In 1913, Pickthall spent several months in Turkey, where he sought to counteract the anti-Muslim agitation of the British press by collecting first-hand information about the massacres of Muslims which had taken place in Macedonia in the previous year. The result was a series of lectures to the Anglo-Ottoman Friendship Society, and a book, With the Turk in Wartime (London: J.M. Dent). The following is a chapter.
In Misket Hanum’s garden I found visitors. Three bare-headed, bare-faced, black-haired, comely maidens were with my hostess on a seat beneath the deodars. Misket had talked to me about them previously. They were Greeks from a village up the Bosphorus – fearless, self-respecting girls who earned a modest living by their work as dressmakers, journeying from house to house. At one time they had gone to Christian houses only; but latterly, by Misket Hanum’s recommendation, had worked for Turks as well. As they themselves informed me they were petted by all the Turkish ladies, and treated by the men with all respect. Yet they dared not let their parents know that they had ever been employed in Muslim houses. Had the fact been but suspected in their village they would have been ostracised, perhaps stoned; for ignorant Christians are as fanatical as ignorant Muslims. A native Christian girl who marries a Mohammedan is killed as a sacred duty by her nearest relatives if they can get at her. On the steamer on which my wife and I travelled to Marseilles at the end of July, there was such a girl among the steerage passengers. Her brothers had beguiled her into accompanying them to America where her Muslim husband was already trying to make money. At Marseilles they performed her murder in a curiously open manner, seeming to think the deed would be applauded in a Christian country.
These Greek dressmakers, therefore, gave it out, at seasons when they were employed in Turkish houses, that they were working for a European, Misket Hanum, who thus acquired a reputation for extravagance and love of finery. They gave her house as their address in case of letters, and generally came to stay there in the intervals of work; Misket Hanum, like the Turkish ladies, keeping open house for women. Yet, though they owned to being much indebted to the Turks for kindness, they hated them, as I discovered presently; and did not see how any Muslim could really be regarded by a Christian as a fellow-creature.
Seeing me in a fez, they took me for a Turk at first, and were going to withdraw when Misket Hanum introduced me, with a touch of malice, as an Englishman who much preferred the Turks to ‘Greeks, etcetera.’ At that they all broke out:
It was impossible! A European could not really like the Turks! What was there in them to inspire a liking? They were good-natured, truly; so were many animals. But were they not barbarians, and cruelly fanatical? Did they not keep their women in seclusion? In a word, they were not Christians. How could anyone prefer them? As a return for Misket Hanum’s little thrust, all three declared their firm belief that if I wore that hateful head-dress and pretended to love Turks, it was simply from terror of my hostess, who might otherwise have turned me out of doors.
‘Why, what have you against the Turks?’ cried Misket Hanum. ‘Is it not true that when your father’s house was burnt one night, the Turks, and not your precious Christian brethren, took you in, and got up a subscription for you?’
That was true, the girls admitted; the Muslims often did kind actions, which, however, could not blind a Christian to their utter and essential wickedness, the product of a false religion. It was known that they esteemed it holiness to kill a Christian when they got the chance. As for this poor, wandering Englishman, how should he know anything about them, having just arrived! It was evident that he took his cue from present company, for peace.
At this point I was moved to say that I knew something of Mohammedans, having spent a great part of my life with them. I asked these girls to give a single instance of Mohammedan fanaticism, not hearsay, but their own experience. The two elder appeared disconcerted by the point-blank question; but the youngest, nothing daunted, answered hotly:-
‘I have heard them call out “ghiaour” behind me in the public street.’ The horror of this accusation hardly reached me. It resembled that made by the Christians of San Stefano to M. Lausanne when he was inquiring of the conduct of raw Turkish troops from Asia who had encamped there by the thousand during many weeks: ‘Shocking! One of them kissed a girl the other day.’ I had to struggle with a strong desire to laugh before replying: ‘That is nothing. I have been stoned by Muslims more than once.’
Their astonishment at that remark was very great.
‘And yet you like them? It is hardly possible. You are joking, certainly. Why should they have stoned you? And, if they stoned you seriously, how did you escape?’
I assured them I was very far from joking. The thing had happened to me once in Hebron, once in a village northward from Jerusalem, and three or four times in the Muslim quarter of Beyrout, which eighteen years ago was very rough indeed. My only crime had been to wear an ugly English hat.
‘So that is why you wear a fez at present, is it?’ sneered the eldest of the girls; nevertheless she begged me to proceed with my narration and say how I escaped from these fanatics.
Not being a native Christian, I informed her, and therefore not having fanaticism on the brain, I on each occasion had looked upon the stoning merely as a piece of impudence involving danger to my horse and me. I simply rode my horse at the assailants, desiring to know what they meant by throwing stones at us, and invariably I was supported by the sense of justice of the crowd. Once in the outskirts of Beyrout, a friend who was with me had just thrashed the ringleader – a boy about fifteen – within an inch of his life, when the father of that boy, with other elders, came upon the scene. The men were fully armed. We looked for trouble. But no sooner had I told our tale to the newcomers than the father pounced upon his son and administered a second hiding, still more awful than the first. When they discerned the moral of my tale, the three girls bridled highly and disdained it, observing that Muslims were not Christians so could not be tolerated. She then turned to Misket Hanum and in the same chill tone congratulated her on having found a guest after her own heart.
I had many subsequent opportunities of studying the point of view of ordinary Greeks, for these girls were often in the house and our cook was also Greek and fond of argument. I never ceased to marvel at its pure fanaticism. They really liked the Turks of their acquaintance; that is to say, their own experience would have made them tolerant, but for the instruction which they had received from priest and parents, in which they hurriedly took refuge if accused of such a liking. They were gentle girls, incapable of harming anyone; yet I have heard them earnestly maintain that the great persecution of Mohammedans at that time going on in Macedonia was justified upon religious grounds; though they changed their tune directly it was known that the Greeks had suffered too. Some Turkish men, who visited our house habitually, took delight in teasing them until they showed fanaticism. Then they would turn to me and say: ‘Amazing, is it not? In this century! But all Greeks, without exception, are like that.’
The Greeks of Turkey were not always like that. Of old, when their women veiled like the Turkish women, when their men wore fez and turban like the Turkish men, there was no such bitterness between the two religions. If they are ‘like that’ today it is the outcome of a century and more of anti-Turkish propaganda, first Russian, then Hellenic. How many Turkish subjects have thus cunningly and patiently been trained to be a barrier to Turkish progress, to prevent the realisation of my Muslim khôja’s dream of peace and goodwill!
There is an aspect of this Christian question which has not been touched upon by any writer that I know of. It is the utter helplessness of the Christian subjects of the Porte before the Muslims, as compared with their immense pretensions. Their pride is not in what they have achieved themselves, but in what their co-religionists have done for them. They have seen province after province taken by the Powers from Turkey, and made into an independent Christian State, and they glory in each loss to Turkey as their victory; forgetting that, but for the interference of the Powers, Turkey would have lost no territory in Europe, or if she lost it for a moment, would have soon regained it. All the achievements of the Western world, in every field, they claim as theirs upon the score of Christianity. They have assimilated themselves in dress and manners to the Europeans, who have established privileges in the Ottoman dominions, and incline to claim those privileges on the strength of mere resemblance. When one remembers that these people are the conquered race, and that they constantly announce themselves as future conquerors, with talk of turnng Aya Sofia into a church again, and crowning a new Constantine before its altar, it is a wonder that the hatred should appear on one side only. Yet so it is. The Turks dislike the Greeks – chiefly, I believe, on grounds of roguery – but laugh at them; they do not hate them.
‘Oh,’ said the friend, who, for his quiet judgments, I had chosen for my mentor, when we broached this subject; ‘the hatred that they have for us is imposed on them, a kind of dogma. They hate the Armenians, Bulgars, Catholics with another, much more lively kind of hatred, I assure you. If Europe would but say decidedly that Greece shall never have Constantinople, that no more territory shall be taken from us, those people might become good subjects.’
Among the cultured, cosmopolitan Greeks of Constantinople one occasionally finds a cordial liking for the Turks. A Greek of this sort who was interested in my studies invited us to his island villa towards the end of my stay in Turkey. One evening, as we smoked together, looking out upon the sea and the many distant lights which marked the entrance to the Bosphorus, he let fall this strange saying: ‘You cannot say much for the Turks that would appeal to English people, for they are unbusinesslike – a fault for which commercial Europe will never forgive them. But you can say with truth that they are generally good and kindly while the Christians of this country are – well, “wicked”; I can find no other word for it.’
I cannot honestly endorse that judgment, in so far as it concerns the poorer peasant Christians, whom I know and like. It may be true of the rich Levantines; I cannot say. But the poorer Christians are not wicked; only they have been misled, and schooled to great intolerance, at a time when Muslim education tends the other way. After I had been two months in Misket Hanum’s house the Greek cook asked me: ‘Do you truly like the Muslims? Surely it is only a pretence. We have watched you and feel sure you are a Christian. Why, then, do you like them?’
She seemed really worried. I gave some reason which occurred to me. She thought it good, and quite agreed with me – on natural ground.
‘But still they are not Christians,’ she suspired. ‘It is so surprising.’
It was the supernatural aspects of the case, at war with facts, which worried her.
The circumstances which gave birth to Pickthall’s travelogue Oriental Encounters are described in the Introduction below. His manservant Rashid later joined the Suez Canal Police, and met Pickthall again during one of the latter’s passages to India, in 1922.
Early in the year 1894 I was a candidate for one of two vacancies in the Consular Service for Turkey, Persia, and the Levant, but failed to gain the necessary place in the competitive examination. I was in despair. All my hopes for months had been turned towards sunny countries and old civilisations, away from the drab monotone of London fog, which seemed a nightmare when the prospect of escape eluded me. I was eighteen years old, and, having failed in one or two adventures, I thought myself an al-round failure, and was much depressed. I dreamed of Eastern sunshine, palm trees, camels, desert sand, as of a Paradise which I had lost by my shortcomings. What was my rapture when my mother one fine day suggested that it might be good for me to travel in the East, because my longing for it seemed to indicate a natural instinct, with which she herself, possessing Eastern memories, was in full sympathy!
I fancy there was some idea at the time that if I learnt the languages and studied life upon the spot I might eventually find some backstairs way into the service of Foreign Office; but that idea, though cherished by my elders as some excuse for the expenses of my expedition, had never, from the first, appealed to me; and from the moment when I got to Egypt, my first destination, it lost whatever lustre it had had at home. For then the European ceased to interest me, appearing somehow inappropriate and false in those surroundings. At first I tried to overcome this feeling or perception which, while I lived with English people, seemed unlawful. All my education until then had tended to impose on me the cult of the thing done habitually upon a certain plane of our society. To seek to miux on an equality with Orientals, of whatever breeding, was one of those things which were never done, nor even contemplated, by the kind of person who had always been my model.
My sneaking wish to know the natives of the country intimately, like other unconventional desires I had at times experienced, might have remained a sneaking wish until this day, but for an accident which freed me for a time from English supervision. My people had provided me with introductions to several influential English residents in Syria, among others to family of good position in Jerusalem; and it was understood that, on arrival in that country, I should go directly to that family for information and advice. But, as it chanced, on board the ship which took me to Port Said from Naples I met a man who knew those people intimately -–had been, indeed, for years an inmate of their house – and he assumed the office of my mentor. I stayed in Cairo, merely because he did, for some weeks, and went with him on the same boat to Jaffa. He, for some unknown reason – I suspect insanity – did not want me in Jerusalem just then; and, when we landed, spun me a strange yarn of how the people I had thought to visit were exceedingly eccentric and uncertain in their moods; and how it would be best for me to stop in Jaffa until he sent me word that I was sure of welcome. His story was entirely false, I found out later, a libel on a very hospitable house. But I believed it at the time, as I did all his statements, having no other means of information on the subject.
