Monday, 20 June 2011

From Drury Lane to Makka

From Drury
Lane to Makka

© Abdal-Hakim Murad

History has not recorded the name of the first British Muslim
to carry out the rites of Hajj. Rumours abound of converted Crusaders
who made the trip in medieval times, and of British Muslims in Ottoman
naval service who visited the hallowed precincts in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries. But the first detailed account of the
Hajj by an English Muslim had to wait until the Edwardian era, when
the artist Hedley Churchward became the first recorded British ‘Guest
of God.’

Like many Anglo-Muslims of his day, Churchward was the conservative,
gentlemanly scion of an ancient family; indeed, his ancestors possessed
the second oldest house in Britain. His father ran a successful
business in Aldershot, and was well-received in regimental circles,
enabling the young Churchward to meet Queen Victoria and the philanthropist
Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Showing an early artistic talent, Churchward
studied art and became a recognised painter, specialising in the
then highly prestigious field of theatrical scene painting. A familiar
figure in London’s West End in the 1880s, he worked closely
with celebrities as varied as Tennyson, Millais, Lord Leighton,
and the most famous of all Victorian ‘supermodels’,
Lily Langtry.

A leisurely trip through Spain opened the young scene-painter’s
eyes to the glories of Moorish architecture, and he was tempted
to venture across the Straits to Morocco. Here, in a world still
untouched by Western influence, he quickly fell in love with the
gentle and beautiful lifestyle of Islam. After several visits, he
gravely announced to his startled family that he had become a Muslim.

Churchward travelled on to Cairo, where he studied for several
years at Al-Azhar, the Muslim world’s highest seat of learning.
His scholarship developed apace, enabling him to preach Friday sermons
at a small mosque, and even landing him an appointment to the prestigious
post of lecturer in Sira (the Prophet’s biography) at the
Qadis’ Academy - no small achievement for a convert.

In need of more lucrative work, Churchward then sailed for South
Africa, where his art and his elegant drawing-room manner soon won
him the favour of Cecil Rhodes, who made him the gift of a rare
pink diamond. Moving effortlessly between the Muslim community and
the Transvaal’s white elite, it was thanks to Churchward’s
earnest intercession that President Paul Kruger granted permission
for the erection of the first mosque in the Witwatersrand goldfields.

On his return to Cairo, Mahmoud Churchward married the daughter
of a prominent Shafi‘i jurist of Al-Azhar, and continued his
Arabic lecturing. But both his head and his heart told him that
his Islam was not yet complete: the magnetic pull of the Fifth Pillar
was becoming impossible to resist. As he later recorded: ‘One
evening, as I strode along the looming Pyramid in the sunset, and
saw the jagged skyline of Cairo behind the dreamy African dusk,
I decided to carry through what I had intended to do ever since
I turned a Moslem - I would go to the Kaaba at Mecca.’

As an Englishman he realised that this ambition might prove hard
to fulfil: there was a danger that the Caliphal authorities at Jeddah
might distrust the sincerity of his claims to be a Muslim, and unceremoniously
turn him away. He therefore petitioned the senior Ulema for a letter
of recommendation. In the awe-inspiring presence of the Chief Qadi
of Egypt, together with Shaykh al-Islam Mehmet Jemaluddin Efendi
(the Ottoman Empire’s highest religious authority, who happened
to be on a visit to Cairo), he submitted to a three-hour examination
on difficult points of faith. Passing with flying colours, he received
a beautifully-calligraphed testimonial signed by the scholars present.
This religious passport was to serve him well in overcoming the
bureaucratic obstacles which lay ahead.

In 1910, after a further year in South Africa, the would-be Hajji
packed his trunks and set out from Johannesburg for the Holy Land.
Steamers in those days were slow, and Churchward faced the added
impediment of having to travel via Bombay, where he spent weeks
in frustrating negotiations with shipping-clerks, officials, and
an urbane Lebanese Christian who was the Ottoman consul. At last
he found an elderly pilgrim ship, the SS Islamic, and this vessel,
captained by an irascible Scotsman and armed with cannon against
the threat of pirates, chugged slowly across the shimmering heat
of the Indian Ocean, visiting the poverty-stricken Arabian Gulf
before wending its leisurely way up the Red Sea.

The days passed slowly, and the time for Hajj was fast approaching.
Steaming at six knots, halting at small ports to deliver sacks of
mail, which had to be handed over with six-foot tongs because of
the fear of plague, there was little to do except watch the dolphins,
eat curry, and pray on deck with the Indian pilgrims.

