Tag Archives: Islam

British Muslim Archives: A rare profile of and interview with Martin Lings (Al-Hajj Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din) from 1963

This was published in Muslimnews International, vol. 1, no. 8, Jan 1963, pp.18–19.

Martin Lings interview Jan1963_Page_1

Martin Lings interview Jan1963_Page_2

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Telling the Story of How British Muslims Are Part of the Nation’s History

Currently British Muslims are marginal to the story of the nation. Yahya Birt argues that this can only change for the better if Muslim communities support initiatives to recover and present their own history.

Idries_Shah

Idries Shah (1924–1996), Sufi teacher and author, not yet in the ODNB.

There are many ways in which we reflect upon and produce new versions of the story of Britain. This is both to make sense of the present and to project our hopes and fears on to the future. It is unsurprising that British Muslims, around half of whom were born in the UK, are interested in exploring their own historical roots in Britain. As part of this exploration, the question naturally arises as to how well this strand of British history is reflected in our national cultural life. A partial answer lies in looking at how British Muslims are represented in one of the key cultural institutions concerned with British history – The Dictionary of National Biography.

With its first edition dating from the late nineteenth century, the Dictionary is the equal of institutions like the BBC and the National Trust in terms of telling our national story. Taken over by the University of Oxford in the late 1990s, a second edition of sixty volumes was published in 2004. Since 2005, it has been made available online through subscription and has nearly 60,000 biographies described in 70 million words, and counting. It is currently updated three times a year.

The broad criteria for inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), as it is now known, are threefold. First of all you have to be dead. Secondly you have to have left a mark on an aspect of national life for good or for ill. And finally, you don’t have to have been resident in the UK as such but rather to have met the second criterion.

But leaving this final criterion aside for a moment, a search reveals that twenty-seven British Muslims are featured in the ODNB. For argument’s sake, I’ve excluded non-resident Muslims who had an impact on British life, as well as those who, like Iqbal and Jinnah, only stayed in Britain for a relatively short period to complete their studies.

So – according to what I hope are defensible criteria for singling out British Muslims – the ODNB list in order of their death dates includes twenty-three men and three women in total: John Ward [called Issouf Reis, Captain Wardiyya] (c.1553–1623?), Mehemet von Königstreu (c.1660–1726), Joseph Pitts (1663–c.1735), Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c.1701–1773), Thomas Pellow (b. 1703/4), Edward Wortley Montagu (1713–1776), Efendi Osman [formerly William Thomson] (b. before 1800, d. 1835), Deen Mahomed (1759–1851), Lord Stanley (1827–1903), “Munshi” Abdul Karim (1862/3–1909), Saiyid Ameer Ali (1849–1928), William Henry Quilliam [known as Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam; Haroon Mustapha Leon] (1856–1932), Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din (1870–1932), Lord Headley (1855–1935), Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936), Noor Inayat Khan (1914–1944), Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872–1953), Harry St John Bridger Philby (1885–1960), Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867–1963), Kalim Siddiqui (1933–1996), Attia Shahid Hosain (1913–1998), Martin Lings (1909–2005), Zaki Badawi (1922–2006), Aleksandr Valterovich Litvinenko (1962–2006), Gai Eaton (1921–2010) and Michael Barry (1941–2011). To my mind the list is a decent start but it is far from exhaustive and it is too unrepresentative – with fifteen out of the twenty-seven being converts, three of whom experienced forced conversions (Pitts, Pellow and Osman).

A Facebook discussion I initiated recently about who else might be included in the ODNB showed me that the story we British Muslims tell about our history in Britain is still in many separate strands. These strands have yet to be woven into a single rope that we could lay claim to as a grand narrative we might comfortably identify with. However, the appetite to work together to shape such a unifying narrative is unmistakable.

Out of this preliminary conversation, a tentative long list of new candidates for the ODNB was formed. It was clear from this online exchange that a significant contribution to community life as opposed to national life could be separate matters. So would it be better for an Encyclopaedia of British Islam project to be initiated to help map what is currently terra incognita before a real impact could be made in reshaping the national story? And does a lasting contribution to Muslim community life constitute an aspect of national life that would meet the ODNB’s selection parameters or not? The experience of other communities in Britain certainly seems to indicate that a concerted effort in recovering their own histories with the assistance of academics is necessary before any serious headway can be made to identify their place within the national story. In other words, if we cannot identify its significance for ourselves then we cannot explain its significance to others.

