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Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall


  1. Conversion to Islam as reported by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din
  2. Pickthall’s work with the Woking Muslim Mission
  3. His tribute to Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din
  4. His tribute to Maulana Muhammad Ali

Conversion to Islam as reported by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din

Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936) is well-known as one of the translators of the Holy Quran into English and a British convert to Islam. He is regarded as an orthodox, mainstream, Sunni Muslim. When Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din established the Woking Muslim Mission in England in 1913, Marmaduke Pickthall was not yet a Muslim but had become attracted to Islam. He was already well-known as a scholar and novelist. He began to take part in the activities organized by the Woking Muslim Mission. His subsequent acceptance of Islam is described in a brief report written by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din for Paigham Sulh, the Urdu  periodical of the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha‘at Islam Lahore.

Below we give an English translation of this report which was published in Paigham Sulh dated 16 January 1918 on page 4:

A Great, Good News

Acceptance of Islam by a famous English scholar and orientalist

Recent letter by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din

Brothers, assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh!

Readers of The Islamic Review will this year have been reading those invaluable articles in its pages which are a result of the high intellect of Mr Marmaduke Pickthall. Our friends will also remember his brilliantly unique speech which he made at the last function marking the birthday of the Holy Prophet Muhammad held at the Cecil Hotel, London.{footnote 1} Its translation [in Urdu] was also published in book form from the office of the magazine Ishaat Islam, Aziz Manzil, Lahore. Reading that speech, and seeing the love that its author is seen to have in his heart for the Holy Prophet Muhammad, I received many letters asking whether there remained any obstacle to this learned orientalist accepting Islam? I knew well that no preaching or effort on my part could further increase this venerable man’s faith in Islam. However, for certain reasons, we did not reach the occasion for full rejoicing.

Eventually, many kinds of veils began to be lifted from the path of the light of Islam. Frequent meetings, socialising, correspondence and conversa­tion did their work. It began to be said that this gentleman appears to be a Muslim. There can hardly be any week when he does not have occasion to make a speech somewhere or preside over a meeting. He is president of many associations. His speeches are full of the light of Islam and of great eloquence. What a blessed day was yesterday when I had to deliver a lecture in a fashionable part of London, Old Bond Street, on the Spirit of Worship. Mr Pickthall was chosen by the meeting to preside. My rejoicing knew no bounds when, while introducing me, he said the following words:

“Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din will speak on the Islamic spirit of worship. Although he and I belong to the same religion, and we are believers in the same scripture, but if I were to be asked to speak on this topic I would turn to him …”

What he said after this, only God knows. I cannot remember because I was so overcome by happiness. It is a favour of Allah that He has granted me the same ability and power of delivering speeches in this country with which my friends are familiar from my lectures in India. This lecture was itself on a spiritual topic and then this great news had worked magic on me. I rose, charged with enthusiasm and intoxicated with the love of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, and thanked God a million times. The effect on my audience was so deep that I have not seen it in my lectures in India. Today I have received a letter from Kishab Chandar Sen, the son of the founder of the Brahmo Samaj [a sect of Hinduism] as follows:

“I am thankful to you for the very great spiritual and intellectual hospitality that you offered us. Permit me to say that it is the first time I have heard such spiritual talk from a Muslim. Never before have I felt such enjoyment. I congratulate you on how simply and yet effectively you shed light on this topic.”

By summarising this letter here I do not intend to prove how well I made the speech. The diction that God has granted me out of His grace, whether it is good or bad, is known to all. I want only to show that we Muslims have up to now not fulfilled our duty of the propagation of Islam. It is after coming to England that I today come to know of the great glory of Islam, and that too of its spiritual aspect of tasawwuf, about which I cannot claim to have comprehensive knowledge. Alas, we Muslims did not value Islam nor did we fulfil our obligation of propagating it.

I also quote here a letter from Mr Pickthall which I received today:

“A friend who has become a Muslim by his own study, and who has been in correspondence with me for some time, asks me if there is available a Quran that has the English translation in between the lines of Arabic text, the English rendering opposite the Arabic words …”

Mr Pickthall writes to me in this letter: ‘This man is a scholar’.

I ask Muslims, What reply can I give to this letter? That we have not done this service for you? So God bless Maulvi Muhammad Ali, M.A., who, after nine years of hard work, has made us able to say that we can give you a translation which, while being idiomatic, adheres most strictly to the original words. The worthy Maulana has shown immense wisdom in making his translation, as far as was possible, correspond closely to the original words. This is the commendable example which was first followed in India by the family of Shah Waliullah. This is integrity. The Maulvi sahib’s English translation follows the same principle as the Urdu translation of Shah Abdul Aziz and Shah Abdul Qadir.

