After the success of his Saïd the Fisherman, Pickthall was emboldened to attempt a novel set entirely in the Middle East. The plot is set during the reign of Sultan Abd al-Majid, and concerns a saintly scholar, Shems-ud-dín, who comes to Jerusalem to find a European doctor for Alia, his desperately-ill daughter. This entails both a tussle with his own religious pride, and a difficult encounter with his son, who has risen to high office in the local Ottoman administration.
The sun rode high above the Holy City, but a freshness of the dawn still lurked in the shade of her rough walls, in the gloom of her covered ways, which swarmed with people in all kinds of raiment representative of every nation under heaven. To any one threading that crowded labyrinth of whitish stone, ancient and coherent, glimpses of the pure blue sky became welcome as a flower on rocks. For Shems-ud-dín, accustomed through so many years to wide horizons and an open road, the overshadowing walls made a prison. The hubbub of the bazaars dazed him, and he felt hurt by the careless shouldering of other wayfarers.
He had been to visit Alia, and was making his way, under guidance of the faithful Zeyd, to the Sacred Area, when he met Shibli walking with Hassan Agha and his attendant Circassians amid the throng in a long, dim market.
‘How is the health of our dove this morning?’ cried Hassan, speaking for them all. ‘In sh’ Allah, the poor one is much better/‘
‘If not better, her frame has rest – for which Allah be praised!’ returned Shems-ud-dín. ‘The people of the house are very kind, as I learn from the mouth of Mâs. The Lord reward them! … O Shibli, son of my hope, unless thou hast some grave business, come with me to the Dome of the Rock, whither I go to pray. It is long since I spoke with thee in private. Come and let thy voice comfort me, O my dear.’
Shibli obeyed, as in duty bound; but his face often turned to gaze wistfully after the Cricassians, and the lines of his mouth expressed grievance.
‘Is the health of the beloved indeed no better?’ he felt it incumbent on him to ask.
‘I know not how to answer thee, O my son. I fear hope as a friend untried. It is enough to desire. Notwithstanding, if Allah wills that she be made whole, there appears to my mind a possibility which yesterday I could not discern.’
‘Praise be to Allah!’ murmured Shibli, very properly.
The quiet of the Muslim quarter brought refreshment to Shems-ud-dín, after the clamour of the motley throng in the bazaars. Old walls rose high on either hand. Jutting lattices, with here and there an arch, encroached on the jewel sky. In the shade of one ancient portal, ornate but crumbling to decay, sat a breadseller asleep behind two tiers of flat, brown loaves. A man with a water-skin on his back turned in at the doorway of a house before them. A grave notable, in apparel sober but rich, passed them without a glance, one hand in his breast. Everything in that dim, once splendid quarter told of a proud reserve, of a dignity that needs no trump for its assertion. The air was sad with the sadness of great things past.
They entered what seemed a disused bazaar of rare magnificence, a huge corridor with a lofty vaulted roof, which got light from the far end where its tall arch framed the sky. The place was deserted and ruinous, its floor uneven and strewn with the brash of masonry. Shems-ud-dín quickened step instinctively to gain the light which picked out the faces of his companions from the shades wherein they had walked so long.
The outer sunshine crashed on their sight with the splinter of a thousand lances. The great mouth of the passage yawned black as night behind them. On either side of it ran a high irregular wall, bearing here and there a lattice, the end of the houses in this direction. They stood on a strip of clear ground, on which a few old trees cast blots of shadow; a place waste save for patches of wrought pavement and certain small, domed shrines as delicate as toys of ivory.
Before them, at no great distance, rose a flight of wide steps leading up on to a terraced plateau, and at a point further off up sprang a sister flight exactly similar. On the top of either stairway, in the gate of the Haram, stood three slender columns, light and graceful as flower-stems, supporting arches. At one end of the plateau, seen through cypress trees, crouched a mosque of many aisles; and numberless small, domed buildings – shrines and cells and pulpits – capped the terrace walls. But what drew and absorbed their gaze to the forgetting of all else, the sun and centre of all, was a mighty dome, in form and colour somewhat resembling a ripe fig, springing from the roof of an octagon of two kinds of marble, wrought together into cunning patterns. Not a foot of the great building but had been treated minutely, curiously, by the hands of forgotten craftsmen. In the full light of morning, there in that sand-hued place, it bloomed a wondrous iris of the hills, a thing to wring a shout from the dying.
