‘Action is the Life of all and if thou dost not Act, thou dost Nothing.’
Before we consider the life-story of the British Muslim and Koranic translator, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, it is as well to recall that aspect of the practice of every believer without which there are only ashes: holiness of life. In the case of Pickthall, this was a luminous, steadily progressing reality which impressed all who came into contact with him. Even his unbelieving first biographer, Anne Fremantle, opined that ‘had he changed from evangelical or even from high church Anglicanism to the Roman faith, doubtless the machinery of sanctification would have by now been set to work.’ He was a man of discreet charity, the extent of whose generosity was only discovered after his death. He turned down lucrative and prestigious speaking tours and the pleasures of travel in favour of his last and, in his eyes, greatest project, acting as headmaster to Muslim boys in Hyderabad. He witnessed the dismemberment of his beloved Ottoman Caliphate while rejecting bitterness and calls for violent revenge, convinced that Allah’s verdict was just, and that in the circumstances of the age, Islam’s victory would come through changing an unjust world from within. Above all, he was a man who constantly kept Allah and His providence in mind.
Pickthall’s humility did not prevent him from taking a rightful pride in his ancestry, which he could trace back to a knight of William the Conqueror’s day, Sir Roger de Poictu, from whom his odd surname derives. The family, long settled in Cumberland, came south in Dutch William’s time, and Pickthall’s father Charles, an Anglican parson, was appointed to a living near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Charles’ wife, whom he married late in life, was Mary O’Brien, who despite her Irish name was a staunchly nonconformist daughter of Admiral Donat Henry O’Brien, a hero of the same Napoleonic war which brought Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam’s grandfather fame as master ofVictory at Trafalgar. O’Brien, immortalised by Marryat in Masterman Ready, passed on some of his heroic impulses to his grandson Marmaduke, who throughout his life championed a rather Shavian ideal of the saint as warrior. It may be no coincidence that Pickthall, Quilliam and, before them, Lord Byron, who all found their vocation as rebellious lovers of the East, were the grandsons of naval heroes.
Marmaduke was born in 1875, and when his father died five years later the family sold the Suffolk rectory and moved to the capital. For the little boy the trauma of the exodus from a country idyll to a cold and cheerless house in London was a deep blow to the soul, and his later delight in the freedom of traditional life in the Middle East may have owed much to that early formative transition. The claustrophobia was only made worse when he entered Harrow, whose arcane rituals and fagging system he was later to send up in his novel Sir Limpidus. Friends were his only consolation: perhaps his closest was Winston Churchill.
Once the sloth and bullying of Harrow were behind him he was able to indulge a growing range of youthful passions. In the Jura he acquired his lifelong love of mountaineering, and in Wales and Ireland he learned Welsh and Gaelic. So remarkable a gift for languages impelled his teachers to put him forward for a Foreign Office vacancy; yet he failed the exam. On the rebound, as it were, he proposed to Muriel Smith, the girl who was to become his wife. She accepted, only to lose her betrothed for several years in one of the sudden picaresque changes of direction which were to mark his later life. Hoping to learn enough Arabic to earn him a consular job in Palestine, and with introductions in Jerusalem, Pickthall had sailed for Port Said. He was not yet eighteen years old.
The Orient came as a revelation. Later in life he wrote: ‘When I read The Arabian Nights I see the daily life of Damascus, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Cairo, and the other cities as I found it in the early nineties of last century. What struck me, even in its decay and poverty, was the joyousness of that life compared with anything that I had seen in Europe. The people seemed quite independent of our cares of life, our anxious clutching after wealth, our fear of death.’ He found a khoja to teach him more Arabic, and armed with a rapidly increasing fluency took ship for Jaffa, where, to the horror of European residents and missionaries, he donned native garb and disappeared into the depths of the Palestinian hinterland.
Some of his experiences in the twilight of that exotic world may be re-read in his travelogue, Oriental Encounters. He had found, as he explains, a world of freedom unimaginable to a public schoolboy raised on an almost idolatrous passion for The State. Most Palestinians never set eyes on a policeman, and lived for decades without engaging with government in any way. Islamic law was administered in its time-honoured fashion, by qadis who, with the exception of the Sahn and Ayasofya graduates in the cities, were local scholars. Villages chose their own headmen, or inherited them, and the same was true for the bedouin tribes. The population revered and loved the Sultan-Caliph in faraway Istanbul, but understood that it was not his place to interfere with their lives.
It was this freedom, as much as intellectual assent, which set Marmaduke on the long pilgrimage which was to lead him to Islam. He saw the Muslim world before Westernisation had contaminated the lives of the masses, and long before it had infected Muslim political thought and produced the modern vision of the Islamic State, with its ‘ideology’, its centralised bureaucracy, its secret police, its Pasdaran and its Basij. That totalitarian nightmare he would not have recognised as Muslim. The deep faith of the Levantine peasantry which so amazed him was sustained by the sincerity that can only come when men are free, not forced, in the practice of religion. For the state to compel compliance is to spread vice and disbelief; as the Arab proverb which he well-knew says: ‘If camel-dung were to be prohibited, people would seek it out.’
Throughout his life Pickthall saw Islam as radical freedom, a freedom from the encroachments of the State as much as from the claws of the ego. It also offered freedom from narrow fanaticism and sectarian bigotry. Late Ottoman Palestine was teeming with missionaries of every Christian sect, each convinced, in those pre-ecumenical days, of its own solitary rightness. He was appalled by the hate-filled rivalry of the sects, which, he thought, should at least be united in the land holy to their faith. But Christian Jerusalem was a maze of rival shrines and liturgies, where punches were frequently thrown in churches, while the Jerusalem of Islam was gloriously united under the Dome, the physical crown of the city, and of her complex history.
1897 found him in Damascus, the silent city of lanes, hidden rose-bowers, and walnut trees. It was in this deep peacefulness, resting from his adventures, that he worked methodically through the mysteries of Arabic grammar. He read poetry and history; but seemed drawn, irresistibly, to the Holy Qur’an. Initially led to it by curiosity, he soon came to suspect that he had unearthed the end of the Englishman’s eternal religious quest. The link was Thomas Traherne and Gerrard Winstanley, who, with their nature mysticism and insistence on personal freedom from an intrusive state or priesthood, had been his inspiration since his early teens. Now their words seemed to be bearing fruit.
Winstanley is an important key to understanding Pickthall’s thought. His 1652 masterpiece, Law of Freedom on a Platform, had been the manifesto of the Digger movement, the most radical offshoot of Leveller Protestantism. In this book, which deeply shaped the soul of the young Pickthall, Winstanley outlined what was to become the essence of Christian Socialism. The Diggers believed in the holiness of labour, coming by their name when, in 1649, Winstanley and a group of friends took over a plot of waste land at Walton-on-Thames, planting corn, beans and parsnips. This gesture was, Pickthall realised in Damascus, illegal in Christendom, but was precisely the Shari‘a principle ofihya al-mawat, gaining entitlement to land by reviving it after its ‘death by neglect’. The Diggers were held together, not by cowed obedience to a religious state, but by love among themselves, fired and purified by the dignity of labour.
It soon became clear to Pickthall that their Dissenting theology, which moved far beyond Calvin in its rejection of original sin and orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, and its emphasis on knowing God through closeness to nature, was precisely the message of Islam. This was a religion for autonomous communities, self-governing under God, each free to elect its own minister.
The God of the Diggers was a god of Reason – not the mechanical dictator whom Blake was to scorn as Urizen, ‘blind ignorance’, but reason as illuminated by God through the practice of the virtues and communion with nature. Superstition and priestcraft were abhorred. The Reason-God was immanent in creation, which, for Winstanley, as for Traherne and the Cambridge Platonists, was a blessed sign of God’s nearness. Winstanley had dipped into the Hermetic wisdom of the age, and, like the Quakers with whom we was for a time associated, absorbed something of the spirit of Islam through the Italian esoterists Ficino, Bruno, and Campanella. It was not for nothing that the first English rendering of the Basmala was made by an enthusiastic Quaker, George Keith, who translated it as ‘In the Name of the Lord the merciful Commiserator.’ Somewhat later, Robert Barclay, the greatest name in English Quaker theology, borrowed extensively from Ibn Tufayl. By all these channels Islam had enriched and uplifted English Dissent.
Another Digger theme which attracted Pickthall was their communitarian optimism. Winstanley had written: ‘In Cobham on the little heath our digging there goes on, And all our friends they live in love, as if they were but one.’ The brotherhood of Muslims which he observed in Syria, the respect between Sunnis and Shi‘is, and their indifference to class distinctions in their places of worship, seemed to be the living realisation of the dreams of English radicals at the time of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. This theme of Muslim brotherhood was to be fundamental in Pickthall’s later writing and preaching. No less important was the Digger rejection of traditional Church exclusivism. Irrespective of creed, they thought, all men were candidates for salvation. Christ’s sacrifice indicated, in its orthodox understanding, a meanness unworthy of a loving God, Who can surely accept the repentance of any faithful monotheist, whether or not he had been bathed in the blood of His son.
Oddly, then, Pickthall came home in Damascus. The picaresque adventures of his days in Palestine had given way to a serious spiritual and intellectual quest. Like Henry Stubbe, another Commonwealth dissident, he saw in Islam the fulfilment of the English dream of a reasonable and just religion, free of superstition and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, and bearing fruit in a wonderful and joyful fellowship. As the New Statesman put it in 1930, reviewing his Koranic translation: ‘Mr Marmaduke Pickthall was always a great lover of Islam. When he became a Muslim it was regarded less as conversion than as self-discovery.’
If this was his Road to Damascus, why, then, did he hold back? Some have thought that the reason was his concern for the feelings of his aged mother, with her own Christian certainties. This was his later explanation:
‘The man who did not become a Muslim when he was nineteen years old because he was afraid that it would break his mother’s heart does not exist, I am sorry to say. The sad fact is that he was anxious to become a Muslim, forgetting all about his mother. It was his Muslim teacher – the Sheykh-ul-Ulema of the great mosque at Damascus – a noble and benign old man, to whom he one day mentioned his desire to become a Muslim, who reminded him of his duty to his mother and forbade him to profess Islam until he had consulted her. ‘No, my son,’ were his words, ‘wait until you are older, and have seen again your native land. You are alone among us as our boys are alone among the Christians. God knows how I should feel if any Christian teacher dealt with a son of mine otherwise than as I now deal with you.’ […] If he had become a Muslim at that time he would pretty certainly have repented it – quite apart from the unhappiness he would have caused his mother, which would have made him unhappy – because he had not thought and learnt enough about religion to be certain of his faith. It was only the romance and pageant of the East which then attracted him. He became a Muslim in real earnest twenty years after.’
