There is very little trace of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall in my family. During my childhood that branch of our family tree was somewhat overshadowed by the other side of the family, which had an element of scandal about it. My Jewish grandmother had run away from the synagogue to marry a Catholic man, so that’s where the focus tended to be.
I do remember as a child occasions when I would pick up the house phone before my parents got to it, and have a conversation with the adult on the other end. Often at some point they would ask me whether I was related to Marmaduke Pickthall, to which I would reply that I was. Even at an early age I knew that I was in some way connected to him, because of the row of books with that distinctive name on the spines that lay out of reach but not out of sight, on the top row of my father’s bookshelf.
I also have an early memory of sitting with my father watching television. It was the Michael Parkinson show, and ‘Parky’ was interviewing satirist Barry Humphries in his Dame Edna Everage alter ego. He asked Dame Edna what ‘her’ favourite writer was, and upon Edna replying ‘Pickthall, Marmaduke Pickthall’ my father jumped out of the chair and shouted ‘You see what I mean?! That’s it! That’s it!’ So the name really meant something to my dad, but of course, I didn’t understand its significance, or who this man was, or his relation to me.It’s not that myself and my brothers, as we were growing up, were actively discouraged from going to the bookshelf and finding out about our ancestor; it was more that our upbringing was steeped in our father’s devout Catholicism and my mother’s Jewish heritage, making our Islamic antecedents somehow discordant and out of bounds.
Much later on my father started delving into family archives, but by then he was in the first throes of Parkinsons and found it increasingly difficult to continue. So, when he died in 2003 I decided to go through his collection of books to find out about Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall for myself. I thought that by reading his work, I would somehow also find out more about my late father and what drove him. He was a very private man and none of us kids really knew him; except from the self-evident fact that he was an amazing pilot, and was only truly happy when he was up in the air.
By then of course I knew Marmaduke was my great-great uncle. On the bookshelf were copies of his numerous English and Middle Eastern fiction: Said the Fisherman, Veiled Women, Knights of Araby and All Fools to name but a few. However, the first book I sat down to read in my father’s study was Peter Clark’s biography Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim. I should declare, that as Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s great-great niece, I am biased in my affection for Peter Clark and his biography that I first read in its original 1986 edition. Quite simply, without this book I may have spent a good deal longer trying to find out about the life of my esteemed relation, his literary works and the work for which he is most revered and well known – The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an.
After reading Clark’s biography I was left with the sense that there was something extraordinary about Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall and the way in which he had fearlessly pushed the boundaries of what was considered appropriate for the time in which he lived, and had thereby achieved great things, but still retained a sense of humility to the end. I began to appreciate that which had been under my nose all the time, my blood relation – a man whose name I shared – who had stepped out of line and into the light of Islam.
Clark presented me with an accessible and easy narrative that unpacked Pickthall’s trajectory and the shifts and changes that moulded his life, spiritual, moral and political beliefs and his extensive literary works. Clark’s biography captured in detail Marmaduke’s journey from his birth in 1875, the son of an Anglican rector, through his unhappy patch of public schooling at Harrow, his failure to enter the Levant Consular Service and onto his subsequent early travels; two years wandering through Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria – where his linguistic capacity and knowledge flourished. Clark shared with the reader Pickthall’s reflections of his awakening: ‘Following the customs of the people of the land in all respects. I was amazed at the immense relief I found in such a life. In all my previous years I had not seen any happy people. These were happy people.’ As Clark comments: ‘The two years away determined the course of Pickthall’s life. He left England a depressed boy, burdened with a sense of failure. He returned a man, not confident but buoyant and with a distinct identity.’ I read of how the youthful Pickthall, during a stay in Damascus, had been dissuaded from converting to Islam by the Shaykh al-‘ulama of the city’s Umayyid mosque, on the basis that he should not upset his mother by taking such a step without her consent. Another two decades were to pass before Pickthall would publicly announce his embrace of the faith.
Reading the biography did add to my understanding of my late father. I realised that he had a real ethereal spiritual seeking quality to him. I recalled him saying at the end of his life that there was a time when he would have committed his life to faith if he hadn’t married my mum. Reading Clark’s biography convinced me I had to start to unpack for myself Marmaduke Pickthall and that side of the family.
There was not that much to go on, however. We had a copy of Anne Freemantle’s 1938 account of Pickthall’s life, commissioned after his death by his widow Muriel. Freemantle, a socialite, Fabian and Catholic convert who later became a New York-based journalist, had known Pickthall when she was a young girl, describing him in a letter she wrote to Peter Clark in the 1980s as ‘my greatest friend from my father’s death when I was 12 until his own death’.
Freemantle’s book was titled Loyal Enemy and, whilst rich on detail, was floral, lurid and silly and put a lot of people’s noses out of joint, including his extended family at the time, because it had speculated that he might have had held an affection for a cousin. She wrote in this fashion: ‘L’homme moyen sensuel that he was, that we all are, he transmuted, as few have succeeded in doing, into pilgrim and paladin.’