Even Shibli forgot his dudgeon, and joined reverently with Zeyd ebn Abbâs in reciting the prayer of first approach, after Shems-ud-dín.
Then, having gazed all about them, they crossed the waste ground and mounted the steps. Discarding slippers, they passed along a time-worn pavement to the place of washing. With the exception of two middle-aged men in dark robes and white turbans, who sat disputing gravely beneath a tree and gave but one look to the pilgrims, they seemed alone in the vast enclosure.
When, having purified their bodies, they ventured to approach the Noble Sanctuary, Shems-ud-dín thought well to remind them of its claims to reverence.
‘Within, beneath this admirable dome,’ he said, ‘we shall behold the rock whereon Neby Ibrahim, the Friend of God, prepared to sacrifice his beloved son Ismail, at the bidding of the Most High. Hither also, in an after age, was our lord Muhammed, the Apostle of God, borne by night on the celestial beast, Burac; and from that same rock was he transported to the seventh heaven, being yet mortal. Surely there is no stone in all the world save only that of Mekka, more worthy of our reverence than this rock, which God has hallowed from of old. And the Khalif, Omar El Khattab (peace to him!), did well to raise this splendid dome above it.’
Zeyd ebn Abbâs devoured those high words greedily. Shibli heard them with respect. At the entrance to the Dome of the Rock Shems-ud-dín ceased speaking, and they passed into the tinted gloom of the sanctuary.
While Shibli and Zeyd ebn Abbâs paced the ring of pavement, studying the texts worked in mosaic upon the walls and above the arches looking on the natural rock so gloriously enshrined, Shems-ud-dín knelt and made prostration, praying –
‘O Allah, pardon! Grant to thy servant faith on the pattern of El Khalil, who in this place offered his dearest freely unto thee. Am I not the very opposite of Neby Ibrahim El Khalil? When all reasonable means failed to restore my child, and prayer had been made in vain, Thy Will was manifest to me. Yet I presumed to seek other aid, I sought to procure her health by man’s exertion. I followed the contrivance of my own mind. Am I not impious, therefore? Am I not abominable? What am I that Thou shouldst hear me, or my deeds upon the earth to make a claim upon Thee? Nevertheless, Thou deignest to give ear to the prayers of men, and hast ordained prayer unto us as an offering pleasing in Thy sight. Hear me, O Lord, in this my extremity! Oh, have mercy on my daughter, the innocent; and smite me rather, for I am sinful! And whatever Thy Will concerning her, teach me to resign myself to it utterly. Subdue my mind and my soul, and lead me in the way of the upright.’
He rose at length from off the pavement, and went and sat cross-legged, his back against the wall. Tears blinded him. The footsteps of Shibli and Zeyd echoed in the vast dome, and their whispering made a hollow murmur. But Shems-ud-dín heard nothing save the clamour of his inward strife.
All at once a voice near his ear said, ‘Why weepest thou, O my brother?’
With a start, as one awakes out of sleep, he looked and beheld one in flowing raiment standing before him, a very old man who leaned upon a staff. His face was deeply furrowed where the white hair grew not, and his lips were shrivelled and sucked inward as when the gums beneath have shrunken, being toothless. Shems-ud-dín sat amazed by the apparition, for he had not heard the old man’s steps approaching nor the tap of his staff along the stones. He saw the forms of Zeyd and Shibli afar off, standing watching as men smitten with dismay.
‘What ails thee, O my brother? Wherefore weepest thou? I cannot discern thy likeness, for my eyes grow dim; but I see thy beard white as my own, and I hear thy sobs. What dire distress is thine, an old man inured to human griefs, that thou so lamentest?’
‘A long story, O my brother.’
‘A long story is the best of stories, and I like it none the worse for promising to be sad. At my age one is impatient only of abruptness, the inconsequence of the merry and light-minded. Lend me the help of thy hand, O my brother, that I may compose my limbs to sit beside thee.’