He left Damascus, then, without Islam. But jobs were beckoning. The British Museum offered him a post on the basis of his knowledge of ancient Welsh and Irish, but he declined. He was offered the vice-consulship at the British consulate in Haifa, but this was withdrawn when it was learnt how young he was. His family, and his patient Muriel, summoned him home, and, penniless, he obeyed.
He travelled back slowly, considering the meaning of his steps. As he left the sun behind him, he seemed to leave courtesy and contentment as well. The Muslims were the happiest people on earth, never complaining even when faced with dire threats. The Christians among them were protected and privileged by the Capitulations. The Ottoman Balkans, under the sultans a place of refuge for victims of church wars, had been cruelly diminished by crusade and insurrection, prompted, in every case, from outside. He saw the Morea, the first land of Greek independence, in which a third of a million Muslims had been slaughtered by priests and peasants. The remaining corners of Ottoman Europe seemed overshadowed by a similar fate; but still the people smiled. It was the grace of rida.
Back in London, Pickthall recalled his romantic duties. He paced the pavement outside Muriel’s home in the time-honoured way, and battered down her parents’ resistance. They married in September 1896, the groom having fasted the previous day as a mark of respect for what he still considered a sacrament of the Church. Then he bore her swiftly away to Geneva, partly for the skiing, and partly, too, to associate with the literary circles which Pickthall admired.
During his sojourn in the dour Calvinist capital, Pickthall honed the skills which would make him one of the world’s most distinguished exponents both of novel-writing, and of the still underdeveloped sport of skiing. He began a novel, and kept a diary, in which, despite his youth, his mature descriptive gift is already evident. He wrote of
‘a pearly mist delicately flushed from the sunset, on lake and mountains. The twin sails of a barque and the hull itself seemed motionless, yet were surely slipping past the piers. There was something remote about the whole scene, or so it appeared to me. I was able to separate myself from the landscape: to stand back, as it were, and admire it as one admires a fine painting. I crossed a bridge: starless night on the one hand: dying day on the other. There was a mist about the city: a mist that glowed with a blue spirit light which burned everywhere or nowhere, out of which the yellow lights looked over their dancing semblance in the water watchfully, as from a citadel. The distance of the streets was inundated with stagnant grey light, from which the last warmth of light had just faded. As I penetrated the city it had no other light than that which the street lamps gave it, and the glow from a lamp-lit window here and there. But the sky was still pale and green, with a softness as of velvet. The great round globules of electric light, rising up on the bridge against illimitable space, and their lengthened reflections, caught the eye and blinded it.’
But this landscape concealed a tristesse, the local mood that Byron had dubbed ‘Lemancholy.’ By morning, a thick fog
‘hung over the city, like a veil on the face of a plain woman, hiding blemishes and defects, softening all hardness of outline, soothing with the suggestion of a non-existent beauty. It is a law of nature, as it is of art, that half-revelation is more attractive than nakedness. Unhappily there is another law which forbids a man to rest content until he has stripped his ideal and beheld it naked. Hence the end of most men’s dreams is disappointment. And this disappointment is proportionate to what the world calls success.’
By the shores of Lake Leman, then, the novelist-in-waiting acquired his love of light, which later became one of the strengths and hallmarks of his mature prose. Here, too, he developed that sense of the fragility, even the unreality, of observed nature, and the superficial nature of man’s passage upon it, which enrich his novels, and increased the readiness of his heart for Islam. In all these ways, his writing mirrored the sensitivity of the paintings of his great fellow-converts, Ivan Agueli, and Etienne Dinet. Agueli’s tableaux have a Sibelian sense of misty timelessless; while Dinet’s exuberant Algerian and Meccan paintings recall the Muslim sense that God is present in our daily joys: the utter ubiquity of the qibla. Pickthall’s novels, at their best, resemble a marriage of the two styles, just as he found in Islamic faith the ideal which he had sought in Christianity: a medieval liturgy combined with a low ecclesiology, the hieratic dignity of Laud invigorated by the social passions of Dissent.
On the surface, however, his religious needs seemed to be satisfied by an increasingly high Anglicanism. He frequently fasted and took communion, and insisted (to the annoyance of his chapelbound in-laws) on the truth of the Apostolic Succession. Behind this, however, his notebooks indicate a robust willingness to accept and face doubts, and even a solid cynicism about the ultimate truth of God; he wrestled with these difficulties, seeking help in the secular philosophy of the day, eventually to emerge, as al-Ghazali had done, a stronger man.
Rare is the secular soul that can produce true literature; and Pickthall’s youthful agonies over faith energise the first of his writings to see print: his short stories ‘Monsieur le Président’ and ‘The Word of an Englishman’, both published in 1898. The novel he had begun in Switzerland was never published: it is simple juvenilia, a laboratory experiment that in print would have done him no good at all. Sadly, his first published novel, All Fools, was little better, and contained morally problematic passages which were to saddle him in later years with the reputation of a libertine. Even his mother was disturbed by the most offending passage in the book, which used the word ‘stays’, an unmentionable item of Victorian underwear. The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, to whom Pickthall unwisely sent a copy, was similarly agitated, and the young novelist lost many friends. Soon he bought up the unsold copies, and had them destroyed.
But by then he had already written much of the novel that was to catapult him to fame as one of the bestselling English novelists of the day: Said the Fisherman. This was published by Methuen in 1903, to spectacularly favourable reviews. A blizzard of fan-mail settled on his doormat. One especially pleasant letter came from H.G. Wells, who wrote, ‘I wish that I could feel as certain about my own work as I do of yours, that it will be alive and interesting people fifty years from now.’ Academics such as Granville Browne heaped praises upon it for its accurate portrayal of Arab life. In later years, Pickthall acknowledged that the novel’s focus on the less attractive aspects of the Arab personality which he had encountered in Palestine could never make the book popular among Arabs themselves; but even after his conversion, he insisted that the novelist’s mission was not to propagandise, but to tease out every aspect of the human personality, whether good or bad. As with his great harem novel, Veiled Women, he was concerned to be true to his perceptions; he would document English and Oriental life as he found it, not as he or others would wish it to be. The greatness of the Oriental vision would in this way shine through all the brighter.
His next novel returned him to England. Enid is the first of his celebrated Suffolk tales, reminiscent in some respects of the writings of the Powys brothers. It was followed byThe House of Islam, which he wrote while nursing his mother in her final illness, and at a time when his life was saddened by the growing realisation that he would never have children. The novel is unsteady and still immature: still only in his twenties, Pickthall could manage the comic scenes of Said the Fisherman, but could not fully sustain the grave, tragic theme which he chose for The House, which described the anguish of a Muslim compelled to take his sick daughter to a Western Christian doctor when traditional remedies had failed.
This productive but sober period of his life ended in 1907. An invitation to St James’s Palace to meet the wife of Captain Machell, advisor to the Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Fahmi Pasha, began with a discussion of his books, and led to an invitation to Alexandria.
Pickthall accepted with alacrity, and soon was back in his beloved East. In native dress again, he travelled through the countryside, marvelling at the mawlid of al-Sayyid al-Badawi in Tanta, and immersing himself in Arab ways. The result was a series of short stories and his novel Children of the Nile. It also offered an opportunity to help his friend James Hanauer, the Anglican chaplain at Damascus, edit his anthology of Muslim, Christian and Jewish tales, Folklore of the Holy Land.
1908 brought intimations of the collapse of the old world. At first, the Young Turk revolution seemed to presage a renewed time of hope for the Empire. Pickthall welcomed the idealistic revolutionaries, imagining that they would hold the empire together better than the old Sultan, with his secretive ways. Here, perhaps, is the essence of his apparent remoteness towards Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam. Quilliam had been a confidant of Abdul Hamid, ‘the Sultan’s Englishman’, his private advisor and his emissary on sensitive missions to the Balkans. Quilliam knew the Sultan as Pickthall never did, and must have felt that his opposition to the Young Turk movement was fully vindicated by the disasters of the Balkan War of 1912, when the Empire lost almost all her remaining European territories to vengeful Christians. More calamitous still was the Unionist decision to cast in its lot with Prussian militarism during the First World War. Pickthall, too, became anxious for Turkey, seeing that the old British policy of upholding the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, which had begun even before Britain intervened on Turkey’s side in the Crimean War, and had been reinforced by Disraeli’s anti-Russian strategy, was steadily disintegrating in the face of Young Turk enthusiasm for Germany.
Coup and counter-coup let much gifted Osmanli blood. The Arabs and the Balkan Muslims, who had previously looked up to the Turks for political and religious leadership, began to wonder whether they should not heed the mermaid calls of the European Powers, and press for autonomy or outright independence from the Porte. Behind the agitation was, on the one hand, the traditional British fear that, in the words of Sir Mark Sykes, ‘the collapse of the Ottoman Empire would be a frightful disaster to us.’ On the other were ranged the powers of bloodsucking French banks, Gladstonian Christian Islamophobia, and a vicious pan-Slavism bankrolled from the darker recesses of Moscow’s bureaucracy.
Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam, that undying Empire loyalist, fired off a hot broadside of polemic:
‘List, ye Czar of “Russia’s all,”
Hark! The sound of Freedom’s call,
Chanting in triumphant staves,
“Perish tyrants! Perish knaves!”’
Like Pickthall, he knew that the integrity of the traditional free lands of Islam was threatened not by internal weakness so much as by the Russian system of government, which, as Pickthall saw, ‘must have war. War is a necessity of its existence, for an era of peace would inevitably bring to pass the revolution which has long been brewing.’ The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, he knew, would plunge the region into disorder for an age. He had no confidence in the ability of Arab or Balkan peoples to recreate the free and stable space which the Ottomans, at their best, had supplied, and he lamented the Foreign Office’s change of heart. ‘An independent Turkey,’ he opined, ‘was regarded by our older, better-educated statesmen as just as necessary […] as a safety-valve is to a steam-engine: do away with it – the thing explodes.’ Lawrence and his Arab allies would soon demonstrate the truth of his predictions.