Overall the style of Freemantle’s work in many ways distorted the reader’s view of what Pickthall’s life had really been all about – the pursuit of absolute truth and love of Islam, and how this quest had been central to everything he did.
Pickthall has often been described both by friends and enemies as a vehement Turcophile – a sentiment that had blossomed in a five-month period of time spent in Constantinople in 1913 which put him at odds with the British Government then preparing for war with Turkey. His spell at the centre of the disintegrating caliphate, described a year later in his book With the Turk In Wartime, also consolidated his commitment to Islam. He became one of a number of Anglo-Ottoman sympathisers who drew the attention of the British security services – hence the title of Freemantle’s book. The authorities made sure that he was blocked from being offered a job with the Arab Bureau in Cairo (which given his expertise, should have been his), the post instead going to TE Lawrence; an appointment that subsequent events proved to have been a disaster for all concerned.
I was to discover later that along with the countless Muslims who revere Pickthall for being a pioneer of the modern Islamic community in Britain, and the many more English language speakers first introduced to the Glorious Qur’an through his transliteration, are an army of what I can only describe (affectionately) as Pickthall nerds. I learned that Barry Humphries is one of them – a voracious collector of Pickthall manuscripts and ephemera – as is Peter Clark.
I first made contact with Peter Clark in 2010, after searching for him online. He was clearly delighted that I had reached out to him, and invited me to visit the home he shares with his wife Theresa in Frome, Somerset. This was the first of many encounters discussing Marmaduke together for hours at a time.
I remember Peter, during one of our early conversations, spontaneously reading out loud the eyewitness account of Pickthall’s public declaration of faith on 29 November 1917, during the course of a lecture on ‘Islam and Progress’ to the Muslim Literary Society in Notting Hill, west London, and how:
It threw those who were not used to listening to such recitations from a Western’s lips into ecstasies. From start to finish Mr Pickthall held his audience as if in a spell…With his hands folded on his breast, and an expression of serene contentment on his face, he recited that famous prayer which concludes the second chapter of the Holy Qur’an. When he sat down, every one of his hearers felt that they had lived through, during that one short hour, the most remarkable period in his or her life.
The passage completely silenced me in its profundity; how Marmaduke had spent years hiding this truth within himself, and the beauty by which he finally revealed his faith, in a state of absolute conviction. It is with me to this day.
In 2011 I asked Peter Clark to arrange a three-day visit to Istanbul for myself and two friends. Guided by Peter and his deep knowledge of both Pickthall and the city he loved most of all, we retraced my great-great uncle’s movements during his stay on the eve of World War One. It proved to be an amazing psycho-geographical trail, as we followed in Pickthall’s footsteps from one place to another. We ended up in sleepy Erenkoy, a small town on the Anatolian side of the Bosporus, visiting the mosque he had attended and trying to identify the boarding house of ‘Misket’ (Miss Kate) Hanum, the German lady in whose garden he had found such peace, even as war hovered all around: ‘Real Eastern cries were wafted from the distant roadway. I felt entirely comfortable and in place for the first time since leaving my own Sussex Farmhouse.’
Much of what we know about Muhammad Marmaduke’s thoughts and opinions are taken from his letters to his wife Muriel. Sad to say, there is no trace of her in our family. We know that she followed him, she was by his side, and that she converted to Islam shortly after him. She joined him on his subsequent travels, including his extended stay in Hyderabad, India, at the invitation of the Nizam. In 1928 he was given a special two year leave of absence from his teaching duties by the Nizam, during which he produced the first translation of the Qur’an by a Muslim whose first language was English.
I do know that Muriel had a particularly hard time in India and she came back to England. I don’t think it was particularly easy for her because Marmaduke was quite single minded, he had a job to do. I often think of Muriel, and how when her husband died in 1936, she was left on her own (they didn’t have any children) – a Muslim convert in Cornwall, living in St Ives. We’ll never know what she really felt about him.
The original edition of Peter Clark’s biography is out of print. So this new and revised edition by Beacon Books is particularly welcome. Now more people can read this pioneering account that shares the wonderful trajectory of Pickthall’s life alongside synopses of his English and Middle Eastern literary works. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Clark, who has been instrumental in documenting the profound depths of Pickthall’s life, and highlighting his invaluable contribution to literature, to our understanding of Islam and to the history of the Muslim community in Britain. He recently told me that he was ‘bemused and gratified’ by the new interest in Pickthall.
November 2017 will be the centenary of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s public declaration of his faith in Notting Hill, London. It should be honoured in some way. These days conversion to Islam seems steeped in taboo and stigma and tainted with fanaticism and frenzy, which is why I feel that it is worth marking the nature of Marmaduke’s conversion, that was, as it is for many, simple, undeniable and natural:
Soldier of the Faith, True servant of Islam.
To thee ‘twas given to quit the shades of night
And onward move, aye onward into Light
With soul undaunted, heart assured and calm!