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Alexander Russell Webb - 3/3

Reproduced below is the 3rd and final section of the speech about Webb's life. Some short explanatory notes by the compiler have been added, which are marked in the speech as [1], [2] etc., and are given at the end.


Third section of speech.
Compiler's notes on third section.
(See First section and Second section in separate files.)

Speech: third section

Founds Islamic Journal.

February 16, 1893, Muhammad Webb returned to America, via London. Three months after his arrival in New York City, May 12, 1893, the first number of the Moslem World appeared, a weekly printed by the 'Moslem World Publishing Company' of 458 West 20th Street, with Muhammad Webb as editor. It was intended that this really splendid Muslim periodical should open up new fields throughout the country. Webb explained:
"to teach the intelligent masses who and what Muhammad was, and what he really taught, and to overturn the fabric of falsehood and error that prejudiced and ignorant writers have been constructing and supporting for centuries against Islam.

"The plainly apparent decay of Church Christianity and the defection from that system of the most intelligent and progressive people, in nearly all large American cities, seem to encourage the belief that the time has now arrived for the spread of the true faith from the Eastern to the Western hemisphere. Less than five years ago, it began its progressive march in England, with a small following in Liverpool."

The Review of Religions, a monthly magazine of Islamic propaganda printed in English, had appeared in India for the first time a year before [1]. The Islamic Review was to be published in England 20 years later [2]. The Moslem World only survived seven months, but it is still of interest, and alive. Webb never minced his words but wrote clearly, trenchantly and nobly. He valiantly went to the aid of a maligned and misunderstood Islam, undertaking even to defend the Sultan of Turkey himself from unprincipled moral attacks. He distributed his magazine far and wide over the United States, especially to editors of leading newspapers and periodicals, with many of whom he was on intimate terms. Many interesting comments and reviews were the result, which were recorded in the Moslem World, the majority being highly favourable.

Wants to translate Quran.

But not only were Mr. Webb's writings to be published by the Moslem World Publishing Co. in magazine and book form, but translations were proposed from Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Gujerati etc. Instructions on namaz or Muslim prayer were printed. But most important of all, it was arranged that a translation of the Quran was to be undertaken into English by the Anjuman Himayat Islam,[3] "perhaps," Mr. Webb stating, "to be completed by the end of the year, and to be printed in a cheap form, so as to bring it within the reach of the masses." He explained: "There is no religious system so little known among English-speaking people as the Islamic." As explanation of this, he put forth three causes:
  1. The natural aversion of Muslims to the English language and English- speaking nations.
  2. The unwillingness of Muslims to have their literature translated into our own.
  3. The strong prejudice, for the past 8 or 9 centuries, of Christians against Islam.
It was not until 16 years later, however, that Maulana Muhammad Ali of Lahore, India, commenced the translating of the Quran into English, a Muslim labour that consumed seven years of hard work. The first edition was not published until 1917, the year following Muhammad Webb's death.

Opens a Lecture Hall.

A lecture campaign was inaugurated. The Lecture Hall has been fondly described in the Moslem World for us by Mr. Webb. "In the Moslem World Building," advertised Webb, "will be a free library and reading room where all honest, thoughtful men and women will be welcome, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m." At the opening of this library, introductory remarks were made by Mr. Emin Nabakoff, a Russian Muslim. Prof. Leon Landsberg followed him.

The Lecture Hall was open to the public every Friday evening at 8 o'clock and every Sunday afternoon from 2 to 5 p.m. The first public meeting was held on Friday, October 6th, 1893, with a large attendance. The previous month the Moslem World had reported the celebration of the annual Muslim festival of Baqr Id "at the beautiful mosque of Woking, England, where among the worshippers were Indians, Egyptians and Turks." Khawaja Kamal-ud- Din was not to come to England as a missionary to this mosque until 1912, just 19 years later. The first prominent convert in the British Isles as a result was to be Lord Headley in 1913.

At the 'Moslem World Building' of New York City, lectures on Islamic doctrines and customs were given on Friday evenings. Brief addresses and replies to questions concerning Islam and its tendencies were arranged for the Sunday afternoons. It was not planned that Muhammad Webb should be the sole speaker. Several local Muslims assisted him, notably Mr. Emin Nabakoff, to whom I have just referred. Indian, Turkish and Egyptian missionaries were to be summoned as time went on.

Country-wide lecture campaign.