Pickthall was never fully at ease with the Unionists. In later years, he must frequently have wondered whether Quilliam’s insistent conservatism, now to be manifested in support for the Liberal party of Old Turks, was not the course of a wiser head. Quilliam had lived behind the scenes at Yildiz Palace, and knew Abdul Hamid as few others had done; and he had trusted, even loved the man. The Young Turks promised a new dawn for Islam, the Caliphate and the entire Muslim world; but their Turanian preoccupations were liable to alienate the very minorities that they claimed to emancipate from the dhimma rules. Quilliam had urged the Sultan to allow the Balkan Muslims to retain their arms; the Unionists had disarmed them; and the results were to be seen in the tragic refugee columns that escaped the religious pogroms of 1912 and 1913.
As the dismal news rolled in, it seemed as though Heaven had finally abandoned the Empire to its fate. In England, Pickthall campaigned vigorously on Turkey’s behalf, but could do nothing against the new Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who was, as Granville Browne commented, ‘russophile, germanophobe, and anti-Islamic.’ He wrote to a Foreign Office official demanding to know whether the new arrangements in the Balkans could be considered to further the cause of peace, and received the following reply: ‘Yes, and I’ll tell you why. It is not generally known. But the Muslim population has been practically wiped out – 240,000 killed in Western Thrace alone – that clears the ground.’
While campaigning for the dying Empire, Pickthall found time for more novels. Larkmeadow, another Suffolk tale, appeared in 1911, and in 1913 he produced one of his masterpieces, Veiled Women. This follows Saïd in its realistic, often Zola-like depiction of Middle Eastern life, but now there is an undercurrent of polemic. Edwardian imperial convictions about the evils of slavery stood little chance against the charming reality of a Cairo harem, where concubinage was an option desired earnestly by many Circassian girls, whose slave-guardians thanked God for the ease of their lot. Lord Cromer, although generally contemptuous of Egyptian ways, made an exception in the case of slavery, an institution whose Islamic expression he was able grudgingly to respect:
‘It may be doubted (Cromer wrote) whether in the majority of cases the lot of slaves in Egypt is, in its material aspects, harder than, or even as hard as that of many domestic servants in Europe. Indeed, from one point of view, the Eastern slave is in a better position than the Western servant. The latter can be thrown out of employment at any moment. […] Cases are frequent of masters who would be glad to get rid of their slaves, but who are unable to do so because the latter will not accept the gift of liberty. A moral obligation, which is universally recognised, rests on all masters to support aged and infirm slaves till they die; this obligation is often onerous in the case of those who have inherited slaves from their parents or other relatives.’ (Lord Cromer, Modern Egypt, New York, 1908, II, 496-7.)
In its portrayal of the positive aspects of polygamy and slavery, Veiled Women was calculated to shock. It was, perhaps for this reason, one of his least popular works.
During the same period Pickthall contributed to the New Age, the fashionable literary magazine supported by Bernard Shaw, sharing its pages, almost weekly, with Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, and G.K. Chesterton. As a literary figure, if not as a political advocate, he had arrived.
Veiled Women gave him the fare to Istanbul. Lodged with a German lady (Miss Kate, Turkicised to Misket Hanum) in a house in the quiet suburb of Erenköy, he gathered material for his dramatic but sad With the Turk in Wartime, and his The Early Hours, perhaps the greatest of his novels. He also penned a series of passionate essays, The Black Crusade. During this time, despite the Balkan massacres, Christians went unmolested in the great city. He recorded a familiar scene at the Orthodox church in Pera one Easter Friday: ‘four different factions fighting which was to carry the big Cross, and the Bishop hitting out right and left upon their craniums with his crozier; many people wounded, women in fits. The Turkish mounted police had to come in force to stop further bloodshed.’ It was a perfect image of the classical Ottoman self-understanding: without the Sultan-Caliph, the minorities would murder each other. The Second Balkan War, which saw the victorious Orthodox powers squabbling over the amputated limbs of Turkey, looked like a full vindication of this.
Pickthall returned to an England full of glee at the Christian victories. As a lover of Turkey, he was shattered by the mood of triumph. The Bishop of London held a service of intercession to pray for the victory of the Bulgarian army as it marched on Istanbul. Where, in all this, was Pickthall’s high Anglicanism?
It was the English mood of holy war which finally drove him from the faith of his fathers. He had always felt uncomfortable with those English hymns that curse the infidel. One particular source of irritation was Bishop Cleveland Coxe’s merry song:
‘Trump of the Lord! I hear it blow!
Forward the Cross; the world shall know
Jehovah’s arms against the foe;
Down shall the cursed Crescent go!
To arms! To arms!
God wills it so.’
And now, in a small Sussex village church, Pickthall heard a vicar hurling imprecations against the devilish Turk. The last straw was Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘For the Mahometans’:
‘O, may thy blood once sprinkled cry
For those who spurn Thy sprinkled blood:
Assert thy glorious Deity
Stretch out thine arm thou triune God
The Unitarian fiend expel
And chase his doctrines back to Hell.’
Pickthall thought of the Carnegie Report, which declared, of the Greek attack on Valona, that ‘in a century of repentance they could not expiate it.’ He thought of the forced conversions of the Pomaks in Bulgaria. He remembered the refugees in Istanbul, their lips removed as trophies by Christian soldiers. He remembered that no Muslim would ever sing a hymn against Jesus. He could stand no more. He left the church before the end of the service, and never again considered himself a Christian.
The political situation continued to worsen. Horrified by the new British policy, which seemed hell-bent on plunging the Balkans and the Middle East into chaos, the Young Turks strengthened their ties with Berlin. Meanwhile, the British government, driven by the same men who had allowed the destruction of Macedonia and Thrace, marched headlong towards war with the Central Powers. In August 1914, Winston Churchill seized two Turkish dreadnoughts, the Sultan Osman and the Reshadiye, which were under construction in a British yard. The outrage in Turkey was intense. Millions of pounds had been subscribed by ordinary Turks: women had even sold their hair for a few coppers and schoolboys made do with dry bread in order to add to the fund. But the ships were gone, and with them went Pickthall’s last hopes for a peaceful settlement. The hubris of nationalistic Europe, the tribal vanity which she pressed on the rest of the world as the sole path to human progress, was about to send millions of young men to their deaths. The trigger was the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist, on the streets of Sarajevo.
The war had broken Europe’s ideals, and the machines of Krupp lent new efficiency to her patriotic hatreds. The Hun reached the Marne, and English dowagers strangled their dachshunds with their own hands. It was no time to be a Turcophile. But Pickthall had found a new source of strength. The pride of human autonomy had been shown a lethal fantasy; and only God could provide succour. But where could He be found?
In 1913, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the Sutherland heiress and traveller, tried to convert him during a dinner at Claridges, explaining that the waiters would do perfectly well as witnesses. He politely demurred; but he could marshal no argument against hers. What he had seen and described, she had lived. As an English Muslim woman familiar with the heart of Asia, she knew that his love for Islam was grounded in much more than a Pierre Loti style enjoyment of exotica. And so, on 29 November 1914, during a lecture on ‘Islam and Progress’, he took the plunge, joining countless others of his kind. From now on, his life would be lived in the light of the One God of Islam. Muriel followed him soon afterwards.
The war ground on, and Pickthall watched as the Turks trounced the assembled British and colonial troops at Gallipoli, only to be betrayed by the Arab uprising under Lawrence. Like Evelyn Cobbold, Pickthall despised Lawrence as a shallow romantic, given to unnatural passions and wild misjudgements. As he later wrote, reviewing theSeven Pillars of Wisdom:
‘He really thought the Arabs a more virile people than the Turks. He really thought them better qualified to govern. He really believed that the British Government would fulfil punctually all the promises made on its behalf. He really thought that it was love of freedom and his personal effort and example rather than the huge sums paid by the British authorities and the idea of looting Damascus, which made the Arabs zealous in rebellion.’
While Europeans bloodied each others’ noses, and encouraged the same behaviour in others, Pickthall began to define his position in the British Muslim community. The Liverpool congregation had lost its mosque in 1908, and Sheikh Abdullah had gone to ground in the Turkish town of Bostancik, to return as the mysterious Dr Henri Marcel Leon, translator of Mevlevi ghazals and author of a work on influenza. There was a prayer-room in Notting Hill, and an Islam Society, a Muslim Literary Society, and also the eccentric Anglo-Moghul mosque in Woking. In all these institutions Pickthall assumed the role of a natural leader. He had no patience with the Qadiani sect (‘I call myself a Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi school’, he said in self-definition), but when Khwaja Kamaluddin, suspected by many even then of Qadiani sympathies, returned to India in 1919, Pickthall preached the Friday sermons in Woking. ‘If there is one thing that turns your hair grey, it is preaching in Arabic’, he later remarked, perhaps recalling the caliph Umar II’s words that ‘mounting the pulpits, and fear of solecisms, have turned my hair grey.’ He preached in London as well, and in due course some of his khutbas found their way into print, drawing the attention of others in the Muslim world. In addition, he spent a year running an Islamic Information Bureau in Palace Street, London, which issued a weekly paper, The Muslim Outlook.
The Outlook was funded by Indian Muslims loyal to the Caliphate. The Khilafatist movement represented a dire threat to British rule in India, which had previously found the Muslims to be less inclined to the independence party than the Hindus. But the government’s policy was too much to bear. On January 18, 1918, Lloyd George had promised Istanbul and the Turkish-speaking areas of Thrace to post-war Turkey; but the reality turned out rather differently. Istanbul was placed under Allied occupation, and the bulk of Muslim Thrace was awarded to Greece. This latest case of Albion’s perfidy intensified Indian Muslim mistrust of British rule. Gandhi, too, encouraged many Hindus to support the Khilafat movement, and few Indians participated in the Raj’s official celebration of the end of the First World War. Instead, a million telegrams of complaint arrived at the Viceroy’s residence.
Pickthall was now at his most passionate:
‘Objectivity is much more common in the East than in the West; nations, like individuals, are there judged by their words, not by their own idea of their intentions or beliefs; and these inconsistencies, which no doubt look very trifling to a British politician, impress the Oriental as a foul injustice and the outcome of fanaticism. The East preserves our record, and reviews it as a whole. There is no end visible to the absurdities into which this mental deficiency of our rulers may lead us. […] Nothing is too extravagant to be believed in this connection, when flustered mediocrities are in the place of genius.’
