British Muslim Heritage
Famous Muslims of London

London has had a consistent stream of prestigious Muslim visitors and residents for centuries, many of whom have come and gone anonymously never to be reported. Moreover, up until recently, many of the world-changing treaties and alliances took place in London, a number of which will have concerned the Muslim world. Meanwhile London has always been a great centre for the Media and Publishing worlds, and for the various academic worlds. Over the more recent years, its Georgian crescents have housed many a statesman, scholar, writer, and student from the Muslim world, along with its own home-grown personalities.

Examples include Lord Stanley of Alderley, Khalid Sheldrake, Sir Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah (Founder of Pakistan), the present-day Sultan of Perak, the former Sultan of Johor, members of the Ottoman Royal Household, the Nizam of Hyderabad, Sir Abu Bakar Tafawa Balewa (former Prime Minister of Nigeria), Lord Headley al-Farooq, Sir Archibald and Lady Hamilton, Sir Muhammad Iqbal (Poet), and Dr Hasan ‘Abdullah al-Turabi and Sayyid Sadiq al-Mahdi of the Sudan (See Blue Plaques of Muslim London). Those that died here can be found somewhere in the granite and marble aisles of the Brookwood and Woking cemeteries.

The refugee Ottoman, Prince Sami Osmanli (nephew of Sultan Abdul Hamid II), and his wife were given refuge by an Armenian former subject and Proprietor of the London Visitors’ Hotel (Kensington). He housed them in the top-right penthouse suite free of charge, and they lived there until the end of their days.

Because much more research into these Muslims of London is warranted, only a few can be highlighted in the way that they deserve:

Al-Hajj ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali CBE (1872-1953)

Political Activist, Scholar and Translator of the Qur’an

The entry in the 1948 edition of Debrett’s Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage says of ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali CBE: “Son of the Late Khan Bahadur Yusuf ‘Ali; b. 1872; ed. at Bombay Univ. (BA 1891), and at St. John’s College, Cambridge (BA and LLB 1895, MA and LLM 1901); Bar. Lincoln’s Inn 1896; formerly Magistrate and Collector, United Provinces, India; acted as Dist. and Sessions Judge and as Under-Sec. and Dep. Sec. to Govt. of India; was on War Deputation to Sweden, Norway and Denmark 1918, Revenue Min., Hyderabad State 1921-2, and Principal of Islamia Coll., Lahore 1925-7, and again 1935-7; Delegate to League of Nations 1928; a Member of Punjab Univ. Enquiry Committee 1932-3, and Chm. of Punjab Art Circle 1936-7; Vice-Pres. World Congress of Faiths 1937: m. 1921, Masuma Gertrude Mawbey; cr. CBE (Civil) 1917. 3 Mansel Road, Wimbledon, SW19.”  

On top of all the prestige that Debrett’s gives him, ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali also lectured and wrote extensively about India and, in his view, the need for social and institutional reform. This other life of his meant that he spent most of his time caught between London and India for a number of reasons, some of them quite tragic as was his death, and not least because his family was here for the most part.

Yusuf ‘Ali was a brilliant man, though not always a popular one with his Indian contemporaries at Lincoln’s Inn. He knew Arabic and the Qur’an from an early age, and thanks to a Free Church of Scotland education, he also knew Latin and Greek and maintained an interest in Classics for the rest of his days. His studies in Bombay, Cambridge and London preceded his entry into the Indian Civil Service, and thereafter a life-long interest in Indian politics and education vis-à-vis Britain.

He remained loyal to Britain and its monarchy throughout, which led ultimately to his becoming out of step with the way Indian politics had been developing. Much later on, his position as one of the Indian representatives to the League of Nations, however, gave him the opportunity to argue against the partition of the Palestinian territories at a very high level, although his campaigning was nevertheless unheeded.

In 1900 he had returned to Britain and married his first wife, Teresa Mary Shalders. His family settled in St. Albans while Yusuf ‘Ali returned to India until 1905, when his two-year leave commenced, and during which time he qualified at Lincoln’s Inn. 

