British Muslim Heritage
The Conversion of David Chale.

‘David Chale’ was the pseudonym of a District Officer in colonial Sarawak, the story of whose conversion follows. The author of this account, Owen Rutter (1884-1944), was a travel writer and an expert on the tribes of North Borneo.

From Owen Rutter, Triumphant Pilgrimage: An English Muslim’s Pilgrimage from Sarawak to Mecca. London: Harrap, 1937.

Chale decided to give a tiffin party at the Rest House. He invited nearly every white man of any importance in Kuching, official and civilian, with the exception of the Rajah, who was on a tour up-country. He took infinite trouble over the arrangements. He engaged a special cook. He hired a Chinese boy from the Club to mix the cocktails. He had the table decorated with pink and white Honolulu creeper, and borrowed some extra glass and crockery from the Colonial Secretary.

            It was a grand tiffin: crab salad, curry, ice-cream, and plenty of beer. According to local custom some of the guests made rather fulsome speeches, extolling virtues no one believed him to possess, complimenting him on the work he had done for the country, paying tribute to his knowledge of the native mind, saying how sorry they were to lose him, and hoping it would not be long before they saw him back in their midst again. They went so far as to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” (as I have mentioned, it had been a first-class meal), and then some one incautiously called upon him for a speech.

            Chale had been sitting there at the head of the table, chuckling to himself and waiting for that invitation. I can see the gleam in his narrow blue eyes as he rose to his feet and began to speak, his head cocked slightly on one side.

            He thanked them all for their kind expression of feeling. It had been delightful being back in the country again. Having had a good deal to do with native affairs it was a particular pleasure for him to be able to say a few words since he knew that every one present had the same high regard for the natives as he had, especially for the Malays (“Hear, hear!”), although many of those whose faces he saw before him understood them far better than he did (“No, no!”). He himself felt that although much was known of the Malays’ customs, less attention had been paid to their religion. He would go farther, and say that without a study of their religion no one could understand the Malays at all. He was looking forward to making up for that deficiency in the near future (gasps of astonishment, instantly suppressed).

            Then he let them have it.

            “Gentlemen,” he said, “as you all know, I am leaving this territory by the next boat. But you may not all know my destination. It is … Mecca.” Dead silence. “I shall be leaving with another pilgrim, whom I intend to marry when I have become converted to Islam in Singapore. With her I mean to perform the pilgrimage to which I have looked forward with anticipation for many years. Once I have earned the title of Haji, I hope to return and greet you all again.”

            The English are a curious race, quick to take offence at trifles, but not without dignity when the affront is sufficiently deep. For of course there was not a man present but took Chale’s declaration as a personal affront. Yet not one of them said a word to his face. There was even a ripple of conventional applause when he sat down, more from habit, perhaps, than anything else, and then twenty-four perfect gentlemen shook him by the hand and thanked him for his hospitality. Not one of them told him that he was lowering the prestige of the white man in the tropics by marrying a Malay. No one said a word about his abandonment of his creed, or warned him that he would be losing caste by becoming a Muslim. No one called him a crank, or told him that he was crazy. No one accused him of plotting against the State. They just said good-bye and trooped off in a body to discuss the matter in the Club. It was a remarkable exposition of self-restraint.


The Conversion of David Chale.

Chale and Munirah left Kuching for Singapore two days after the tiffin party. Chale was relieved to find that there were few other Europeans travelling in the ship, but six other pilgrims were going with them, only one of them a woman. This was Alimah, a Sarawak Malay girl who was well known to many of the Europeans in Kuching.

            Besides Alimah and her husband, there were two elderly Malays whom Chale had known as a District Officer, and an old friend of his called Hajji Alim, who had been on the pilgrimage before. Chale, like others, had been accustomed to give small sums of ‘petra’ to Haji Alim every year. Such gifts are regarded as loss in this world for gain in the next. Haji Alim would accept the money and use it for his own purposes. But after death he would not forget. He would be at the gates of the next world ready to welcome the giver. There he would hand back the money, saying, “I greet you. Here is what you entrusted to me. I return it to you for your use as arranged.”