This bitter alienation from British policy, which now placed him at the opposite pole from his erstwhile friend Churchill, opened the next chapter in Pickthall’s life. Passionate Khilafatists invited him to become editor of a great Indian newspaper, the Bombay Chronicle, and he accepted. In September 1919 he reached the Apollo Bunder, and immediately found himself carried away in the maelstrom of Indian life and politics. When he arrived, most of the Chronicle’s staff were on strike; within six months he had turned it around and doubled its circulation, through a judicious but firm advocacy of Indian evolution towards independence. The Government was incandescent, but could do little. However Pickthall, who became a close associate of Gandhi, supported the ulema’s rejection of violent resistance to British rule, and their opposition to the growing migration of Indian Muslims to independent Afghanistan. Non-violence and non-co-operation seemed the most promising means by which India would emerge as a strong and free nation. When the Muslim League made its appearance under the very secular figure of Jinnah, Pickthall joined the great bulk of India’s ulema in rejecting the idea of partition. India’s great Muslim millions were one family, and must never be divided. Only together could they complete the millennial work of converting the whole country to Islam.
So the Englishman became an Indian nationalist leader, fluent in Urdu, and attending dawn prayers in the mosque, dressed in Gandhian homespun adorned with the purple crescent of the Khilafatists. He wrote to a friend: ‘They expect me to be a sort of political leader as well as a newspaper editor. I have grown quite used to haranguing multitudes of anything from 5 to 30,000 people in the open air, although I hate it still as much as ever and inwardly am just as miserably shy.’ He also continued his Friday sermons, preaching at the great mosque of Bijapur and elsewhere.
In 1924, the Raj authorities found the Chronicle guilty of misreporting an incident in which Indian protesters had been killed. Crushing fines were imposed on the newspaper, and Pickthall resigned. His beloved Khilafatist movement folded in the same year, following Atatürk’s abolition of the ancient title. Although he effectively left political life, he was always remembered gratefully by Gandhi, who was later to write these words to his widow:
‘Your husband and I met often enough to grow to love each other and I found Mr. Pickthall a most amiable and deeply religious man. And although he was a convert he had nothing of the fanatic in him that most converts, no matter to what faith they are converted, betray in their speech and act. Mr. Pickthall seemed to me to live his faith unobtrusively.’
His job was gone, but Pickthall’s desire to serve Islam burned brighter than ever. He accepted the headmastership of a boy’s school in the domains of the Nizam of Hyderabad, outside the authority of British India. This princely state boasted a long association with British Muslims, and had been many years earlier the home of one of the most colourful characters in India: William Linnaeus Gardner (1770-1835), a convert who fought in the Nizam’s forces against the French in 1798 before setting up his own regiment of irregulars, Gardner’s Horse, and marrying his son to a niece of the Moghul emperor Akbar Shah.
In the 1920s, Hyderabad resembled a surviving fragment of Moghul brilliance, and the Nizam, the richest man in the world, was busy turning his capital into an oasis of culture and art. The appointment of the celebrated Pickthall would add a further jewel to his crown. Pickthall’s monarchist sympathies were aroused by the Nizam, who had made his lands the pride of India. ‘He lives like a dervish’, Pickthall reported, ‘and devotes his time to every detail of the Government.’ It was his enthusiasm and generosity that enabled Pickthall to launch the journal Islamic Culture, which he edited for ten years, and which continues to be published in the city as one of the Muslim world’s leading academic journals. Under his editorship, a wide range of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars published on a huge variety of topics. A regular contributor was Josef Horowitz, the great German orientalist. Another was Henri Leon, now writing as Harun Mustafa Leon, who contributed learned articles on early Arabic poetry and rhetoric, on Abbasid medical institutions, and a piece on ‘The Languages of Afghanistan.’
Pickthall also directed the school for Hyderabadi civil servants, encouraging their attendance at prayer, and teaching them the protocols to observe when moving among the burra sahibs of British India. Prayer featured largely in all his activities: as he wrote to a friend, after attending a conference on eduction:
‘I attended prayers at Tellycherry. The masjids are all built like Hindu temples. There are no minarets, and the azan is called from the ground, as the Wahhabis call it. When I mentioned this fact, the reforming party were much amused because the maulvis of Malabar are very far from being Wahhabis. I stopped the Conference proceedings at each hour of prayer, and everyone went to the adjacent mosque. I impressed upon the young leaders the necessity of being particularly strict in observance of the essential discipline of Islam.’
In the midst of this educational activity, he managed to find time to write. He wrote a (never to be published) Moghul novel, Dust and the Peacock Throne, in 1926, and the following year he composed his Madras lectures, published as The Cultural Side of Islam, which are still widely read in the Subcontinent. But from 1929 until 1931 the Nizam gave him leave-of-absence to enable him to complete his Koranic translation. As he noted: ‘All Muslim India seems to be possessed with the idea that I ought to translate the Qur’an into real English.’ He was anxious that this should be the most accurate, as well as the most literate, version of the Scripture. As well as mastering the classical Islamic sources, he travelled to Germany to consult with leading Orientalists, and studied the groundbreaking work of Nöldeke and Schwally, the Geschichte des Qorans, to which his notes frequently refer.
When the work was completed, Pickthall realised that it was unlikely to gain wide acceptance among Muslims unless approved by Al-Azhar, which, with the abolition of the Ottoman post of Shaykh al-Islam, had become the leading religious authority in the Muslim world. So to Egypt he went, only to discover that powerful sections of the ulema considered unlawful any attempt to render ‘the meanings of the Book’ into a language other than Arabic. The controversy soon broke, as Shaykh Muhammad Shakir wrote in the newspaper Al-Ahram that all who aided such a project would burn in Hell for evermore. The Shaykh recommended that Pickthall translate Tabari’s commentary instead, a work that would amount to at least one hundred volumes in English. Other ulema demanded that his translation be retranslated into Arabic, to see if it differed from the original in any respect, however small.
Pickthall published, in Islamic Culture, a long account of his battle with the Shaykh and the mentality which he represented. He included this reflection:
‘Many Egyptian Muslims were as surprised as I was at the extraordinary ignorance of present world conditions of men who claimed to be the thinking heads of the Islamic world – men who think that the Arabs are still ‘the patrons,’ and the non-Arabs their ‘freedmen’; who cannot see that the positions have become reversed, that the Arabs are no longer the fighters and the non-Arabs the stay-at-homes but it is the non-Arabs who at present bear the brunt of the Jihâd; that the problems of the non-Arabs are not identical with those of the Arabs; that translation of the Qur’ân is for the non-Arabs a necessity, which, of course, it is not for Arabs; men who cannot conceive that there are Muslims in India as learned and devout, as capable as judgment and as careful for the safety of Islam, as any to be found in Egypt.’
The battle was won when Pickthall addressed, in Arabic, a large gathering of the ulema, including Rashid Rida, explaining the current situation of Islam in the world, and the enormous possibilities for the spread of Islam among the English-speaking people. He won the argument entirely. The wiser heads of al-Azhar, recognising their inability to understand the situation of English speakers and the subtle urgencies of da‘wa, accepted his translation. The former Shaykh al-Azhar, al-Maraghi, who could see his sincerity and his erudition, offered him these parting words: ‘If you feel so strongly convinced that you are right, go on in God’s name in the way that is clear to you, and pay no heed to what any of us say.’
The translation duly appeared, in 1930, and was hailed by the Times Literary Supplement as ‘a great literary achievement.’ Avoiding both the Jacobean archaisms of Sale, and the baroque flourishes and expansions of Yusuf Ali (whose translation Pickthall regarded as too free), it was recognised as the best translation ever of the Book, and, indeed, as a monument in the history of translation. Unusually for a translation, it was further translated into several other languages, including Tagalog, Turkish and Portuguese.
Pickthall, now a revered religious leader in his own right, was often asked for Hanafi fatwas on difficult issues, and continued to preach. As such, he was asked by the Nizam to arrange the marriage of the heir to his throne to the daughter of the last Ottoman caliph, Princess Dürrüsehvar. The Ottoman exiles lived in France as pensioners of the Nizam, and thither Pickthall and the Hyderabad suite travelled. His knowledge of Ottoman and Moghul protocol allowed Pickthall to bring off this brilliant match, which was to be followed by an umra visit, his private hope being that the Caliphate, which he regarded as still by right vested in the House of Osman, might now pass to a Hyderabadi prince yet to be born, who would use the wealth of India and the prestige and holiness of the Caliphate to initiate a new dawn of independence and success for Islam. Delhi’s decision to absorb the Nizam’s domains into independent India made that impossible; but the princess devoted her life to good works, which continue today, even after her ninetieth birthday, which she celebrated in January 2004.
In 1935 Pickthall left Hyderabad. His school was flourishing, and he had forever to deny that he was the Fielding of E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India. (He knew Forster well, and the charge may not be without foundation.) He handed over Islamic Culture to the new editor, the Galician convert Muhammad Asad. He then returned to England, where he set up a new society for Islamic work, and delivered a series of lectures.
Despite this new activity, however, his health was failing, and he must have felt as Winstanley felt:
‘And here I end, having put my arm as far as my strength will go to advance righteousness. I have writ, I have acted, I have peace: and now I must wait to see the Spirit do his own work in the hearts of others and whether England shall be the first land, or some other, wherein truth shall sit down in triumph.’ (Gerrard Winstanley, A New Year’s Gift for the Parliament and Army, 1650.)
He died in a cottage in the West Country on May 19 1936, of coronary thrombosis, and was laid to rest in the Muslim cemetery at Brookwood. After his death, his wife cleared his desk, where he had been revising his Madras lectures the night before he died, and she found that the last lines he had written were from the Qur’an:
‘Whosoever surrendereth his purpose to Allah, while doing good, his reward is with his Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve.’
In The Name of Allah Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
I became muslim in 1990 at the age of 27. I was born to a Lutheran Christian family in the American Mid-West, which was not terribly religious. However, I was sent to religion classes on Sunday mornings when I was old enough to enter grade school. I recall being very enthusiastic upon receiving my own Bible, and looking forward to gaining knowledge through religion. However, I was not satisfied with either the words of my King James Bible or the instruction given the teachers at my “sunday school.” The idea of Jesus Christ as God, Son of God, or part of the Holy Trinity seemed a ridiculous idea to me, especially on those occasions when I was allowed to be seated with the adults during Church services. The singing of songs and the statue of a dying god hanging on the wall; it all seemed a pathetic farce to me.
