At first glance, the idea of England as an arena where two great religious forces meet seems rather far-fetched, but there is more Moslem activity in some of our English towns than people imagine. Turning over some files of the Kibla (a Meccan newspaper), one comes across passages like the following:
“The honourable Cadi Abdulla living in London reports that six noted English men and women have embraced the Moslem religion in the cities of Oxford, Leicester, etc. The meritorious Abdul Hay Arab has established a new centre in London for calling to Islam, and the Mufti Muhammad Sadik has delivered a speech in English in the mosque on ‘the object of human life which can only be attained through Moslem guidance.’ Many English men and women were present and put questions which were answered in a conclusive manner. At the close of the meeting a young lady of good family embraced Islam and was named Maimuna.”
Then we have the scholarly and temperate addresses of Seyid Muhammad Rauf and others before the Islamic Society in London; they are marked by considerable shrewdness and breadth of view, and though their debatable points may present a few fallacies, their effective controversion requires unusual knowledge of affairs in Moslem countries.
It is not, however, the activities of Moslems in England which damage the prestige of Christendom; it is the behaviour of English alleged Christians themselves. Every missionary, political officer, tutor, or even the importer of a native servant—in short, anyone who has been responsible for an oriental in England—knows what I mean. I do not say that London (for example) is any more vicious than Delhi or Cairo or Cabul or Constantinople or any other large Moslem centre, but vice is certainly more obvious in London to the casual observer, even allowing for the fact that many comparatively harmless customs of ours (such as women wearing low-necked dresses and dancing with men) are apt to shock Moslems until they learn that occidental habit has created an atmosphere of innocence in such cases which even bunny-hugging has failed to vitiate.
The social life of London in all its grades and phases operates more widely for good or ill on Christian prestige among Moslems than Londoners can possibly imagine. From the young princeling of some native State sauntering about Clubland with his bear-leader to the lascar off a P. and O. boat, among East London drabs, or the middle-class Mohammedan student who compares the civic achievements that surround him with the dingy dining-room of a Bloomsbury boarding-house, all are apostles of life in London as it seems to them. I have had the hospitality of “family hotels” in the Euston Road portrayed to me in the crude but vivid imagery of the East when spooring boar in Southern Morocco with a native tracker who had been one of a troupe of Soosi jugglers earning good pay at a West-end music-hall, and I once overheard a young effendi explaining to his confrères in a Cairo café exactly the sort of company that would board your hansom when leaving “Jimmy’s” in days of yore.
As for the news of London and its ways, as conveyed by its daily press, educated Egyptians were better posted therein than most Englishmen in Cairo during the War, as their clubs and private organisations subscribed largely to the London dailies, which entered Egypt free of local censorship, while Anglo-Egyptian newspapers were more strictly censored than their vernacular or continental contemporaries, as they presented no linguistic difficulties, but could be dealt with direct and not through an understrapper.
Missionaries would have us judge Islam by the open improprieties and abuses which occur at Mecca, Kerbela, and other great Moslem centres. How should we like Christianity to be judged by the public behaviour of certain classes in London or other big towns? Remember, it is always the scum which floats on top and the superficial vice or indecorum that strike a foreign observer.
It is not my mission to preach—I am merely pointing out a flaw in our harness which causes a lot of administrative trouble out East. It is difficult to check the hashish habit in Egypt when the average educated effendi reads of drug-scandals in London with mischievous avidity, and the endeavours of a well-meaning Education Department to implant ideals of sturdy manhood are handicapped when the students batten on the weird and unsavoury incidents which are dished up in extenso by London journalism from time to time. Such matters do no harm to a public with a sense of proportion, but the effendi is in the position of a schoolboy who has caught his master tripping and means to make the most of it. He assimilates and disseminates the idea that cocaine is as easily procurable as a cocktail in London clubs, and that the Black Mass is at least as common as the danse de ventre in Cairo.
We can leave England for our Eastern tour with the conclusion that Islam is welcome to any proselytes it makes there, but that the gravest slur on Christian prestige is cast by our own conduct.
There is only one bone of contention between Moslems and missionaries in Europe now that Turkey and Russia are knocked out of the ring of current politics. Is St. Sophia to remain a mosque or revert to its original purpose as a Christian church? Whatever may be Turkish opinion on the subject, the tradition of Islam is definite enough. When the Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem in triumph, after Khaled had defeated the hosts of Heraclius east of Jordan, he withstood the importunate entreaties of his followers to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, saying that if he did so the building would de facto become a mosque, and such a wrong to Christianity was against the ordinance and procedure of the Prophet.
It is worthy of note that Christians were not molested at Jerusalem until after the Seljouk Turks wrested the Holy City from the moribund Arabian Caliphate in 1076: their persecution and the desecration of sacred places by the Turks brought about the first Crusade in 1096. Again it was the Ottoman Turks who stormed Constantinople and turned St. Sophia into a mosque.
According to the orthodox tradition of Islam, once a church always a church. When the ex-Khedive had the chance of reacquiring the site of All Saints’, Cairo, owing to the increasing noise of traffic in the vicinity, he contemplated building a cinema-theatre there (for he had a shrewd business mind), but he was roundly told by Moslem legalists that it was out of the question. Even if the Turks urge right of conquest, victorious Christendom can claim that too, and if they allege length of tenure as a mosque in support of their case they put themselves out of court, as St. Sophia has been a church for more than nine centuries and a mosque for less than five.
If Turkey is allowed to remain in Europe at all, it will be on sufferance. Even in Asia Minor, signs are not wanting that Turkish rule will be pruned, clipped and trained considerably, as humanity will stand its rampant luxuriance of blood and barbarity no longer. The Young Turks were given every chance to consolidate their national aspirations and have achieved national suicide. One may feel sorry for the patient, sturdy peasantry and the non-political cultured classes who have been coerced or cajoled into fighting desperately in a cause that meant calamity for them whether they won or lost; but a nation gets the rulers it deserves, and must answer for their acts.
Excerpted from Pan-Islam (1919), by George Wyman Bury. Published under a Creative Commons license, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Photographs by Simon Cousins and DFID.