Wednesday, September 21, 2011

First Englishwoman 'Hajjah'

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by Lisa Kaaki
Aug 18, 2011


Lady Evelyn Cobbold
During the 19th century, many women, particularly Englishwomen, were fascinated by the Arab world. Most of these female travelers, like Lucie Duff Gordon, Lady Ann Blunt, Gertrude Bell, Isabelle Eberhardt and Freya Stark, to name but a few, are known to us through their impassioned travelogues.

However, one name, Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867 - 1963) failed inexplicably to achieve a proper recognition. William Facey finally does justice to this remarkable woman, the first British Muslim woman on record to have visited the Holy Cities of Madinah and Makkah and to have written about her pilgrimage.

In the excellent introduction, co-written with Miranda Taylor, Facey highlights for the first time the family link between Lady Evelyn and her great-aunt, the formidable Jane Digby (1807-1881) who was successively Lady Ellenborough, Baroness Venningen, and Countess Theotoky before she married her fourth and last husband, a Syrian Bedouin, Sheikh Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab. With him, she lived happily for 30 years until she died at the age of 74.

Both women shared a love of the Arab world. Jane Digby swiftly adopted the Arab way of life, smoking the narghile, wearing traditional clothes and outlining her blue eyes with kohl. Unlike Lady Evelyn, the highly unconventional Jane Digby, who was equally at ease speaking nine languages and milking camels, never wrote a book and never intended to convert to Islam. Lesley Blanch, who wrote her biography in “The Wilder Shores of Love,” tells us that her husband’s “deep inbred piety awoke her own dormant religious principles” and “she came to redouble her now active participation in church affairs.”


For Lady Evelyn, things were completely different. In fact, she didn’t even remember the exact time when she decided to become a Muslim. “It seems that I have always been a Muslim. This is not so strange when one remembers that Islam is the natural religion that a child left to itself would develop,” she said.

Lady Evelyn spent most of her childhood in a Moorish villa perched on a hill outside Algiers. She learned to speak Arabic, and her favorite pastime was to escape her governess and visit the mosques with her Algerian friends.

A few years later, while staying in Rome, she had the opportunity to visit the Pope. She recounts in the introduction of “Pilgrimage to Mecca” that “when His Holiness suddenly addressed me, asking if I was a Catholic, I was taken aback for a moment and then replied that I was a Muslim… A match was lit and I then and there determined to read up and study the faith. The more I read and the more I studied, the more convinced I became that Islam was the most practical religion… Since then I have never wavered in my belief that there is but one God.”

Indeed, this belief in the Oneness of God never left her. And like many Westerners, Lady Evelyn was deeply touched by Islamic spirituality, the inner side of faith. Two years before her marriage to John Cobbold in Cairo, she wrote a poem in which she evoked the fundamental principle of Tawhid (belief in one God) in a prayer, “To Him, the One. The Essence of all” and “His Presence within and around.”

I was particularly moved by the passage about her funeral. Lady Evelyn spent the last twenty years of her life quasi-secluded on her estate at Glencarron, and then in a nursing home in Inverness. Yet it is obvious that, despite the fact she had lost touch with other Muslims, she must have insisted on many occasions that her written instructions for her Muslim funeral be followed.

Sheikh Muhammad Tufail, the imam of the Woking Mosque, was dispatched to Glencarron, in Scotland, to perform the funeral prayer on Monday Jan. 28, 1963. When he arrived, he discovered Lady Evelyn’s wishes. She had clearly instructed that a specific verse from the Surah Al Nur (light), “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth,” be inscribed on a flat slab and placed on her grave.

This verse reminds me of a beautiful passage she wrote, about the same surah, in “Pilgrimage to Mecca:” “I read entranced, it is impossible to give a translation that can convey the poetry, the subtle meaning that floods the soul when read in the original. To me the simple grandeur of the diction, the variety of the imageries, the splendor of the word painting differentiates the Qur’an from all other scriptures…”

Lady Evelyn was able to see and describe the way women lived in Madinah and Makkah, something no writer had ever done before her. Facey also remarks that, “as an eminent and distinguished personage in her own right, she had equal access to the male side of life, being regarded like Gertrude Bell or Freya Stark (or indeed Margaret Thatcher in our own day), as a kind of honorary man.”

Lady Evelyn Cobbold was also known as Sayyidah Zainab, her Muslim name, and wrote an honest and sincere account of her pilgrimage to Makkah. She was excited to be the first British woman on record to have made her pilgrimage, but that gave way to a deeper emotion as she prayed in the Haram (the Holy Mosque) in Makkah.

One cannot fail to be touched by the way she expresses her feelings in those sublime moments: “It would require a master pen to describe that scene, poignant in its intensity of that great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in a fervor of religious enthusiasm. Many of the pilgrims had tears streaming down their cheeks; others raised their faces to the starlit sky that had witnessed this drama so often in the past centuries. The shining eyes, the passionate appeals, the pitiful hands outstretched in prayer moved me in a way that nothing had ever done before, and I felt caught up in a strong wave of spiritual exaltation. I was one with the rest of the pilgrims in a sublime act of complete surrender to the Supreme Will, which is Islam.”

Very little has been written about the history of Islam and British Muslims in the United Kingdom, and this book makes a valuable contribution to a little known subject. One often overlooks the fact that becoming a Muslim in Europe is still not easy. Islam dictates a way of life whose social norms and legislations are resented by secular regimes. A citizen has the right to choose his faith, but is not given the means to follow it. Converting to Islam is also socially alienating, especially for practicing Muslims whose refusal to drink alcohol is too often seen as a rejection of the most basic expression of Christianity and, by extension, Western conviviality.

Even if Lady Evelyn was not a practicing Muslim in Britain, her conversion to Islam did not go well with her in-laws and worsened after the death of her husband. However, she hung onto her faith until the very end. “When I look into my journal I shall live it all again. Time cannot rob me of the memories that I treasure in my heart… the countless pilgrims who passed me with shining eyes of faith, the wonder and glory of the Haram of Makkah, the great pilgrimage through the desert and the hills to Arafaat, and above all the abiding sense of joy and fulfillment that possesses the soul.”

I cannot but imagine Lady Evelyn reliving the exalted beauty of her Haj toward the end of her life. And she carried those memories with her on the majestic slopes of Glencarron, where a humble headstone is inscribed with the verse from Surah Al Nur that moved her so much, “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.”

Adapted from Arab News.

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