With George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ now looking like a war without end, recent years have delivered an expected slew of ignominious ‘Muslim’ stories. Undoubtedly, the medieval theatre of ISIS, in all its fifty shades of black, takes top billing. One spin-off that caught the eye, however, was the extra-judicial killing of the young Britons, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin. Khan, 21, was a bright student with keen interest in politics and wanted to be Britain’s first Asian Prime Minister. The trajectory from wannabe PM, to tweeting from Syria that ‘the brother that executed James Foley should be the new Batman’, captures the very essence of today’s malaise. Indeed, nothing says ‘post-postmodern’ quite like the home-grown terrorist. No one could have predicted, or imagined, such a transformation in a young Muslim man?
On reading Britain Through Muslim Eyes, a compendium on the decidedly pre-modern Muslim-British exchange, one realises that what we see as new, unchartered territory, is often old ground. A 1918 short story, ‘Between Ourselves’, explored by Claire Chambers concerns a young Egyptian, Abbas Lutfi Suleyman. It was written by the noted translator of the Qur’an, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall. Abbas starts off as an admirer of the British mission in Egypt, but the rose-tinted spectacles soon fall from his eyes. He travels to London, and from a seedy Bayswater bedsit, ‘constructs an identity for himself’ as ‘representative of the Egyptian nation’; and transforms himself into ‘a well-known and fiery speaker’. Eventually, the fictional Abbas becomes ‘completely disillusioned with Britain, goes into exile in Paris, becomes a terrorist, and is finally imprisoned’. Slam-dunk.
A main point keeps re-surfacing as one reads Britain Through Muslim Eyes: the oscillation between excitement and ennui, opportunity and brick-wall is, for the Muslim in Britain, a path already well-trodden. The temptation, especially for young eyes, is to view one’s own situation as unique – exceptional. But what Chambers shows us is that young Muslims in the West – in Britain – have always been pulled by opposing, and yet equally irrepressible forces. Indeed, she distils the British Muslim headspace on the very first page, following an excerpt from the King of Persia’s 1873 Safarnama, or travelogue, of his state tour to Europe. After attending a Fire Brigade drill, the Shah cuts his praise for British ‘celerity and agility in…saving men from death’, with a wry observation of their ingenuity in building ‘cannons, muskets, projectiles, and similar things, for the quicker and more multitudinous slaughter of the human race’. Chambers concludes that ‘the Shah evinces simultaneous admiration and scepticism towards his British hosts’. Frankly, for all the academic tomes, think-tank papers, op-eds, pulp fiction and sombre volumes written on the British-Muslim ‘clusterfuck’, as the military types say, that one sentence, in a nutshell, is it. Given that Chambers is herself non-Muslim, her commentary is often so precise as to be unnerving. On describing another Pickthall short story, ‘Karàkter’ (1911) – wherein a 14-year-old Ahmed is dispatched to a British public school to develop ‘Karàkter’ (character) –Chambers comments: ‘Ahmed next goes to Cambridge, where he tries to acculturate by buying a dog, but cannot get over an Islamic sense of defilement in its presence’. Quite.
The book’s arrangement is broadly chronological, starting with accounts of Muslim travellers to Britain from as early as the late 1700s. We begin with a lightning tour of the Muslim-British exchange from even earlier – from before the European Renaissance. And how arresting – and important – it is to read of Britons such as Adelard of Bath (1080–1152) who ‘went to Turkey, determined to learn from the Muslims rather than kill them under the sign of the cross’.
The first in-depth account is that of Mirza Sheikh l’tesamuddin (1730-1800), who wrote what is probably the first book by a Muslim about experiences in Britain. His manuscript, the Shigarf-nama-‘i Vilayat, was produced some time between 1780 and 1784. Like most of the earliest travellers, l’tesamuddin was educated and from a privileged strata of society – in his case, Indian. He receives a mixed reception in England. The English had ‘never seen an Indian wearing such opulent clothing, because they are only used to poorly-dressed lascars, so there is much gawking. He is even expected to dance for a group who mistake him for a performer’. Eventually, he claims to receive ‘great kindness and hospitality’ from the English and to be treated ‘like an old acquaintance’. Later, we learn of the praise he showers on the British landscape and architecture, their technological advancement and even their women who he finds ‘lovely as houris’. But he complains about their ‘scepticism and atheism’. Poignantly, his time in Britain ends on a sour note, as he falls out with Captain Swinton, a close friend both during his British trip and in India beforehand, in part ‘because of Swinton’s increasing anti-Muslim invective’. As Chambers notes, ‘the Englishman is guilty of jokey microaggressions towards his Indian friend, teasing him about specifically Islamic practices’. Nowadays, it would be called ‘Islamophobia and the mutual incomprehension that exists between believing Muslims and the dominant irreligious British majority’.
That strikes a chord: of a Young Gun who came, saw, but didn’t quite conquer. At the risk of over-projecting, one sees someone who entered a secular space, wanting both to preserve – protect – his communal identity, and hand-in-hand, to wrestle with and indeed enjoy the new environment. But ultimately, it does not play out quite so smoothly. And as Chambers correctly points out, that trajectory is far from being historic.