Furthermore, I found that questions and doubts about the religion were readily dismissed without any reason: one was simply expected to believe what one was told and not to question or ask for reasons for the “facts” one was told. I also encountered parents trying to tell their children about Christianity and telling us to “let Jesus into our hearts.” To me, the content of this metaphor amounted to a request to succumb to simple brainwashing. Sunday classes amounted to the reciting of stories about the life of Jesus, some of which, like the story of Jesus’ encounter with the money changers in front of the synagogue, I liked very much, but most of which I found irrelevant. After a year of two of this unsatisfying indoctrination, I refused to go to Church any longer. I became progressively more agnostic. I had a friend who was the son of a Methodist Christian minister, and though I had small conversations with the boy’s father when invited to dine with the family, nothing in my feelings about Christianity changed.
As I became increasingly educated in science, I decided that I wished to become a scientist. The more I learned about science and the history of encounters between the Church and pursuers of truth such as Galileo, the more antagonistic became my relationship with Christianity. The theological conflict Christianity has engendered between reason and Christian faith drove me further and further away from Christianity throughout my period as a high school student and closer to materialist agnosticism.
In college, I began to meet Muslims and became interested in the culture of the Middle East. I became very interested in Islamic art, which piqued my interest in Islam itself. However, being a triple major in difficult academic subjects, I felt I had little extra time to study religion. Upon entering graduate school I bought a translation of the Qur’an and began reading it on the bus to and from my office. I found it very interesting, but was distracted by its detailed rules regarding legal and other practical matters, and furthermore had no one to ask about things made unclear in translation. Then I began dating a Catholic Christian girl about whom I became very serious. However, I refused to accept the Christian view of Christ no matter how many ways I considered it and despite the strength of faith, honesty, and morality my friend exhibited. Eventually, we parted ways, but the girl’s conservatism and strength of morality left a strong impression on me. I reconsidered the virtues of faith in God, untainted by the idea of associating of others with Him.
Soon thereafter I had a chance to meet new Muslim friends and to read the Qur’an again, now with these friends available to answer my questions about it. This time it really sunk in, and I couldn’t read enough; until now, I make time to read the Qur’an every day. The Qur’an in some way addressed every single one of the doubts I’d ever had about religion. Before this time, my opinion about religion had become that it was a essentially a construction formed from old myths for the purposes of advocating a particular view of morality, that it was used to benefit those in power in society. I believed that most religious people, however well intentioned, actually used religion as an excuse for their own failures and weaknesses and as a way of avoiding difficult questions about their own mortality and place in the physical universe. In short, I saw religion as a means of rationalizing that which human beings find difficult to face. I believed that this is what drew people to religion — faith was the quid pro quo for escaping moral accountability and personal insignificance. The Qur’an faced my supposition that religion is just mythologizing and storytelling and denied it directly; it made me face anew my reasons for abandoning religion. The Arabic Qur’an as an unaltered record of God’s words removes the possibility of Islamic religion being simply stories passed down from generation to generation or century to century progressively altered in content and language, and the strict personal moral accountability it required left no room for rationalizing immoral conduct: Islam was no escape mechanism for the irrational or the morally weak.
The Qur’an asked me to contemplate God’s creation and ask myself honestly “Is not this a great achievement?” I began to take seriously the idea that the universe might in fact be created. If this amazing universe were created, would not God be Great, as muslims say? In a religion which makes no room for hypocrisy and makes each human being fully accountable down to the smallest unit of good deeds and the smallest unit of bad deeds, true justice is possible. Indeed only in such a moral scheme is true justice possible. At the same time, Islam explicitly rejected all the clear errors of religion against which I had good arguments, such as deifying a man and/or associating others with the God. And it went further: it provided its own arguments against the errors of other religions and against uncalled-for doubt. I had been shown the straight path of God and had no excuse: I was obligated as an honest and rational human being to become a Muslim.
In The Name of Allah Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
It’s interesting for me to look back on my life and see how it all fits together – how Allah planned this for me all along. When I think about it, I can’t help saying “Subhannallah”, and thank Allah for bringing me to where I am today. At other times, I feel sad that I was not born into Islam and been a Muslim all my life. While I admire those who were, I at times pity them because sometimes they don’t really appreciate this blessing.
Insha’Allah, reading this can help you understand how I, at least, came to be a Muslim. Whether it gives you ideas for da’wah, or just gives you some inspiration in your own faith, I hope it is worth your time to read, insha’Allah. It is my story, but I think a lot of others might see themselves in it.
I was born in San Francisco, California, and raised in a Bay Area suburb. My small own (San Anselmo, pop. about 14,000 when I last checked) was a mostly white, upper-middle-class, Christian community. It is a beautiful area – just north of San Francisco (across the Golden Gate Bridge), nestled in a valley near the hillsides (Mount Tamalpais) and the Pacific Ocean. I knew all of my neighbours, played baseball in the street, caught frogs in the creeks, rode horses in the hills, and climbed trees in my front yard.
My father is Presbyterian, and my mother is Catholic. My father was never active in any church, but my mother tried to raise us as Catholics. She took us to church sometimes, but we didn’t know what was going on. People stand up, sit down, kneel, sit again, stand up, and recite things after the priest. Each pew had a booklet – a kind of “direction book” -and we had to follow along in order to know what to do next (if we didn’t fall asleep first!). I was baptized in this church, and received my First Communion at about the age of 8 (I have pictures, but I don’t remember it much). After that, we only went about once a year.
I lived on a dead-end street of about 15 houses. My grammar school was at the end of the street (4 houses down), next to a small Presbyterian Church. When I was about 10, the people of this church invited me to participate in their children’s Christmas play. Every Sunday morning from then on, I walked down to church alone (no one else in my family was interested in coming). The whole congregation was only about 30 older people (past their 50’s), but they were nice and never made me feel out of place. There were about three younger couples with children younger than me.
I became a very active member of this church down the street. When I was in 6th grade, I started baby-sitting the younger kids during the service. By ninth grade, I was helping the minister’s wife teach Sunday school. In high school, I started a church youth group by recruiting 4 of my friends to join me. It was a small group: my friends, myself, and a young couple with kids, but we liked it that way. The big Presbyterian Church in town had about 100 kids in their youth group and took trips to Mexico, etc. Nevertheless, our group was content to get together to study the bible, talk about God, and raise money for charities.
These friends and I would sit together and talk about spiritual issues. We debated about questions in our minds: what happens to the people who lived before Jesus came (go to heaven or hell); why do some very righteous people automatically go to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus (we thought about Gandhi); on the other hand, why do some pretty horrible people (like my friend’s abusive father) get rewarded with heaven just because they’re Christian; why does a loving and merciful God require a blood sacrifice (Jesus) to forgive people’s sins; why are we guilty of Adam’s original sin; why does the Word of God (Bible) disagree with scientific facts; how can Jesus be God; how can One God be 3 different things; etc. We debated about these things, but never came up with good answers. The church couldn’t give us good answers either; they only told us to “have faith”.
The people at church told me about a Presbyterian summer camp in Northern California. I went for the first time when I was 10. For the next 7 years, I went every summer. While I was happy with the little church I went to, this is where I really felt in touch with God, without confusion. It was here that I developed my very deep faith in God. We spent much of our time outdoors, playing games, doing crafts, swimming, etc. It was fun, but every day we would also take time out to pray, study the bible, sing spiritual songs, and have `quiet time.’ It is this quiet time that really meant a lot to me, and of which I have the best memories. The rule was that you had to sit alone – anywhere on the camp’s 200 beautiful acres. I would often go to a meadow, or sit on a bridge overlooking the creek, and just THINK. I looked around me, at the creek, the trees, the clouds, the bugs – listened to the water, the birds’ songs, the crickets’ chirps. This place really let me feel at peace, and I admired and thanked God for His beautiful creation. At the end of each summer, when I returned home, this feeling stayed with me. I loved to spend time outdoors, alone, to just think about God, life, and my place in it. I developed my personal understanding of Jesus’ role as a teacher and example, and left all the confusing church teachings behind.
I believed (and still do) in the teaching “Love your neighbour as yourself”, fully giving to others without expecting anything in return, treating others as you would like to be treated. I strived to help everyone I could. When I was fourteen, I got my first job, at an ice cream store. When I got my paycheck each month (it wasn’t much), I sent the first $25 to a program called “Foster Parents Plan” (they’ve changed the name now). This charity hooked up needy children overseas with American sponsors. During my 4 years of high school, I was a sponsor for a young Egyptian boy named Sherif. I sent him part of my paycheck each month, and we exchanged letters. (His letters were in Arabic, and looking at them now, it appears that he believed he was writing to an adult man, not a girl 5 years older than him.) He was 9 years old, his father was dead, and his mother was ill and couldn’t work. He had 2 younger brothers and a sister my age. I remember getting a letter from him when I was 16 – he was excited because his sister had got engaged. I thought, “She’s the same age as me, and she’s getting engaged!” It seemed so foreign to me. These were the first Muslims I had contact with.
Aside from this, I was also involved with other activities in high school. I tutored Central American students at my school in English. In a group called “Students for Social Responsibility,” I helped charities for Nicaraguan school children and Kenyan villagers. We campaigned against nuclear arms (the biggest fear we all had at that time was of a nuclear war).
I invited exchange students from France into my home, and I had penpals from all over the world (France, Germany, Sweden, etc.). My junior year of high school, we hosted a group called `Children of War’ – a group of young people from South Africa, Gaza Strip, Guatemala, and other war-torn lands, who toured the country telling their stories and their wishes for peace. Two of them stayed at my house – the group’s chaperone from Nicaragua, and a young black South African man. The summer after my junior year of high school, I took a volunteer job in San Francisco (the Tenderloin district), teaching English to refugee women. In my class were Fatimah and Maysoon, 2 Chinese Muslim widows from Vietnam. These were the next Muslims I met, although we couldn’t talk much (their English was too minimal). All they did was laugh.
All of these experiences put me in touch with the outside world, and led me to value people of all kinds. Throughout my youth and high school, I had developed two very deep interests: faith in God, and interacting with people from other countries. When I left home to attend college in Portland, Oregon, I brought these interests with me.
