As people in Britain commemorate of the war dead of World War One, so Muslims have chosen to focus on Muslim soldiers who fought for Britain.
Most people recognize that all nations remember their fallen soldiers as those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Yet this should stifle a critical review, nor mask the fact that in World War One both Muslim and non-Muslim soldiers were sent off by the industrial, political and military establishment to die in vast numbers for imperial objectives, the fruits of which would never have been enjoyed by the ordinary soldier or their family and nor the society at large. Sadly, they made their sacrifice for the benefit of a few rich and powerful men.
There were some Muslim soldiers who refused to fight against other Muslims, whilst others fought on condition they did not have to fight the Ottoman army directly.
Amongst those who did fight in the British Army, it is likely they were ignorant of the wider imperial plans. Yet they became pawns in the war that gave birth to the chaos, bloodshed and oppression of the modern Middle East. They were fighting for the side that would ultimately steal Palestine and give it away to Zionists to establish a racist hegemony in the region – as part of a wider plan to divide and conquer the Middle East.
They were but tools in Lloyd-George’s plans, summarized in 1919, when he said: ‘We are undertaking a great civilizing duty…a mission, which Providence has assigned our race, which we are discharging to people living under the shadow of great tyranny for centuries, trembling with fear, appealing with uplifted hands for protection. Turkish misgovernment… shall now come to an end that Britain and the Allies have triumphed’
For Muslims living in Britain conflicted loyalties existed a century ago as they did today. At that time some brave lone voices did try to stand with the Ummah.
Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam was an Englishman who had embraced Islam and been appointed the Sheikh al Islam of the British Isles by the Ottoman Caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. He used his mosque in Liverpool as a base to help poor and unfortunate mothers who had been abandoned by Victorian society. He mused about how Islam could tackle some of the bitter problems facing Britain at that time. His sincere concern for the ordinary citizen in Britain was beyond question. Yet when it came to British policies hostile to the Muslim world he was uncompromising. When Britain was engaged in a war in the Sudan in 1896, he issued a fatwa clarifying this conflict for a Muslim soldier:
For any True Believer to take up arms and fight against another Muslim is contrary to the Shariat, and against the law of God and his holy prophet. I warn every True-Believer that if he gives the slightest assistance in this projected expedition against the Muslims of the Soudan, even to the extent of carrying a parcel, or giving a bite of bread to eat or a drink of water to any person taking part in the expedition against these Muslims that he thereby helps the Giaour [Turkish word for non-Muslims] against the Muslim, and his name will be unworthy to be continued upon the roll of the faithful.
Facing hostility and having a community of only a few hundred, he stood firm to the Islamic Shari’ah perspective that to fight against Muslims was haram, and to fight against the legitimate Caliphate of the Muslims was unacceptable.
Quilliam was not wholly alone. The famous translator of the Quran – Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall and others vocally spoke out for the interests of the Ummah at that time.
Pickthall and others sometimes articulated their criticism of anti-Ottoman British policy in terms of what they felt was harming Britain itself – echoing ideas articulated on either side of the policy debates in Britain in order to influence them.
Nonetheless, what is clear is that they were vocal in their support for the Ummah – loyal to principles and not expedient.
They knew they were defending an unpopular cause.
Pickthall wrote ‘[We] have had to fear, and encountered, public ridicule and private abuse.’
Pickthall had already written in the Times in 1912, at the time of the Balkan War criticizing the British government for their silence after the ‘butchery’ of Muslims in Macedonia by Christians. In 1913, together with Quilliam and others he helped establish an Ottoman Committee to defend Turkish interests and working to maintain the integrity of the Ottoman Empire.
These early Muslims in Britain were not simply more uncompromising than their successors today. They were more politically insightful.
Writing just before the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Pickthall recognized the political and spiritual disaster of the suggestions of a Jewish State in Palestine under the supervision of a ‘Christian’ power. He wrote in the Central Islamic Society booklet that he ‘should regard it as a world-disaster if that country should be taken from the Muslim government. Must even that sacred ground be exploited by the profiteer? If you want to have a new and terrible storm-centre for the world, hand over Palestine to any Christian power.’
Pickthall and others vocally opposed British policy, whilst arguing they were not against Britain. They refuted the fallacies that were used to underpin these policies and was seen to be exposing the cozy relationship between the ‘King of the Hejaz’ (Sharif Hussein) and the British government that the establishment became irritated by him. They reminded the British government of previous pledges made to Palestine.
Yet they were ignored by the Foreign Office, who branded them ‘seditionists’ and ‘agents’, and who even considered prosecuting him under the Defence of the Realm Act. (They only refrained because it was feared a prosecution would further expose that relationship.)
In the aftermath of World War One, when Pickthall argued that Britain had no place to decide the fate of the Ottoman Khilafat – he was again accused of having ‘Pan-Islamic and anti-British’ aims and condemned for his ‘vehement denunciations of Lord Curzon and of British policy, and constant glorification of the Turk’.
The words and arguments of these forebears were met with hostility, abuse and threat of being criminalized by the state. Yet their sincere commitment to Islam and their understanding of certain Islamic political principles was greater than many Muslims have today.
See Also :
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Gilham, J – Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850-1950
Geaves, R – Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam
Ansari, H – The Infidel Within – Muslims in Britain since 1800