Shems-ud-dín reached forth his hand and the old man grasped it, steadying himself therewith while he tucked his staff beneath his left elbow. He was about to subside upon the bare stones, when Zeyd ebn Abbâs darted forward and spread his ragged cloak upon the ground beneath him. The old man smiled vaguely, exposing his toothless gums.
‘May Allah requite thee, O my son! May this thy courtesy be counted to thee for righteousness! Thy cloak is old and of poor material, as my hands perceive. May a rich mantle fall upon thee from the hands of Allah!’
Zeyd bowed his head to the blessing, and rejoined Shibli with a face of great elation.
‘Now deign to impart thy story, O my brother!’ said the old man, when fairly seated.
Shems-ud-dín complied straightway. He abated nothing of his own frowardness, but confessed it throughout the story, speaking much of his soul’s uneasiness on that account.
At the end, there was silence for a little space. Then that old man spoke.
‘During all the years that I have been Chief of the Learned in this place, never – Allah witness! – never heard I such a tale as this thou hast related. Beloved, I see not with thy eyes; I see goodness everywhere in thy conduct, save only in the one point of thy recourse to the unbeliever, of which thou madest nought in the telling. This Frank is not an infidel like another infidel. He is of those who openly oppose the faith. Is there not a corân concerning such an one: “The worst beasts in God’s sight are those who are obstinate unbelievers”?’
‘But, on the other hand, there is also this corân: “Allah is our Lord and your Lord; unto us our works, and unto you your works; no quarrelling between us and you; for Allah will gather in us both, and unto Him we shall return.”’
‘Good. But that word is abrogated in the judgement of all the learned!’
‘Not of all, by thy leave! There be many who assert that no word from Allah can be rendered null, that this has its season, and that its season, but all are eternally valid. I was ever of the party of these last. As to the degree of intercourse permissible with unbelievers, and more especially with the People of the Book, it is nowhere fixed for us. I could quote a hundred traditions in support of either argument, and the best precedents are in like manner at variance. For instance, if we refer to the Sûnna – ’
‘Stay! Hast thou studied the Sûnna?’
‘Assuredly; and all our commentators and, I verily believe, every scripture relevant to the subject.’
‘O happy day for me! Welcome, and again welcome, O my soul! Deign now to dispute a little! It is seldom I can exercise my learning; very seldom I am able to confer with a man like thee. The lamp of knowledge does but smoke nowadays.’
It was long since Shems-ud-dín had enjoyed conversation with his equal in learning. The two sheykhs held long conference, while Zeyd sat on his heels watching them, and Shibli wandered to and fro, yawning frequently and viewing the wonders about him with a growing disenchantment.
At last the old man rose by the help of Shems-ud-dín and the attentive Zeyd. He said –
‘My peace on thee! Thou art a prince of scholars, and a man most righteous. If I perceive any fault in thee, it is that thy mind exalts small matters, and overlooks or belittles points of real importance – a common failing among us learned in the Law, professed quibblers. This matter of thy going to the Frank is, to my thinking, no trifle. I hope to convince thee of the wrong in it at some other time. Come hither whenever thou art so minded, it is a boon I crave of thee. Ask for Mahmûd Ali, which is my name. And if ever thou desirest to pray alone, there stand cells enough within our precincts, empty, for the most part, save in Ramadân, which is not yet. They and all I dispose of are thine to use, O my soul’s brother!’
With a parting benison the old man hobbled away, bowed upon his staff.
Shems-ud-dín said one last prayer, then went out with his companions into the blinding sunlight.
Zeyd, the son of Abbâs, raised his hands on high, towards that sapphire dome which has the world for pavement. In a loud voice he praised Allah, and blessed the day on which it had been given him to witness the meeting of two most holy men, and garner in his imagination a drop of two of the celestial wisdom that had gushed in rivers from their mouths.
Shibli drew breath of relief, and looked upon the heaped-up, whitish city with a lover’s eyes.
(London: Methuen, 1906).