            Besides his own funds, Haji Alim had in his possession over two thousand dollars, which had been entrusted to him in small sums by devout Muslims who were not yet in a position to go on the Haj, but wished to sacrifice sheep by proxy at Mecca. This sacrifice is known as ‘kika,’ and forms a kind of insurance for a fitting reception in the next world

            On the day the ship sailed all those who had handed Haji Alim kika money for the purchase of sheep came down to the landing-stage to see him off. With them came the relatives and friends of the other pilgrims. But even those who had neither relatives nor friends came to watch the steamer leave, until it seemed that every Muslim in Kuching was there. There was much laughter and a hum of happy and excited conversation; but no weeping or exhibition of emotion. Those who were about to sail had a fixed and glorious purpose. They were bound for a land which all who remained behind hoped that some day they too might reach. The possibility that some might not return seemed to occur to none of them. Or, if it did, it gave no one a moment’s uneasiness. What end more blessed could a Muslim hope for than to die in Mecca or to be buried near the Prophet’s tomb at Medina?

            Chale and Munirah were the centre of interest. Malays he had never set eyes on before came up and shook him by the hand in the Muslim manner – placing both palms upon his right, then drawing them away towards the heart – and wishing peace upon his going. Women crowded round Munirah, begging her to bring them back holy relics from Mecca, if only a few drops of sacred water or a shred of cloth which covers the House of God, and hugging her and kissing her, until, as she told me, she felt as though she had no face left.

            With a final “Assalamu-alaikoum” they walked up the gangway, Munirah chaperoned by Mohammed Ali’s wife. From the deck they waved their last farewells. The moorings were loosed. Two blasts of the steam horn drowned the voices on the wharf and sent the watchers’ fingers to their ears. The engines began to turn, and the ship veered slowly from the wharf. As she moved out into the stream and began to steam down the river towards the signal station countless canoes, decked with many-coloured flags and pennants, put out from the banks, with beating gongs. Long after the ship had rounded the bend that hid them from sight the pilgrims could hear that melodious music, wishing God’s speed to those fortunate ones who, after years of pinching and scraping, planning and patient waiting, had begun their pilgrimage.

            Although Munirah was now a free woman – her status corresponding to that of a widow – Chale saw little of her on the three days’ passage to Singapore, and then only in the presence of her chaperon.

            On reaching Singapore they went out to Kampong Geylang, a Malay village, to stay in the house of Abdul Gapur, a friend of Mohammed Ali, who made Chale welcome. His attitude was not entirely disinterested, although the profit he expected was spiritual rather than financial, for while he would not accept a cent for his hospitality he was aware that Chale intended to become a Muslim and knew that anyone who helped to bring another into the faith would acquire virtue in the eyes of God, and the acquisition of such pahlah is tremendously important to every true believer.

            Chale’s experience of Malay food and mode of life saved him from any feeling of physical or mental discomfort, but he was experiencing a sensation of intense excitement now that the time of his conversion was at hand. He felt it essential to waste no time in becoming publicly converted, and on the evening after his arrival he pronounced the Kalima Shahadah before a Malay friend of Abdul Gapur. This formal declaration of faith was a simple ceremony, yet Chale felt intensely keyed up as he spoke the Arabic words of the Muslim creed in a room full of witnesses:

            “I believe in God and the oneness of God, and that Mohammed is the true Prophet of God.”

            Once he had given utterance to those words a curious sensation of calm settled upon his restless spirit. It was like a blessing. He felt at peace. All anxiety left him. Psychologically, it was doubtless due to the relaxation of the tension under which he had been living for the past six months. He had done what he intended to do for years. Now there was no going back. He felt immeasurably glad, ineffably content.

            After his conversion, Abdul Gapur took him about to the houses and social gatherings of the village; it was important that he should obtain as much experience of Muslim custom as he could. One day they went to a funeral. Chale was still wearing a tussore silk suit and he heard one or two people in the house asking (without open impoliteness) why an unbeliever had come among them. But as soon as Abdul Gapur told them that his guest had become a Muslim their attitude changed to genuine friendliness. Chale heard it said that even the corpse in the coffin would share the pahlah which would accrue to all in the house from his conversion.