History is never dead, as is evidenced by the battles over what we teach children. Was the British Empire a benign, even a benevolent force, or simply the start of a project for dominion over land, resource, people, hearts and minds, whose tentacles reach out to the present day? ‘Never again,’ says Britain on the subjects of totalitarianism and genocide: hence the push to keep the Holocaust alive in everyone’s memory. But history can only influence one’s understanding of past and present, to the extent that it is known. And this is the essence of Chambers’ volume: she breathes life into the lives and work of early travellers, who we ought to know and appreciate.
How many will have heard of Dean Sake Mahomed, owner of Britain’s first Indian restaurant – The Hindostanee Coffee House? He published The Travels of Dean Mahomet in 1794, an English-language account of his journey through Northern India, intended for a British audience. What is noteworthy about both his account, and his life in Britain and Ireland, is how he seems to have become a self-taught master of public relations. We learn that to further his various enterprises – which included opening up vapour baths, introducing Indian massages and eventually being appointed ‘Shampooing Surgeon’ to George IV and William IV – Mohamed ‘styles for himself a layered identity’, and ‘soft-pedals his Muslim background’, but is also ‘prepared to explain and defend Islam to an Orientalist audience’. For all intents and purposes, Dean Sake Mohamed was the first poster-boy for multiculturalism – the first to consciously cultivate a part-Western and part-Eastern identity, with a moderate Islamic base.
Out of all the earliest accounts Chambers examines none illustrates better the split-personality tendencies of the religious journeyman than that written by Mirza Abu Taleb Khan (1752–1806). An aristocratic Shia with ancestry in Iran (though emotionally attached to India), his innate elitism buffered him, and made him indefatigable when confronted with hostility. He is ‘attacked on the apparent unreasonableness and childishness of some Mohammedan customs’, but this does not dent his self-confidence. Because of his titled background, he is treated with warmth and flattery. He goes to the opera, masquerade balls, and the theatre in the company of British nobility. He is even entertained by George III and Queen Charlotte. But none of this disturbs his fundamental world view. In his journal, he brazenly ‘enumerates 12 national character defects of the British: their lack of religion and morality, pride and blind faith in their good fortune, passion for acquiring material objects … misplaced vanity, selfishness, living beyond their means at the expense of others, and prejudice towards other customs while remaining blind to their own imperfections.’ Were he alive today, he would surely be forced onto some de-radicalisation programme. Despite his undeniable attachment to Shia Islam, he gets drunk with new friends in Ireland and, ‘like l’tesamuddin, Abu Taleb apostrophises the beauty of English women’. While regularly describing wine as ‘excellent’ and having an obvious eye for the ladies, Abu Taleb does not ‘go native’. Rather, he is ‘comfortable with his Islamic heritage and views Christian habits sometimes with admiration, at other moments pitying amusement’, and even ‘as spiritual corruption’. Dare I say, Abu Taleb personifies the timeless, classic-cut British Muslim.
The first Muslim woman to visit and write about Britain was Atiya Fyzee (1877–1967). She came as a single woman of nearly thirty to study at the Maria Grey teacher training college. While studying at the college, she wrote a string of letters to her sisters about her European experience. The letters were serialised in an Urdu women’s journal and eventually published in 1921. Atiya was an independent traveller and recognisably modern but she wore the veil: ‘I have continued wearing my Indian clothes and do not intend to ever give them up. When I go out I cover my head … with a gauze cloth. Everything is covered except the face … Everyone appreciates that I have kept my ways in the English world’. She does not seek to assimilate by wearing fashionable European dress. ‘She finds a woman who has done just that, absurd.’ The veil gives her freedom. When she goes to see the then famous English contralto Clara Butt sing, she is filled with pity. ‘God knows how she can bind herself and sing in such a constricted state, and that too with a smile. These people bear all kinds of tortures for the sake of appearance.’
The real payload in this excellent book is the emphasis on the fact that the push and pull between Islam and the secular world is nothing new. Almost every account, fictional or otherwise, describes some variation on the same theme: with the Muslim in Britain forever bouncing between fascination and isolation, intoxication and a biting sobriety, an irresistible attraction and outright disgust. And astutely, Chambers points out, how Muslims have wrestled with that difference is as much – if not more –about education, class and the degree of amity or hostility they face, than religiosity. And from this new vista, today’s British Muslim mire begins to look different. My own generation not only experienced the harsh end of old-school racism, but also lived through the disintegration of stock identities, such as ‘Asian’, before reconstituting others. Some formed for themselves a vacuum-sealed Islamic milieu, whilst others threw out every inherited identity to blend in. But just like l’tesamuddin, Atiya Fyzee and the Muslim travellers who followed in their wake, most couldn’t – can’t – deny the irresistible pull of each. But without the class, education and confidence of their forebears, many are left disorientated, like a compass needle spinning round and round, searching endlessly for magnetic north. They have no option but to navigate modernity alone. Like everyone else, they are at the mercy of whimsical winds. Same as it ever was.