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Abdullah Quilliam and Sufism

Today I received a rarity in the post that was published exactly a hundred years ago: a translated selection of the Ottoman Mevlevi Sufi poet Sheikh Haroun Abdullah’s (c.1556-c.1641) poems by Abdullah Quilliam. Quilliam had it privately published in 1916 under the pseudonym Henri M. Léon that he adopted on his return to England, c. 1909-10. [1] It was dedicated to his daughter, May Habeeba Quilliam, who had died at the age of eleven in May 1908 from diphtheria. [2] The volume was a matter of nostalgia for Quilliam as the translations had been undertaken on those occasions when he had been in Istanbul between 1903 and 1908:

in attendance upon His Imperial Majesty Ghazi Sultan Abdul-Hamid Khan, at the Palace of Yildiz, and form, to me, a souvenir of the many kindnesses I experienced at the hands of my then Imperial Patron, for whom I shall always cherish feelings of affection, gratitude, sympathy and respect. [3]

The introduction which introduces the reader to Sufism in general, the Mevlevi Order, and to Sheikh Haroun’s life and works was composed the following year in 1909, ‘after the [Young Turks] Revolution’, ‘during the time I was living in retirement at Bostandjik’ (which is on the Asian side of modern-day Istanbul). [4] The introduction is crisply written and is, like the book as a whole, evidence of Quilliam’s knowledge of and attachment to Sufism. Here is an example of Quilliam’s felicitous writing on the subject:

The annihilation of self, the entire consecration of the mind and body to the service of Allah, the contemplation of the Divine, and the disregard of the earthly, such is the tariq, the path, by which the Dervish seeks to consummate his union with the One. Everything speaks to him of the Beloved, the Unity. But the mere perception of the Immanence of the Divine, is only the first step in the Way. The End of the Path is only to be attained when the conscious union with the Divine is obtained. The veil which material Nature has placed between the self-knowing part, the Ruh [Soul], and Allah ta’ala must be pierced. The mind must be emptied of all images, of all worldly thoughts, fears, longings, or aspirations, and brought to a realization of the Presence. Then and only then does the nafs [Spirit] find itself alone with Allah. [5]

Was this interest in Sufism more than merely a scholarly one for Quilliam? Was he a member of a Sufi Order? We simply do not know presently. However, two possibilities suggest themselves. Quilliam’s patron, Abdul Hamid, was himself a Shadhili and a devoted follower of Sheikh Muhammad Zafir al-Madani (1828–1903), who taught the Way at the Yildiz Hamidiye Mosque. Abdul Hamid built Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque for his sheikh and the Shadhili Order in Yildiz district, just below his palace, which was completed in 1887. When I visited the tekke in 2008, I was shown the intricately carved lectern and architectural backdrop that Abdul Hamid, trained inter alia as a master carpenter, had carved for his sheikh. Besides the Shadhilis, another possible tariqa that might have been attractive to Quilliam was the Mevlevi Order itself as his dedicated interest in Sheikh Haroun Abdullah indicates. Further research is definitely needed into whether or not Quilliam might have joined a tariqa at any point during his time in Istanbul, the Ottoman territories or Morocco.

Let me end by presenting Quilliam’s felicitous translation of Sheikh Haroun’s ghazal in praise of the Prophet:

So long as the heart doth pulsate and beat,
So long as the sun bestows light and heat,
So long as the blood thro’ our veins doth flow,
So long as the mind in knowledge doth grow,
So long as the tongue retains power of speech,
So long as wise men true wisdom do teach,
The praise of God’s Prophet, Ahmed the Blest,
Shall flow from our lips and spring from our breast,
‘Twas Rasul-Allah from darkness of night
Did lead us to Truth, did give to us light,
Did point out the path, which follow’d with zest,
Leadeth to Islam and gives Peace and Rest,
Praise be to Allah! ‘Twas He who did send,
Ahmed Muhammad, our Prophet, our Friend. [6]

Notes

[1] Henri M. Léon, Sheikh Haroun Abullah: A Turkish Poet and His Poetry (Blackburn: Geo. Toulmin & Sons for La Société Internationale de Philologie, Science et Beaux-Arts, London, 1916), 108pp; Ron Geaves, Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam (Markfield: Kube Publishing, 2010), p.259.