            For years he had been associating with Malays; with many he had been on terms of friendship. He had been more intimate with them than any other European in Sarawak. They had always received him warmly. Their behaviour to him had been unexceptionable. So much so that until he began to go among them as a Muslim he did not realize the barrier that had existed between the European follower of Christ and the Malay follower of Mohammed. Now they accepted him as one of themselves. Theirs was a friendship not of the lips, but of the heart. They were prepared to do anything for him. He could have stayed a year in any house in the village without paying a cent.

            Abdul Gapur warned him, however, that his first declaration of faith would not be enough, and strongly advised him to pronounce the Shahadah again before a Muslim who was a scholar. Chale agreed. He had learned that a Muslim will attach, or feign to attach, slight importance to a declaration made before one whom he considers of lower religious status than himself, partly from the suspicion with which all Muslims regard converts until they have proved themselves, and partly from the wish to acquire merit by bringing a new believer to Islam. Chale was well aware that he would be confronted by the suspicion of the Arabs when he reached Jeddah, and he was anxious to obtain from a Muslim of high standing a document which would establish his good faith.

            Abdul Gapur decided that the proper person for the purpose would be Said Mulana, a very holy man and imam of an important Singapore mosque.

            They found him in a little stone house beside the mosque, sitting cross-legged on a carpet spread on a raised platform at one end of the room. He was dressed in long white robes, girt with a red sash. On his head he wore a turban of pure white Karachi cotton. His face was thin and pointed, with hollow cheeks and a sharp nose above a snow white beard. His eyes, the rims of which had been darkened with kohl, were bright and shrewd; humour and rigidity alternated in their expression, and they gave his aged face a look of intense vitality and intelligence.

            Abdul Gapur and Chale gave him the Muslim greeting:

            “Assalamu-alaikoum! May peace be upon you, and the blessing of God!”         

            “Wa-alaikumus-salam, wa-rahmat-ullah. And upon you be peace,” responded the Imam, holding out his hand, which Abdul Gapur kissed with deep respect.

            Chale was presented, and Abdul Gapur then asked leave to depart.

            When they were alone Mulana fixed Chale with his piercing dark eyes.

            “Hold out your right hand,” he said.

            Chale did so, and the Imam anointed it with atar, the perfumed essence distilled from the flowers of Taif in the Arabian hills.

            “They tell me you have become a Muslim,” he said. “Is that true?”

            “It is, holy one,” replied Chale.

            “Have you ever looked at the stars at night?”

            “I have.”

            “How many are there?”

            “They are as countless as the grains of sand on the seashore.”

            “Have you looked at the sun in his splendour?”

            “I have.”

            “Have you looked at the moon in the glory of her fullness?”

            “Indeed, yes.”

            “And do they depart from men’s sight, the moon in the daytime and the sun at night?”

            “They do.”

            “Who created them?”


            “But was not the sun made by one god, and the moon by one god, and the stars by yet another?”

            “No, holy one.”

            “Ah, then there is but one God?”

            “There is but one God.”

            “That is well,” declared the Imam, with satisfaction. “Then let me hear you pronounce the declaration of faith.”

            He held out his slim brown hand to Chale, who took it reverently and once more repeated the Shahadah:

            “I believe in God and the oneness of God, and that Mohammed is the true Prophet of God.”

            “Thanks be to God!” said Mulana, releasing Chale’s hand. “I accept you into the faith of Islam as a true believer.”

            Chale breathed a sigh of relief. His emotion under the examination had been so intense that beads of sweat were standing out on his forehead.

            “Remember that you obey the teaching of the Holy Koran,” the Imam said. “Be not like a perverse porter who calls upon God only when under the load, but when you are in safety be steadfast in prayer and give thanks to Him for all His mercies. God’s is what is in the heavens and what is in the earth, and God suffices for a guardian. With him is the reward of this world and of the next, and he both hears and sees: he knows what you keep secret and what you disclose, and he has prepared for those who misbelieve a grievous woe!”

            “I will obey,” said Chale humbly.

