Pickthall’s Islamic Inversion of Modernity
Samuel Bartlett | Royal Holloway, University of London
Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall remains a figure unknown to most, yet for those aware of his story he stands out as perhaps the most significant British Muslim of the 20th Century. Born in Sussex in 1875 but raised largely in London, Pickthall briefly attended Harrow School in the year below Winston Churchill. Pickthall went on to make his name as a best-selling author of Middle Eastern fiction, receiving praise from contemporaries such as D H Lawrence, E M Forster, and H G Wells, the latter of whom stated, “I wish that I could feel as certain about my own work as I do of yours, that it will be alive and interesting people fifty years from now". Pickthall’s love for the settings and people he encountered in the Middle East often shocked his European contemporaries. In Pickthall, the decorum that was expected of a British subject was breached, the colonial lines between ‘native’ and European being encroached. Pickthall’s initial infatuation with the ‘East’ developed into an absolute political, ideological, and religious realignment, in which he became ‘wholeheartedly with the East’ in all affairs. To tease out some of the key dimensions of his intellectual evolution, I will assess the historical contexts and intellectual milieus Pickthall inhabited on his road from Marmaduke Pickthall, son of an Anglican Parson, to Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, the first English Muslim to translate the Quran.
Pickthall’s Fiction: Inverting the Colonial Narrative
Pickthall witnessed some of the great crises of the 20th Century, from the First World War to the abolishment of the Ottoman Caliphate and Indian Non-Cooperation. As his Biographer Peter Clark reflects, ‘[Pickthall’s stories are] authentic records in fictional form… like a photographer Pickthall has taken snapshots of psychological history’ which are ‘impossible to record with precision in works of history or sociology’. Of particular contemporary significance are Pickthall’s fictional depictions of colonialism, which distinguished Pickthall amidst the broader body of European literature produced during his time. As Edward Said argued in his canonical work ‘Orientalism’, the non-European or ‘oriental’ figure of the literature of Pickthall’s time remained a ‘figure or fun’, an ‘undifferentiated type’ lacking substance and riddled with stereotypes. Pickthall’s works inverted this narrative, with Europeans often left nameless or reductively branded the ‘frank’, being targeted as ‘incongruous’, ‘shameless as beasts’, ‘possessed with devils’, and other such slurs. Pickthall’s depictions saw power relations reversed, as the ‘frank’ is dehumanised and seen as in need of civilising, an image that flew in the face of colonial narratives of the time.
While Pickthall’s treatment of the Frank was at times comic, he also highlighted the nefarious consequences of European colonialism. In a passage typical of Pickthall, the franks,
"Demoralize our population, they treat us Muslims as savages, they take advantage of a privilege, conceded to protect their subjects from oppression and violence, to install their vices in our midst."
This colonial critique was rooted in a deeper admiration for the spiritual and ethical qualities he encountered in his travels. As Pickthall recollected in later years,
"What struck me, even in its decay and poverty, was the joyousness of that life compared with anything that I had seen in Europe. The people seemed quite independent of our cares of life, our anxious clutching after wealth, our fear of death."
For Pickthall, the threat of European colonialism went far deeper than material exploitation and conquest. Colonialism was a force that struck at the very fabric of society, as it sought to remould the colonial subject in the image of something Pickthall warned ‘nobody with any sense would wish to be… a European’.
The Roots of Pickthall’s Conversion and Anti-Imperialism
Following his sojourn in the East came a period of intense political activism for Pickthall. This began in the build-up to the First World War, when he embarked on a journalistic campaign to counter anti-Turkish propaganda he believed was being disseminated by the British press. Pickthall witnessed the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire’s Eastern provinces and the loss of almost all her European territories. He foresaw that this recession would be accompanied by intense political turmoil in former Ottoman territories, as he wrote, ‘an independent Turkey… [is] as a safety-valve is to a steam-engine: do away with it – and the thing explodes’.