‘Or do you calculate that you will enter Paradise when there has not come to you the like of that which came to those who passed away before you? Tribulation and calamity afflicted them, they were shaken as by earthquake, so that the Prophet and those who believed with him said: ‘When comes Allah’s help?’ Now truly Allah’s help is very nigh.’ – Al-Qur-án.
This verse in its context has a close connection with the revelation which first told the Prophet and the early Muslims that they must fight in self-defence. They had suffered cruel persecution for twelve years in Mecca. At last they had escaped by flight to Yathrib – the city which we now call El Medînah – among friendly people, and they had thought their troubles were all over. Then came the news that the idolatrous Coreysh in Mecca, not content with their voluntary exile from that city, were raising a great army, for those days, with intent to follow them to their place of refuge and destroy them utterly. They saw themselves already overwhelmed, they were thinking of a further flight; and the Ansâr, their faithful helpers in Medînah, were preparing to fly with them rather than abjure the Faith, when word from Allah came that they were not to flee away at all, but to go out and fight.
They were dismayed at the command; for they possessed no fighting force to bear comparison with that of their pursuers. Some of them grumbled and complained about it in the simple fashion of those days when every Muslim spoke his mind before the Holy Prophet freely. They said that they would all be dead in a short while. And the word of Allah came:
‘Call not those who are killed in the way of Allah dead, but rather living, only you do not perceive.’
They complained that they had hoped, after all they had already suffered, that they would be allowed to live out the remainder of their pious lives in peace, and enter Paradise without more tribulation. And the word of Allah came:
‘Or do you calculate that you will enter Paradise when there has not come to you the like of that which came to those who passed away before you? Tribulation and calamity afflicted them, they were shaken as by earthquake, so that the Prophet and those who believed with him said: “When comes Allah’s help?” Now truly Allah’s help is very nigh.’
It took a long while to make the simpler companions understand that they were no longer ordinary people, but companions of a wonder-working Prophet like those of old of whom the story had come down to them. They did not know the future. They could not foresee the miraculous success which would attend their fighting. They did not realize that they were called by God Himself to play the part of saints and heroes in the holy war which liberated human destiny from all the earthborn superstitions and restrictions which till then had held it bound, and broke the walls which foolish people had erected, shutting out the light of Heaven and barring the approach to God which should be free to all. It was hard for them to realize that they were highly favoured when they found themselves subjected to great hardships and unheard-of dangers, things they disliked as heartily as you and I do. Some of them even thought, comparing all this tribulation with the quiet life which they had led before conversion, that Allah was angry with them for becoming Muslims. For we find in the Qur-án a verse warning believers not to mistake the persecution of the heathen for the wrath of God, and assuring them of Allah’s favour if they persevered. They persevered, and they found Allah’s favour, and they entered Paradise.
If they had disobeyed the Divine command to fight, if they had fled before the danger threatening them, only intent to lead their harmless lives in peace, they would have missed the happiness which was, in fact, in store for them – the glorious peace, the wonderful prosperity, the triumph of good over evil which gave new life to the world. And they would not have entered Paradise hereafter. And their enemies also would have been the losers, for they would not have known the peace which comes from resignation to Allah; Arabia would have remained idolatrous, disgraced by drunkenness and senseless bloodshed and every kind of vicious and degrading orgy.
It is obvious that those who strive and suffer and endure the most in Allah’s service are the most notable, if not necessarily always the best of Allah’s servants. But some of you may be astonished when I say that they are the happiest of Allah’s servants in this world, provided always that they persevere. For Allah’s help is always near to them, and that is no mere figure of speech or poetical expression. It is a promise of Allah, who never breaks His promise. I need not tell you that for every one who has endured some persecution for the Faith – and few British Muslims, I imagine, can have quite escaped it – must have experienced the curious serenity of mind, the flood of happiness coming at the very moment when the greatest shame, the greatest suffering, or the greatest fear was to be expected. It is just as if a powerful protecting friend had clasped your hand and said: ‘Fear nothing. You are not alone. Leave all to me.’ I am not at all the type of person who is naturally addicted to seeing visions and to dreaming dreams, yet I have had that experience sometimes for days together, not once nor twice, but many times in the past year. So evidently other and more spiritually gifted people must have had it too in the like circumstances. I have no doubt but that some perfect Muslims enjoy that serene communion at all times, and that it is the condition mentioned in the Qur-án when it is said:
‘And there shall no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve.’
