Alexander Russell Webb - 1/3
Alexander Russell Webb (1846-1916) was an American journalist, newspaper
owner, and sometime Consul-General of the U.S.A. in the Phillipines,
who embraced Islam in 1887 and started an Islamic missionary movement
in the U.S.A. in the 1890s.
Webb had some correspondence with Hazrat Mirza
Ghulam Ahmad and the Ahmadiyya Movement
about Islam and its propagation, and was much influenced by them, although
he was never a member of the Ahmadiyya Movement. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam
Ahmad is, thus, associated with the start of the spread of Islam among
Westerners in the U.S.A., just as he is also associated with the start
of the spread of Islam in Europe through the Woking (England) and Berlin
Muslim missions of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement.
Given below is a speech on the life of Webb made by Nadirah
Florence Ives Osman at a meeting of Muslims held in Steinway
Hall, New York, in November 1943 under the auspices of the Webb
Memorial Committee. The speech appeared in the issues of The
Light for 8th and 16th April 1944.
For convenience, we have divided her speech into three sections, and
at the end of the first two sections have provided some supplementary
material about Webb which is to be found in Ahmadiyya sources.
First section of speech.
Compiler's comments on first section.
(See Second section and Third
section in separate files.)
We are commemorating, as Muslims, at this meeting, the birthday of Muhammad
Alexander Russell Webb. November 9th, 1846, this very human little boy
was born, at Hudson, New York. His father, Alexander Nelson Webb, was
the proprietor and editor of the Hudson Daily Star for over a period of
35 years. Muhammad Webb says of himself:
"I was not born, like some boys, with a fervently religious
strain in my character. I will not even assert that I was a good boy.
I was emotional in later years, but not mawkishly sentimental, and always
demanded a reason for everything. I attended the Presbyterian Sunday
school of my native town, when I could not avoid it, impatient to get
out into the glad sunshine and hear the more satisfying sermons preached
by God Himself through the murmuring brooks, the gorgeous flowers, and
the joyous birds. I listened incredulously to the story of the Immaculate
Conception and the dramatic tale of the vicarious Atonement, doubting
the truth of both dogmas."
From the centre of a rich family life, which he shared with two sisters
and three brothers, Alexander went forth to the public schools of the
town. He was later sent away to boarding school, the "Home School",
at Glendale, Massachusetts, but completed his higher education at Claverick
College, which was then in existence near his home town.
Before the boy had reached sixteen, his literary tastes were made evident
by his writing numerous essays and short stories. The Civil War came to
a close while he was still at his schooling. Fifteen years earlier, Horace
Greely, the head of American journalists, born on a rocky New Hampshire
farm, had thundered the advice which still echoed to our own times, "Go
West, young man, and grow up with the nation," in his Hints toward
Reform. It is not surprising, therefore, that this son of another editor
should leave for Chicago when he finished college. His departure was typical
of all the children of the family: one brother became a prominent physician
in San Francisco; others settled in St. Louis or Unionville, Missouri.
Only Alexander was to return east in later life.
In Chicago, the young man with a writing itch first turned to trade.
He engaged in the jewelry business.
Buys a paper.
In 1871, Webb was burned out by the Chicago fire. He returned to New York
City, connecting for a time with Tiffany and Company. Then he returned
to Chicago to represent another large jewelry concern. Two years later
he had enough capital to purchase The Missouri Republican at Unionville,
Mo., which he conducted for nearly three years. Moving on to a more active
field, he became city editor of the St. Joseph, Mo. Gazette, associating
for years, intimately, with a beloved poet of America, Eugene Fielde,
and still he kept climbing to more responsible newspaper posts. We find
him, at last, on the editorial staff of the Missouri Republican of St.
Louis, the second oldest and one of the largest daily newspapers in the
Before Webb had gone into the newspaper business, and following the Chicago
fire, the young man had disowned Christianity for himself. He was too
honest to remain a hypocrite. He tells us that he then drifted into materialism,
and for several years had no religion at all except the Golden Rule, which
he declared he followed "about as closely as the average Christian."
"Firmly materialistic", he continues, "I looked at first
to the advanced schools of materialistic science, and found that it was
just as completely immersed in the darkness of ignorance concerning spiritual
things as I was." But something happened to this materialist after
he entered the newspaper game.
In 1875 Madame Blavatsky created a furore in New York City by founding
the New York Theosophical Society. Two years later she published Isis
Unveiled, which was at least a national curiosity and stimulus. In 1881,
Webb commenced the study of Oriental religion. He had not found Christianity
any more attractive after returning to study it more carefully and truly,
he tells us. He found its moral ethics most commendable, but not different
from those of every other system. Its superstitions, grave errors and
inefficiencies caused him to wonder why any thoughtful, intelligent person
could accept it seriously. Oriental religions and spiritual philosophies
now engaged his time. He had access to a library of about 13,000 books
where he spent four to seven hours a day, taking time that he really needed
for sleep, in his search to find God and to solve the riddle of the universe.
He began with Buddhism, then he joined the Theosophical Society.
Consul General at Manilla.
Craving yet more time to study and experiment in religion, Webb decided
to terminate his journalistic activities, which did not give him enough
free time to do all that he desired. He was fortunate to secure an appointment
from President Cleveland to the post of Consul General at Manilla, the
chief of the Philippine Islands. This was in 1887.
The Philippines were then in the hands of Spain, but they had become
a centre of extreme mental activity. To Webb, now 41 years of age, it
was the threshold to the new world of the East. In the mean time Webb
had married, in the West, a widow from Cincinnati, Ohio, who had a little
girl. Their family was then increased by the births of two daughters
and a son. Mr. Webb took them along with him to Manilla.