It was also at this time that Yusuf ‘Ali came into his own. While mixing with fellow Indian Law students, Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal, he had already started writing by this stage, and had also started to deliver a series of lectures in London. One of these lectures took place at the Royal Society of Arts about the Muslims of India, for which he was awarded the Society’s Silver Medal in 1907. He later published these lectures in a book.

He was soon elected not only to the Royal Society of Arts but also to the Royal Society of Literature and proved very popular within British academic circles.

Unfortunately his flitting between India and London eventually took its toll on his marriage, which ended in divorce in 1912 and from which had issued three sons and a daughter. After this time, Yusuf ‘Ali’s career although very successful became chequered with the unsettled events of the time, which began to come to a head with the arrival of the First World War. Yusuf ‘Ali decided to leave the Indian Civil Service in 1914 without having qualified for a pension, and returned to his children in Britain who had been placed in Chiswick under the care of a governess.

Thereafter he became involved in a number of London-based endeavours, including the War effort, but also including lecturing at the Notting Hill Islamic Centre, and the School of Oriental Studies where he taught Hindustani. He also became a friend of the Woking Mosque, as many other Muslims of day had done. He was notably made a CBE in 1917 and even made it into Who’s Who. However, in 1920, he again decided to return to India, now with his new wife Gertrude Anne Mawbey, who took the Muslim name, Masuma.

The years 1920-25 saw him travelling mostly from Lahore to Bombay on quasi-political business, and also in the capacity of an educationalist. He was invited to become the new Principal of Anjuman’s College. He had a brief return to Chiswick, London, where he again left his family and meanwhile published a series of Progressive Islam Pamphlets. He also contributed to the Encyclopaedia of Islam. His time in London included being involved in securing the land for the Regent’s Park Mosque, along with the Indian High Commissioner Sir Firoze Khan Noor (later Prime Minister of Pakistan) and Sir Hasan Suhrawardi (Muslim Member of the India Office). Yusuf ‘Ali also drew up the Mosque’s 1948 constitution.

His return to India marked out more political involvement for him as the Khilafate Movement was reaching crisis point, he was also now Principal of the Islamia College and was continuing with his writings and lecture tours. When he left the Islamia College, his life thereafter consisted mainly of short-term employment and travelling to a number of places including Turkey, although he would return to the College in a number of different capacities later on. He concentrated on a number of public engagements and literary endeavours, which left little time for his family.

‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali is probably best known for his popular interpretation and commentary of the Qur’an, which was published in serials between 1934 and 1937. This has been reproduced over and over again since that time, and its success overshadows the man behind the magnum opus, whose stormy personal life left him alone and very isolated at the end. In 1947, most of the Indians that had formerly frequented London returned to India to take up political posts, ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali among them. However, he was not to be as successful as his colleagues and returned to London to live out the last days of his life, disillusioned and disappointed. He was living in poverty, in stark contrast to his earlier high society days, and died alone in St Stephen’s Hospital, Fulham on 10th December 1953, putting the Muslim community to shame. He is buried in Brookwood Cemetery.

Al-Hajj Hedley (Mahmoud Mobarek) Churchward (d.1929)

Painter, Sketcher and Designer of Sets

Born in Aldershot, Hedley Churchward came from one of England’s most prestigious families. They had owned England’s second-oldest house, which dated back some 700 years at the time. His childhood and formative years spent mixing with his father’s eclectic circle of friends and acquaintances meant that he had an exposure to all kinds of people from an early age. He spent some of his time at the Court of Queen Victoria, and most likely heard tales of the Orient and the Empire. He may even have come across a certain ‘Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s famous “munshi”.

He was educated at Kilburn College, where he “shared lollipops with the sons of South American presidents, of Indian generals, of big-game hunters, Polar explorers and professional empire builders” (Eric Rosenthal, From Drury Lane to Mecca).