So I remained at Jaffa, in a little gasthaus in the German colony, which had the charms of cleanliness and cheapness, and there I might have stayed till now had I awaited the tidings promised by my counsellor. There for the first two weeks I found life very dull. Then Mr. Hanauer, the English chaplain, and a famous antiquarian, took pity on my solitary state, walked me about, and taught me words of Arabic. He was a native of Jerusalem, and loved the country. My sneaking wish to fraternise with Orientals, when I avowed it after hesitations, appeared good to him. And then I made acquaintance with a clever dragoman and one of the most famous jokers in all Syria, who happened to be lodging at my little hostelry, with nothing in the world to do but stare about him. He helped me to throw off the European ad plunge into the native way of living. With him I rode about the plain of Sharon, sojourning among the fellâhîn and sitting in the coffee-shops of Ramleh, Lydda, Gaza, meeting all sorts of people, and acquiring the vernacular without an effort, in the manner of amusement. From dawn to sunset we were in the saddle. We went on pilgrimage to Nabî Rubîn, the mosque upon the edge of marshes by the sea, half-way to Gaza; we rode up northward to the foot of Carmel; explored the gorges of the mountains of Judaea; frequented Turkish baths; ate native meals and slept in native houses – following the customs of the people of the land in all respects. And I was amazed at the immense relief I found in such a life. In all my previous years I had not seen happy people. These were happy. Poor they might be, but they had no dream of wealth; the very thought of competition was unknown to them, and rivalry was still a matter of the horse and spear. Wages and rent were troubles they had never heard of. Class distinctions, as we understand them, were not. Everybody talked to everybody. With inequality they had a true fraternity. People complained that they were badly governed, which merely mean that they were left to their devices save on great occasions. A Government which touches every individual and interferes with him to some extent in daily life, though much esteemed by Europeans, seems intolerable to the Oriental. I had a vision of the tortured peoples of the earth impelled by their own misery to desolate the happy peoples, a vision which grew clearer in the after years. But in that easy-going Easter life there is a power of resistance, as everybody knows who tries to change it, which may yet defeat the hosts of joyless drudgery.
My Syrian friend –the Suleymân of the following sketches – introduced me to the only Europeans who espoused that life – a French Alsatian family, the Baldenspergers, renowned as pioneers of scientific bee-keeping in Palestine, who hospitably took a share in my initiation. They had innumerable hives in different parts of the country – I have seen them near the Jaffa gardens and among the mountains south of Hebron – which they transported in due season, on the backs of camels, seking a new growth of flowers. For a long while the Government ignored their industry, until the rumour grew that it was very profitable. Then a high tax was imposed. The Balden spergers would not pay it. They said the Government might take the hives if it desired to do so. Soldiers were sent to carry out the seizure. But the bee-keepers had taken out the bottom of each hive, and when the soldiers lifted them, out swarmed the angry bees. The soldiers fled; and after that experience the Government agreed to compromise. I remember well a long day’s ride with Emile and Samuel Baldensperger, round by Askelon and Ekron, and the luncheon which a village headman had prepared for us, consisting of a whole sheep, roast and stuffed with nuts and vegetables; and a day with Henri Baldensperger in the Hebron region. The friendships of those days were made for life. Hanauer, the Baldenspergers, Suleymân, and other natives of the country – those of them who are alive – remain my friends to-day.
In short, I ran completely wild for months, in a manner unbecoming to an Englishman; and when at length, upon a pressing invitation, I turned up in Jerusalem and used m introductions, it was in semi-native garb and with a love for Arabis which, I was made to understand, was hardly decent. My native friends were objects of suspicion. I was told that they were undesirable, and, when I stood up for them, was soon put down by the retort that I was very young. I could not obviously claim as much experience as my mature advisers, whose frequent warnings to me to distrust the people of the country thus acquired the force of moral precepts, which it is the secret joy of youth to disobey.
That is the reason why the respectable English residents in Syria figure in these pages as censorious and hostile, with but few exceptions. They were hostile to my point of view, which was not then avowed, but not to me. Indeed, so many of them showed me kindness – particularly in my times of illness – that I cannot think of them without a glow of friendliness. But the attitude of most of them was never mine, and the fact that at the time I still admired that attitude as the correct one, and thought myself at intervals a sad backslider, made it seem forbidding. In my Oriental life they really were, as here depicted, a disapproving shadow in the background. With one – referred to often in these tales – I was in full agreement. We lived together for some months in a small mountain village, and our friendship then established has remained unbroken. But, he, though not alone, was an exception.
Owing to the general verdict on my Arab friends, I led what might be called a double life during the months of my first sojourn in Jerusalem; until Suleymân, the tourist season being ended, came with promise of adventure, when I flung discretion to the winds. We hired two horses and a muleteer, and rode away into the north together. A fortnight later, at the foot of the Ladder of Tyre, Suleymân was forced to leave me, being summoned to his village. I still rode on towards the north, alone with one hired muleteer, a simple soul. A notion of my subsequent adventures may, perhaps, be gathered from the following pages, in which I have embodied fictionally some impressions still remaining clear after the lapse of more than twenty years. A record of small things, no doubt; yet it seems possible that something human may be learnt from such a comic sketch-book of experience which would never be derived from more imposing works.
The brown plain, swimming in a haze of heat, stretched far away into the distance, where a chain of mountains trenched upon the cloudless sky. Six months of drought had withered all the herbage. Only thistles, blue and yellow, and some thorny bushes, had survived; but after the torrential winter rains the whole expanse would blossom like the rose. I traversed the plain afterwards in spring, when cornfields waved for miles around its three mud villages, wild flowers in mad profusion covered its waste places, and scarlet tulips flamed amid its wheat.
Now all was desert. After riding for four days in such a landscape, it was sweet to think upon the journey’s end, the city of perennial waters, shady gardens, and the song of birds. I was picturing the scene of our arrival – the shade and the repose, the long, cool drinks, the friendly hum of the bazaars – and wondering what letters I should find awaiting me, all to the tune of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ – for the clip-clap of a horse’s hoofs invariably beats out in my brain some tune, the most incongruous, against my will – when a sudden outcry roused me. It came from my companion, a hired muleteer and sounded angry. The fellow had been riding on, ahead. I now saw that he had overtaken other travellers – two men astride of one donkey – and had entered into conversation with them. One of the two, the hindmost, was a Turkish soldier. Except the little group they made together, and a vulture, a mere speck above them in the blue, no other living creature was in sight. Something had happened, for the soldier seemed amused, while my poor man was making gestures of despairing protest. He repeated the loud cry which had disturbed my reverie then turned his mule and hurried back to meet me.
‘My knife!’ he bellowed. ‘My knife! – that grand steel blade which was my honour! – so finely tempered and inlaid! – an heirloom in the family! That miscreant, may Allah cut his life! – I mean the soldier – stole it. He asked to look at it a minute, seeming to admire. I gave it, like the innocent I am. He stuck it in his belt, and asked to see the passport which permitted me to carry weapons. Who ever heard of such a thing in this wild region? He will not give it back, though I entreated. I am your Honour’s servant, speak for me and make him give it back! It is an heirloom!’ That grey-headed man was crying like a baby.
Now, I was very young, and his implicit trust in my authority enthralled me. I valued his dependence on my manhood more than gold and precious stones. Summoning all the courage I possessed, I clapped spurs to my horse and galloped after the marauder.
‘Give back that knife!’ I roared. ‘O soldier! it is thou to whom I speak.’
The soldier turned a studiously guileless face – a handsome face, with fair moustache and a week’s beard. He had a roguish eye.
‘What knife? I do not understand,’ he said indulgently.
‘The knife thou stolest from the muleteer here present.’
‘Oh, that!’ replied the soldier, with a deprecating laugh: ‘That is a thing unworthy of your Honour’s notice. The rogue in question is a well-known malefactor. He and I are old acquaintance.’
‘By the beard of the Prophet, by the August Coran, I never saw his devil’s face until this minute!’ bawled the muleteer, who had come up behind me.
‘Give back the knife,’ I ordered for the second time.
‘By Allah, never!’ was the cool reply.
‘Give it back, I say!’
‘No, it cannot be – not even to oblige your Honour, for whose pleasure, Allah knows, I would do almost anything,’ murmured the soldier, with a charming smile. ‘Demand it not. Be pleased to understand that if it were your Honour’s knife I would return it instantly. But that man, as I tell thee, is a wretch. It grieves me to behold a person of consideration in such an unbecoming temper upon his account – a dog, no more.’
‘If he is a dog, he is my dog for the present; so give back the knife!’
‘Alas, beloved, that is quite impossible.’
With a wave of the hand dismissing the whole subject the soldier turned away. He plucked a cigarette out of his girdle and prepared to light it. His companion on the donkey had not turned his head nor shown the slightest interest in the discussion. This had lasted long enough. I knew that in another minute I should have to laugh. If anything remained for me to do it must be done immediately. Whipping my revolver from the holster, I held it close against the rascal’s head, yelling: ‘Give back the knife this minute, or I kill thee!’
The man went limp. The knife came back as quick as lightning. I gave it to the muleteer, who blubbered praise to Allah and made off with it. Equally relieved, I was about to follow when the utterly forlorn appearance of the soldier moved me to open the revolver, showing that it was not loaded. Then my adversary was transfigured. His back straightened, his mouth closed, his eyes regained their old intelligence. He stared at me a moment, half incredulous, and then he laughed. Ah, how that soldier laughed! The owner of the donkey turned and shared his glee. They literally hugged each other, roaring with delight, while the donkey underneath them both jogged dutifully on.
Before a caravanserai in a small valley green with fruit-trees, beside a slender stream whose banks were fringed with oleander, I was sitting waiting for some luncheon when the donkey and its riders came again in sight. The soldier tumbled off on spying me and ran into the inn like one possessed. A minute later he brought out the food which I had ordered and set the table for me in the shade of trees.
‘I would not let another serve thee,’ he informed me, ‘for the love of that vile joke that thou didst put upon me. It was not loaded. After all my fright! … It is a nice revolver. Let me look at it.’
‘Aye, look thy fill, thou shalt not touch it,’ was my answer; at which he laughed anew, pronouncing me the merriest of Adam’s race.
‘But tell me, what wouldst thou have done had I refused? It was not loaded. What wouldst thou have done?’
His hand was resting at that moment on a stool. I rapped his knuckles gently with the butt of the revolver to let him know its weight.
‘Wallahi!’ he cried out in admiration. ‘I believe thou wouldst have smashed my head with it. All for the sake of a poor man of no account, whom thou employest for a week, and after that wilt see no more. Efendim, take me as thy servant always!’ Of a sudden he spoke very earnestly. ‘Pay the money to release me from the army. It is a largish sum – five Turkish pounds. And Allah knows I will repay it to thee by my service. For the love of righteousness accept me, for my soul is thine.
I ridiculed the notion. He persisted. When the muleteer and I set forth again, he rode beside us, mounted on another donkey this time – ‘borrowed,’ as he put it – which showed he was a person of resource. ‘By Allah, I can shoe a horse and cook a fowl; I can mend garments with a thread and shoot a bird upon the wing,’ he told me. ‘I would take care of the stable and the house. I would do everything your Honour wanted. My nickname is Rashîd the Fair; my garrison is Karameyn, just two days’ journey from the city. Come in a day or two and buy me out. No matter for the wages. Only try me!’
At the khan, a pretty rough one, where we spent the night, he waited on me deftly and enforced respect, making me really wish for such a servant. On the morrow, after an hour’s riding, our ways parted.
‘In sh’Allah, I shall see thee before many days,’ he murmured. ‘My nickname is Rashîd the Fair, forget not. I shall tell our captain thou art coming with the money.’
