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Pickthall, Marmaduke William (1875-1936)
by Rentfrow, Daphne


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Marmaduke Pickthall 1875-1936

Marmaduke William Pickthall, born in 1875 London to Mary O'Brien and the Reverend Charles Grayson Pickthall, is remembered—if he is remembered at all—as a translator of the Qu'ran. The fact that a practicing English Christian would convert to Islam and become a renowned translator of the holiest of Muslim texts during years of volatile relations between Britain and the Ottoman Empire is itself exceptional. Yet Pickthall was much more than an historical oddity or gifted translator: he was a novelist, journalist, political and religious leader, and an often confusing mix of allegiances and beliefs. Pickhtall published nine novels set in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Yemen and Turkey; he wrote another six set in England; his short stories were published in three collections; he was Acting Imam of the Muslim community in London; he was editor of Islamic Culture, a journal published under the patronage of the Nizam of Hyderabad; he worked for the London-based Islamic Information Bureau, which published the weekly Muslim Outlook; and he wrote regularly for The New Age, including eloquent pro-Turkish pieces contributed right through the Great War. E.M. Forster wrote in 1921 that Pickthall was “the only contemporary English novelist who understands the Nearer East” (Clark 1). His novels, according to one biographer, “contain the circumstantiality of Sir Walter Scott, the exuberance of Charles Dickens, the moral strength of George Eliot, and compassionate tragedy of Thomas Hardy and the universality of E.M. Forster” (Clark 2). Clearly, Pickthall and his works deserve to be re-discovered: his writings for The New Age alone add an invaluable perspective on the colonial concerns pressing on Great Britain and the Muslim world in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Pickthall's immediate family background was professional middle class. After the death of his father in 1881, his family, which now included a brother Rudolph known to the family as Bob, moved several times. Marmaduke, a fairly sickly child, suffered from bronchitis and a brain fever at age eight, which seems to have affected his burgeoning interest in arithmetic. Painfully shy, the young Pickthall left Harrow School after only six terms. He then traveled throughout Europe with his mother, discovering and perfecting a talent for language. Returning to England in 1894, Pickthall sat for exams to enter the Levant Consular Service, but despite outstanding marks in language, he placed too low in the other areas. He now had two choices: return to Harrow, where he had been miserable, and continue on to Oxford, or take the invitation of Thomas Dowling, a friend of his mother's, who was going to Palestine to serve as chaplain to the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. A depressed Pickthall set his mind on the promise of “Eastern sunshine, palm trees, camels desert sand, as of a Paradise …” and made his decision.

Pickthall was convinced that the acquisition of eastern languages would help him find a way into the Foreign Service, so he left early for Cairo, spending weeks wandering the city, developing an empathy for the poorer inhabitants and learning Arabic. Taking months to visit Jaffa, Ramleh, Gaza, Carmel, Judea, Pickthall arrived in Jerusalem nearly fluent in Arabic and completely taken with the East. Traveling and lingering in various cities, Pickthall became more and more enraptured with his surroundings: his first attempt to convert to Islam, however, was rejected, and it wasn't until later that Pickthall himself recognized that his initial desire had been a result of “only romance and pageant of the East” (in Clark 11). In 1896, reports of his having “gone native” reached his mother, and the twenty-year-old Pickthall was called home.

The two years away changed Pickthall forever, but it would be years before he acted on his respect and passion for the Muslim world. In the interim he married and traveled to Switzerland, where he published his first tale in 1898. His first Near Eastern story, the intense “The Word of an Englishman,” was also published that same year. By 1899, the financially-strapped young couple took a small cottage in Suffolk where Pickthall could write on a regular basis.

Pickhtall's first novel, All Fools, was rejected by two publishers before it was published in 1900. After his second novel, Saïd the Fisherman, was published in 1902 (highly praised by James Barrie and H.G. Wells, among others), Pickthall bought up and destroyed all copies of All Fools. For the next few years, Pickthall published a novel a year, including Enid, Brendle, and The House of Islam. By 1907, ten years afer his departure, Pickhall returned to the Near East, arriving in Cairo as a guest of a British official.

The assumption is, of course, that because of his sympathies for the people of Syria and other countries, Pickthall would be a critic of British rule. Instead, his politics were much more complicated. Pickthall praised the rule of the British Consul General in Egypt; while Liberal opinion in Egypt and Britain reacted in shock to the “Denshawai incident” of 1906, Pickthall accepted the severe punishment set upon the villagers (which included four hangings); later in life he would be critical of British imperialism in India yet continue to support it in Egypt; he was a patriotic Tory who opposed war between his country and the Ottoman Empire (Clark 2).These tensions are evident in his novels and journalistic pieces, which he continued to write prolifically.