Landing briefly at the Sudanese port of Suakin, Churchward dropped
in on the British Consul, who airily told him that his plans to
visit Makka were doomed. ‘My dear chap,’ he told him,
sipping an iced drink on the Consular veranda, ‘to begin with
you will not be allowed to land at Jeddah.’

But two days later, the Islamic steamed into the roadstead of the
Arabian port. ‘On the Indian deck,’ he recorded, ‘there
started a great packing of pots, portable stoves, babies and sacks
of rice.’ It proved necessary to row ashore in a small dinghy,
plunging through the hot spray past a Turkish battleship that had
been moored for so long that the coral had grown up around it, immobilising
it forever. Once his little boat was beached on the sands, a short
conversation with the Ottoman officials established that all was
well, and Churchward went into the town to make contact with the
local representative (wakil) of Sharifa Zain Wali, a rich businesswoman
of Makka who ran a large organisation of ‘mutawwifs’
- pilgrim guides. Naturally, she could not attend him here in person
- as Churchward later observed: ‘Owing to the immense numbers
of pilgrims, hundreds of thousands, who reach Jeddah each year,
it is as impossible for these much-respected dignitaries to escort
their customers personally as it would be for Mr. Thomas Cook to
chaperone every Cockney globe-trotter through Europe. Like all her
colleagues, she employed a considerable staff, who saw that the
Hajis carried through the ritual prescribed by the Prophet.’

The Wakil took Churchward to his beautiful Arab house, and explained
how to don his Ihram clothing before letting him settle down for
the night. ‘Finding a level place on the irregular stones
I lay down anew’, he wrote. ‘This time a thousand million
mosquitoes hovered over me.’ The following day, he telegraphed
most of his money through to Makka, and entrusted, as was the custom,
the remainder of his funds to the Mutawwif. That evening, ‘while
the lamps of Jeddah glowed in a tropic sunset, two donkeys arrived.’
The road beyond Jeddah was little more than a camel track, but the
Wakil confidently led the small party towards the nocturnal east,
with Halley’s Comet hanging splendidly among the stars above.
‘Against the stars I saw rock faces; we seemed to be trotting
through a kind of canyon. Saving the fall of our donkeys’
feet there was nothing to be heard, not even a jackal. ... Bang!
Explosions suddenly rang from some place high in the dark hills.
No mistake, those were rifle shots ... The growing brightness showed
a very picturesque old building, a kind of tower several hundred
feet above the road. From the steep path serving the structure some
fez-adorned figures ran down. They wore uniforms and held guns in
their hands.’

An Ottoman officer came up, and politely explained that his men
had successfully chased off a band of robbers. In those days, attacks
by desert Arabs on pilgrims were distressingly common; but Churchward
and his party rode on, trusting in Allah. In the oven-like heat
of the early afternoon, after several stops at roadside coffee-houses,
they passed the stone pillars which indicated the beginning of the
sacred territory into which no non-Muslim may intrude.

‘On entering here my guide signed to me that we should say
the proper prayer. Touching his heart and forehead he muttered the
Fatiha and held his hands together as if to receive Heaven’s
blessing. Then he said, Hena al-Haram (Here is the Holy Ground).’

‘Some pigeons, wild doves and other birds were the first
specimens of desert fauna I came on. They appeared perfectly tame,
and fluttered a few inches from our faces. Some sat on the hard
stones and allowed the donkeys to go right upon them. Very carefully
the Wakeel led his beast around the little creatures, for no man
will dare to kill a living thing here.’

In the Holy City at last, after almost two days on the road, Churchward
and his companions entered the tall mansion-cum-hotel of the Sharifa.
This pious and aristocratic lady, a direct descendent of the Holy
Prophet, had family connections in Cape Town, where her company
of pilgrim guides had been recommended to Churchward. Unpacking
his goods, he sent her a gift of a Gouda cheese, which was borne
up to her unseen presence by excited servants. The Sharifa herself
shortly called to him from behind a wooden mashrabiya screen: ‘Mubarak!
Welcome to my house.’ ‘I replied that I felt proud to
live in her house, whereat she answered that she was proud of me.
‘The Kafirs make good cheese,’ declared the lady, ‘they
must have many cows.’’

The English pilgrim struggled up seven flights of stairs, bathed,
and slept on the roof. He was awoken before dawn by the strange
lilting sound of Ottoman bugles, and after prayers and a breakfast
of melons he set off behind the Mutawwif towards the Sacred Mosque.
Taking care to scuff their feet disdainfully on some well-worn flagstones,
which the Mutawwif declared were some former idols of Quraish which
had been cast down there by the Prophet to be humiliated, Churchward
and his companion finally entered the House of God. The first stage
of a five-month journey had finally come to an end.


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