I said that I might think about it possibly.
‘Come,’ he entreated. ‘Thou wouldst never shame a man who puts his trust in thee. I say that I shall tell our captain thou art coming. Ah, shame me not before the Commandant and all my comrades! Thou thinkest me a thief, a lawbreaker, because I took that fellow’s knife?’ he asked, with an indulgent smile. ‘Let me tell thee, O my lord, that I was in my right and duty as a soldier of the Sultan in this province. It is that muleteer who, truly speaking, breaks the law by carrying the knife without a permit. And thou, hast thou a passport for that fine revolver? At the place where we had luncheon yesterday were other soldiers. By merely calling on them to support me I could have had his knife and thy revolver with ease and honesty in strict accordance with the law. Why did I not do so? Because I love thee! Say thou wilt come to Karameyn and buy me out.’
I watched him jogging on his donkey towards a gulley of the hills along which lay the bridle-path to Karameyn. On all the evidence he was a rogue, and yet my intimate conviction was that he was honest. All the Europeans in the land would lift up hands of horror and exclaim: ‘Beware!’ on hearing such a story. Yet, as I rode across the parched brown land towards the city of green trees and rushing waters, I knew that I should go to Karameyn.
THE long day’s ride was uneventful, but not so the night. I spent it in a village of the mountains at a very curious hostelry, kept by a fat native Christian, named Elias, who laid claim, upon the signboard, to furnish food and lodging ‘alafranga’ – that is, in the modern European manner. There was one large guest-room, and an adjoining bedroom of the same dimensions, for some thirty travellers. I had to find a stable for my horse elsewhere. A dining-table was provided, and we sat on chairs around it; but the food was in no wise European, and the cooking was degraded Greek. A knife, fork, and spoon were laid for every guest, but several cast these on the floor and used their fingers. In the long bedroom were a dozen beds on bedsteads. By offering a trifle extra I secured one to myself. In others there were two, three, even four together. An elderly Armenian gentleman, who had a wife with him, stood guard with pistols over her all night. He was so foolish as to threaten loudly anyone who dared approach her. After he had done so several times a man arose from the bed next to mine and strolling to him seized him by the throat.
‘O man,’ he chided. ‘Art thou mad or what, thus to arouse our passions by thy talk of women? Be silent, or we honest men here present will wring thy neck and take thy woman from thee. Dost thou understand?’ He shook that jealous husband as a terrier would shake a rat. ‘Be silent, hearest thou? Men wish to sleep.’
‘Said I not well, O brother?’ said the monitor to me, as he got back to bed.
‘By Allah, well,’ was my reply. The jealous one was silent after that. But there were other noises. Some men still lingered in the guest-room playing cards. The host, devoted to things European, had a musical-box – it was happily before the day of gramophones – which the card-players kept going all night long. I had a touch of fever. There were insects. Sleep was hopeless. I rose while it was yet night, went out without paying, since the host was nowhere to be seen, and, in some danger from the fierce attacks of pariah dogs, found out the vault in which my horse was stabled. Ten minutes later I was clear of the village, riding along a mountain side but dimly visible beneath the stars. The path descended to a deep ravine, and rose again, up, up, interminably. At length, upon the summit of a ridge, I felt the dawn. The mountain tops were whitened like the crests of waves, while all the clefts and hollows remained full of night. Behind me, in the east, there was a long white streak making the mountain outlines bleak and keen. The stars looked strange; a fresh breeze fanned my cheek and rustled in the grass and shrubs. Before me, on an isolated bluff, appeared my destination, a large village, square-built like a fortress. Its buildings presently took on a wild-rose blush, which deepened to the red of fire – a splendid sight against a dark blue sky, still full of stars. A window flashed up there. The sun had risen.
Some English people, when informed of my intention to buy a man out of the Turkish Army, had pronounced it madness. I did not know the people of the land as they did. I should be pillaged, brought to destitution, perhaps murdered. They, who had lived in the country twenty, thirty years, were better qualified to judge than I was. For peace and quiet I pretended acquiescence, and my purpose thus acquired a taste of stealth. It was with the feelings of a kind of truant that I had set out at length without a word to anyone, and with the same adventurous feelings that I now drew near to Karameyn. Two soldiers, basking in the sunshine on a dust-heap, sprang up at my approach. One was the man I sought, the rogue Rashîd. They led me to their captain’s house – a modest dwelling, consisting of a single room with hardly any furrniture. A score of soldiers followed after us.
The Captain – Hasan Agha – an old man, with face scarred and heavy white moustache, was in full uniform, and, as I entered, was engaged in putting on a pair of cotton gloves. He was one of the old ‘alaïli,’ Turkish officers – those whose whole knowledge of their business was derived from service in a regiment or ‘alaï,’ instead of from instruction at a military school; and his manner towards the men had nothing of the martinet. He addressed them as ‘my children,’ with affection; and they, though quite respectful, conversed freely in his presence. Hasan Agha paid me many compliments, and repeatedly inquired after my health. He would not hear about my business till I had had breakfast. Luncheon had been arranged for me, he said, but that could not be ready for some hours. Would I be so kind as to excuse a makeshift? Even as he spoke, a soldier entered with a tray on which were slabs of Arab bread, a pitcher of sour milk, and heaps of grapes. Another soldier began pounding coffee, while yet another blew upon the charcoal in a brazier. I refused to eat unless my host ate with me, which he did only after much polite resistance. After the meal, we sat and talked, the soldiers joining in the conversation. They told me of old wars and deeds of valour. Hasan Agha was, it seemed, a famous fighter; and the men did all they could to make him tell me of his battles. They brought an old man in out of the town to see me because he had fought in the Crimean war, and knew the English. Before it grew too hot, they took me out to see the barracks and a ramshackle old fieldpiece which they seemed to idolise. Then followed luncheon with its long array of Arab dishes, of which the soldiers had their share eventually. Rashîd assured me afterwards that all the food on this occasion had been ‘borrowed.’ That was in Abdul Hamid’s golden days. After luncheon, there was coffee with more compliments; and then at last we got to business.
A public writer was brought in. He wrote out a receipt for me, and also the discharge Rashîd required. Hasan Agha stamped both documents with an official seal, and handed them to me, who gave him in exchange the money.
‘Bismillah!’ he exclaimed. ‘I call all here to witness that Rashîd, the son of Alî, called the Fair, is free henceforth to go what way he chooses.’
To me he said: ‘Rashîd is a good lad, and you will find him useful. The chief fault I have found in him is this: that, when obeying orders, he is apt to think, and so invent a method of his own, not always good. Also, he is too susceptible to female charms, a failing which has placed him in some strange positions.’
The last remark evoked much laughter, relating, evidently to some standing joke unknown to me. Rashîd looked rather sheepish. Hasan Agha turned to him, and said:
‘My son, praise Allah for thy great good fortune in finding favour in the sight of one so noble and benevolent as our beloved guest, who is henceforth thy master. Remember, he is not as I am – one who has been what thou art, and so knows the tricks. Serve him freely with thy mind and soul and conscience, not waiting for commands as in the Army. Come hither, O my son, grasp hands with me. I say, may God be with thee now and always. Forget not all the good instruction of thy soldier days. Be sure that we shall pray for thy good master and for thee.’
The old man’s eyes were wet, so were Rashîd’s, so were the eyes of all the soldiers squatting round.
Rashîd, dismissed, went off to change his uniform for an old suit of mine which I had brought for him, while Hasan Agha talking of him as a father might, explained to me his character and little failings.
At last I took my leave. Rashîd was waiting in my cast-off clothes, a new fez of civilian shape upon his head. He held my stirrup, and then jumped on to a raw-boned beast which had been ‘borrowed’ for him by his friends, so he informed me. It might be worth my while to buy it for him, he suggested later – the price was only eight pounds Turk, the merest trifle. The whole garrison escorted us to the last houses, where they stood a long while, waving their farewells. Two hours later, on the mountain-ridge, beyond the wady, we turned to look our last on Karameyn. It stood amid the flames of sunset like a castle of the clouds.
We returned, then, to the ‘alafranga’ hostelry; but Rashîd, having heard the story of my sleepless night, would not allow me to put up there. I paid my debt to the proprietor, and then he found for me an empty house to which he brought a mattress and a coverlet, a lot of cushions, a brazier, and the things required for making coffee, also a tray of supper – all of them borrowed from the neighbouring houses. I might be pillaged, brought to destitution, and eventually murdered by him, as my friends had warned me. At least, the operation promised to be comfortable.
THE moon began to shine upon the gardens of Damascus, casting pale shadows, though the daylight had not quite departed, and the sky behind the trees to westward was still green. We were sitting out on stools under the walnut trees, beside a strem which made a pleasant murmur. The air was laden with the scent of unseen roses. Behind us was a little tavern with a lantern lighted in its entrance arch, a solitary yellow eye amid the twilight.
We were the centre of a crowd, as usual when Suleymân was with us. His voice attracted people like a drum, and the matter of his talk had power to hold them. It was a weighty voice of studied modulations, which promised wisdom on the brink of laughter. He generally chose some moral or religious subject for discourse, and illustrated it by what we call ‘nawâdir’ (rare things) selected from his vast experience of life. By his own account he had journeyed to the world’s rim, and had associated not alone with men, but also with jinn and ghouls. On the other hand, he had been to Europe several times, and knew the streets of Paris and of London. Somehow, one never doubted any of his stories while he was telling them, the accents of his voice had such conviction. One was conscious that his tales – even the most extravagant – were true in some mysterious, intrinsic way. This time he chose to speak to us of guilt and innocence, of good and evil works, and their effect on man’s salvation. He aired the theory, which roused approving murmuers in the listening circle, that to have a good intention was the chief desideratum for every son of Adam on his journey through the world, no matter though his works might turn out bad or unsuccessful.
‘To lie with good intention is better than to tell the truth with bad intention,’ he declared.
‘To lie is the salt of a man; the shame is to him who believes,’ put in Rashîd, my servant, who was great at proverbs.
Suleymân paid no heed to the interruption.
‘A sin committed thoughtlessly,’ said he, ‘is light compared with one which thou hast hatched and planned.’
‘Nay, O belover, a sin is a sin, appointed so by the Most High; and the duty of a man is to avoid it. The hurt to man’s salvation is the same, however he approach it,’ said an old man in the audience. ‘If I cut my hand, is the wound less, is it not rather likely to be more – for being thoughtless?’
There was a murmur of applause as all eyes turned on this objector, whose likeness could not be distinguished in the gloaming.
I spoke in approbation of the view expressed, and the old man, emboldened, laughed:
‘To lie is bad, to kill is bad, to steal is bad. Our Lord destroy this rogue of an Intention, which plain men cannot catch nor understand!’
‘Nay, listen!’ Suleymân became persuasive and profoundly earnest, as was his manner always under opposition. ‘Thou hast not altogether caught my meaning. I say a man should trust in the Most High, not think too much beforehand of his ways. By thinking beforehand, he may form a bad intention, since man’s thoughts are naturally fallible. Let him think afterwards, thus he will learn to shun such snares in future, and by repentance place a good work to his credit. Men learn wisdom from their sins, not from their righteous deeds. And the consciousness of sin, the knowledge that they may at any moment fall into it, preserves them from the arrogance of goodness.’
‘There may be some small grain of sense in what thou sayest,’ chuckled the objector, ‘but not enough to make sin righteous, nor yet to abrogate the sacred law.’
Suleymân pursued unheeding: ‘I have a rare thing, which will show you what I mean.