In 1912, once again back in England, Pickthall began an association with The New Age that would continue until he left for India in 1920. His first articles were on Egypt, but in 1912 the Balkans were at war with Turkey, and Pickthall began to concentrate his energies on defending the latter. He wrote a series of articles under the title “The Black Crusade,” which the New Age Press later published as a pamphlet. In these pieces, Pickthall condemns Christians for comparing Turks to Satan and for the approval of Bulgaria's Christian slaughter of Muslims. Turkish reform, he claimed, was a threat to Christians, and attacks on Turkish Muslims were attacks on the entire Muslim world. By the end of 1912, Pickthall went to Turkey to see for himself the events he had been covering in his writings.

Events in Turkey eventually led Pickthall to his firm beliefs: when Britain went to war with Germany in 1914, Pickthall declared his willingness to be a combatant as long as he did not have to fight Turks; he argued strongly for Turkish neutrality and independence. Throughout the war years Pickthall wrote pieces in The New Age advocating consideration of Turkey's position, in which four themes are present: an adherence to old English foreign policy; warnings against the influence of Russian foreign policy; repudiation of the idea that Balkan Christians could claim protection from Britain by virtue of shared religion; a celebration of the merits of the Turks and the impending regeneration of the Islamic world (Clark 28). More and more, it was becoming obvious to Pickthall and his readers that he was a strong and eloquent proponent of Islam and its varied cultures. Yet Pickthall's background assumed an adherence to the rule of the Church of England. His father and his father's father were clergymen; two step-sisters were Anglican nuns; it was through church contacts that Pickthall first went east. Little by little, however, the actions of the Christian community, especially missionaries, disappointed Pickthall. Before the war, Pickthall was still a practicing Anglican: but with loyalties split between the British and Turkish empires, Pickthall had a crisis of faith and nerves, evident in his writings for The New Age. Finally, in November 1917, at the last of a series of talks to the Muslim Literary Society on “Islam and Progress,” Pickthall openly declared his acceptance of Islam. He took the name Mohammed and almost immediately became a pillar of the British Islamic Community.

By 1919, Pickthall was working for the Islamic Information Bureau. In 1920 he left for India to serve as the editor of the Bombay Chronicle. In 1927 he took over as editor of Islamic Culture. He gave eight lectures on Islam in the series Madras Lectures on Islam in Madras, India, later published as “The Cultural Side of Islam.” In 1930 he published The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (since the Qu'ran is the word of Allah, Pickthall maintained, it could not be “translated”). He returned to England in 1935 and died a year later. His remains one of the two most popular translations of the Qu'ran: it has been translated into Turkish, Portuguese, Urdu, and Tagalog. The elegy in Islamic Culture summed up the life of this British Christian Muslim journalist and novelist as follows: Pickthall was “a Soldier of faith! True Servant of Islam!”

—Daphnée Rentfrow

Sources

  • Clark, Peter. Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim. London: Quartet Books Limited, 1986.
  • Hadhrami, Abu Ali. “Marmaduke Pickthall: A Servant of Islam.” 1998. Accessed March 3, 2003. http://cyberistan.org/islamic/pickthall.htm

Articles of interest in The New Age

Some Pickthall essays available online

Some novels and collections by Marmaduke Pickthall, compiled by Peter Clark

  • 1900 All Fools
  • 1903 Saïd the Fisherman
  • 1904 Enid
  • 1905 Brendle
  • 1906 The House of Islam
  • 1907 The Myopes
  • 1908 The Children of the Nile
  • 1909 The Valley of the Kings
  • 1911 Pot au Feu
  • 1912 Larkmeadow
  • 1913 The Black Crusade
  • 1913 Veiled Women
  • 1914 With the Turk in Wartime
  • 1915 Tales from Five Chimneys
  • 1916 The House of War
  • 1917 Knights of Araby
  • 1918 Oriental Encounters
  • 1919 War and Religion
  • 1919 Friday Sermons
  • 1919 Sir Limpidus
  • 1920 Islam and Progress
  • 1921 The Early Hours
  • 1922 As Others See Us
  • 1927 The Cultural Side of Islam
  • 1930 The Meaning of the Glorious Koran
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