It would be untrue for us to say that Mr Pickthall’s acceptance of Islam is due to our efforts. What we did was to establish a centre [at Woking, England] and presented Islam in its pristine purity, with the strength that God gave us. When we presented the philosophy, wisdom and rationality of Islam to this thinking world, it did not result in embarrassment for us. In this short time, at least wherever our writings and spoken words reached, it was conceded that Islam excels all other religions in terms of its simplicity, spirituality, depth of wisdom, thought, morality, civilization and theology. God granted us a community here which, although small in number, consists of persons of respectability, members of the nobility and those belonging to high lineage, scholars and people of excellent rank. Because of the existence of this centre, its acquiring this fame, and the creation of such a group of converts, many admirers of the beauty of Islam have come out from behind closed doors. Just now one Pickthall has emerged, but there are plenty of other shining stars like him hidden behind the clouds in the West. Arise, awaken, give up this negligence, and make the bright rays of the light of Islam to shine on the walls of the West. Then you will see that the time is near when you will hear other similar voices saying: This is our religion. But let us look at ourselves and see how inadequate our efforts are.

For the information of my friends, I quote here from the entry about Mr Pickthall given in the British book{footnote 2} which lists famous people:

“Marmaduke William{footnote 3} Pickthall, son of the late Rev. Charles Pickthall, rector of Chillesford [Suffolk], Educated at Harrow and various European countries. Travels: Spent several years in journey and study of places in the Ottoman empire and other countries of the East. Writings: Said The Fisherman, With the Turk in Wartime during the Balkan wars, Knights of Araby, …”

This shows the pedigree of this bright jewel. He is author of scores of books. If his early writings are compared with his present writings, one’s hearts becomes filled with the praise of Allah at the fact that the man who took up his pen on Islam in order to ridicule Islam became, in the end, captivated by its beauty. May Allah be praised for it.

Footnotes on Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din’s article by Webmaster

Footnote 1. The function mentioned here by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din was held on 6 January 1917 and Pickthall’s speech was published in The Islamic Review, February–March 1917, pages 53–59. To see a scanned image of its opening lines, click here.

Footnote 2. The name of the book is left blank in Paigham Sulh but presumably Who’s Who is meant.

Footnote 3. In the Urdu text in Paigham Sulh this name seems to read Visech or Wisech which presumably is a misprint for William.


Pickthall’s work with Woking Muslim Mission

A background of Pickthall and his association with the Woking Muslim Mission is given in The Islamic Review, February 1922, pages 42–43, in the section Notes. This is quoted below.

Mr Muhammad Pickthall, whose name is not unfamiliar to our readers, was born in 1875; educated at Harrow; and, at the impressionable age when most young men are contemplating a University career, was already in Palestine, laying, as it were, the foundation of that intimate understanding of the Near East and its conditions — religious, political, social and economic — which has made him, perhaps, the foremost English authority on the subject.

As a novelist he sprang to fame with the publication, in 1903, of Said the Fisherman, a Syrian romance which stamped its author as a literary individuality and a seeing observer. Other works from his pen include Enid (1904), Brendle (1905), The House of Islam (1906), The Myopes (1907), Children of the Nile (1908), The Valley of the Kings (1909), Pot an Feu (1911), Larkmeadow (1912), The House at War (1913), With the Turk in Wartime (1914), Tales from Five Chimneys (1915), Veiled Women (1916), Knights of Araby (1917), Oriental Encounters (1918), Sir Limpidus (1919), and The Early Hours (1921). He has been a frequent contributor to, among other journals, the Athenoeum, the Saturday Review, the New Age and the Near East, and is, at present, editor of the Bombay Chronicle.

Mr. Pickthall declared his faith in Islam in 1918, and has since taken a prominent part in Muslim activity in this country. During the period between the departure for India (owing to urgent reasons of health) of the Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din in the early spring of 1919, and the arrival of the Khwaja’s assistant in the autumn of that year, Mr. Pickthall conducted the Friday Prayers and delivered the sermons at the London Muslim Prayer House; led the Eid prayer and delivered the Sermon, and during the month of Ramadan in 1919 conducted the traveeh prayers at the London Prayer House, while throughout the whole period he was largely responsible for the editing of the [Islamic] Review. It is noteworthy that on his conversion to Islam, Mr. Pickthall, in the spirit of a true Muslim, refrained scrupulously from any thought of influencing his wife, and the fact that Mrs. Pickthall has now of her own free volition embraced the faith is but one of many indications of the modern trend of intelligent religious thought.