But I have only known it in its fullness at moments which would have been moments of despair for anybody who did not hold himself subservient to Allah’s purpose. And looking back upon those moments I would not exchange them for as many years of quiet, comfortable life. So I say that we, the Muslims of to-day, are fortunate in a religious sense because we live in a time of trial and misfortune for the Faith. The touch of persecution we have to endure, the fight we have to wage against an overwhelming foe, is nothing when compared with ‘that which came to those who passed away before us’ – the Holy Prophet and his blest companions – for the world has grown in toleration since those days! But it is sufficient to awake in us new spiritual life through the assurance which each one of us receives of Allah’s help – ‘Now truly Allah’s help is very nigh’ – and to draw us all more close together in affection and comradeship. When I think of all the dangers and the temptations of the past four years, of the furious way in which the Muslim world has been assailed, with threats and bribes and war-time propaganda from both sides incessantly, it is with a glow of pride that I look round upon the Muslim world to-day and see that it stands firm; it has not flinched nor moved the fraction of an inch from the correct position defined for it by the Holy Prophet and the Sacred Book; it is with a thrill of pride that I see Sunni and Shî‘a standing side by side as brothers in the firm demand for what is just and right. Thank God for that.
But we must not now sit down to comfort and a life of laziness, thinking that our work is done and we shall enter Paradise. Our work, perhaps, is only just beginning. We must stand prepared for a yet greater ordeal, if it be Allah’s will that it should come to us. We have been passive until now; we must henceforth be active in defending the essentials of our Faith. There comes a time when further yielding, a further flight, on our part would mean incalculable loss and ruin to ourselves and our opponents, because the essentials of Islam are essential to the welfare of the world. But if the ordeal comes, we need not fear it; because the end, we know, is peace and the great victory, and because we known now, from our own experience, that in the darkest hour we shall find help from Allah, transforming enemies into friends and deserts into flowering fields.
We, the little band of English Muslims, have a most important part to play at present – a very honourable part. We, indeed, probably more than any other Muslim community to-day, are in the position of the early Muslims in Mecca in the days when they were looked upon as weak and negligible. Alas, you say, we are without the Prophet. We are without the person of the Prophet (may God bless and keep him), but we have his teaching with us, and we have the Qur-án. And He in whose hand was the life of Muhammad (may God bless and keep him), in whose hand is my life and the life of every one of you, my hearers, is with us. His help is as near to-day, and as effective, as it was to the early Muslims in Mecca and Medînah. We have our part in the great struggle which is going on between two parties in the world, one seeking to enthrone man’s handiwork as Lord and King – these are the idolators; the other striving for the recognition of Allah by every nation as the only Lord and King of Heaven and Earth, the Lord of all the Worlds, whom some men do not know because they never seek Him. Seek Him; you will surely find Him. Strive in His way, be constant and sincere in prayer, be kind and charitable, and you will be conscious of His active help; you will know true happiness in the consciousness of God’s kingdom upon earth. Do all that is in your power to spread true knowledge of Islam among our English people, dispelling the false notions and the prejudices which still prevail among so many English Christians. Make your Islam respected and beloved in your own circles, and give the lie to those who say false things about the Faith. And if, in the course of your striving, you should meet with persecution, do not fear it. It is good that ‘there should come to you the like of that which came to those who passed away before you.’ Then you will know that Allah’s help is coming to you.
‘Now truly Allah’s help is very nigh.’
Hedley Churchward the first British Muslim to carry out the rites of Hajj
History has not recorded the name of the first British Muslim to carry out the rites of Hajj. Rumours abound of converted Crusaders who made the trip in medieval times, and of British Muslims in Ottoman naval service who visited the hallowed precincts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But the first detailed account of the Hajj by an English Muslim had to wait until the Edwardian era, when the artist Hedley Churchward became the first recorded British ‘Guest of God.’