‘A new judge had been appointed to the Holy City. He was departing from Stambûl by ship to take up his appointment. On the quay, a Jew of his acquaintance came to him with reverence, and begged him kindly to convey a basket of bastirma to his (the Jew’s) son at the Holy City, which the Jews in their own language call Jerusalem. You all know what bastirma is. It is dried and salted mutton – very tasty – a dish of which the Turks are most inordinately fond. The Cadi graciously consented, bidding his major-domo take the basket, and bestow it carefully among the things. The Jew departed. The Cadi and his party journeyed till they reached their destination, where, upon arrival, they discovered a young Jew inquiring earnestly about a basket of bastirma. The Cadi had forgotten its existence. ‘Ah, to be sure!’ he cried. ‘I gave it to my major-domo for safe keeping.’
‘He called the servant, and commanded him to give the basket of bastirma to the Jew there waiting. The major-domo bowed his head, folded his hands upon his breast, and said: ‘I ask forgiveness, O my lord. The basket still remains, but the bastirma was so excellent that, having tasted all but a piece of it, I wanted more, so that, in fact, I ate it all upon the journey. I wish to pay the price of it to this young Jew.’’
‘The Cadi thought his servant’s offer fair enough, but the young Jew went mad. Flying at the throat of the major-domo, he flung him to the ground, and tried to tear the soul out of his body with his teeth and nails. The Cadi called upon the bystanders for held. The Jew was dragged with difficulty from his victim. Then the Cadi asked:
‘‘Why, pray, did you attack my servant in that savage manner?’
‘’That man,’ said the Jew, still white with rage, and pointing with his tallow finger at the major domo, who had risen from the ground – ‘that man contains my grandfather.’
‘‘What words are these? Explain yourself!’ the Cadi cried.
‘‘Three weeks ago, O gracious Excellency, my grandfather died in Stambûl. It had ever been his dearest wish to be buried in the Holy City, near the scene of Judgment; and that wish of his was law on us his offspring. But how could we fulfil it? How, I ask? No skipper, whether Nazarene or Muslim, would receive a dead Jew on his ship for less than the corpse-weight in gold. And we are poor. To take him overland was quite impossible. And so my father and my mother in Stambûl cured his dead limbs, and made of them bastirma, and sent him hither in the way thou knowest. It follows that thy servant has committed a most dreadful crime. Let him be killed, I pray, and buried in the tomb we have prepared, so that my grandfather’s great wish may be fulfilled.’
‘The major-domo was more dead than living as he heard that story. He rent his clothes and fell down on the ground insensible.
‘The Cadi answered the young Jew with wisdom, saying: ‘Thou art entitled to the price of one basket of bastirma, and no more, from this my servant; but he, on his side, has a right to all thou ownest. What wealth can ever compensate him for the haunting fear that on the Last Day he may rise inextricably mingled with thy worthy grandfather? Go, I say, and never venture to approach him any more, or I shall surely act upon this judgment and denude thee quite.’ The major-domo – ’
Cries of ‘Miskîn! Miskîn!’ (poor fellow!) interrupted the narrative.
One said: ‘I once ate pig’s flesh by mistake, but this man’s plight is much more horrible.’
Suleymân’s opponent cried: ‘It was a judgment on him, evidently, for his theft of the bastirma. Say, what became of his thereafter, O narrator?’
‘The major-domo, who, till then, had been a precious rogue – I knew him intimately from a child, and so can vouch for it – became from that day forth the saintliest of men. He thought about his crime and mourned for it, and deemed himself an unclean beast until he died – may God have mercy on him – and was buried in the Holy City as the Jew desired. He thought of nothing but good deeds, yet without seeking merit, knowing that nothing he could do would ever cleanse him. He became the humblest and the best of men, who had beforebeen arrogant and very wicked. Therefore I say that it is well for men to think of their sins after rather than before committing them.’
‘But the intention! What of the intention, O my master? His intention was not good. He stole!’
‘His intention went no further than a basket of bastirma. The Jew was only an unpleasant accident, in respect whereof no guilt attached to him. The case is clear, and yet, although I used to argue with him on the subject, I never could contrive to make him see it. One thing is certain, and will prove to you the worth of good intentions. He only meant to eat a basket of bastirma; therefore he felt great remorse when he devoured a Jew, and so became a saint for Paradise. Had he intended to devour a Jew he could not possibly have felt such great remorse. What say you?’
And everyone agreed that it was so.
Though I had known Suleymân for nealry two years, and had had him with me for some six months of that time, I had never seen him in his function of a dragoman, by which he earned enough in two months of the year to keep a wife and children in a village of the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, of which he spoke with heart-moving affection, though he seldom went there. It was only after much insistence that he allowed us to conduct him thither on one memorable occasion, when I could not but admire his perfect manners as a despot. When first I met him he had been a gentleman at large, and it was as that, and a familiar friend, that he repaired to me whenever he had nothing else to do. Judging from his gifts of conversation, which we all admired, and his unbounded knowledge of the country, I thought that, as a guide for tourists, he would be invaluable. So, when I heard that English friends of mine were coming out to Palestine, I wrote advising them to ask for him, him, only; and I was glad to hear soon afterwards that he was with them. When they came north, I joined the party at Damascus and travelled with them for their last fortnight.
It did not take me many minutes in the camp to see that Suleymân was not himself, and that my friends were not so charmed with him as I had thought they would be. On the first evening in their tent I heard complaints. They told me he was most unconscionably lazy, and would not take them to the places they desired to visit. The trouble was, as I soon learnt, that they possessed a map and guidebook which they studied reverently every night, finding out places said therein to be of interest. Suleymân, on his side, had, at setting out, possessed a plan to make their tour the most delightful one imaginable. He hoped by visiting selected spots and people to give it sequence and significance. In a word, he was an artist in travel, wishing to provide them with delicious memories, while they were English and omnivorous of facts and scenes. When he learnt from various rebuffs that they would not confide themselves to him, he lost all pleasure in the tour. It was a listless and disgusted upper servant, most unlike the man I knew, whom I found in glorious raiment sitting by the cook’s fire in the gardens of Damascus, which were then a wilderness of roses.
He did not explain matters to me all at once. When I reproached him for neglecting friends of mine, he answered only: ‘It is the will of Allah, who made men of different kinds, some sweet, some loathsome.’ But my arrival mended things a little. At least, my English friends professed to see a great improvement in the conduct of Suleymân and all the servants. I think it was because the poor souls knew that they had someone now to whom they could express their grievances, someone who would condescend to talk with them; for nothing is more foreign to the Oriental scheme of life than the distance at which English people keep their servants. In the democratic East all men are equal, as far as rights of conversation are concerned. It is a hardship for the Oriental to serve Europeans, and only the much higher and more certain wages bring him to it.
My English friends had few good words to say for any of their Arab servants; but I found they had conceived a perfect hatred for the cook, who had undoubtedly a villainous appearance. He was a one-eyed man with a strong cast in his surviving eye. A skull-cap, which had once been white, concealed his shaven poll, and his long pointed ears stood out upon it.. he wore a shirt of indigo impaired by time, over which, when riding, he would throw an ancient Frankish coat, or, if it chanced to rain, a piece of sacking. His legs were bare, and he wore scarlet slippers. To see him riding on an ass hung round with cooking tins, at the head of the procession of the beasts of burden, suggested to the uninformed spectator that those beasts of burden and their loads had all been stolen.
I spoke about him to Suleymân one day when in my company he had regained his wonted spirits, telling him of the extreme dislike my friends had taken to the man.
‘They are foolish,’ he replied, ‘to grumble at the figure of a mill which grinds good flour. They profit by his cooking, which is excellent. Indeed, he is the best cook in the world, and most particular. I took great trouble to secure him for this expedition, knowing that the Khawâjât were friends of yours.’ The tone of grievance in his voice became acute.
I feared that he was going to cry, so answered quickly:
‘It is not that. They like his cooking. But his manners – ’
‘What know they of his manners? Has he ever entered the saloon or bed-tent to defile them? Has he ever spoken insult in their hearing? Inform me of his crime, and I will beat him bloody. But well I know he has done nothing wrong, for I have kept him in the strictest order all these days. It is only his appearance they object to; and that is God’s affair, not theirs. The Lord repay them!’
‘You say that you have kept him in strict order? Is that necessary?’
‘Of course it is, for the poor man is mad. I thought his madness would amuse them; it is very funny. But Allah knows that there is not a laugh in all their bodies. So I have kept him from approaching them.’
The word ‘majnûn,’ which I have here translated ‘mad,’ has often, as I knew, a complimentary value; and I gathered from Suleymân’s way of speaking that the cook was not a raving maniac, but rather what in English country-places we should call ‘a character.’
I cultivated his acquaintance after that, and was astonished by his powers of story-telling and of mimicry; still more, perhaps, by a curious dry scepticism, expressed facetiously and sometimes with profanity, which was evident in almost everything he said. This it was which chiefly pleased the waiter and the muleteers, who were his usual listeners, since they were together on the road. They would laugh and curse him in religious terms for a blasphemer and a wicked atheist, reproofs which he received as high applause. It was his custom to salute his friends with insults, which they took kindly from him, being what he was. They told me in low tones of awe, yet with a chuckle, that he had even sold his father’s grave in a facetious way. But I could never get them to relate that story clearly.
I could understand then why Suleymân had kept him in strict order on the journey; for my English friends were quite incapable of seeing any fun in such a character. Nor did I ever tell them of the great adventure of that journey, in which their cook was very nearly done to death.
It happened near the village of Mejdel-esh-Shems, down in the valley underneath Mount Hermon. We remained in camp there over Sunday, and on Sunday afternoon my friends were resting in the tent. Suleymân and I had seized that opportunity to go off for a ramble by ourselves, which did us good. We were returning to the camp in time for tea, when a crowd of fellâhîn came hurrying from the direction of our tents, waving their arms and shouting, seeming very angry. Suleymân called out to them to learn the matter.
‘Zandîq!’ (an atheist) they cried. ‘Zandîq! Zandîq!’
‘Where?’ I asked eagerly.
‘There, in yonder tent,’ an old white-bearded man informed me, with wide eyes of horror. He pointed to the canvas windscreen against which our famous cook sat gazing at the kettle he had set to boil for tea. ‘We go to fetch the wherewithal to kill him properly.’
‘Stop!’ said Suleymân peremptorily. ‘You are mistaken. That is our cook – a good, religious man, but mad occasionally.’
‘No, there is no mistake, O lords of honour,’ cried a score of voices; while the old man who had pointed out the cook to me, explained:
‘He said – may God protect us from the blame of it! – He said: “You see that mountain! It is I who made it. Prostrate yourselves before me for I made the world.” We had been standing round him inoffensively, asking him questions, as the custom is, about his parentage, his trade, and so forth. But when we heard that awful blasphemy, we rent our clothes, and ran in haste to fetch our weapons, as thou seest. Delay us not, for he must surely die.’
‘Commit not such a wickedness! The man is mad!’
‘No; he is sane.’
‘Quite mad, I do assure you. Return with us, and I will prove it to your understanding,’ cried Suleymân.
I added my assurance. They came back with us, but murmuring, and in two minds. I could not but admire the simple piety which prompted them at once to kill a man whose speech betrayed him as an atheist. But I was very much afraid of what might happen, and of the sad impression it would make upon my English friends. And everything depended on the cook’s behaviour.
‘I tell you he is mad,’ said Suleymân, advancing towards the fire. ‘It were a sin for you to slay a fellow-creature thus afflicted. Come hither, O Mansûr,’ he cried as to a dog.
The cook rose up and came towards us with a foolish air.
‘Lie down before my horse. I would ride over thee.’
The cook fell prostrate, then turned over on his back. His mouth hug open idiotically; his tongue lolled out.
‘Now rise and kiss my boot.’
The cook obeyed. By that time there were murmurs of compassion from the would-be slayers.
‘Spake I not truly?’ asked Suleymân.