Hedley Churchward’s artistic talents were noticed while he was still in his teens, by the benefactor and founder of his school, no less. He was invited to paint a drop-curtain for the stage in the Sandringham drawing room, which cemented his popularity in the circles that mattered almost immediately. He became an apprentice of famous scene-painter Mr Spong of Sadler’s Wells, and eventually became a mainstay of London’s circle of artists, including Lord Leighton, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and many more.

Churchward’s expertise was in the field of theatre painting. His theatre sets were famous at the time and his commissions took him from Sadler’s Wells to the Globe Theatre, and eventually to Drury Lane. He was an institution in theatres around London and all over England, where he met famous theatricals such as Lily Langtry and the poet Lord Tennyson. He was famous for his imaginative sets, one of which for Sinbad the Sailor required 4000 lamps.

It was when Churchward’s theatre painting mentor suggested an inspirational trip to Spain that Hedley Churchward had his first contact with Islam. Impressed by the beauty of the Alhambra in Granada and the architectural brilliance of the Cordoba Mosque, he acquired a taste for the world of Al-Andalus, and tried to persuade his colleague to travel across to Morocco with him. Churchward ended up making what was then a difficult journey from Spain to Morocco by himself. His biographer tells of a few dangerous incidents with the locals eyeing him suspiciously. On one occasion he was almost stoned due to his patting one of the souq boys on the head. He also met some eccentrics on his travels through Morocco, such as Kaid Maclean who was “speaking Arabic with a strong Scotch accent”.

Months passed and Churchward gradually changed his dress from the very English fashion of the time, to adopting native garb. He was also gradually accepted by the Moroccans and became a local institution, often being invited to the houses of shaykhs.

It was on his return to England after one of his Moroccan sketching trips, that Hedley Churchward announced to his family that he had become a Muslim. The years that followed saw him juggling commissions in England and returning to Morocco. He also travelled to Australia and South Africa for work there, and gradually moved away from England as his focal point.

At one point he decided to visit Cairo. During his stay, he was asked to decorate one of Cairo’s many mosques. He even went so far as to build a home for himself very near to the Pyramids, and had also become a student of Al-Azhar. In the meantime, the years in Cairo saw Churchward’s marriage to the daughter of one of the city’s leading Shafi’i Jurists.

At this time, converts were almost unheard of and so when Churchward decided to embark on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the British Embassy in Cairo told him not to bother even trying, saying that he would never be let in. Hedley Churchward would indeed be making history as one of the first European Muslims ever to have made the pilgrimage. In the end, Hedley Churchward (now known as Mahmoud Mobarek Churchward) was subjected to a four-hour grilling session by the Qadi of Egypt to determine whether he was truly a Muslim and at whose court he was subjected to “an examination in the Faith”. He passed faultlessly and received the certificate that he needed to give him his passport to Mecca and anywhere else in the Muslim world. The Qadi’s document was also endorsed by the chief Ottoman cleric of the time and many other leading scholars and imams. He cherished this document for the rest of his days.

After his epic journey to Mecca and Medina in 1910, where he managed to sketch a number of places and monuments that now no longer exist, he and his wife eventually settled amongst the Cape Malays of South Africa where he is still remembered today. Many of these paintings and sketches are preserved at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Meanwhile, Hedley (Mahmoud Mobarek) Churchward remains one of the most colourful Muslims that emerged from London’s streets. He is buried in Johannesburg Cemetery. His personal account as told to Eric Rosenthal, From Drury Lane to Mecca, can still be found in some of London’s many second-hand bookshops (See Further Reading for details).

Marmaduke (Muhammad) Pickthall (1875-1936)

Writer, Novelist, Linguist and Translator of the Qur’an

Marmaduke Pickthall, as he then was, was indeed a child of London. After the death of his father, his mother moved with him and his brother to 97 Warwick Gardens, Kensington where she attempted to bring them up single-handedly.

Due to a childhood illness, he often had difficulties getting to grips with his school life and failed to reap the benefits of what would otherwise have been a very elite education. He spent a short time at one of London’s top public schools, Harrow, but was not happy there.