            “Do not misunderstand me, brother,” Mulana continued. “Islam does not seek to make things difficult for its people. It seeks to make things easy. The essence of its teaching is peace. Its aim is to weld the people of all races, whatever be the colour of their skins, into one harmonious brotherhood, owing allegiance to the one God and no other.”

            “It is my greatest hope to further that aim,” said Chale.

            “Thanks be to God,” replied Mulana. “They tell me you are going upon the Haj?”

            “That is my intention, if God be willing.”

            “A worthy one, yet there indeed you may find the way hard. Do not imagine you will be able to enter Mecca easily. Many will greet you with fair words on their lips but distrust in their minds, for, as my people say, everything with a crooked neck is not a camel, and different men have different hearts. The journey is no ordinary one and from time immemorial has been attended with trials and tribulations. Go, if you will, but only if you are filled with great determination, enough to overcome all difficulties and to keep your mind from turning aside from its fixed purpose until its end is reached. Be not as a heap of rushes which catches fire today and to-morrow is but ashes.” He paused. Then he said, his eyes still on Chale’s:

            “Now, brother, you have heard my warning. Do you still wish to go?”

            “My mind is made up, and nothing but the will of God can change my resolve,” declared Chale.

            “That is well. Then be not afraid. And while you are waiting to sail you are free to use one of my houses which are here, close by the mosque. If you require instruction or enlightenment fail not to call upon me at any hour of the day or night. Should you want aid, I am at your service.”

            Chale thanked him, but explained that Abdul Gapur was his host.

            “Then I must ask if you have ample provision for the journey?”

            “I am so provided, thanks be to God.”

            “Al-hamdu-lillah! All praise is due to God. Then go, and may you return safely and with a peaceful mind. May God bless you and help you. Be not concerned with the cost of the journey, for God will repay you. And I will give you a letter to one of the sheikhs of Mecca. It may serve you usefully. Now let is recite the Fatihah.”

            In a clear firm voice the old man began to intone that lovely prayer, the first chapter of the Koran, in which Chale joined him.

            “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. All praise is due to God, the Lord of the Worlds, the Merciful, the Compassionate, the master of the Day of Requital. Thee do we serve, and thee do we beseech for help. Guide us in the right path, the path of those to whom thou hast shown grace, not of those who earn thy wrath, or of those who go astray.”

            Chale rose to go.

            “Remember, brother,” said Mulana, “when you are upon your way, that the tongue is the neck’s enemy, and that hasty words are answered by a blow. And do not throw a stone into the well from which you drink, but be grateful to them who befriend you, for he who gives not thanks to man gives not thanks to God.”

            Although Imam Mulana had offered one of his houses rent free with the customary Arab hospitality, Chale found that he had no scruples about accepting the alms which were diffidently offered according to custom; nor was he above earning a sum in commission by recommending Chale to a sheikh in Mecca who was a friend of his. He gave the promised letter, but Chale discovered that it would have small effect with anyone but the particular person to whom it was addressed, and little enough with him unless Chale chose to name him as his sheikh: and this he did not yet wish to commit himself to do.

            He was therefore still faced with the problem of obtaining some conclusive proof that would convince the authorities in the Hedjaz that he was a true Muslim. After earnest consideration he decided to approach the secretary of the Muslim Missionary Society in Singapore, whose activities are financed by voluntary contributions collected in India and by a worthy supporter of Islam in Singapore named Said Ibrahim Alsagoff.

            He found the secretary, Khalil Anwari, strangely different from Imam Mulana, the contrast being due to Khalil Anwari’s contact with the West, which was epitomised by his invariably being addressed as “Mr.” He was an extremely learned man and had been brought to Malaya to carry out the policy of the Society, which was as a result of the educational reaction in India, to advance the cause of Islam by adopting the methods used by Christian missions, and by propaganda in the form of a monthly publication with intelligent articles on Islamic affairs.