Like many Anglo-Muslims of his day, Churchward was the conservative, gentlemanly scion of an ancient family; indeed, his ancestors possessed the second oldest house in Britain. His father ran a successful business in Aldershot, and was well-received in regimental circles, enabling the young Churchward to meet Queen Victoria and the philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Showing an early artistic talent, Churchward studied art and became a recognised painter, specialising in the then highly prestigious field of theatrical scene painting. A familiar figure in London’s West End in the 1880s, he worked closely with celebrities as varied as Tennyson, Millais, Lord Leighton, and the most famous of all Victorian ‘supermodels’, Lily Langtry.
A leisurely trip through Spain opened the young scene-painter’s eyes to the glories of Moorish architecture, and he was tempted to venture across the Straits to Morocco. Here, in a world still untouched by Western influence, he quickly fell in love with the gentle and beautiful lifestyle of Islam. After several visits, he gravely announced to his startled family that he had become a Muslim.
Churchward travelled on to Cairo, where he studied for several years at Al-Azhar, the Muslim world’s highest seat of learning. His scholarship developed apace, enabling him to preach Friday sermons at a small mosque, and even landing him an appointment to the prestigious post of lecturer in Sira (the Prophet’s biography) at the Qadis’ Academy – no small achievement for a convert.
In need of more lucrative work, Churchward then sailed for South Africa, where his art and his elegant drawing-room manner soon won him the favour of Cecil Rhodes, who made him the gift of a rare pink diamond. Moving effortlessly between the Muslim community and the Transvaal’s white elite, it was thanks to Churchward’s earnest intercession that President Paul Kruger granted permission for the erection of the first mosque in the Witwatersrand goldfields.
On his return to Cairo, Mahmoud Churchward married the daughter of a prominent Shafi‘i jurist of Al-Azhar, and continued his Arabic lecturing. But both his head and his heart told him that his Islam was not yet complete: the magnetic pull of the Fifth Pillar was becoming impossible to resist. As he later recorded: ‘One evening, as I strode along the looming Pyramid in the sunset, and saw the jagged skyline of Cairo behind the dreamy African dusk, I decided to carry through what I had intended to do ever since I turned a Moslem – I would go to the Kaaba at Mecca.’
As an Englishman he realised that this ambition might prove hard to fulfil: there was a danger that the Caliphal authorities at Jeddah might distrust the sincerity of his claims to be a Muslim, and unceremoniously turn him away. He therefore petitioned the senior Ulema for a letter of recommendation. In the awe-inspiring presence of the Chief Qadi of Egypt, together with Shaykh al-Islam Mehmet Jemaluddin Efendi (the Ottoman Empire’s highest religious authority, who happened to be on a visit to Cairo), he submitted to a three-hour examination on difficult points of faith. Passing with flying colours, he received a beautifully-calligraphed testimonial signed by the scholars present. This religious passport was to serve him well in overcoming the bureaucratic obstacles which lay ahead.
In 1910, after a further year in South Africa, the would-be Hajji packed his trunks and set out from Johannesburg for the Holy Land. Steamers in those days were slow, and Churchward faced the added impediment of having to travel via Bombay, where he spent weeks in frustrating negotiations with shipping-clerks, officials, and an urbane Lebanese Christian who was the Ottoman consul. At last he found an elderly pilgrim ship, the SS Islamic, and this vessel, captained by an irascible Scotsman and armed with cannon against the threat of pirates, chugged slowly across the shimmering heat of the Indian Ocean, visiting the poverty-stricken Arabian Gulf before wending its leisurely way up the Red Sea.
The days passed slowly, and the time for Hajj was fast approaching. Steaming at six knots, halting at small ports to deliver sacks of mail, which had to be handed over with six-foot tongs because of the fear of plague, there was little to do except watch the dolphins, eat curry, and pray on deck with the Indian pilgrims.
Landing briefly at the Sudanese port of Suakin, Churchward dropped in on the British Consul, who airily told him that his plans to visit Makka were doomed. ‘My dear chap,’ he told him, sipping an iced drink on the Consular veranda, ‘to begin with you will not be allowed to land at Jeddah.’