At Lewis & Clark College, I started out as a Foreign Language (French & Spanish) major, with a thought to one day work with refugee populations, or teach English as a Second Language. When I arrived at school, I moved into a dorm room with two others – a girl from California (who grew up only 10 minutes from where I did), and a 29-year-old Japanese woman (exchange student). I was 17.
I didn’t know anyone else at school, so I tried to get involved in activities to meet people. In line with my interests, I chose to get involved with 2 groups: Campus Crusade for Christ (obviously, a Christian group), and Conversation Groups (where they match Americans up with a group of international students to practice English).
I met with the Campus Crusade students during my first term of school. A few of the people that I met were very nice, pure-hearted people, but the majority were very ostentatious. We got together every week to listen to “personal testimonies”, sing songs, etc. Every week we visited a different church in the Portland area. Most of the churches were unlike anything I’d ever been exposed to before. One final visit to a church in the Southeast area freaked me out so much that I quit going to the Crusade meetings. At this church, there was a rock band with electric guitars, and people were waving their hands in the air (above their heads, with their eyes closed) and singing “hallelujah.” I had _never_ seen anything like it! I see things like this now on TV, but coming from a very small Presbyterian Church, I was disturbed. Others in Campus Crusade loved this church, and they continued to go. The atmosphere seemed so far removed from the worship of God, and I didn’t feel comfortable returning.
I always felt closest to God when I was in a quiet setting and/or outdoors. I started taking walks around campus (Lewis & Clark College has a beautiful campus!), sitting on benches, looking at the view of Mount Hood, watching the trees change colors. One day I wandered into the campus chapel – a small, round building nestled in the trees. It was beautifully simple. The pews formed a circle around the center of the room, and a huge pipe organ hung from the ceiling in the middle. No altar, no crosses, no statues – nothing. Just some simple wood benches and a pipe organ. During the rest of the year, I spent a lot of time in this building, listening to the organist practice, or just sitting alone in the quiet to think. I felt more comfortable and closer to God there than at any church I had ever been to.
During this time, I was also meeting with a group of international students as part of the Conversation Group program. We had five people in our group: me, a Japanese man and woman, an Italian man and a Palestinian man. We met twice a week over lunch, to practice English conversation skills. We talked about our families, our studies, our childhood, cultural differences, etc. As I listened to the Palestinian man (Faris) talk about his life, his family, his faith, etc., it struck a nerve in me. I remembered Sherif, Fatima and Maysoon, the only other Muslims I had ever known. Previously, I had seen their beliefs and way of life as foreign, something that was alien to my culture. I never bothered to learn about their faith because of this cultural barrier. But the more I learned about Islam, the more I became interested in it as a possibility for my own life.
During my second term of school, the conversation group disbanded and the international students transferred to other schools. The discussions we had had, however, stayed at the front of my thoughts. The following term, I registered for a class in the religious studies department: Introduction to Islam. This class brought back all of the concerns that I had about Christianity. As I learned about Islam, all of my questions were answered. None of us are punished for Adam’s original sin. Adam asked God for forgiveness and our Merciful and Loving God forgave him. God doesn’t require a blood sacrifice in payment for sin. We must sincerely ask for forgiveness and amend our ways. Jesus wasn’t God, he was a prophet, like all of the other prophets, who all taught the same message: Believe in the One true God; worship and submit to Him alone; and live a righteous life according to the guidance He has sent. This answered all of my questions about the trinity and the nature of Jesus (all God, all human, or a combination). God is a Perfect and Fair Judge, who will reward or punish us based on our faith and righteousness. I found a teaching that put everything in its proper perspective, and appealed to my heart and my intellect. It seemed natural. It wasn’t confusing. I had been searching, and I had found a place to rest my faith.
That summer, I returned home to the Bay Area and continued my studies of Islam. I checked books out of the library and talked with my friends. They were as deeply spiritual as I was, and had been searching (most of them were looking into eastern religions, Buddhism in particular). They understood my search, and were happy I could find something to believe in. They raised questions, though, about how Islam would affect my life: as a woman, as a liberal Californian, with my family, etc. I continued to study, pray and soul-search to see how comfortable I really was with it. I sought out Islamic centers in my area, but the closest one was in San Francisco, and I never got to visit (no car, and bus schedules didn’t fit with my work schedule). So I continued to search on my own. When it came up in conversation, I talked to my family about it. I remember one time in particular, when we were all watching a public television program about the Eskimos. They said that the Eskimos have over 200 words for “snow”, because snow is such a big part of their life. Later that night, we were talking about how different languages have many words for things that are important to them. My father commented about all the different words Americans use for “money” (money, dough, bread, etc.). I commented, “You know, the Muslims have 99 names for God – I guess that’s what is important to them.”
At the end of the summer, I returned to Lewis & Clark. The first thing I did was contact the mosque in south-west Portland. I asked for the name of a woman I could talk to, and they gave me the number of a Muslim American sister. That week, I visited her at home. After talking for a while, she realized that I was already a believer. I told her I was just looking for some women who could help guide me in the practicalities of what it meant to be a Muslim. For example, how to pray. I had read it in books, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it just from books. I made attempts, and prayed in English, but I knew I wasn’t doing it right. The sister invited me that night to an aqiqa (dinner after the birth of a new baby). She picked me up that night and we went. I felt so comfortable with the Muslim sisters there, and they were very friendly to me that night. I said my shahaada, witnessed by a few sisters. They taught me how to pray. They talked to me about their own faith (many of them were also American). I left that night feeling like I had just started a new life.
I was still living in a campus dorm, and was pretty isolated from the Muslim community. I had to take two buses to get to the area where the mosque was (and where most of the women lived). I quickly lost touch with the women I met, and was left to pursue my faith on my own at school. I made a few attempts to go to the mosque, but was confused by the meeting times. Sometimes I’d show up to borrow some books from the library, and the whole building would be full of men. Another time I decided to go to my first Jumah (Friday) prayer, and I couldn’t go in for the same reason. Later, I was told that women only meet at a certain time (Saturday afternoon), and that I couldn’t go at other times. I was discouraged and confused, but I continued to have faith and learn on my own.
Six months after my shahaada, I observed my first Ramadan. I had been contemplating the issue of hijab, but was too scared to take that step. I had already begun to dress more modestly, and usually wore a scarf over my shoulders (when I visited the sister, she told me “all you have to do is move that scarf from your shoulders to your head, and you’ll be Islamically dressed.”). At first, I didn’t feel ready to wear hijab, because I didn’t feel strong enough in my faith. I understood the reason for it, agreed with it, and admired the women who did wear it, they looked so pious and noble. But I knew that if I wore it, people would ask me many questions, and I didn’t feel ready or strong enough to deal with that.
This changed as Ramadan approached, and on the first day of Ramadan, I woke up and went to class in hijab. Alhamdillah, I haven’t taken it off since. Something about Ramadan helped me to feel strong, and proud to be a Muslim. I felt ready to answer anybody’s questions.
However, I also felt isolated and lonely during that first Ramadan. No one from the Muslim community even called me. I was on a meal plan at school, so I had to arrange to get special meals (the dining hall wasn’t open during the hours I could eat). The school agreed to give me my meals in bag lunches. So every night as sundown approached, I’d walk across the street to the kitchen, go in the back to the huge refrigerators, and take my 2 bag lunches (one for fitoor (sunset breakfast meal), one for suhoor (pre-dawn meal)). I’d bring the bags back to my dorm room and eat alone. They always had the same thing: yoghurt, a piece of fruit, cookies, and either a tuna or egg salad sandwich. The same thing, for both meals, for the whole month. I was lonely, but at the same time I had never felt more at peace with myself.
When I embraced Islam, I told my family. They were not surprised. They kind of saw it coming, from my actions and what I said when I was home that summer. They accepted my decision, and knew that I was sincere. Even before, my family always accepted my activities and my deep faith, even if they didn’t share it. They were not as open-minded, however, when I started to wear hijab. They worried that I was cutting myself off from society, that I would be discriminated against, that it would discourage me from reaching my goals, and they were embarrassed to be seen with me. They thought it was too radical. They didn’t mind if I had a different faith, but they didn’t like it to affect my life in an outward way.
They were more upset when I decided to get married. During this time, I had been back in touch with Faris, the Muslim Palestinian brother of my conversation group, the one who first prompted my interest in Islam. He was still in the Portland area, attending the community college. We started meeting again, over lunch, in the library, at his brother’s house, etc. We were married the following summer (after my sophomore year, a year after my shahaada). My family freaked out. They weren’t quite yet over my hijab, and they felt like I had thrown something else at them. They argued that I was too young, and worried that I would abandon my goals, drop out of school, become a young mother, and destroy my life. They liked my husband, but didn’t trust him at first (they were thinking “green card scam”). My family and I fought over this for several months, and I feared that our relationship would never be repaired.
That was 3 years ago, and a lot has changed. Faris and I moved to Corvallis, Oregon, home of Oregon State University. We live in a very strong and close-knit Muslim community. I graduated magna cum laude, with a degree in child development. I have had several jobs, from secretary to pre-school teacher, with no problems about my hijab. I’m active in the community, and still do volunteer work. My husband, insha’Allah, also finished his Electrical Engineering degree. We visit my family a couple of times a year. I met Faris’ parents for the first time this summer, and we get along great. I’m slowly but surely adding Arabic to the list of languages I speak.
My family has seen all of this, and has recognized that I didn’t destroy my life. They see that Islam has brought me happiness, not pain and sorrow. They are proud of my accomplishments, and can see that I am truly happy and at peace. Our relationship is back to Alhamdulillah.
Looking back on all of this, I feel truly grateful that Allah has guided me to where I am today. I truly feel blessed. It seems that all of the pieces of my life fit together in a pattern – a path to Islam.
Alhamdillillahi rabi al’amin.
Your sister in faith, C. Huda Dodge “Say: Allah’s guidance is the only guidance, and we have been directed to submit ourselves to the Lord of the Worlds…”
Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam, writing as Professor H. M. Léon, M.A., D.C.L., F.S.P., etc. (1916)
In the Numismatical department of the British Museum there is preserved a curious and interesting gold coin, over twelve hundred and thirty years old, on which is inscribed in unmistakable Arabic characters the declaration that ‘There is no Deity but Allah, The One, Without Equal, and Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah,’ and the further declaration, engraved around the margin of the coin, ‘Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah, Who sent him (Muhammad) with the doctrine and the true faith to prevail over every other religion.’