‘Aye, O sun of verity! He is quite mad, the poor one,’ said the old man who had acted spokesman. ‘It were a sin for us to kill him, being in that state. His manner at the first deceived us. Allah heal him! How came the dreadful malady upon him?’
‘It came upon him through the pangs of unrequited love.’
‘Alas, the poor one! Ah, the misery of men! May Allah heal him!’ cried the women, as the group of villagers moved off, contented. Just when the last of them passed out of sight the longest tongue I ever saw in man emerged from the cook’s mouth, and the rascal put his finger to his nose in a derisive gesture. Those portents were succeeded by a realistic cock-crow.
‘What makes the cook like that, devoid of reverence?’ I asked of Suleymân.
‘It is because he was born in Jerusalem,’ was the astonishing reply. ‘He is a Christian, and was born poor; and the quarrels of the missionaries over him, each striving to obtain his patronage for some absurd belief, have made him what he is – a kind of atheist.’
Selîm, the waiter, who was near and overheard this ending, burst out laughing.
‘An atheist!’ he cried. ‘Your Honour understands? It means a man who thinks there is no God. Just like a beetle!’ and he held his quaking sides.
Both he and Suleymân appeared to think that atheism was a subject to make angels laugh. And yet they were as staunch believers as those fellâhîn.
The novel concerns an English governess who converts to Islam and marries Yûsuf Bey, a young aristocrat from Cairo’s Turkish elite in the 1870s.
WITH the return of reason a new spirit came to Barakah. At the moment of her seizure she had been exasperated with her Eastern life. She awoke to rapture in it, to impatience of the European nurse and doctor. The smell of them, as they leaned over her, was an offence; their voices jarred so that often she would hide her head beneath the bed-clothes to shut out the sound.
On the other hand, she listened eagerly to noises out of doors – the creak of the shadûf which tipped up water on the garden, the camel-bells, the chant of passing funerals; she watched the sunlight stud with gems the inky lacework of her lattice, and eagerly inhaled the breeze which entered; and Yûsuf’s daily visits were her joy. In the forest of distorted memories through which her soul had wandered friendless like a ragged child, the Europeans she encountered had reviled her; the love of Yûsuf and his people had been all her hope.
In the hunger which distressed her convalescence, the growing disaffection for a diet all of milk, her fancy pictured feasts of Eastern dishes, English cookery appearing loathsome in the memory. Strangest of all, she could now think in Arabic, of which, before her illness, she had scarce a sentence.
As soon as she had licence to see visitors, the Pasha’s harîm came in force to greet her. The lady Fitnah fell upon her in a transport of affection, and she responded with entire abandonment, thankful to have at last the love of Yûsuf’s mother. The elderly princess, Amînah Khânum, and other ladies of importance, paid her visits and, as her health improved, carried her off to their own houses – not for an hour, but for whole days together. There, in the perfumed shade, she was enthroned with cushions, fanned and sprinkled, nourished delicately, and sung to sleep when she showed signs of weariness. The sense of frailty and of worth was exquisite. She was content to be the guarded pet, and let them plan; regarding them as beings of a higher race, with whom it would be vanity to try to cope. Their freedom from the sentimental mists of Europe helped this feeling, and so did their bold vision of existence, blinking nothing. The potential cruelty which lurked beneath their gentleness subdued her; the way they talked of death habitually made her feel a timid child.
Thus, with the body pampered and the mind enslaved, she studied and observed their life, completely fascinated. The world of women was, she found, a great republic, with liberties extending to the meanest slave, and something of the strength which comes of solidarity. Unless in jealous fury, no woman would inform against another, bond or free; nor fail to help her in the hour of need. They had their shibboleths, their customs, rites, and ceremonies, even their courts of justice, independent of the world of men. Each lady owning slaves controlled them absolutely. Her husband never saw their faces, hardly knew them. The law against his making love among them, except by her command, was very drastic. The child of such a union would have been her slave. If her required a concubine, he had to buy, not steal one. So sacred with the Muslims was the married woman’s right to property – a right which was not recognized at all in England. Occasionally Barakah heard talk of cruelties which chilled her blood; but her friends excused them on the ground of anger, which was for them a visitation from on high. The very victims, they assured her, never felt as she did.
One feature of the harîm life which shocked her was the equalling of black with white. The Muslim faith disowning all race prejudice, a strain of negro blood appeared in the best families; and any negro having fortune was esteemed as marriageable as the fairest Turk. Then the black slaves, though less regarded because they cost less than the white Circassians, possessed great influence, particularly in the article of superstition, which they quite controlled. Weeds from the heathen Soudan, brought to Cairo in the convoy of the slave-dealer, luxuriated in that tank of guarded ignorance; and many an enlightened Muslim would have died of horror had he known the works of darkness countenanced by his harîm – the sacrifices to malignant beings; the veneration paid to hoary negresses for demoniacal possession; the use to which the name of God was sometimes put. To Barakah, however, in those early days, such fancies – what she heard of them – seemed merely comic. She ranked them with the women’s playfulness, their funny stories. She was enamoured of their life as she conceived it, enslaved and thrilled by its unblushing candour. This was the season of her real conversion, which reached its climax on a certain morning, when she was carried in a guarded litter to the citadel to witness the departure of the yearly pilgrimage. From a place reserved for ladies on the ramparts, she beheld the troops, the guilds of dervishes, defile before the Khedive’s tent, and then the great procession wind away. Fanfares sounded, cannons roared, and from the multitude which hid the square and covered every roof and balcony in sight, beading with heads the very summits of the citadel, a sigh went up.
Barakah was in an ecstasy. When her eyes wearied of the flash and movement, she surveyed the vast blue sky, the coloured, sun-lit walls, the minarets where doves were circling. She pictured the long journey of the pilgrims, on the shining sea, across the burning sands, to the eternal sanctuary. What scene in Christian Europe could be matched with this? Religion, but a mummy there, here lived and moved.
Returning home, she felt a craving to unbosom, and bethought her of a girl in England, once her friend. She called for ink and pens, and wrote forthwith to Julia Long, recounting her changed fortunes, and extolling Egypt. She described the scene she had that morning witnessed, and concluded:
“Julia darling, you with think it strange, but I am sure that this religion is the true one. Here every woman has a chance to marry, and the accidents of wealth and birth are not the barriers they are at home. Polygamy is not at all what people think. The Moslems are as strict as Puritans about morality; and the women here are happier than those at home. Europe has gone all wrong, and so has Christianity. Here we believe in Jesus just as you do: we know that his religion is the true one; but St. Paul and others after him corrupted it. Do think of this, and learn about Mahometanism. I would give anything that you might find the happiness that I have found. My husband will be taking me to Paris at the end of June. Do try and join us there. We will pay all expenses.
“With true affection from your old friend
“MARY, Madame Yousouf Bey Mohamed, c/o Mohamed Pasha Sâlih, Cairo, Egypt.”
This letter was read out to Yûsuf in the evening. He applauded it, and vowed she had a natural gift of eloquence. He asked for a minute description of her friend, seeming much pleased to think that they would meet in Paris; and when Barakah had satisfied him to the best of her remembrance, chuckled:
“And you love her? Then you would not object to have her for your durrah!”
She warned him archly that she could be jealous.
Barakah called often on the lady Fitnah, who just now was in high feather, having been commissioned by Murjânah Khânum to find out a husband for the latter’s slave, Gulbeyzah. At once she sent out go-betweens in all directions, threads of a gigantic web, in which she sat and waited. Flies soon came – ladies with eligible sons or husbands needing matrimony – whose claims the shrewd Egyptian sifted, smelling out the slightest fraud. Barakah was interested in these doings, naturally, seeing they concerned the welfare of her closest friend.
Murjânah Khânum wished to emancipate a charming slave and place her in a good position, at the same time seeking some remuneration for her previous outlay. She appointed Fitnah Khânum her intendant. Those were the naked facts. But the word ‘price’ was never mentioned in discussions of the subject; it was always ‘dowry,’ of which a third part would be paid, of course, to the bride’s people. Gulbeyzah was referred to as a cherished daughter of the house; her wishes were consulted with regard to each proposal; and no-one was annoyed when she seemed hard to please.
‘Thou art like Leylah Khânum,’ whispered Barakah. ‘Thou wilt choose and choose away till none are left.’
‘By no means,’ was the laughing answer. ‘I am a young maid. Moreover, it is not the man I stickle for, it is society.’
Whenever ladies whom she did not choose came to inspect her, Gulbeyzah donned a rustic air and talked to shock them. Barakah had no idea of what she meant when saying she required society, until one day she told her:
‘Praise to Allah! Only think, beloved! Three Circassians, young like me, from the same district! Their lord – a Pasha of the richest – wants another like them. They are gratified. I have been recommended. They come to-day for my inspection. Thou shalt see them presently, as also a Gulbeyzah no one ever saw before. O day of milk! O wave-crest of all days!’
Barakah had been summoned by the ladies and a carriage sent for her. Gulbeyzah had waylaid her on the way to the reception-room.
‘But what of the man – the husband?’ she inquired.
‘Splendid! Rich and generous; impartial as the prophet in division of his favours. If God wills, I shall bear him children. What more could girl require? Think – four of us, like sisters! Four pearls strung together, and inseparable! Thou wilt visit us, and we shall all four love thee dearly. O joy! Now go! I will rejoin thee presently.’
The clack of tongues was heard from the reception-room. Before the door stood rows of coloured slippers. All the dependants of the household, all the go-betweens, had rallied to support the ladies on a great occasion. Hardly had Barakah concluded greetings ere the three Circassians were announced. They were all charming, and all bore, she fancied, some resemblance to Gulbeyzah in their child-like faces and huge eyes. They had pretty, deferential manners, seeming to speak by pre-arrangement and to think in concert, obedient to some rule which bound them, just like nuns. They were still amid the storm of formal compliments when Gulbeyzah entered clad in soft apparel, and paused as if in awe at finding strangers. Then, blushingly, she went and kissed their hands, going on to kiss the hands of all the ladies present. In so doing she gave Barakah a little bite, and when her tour was ended sank down humbly at her feet.
‘They will unmask thee. Thou canst never keep this up for life,’ the Englishwoman whispered.
‘By Allah! only look!’ was the reply. ‘They too are acting.’ See now, the plump one: there is inward mirth.’
The visitors, impressed by her demeanour, put certain questions, which she answered to the point. It appeared that she could dance and sing; spoke Turkish, Arabic, and some Armenian. At mention of French also, they raised hands and eyes, declaring her a perfect prodigy. They then addressed her in their native dialect, when sudden smiles broke up their shy decorum. Turning to the hostesses, they asked forgiveness for employing private speech. They had but asked the dear one of her native village, and smiled to hear that it adjoined their own. They begged for leave to call again, which meant the bargain was acceptable; and then withdrew with every blessing on the house.
No sooner had they vanished than Gulbeyzah threw off her demureness and performed with energy a naughty dance which terminated in a sudden swoop to clasp Murjânah Khânum’s feet. Her mistress bent and kissed her forehead tenderly; the lady Fitnah was convulsed with glee; the humbler women gave forth wedding-cries. And the cause of all this joy, the object of that motherly consideration, was a slave! In Europe, people thought of slaves as miserable. Here was a story to be told to Julia Long.
‘O disappointment! Thou wilt be in Paris! Thou wilt miss my wedding!’ cried Gulbeyzah suddenly. ‘Yûsuf Bey should take some low girl with him since he needs must go. It is sinful to expose thy worth to the risks of travel.’
‘Have I not told him?’ cried the lady Fitnah. ‘The world will be quite black when she is gone. A girl for whom his father paid three thousand pounds. It is absurd to fling her into boats and filthy trains.’