In the long list, the additional proposed entries range from the sixteenth century up to 2016 and include yet more converts, but also pirates, poets, artists, aristocrats, businessmen, soldiers, actors, terrorists, orators, scholars, activists and Sufis. Sadly, at the time, no one suggested any additional women.

Some of the notables mentioned were John Nelson (fl. 16 cent.), one of the earliest recorded English converts to Islam, John [Yahya-en-Nasr] Parkinson (1874–1918), Scottish poet and essayist, Hedley Churchward (d. 1929), artist and one of the earliest British Muslim converts to have performed the Hajj, Sir Abdullah Archibald Hamilton (1876–1939), 5th Baronet of Trebishun, Breconshire and 3rd Baronet of Marlborough House, Hampshire, Taherally Rehmanji Suterwalla (1914–1970), founder of the TRS food wholesaler and cash-and-carry chain, Khudadad Khan (1881–1971), the first Indian Army winner of the Victoria Cross, during the First World War (representative of several other winners of VCs and the St George’s Cross), William Burchell Bashyr Pickard (1889–1973), novelist and poet, Dino Shafeek (1930–1984), TV actor and star of Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, Mohammad Sidique Khan (1974–2005), ringleader of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammed John Webster (1913–2008), orator and public speaker, the actor Saeed Jaffrey (1929–2015), and the British-Iraqi architect Dame Zaha Hadid (1950–2016).

Some of the scholars and activists included Mohammad Amir Ahmad Khan (1914-1973), Raja of Mahmudabad, founder of the All-India Muslim League and the First Director of the Regent’s Park Mosque, Mahmood Ahmed Mirpuri (1945–1988), imam and pioneering figure in the Jamiat Ahl-e-­Hadith UK, Khurram Murad (1932–1996), the second Director-General of the Islamic Foundation, Sayed Mutawalli ad-Darsh (1930–1997), Azhari sheikh, imam of the Regent’s Park Mosque, President of the Shariah Council, and Q-News columnist, Bashir Ahmad (1940–2009), first Muslim Member of the Scottish Parliament, businessman and community activist in Glasgow, Syed Aziz Pasha (1930–2011), founder of the Union of Muslim Organisations, Said Hassan Ismail (1930-2011), the prominent Welsh-Yemeni imam and scholar, Cardiff, Mohammad Naseem (1924–2014), GP and Chair of the Birmingham Central Mosque, and Hafiz Muhammad Ishaq Patel (1926–2016), the Amir of the Tablighi Jama‘at in the UK and Europe and founder of the Institution of Islamic Education in Dewsbury.

Some of the suggested Sufis, many of whom did much to spread Islam in Britain, were Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927), founder of the Sufi Order of the West, Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi (c.1900–1954), Shadhili sheikh and founder of several mosque-zawiyas in interwar Britain, Shah Shahidullah Faridi [born John Gilbert Lennard] (1915–1978), Sabri Chishti sheikh, author and convert, Muhammad Abdul Wahab Siddiqi (1942–1994), Naqshbandi sheikh, Deputy Leader of the Muslim Parliament and founder of the Hijaz College in Nuneaton, Idries Shah (1922–1996), the Sufi author and teacher, Mehmet Nazim Adil (1922–2014), Grand Sheikh of the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufi Order, and Muhammad Abdullah Khan (1923-2015), a prominent Naqshbandi sheikh of Birmingham.

Update

Prof. Ron Geaves and Dr Jamie Gilham have discovered that the entry in Islam: Our Choice, identified as belonging to  Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton (1844–1916), is incorrect. Although the name is similar, the birth and death dates are not, and his great-grandson has confirmed that the Baronet, medic and pharmacologist was not a Muslim. So its true provenance has yet to be ascertained. Therefore he has been removed from above list of British Muslim entries to be found in the ONDB.

We can all play a role, so please do comment below as to who else might be included and why, providing links to further resources about their lives.

