holy cities were able not only to worship, but to attend classes on every subject of law, doctrine, and scriptural interpretation. Few indeed were the ulema who did not hope to retire to Madina; and those who did, including many of the greatest Ottoman scholars, found corners in the capacious mosque where they would expound the classical texts to an immense variety of students and pilgrims who had come from every land of Islam.

The time for Hajj was fast approaching; and the young Abdullah was soon obliged to tear himself away from the solemn, pious circles of sages, in order to learn the secrets of the ihram garment, which was all that would protect him from the blazing sun and bitter nights for the next few weeks. His caravan took the road past Quba’ and Dhu al-Hulayfa, towards the desert city in the south. From the basalt hills that crowded around the Mecca road now resounded the ancient cry, Labbayk, Allahumma, labbayk!

The suburb of Kudayy, then the City itself. The great mosque of those days had almost no exterior, with houses being built up against its walls, and the effect of entering was that of leaving narrow shaded streets and bazaars suddenly to be dazzled by the sun which blazed down upon the Ka‘ba itself. Marble paths led to the House through the gravel, around which were Sinan’s famous arcades and the ancient ashlar minarets. Following his mutawwif, Abdullah made the seven rounds, and then prayed at the maqams of Ibrahim, Isma‘il, and Muhammad, invoking peace upon all of them. He entered the Pavilion of Zamzam, and watched as amphorae were lowered by ropes into the cool depths by busy attendants. Finally came the rite of Sa‘y, the sevenfold procession along the open street, flanked with clothiers and bookshops, that stretched in a straight line between the little hills of Safa and Marwa.

Abdullah was performing the Qiran type of pilgrimage, and after this first Umra he left with his comrades for Mina, pausing to pay his respects at the tomb of Sayyida Khadija. The Day of Tarwiya was spent in the great city of tents at Mina. Before the advent of motor transport this was a beehive of the recitation of the Qur’an and religious poetry, with each tent resonating with the sonorities proper to some corner of the Islamic domains. But after the Fajr prayer, the multitudes left for Arafat, some with pack-animals, while others struggled along with sacks, babies and other baggage. The traditional Namira sermon was delivered in the Caliph’s name, and the hajjis held out their hands in prayer, until the voice of a cannon and the burst of fireworks overhead announced that the sun had set and the multitudes could make their way towards Muzdalifa. Abdullah himself, with typical tenacity, had insisted on spending the day at the summit of the Mount of Mercy beside the great white pillar, and he spent some anxious minutes trying to locate his Mutawwif’s flag in the huge crowds when he descended once more to the plain, which was packed with praying, weeping, jostling pilgrims. Not far away, equal to the other pilgrims in their white ihram, and seemingly unprotected by guards, rode the Sherif of Mecca and the Turkish governor.

The pebbles of Muzdalifa were flung at the Devil’s Pillars, animals were sacrificed, and another tawaf and procession along the Street of Running brought Abdullah the pilgrim’s crown. Twice again, in 1898 and 1936, would he repeat the rites of Hajj, each visit bringing a new range of experiences and reflections; but it was his first stay in the grand and ancient City which supplied the most profound and extraordinary memories of his life, which he would cherish and revisit in his old age.

Old age lay far ahead, however; and the return to Zubair provided the Hajji with ample time to consider his next move. He realised that his aspirations had been more radically changed by the pilgrimage than by the experience of conversion itself. Before his Hajj he had cherished the hope of returning to America and resuming the cowboy’s life he had once loved so passionately. Grown to man’s estate, he had felt confident that his vigour and independence would allow him to carve out a substantial ranch, where he could employ cowboys of his own. But the visit to the Ka‘ba seemed to have instilled a different set of priorities. He decided to settle down in the East, trusting to Allah to provide. And in due course, He did.

Hajji Abdullah became a trader along the Kuwait coastline, up the mighty Shatt al-Arab and into the Iraqi hinterland. On occasion he would take prime Arab horses to Bombay, to be sold to the British cavalry. His growing business connections allowed him access to European goods never before seen in Iraq. His arrival in the marketplace of Zubair on a penny-farthing provoked a riot, as terrified Arabs prayed for deliverance from the ‘Jinn of the Big and Little Wheel’, while others drew their daggers and attempted to pounce on the young man in Arab robes who was riding about on it, and must certainly be Shaytan himself. On another occasion he brought consternation to a desert encampment when he produced a phonograph and played a Qur’anic recording which he had made with a mullah of Zubair – possibly the first recording ever made in Iraq. An evening’s explanation of the box’s nature and purpose could not persuade the sons of the desert that the box was not filled with jinn, who had been trapped inside by some magical process.