But two days later, the Islamic steamed into the roadstead of the Arabian port. ‘On the Indian deck,’ he recorded, ‘there started a great packing of pots, portable stoves, babies and sacks of rice.’ It proved necessary to row ashore in a small dinghy, plunging through the hot spray past a Turkish battleship that had been moored for so long that the coral had grown up around it, immobilising it forever. Once his little boat was beached on the sands, a short conversation with the Ottoman officials established that all was well, and Churchward went into the town to make contact with the local representative (wakil) of Sharifa Zain Wali, a rich businesswoman of Makka who ran a large organisation of ‘mutawwifs’ – pilgrim guides. Naturally, she could not attend him here in person – as Churchward later observed: ‘Owing to the immense numbers of pilgrims, hundreds of thousands, who reach Jeddah each year, it is as impossible for these much-respected dignitaries to escort their customers personally as it would be for Mr. Thomas Cook to chaperone every Cockney globe-trotter through Europe. Like all her colleagues, she employed a considerable staff, who saw that the Hajis carried through the ritual prescribed by the Prophet.’
The Wakil took Churchward to his beautiful Arab house, and explained how to don his Ihram clothing before letting him settle down for the night. ‘Finding a level place on the irregular stones I lay down anew’, he wrote. ‘This time a thousand million mosquitoes hovered over me.’ The following day, he telegraphed most of his money through to Makka, and entrusted, as was the custom, the remainder of his funds to the Mutawwif. That evening, ‘while the lamps of Jeddah glowed in a tropic sunset, two donkeys arrived.’ The road beyond Jeddah was little more than a camel track, but the Wakil confidently led the small party towards the nocturnal east, with Halley’s Comet hanging splendidly among the stars above. ‘Against the stars I saw rock faces; we seemed to be trotting through a kind of canyon. Saving the fall of our donkeys’ feet there was nothing to be heard, not even a jackal. … Bang! Explosions suddenly rang from some place high in the dark hills. No mistake, those were rifle shots … The growing brightness showed a very picturesque old building, a kind of tower several hundred feet above the road. From the steep path serving the structure some fez-adorned figures ran down. They wore uniforms and held guns in their hands.’
An Ottoman officer came up, and politely explained that his men had successfully chased off a band of robbers. In those days, attacks by desert Arabs on pilgrims were distressingly common; but Churchward and his party rode on, trusting in Allah. In the oven-like heat of the early afternoon, after several stops at roadside coffee-houses, they passed the stone pillars which indicated the beginning of the sacred territory into which no non-Muslim may intrude.
‘On entering here my guide signed to me that we should say the proper prayer. Touching his heart and forehead he muttered the Fatiha and held his hands together as if to receive Heaven’s blessing. Then he said, Hena al-Haram (Here is the Holy Ground).’
‘Some pigeons, wild doves and other birds were the first specimens of desert fauna I came on. They appeared perfectly tame, and fluttered a few inches from our faces. Some sat on the hard stones and allowed the donkeys to go right upon them. Very carefully the Wakeel led his beast around the little creatures, for no man will dare to kill a living thing here.’
In the Holy City at last, after almost two days on the road, Churchward and his companions entered the tall mansion-cum-hotel of the Sharifa. This pious and aristocratic lady, a direct descendent of the Holy Prophet, had family connections in Cape Town, where her company of pilgrim guides had been recommended to Churchward. Unpacking his goods, he sent her a gift of a Gouda cheese, which was borne up to her unseen presence by excited servants. The Sharifa herself shortly called to him from behind a wooden mashrabiya screen: ‘Mubarak! Welcome to my house.’ ‘I replied that I felt proud to live in her house, whereat she answered that she was proud of me. ‘The Kafirs make good cheese,’ declared the lady, ‘they must have many cows.’’
The English pilgrim struggled up seven flights of stairs, bathed, and slept on the roof. He was awoken before dawn by the strange lilting sound of Ottoman bugles, and after prayers and a breakfast of melons he set off behind the Mutawwif towards the Sacred Mosque. Taking care to scuff their feet disdainfully on some well-worn flagstones, which the Mutawwif declared were some former idols of Quraish which had been cast down there by the Prophet to be humiliated, Churchward and his companion finally entered the House of God. The first stage of a five-month journey had finally come to an end.