[2] Léon, Sheikh Haroun Abdullah, p.5; Geaves, Islam, pp.112, 259.

[3] Léon, p.11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p.15, with some corrections to the Arabic transliteration. The translations of Arabic terms that are placed in square brackets are taken from Quilliam’s own glossary at the end of the book to preserve his own understanding of these terms.

[6] Ibid., p.81.

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Abdullah Quilliam’s obituary of Yahya Parkinson (1874-1918)

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Yahya Parkinson (1874-1918), Scottish Muslim poet, essayist, and critic, was born in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland, of Irish descent. Born John Parkinson, he adopted the name Yehya-en-Nasr after privately converting to Islam in c.1901 after a correspondence with Abdullah Quilliam in Liverpool. Although relatively isolated in Scotland, Parkinson maintained contact with Quilliam’s Liverpool Muslim Institute between 1901 and 1908 which helped to establish his literary reputation by publishing his early work, after which he developed connections with literary and learned Muslim circles in British India (in Lahore, Calcutta and Rangoon), as well others closer to home in London and Woking, Surrey. His published books and pamphlets included Lays of Love and War (Ardrossan, 1904), Muslim Chivalry (Rangoon, 1909), Essays on Muslim Philosophy (Rangoon, 1909), Outward Bound (Rangoon, 1909) and Al-Ghazali (Woking, c.1913). He was a regular contributor of poetry and prose to a number of journals including The Islamic World (Liverpool), The Crescent (Liverpool), Journal of the Moslem Institute (Calcutta), Crescent (Lahore), The Review of Religions (Qadian, Punjab) and The Islamic Review (Woking). Parkinson worked for nearly all of his adult life as a wool-spinner at the Busby Spinning Company with a two-year sojourn in Burma as a deputy editor of a Rangoon newspaper in 1908-10; ill-health forced him to return to Scotland. With the Liverpool Muslim Institute having collapsed during his time abroad, Parkinson became Vice-President of the British Muslim Society (later renamed as the Muslim Society of Great Britain) run from Woking and headed by Lord Headley. He died in December 1918 after a short bout of pneumonia.

While he achieved some fame within local and some international Muslim literary circles, Parkinson has been largely forgotten until a recent revival of interest in his work among historians including Timothy Winter (Cambridge), Yaqub Zaki (Scotland) and Brent D. Singleton (California). Singleton recently republished a number of Parkinson’s poems in an anthology of poems by Muslim converts during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, The Convert’s Passion (2009), and a number of them have also been set to music by Abdal Hakim Murad in Muslim Songs of the British Isles (2005).

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Quilliam as Prof. H.M. Leon

 

 

Abdullah Quilliam often wrote under a pen-name in the pages of The Crescent so as to be able to write about prominent members of the Liverpool Muslim Institute, and not least himself, in the third person. After he returned to England from Istanbul in 1909, Quilliam adopted a pseudonym of Prof. H.M. Léon (scholars like Ron Geaves and Jamie Gilham offer a number of hypotheses as to why), and subsequently built a second career in England as a French-born man of letters and polymath. Quilliam’s dual identity was an open secret among the convert community but it was not revealed at his request to wider society. The main vehicle for Prof. Léon’s scholarship in London was the The Philomath, the official organ and journal of proceedings of the Société Internationale de Philologie, Sciences et Beaux-Arts, which Quilliam had founded while still in Liverpool.

Reproduced below is the obituary of and tribute to Parkinson by Rev. E.H. Vicars, almost certainly Quilliam writing under yet another pen-name.

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The issue of The Philomath that features Parkinson’s obituary

The Late John Yehya-en_Nasr Parkinson, F.S.P. – Rev. E.H. Vicars, B.A., F.S.P.

The Société has recently lost a valuable member, through the death of Mr. John Yehya-en-Nasr Parkinson, M.B.A.S., F.S.G., F.S.P. The deceased gentleman being not only a gentleman of scientific achievements, but also a poet of no mean merit.