Barakah smiled at their desire to keep her, thinking with rapture of the coming talks with Julia. She had not then had Julia’s answer to her letter. It arrived within a fortnight of the time of starting.
‘ … How can you write such wickedness? … I heard that you had married a Turk, but thought of course he was converted … I do not envy you your riches nor your rank at such a price! … No, I will not join you in Paris, and abet you in your infamy. I banish your most impious suggestions from my thoughts for ever.’
She crumpled up the closely written sheets, then flung them on the ground and stamped upon them. Yûsuf found her weeping uncontrollably, and asked the cause.
‘Then their women are fanatical like ours!’ he sighed when told. ‘Take heart, O fountain of my life! By Allah, such a friend is not worth weeping. We will none the less enjoy ourselves in Paris.’
‘I have no wish to go at all,’ sobbed Barakah.
GHANDÛR attended Yûsuf in the train to Alexandria, and accompanied the pair on board the steamer. Kissing hands at parting he wept uncontrollably, and in that condition was propelled by sailors to the boat awaiting him. Barakah would have liked to stand and watch the harbour, which offered charming pictures in the evening glow; but Yûsuf drew her down into a stuffy cabin, where he left her, bidding her secure the door against intrusion. He told her she must take her meals down there, since there was no separate dining-room assigned to women. Directly afterwards his voice resounded in the corridor, with others talking Arabic, by which she knew that he had friends on board.
A stewardess knocked at her door, bringing her supper, which consisted of a single dish of meat and vegetables. By then the pulse of engines could be felt; there was a noise of running overhead, shouts, and the clank of chains; the ship was moving. Having made an end of eating, she retired to bed and, being tired, went to sleep immediately. The slamming of the door by Yûsuf partly roused her. She could hear him swearing, asking Allah to be put on shore, and knew that he was sea-sick; but it seemed no matter. Next morning, as the sea was rather rough, she kept her bunk until eleven o’clock, when she got up and put on English clothes she had brought with her Yûsuf, more dead than living, asked what for.
‘I go to smell the air.’
He sobbed. ‘With face exposed! Behold me dead, while dogs defile my grave.’
Supposing his mind wandered – for she wore the English veil which he himself had said would be sufficient after leaving Egypt – she found her way on to the deck and spent an hour there, pacing up and down, enjoying the strong wind. When she returned to Yûsuf he was inarticulate. She stayed with him until the evening, when she went on deck again for a few minutes before turning in. It was five days before the gale abated.
At length, one morning they awoke to ease of movement, and Yûsuf rose. His smile was tentative at first, but soon grew confident. ‘I could not tell thee for my sickness,’ he informed her, ‘but there are common people of our faith on board. I would not have their talk asperse my wife. It mattered less while I myself made no appearance. No doubt they took thee for some Frankish woman. But now keep close in here. Wait till we get to Fransa.’
Without waiting for her answer, he went out. But in a minute he was back again, exclaiming:
‘The wife of Hâfiz Bey, my friend, lies near to death! Come thou and see what can be done for her, and God reward thee! Put on thy habbarah. My friend will guide thee.’
It was the first time he had spoken of his friends to her. She followed him and was presented to a fat, good-tempered-looking youth, exceeding swarthy, clad in a European suit too tight for him, who apologized in baby French for thus ‘deranging’ her. He opened the door of an adjacent cabin, bowed her in, and then retreated arm in arm with Yûsuf.
It was a two-berth cabin. In the lower bunk a buxom girl of eighteen years or less – a perfect blonde – lay with her eyes closed, making moan with every breath. The childish face was flushed, discoloured round the eyes with weeping; the hands clenched. Whatever her complaint, it was not sea-sickness.
‘How is thy health?’ the visitor asked softly.
‘O Lord! I die! I perish! O fresh air! O sun!” gasped out the sufferer. ‘O Allah! Was I born a fish to be thus thrown upon the sea – a snake, to be imprisoned in this box?’
‘Be brave! The voyage is now almost ended. In two days or three, at most, we are released. Tell me thy pains! What ails thee?’
The prostrate beauty opened great blue eyes of injured innocence and asked: ‘Who art thou?’
‘I am the wife of Yûsuf Bey, thy husband’s friend.’
‘The Englishwoman!’ She sat up and clung to Barakah. ‘How cans’t thou bear it, thou, an honoured wife! Will not thy parents take account for the indignity? Oh, end my life, I pray thee; it is unendurable!’
Slowly, by force of patience, Barakah elicited that the girl, by name Bedr-ul-Budûr, a pet slave of the mother of young Hâfiz Bey, had been presented to him for his comfort on this journey, since his bride, of high ideas, refused to travel. She had been a little frightened in the train, a new experience, but much elated till she came aboard this ship and felt the sea. Then she realized that she had been beguiled, defrauded, enticed to an undignified and hideous death. Hiccuping sobs broke in upon her narrative, which ended in a storm of tears.
Barakah tried to soothe her mind with cheerful talk, depicting all the charms of life in Paris.
‘Thy voice is sweetness,’ she entreated. ‘Stay with me! Turn out my consort: let him house with thine. What does one want with men when one is dying?’
Going out on that injunction, Barakah found Hâfiz and her husband waiting close at hand. The former, greatly scared by his companion’s illness, was prepared for any sacrifice to save her life; and Yûsuf raising no objection, Barakah’s effects were moved into the other cabin, while Hâfiz took his baggage to the ‘house of Yûsuf,’ as he called it, jesting.
Bedr-ul-Budûr gave praise to Allah. The presence of a lady of acknowledged standing relieved her of the sense of singular and base ill-treatment, which was all her illness.
At length, the ship stood still and filled with voices. It was night. The men called from the corridor to warn them that the landing would take place at the third hour next morning. Thus bidden, they took out their Frankish garments and compared them.
Barakah’s were old, of sober hue. Bedr-ul-Budûr’s brand-new and something garish. They slept but little, talking through the night.
When Barakah had finished dressing in the early morning, her companion, waking, screamed in horror at the English veil.
‘Merciful Allah! It is dreadful. It hides nothing. It is what the wantons wear. Wait but a minute! I have more than one. I will provide thee. My kind princess advised me what was right to wear.’
Tumbling out of her berth, Bedr-ul-Budûr found in her box a fold of thick white gauze, which she proceeded to throw round the face of Barakah, attaching it to the bonnet with two little brooches.
‘By Allah, that is better,’ she remarked, and then gave all her mind to her own dressing.
When this was finished, her appearance smote the eye. Her bonnet was sky-blue, the thick white veil depending from it like a curtain, her dress a lively pink, her stockings white, her boots and gloves bright yellow, shining in their newness; she had a pale blue parasol adorned with frills of lace.
‘The Franks wear many colours,’ she remarked to Barakah, adding with childish wonder, ‘Why are yours so dull? … By Allah, I feel naked in the middle.’
So did Barakah. To one accustomed to go shrouded, a dress which emphasises the hips and bust seemed vile at first.
Yûsuf and Hâfiz fetched them up on deck, where they found two more ladies garishly arrayed, and two more men in French-made suits and fezes.
After the introduction all stood awkwardly, gaping like children who have lost remembrance of their part. Barakah, to ease the strain, remarked to Hâfiz Bey upon the beauty of the morning, the bustle of the harbour of Marseilles; but his response was marred by evident embarrassment; his eyes kept veering round to look at Yûsuf, whom he soon rejoined. The ladies formed a group apart, in titters at each other’s odd appearance. Presently a man, clad as a Frank, approached with Arab greetings. He kissed the hand of Hâfiz Bey, who welcomed him. It seemed he had been warned by letter to prepare the way for them.
‘All is ready, lords of bounty!’ he exclaimed. ‘Deign but to follow me, the ladies with you.’
The drive along the quays through noisy streets to the hotel, the breakfast which their guide assured them had been cooked and chosen in accordance with religious law, were trammelled by constraint, and went off sadly. Only in the train, where they were separated, each sex enjoying a reserved compartment, did conversation flow. Among the women it was soon uproarious. They talked and laughed half through the night, appealing constantly to Barakah, a European born, for information. The appearance of the men at every station, to ascertain that they were well, produced a hush; but no sooner were the despots gone again than the mad talk and laughter raged anew.
At length they tired and tried to rest. They cursed the narrowness of the divans, the work of devils. When morning came, Bedr-ul-Budûr was at the point of death once more, asking her Maker what she had done to deserve such disrespectful treatment; while Barakah, looking out at European villages, was haunted by remembrance and grew sad.
The sun had long been up when they reached Paris. Yûsuf and Hâfiz, Bedr-ul-Budûr and Barakah, packed in one cab, were driven with a rattle through tumultuous streets to the hotel where rooms had been engaged for them. The hostess, a stout woman elegantly dressed in black, and the entire staff stood out to welcome them. The woman bowed incessantly, addressing Yûsuf and his friend as ‘Monseigneur.’ Finding that Barakah knew French she drew to her and poured a smooth flow of amenities into her ear.
‘Madame has only to command – all that she desires. Should madame require conversation, I am always at her service. The princes come to Paris for diversion, that is understood. Young men so rich! They must amuse themselves! But then their ladies must not find the life too sad.’
Thus prattling, she conducted them upstairs and flung open a door, exclaiming, ‘Voila!’ Crossing the landing to another door, she flung that open also. ‘Voila!’ she cried again. Bedr-ul-Budûr, so tired that she could hardly drag her feet up, chose the left-hand room, which happened to be nearest. Yûsuf and Barakah proceeded to the other. Both parties ordered coffee and some light refreshment, and after breakfasting went straight to bed. They rested until evening, when the men went out to find their friends, whose lodging was close by. They returned with sundry purchases, hats, gloves and scarves, which they declared they needed for complete disguise.
On the next morning the whole party, in two carriages, went out to smell the air and view the city. It was a cloudless day and the streets sparkled, the trees along the boulevards were like fat green posies. They were feeling happy when, in an important thoroughfare, they discovered people pointing at them, drivers shouting. Yûsuf and his seat companion Hâfiz grew uncomfortable. Cries of amazement reached them from the other carriage. Their cabman turned round with a grin and told them:
‘“Place aux dames,” messieurs! – That is what they cry. These ladies are not slaves with us, que diable!’
The two men had been lounging in the roomy seat which faced the horse. They at once resigned it, addressing bows and smiles of deference to the angry multitude; and called out to their friends to do the like. But the incident destroyed their pleasure in the drive; nor were the ladies happy in the seat of honour, a gazing-stock for infidels who might possess the evil eye.
‘Saw one ever such fanaticism?’ groaned Yûsuf. ‘And they call this country free – a place where every one does what he likes!’
That afternoon was spent in the hotel in a strange manner; Barakah, at the demand of Yûsuf, instructing the four men in foreign customs. They posed and pirouetted in her salon, rehearsing bows, the flourish of a hat, the proper compliments; while the three girls looked on with saucer eyes. After dinner they again appeared before her, this time without their fezes, wearing hats which gave them a very villainous and sleek appearance. Required to criticize their dress and bearing from a Frankish standpoint, she suggested some improvements which were hailed with gratitude. Yûsuf returned home after midnight, tired but garrulous. It seemed that they had lighted on a charming Frenchman, who undertook to show them all the sights. Next day the men rose late and then went out together, leaving the women to their own devices; returned to dinner, then went off again, remaining out this time till nearly morning.
The programme did not vary on succeeding days. The girls, deserted, clung to Barakah. They wailed and prayed to God, and dreamed of Cairo. At length one of them – it was Bedr-ul-Budûr – took courage to reproach her lord; when all four men were stricken with amazement. They had thought the ladies would be gay indoors without them, as they were at home. To cheer them up, a trip to Versailles was arranged. It passed off gaily, with less shyness than usually appeared when they all mixed together. As they strolled about the park, a youth named Izz-ud-dîn made up to Barakah, and with the greatest diffidence implored her to confide to him the secret how to win the love of Frankish ladies. When she smilingly assured him there was none, he cried:
‘O Lord of Heaven! Then thou wilt not tell it. They are so easy to their own men, as we know from books; to us so difficult. It cannot be fanaticism, since we seem as Franks.’