            He was a thin, spare man, about thirty-five, and dressed in European clothes, but wore a fez. He spoke to Chale in perfect English and asked him if he were quite certain that he wanted to make his conversion openly, pointing out that several Europeans had made their declaration in secret, owing to force of circumstances. Chale knew that he was referring to the attitude of European Governments and firms to any of their officers or employees who became Muslims, and he assured Mr Khalil Anwari that he was his own master and had neither the desire nor the intention of entering Islam by stealth.

            Mr Khalil Anwari appeared to be impressed by his sincerity, and Chale recited the Shahadah for the third time. Then Mr Khalil Anwari gave him a certificate stating that he had received him into the faith, and bestowed upon him his Muslim name, Abdul Rahman. Chale went away under the impression that he had at last obtained what he needed – definite evidence of his conversion. He had yet to learn that, through no fault of Mr Khalil Anwari, it would prove to be valueless outside Muslim countries controlled by the British.

            He had been so busy attending to the details of his conversion that he had had no opportunity to make any arrangements for his marriage to Munirah, whom he was permitted to see only in the presence of her chaperon. It was characteristic of him that he should have done his utmost to prepare his way to Mecca before going farther with the secondary consideration of his wedding. But now that he had made his final declaration and had obtained the certificate he wanted, he gave the matter his attention only to find that it was not going to be so easy as he had supposed.

            The problem was, who would give Munirah away? Her parents were not with her, and unfortunately Mohammed Ali had omitted to procure a letter from them authorizing him to act as wali, their proxy. Yet a wali she must have before the Imam would marry her. What were they to do?

            Then Abdul Gapur bethought him of the customary law which provides that if a Muslim girl who wishes to marry is more than sixty miles away from her parents, the Imam may act as wali. Chale appealed to the Imam, but since he was to conduct the wedding ceremony he preferred to delegate his powers to the Khatib, another functionary of the mosque.

            On the day of the ceremony Chale was not allowed to see Munirah: the wali acted as intermediary between them. First he went to Munirah and whispered in her ear:

            “Are you willing to marry this man?”

            On her assenting he went to Chale and said:

            “Are you willing to marry this girl as agreed?”

            “I am,” declared Chale.

            The wali then reported to the Imam, who took Munirah’s hand in his and charged her to repeat these words after him:

            “I accept marriage with you, Abdul Rahman, in consideration of a gold bride-gift of a hundred dollars in ready money.”

            The Imam then went to the room in which Chale was, and when Chale had accepted the contract in the same terms he read the customary chapters from the Koran, chanted some prayers, and declared the marriage duly solemnized, ending with the benediction: “May God bless you and bestow his blessing upon you, and unite you both in goodness.” A banquet followed, after which Munirah retired to the women’s quarters, and Chale to his. There was not then, or later, any question of consummating the marriage, since both parties were going on the Haj, so that their continued segregation was taken as a matter of course by every one in the house.

            One of Chale‘s and Munirah’s first acts after their marriage was to make a niat, a votive promise which must be fulfilled when a desired purpose has been achieved. Many Malays make a niat that if they reach Mecca they will give away their height in gold when they return. When the time for fulfilment comes the payer of the vow invites his friends to a feast. A thin gold wire is carefully measure to the exact height of the host, and is then cut into small pieces, one of which is given to every guest.

            Chale and Munirah made their vows in a mosque standing on the top of a hill in Singapore, a very holy place, where lay the remains of a Muslim saint named Habib-Noh. Chale had been suffering from a tiresome skin trouble, and he vowed that he would bathe in the holy water of Mecca, and, if cured, would scatter a measure of lentils to the pigeons of the Holy City, while Munirah promised that if she reached Mecca she would distribute two dollars in alms to the poor. Before they left, the keeper of the mosque gave them two small pieces of yellow cloth, which he tore from the covering of the saint’s coffin, explaining that the cloth was charged with a power that would help them to redeem their vows.