He spent a total of twelve years trading in horses, amassing a small financial competence which allowed him to acquire a medium-sized dhow. Never able to ignore the salt in his veins, he embarked on a series of expeditions ranging from Bushehr to the Trucial Coast (now known as the United Arab Emirates), and, inevitably, he came once again to the attention of the British authorities. An official report described him as ‘one William Richard Williamson professing to be Haji Abdullah Fadhil, a Moslem Arab’. But imperial suspiciousness had faded; and the British Muslim mariner enjoyed generally cordial relations with the British gunboats which periodically stopped and searched local vessels, looking for rifles, slaves, and other contraband.

It was during this period that the Hajji traded in his camelhair tent for a comfortable house in Basra, and his mind slowly turned to thoughts of matrimony. Until that time he had always brushed the subject aside with the laughing observation that ‘a day’s hunting with the hawk is worth many women’, but he now sought out the hand of a young Zubair girl, breaking with local custom by insisting on seeing her face before agreeing to the match. Married life suited him well, and he later acquired a wife in Baghdad as well, together with a large brood of children.

The Gulf was at the time one of the world’s most productive pearl-fisheries. Modern Arabian absentmindedness about pollution, reinforced by the depredations of a giant starfish, have drastically reduced the oyster population of those waters; but in the Hajji’s time it was a perennial temptation for a man blessed with a good dhow and a willing crew to hire a team of divers and head for the pearl banks, hoping and praying for a fortune.

The favoured season was known as al-Ghaws al-Kabir, the ‘Great Dive’, extending from May until mid-September. It is a time of sandy winds and intense heat; indeed, to this day the waters of the Bahr al-Banat off Qatar register the highest sea temperatures recorded anywhere in the world. The pearl banks, which were informally allocated to the tribes of neighbouring coasts, were at their most fruitful off Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial Coast. Halhul Island, sixty miles east of Qatar, is surrounded by beds which, in their heyday, gave birth to pearls which came to adorn the crowns of many Indian and European monarchs.

In Hajji Abdullah’s time the Great Dive would involve approximately four thousand vessels. The excitement was enhanced by the knowledge that the whole enterprise was, in essence, a form of gambling. Many were the ships which returned to port empty-handed; but the discovery of a large pink or white pearl would bring riches to the entire crew, from the nakhooda (captain) to the lowliest cook on board. To Abdullah, it was all reminiscent of his gold-panning days, and he joined in the preparations with relish.

Thus did the English Hajji set sail in his forty-ton dhow, the Fath al-Khayr. He had laid in ample stores, although he knew that the pearling ships could remain at sea indefinitely. Food could be obtained from the sea itself, given that the waters of the Gulf teem with delicious fish; and water could be had by sending divers down to fill skins from the numerous underwater freshwater springs whose locations had been known for generations.

The dive would begin each day at dawn, after prayers. The divers would rhythmically fill and empty their lungs, utter a short prayer, close their noses with ivory pegs, expel their remaining breath, and then, clutching a lead weight and a basket, jump into the sea. The best could work at a depth of twenty fathoms, filling the basket with oysters before being pulled to the surface after a couple of busy minutes beneath the waves, always on the alert for sharks, barracudas, or venomous sea-snakes. The work would continue all day, until, after the Maghrib prayers the crew would eat, and then prise open the oysters in search of the gleaming pearls.

The Hajji never struck it rich on the pearl-beds. Accepting the decree of Allah, he instead travelled to Damascus, where he spent two precious years in the city’s madrasas improving his knowledge of Islam. On his return, he sold his dhow and found work with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which needed qualified guides for its prospecting activities, once it was rumoured that there was some possibility of oil being present in the region. In 1935, he led the company’s negotiations with the ruler of Abu Dhabi, thereby heralding the arrival of the oil industry. His advice was also sought out by Imperial Airways, which needed to survey the coast for emergency landing areas suitable for the flying boats which then plied its England-India route.

The Hajji left the oil business in 1937, and retired to a small house in the village of Kut al-Hajjaj near Basra. Here he raised children and grandchildren, amazing them with tales of his remarkable life. For fifteen years thereafter, until his health failed him, he was a regular sight at the Ashar Mosque in Basra, and seldom missed the opportunity of attending a well-delivered class on religion. Back at home, he would sit with his amber and black prayer beads, his collection of religious books, and - a lifetime indulgence - a set of penny-Westerns with titles like Two-Gun Pete and Mayhem in Dodge City. Nothng could be more remote from the quiet desk-bound career which his father had planned for him on a distant Victorian afternoon; but the Hajji, whose path through life demonstrated so colourfully the universal appeal of Islam and the resilience of his native temper, would not have had it any other way. Loved by his large and vigorous family, he passed into the mercy of his Lord with a heart as serene as it was full of years.

This article also appeared in Seasons, the Zaytuna Journal. | British Muslim Heritage