On the next page in the same issue of The Islamic Review, a notice is given of the programme of Sunday Lectures for February 1922 as follows:

The following lectures will be delivered during the month of February at the London Muslim Prayer House, 111, Campden Hill Road, Notting Hill Gate, W. 8, at 5.30 p.m.:

February 5. — “Soul in Woman, and Islam,” by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din.

February 12. — “Islam and Socialism,” by Khwaja Nazir Ahmad.

February 19. — “A Fallen Idol,” by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall.

February 26. — “Three Stages of Human Mind,” by Muhammad Yakub Khan.

The three other lecturers mentioned, apart from Mr. Pickthall, were prominent members of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement who also worked for the Woking Muslim Mission. This again shows the close association of Pickthall with the Woking Mission.

Pickthall contributed regularly to The Islamic Review, a few examples being the following articles: A Sermon, February 1920; Women’s Rights in Islam, November 1920; Fasting in Islam, December 1920.

His tribute to Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din

Following the death of Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din in December 1932, Pickthall wrote a letter to Khwaja Nazir Ahmad, son of Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, which was published in the special issue of The Islamic Review devoted to his life, dated April–May 1933, on pages 140–141. Pickthall’s letter is reproduced below:

My dear Nazir Ahmad,

I heard of your sad loss some days ago and meant to write to you; but in the Ramadan mental seclusion I lost count of time and perhaps thought also that my remembrance of your father and thought of you at such a time might be understood, so that the formal letter seemed less urgent.

I have had a very clear remembrance of your father in these days as I saw him first in England in his prime, and of the impression which he made upon all who had the pleasure of meeting him. It is less as a missionary that I like to think of him — the word ‘missionary’ has mean associations — than as an ambassador of Islam. His return to India owing to ill-health was a blow to the cause in England from which it has hardly yet recovered.

I differed from him on some matters, as you know — relatively unimportant matters, they seem now — but my personal regard for him remained the same. And now, looking back upon his life-work, I think that there is no one living who has done such splendid and enduring service to Islam. The work in England is the least part of it. Not until I came to India did I realise the immense good that his writings have done in spreading knowledge of religion and reviving the Islamic spirit in lethargic Muslims; not only here, but wherever there are Muslims in the world his writings penetrated, and have aroused new zeal and energy and hope. It is a wonderful record of work, which could have been planned and carried out only by a man of high intelligence inspired by faith and great sincerity of purpose. Allah will reward him! To you I will only say, as the Arabs say to the survivor of a great worker, “The remainder is in your life.”

Accept the assurance of my deep and sincere sympathy.

Yours ever,

M. Pickthall.

A scanned image of this letter as printed in The Islamic Review can be viewed here.

His tribute to Maulana Muhammad Ali

The tribute paid by Pickthall to Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din quoted above brings to mind his review of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s book The Religion of Islam some three years later in 1936. It opens as follows:

“Probably no man living has done longer or more valuable service for the cause of Islamic revival than Maulana Muhammad Ali of Lahore. His literary works, with those of the late Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, have given fame and distinction to the Ahmadiyya Movement.”

Further on, he writes about the book The Religion of Islam:

“It is a description of Al-Islam by one well-versed in the Sunna who has on his mind the shame of the Muslim decadence of the past five centuries and in his heart the hope of the revival, of which signs can now be seen on every side. Such a book is greatly needed at the present day when in many Muslim countries we see persons eager for the reformation and revival of Islam making mistakes through lack of just this knowledge. …

“We do not always agree with Maulana Muhammad Ali’s conclusions upon minor points — sometimes they appear to us eccentric — but his premises are always sound, we are always conscious of his deep sincerity; and his reverence for the holy Quran is sufficient in itself to guarantee his work in all essentials. There are some, no doubt, who will disagree with his general findings, but they will not be those from whom Al-Islam has anything to hope in the future.”

Islamic Culture, quarterly review published from Hyderabad Deccan, India, October 1936, pp. 659–660.

Such is the high regard in which Marmaduke Pickthall held these two foremost figures of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement. He viewed their services to Islam as unequalled by any other man living at that time, and he considered their work as reviving the true spirit of Islam at a time when Muslims were overcome by lethargy and decadence.
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