This coin was engraved, struck and issued by Offa, King of Mercia, or ‘Middle England’ (an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, which extended on both sides of the River Trent from the North Sea to Wales), from 757 to 796. The name, originally restricted to the district around Tamworth and Lichfield and the Upper Trent valley, refers to a ‘march,’ a moorland, or frontier, which had to be defended against hostile neighbours; in this case such ‘alien enemies’ being the Welsh, the ‘Ancient Britons,’ who for centuries contended with the Anglo-Saxon invaders for supremacy in that region.
A number of smaller states were gradually incorporated with Mercia, the first settlements being probably made during the second half of the sixth century of the Christian era. The kingdom was, however, of but little importance until the accession of Penda in 626 (C.D.), who rapidly, by his vigorous policy and equitable rule, attained a supremacy over the other kingdoms, particularly after his victory at Hatfield (or Heathfield) over Edin, the powerful Deiran king, in 633. In 655, however, Penda was defeated and slain at Winwaed by Oswin, king of Northumbria,  and for the time being Mercian supremacy was terminated. Wulfhere, the nephew of Penda (659-675), pushed back the Northumbrians, and extended the boundary of the kingdom southward to the Thames. Wulfhere was the first monarch of this kingdom to renounce paganism and embrace Christianity. One of his successors, Ethelbald (716-757), further spread the boundaries of Mercia, by making large encroachments upon the territories of adjoining states. But the mightiest kings of Mercia were Offa (757-796) and Cenwulf (806-819). After the death of the latter monarch the kingdom rapidly declined, and in 828 it was merged in the realm of Egbert, king of Wessex.
King Offa, in whose reign the interesting coin we have under consideration was struck, succeeded to the throne of Mercia in 757, he being the ninth monarch of that kingdom in succession from Wybba, the father of Penda (to whom allusion has previously been made). He found the kingdom much weakened, and probably the early years of his reign were occupied by him in restoring rule and order within his territory. In 771 he began a career of conquest: he defeated the army of the King of Kent in 775, and fought successfully against the West Saxons (779) and the Welsh. As a protection against these lattter marauders he constructed a great earthwork which extended along the whole border between England and Wales, from the north coast of Flintshire, on the estuary of the Dee, through Denbigh, Montgomery, Salop, Radnor and Hereford, into Gloucestershire, where its southern termination is near the mouth of the Wye. Portions of this rampart still stand to a considerable height, though much of it has been almost obliterated by the ravages of time, the elements, and human beings. A vast amount of labour must have been expended to construct this work. Nearly parallel with it, some two miles to the eastern or English side, is an inferior rampart termed Watt’s Dyke, which was also constructed by Offa and completed about 765 (C.D.). It is conjectured that the space between the two dykes may have been a species of neutral zone for trading purposes.
Offa had cordial relations with the Roman See. Two Legates, George and Theophylact, visited Mercia, and were received by the king at a court held at Lichfield in the year 786. The report which these ecclesiastics made to Pope Adrian I, attributed to 787, is printed in Birch’s Cart. Sax., No. 250. In this document there is direct reference to the vow made by King Offa to Pope Adrian I, through the Legates to send 365 mancuses to the ‘Apostle of God’ (i.e. the Pope), ‘as many as there are days in the year, as alms for the poor, and for the manufacture of lights for the church.’
This donation by Offa appears to have been the origin of what has ever since been known as ‘Peter’s Pence,’ and won from the Pope the grant of a Mercian archbishopric.
The importance of this grant by Offa will be hereafter seen, when we come to more particularly discuss the origin of the interesting coin we have now under consideration.
The coinage of the kingdom of Mercia appears to have been the most important of all the coin-striking kingdoms of the Heptarchy. The earliest Mercian coins are those which belong to the sceat class. These were usually of silver,  and weighed from eight to twenty grains.
These early Mercian sceattae bear the names of Penda and Ethelred. The coins of the former are of purely Roman types, but those of the latter show a mixture of Roman and native design, thus pointing to a somewhat later date. The inscriptions on Penda’s coins are in Roman and Runic characters, but those of Ethelred are in Runes (the ancient alphabet of the heathen Northmen) only.  The name of the king in each instance is given on the ‘reverse’ side of the coin.
From the death of Ethelred (704) to the reign of Offa (757-796), a period of over half a century, there are no numismatic records of Mercia.
Offa did not strike any sceattae, and his coins mainly consist of the ‘penny’ class. They were of silver and weighed from eighteen to twenty grains. It is believed that Offa was the first monarch to introduce the ‘penny’ into England. The form of this coin, but not the type, was derived from thedenier of Charlemagne. 
Offa’s coins of the ‘Penny series’ are remarkable for their artistic excellence both in execution and design, and in this respect far surpass the issues of many succeeding rulers. The types are not only numerous but varied. They can be classified into two series: those bearing the bust of the king, and those in which the bust is absent. The bust, when present, is original in character, and exhibits undoubted attempts at portraiture. The designs on the reverse of the coins are decidedly ornamental, and comprise for the most part elaborately formed crosses or floral patterns. The busts upon the coins are well formed, and the head bears a life-like expression, the hair being usually arranged in close curls or plaits, but in some of the specimens it is loose and flowing. The inscriptions are generally in Roman characters, but here and there traces of Runes survive. There are no indications of mint-names, but we may conclude that the principal Mercian mint was in London. The coins themselves, however, prove that after the defeat of the King of Kent and his army in 775, at Otford (about three miles north of Sevenoaks and eight-and-a-half miles north-north-west of Tunbridge, Kent), when Kent became a fief of Mercia, Offa made use of the Canterbury mint. 
The remarkable gold coin of Offa bearing the Arabic inscription has furnished much food for reflection amongst the students of numismatics, and it is generally conceded that it is one of the rarest and most remarkable coins in the world.
Many treatises and papers have been written upon the coin and its origin, and numerous theories propounded with regard to the same.
So far back as November 25, 1841, a paper by Monsieur Adrian de Longperier, of Paris, was read before the Numismatic Society of London  upon this very coin. Mr. J. Y. Akerman, in a paper read before the same society on March 24, 1842, and printed in the Numismatic Chronicle, vol. v. pp. 122-124, also considers the raison d’être of this coin being struck. It is referred to by Mr. Herbert A. Grueber, F.S.A., in his Handbook of theCoins of Great Britain and Ireland in the British Museum (published 1899).  The coin is fully described in Kenyon’s Gold Coins of England, 1884, pp.11, 12, and is illustrated in the frontispiece to that work, Fig. 13. It was made the subject of an exhaustive and extremely interesting article by Mr. P.W.P. Carlyon-Britton, F.S.A., President of the British Numismatic Society,  and as recently as 1914 was the subject of an excellent paper by Mr. J. Allan, M.A. (British Museum Staff, Coin Department). 
The theories put forward by the above learned gentlemen, all of them well versed in numismatical lore, and by some other individuals, whose names are not so well known to fame, may be classified under the following heads:-
(1) That Offa had become a convert to Islam, and took this means of declaring his acceptance of that Faith by stamping the Kalima, or Islamic Confession of Faith, upon his coins.
(2) That, without knowing the meaning of the Arabic words upon the coin, possibly merely regarding them as so much ornamentation, Offa had the coin struck off, merely adding, in order to identify himself with the same, the words ‘Offa Rex’ stamped also thereupon.
(3) That, as many pilgrims proceeded from England to the ‘Holy Land’ of Palestine, then under the dominion of the Muslims, this coin was struck, bearing this Arabic inscription in order that it might be the more readily accepted by the Muslims, and thus facilitate the journey of the pilgrims are assist them in trading (which may of them did) in those lands.
(4) That the piece was not a coin intended for general circulation, but was struck specially as a mancus and as one of the quota of 365 gold pieces which Offa had vowed to pay annually to the Pope of Rome.
Undoubtedly something can be said in support of each of these theories, but in these matters one must carefully consider all the circumstances of the time and weigh the pros and cons upon the subject. The first theory, namely that Offa had accepted Islam, appears to me to be absolutely untenable. At that time Islam was naught more to the Western world than the absolutely living embodiment of ‘Anti-Christ.’ Its tenets were not only not understood, but were wickedly misrepresented, and it was this wilful misrepresentation of ‘The Faith Most Excellent,’ and the colossal ignorance and superstition of the mob, that made the series of crusades possible. Even to-day, twelve centuries after the passing away of Offa, the most profound ignorance exists among the masses as to Islamic doctrines and ethics. Is it then at all probable that Offa, who had petitioned the Pope to grant him an Archbishop for his kingdom, and had voluntarily vowed to pay 365 golden pieces each year to that pontiff (and we know from authentic documents and records that up to his death such tribute was regularly paid by Offa), and had received with open arms and the greatest honour the legates from Rome, should become a Muslim? At that period in the world’s history for Offa to have done so would have meant for him, not merely the loss of his throne, but probably his life also.
Most of his other coins are stamped with a cross and bear his bust! That is not very Islamic.
True that the cross may have been placed upon the coins, and deeply indented therein, so as to enable the same to have been the more easily divided into halves or quarters; but the cross is there, and we cannot conceive any ‘True-Believer’ placing such an emblem upon any coin issued by him.
Furthermore, after the conquest of Kent by Offa in 775, and the adding of that territory to his kingdom, we find the Archbishops of Canterbury acknowledging Offa (and subsequently his successor Coenwulf) as their overlord. This is amply proved by one of the coins struck by the Archbishops of Canterbury (who possessed the right of minting money) at that period.
Jaenberht (766-790) is the first Archbishop of Canterbury of whom coins are known. During his episcopate Offa conquered Kent, and as Jaenberht’s coins were struck under his supremacy, they always bear that ruler’s name on the reverse. The obverse types are a star, a cross potent or pommée, or the name of the archbishop in three lines only. The reverse is always the same with one exception, namely, with Offa’s name at the end of a cruciform object.
The next archbishop was Aethelheard (793-805); he was elected to that office in 791, but did not receive the pallium until 793. During this interval he appears to have struck coins with the title of Pontifex instead of Archiepiscopus. His early coins bear the name of Offa; but those struck after 796 that of Coenwulf. Those with the name of Offa have for obverse and reverse types:- a star, a cross, the Christian monogram, etc. 