‘But what need hast thou of women, with a pearl of beauty here beside thee?’ questioned Barakah.
‘One who has beheld thy loveliness must evermore desire the like of it! Oh, that thou hadst a sister for me!’ he made answer glibly.
He moved away, but presently another came and made the same preposterous request, retreating with the same forced compliment; and on the journey home, when Yûsuf closed his eyes and seemed to sleep, Hâfiz Bey, whom she had thought more sensible, approached her in his turn. When she denied all knowledge of the matter he answered in low tones:
‘There is a secret, that is known, by Allah. Thou hast it, and hast given hints to Yûsuf; else why should he be more successful than the rest of us?’
‘Because he is better looking,’ it was on the tip of her tongue to say, as she surveyed the fat, good-tempered face of Hâfiz with its Chinese eyes. It was all that she could do to keep from screams of laughter.
‘It is my dream,’ he whispered. ‘By Allah it disturbs my nights with cruel pain – to take a lady just like thee in all respects – a Frank and noble, of extreme refinement – back with me to Masr.’
She derided him. He still continued pleading, supporting his petition with the grossest flattery, till they reached home, when Yûsuf suddenly sprang up and glowered at Hâfiz. He had been feigning sleep. It was a thunderbolt. Bedr-ul-Budûr screamed warning to her lord, who took but a single look and fled indoors, the jealous one pursuing like a madman. In the hall the harmless youth was overtaken and turned round to plead. With a howl of ‘Dog!’ Yûsuf sprang at his throat and bore him to the ground. Like dogs in very truth they fought until parted by the hotel servants with the help of broomsticks; while Barakah strove in vain to make her explanation heard. Bedr-ul-Budûr appealed to Allah and the prophet; and the landlady from the third step of the stairs, with hands and eyes thrown up, exclaimed repeatedly:
‘O ciel! C’est monseigneur!
(London: Evelyn Nash, 1913.)
‘O people, listen to my words, and understand the same. Know that all Muslims are brothers one to another. You are one fraternity. Nothing which belongs to one of you is lawful to his brother unless given out of free goodwill. Guard yourselves from committing injustice.’
Those words are from the solemn admonition which our lord Muhammad (God bless him!) addressed to the whole Muslim community from Mount ‘Arafat on the occasion of his last pilgrimage to Mecca – The Pilgrimage of Farewell, as it is called. And no one can say that the injunction has been fruitless. For where in the world to-day can we find a real fraternity of rich and poor, of black and white and brown and yellow people, except in El Islam?
‘Liberty, equality, fraternity!’ has been, and is the cry or revolutionaries here in Europe. Well, liberty is a fine thing, but in a civilized community it must be always relative, for ever bounded by the liberties of others. Equality of opportunity is an ideal to be aimed at, rather than a law which can be practised rigidly. Still every one will admit that it is desirable. Equality of persons and of personalities is contrary to natural law, and so impossible. These two ideals are abstract and entirely relative. Fraternity, upon the other hand, is positive, and can be practised wherever men of like opinions and goodwill consort together. In the political body of Islam, which was at first a model to free peoples, there has of late years been too little liberty. There has been of late years less equality of opportunity than there was formerly, though more than you could find in modern Europe. But fraternity there is, and always has been, in that body.
The prejudices both of race and class which taint the atmosphere of Christendom seem a strange growth of Christianity when we reflect that Jesus of Nazareth was the apostle of meekness and of love, and himself adorned a modest station in society. Many Christians would protest that these developments have nothing to do with Christianity. That they have nothing to do with Christ, we all agree. But what has Christianity to do with Christ? If these prejudices of class and race are not in any sense a growth of Christianity, how comes it that we find them flourishing in Christian lands, and altogether absent from the Muslim brotherhood? Class distinctions are not absent from the Muslim brotherhood, but class prejudices are. There is free speech and free intercourse between all sorts and conditions of men, and between all sorts and conditions of women. Those prejudices mar the outlook of most English people, even of those who rail against them and denounce them – I should say, especially of those who rail against them and denounce them; for where will you find a revolutionary who has a brotherly regard for individual aristocrats? One of the great blessings which Islam brings to an Englishman is deliverance from this insanity. His vision grows serene, enabling him to smile at the pretensions of all parties, to accept men on their merits, with a brotherly regard for men whose conduct pleases him irrespective of class or race or colour. I have just been in the British army in the ranks – pitchforked, so to speak, at forty-three, among all sorts of men – and I have found this Muslim point of view a very godsend, making me content where I should once have been extremely miserable.
The feeling of fraternity inherent in Islam has sometimes struck me as miraculous, such comfort does it bring to one in circumstances which by every standard would be called uncomfortable. Why, I have asked myself occasionally, did I never know such happiness while I was a Christian? Well, it may seem a strange answer to give, it may appear far-fetched to some of you, but I believe the reason is that Christianity – the Christianity that I was taught in childhood – practically does away with the Last Judgment.
You know the words of the Qur-án:
‘Verily those who believe (i.e. the Muslims) and those who obey the Jew’s religious rule, and the Christians and the Sabaeans – whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and does good works, their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve.’
Christians did once believe in the Last Day – that is, the Day of Judgment for all mankind. It was part of the teaching of Christ. But by proclaiming that salvation can be obtained by a belief in such and such dogmas, and the observance of such and such ceremonies, the Church, while still formally maintaining the doctrine of the Last Judgment, has made the judgment a foregone conclusion for its own adherents. Certain people thus appear before their Lord in a privileged position. Where then is fraternity? And how can any Christian man, brought up in that belief, be happy, with the consciousness of all the people in the world who are not Christian in belief, who consequently are condemned to everlasting torment? Another foregone conclusion, you perceive. The judgment of God is reduced to a mere ceremony, a formal confirmation of the Church’s judgment. And if a Christian can be found who does find happiness in thinking that he himself is certain to be saved through certain doctrines and observances, while countless millions of mankind are no less certain to be damned; can such a man be suspected of any sense or spirit of fraternity? And yet these people have been taught to say ‘Our Father, which art in heaven.’
God is metaphorically the Father – since He is the primal Author of the being – of all mankind. That was, I think, unquestionably, the meaning of the Prophet Jesus when he gave that prayer to his disciples. But see what they have made of it. An earthly father, the partisan of his own family against all who differ from them. A father to the Christians – it amounts to that – with angry feelings for all other people in the world. The first meaning – that of Christ himself – is in accord with nature, the second, that of Christendom, is against nature, since Allah’s blessings in the world of nature are bestowed on all alike.
Our Prophet saw that error among Christians in his day, and for that reason, to avoid a similar misguidance of his followers, he never used the words Our Father when speaking of Allah. We Muslims shun those words, for the same reason, though there can be not the least objection in the mind of any Muslim to the words of the Lord’s prayer, which is a Muslim prayer, without a trace of all those doctrines which later turned the Christians from Islam. We believe that Jesus was a Muslim Prophet. The religion which he preached, the life he wished that men should lead, is not to be found to-day in Christendom, but in Islam. And Muslims have a better right than Christians to pray ‘Our Father, which art in heaven,’ for they have kept the true ideal of human brotherhood which Christians have discarded; and that brotherhood is based on the idea of Allah’s universal fatherhood. We never use the word, but the idea is with us always. Allah has given certain laws which we know, and strive always to obey. We naturally have a sentiment of brotherhood for all who recognize those laws, and try to conform to them. All who love the Father of us all, the Source of all Existence, and look only for His judgment on their actions, are our brothers. ‘And there shall no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve.’
I do not know whether you, my audience, prefer an autocratic or a democratic form of government. Where theocracy is acknowledged, it matters little whether earthly sovereignty is held by one man or a crowd of men. For, in the presence of the Mighty Sovereign of the universe, fearing His judgment, the autocrat becomes in fact the brother of his poorest subject. And as for democracy, compare the French Revolution, or that Russian Revolution which took place only the other day, with the greatest revolution which the world has ever known – the advent of Islam in consequence of our Prophet’s preaching. In all three cases you have multitudes of people suddenly released from old restraints and discipline, and confronted with an altogether new idea of life. In all three cases you have the demand for brotherhood. Why were the first two characterized by cruelty, bloodshed, and disorder, and why was the Islamic Revolution free from all these things? The Russian and the French revolutionaries established governments which had to use harsh measures to maintain their sway. The Muslims were without any of the machinery of government, and yet they were perfectly orderly and, what is more, entirely happy. Why? Simply because they had a common ground of brotherhood, a common standard of morality which all accepted. Simply because they had a true fraternity in complete dependence on the will of the Universal Father. Simply because they believed in the Day of Judgment.
Some people seem to think that a belief in a Day of Judgment is an antiquated belief. Some people even seem to think it horrible. Well, I personally do not care a fig for any man or woman who does not, consciously or unconsciously, believe in a Day of Reckoning. Every man or woman who accepts a life of service or of suffering sooner than get success by evil doing; every man or woman who does his or her best without reward rather than gain the applause of the multitude, whatever motive they themselves would give for their behaving in that way, and most of them would find it difficult to give a reason for their behaviour, are looking to a judgment higher and purer than the judgment of men, a judgment quite impersonal, which God alone is capable of giving. I do not care if they are Muslims, or Christians, or agnostics. I say that they all, after a fashion, believe in the Last Day.
And as for the belief in the Last Judgment being in any way horrible or terrifying – why, ladies and gentlemen, it seems to me the most radiantly hopeful of all the doctrines which have ever been accepted among men. If any man were to be the judge, if any being at all resembling man in limitation were to be the judge, then indeed we might be terrified, for we should fear injustice. No man could make all due allowance for inherited tendencies in determining the criminal’s career of crime. No man could know all the extenuating circumstances which in every case appear to the All-knowing God. Has any son of earth to fear injustice before the throne of Him who made the heavens and the earth, who knows all their temptations and their disabilities, who knows His creatures infinitely better than they know themselves? And when we know, as every Muslim knows, that the All-wise is also the All-Merciful! Surely this doctrine, which has been so much maligned, really holds out a hope for all mankind.
I think the horror and dislike which it inspires in some intelligent people comes from misapprehension. They associate the judgment with the threats of dreadful punishment denounced against the wicked in all Scripture, as if those threats were levelled against individuals. They are not; they cannot be, since we are not the judges. They merely mean that if we do certain things against our spiritual and moral welfare, or against the welfare of our neighbour, we have to fear the condemnation of the Lord of heaven and earth, even though the wrongs which we commit according to human laws may be no crime. But we are not the judges. Every one of us has to await the judgment of his Lord, and if we are quite honest in our self-examination, we shall admit that it is only by the grace of God we have escaped great crimes. Are we then any better than the actual criminals? Have we not equal need with them to ask for mercy before a Judge who reads the secrets of men’s hearts?
King and beggar, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, all will appear before their Lord on equal terms. The ruler will have no advantage of his power, the savant no advantage of his education, unless that power, that education has been used for good. That is the true foundation of Islamic brotherhood. We shall be judged not by accidents of class, or race, or wealth, but by that which we have done, whether it be good or whether it be evil. Acknowledging this common destination, this equality, how can we hold aloof from one another, or despise one another?