Mr. Webb also made "parlor addresses" at homes in the vicinity of New York City, and he filled public engagements elsewhere and throughout the country. I shall give you one sample month, to let you judge of his activity in these out-of-town engagements.

Nov3 Cohocton, Ohio.
4 So. Charleston, O.
13 Caro, Mich.
20 Chicago, Ill.
24 Streator, Ill.
28 Ft. Madison, Ia.
30 Plattsmouth, Neb.

His out of town lectures were booked by 'The Oriental Literary Bureau' of 1122 Broadway, New York City. There are recorded in his magazine notices of his personal appearances in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, Kansas and "some of the eastern and southern states". We read that he spoke at Chickering Hall, New York City, on 'The Spirit of Oriental Religions', and that he also appeared at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn, and before the New York Theosophical Society.

Dr. Tunison is to tell you later how he represented Islam at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.[4]

But what was to result from all this activity? It was desired that circles should be established in all the cities and towns of the United States for the study of Islamic literature, with careful investigation of historical facts relative to the life and character of the Prophet of Islam. The parent society in New York would furnish the branches with such literature and information as they might stand in need of.

American Muslim Brotherhood.

The American Muslim Brotherhood was started with its primary object the study and full comprehension of the life, character, purposes and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus the convert would unite in a bond of brotherhood with the vast Muslim population of the globe, and use his talents and energy to propagate the true faith wherever he could. Webb declared:
"The moral force of these communities will, in time, purge our whole social system and bring us, as a nation, to a more perfect understanding of the glory and power of God, and the necessity of moral development."
No member would be required to subscribe to any religious doctrine, whatever, or to accept any creed or tenet not in harmony with his or her reason and common sense. It was declared: "The first aim and purpose is the education of the members in Islamic historical and doctrinal literature." Webb's great desire was to present:
"the Islamic system in its purity, freed from the gross and materialistic ideas which had been engrafted upon it by misguided Muslims."
The sole view of the study was to understand "what it was that the Prophet Muhammad taught, what he intended to accomplish, and what he did accomplish."

An English society of the Muslim Brotherhood was established in London. The first circle of the Muslim Brotherhood in America was named 'The Mecca Circle No. 1 of New York City'. The credit for its organization was given to one A.L. Rawson, Esq., Woodcliff, New Jersey. Five men were chartered members. Mr. Rawson had travelled extensively in the East. He had visited Mecca and Medina, and had been "the first American to secure a picture of the tomb of our Prophet." He also organized two more circles of 11 men in New York City. 'Capital Circle No. 4' of the Muslim Brotherhood was organized in Washington D.C. with five as chartered members, of which one was a professor and two were M.D.s

All these personal facts which I have given you, with the exception of the brief reference to Mr. Webb's family, together with the Bombay testimonial, I have culled from Webb's own writings, available in the New York Public Library. Events of the latter period of his life, I have obtained either from Mr. Webb's obituary, which occupies a prominent place on the front page of the Rutherford Tribune, of Rutherford, New Jersey, of Saturday, October 7, 1916, or from his daughter, Mrs. Alyea who has so kindly cooperated with us and come to share her memories of him with us, today, or from my personal knowledge.

Serves Turkey.

In 1898 Mr. Webb removed to Rutherford News, a Democracy paper. He edited this for nearly three years, then sold it to Capt. Addison Ely, who merged it into the Bergen County Herald of Hackensack. Mr. Webb continued to edit these combined journals for six months. His interest in Islam, however, had never abated. In 1901 he left for Turkey after having served that government as Honorary Consul General in New York City. The letter is still in Mrs. Alyea, his daughter's possession, written upon the letter-head of the Turkish Legation in Washington, which expresses gratitude:
"... not only for the enumeration of your services, but for your strong efforts to build a mosque in America, as well as a cemetery for the benefit of Islam, to which you have converted many Americans."
In Constantinople, Webb was given the decoration of the third Order of Medjidie and the Medal of Merit. He is the only American ever given the latter decoration. He was also given the title of Bey.

Serves his country.

Mr. Webb took a keen interest in public affairs as an American citizen. "I am an American of the Americans," he had affirmed at the same time that he had declared himself a Muslim. In 1898, his name had been presented by the 'Bergen County Delegation to the 8th District Democratic Congressional Convention' at Hackensack for nomination to Congress. Webb had withdrawn, however, in favour of the Honourable William Hughes. He served six years on the Rutherford Board of Education, as clerk of the Board, upon his return from Turkey. He was foreman of the Bergen County Grand Jury for four months in 1912, as well as President of the Rutherford Campaign Club and President of the Democratic Society. At the time of his death, he headed the Martindale Mercantile Agency of New York City.