His numeracy problems, induced by his illness, prevented him from pursuing a number of careers in both the Army and the Consular services. His mother, however, realising that languages were very much his strength, took him to Europe instead where he managed to perfect his French, and also developed a good grasp of Italian. This was not enough to gain him entry into the Levant Consular Service even though he came first in all of the language papers (which included in those days, Latin and English and four other modern languages).

However, at this time, he was presented with the opportunity to join a family friend in Palestine by way of Cairo. It was here that he started to learn Arabic, which he later was to “speak like a native”, and it was also here that he fell in love with the Islamic world, and although tempted he was not to convert for another 20 years. The Shaykh al-‘ulama of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus had advised him against a hasty conversion with the words: “Wait till you are older and have seen again your native land. You are alone among us, so are our boys alone among the Christians. God knows how I should feel if any Christian teacher dealt with a son of mine otherwise than as I now deal with you” (taken from Peter Clark, Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim).

On his return to England after two years away, he married Muriel Smith, who was also to convert to Islam a few years after her husband, and who patiently accompanied him on many of his travels to the East.

It was also at this time, that Pickthall started to make a name for himself as a writer. He managed to get many articles and short stories published in a number of journals of the time, the subject matter of which almost always harked back to his time in Syria, Egypt and Palestine. Probably the most famous of his novels, and also the most successful, was his second book, Said the Fisherman. His work reached such literary acclaim in the coming years that among his admirers could be found E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, and H.G. Wells.

Pickthall returned to Egypt in 1907 after a break of about 10 years, and he also returned to Damascus at the invitation of another friend. He and his wife spent more and more time in the Near East, and Pickthall at this time developed an interest in the politics of the region. When Britain was at war with the Ottoman Empire, he gained the reputation of a radical as he wrote journalistic pieces in defence of the Ottoman Empire. Pickthall’s travels to Turkey had also prompted an interest in learning Turkish, which he managed to pick up with the skill he usually exercised. It was during his time in Turkey that he also became impressed by the Hanafi School of Islam as it spoke to his sense of reason and logic. His pro-Ottoman stance, which even went so far as his becoming very active in the Anglo-Ottoman Society, often worked against him in diplomatic circles and a job he might previously have coveted at the Arab Bureau in Cairo went instead to T.E. Lawrence.

1917-1918 saw him becoming more and more active in the politics of the Muslims of London. At the age of 43 he was called up and stationed on the East Coast with the 17th Hampshires. In 1917, at some point during this period, he had proclaimed himself publicly as a Muslim. It was at this point that he became involved in the British Islamic Society in Notting Hill, and he also started to write for the journal Islamic Review and Modern India. He lectured at the Muslim Literary Society, and became imam of the London Mosque in Campden Hill Road where he quoted from the Qur’an in Arabic and English. Pickthall also became involved in an organisation called the Islamic Information Bureau, which published the weekly journal Muslim Outlook.

1920 took Pickthall to India, a country with which he continued to have a love affair for the rest of his life. His trips to India often involved lectures and publications, and back in London too his writing began to take on an Islamic theme more often than not. Pickthall lived in India for the next fifteen years, working initially for The Bombay Chronicle and later as a resident of Hyderabad where he undertook many tasks for the sake of the Nizam and for Islam. Whilst in India, Pickthall’s creative writing took on Indian themes, and he also occupied his time with the study of Urdu. It was in 1928 that the Nizam gave Pickthall two-years paid leave in order to complete his translation of the Qur’an, which remains to this day one of the most poetic and popular of all such efforts into English.

At the beginning of 1935, the Pickthalls finally retired to England. Although Pickthall retained his connection with Muslim London (as he had done throughout his time in India), they decided that Cornwall would be more conducive to his health. In May 1936, Muhammad Pickthall died of coronary thrombosis, to be much lamented by the Muslims of India and Britain alike. He too is buried at Brookwood Cemetery. | British Muslim Heritage