There is another aspect of Islamic fraternity, of particular importance at the present time. Islam abolished nationality, as we understand it; and patriotism, as we understand it, it denounced as a crime. A Muslim of India is the brother of a Muslim of Egypt or West Africa. If any one of another religion asked him of his nationality, he would not say: ‘I am an Indian,’ but ‘I am a Musulman.’ Only if a fellow Muslim from another country were to ask him the same question, would he answer ‘I am of India,’ since his faith was understood already by the other. I have heard Englishmen exclaim concerning Muslim peoples that ‘they have no patriotism, only religious fanaticism’ By fanaticism such people mean no more than a passionate regard for a religion and obedience to its precepts. Well, which has done most, which is capable of doing most, for the great cause of human progress, human brotherhood: the unbridled nationalism which appears to-day to be the chief political ideal of Christians, a nationalism which makes big states avaricious and little states ridiculously self-assertive, a cause of wars, past, present, or to come; or the religion of Islam, which wipes away all that as worthless, and in its place sets universal brotherhood? The backward state of many Muslim peoples in respect of modern sanitation and mechanical contrivances blinds Europeans to the fact that the Muslim world is thirteen centuries ahead of Europe in political and social science. It also blinds young Muslims, who have been educated here in Europe to admire things European indiscriminately, to this most important fact of Muslim progress. But only for a time, in youth. They shake off the illusion with a little thought. Let them remember that, as Muslims, they are representatives of an ideal more advanced than any that prevails in Europe. If they forsake that high ideal of brotherhood for the lower one of national pride, they (in the words of the Qur’án) ‘barter the higher for the lower,’ as certainly as did the Children of Israel when they turned from worshipping Allah, and bowed themselves before a calf of gold, the work of men’s hands.
A Christian can say: ‘I am an Englishman, or a Frenchman, or a German first, and a Christian afterwards’; for it is the truth. The development of Christianity has produced this nationalism. But that is not the case in El Islam. Whatever nationalism has appeared in Muslim countries has been purely imitative and artificial, the work of foreign influences, foreign money. I speak of nationalism in the European sense. Pan-islamism – which is true Islamic patriotism – has been misnamed ‘nationalism’ in the Press of Europe more than once; and a pan-Islamic movement in some Eastern country has been wrongly represented as a nationalist movement. A pan-Islamic movement would, of course, if left alone, be a peaceful and progressive movement, aiming at the raising of the Muslim brotherhood in every land by education. A nationalist movement, on the other hand, is an aggressive movement, jealous of all other nationalities and heedless of religion. It is therefore foreign to the spirit of Islam.
There is nothing that we Muslims ought to guard more zealously than this brotherhood of all believers. I dare say that some of you English Muslims are occasionally impatient at some of the customs of the Muslim world. Well, if you have in you the true Islamic spirit, you will be careful of those little matters for your brother’s sake, who loves them. They may be little in themselves. A nail or rivet is a little thing. And these small matters hold us all together.
on the occasion of “Eid-ul-Fitr”, on the 29th June, 1919
‘O you who believe! Be careful of your duty to Allah with the care which is due to Him, and do not die without submitting to Him utterly.
‘And hold fast, all of you together, to the cable of Allah, and do not separate. And remember Allah’s goodness to you, how you were enemies and He united your hearts so that you became brothers. And how you were on the brink of an abyss of fire and He rescued you from it. Thus Allah makes clear His revelations to you, in order that you may be rightly guided.’
‘The cable of Allah!’ In another chapter of the Book it is written: ‘There is no compulsion in religion. The Right Direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who discards vain superstitions and believes in Allah has grasped a firm handhold which will not give way.’ Everything else gives way and fails us except the tie which binds the sons of men by duty to Allah. And in that tie, that cable joining us to God, is the one certain and unfailing hope of human progress, the one sure way of human brotherhood, the one way to success in that which hitherto has been a failure – the progress of mankind as a whole to peace and happiness. Self-sacrifice is the proof of true religion. But some people when they speak of self-sacrifice mean the sacrifice of one human being for another. That may be anti-social, anti-human. It may happen that a worthy, useful, good person sacrifices himself or herself for a worthless, useless, wicked person. The only self-sacrifice which has real human – and therefore religious – value, is the sacrifice of the self to Allah, the surrender of our selfish and ambitious aims to Allah’s universal purpose.
In the same way love of children, friends, relations, and the desire to serve them; love of country, love of creed, are admirable in their way; but without the thought of Allah, and the higher purpose, they become detrimental to humanity at large. Allah is the Creator and Sustainer alike of all mankind, no matter what their race, or creed, or colour. His mercy and His purpose are for all alike. If we serve our friends, or our relations, or our country, or our religious community without that personal adherence to Allah which is the duty of every one of us, without the thought of Allah’s universal purpose, we exalt our relations, or our country, at the expense of other men’s relations, other people’s countries, and we are really doing harm instead of good, in terms of humanity. And as objects of devotion, all these things must fail and disappoint us. ‘All men die. All men must meet the judgement of their Lord. Be not of those who forget.’
Our closest intimacy with a fellow-creature is not perfect intimacy. No human being really comprehends another. We touch each other only externally at certain points, and the attempt to get to closer intimacy leads to disappointment, pessimism and despair. There is in every one of us an inner self, which was old when we first woke to consciousness and will be young when all our faculties are smitten with decay. If that inner self surrenders to another human being there is tragedy, for no human being has the power to satisfy its yearnings. In Allah only can it find contentment. In Allah only can all our various personalities find fulfilment and really reach communion with each other. There is no such thing as a perfect communion of two human souls. The inmost soul of every man and woman is solitary from the cradle to the grave, unless and until it surrenders to Allah, and then it is never solitary any more. It is at one with Allah’s purpose in the universe, reconciled to the conditions of existence, content with life and death, happy to strive in the way which Allah has appointed, leaving the results to Him. That is Islam. It is not, as some suppose, a state of ecstatic lethargy, but a state of ecstatic energy, of glad fulfilment of the laws of God. And the laws of Allah in the Qur-án are not negative; they are positive; not merely, Thou shalt not do so-and-so; but, Do so-and-so, and so-and-so with all your might. At the time of the coming of Muhammad religion was a thing apart from daily life. It was bound up with vain ideas of the miraculous. A phenomenon to be regarded as divine had to transgress the natural order in a glaring way. The men of Mecca said: ‘What is the matter with this Prophet? He eats food and walks in the streets. Why has not an angel been sent down to support him in his admonitions? Why has not a heavenly treasure been bestowed on him? Why has he not a paradise from which to eat?’ They had such legends of the former prophets. The Qur-án informs them of the truth: ‘We have not sent any messengers before you but they did assuredly eat food and walk in the streets.’ In other words the former prophets, whom they deified, were only men.
Islam brought back religion to the light of every day. It proclaimed the phenomena of every day to be signs of Allah, bearing testimony to His power and majesty more truly than any miracle that ever was related. And it placed a goal of true religion in this world. Allah is the king of this world. We are all in His hands, helpless against laws wenever made – the laws of nature, which are laws of God. Man is His Khalifah (viceroy) in this world. But Allah is not an absent king. ‘Allah is the protecting friend of those who believe. He leads them out of darkness into light.’ His evidences are around us. He is here. ‘And do not die without submitting to Him utterly.’ Do not die without becoming Muslims in the inward sense.
But do not think of that submission as the end of spiritual life. It is not an end at all, it is a state of being, and a very active state of being in obedience to the law of God – a law above the laws which men have made – and that law is the service of humanity as a whole. It covers not only personal conduct, but social relations, commerce and finance, politics and international relations. ‘Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you.’ The laws of Allah as revealed in the Qur-án are simply that maxim extended to collective as well as individual human conduct, codified and reasoned out in detail in such a way that the ignorant and the intelligent, the nation and the individual, alike can know for certain what their duty is in given circumstances.
Usury is anti-social, gambling is anti-social, drunkenness is anti-social. The ideal of property as belonging absolutely to the individual to do exactly what he likes with it, and leave it in his will to whom he likes, is anti-social. All property is a trust from God, and held upon conditions clearly laid down in the sacred law. A certain portion of the income must be given to the poor, a certain portion to the community every year. And when a man dies his property must be divided among certain relatives, women as well as men, in fixed proportions.
Aggressive nationalism is a crime in the Kingdom of Allah. Patriotism, as Europeans generally understand it – my country right or wrong – is anti-human. The Muslim has no business with such errors. Obedience to the law of Allah as revealed in the Qur-án is, in my belief, the only way to reconcile the claims of rich and poor, of governors and governed, of slave and free. When once the law of Allah is accepted all those troubles disappear. I believe it is the only way out of the dilemma in which civilization is now placed; and it is interesting for a Muslim to note how nearly the most enlightened European thinkers approach to it in their suggested remedies. They little guess that what they deem the latest thing in human thought was first propounded by an unlettered Arab thirteen hundred years ago as part of the divine law governing all human progress. When you hear the Muezzin calling, ‘Come to success! Come to success!’ what do you suppose is meant? Not selfish success. Spiritual success! Yes, for only through the service of humanity can we attain the sense of Allah’s protecting friendship in this world, and to attain that is the purpose of our being. For thirteen hundred years that cry has been going forth from every mosque in the world by night and day. ‘Come to success! Come to success!’
Success in that which hitherto has been a failure – the progress of mankind as a whole! Success within the Muslim world there has been, and there is. Nationalism has been abolished. Patriotism has been replaced by the spirit of brotherhood. Black and white and brown and yellow people mix in Islam upon a footing of complete equality, holding fast, all of them together, to the cable of Allah: the sacred law. There was no police for centuries within the Muslim empire, and no need of one. There is no need of a police for happy people. Oh, we Muslims have great cause to remember Allah’s goodness to us: ‘how we were enemies and He united our hearts and we became brothers; and how we were on the brink of an abyss of fire and He saved us from it.’
But what of the world outside Islam? Have Muslims thought sufficiently of that? Have they not been content with their own happiness, and neglected their duty as a community to do good to others, to mention Allah’s goodness to them so that others too might come to knowledge of it? And so it has happened that the tortured peoples of the earth, made energetic by their misery, attacked the happy peoples. They overcame the Muslim empire, bit by bit, till now they stand above the last heroic remnant of it in the attitude of executioners. They know no law of God – nor even any law of man – where conquered peoples are concerned.
But is that their fault? Is it not the fault of Muslims in the past? It is thirteen hundred years since the Divine laws regulating war and conquest for the welfare of mankind were revealed. How comes it that the rulers of the world to-day have never even heard of them?
But is the Kingdom of Allah destroyed? Is the Kingdom of Allah at anybody’s mercy? No, indeed! The Muslims had become distracted; in their bewilderment they scattered, going this way and that. Now, praise to Allah, they are once again united, holding fast, all together, to the cable of Allah, no longer separate. The Kingdom of Allah can never be defeated while Muslims keep that spirit, while our men in high positions are ready to resign, while every Muslim is prepared to give up everything and die if necessary, in order to secure an act of justice. The Muslim empire has been conquered once before; and then what happened? The conquerors themselves were conquered. They embraced Islam. Is that impossible to-day? No, it is not; if by Islam we mean what the Prophet and the Qur-án mean by it: not necessarily our own form, but the great principles of our religion, acknowledgement of Allah’s kingship over earth and acceptance of that law of universal brotherhood and tolerance which Muhammad (may God bless and keep him) preached to men. It is what the tortured nations of the world are longing for. The one thing needed is a good example from the Muslims. Strive to do good to everyone with whom you come in contact; avoid all evil and degrading habits; stand up for good, wherever you perceive it, not only among Muslims but in all the world; oppose evil wherever it appears; call upon everyone who believes in a higher law than that of men, and looks for a higher judgment than that of men, who believes in abstract right and wrong according to the measure of Allah, whether he call himself a follower of Jesus (on whom be peace) or of Moses (on whom be peace) or of any Prophet or of no Prophet, to join with us in a great effort after righteousness. Let us hold fast, all of us together, to the cable of Allah, and never separate!
‘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.’