Last Days.

Mr. Webb had been subject to diabetes for years. Of a Saturday morning, at the age of 70 years, Mr. Webb went to New York City on business. Upon his return, he complained of being ill. He continued to grow worse, until the end came the following morning, the 1st of October 1916. The funeral services were private. He was survived by his wife, and son and two daughters. It should be explained that Mrs. Webb did not continue to share her husband's interest in Islam in her later years. The Rev. Elizabeth Padgham, paster of the Unitarian Church, officiated. We are told in the obituary that her address was most impressive, although no record of what she said can be remembered. The Rutherford Republican wrote as tribute:
"Mr. Webb had passed through a prominent career. He was an ardent Democrat and took an active part in the work of his party, while a resident in Rutherford, and possessed many warm, personal and social friends aside from politics."

Assisted Maulana Muhammad Ali.

When I was in Turkey in 1931, I first learned of Muhammad Webb. A book was mailed to me there from India entitled The Teachings of Islam by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. In the Preface, dated 1910, I read:
"I cannot close this short note without an acknowledgement of the valuable assistance rendered to me in the revision of the English translation by Mr. Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb (New Jersey, U.S.A.), Maulvi Sher Ali, B.A. and Mr. Ghulam Muhammad, B.A., to whom my best thanks are due.
Muhammad Ali."
No one can imagine how joyful I was to see this reference to an American convert to Islam from New Jersey, for I had been born in that state myself, and many of my relatives were still living there. It comforted me, far away in a distant land, as though he were approving the position I had taken, as a convert to Islam. It is always remarkable, even to myself, why I did not write immediately, or even later, directly to Muhammad Ali to enquire about him. However, 1910 was a long way removed from 1931. A whole war lay between. I had the feeling that he must be dead. It was only later, when I met Dr. Tunison, that I found in his enthusiasm again the echo of Muhammad Webb's name.

Since then I have found, with Dr. Tunison, the simple stone that marks his grave, and seen the vine of ivy that swards his resting place. I have been touched by the sight of his last photograph, taken shortly before he passed away, a likeness that displays his shining, resigned face, crowned with snowy hair, as he stands in the midst of his family, his beard still uncut in the shaven America of 1916.

Died a Muslim.

We have been assured that Muhammad Webb died a Muslim. There is such a thing that one has been born too early or too late. Webb died at the height of the period of an most universal materialism. His writings, however, remain today fresh and advanced, a witness and an inspiration to our and to future generations. What he desired, an English translation of the Holy Quran by a Muslim, was completed two months before he died. He had known it was in preparation.[5] Since then we have had several Muslim translations produced.

Webb lived to prove his theory: "In these days, it is intolerable that the observance of the religious customs of any sect should furnish a cause for public anxiety." By his absorption in an American community on successful terms and there is nothing more provincial than a small town within commuting distance of New York City, especially in New Jersey the strange, the odd, the remote, lost their terrors by contact. His sympathies and affiliations were no secret. Webb continually was explaining away misunderstandings about Islam. He wrote:

"The freedom of this country is not in half as much danger from the influx of foreigners, as it is from that spirit of selfishness, bigotry and intolerance, that was such a prominent feature of Church Christianity a few centuries ago."
The tide was too great, in the affairs of men, for him to have made the progress that he desired. He could only accomplish what Allah willed. He did what he could. Today he remains for us like an embedded monument that we can search and find, as we brush aside, with our hands, the dust and sand of his generation.

(End of Speech.)

Notes by the compiler

1. The Review of Religions was founded by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. It actually started publication in 1901, and was edited from then till 1914 by Maulana Muhammad Ali. In the statement made here, that it appeared "a year before", i.e. in 1892, the speaker is probably confusing the time when Hazrat Mirza first proposed the plan for this journal with the date of its actual commencement.

2. The Islamic Review was founded in 1913 by Khawaja Kamal-ud-Din, a prominent follower of Hazrat Mirza and also founder of the Woking Muslim Mission in England. The journal you are now reading continues that historic title within its name.

3. An association of Muslims based in Lahore, founded in the 1880s.

4. At the next World Parliament of Religions, a century later in August 1993, the publishers of this Web site (A.A.I.I.L.) attended and promoted their literature.

5. The reference is to Maulana Muhammad Ali's translation.

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