Pickthall returned to Britain broken-hearted, his own anguish contrasting sharply with the public glee he encountered at home, where Ottoman defeats were celebrated as Christian victories against an enduring Saracen foe. At the small Sussex church in which he worshipped, Pickthall listened to the Bulgarian advance described as the ascension of Christian souls defeating the Satanic Turk. Amidst the lyrics of Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘For the Mahometans’ Pickthall reached the end of his endurance,
‘O, may thy blood once sprinkled cry,
For those who spurn Thy sprinkled blood:
Assert thy glorious Deity
Stretch out thine arm thou triune God
The Unitarian fiend expel
And chase his doctrines back to Hell.’
He rose from his pew and departed the church and Christianity for good.
Pickthall’s subsequent conversion to Islam was scandalous to the Edwardian sensibilities of his time, and his accounts from this period reveal the social ostracization that accompanied his conversion. Along with this ostracization came state suspicion and even surveillance, though intelligence reports declared that while “somewhat of a crank” Pickthall was “at heart… a loyal British subject”. This quote hints at the peculiar imperial loyalties Pickthall maintained during this period. Despite their animosities, Pickthall maintained that both Turkish and British imperialism was necessary to oversee the “modernisation” and “reform” of Muslim societies. In the aftermath of his conversion, however, Pickthall’s political activism would bring him into contact with an array of Muslim intellectuals, whose anti-colonial and pan-Islamic sentiments began to reshape his worldview. Though his ideas remained rudimentary, Pickthall began to delink ideas such as “modernity” and “progress” from Europe, tracing them instead to the historic influence of Muslim civilisations. Pickthall’s imperial sympathies continued to diminish as the Century wore on, as he joined those dissidents who questioned whether the narrative of European “progress” was truly tenable in the face of continued colonial exploitation aboard and industrial warfare at home.
Pickthall’s Reconceptualization of Modernity
Driven by financial difficulties, Pickthall decided to leave Britain, accepting a job offer in Bombay to become the editor of the English-language newspaper the Bombay Chronicle. As Pickthall boarded the steamer bound for Bombay he remained a loyal, though critical, subject of the British Empire. His physical migration would come to initiate a profound political, spiritual, and intellectual realignment in Pickthall’s thinking. Within this new environment, Pickthall’s critique of European society and colonialism became more pronounced. Key to this was his participation in both the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements, in which he came into close contact with key figures in India’s nationalist movement, including Gandhi and Maulana Muhammad Ali. It was in India that Pickthall truly began to discard his imperialist sympathies, and in time he would declare that he was ‘wholeheartedly with the East’ in her anti-colonialist struggles.
Pickthall’s political activism did not go unnoticed by the British authorities and in 1924, following a series of legal disputes and substantial financial losses, his editorship of the Bombay Chronicle was terminated. Unsure of his next move, Pickthall was unexpectedly offered a job in the Princely state of Hyderabad, under the patronage of the then world’s richest man and ruler of Hyderabad, the Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan. Pickthall’s move was sanctioned by the British authorities on the condition that he refrained from all political activity. In line with this condition, Pickthall was employed as headmaster of a local boy’s school. Alongside this work, Pickthall became the founding editor of an academic journal named Islamic Culture. Produced for an English-speaking audience, the journal brought together intellectuals concerned with questions of Muslim history and reform. This again, broadened Pickthall intellectual network and outlook, as he began engaging earnestly with questions concerning the means of Muslim revival in the modern world.
By this phase of Pickthall’s life, his anti-colonial stance was deeply rooted, which translated into a more thorough critique of Western civilisation. As he stated, ‘to accept not only the scientific knowledge and achievements of the West ... but also the social and political ideals and institutions of the West… [is] suicidal madness’. Underlying this view was Pickthall’s conviction that Muslims had to preserve the Islamic character of their spiritual and ethical systems. As he makes clear in his essay Islam and Modernism,
‘The only modernism [Islam] requires is an awakening to the new conditions that prevail throughout the world… education, social and political reform, is needed, but not the slightest alteration in belief or form of worship’.