Is it likely that these archbishops, whose territory had been conquered by Offa, who had set up a rival archbishop to them in his own dominions, would have put the name of Offa on their coins if he had accepted Islam? Rather would we not have seen them denouncing him as ‘an infidel,’ and rousing the populace in revolt against him and his rule?
The first theory therefore appears to be absolutely untenable.
Let us now consider the theory that without knowing the meaning of the Arabic words upon the coin, and possibly regarding them as pure ornamentation, Offa had the coin struck, adding the words ‘Offa Rex’ to the original superscription.
Mons. Adrian de Longperier inclines to this view. He says:-
‘However strange this piece may appear, it is yet susceptible of explanation. The faults of orthography to be traced in the legend, which is reversed in its position with the words OFFA REX, show that it is a copy of a Mussulman dinar, by a workman unacquainted with the Arabic language, and indeed ignorant of the fact of these characters belonging to any language whatsoever. Examples of a similar description of coin were put in circulation by the French bishops of Agde and Montpellier in the thirteenth century. In the present case, we cannot see an intentional adoption of a foreign language, as on the coins of Russia, Spain, Sicily, Georgia, and even Germany. On the moneys of Vassili Dimitrivitch, of Dmitri Imamvicht, on that of the Norman princes William and Roger, and the Mozarbic dinar of Alfonsus, we find Arabic legends appropriated to the very princes by whose commands they were struck. One silver piece of Henry IV, Emperor of Germany, bears on the reverse the name of the Khalif Moktader Billah-ben-Muhammad; but this is merely the result of an association between those princes.’ 
In support of the views of Mons. A. de Longperier, it is worth noticing that in later times there were issued by Christian princes coins having inscriptions partly in Roman and partly in Arabic characters, and some were issued by Crusaders with entirely Arabic inscriptions.
In Mr Carlyon-Britton’s paper upon this coin  he quotes five specimens of this description of coin, namely:-
(1) A gold coin of Alfonzo VIII, of Castile (1158-1214, Christian date), the Arabic inscription on the obverse side whereof reads thus: El Imam al- bay’ata el mesiahyata el Baba ALF. Bismiel ab Walibu wa errooh el kaddûs Allahoo wahido mam aman wa’ tamada yekdon salminan. The translation whereof if: ‘The pontiff of the church of the Messiah, the Pope. ALF. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, one God. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.’
The reverse side of the coin bears an inscription in Arabic of which the following is a translation: ‘Prince of the Catholics (Amir el Katolikin), Alfonso, son of Sancho. May God help and protect him.’ Around the margin of the coin we find this legend also in Arabic characters: ‘This dinar was struck in the city of Toledo, 1235 of (the era of) Assafar.’
The era of Assafar dates from 30 B.C., that being the date of the submission of Spain to the Romans, consequently the coin in question dates from the year 1197 of the Christian era.
The other coins exhibited by Mr Carlyon-Britton are:
(2) Silver ‘staurat’ drachma struck at St. Jean d’Acre about 1251 under Louis IX (1251-1259).
(3) Gold besant struck by Crusaders at St. Jean d’Acre in 1251.
(4) Early imitation by Crusaders of dinars of El Amir (Fatimite Khaliph from 1101 to 1130 C.D. = 494 to 524 Hegira), and attributed to the regency of Bohemund I of Antioch under Tancred.
(5) Imitation of a dinar of about the time of Hisham II (Hegira 400-403), independent Amawu Caliph in Spain. Found in Spain.
Of the above five coins, three of them (1 to 3) contain Christian inscriptions written in Arabic language and character; the latter two (4 and 5) are written in corrupted Arabic. No.4 has a small Maltese cross in the centre of the reverse side.
The third suggestion, namely that the coin was coined by Offa for the use of such of his subjects as made the pilgrimage to the ‘Holy Land,’ does not seem very probable. The number of such pilgrims, of necessity, would be limited to a comparative few, and the monarchs of those days, even if they were as pious as King Offa is stated to have been, were not distinguished for any particular solicitude for the comfort of their subjects. The majority of these rulers would rather grind out from their subjects the uttermost farthing they could extort, rather than go to the expense and trouble of providing special coins for their use while on a pilgrimage.
There remains, therefore, but the fourth proposition to consider, and here we find ourselves on much surer ground. We have already seen that Offa had made a vow that he would pay 365 gold pieces every year to the Pope, and that probably, in consideration of the faithful fulfilment of that vow, the occupant of the pontifical throne had bestowed an Archbishop upon Mercia. The exact date of Offa’s vow we do not know, but it may fairly be presumed that he made it to the two papal legates, George and Theophylact, who visited him in 786.
The date upon Offa’s coin now becomes extremely important.
The coin bears the date Hegira 157, equivalent to 774 of the Christian era. This date does not, however, prove that Offa’s coin was struck in that year (twelve years prior to the visit of the legates); but as the piece is manifestly a copy of an Arabic dinar of that year (Hegira 157), made by a person who did not understand Arabic (otherwise, why did he place the words OFFA REX in an inverted position to the Arabic characters), all that the date, 157 Hegira, demonstrates is that Offa’s coin was struck in, or, what is more probable, subsequently to the year 774 of the Christian era.
What appears to us to be the most probable origin of this coin is that when Offa made his vow, the question arose as to what was to be the size and weight of each of the 365 ‘gold pieces.’ In reply to such a query on the part of the king, who would naturally desire to know the exact extent of his liability, what would be more natural for one of the legates to hand Offa a coin, and say, ‘365 gold pieces like this’?
Arabic coins were well known at Rome. Countless pilgrims from the Holy Land passed through the Eternal City on their return from Palestine, many of whom laid offerings at the foot of the papal throne. It is fair to presume that amongst such offerings so made, that Arabic gold coins, then in free circulation in Syria, would be included, and high ecclesiastics, such as the legates, would easily become possessed of the same, and might preserve them as curiosities; or it may have been that, seeing that the Arab dinar was of a known weight and quality of gold, one of those coins was especially brought to England to fix thereby the standard and quality of ‘the gold pieces’ to be paid as tribute by Offa.
If such was the case, and Offa so received a sample coin, the Mercian king, according to the almost slavish superstitions of that period, would naturally desire to scrupulously perform his vow to the very letter, and to accomplish this object he would have the sample coin faithfully imitated and struck in his own mint, and stamped in addition with his own name and title, ‘OFFA REX,’ in order that no question could thereafter arise as to the exact fulfilment of the vow in regard to the species of coin promised, or as to the identity of the sender of the contribution. That Offa did keep his promise is certain, for in the papal letter sent in 798 by Pope Leo III to Offa’s successor, King Coenwulf, requesting that monarch to continue the donation, it is distinctly so stated.  It may, therefore, be reasonably presumed that Offa’s coin was struck about 787, and was one of the 365 gold pieces sent to Rome in pursuance of his vow.
It is significant to know that this particular coin – so far as we know, the only one now extant – was purchased by a certain Duke de Blacas, an enthusiastic numismatist, in Rome, about a century ago.
No similar coin has been found in England. All this goes to show that the coin was not struck to be put into circulation in England, but was coined for a special purpose, such probably being the payment by Offa of the promised tribute to Rome.
If such be the case, then what bitter irony, unconsciously, accompanied the gift! One of the claims of the Head of the Catholic Christian is that he is the ‘Apostle of God,’ and the ‘Vice-regent of Christ upon the earth.’ Yet, here to his teeth his faithful servitor, Offa, sends as a tribute 365 golden coins, on each of which is plainly stated: There is but One Allah, the Only God, the True, and Muhammad is His Prophet!
Well might Cowper write the lines:
‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform’!
 This was the period when England was divided into what was termed the Heptarchy, or seven kingdoms. These were: Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Northumbria, Wessex, Sussex, and Essex. So far as is known, only the first five kingdoms named above struck coins.
 The origin of the Runic writing has been a matter of prolonged controversy. The runes were formerly supposed to have originated out of the Phoenician or the Latin letters, but it is now generally agreed that they must have been derived, about the sixth century B.C., from an early form of the Greek alphabet which was employed by the Milesian traders and colonists of Olbia and other towns on the northern shores of the Black Sea. The Runic alphabet (the oldest of which contained 24 runes, divided into 3 families, each of 8 runes) is called the Futhorc, from the first six letters thereof, f, u, th, o, r, c. The old Norse word run originally meant ‘secret’ or magical. The oldest extant Runic records probably date from the first century of the Christian era, the latest from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century; the greater number are older than the eleventh century, when, after the conversion of the Scandinavians to Christianity, the Futhorc was superseded by the Latin alphabet.
 The letters £ s. d., which are used as abbreviations for pounds, shillings, and pence, owe their origin to certain Latin words used to denote coins. Thus £ signifies libra, a pound sterling; s signifies solidus. The Romans divided their coinage thus: one libra equaled 20 solidi, each solidus being equal to 12denarii (the denarius thus being, as the modern English penny is to-day, the 240th part of the libra or pound); d signifies denarius, a penny, a word derived from the Latin deni, ten each, from decem, ten. The denarius was the principal silver coin of ancient Rome. The earliest money of Rome was of bronze, and the standard was the as. In 269 B.C. the as was fixed by law at a low valuation, and a silver coin was introduced, with the denarius = to 10 asses, and thequinarius = to 5 asses. The penny (Anglo-Saxon, penig; German, Pfenning, Pfennig) probably derives its name from the Middle Latin word panna, itself derived from the Latina, patina, a shallow bowl. After the sceattae the penny is the most ancient of the English coins, and was the only one current among the Anglo-Saxons. It is first mentioned in the laws of Ina, King of the West Saxons, about the close of the seventh century of the Christian era. It was at that time a silver coin, and weighed about 22.5 troy grains. Halfpence and farthings were not coined in England until the reign of Edward I., but the practice previously prevailed of so deeply indenting the penny with a cross mark that the coin could be easily broken into two or four parts as was required. In 1672 an authorized copper coinage was established in England and halfpence and farthings were struck in copper. The penny was not introduced until 1797, and at the same period the coinage of two-penny pieces was begun; but these latter being found unsuitable were withdrawn. The penny of the present bronze coinage is of only half the value of the old copper coin.
 In Anglo-Saxon times mints for the coinage of money existed at London, Canterbury, and Malmesbury, and coins are extant bearing the names Dorovernis (Canterbury), Londuni(London), and Mealldenus (Malmesbury), showing the place where they were struck.