September 29, 2007

Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall

I was doing my occasional "trolling" through the Internet just now, looking for blog articles on Islam, and came across an interesting piece on Al-Ahram Weekly Online. Eric Walberg looks at the increasing attraction to Islam on the part of Westerners in his Finding the Inner Muslim Prince, writing about a number of Westerners who are or were known for their interest in Islam. Many of the Westerners he writes about became Muslims in time (such as Muhammad Asad and Yvonne Ridley), while others did or have not, although they became famous for their knowledge or interest in Islam (such as Sir Richard Burton and Karen Armstrong).

The following excerpt from the article is on Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall.
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall travelled to Cairo at age 18 in 1894 and, as he later recalled in his delightful Oriental Encounters: Palestine and Syria, "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 my introductions, it was in semi-native garb and with a love for Arabs 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."

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 had found 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 (local judges). Villages chose their own headmen, or inherited them, and the same was true for the bedouin tribes. The population revered 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 centralised bureaucracy and its secret police. He would have converted to Islam immediately but was discouraged by an imam who was concerned about the shock this would be for the lad's mother, telling him to delay his decision till the moment was right.

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 the narrow fanaticism and sectarian bigotry which characterised and still characterises the myriad sects of Christianity. Superstition and priestcraft were abhorred. The Reason-God was immanent in creation, a blessed sign of God's nearness. The brotherhood of Muslims which he observed in Syria, the respect between Sunni and Shia, and their indifference to class distinctions in their places of worship, seemed to be the living realisation of the dreams of the Diggers, English radicals at the time of Cromwell's Commonwealth.

In 1917, in London, as the "Christian" nations committed mass murder in the war-to-end-all-wars, during a lecture on "Islam and Progress," he took the plunge. As the New Statesman put it in 1930, reviewing his Quranic 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."

The war ground on, and Pickthall watched as the Turks trounced the British and colonial troops at Gallipoli, only to be betrayed by the Arab uprising under TE Lawrence. Pickthall despised Lawrence as a shallow romantic, given to unnatural passions and wild misjudgements. As he later wrote, reviewing the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, "He really believed that the British Government would fulfill 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."

Once a friend of Winston Churchill's, Pickthall broke with his elite friends, moved to India to teach and write, and became a close associate of Gandhi, supported the ulama's rejection of violent resistance to British rule. Nonviolence and noncooperation 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 Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pickthall joined the great bulk of India's ulama in rejecting the idea of partition. India's great Muslim millions were one family, and must never be divided. He also continued his Friday sermons, begun in the working class mosque in Woking, preaching at the great mosque of Bijapur and elsewhere, now in Urdu.

In 1935 Pickthall returned to England. His school and journal Islamic Culture were flourishing. Henceforth he had forever to deny that he was the Fielding of his friend EM Forster's novel A Passage to India. The last lines he wrote were from the Quran: "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." (5:69) A Don Quixote, peripheral to the great forces of imperialism, with its agenda of war and subjugation, but a template for the post-imperial man, citizen of the world, a modern saint.

His early love affair with life under the Ottomans meant he witnessed the dismemberment of the Caliphate, not as TE Lawrence and Philby's "liberation," but as a tragedy, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, the ethnic cleansing of millions, the planting of ethnic hatred among peoples who had lived in harmony for centuries, and a fatal blow to Islam. However, while rejecting bitterness and calls for violent revenge, he was convinced that Islam's victory would come through changing an unjust world from within.

1 comment:

thabet said...

assalamu alaykum

A number of Orientalists were sympathetic to Muslim peoples -- others went the extra mile and converted, like Muhammad Pickthall.

You might be interested in this link: