The remarkable life and times of Muslim convert Lord Headley: A very ‘British’ pioneer

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8 min read

Sadek Hamid

19 October, 2022

Book Club: It may be difficult for British Muslims today to remember a time when open expressions of faith were seen to be traitorous. Lord Headley, a Muslim convert, sought to change this environment and advocated for a public place for Muslims.

The British Muslim Convert Lord Headley

Drawing on previously unpublished archival sources, this book focuses on Headley’s religious beliefs, conversion to Islam, and work as a Muslim leader during and after the First World War [Bloomsbury]

This book makes a valuable addition to the growing literature on early British Muslim communities in the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. 

It explores the life and times of the fifth Baron Headley, Rowland George Allanson-Winn, (1855-1935), one of the most significant pioneers of Islam in Britain in the early 20th Century.

His story is less well known compared to his contemporaries Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932) and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936), but he was arguably the most prominent British Muslim in the U.K between the two World Wars.

Headley penned various booklets and articles in the monthly Islamic Review, the journal of the Woking Mission, was President of the British Muslim Society, London and Chairman of the Woking Mosque Trust and worked tirelessly to promote Islam in his time.

“Despite describing personalities and events from more than a hundred years ago, modern British Muslims will identify with its central themes of the challenges of practising Islam in a minority context, discrimination, intra-Muslim diversity and debates about identity and loyalty”

The author Jamie Gill, is an independent historian who has also authored Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850-1950 and is co-editor of Victorian Muslim: Abdullah Quilliam and Islam in the West

Gilham has reconstructed Headley’s biography using contemporaneous public sources such as newspapers, diaries, magazines, journals, and has been able to break new ground by accessing previously unpublished private papers from surviving family members, friends and colleagues, as well as archival material discovered in the British and India Office records.

The biography is structured over twelve chapters, after the introduction, chapters one to three discuss Headley’s life before converting to Islam and chapters four to nine examine his post-conversion life as a public Muslim figure.

Rowland Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron Headley (1855 - 1935, centre) at a celebration of Eid al-Adha outside the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, Surrey, circa 1930 [Getty Images]
Rowland Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron Headley (1855 – 1935, centre) at a celebration of Eid al-Adha outside the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, Surrey, circa 1930 [Getty Images]

In the early chapters, we learn that Headley had Anglo-Irish ancestry, was raised as a Protestant and came from a relatively well-off background which allowed him to be educated at Westminster School, London and to study at Trinity College, Cambridge University.

He briefly worked in journalism, becoming Editor of the Salisbury and Winchester Journal and dabbled in politics before settling for a career in civil engineering.

His professional expertise led to his first contact with Muslims in British-controlled India in 1896 and he played a key role in overseeing the construction of a major road project – the Baramula-Srinagar Road in Jammu and Kashmir.

At the height of the imperial power, the English characteristically reproduced the comforts of middle-class society in what they called a ‘pleasant colony,’ in the heart of Srinagar, where they could attend church, visit the library and play cricket, golf and polo, which of course was not open to local Kashmiris.

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By the early years of the new century, Headley had developed a reputation as an expert on coastal protection and was awarded various prizes and prestigious professional memberships including Silver Medals from the Royal Scottish Society of Arts and the Institute of Civil Engineers of Ireland and was later elected President of the Society of Engineers, London.

The untimely death of two of his young children seems to have triggered a series of personal crises and he succumbed to a habit of heavy drinking. This put a strain on his marriage and led eventually led to separation.

The stress also appears to affect his mental health as he was placed in a lunatic asylum in Dublin.  These unfortunate experiences also appear to have brought him closer to his faith. After recovering, he wrote about his inner spiritual life and said that his faith in God sustained him through this difficult period.

It also marked his slow drift away from Christianity and by 1913, he considered himself a Unitarian which opened a pathway towards his eventual conversion to Islam.

Temporarily adopting Unitarianism enabled him to consider the Prophet Muhammad as a great teacher about God, this tradition within Christianity appeared to be a common halfway house for many British people who eventually converted to Islam in that era. He eventually went on to recognise the Prophet of Islam as a true messenger of God, and in his short book Thoughts for the Future, wrote:

“I must also confess that visits to the East have filled me with a very deep respect for the simple faith of the Mahomedans, who really worship God all the time and not only on Sunday, like so many Christians. Their beautiful trust in their Almighty and Merciful Creator, who is never absent from them for a moment of the day or night, awakens feeling of the keenest sympathy in my heart”

Disillusionment with Christianity is a common theme among converts from this period, in Headley’s case, he became estranged from their faith upbringing due to developments in scientific knowledge, biblical criticism and the failure of the church to address growing social challenges.

Converts like Headley found Islam to be a more rational religion that was free of incoherent doctrines and a priestly class. An interesting aspect of his conversion was the role played by Khawaja Kamal-ud-Din (1870–1932), who was a significant figure in the heterodox Ahmadiyya movement.

This fact complicates assumptions about the simple transference of Sunni orthodoxy from South Asia to England and demonstrates the critical role played by Ahmadi missionaries in establishing Islam in Britain during this period.

British engineer, peer, statesman and writer Rowland George Allanson Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron Headley (1855 - 1935), who embraced Islam in 1913 and adopted the name Sheikh Rahmatullah al-Farooq [Getty Images]
British engineer, peer, statesman and writer Rowland George Allanson Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron Headley (1855 – 1935), who embraced Islam in 1913 and adopted the name Sheikh Rahmatullah al-Farooq [Getty Images]

Announcing one’s conversion to Islam was not a popular choice to make public as it triggered hostile reactions and raised questions about potential conflicting loyalties between the British Crown and the ummah. It was the height of the Empire, and the public mood was not sympathetic to those who had chosen Islam over Christianity.

To be both Muslim and loyal to Britain was seen as inherently irreconcilable and British converts came to be seen as cultural renegades who were traitors to their race, religion and country.  

Headley’s privileged social position cushioned some of this backlash, but he was still subjected to surveillance by the security services on his trips abroad. In the turbulent period after the first World War, Headley found himself drawn into the politics of the dying Ottoman Empire and the wider Middle East.

Headley’s staunch defence of Islam earned him a high profile in many Muslim countries and due to the efforts of Kamal-ud-Din, he was asked to be a guest of the King of the Hijaz on his pilgrimage to Makkah.

Headley was worried that the British government and media might accuse him of making the hajj for political reasons and went to great lengths to explain that he was motivated only by a religious obligation.

Even so, he was watched closely throughout his trip. British intelligence officials were alarmed that he was so well received on his stopover in Egypt and a secret report referred to him as ‘the well-known English pervert to Islam.’ 

He was also treated as a highly respected guest in Arabia, which seems to have particularly irritated the British counsel, Reader Bullard, who caustically remarked in his monthly reports that ‘He knows no more about Islam than I do about Chinese metaphysics’ and that ‘he was not only devastatingly stupid but also completely under the control of the Imam of the Woking Mosque.’

Despite these dim assessments, Headley’s journey was widely reported and resulted in him giving various media interviews and public lectures about his hajj experience upon his return to London.

This heightened profile made him the unofficial  “Ambassador of British Islam” between 1923-29, after his long journeys to Egypt, South Africa, and India while in his seventies.

The twilight years of Headley’s life were both busy and challenging as he navigated growing intra-Muslim disputes in the UK and maintained his networks with Muslims across the world.

He mixed with the nobility and royalty of England, is said to have been a descendant of Owain Gwynedd, King of North Wales and was even offered the throne of Albania twice! He made friends and connections with many of the most influential Muslims of that era such as fellow converts Abdullah Quilliam and Marmaduke Pickthall, Indian scholar Ameer Ali, the famous Quran translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali and social elites such as Khaled Sheldrake, and Yahya Parkinson.

He also was acquainted with the King of the Hijaz, Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi, the Amir of Transjordan, Abdullah I, the King of Egypt and Sudan, the Begum of Bhopal, Sultan Jahan, and knew Muhammad Iqbal, Inayat Khan and Duse Mohammed Ali.

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This book enriches our understanding of how early English converts to Islam were received by mainstream society and the ways in which this figure of Headley was claimed and recruited into the complex geopolitics of the Edwardian era as Britain worked with other European powers to dismantle the Ottoman Empire and manipulate rising Muslim nationalist sentiment for its own benefit.

The focus of the text is Headley’s journey to Islam and their efforts to establish the religion in Britain. It provides a fascinating insight into his life and times and illustrates the challenges of attempting to adapt Muslim norms to a non-Muslim context and provides insight into how Headley tried to build bridges between Qadiani Ahmadis and the Sunni Muslim mainstream, which was an unenviable task given the sensitivities around orthodoxy and heterodoxy. 

Despite describing personalities and events from more than a hundred years ago, modern British Muslims will identify with its central themes of the challenges of practising Islam in a minority context, discrimination, intra-Muslim diversity and debates about identity and loyalty. It will also be of interest to researchers of religious conversion, contemporary Islamic studies, and the sociology of religion.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of  Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.

source https://english.alaraby.co.uk/features/life-and-times-lord-headley-british-muslim-pioneer

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