Mr Parkinson, albeit of Hibernian descent, first saw the light of day on the 17th February, 1874, in the historical little town of Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland. Left motherless when but an infant of scarce seven months old, he was brought up by his grandparents. John was a studious boy and was regarded as the most diligent and intelligent of the pupils in the school which he attended. In 1887, when but 13 years old, he left school and entered a large factory, but continued his studies in the evening, particularly in Scottish history, geography, and astronomy. Three years later, namely, in 1890, his grandparents died, and thus at the early age of 16 he was left to face the world alone. He so ardently pursued his studies in astronomy and mathematics that he was in 1896 elected a member of the British [18] Astronomical Society, and in 1900 contributed some interesting articles to the Ardrossan and Salcoats Journal. He subsequently became a regular contributor to that newspaper. Up to that time young Parkinson had been a member of the United Presbyterian Church, but, hearing of the Islamic movement in Liverpool, in 1901 he opened up correspondence with the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles (Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam Bey), and ultimately became a convert to Islam, adopting on his entrance into that Faith, the Islamic name of “Yehya-en-Nasr”. Numerous effusions from his pen, from that time, appeared in the columns of The Crescent and the Islamic World (both published in Liverpool) and in other Muslim periodicals. The same year a volume of his poems, entitled “Songs of Love and War”, was published and met with a favourable reception. It was about this period that Mr. Parkinson became a member of the Liverpool branch of the Société, and it was in association therewith that I first had the pleasure of making his personal acquaintance. Theologically we differed widely, but as sectarian matters and political questions are utterly tabooed in La Société, we were able to meet on neutral ground and discuss these great and fascinating problems which the science of astronomy presents to the scientist, and it was always a pleasure to me to hold converse with Mr. Parkinson thereon. He delivered, in 1903, three lectures on astronomical subjects before the Liverpool Branch of the Société, and it speaks volumes for the catholicity of the institution, that the gentlemen who presided thereat on these three occasions were each of different faiths – the Sheikh-ul-Islam being the chairman at the first; Baron S. Benas, J.P. (a distinguished local Sephardic Jew) at the second; and a Christian clergyman (to wit, myself) at the third of the series. It may be interesting to mention that the titles of these three lectures were respectively, in the order in which they were given, “The Solar Orb and Its attendant Planets”; “The Earth’s Satellite”; and “Is Mars Inhabited?”

Mr. Parkinson in 1902 became a member of the Ancient Order of the Zuzimites, and subsequently was appointed a junior officer of the Grand Tabernacle of that organisation, remaining a member thereof until his decease. In 1906 he [19] penned a long epic poem which he styled the Osmanli Nameh, wherein, in imitation of the style of Firdawsi’s immortal work the Shah Nameh, he set forth the glories of the Ottoman Sultans from Osman, the founder of the dynasty, down to Sultan Abdul-Hamid Khan. A copy of this work, in manuscript, tastefully bound, was presented to the last-named Turkish monarch by the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, and the poet was honoured by being decorated with the medaille of the 4th class of the Order of the Medjidie, the ceremony of investiture being performed in the lecture hall of the Liverpool Muslim Institute by the Sheikh, in the presence of a large number of Mr. Parkinson’s friends and admirers, utterly irrespective of creed or nationality.

In 1909 Mr. Parkinson accepted an appointment in connection with the editorship of a journal in Burma. He was in India for about two years, and then returned to England, finding that it was impossible for him to work with some of those who had control of such journalistic undertaking.

On his return to England he resumed the previous position he had held at Kilwinning, and remained therein until the date of his decease in December last.

To the end he retained his love and admiration for the Osmanli race, and his faith in the religion which he had adopted. His sojourn in India, however, had not added to his confidence in some of the natives thereof.

By the death of John Yehya-en-Nasir Parkinson, I feel that I have lost a valued friend; the Societe, a worthy man; Science, an ardent student; and the State, a good citizen.

Source: The Philomath (London), vol. 23, no. 264, Jan-Mar 1919, pp.17-19.

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