Before a year had passed, the American Consul General made the discovery
of certain books and documents which he had not seen in the United States,
and which had been written by Muslim authors. He tells us that they aroused
his most intense interest in the Islamic system. He at once gave himself
up entirely to the study of Islam, so far as his official duties would
permit. All by himself, from books, without ever having seen a Muhammadan,
Alexander Russell Webb became a Muslim. Looking back over his quest, Webb
described it in later years:
"I began to compare the various religions in order to
ascertain which was the best and most efficacious as a means of securing
happiness in the next life."
(Speech continues in Second Section.)
At this point we give fuller and more accurate details about the circumstances
of Webb's acceptance of Islam. Before he went to the Philippines, Webb
had been corresponding with Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in Qadian, asking
for guidance on the teachings of Islam. Some of this correspondence was
reproduced by Hazrat Mirza in his book Shahna-i Haq, published
In his first brief letter to Hazrat Mirza, written sometime during
1886, Webb says that he has seen a letter by him (i.e. by Hazrat Mirza)
to someone offering guidance to the true religion, and this has aroused
his interest. He adds that while he has studied much about Buddhism
and Brahmanism, and to some extent about the teachings of Zoroaster
and Confucius, he knows little of the Prophet Muhammad. He says that
he is wavering with regard to what is the right path, and while being
a priest in a Christian church he can preach no more than general moral
teachings. At the end he says that he is in search of the truth. His
address is given as: 3021 Easton Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri.
Hazrat Mirza does not give the text of his own reply, but he does
reproduce the full English text of Webb's second letter, dated 24th
February 1887, and his reply to it. Despite the length of Webb's letter,
we may reproduce it here for our readers' interest. Webb begins:
"I cannot adequately express to you my gratitude for
the letter received from you under date of December 17. I had almost
given up all hope of receiving a reply but the contents of the letter
and circulars fully repaid me for the delay. After reading your circulars
an idea occurred to me which I will present to you for your consideration.
He then speaks of his desire to visit India, but regrets that it is not
possible due to his circumstances. He continues:
"Therefore a visit to India being out of the question
it occurred to me that I might, through your aid, assist in spreading
the truth here. If, as you say, Islam is the only true religion why
could I not act as its apostle or promulgator in America? My opportunities
for doing so seem to me very good if I had someone to lead me aright
at first. I have been led to believe that not only Muhammad but also
Jesus, Gautama Buddha, Zoroaster and many others taught the truth, that
we should, however, worship God and not men. If I could know what Muhammad
really taught that was superior to the teachings of others, I could
then be in a position to defend and promulgate the Muhammadan religion
above all others. But the little I do know of his teachings is not sufficient
for me to do effective work with. The attention of the American people
is being quite generally attracted to the oriental religions but Buddhism
seems to be the foremost in their investigations. The public mind, I
think, is now more than ever fitted to receive Muhammadanism as well
as Buddhism and it may be that through you it is to be introduced in
my country. I am convinced that you are very much in earnest. I have
no reason to doubt that you are inspired by God to spread the light
of truth. Therefore I would be happy to know more of your teachings
and to hear further from you. God, who can read all hearts, knows that
I am seeking for the truth, that I am ready and eager to embrace it
wherever I can find it. If you can lead me into its blessed light you
will find me not only a willing pupil but an anxious one. I have been
seeking now for three years and have found a great deal.
In his reply, dated 4th April 1887, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad expresses
his delight and satisfaction upon receiving Webb's letter, and writes
"If you can help me I hope that you will do so. I shall keep
your letter and prize it highly. The circulars, I will have printed
in one of the leading American newspapers so that they will have a
widespread circulation. I shall be happy to receive from you at any
time matter which you may have for general circulation and if you
should see fit to use my services to further the aims of truth in
the country they will be freely at your disposal, provided of course
that I am capable of receiving your ideas and that they convince me
of their truth.
"I am already well satisfied that Muhammad taught the truth,
that he pointed out the way to salvation and that those who follow
his teachings will attain to a condition of eternal bliss. But did
not Jesus Christ also teach the way? Now suppose I should follow the
way pointed out by Jesus, would not my salvation be as perfectly assured
as if I followed Islam? I ask with a desire to know the truth and
not to dispute or argue. I am seeking the truth, not to defend my
"I think I understand you to be a follower of the esoteric
teachings of Muhammad, and not what is known to the masses of the
people as Muhammadanism; that you recognise the truths that underlie
all religions and not their exoteric features which have been added
by men. I too regret very much that I cannot understand your language,
nor you mine; for I feel quite assured that you could tell me many
things which I much desire to know. "
" the object which I have in view for which I have dedicated
the whole of my life [is] not to confine the spread of the light of
truth to the oriental world but, as far as it lies in my power, to further
it in Europe and America where the attention of the people has not been
sufficiently attracted towards a proper understanding of the teachings
of Islam. Therefore I consider it an honour to comply with your request.
In this letter Hazrat Mirza promises to write and send to Webb a booklet
on the teachings of Islam.
"Your friendly words permit me to entertain the happy idea
that I may soon receive the good news that the natural moral sense
has attracted not only you but many other virtuous people of America
towards the call of truth in order to find the true guidance."
It is clear, therefore, that Webb had been studying Islam before he
went to the Philippines, wishing even to become a missionary of Islam.
His correspondence with Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, while still in the
U.S.A., was not merely one of the factors which influenced him to accept
Islam shortly afterwards in the Philippines, but, as we will later show,
Webb actually stated that he became a Muslim because of Hazrat Mirza.