This is a cross-post from Everyday Muslim.

Yahya Birt is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Leeds. If you have any materials or records relating to political activism in the British Muslim community between the 1960s and 1990s and wish to get involved then please contact him via prjjb AT leeds.ac.uk

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The personal isn't always political

Conversion – like my own to Islam – is a deeply personal experience, even if it can have political ramifications.

I’ve been reluctant to write about my own conversion to Islam in 1989: I’ve always regarded it as a personal matter, as something hard to write about without coming across as deluded or pretentious, given the widespread cynicism and lack of interest about religious matters. I’ve also forlornly harboured a hope that after 20 years I would be seen as just another British Muslim, rather than primarily as a convert. On top of that, I’ve always been rather averse to “hard sell” proselytising. Religion is not something one routinely brings up in conversation; on the other hand, if someone is interested, they can always ask.

Conversion is a fascinating phenomenon about which much could be said; however, in my view, it isn’t of interest as an argument in favour of religion itself. I’ve always been unconvinced by the idea that religion can be effectively judged through formal logical argument either for or against the existence of God. I feel my scepticism is reflected in traditional teaching to be found within Islam and indeed other religious traditions. Formal theology only proves the possibility of God’s existence; it doesn’t demonstrate the fact of God as such. So the sages of Islam taught, such as Ghazali, the Persian philosopher and mystic, who lived at the time when William I conquered England. These scholars taught that God’s limitless nature is beyond human language or reasoning to encompass: our arguments or descriptions aren’t even approximations.

The idea that God could be sought through reason alone comes out of a post-Enlightenment view of religion as belief expressed through logical propositions that may either be proved or disproved. Yet, as Ghazali taught, religion’s greatest argument is simply one’s own direct experience of God through prayer and service. Encountering a saint who embodies the religious life at its best is proof enough; in other words, saintliness is its own argument. So the point of logical arguments is simply to open our minds to the possibility that the religious life is neither absurd, irrational nor useless, something that the saint makes apparent.

My own saint – the first person I met who seemed to embody the best in religion – was a wisecracking metallurgist from Lahore. He was an extraordinarily selfless man who was allergic to proselytising on behalf of the faith he felt so profoundly, yet a faith that, despite his reticence, nonetheless radiated through his every act. It took me over three years to get past my own lack of interest in all things religious to ask him about his faith. I was presented with no argument but simply with holiness, with the possibilities of contentment, integrity and wholeness that the religious life offers. More generic reasons for converting came later after stumbling attempts to lead that religious life myself. While the case for the centrality of religious experience is ancient, it is post-modern too. It relativises every story of conversion, rendering it deeply personal and even solipsistic.

Obviously, conversion to Islam has become particularly controversial in the west of late. Converts challenge the received order of things by upsetting boundaries, and are often labelled traitors or, more kindly, as eccentrics. The Elizabethans confronted with Ottoman naval power dubbed such converts “renegades” who had betrayed their country by “turning Turk”; undoubtedly, in the age of al-Qaida, the 21st-century variant is “turning terrorist”. Think of Richard Reid, the shoebomber from London who tried to blow up a transatlantic flight, or John Walker Lindh, the Californian who volunteered to fight for the Taliban, for instance. Yet while a few are drawn to Islam as a vehicle of radical anti-western protest, the timeless truths it addresses still attract those seeking meaning to life.

A few months after I had converted, I remember being rather nonplussed when confronted by an angry young man who demanded that I support the so-called fatwa of blasphemy and summary execution against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. “Why should I make this my business?”, I thought, “What has this got to do with my learning to be a Muslim?” Later on, understanding the context in which Islam served as a means of protest for some young British Muslims became unavoidable, but it was never an integral part of the impulses that drove my own conversion, nor do I believe has it motivated others who have found shelter, or for those born into the faith, reaffirmation, within the many-windowed house of Islam. The current level of tension and conflict between two self-styled monoliths, “Islam” and the “west”, makes the mundane truth that Islam is still one of the world’s great faiths rather than some murderous anti-western cult more preposterous than it really ought to seem.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free on the 20th August 2009.

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