Pickthall here was highlighting that “progress”, as envisioned and implemented through European colonialism, was bound to a social and spiritual reshaping of society. This imposed upon colonised subjects not only a new social structure but a materialistic worldview that was stripped of any spiritual or ethical foundations. The contours of this line of thought are more clearly spelled out in the writing of the philosopher-poet Muhammad Iqbal, a contemporary of Pickthall, whom he had read closely. Iqbal declared,
'A blaze of art and science lights the west…
Their science, philosophy, scholarship, government, preach man's equality and drink men's blood;
Naked debauch, and want, and unemployment – are these mean triumphs of the Frankish arts!
Denied celestial grace a nation goes no further than electricity or steam;
Death to the heart, machines stand sovereign,
Engines that crush all sense of human kindness…'
Iqbal would conclude, ‘for all their repertory of varied charms I will take nothing from Europe except – a warning! You enchained to the imitation of Europe, be free, clutch the skirt of the Quran, and be free!’. Pickthall, like Iqbal, was seeking to reconceptualise modernity from within an Islamic paradigm. At the heart of his alternative vision of modernity was a recentring of ethical and spiritual principles within society. This was seen as a key limitation of modernity as it had been conceived and implemented within Europe, as well as how it had been imposed upon colonised societies.
Pickthall’s scholarship culminated in what was arguably his most significant work, his translation of the Quran, the first authored by an English Muslim. Historically European translations of the Quran had been carried out for polemical purposes and were therefore riddled with prejudices. Such translations, while confined to Europe, were of little concern to the wider Muslim world. These dynamics were altered by European colonialism, as translations became an important tool for Christian missionaries in their proselytization efforts. In India, this provoked the first non-European translations of the Quran to be produced. Pickthall’s own translation sought to address both the prejudices of European translations and the linguistic shortcomings he felt were evident in the translations of his Indian contemporaries. Pickthall’s translation of the Quran remains in print until this day, its longevity indicates his standing as one of the most significant British Muslim intellectuals of the 20th Century.
Pickthall’s early novels illustrate the roots of his anti-colonial sentiments, which at that stage did not translate to a wholesale critique of British imperialism. Pickthall’s conversion to Islam bought him into contact with a wider array of Muslim intellectuals, who began to sharpen his critique against British imperialism and Western Civilisation more broadly. In India, the various strands of Pickthall’s thought came together and contributed to a complete intellectual reorientation. During this period, Pickthall’s critique of Europe’s spiritual and ethical limitations matured, as did his conceptualisation of a paradigm of progress that was stripped of its European foundations. At the heart of this paradigm lay a renewed emphasis on actualising the political, social, and ethical principles contained in the Quran. It is, therefore, no surprise that Pickthall’s career culminated in his translation of the Quran, which was seen to possess the foundations upon which an alternative vision of modernity could be built.
Clark, P., Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim (London; New York: Quartet Books, 1986).
Fremantle, A., Loyal enemy ... (London: Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., 1938)
Murad, A.H. (2010) A Brief Biography of Marmaduke Pickthall, http://www.masud.co.uk. Available at: http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/bmh/BMM-AHM-pickthall_bio.htm (Accessed: 6 November 2021).
Nash, G.P., Marmaduke Pickthall: Islam and the modern world (Lieden: Brill, 2017).
Samuel Bartlett is a PhD Student in the History Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. Sam’s research is on the intellectual thought of Marmaduke Pickthall, a Victorian Muslim convert and intellectual. His research project is interested in situating Pickthall’s thought amidst both the historical context of late imperial Britain, as well as the wider intellectual milieu Pickthall encountered in colonial India. This context saw the emergence of a robust anti-colonial Muslim critique aimed at the political, social, and intellectual structures of thought that underpinned European colonialism and the deeper narrative of European progress.