            Chale’s next move was to procure the passage to Jeddah. It was then October, and the actual pilgrimage would not take place until March; but Malay pilgrims are accustomed to set out several months earlier than the Muslims who live nearer Mecca. They like to visit the tomb of the Prophet at Medina as soon after their arrival in the Hedjaz as possible, to reach Mecca in time to spend the fasting month of Ramadan there, and to have plenty of time to pursue their studies before the actual date of the Haj. The Egyptians, on the other hand, usually elect to arrive at Jeddah a few days before the Haj and go on to Medina after they have been to Mecca. So that the average sojourn of the Malay pilgrim in the Hedjaz is four months against the Egyptian’s one. A Malay has to travel far to reach the Holy City, while an Egyptian can reach it in four or five days. It is but natural that a short stay will not satisfy a pilgrim whose home is far away. It is the great event of his life, and can seldom be repeated.

            Chale too had determined to reach the Hedjaz in good time, for he recognized that he had much to learn. In Kuching he had had the foresight to have both his and Munirah’s passports endorsed for Arabia (that had been before the announcement of his intentions at the tiffin party), and, hearing that a pilgrim ship was sailing in a few days, he went round to the offices of the Blue Funnel Line to obtain two first-class passages to Jeddah.

            At once he encountered suspicion. The clerk, a pawky young man whose face was an archipelago of pimples, demanded Chale’s reason for wishing to go to Jeddah. Chale felt like asking what the hell that had to do with him, but he judged it prudent not to. So he replied that he wanted to study local conditions and added that he was a Muslim.

            Pawky Face became definitely hostile.

            “I couldn’t think of granting these passages without consulting the Colonial Secretary,” he said pompously.

            “Why not?” asked Chale, with more than a hint of truculence in his voice.

            Pawky Face muttered something about “international complications.” It was a phrase Chale disliked. He felt like leaning across the counter and punching Pawky Face on the jaw, but instead of doing so he inquired when he could have an answer.

            “Well, as you know, the Colonial Secretary is a very busy man, but I’ll do what I can to get something through by to-morrow.”

            When Chale returned next day he found Pawky Face even less amenable than before. Having been fortified by official backing, he was wallowing in the pleasures of obstructionism.

            “The Secretariat takes a very serious view of the case,” he told Chale. “I am directed to inform you that your intentions and circumstances must undergo the closest scrutiny before we can be allowed to issue the passages you wish.”

            “What do they want to do about it then?”

            “I suggest that you ask for an appointment with the Assistant Colonial Secretary, and when you have given him the information required, he will doubtless represent the case to the Colonial Secretary and obtain his guidance.”

            “Right. I’ll think about it,” said Chale, and stalked out.

            As he walked away from the shipping office he felt, as a famous statesman had once felt before him, amazed at his own moderation. A month ago he would have raised hell in that office. He would have browbeaten Pawky Face, he would have insisted on seeing the manager, he would have marched into the Secretariat and thrown his weight about, demanding to know what right anyone had to stop him going to Jeddah when he held a British passport endorsed for Arabia. But with his conversion the calm of Islam had soothed his passionate temperament and taught him the wisdom of patience. Did not the Koran teach that the man who controlled his anger was stronger than he who overthrew his opponent in a wrestling match? It was no good going off the deep end about it, he decided. That might put the kybosh on the whole thing. He saw that it would be folly to go to the Secretariat. They were probably ferreting into his affairs even now. Very likely they would cable to Kuching, and once they learned what he really meant to do he might never get to Jeddah even, let alone Mecca. The only thing to do was to leave Singapore before they tried to throw a spanner into the works. But how were he and Munirah to get away?

            By this time he was on the waterfront, near Johnston’s Quay. As he looked out on the crowded harbour he saw a cargo ship flying the Italian ensign and the Blue Peter. Inspiration came. Why travel by the pilgrim ship at all? The Italian ship would be certain to call at Port Said, and from there Munirah and he could get back to Jeddah. Thanks to the Abyssinian trouble and the strained relations between Great Britain and Italy the Italian agents would not be likely to report his movements to the Secretariat. They would merely render a return of passengers to the immigration authorities, who were unlikely to be interested.

            A few inquiries brought him to the agents of the line. The ship, the Col-de-Lana,  was sailing that night, first stop Colombo. Yes, he could have two passages to Port Said. He paid over the money, and hurried back to Munirah with the tickets.

            They packed up, said their good-byes, and sailed in the Col-de-Lana that night. | British Muslim Heritage