Long Read: An Ottoman Connection with the East London Mosque – Halil Halid Bey

This essay was first published on the website of the East London Mosque, Whitechapel

The Minutes Book of the London Mosque Fund – one of the remarkable historic documents in the archives of the East London Mosque in Whitechapel – opens with a record of a meeting held at Caxton Hall, Westminster, on 13th December 1910. The attendees are listed in the neat hand characteristic of that age: Syed Ameer Ali, acting as chair; Abdeali Shaikh Mohamedali Anik; M. T. Kaderbhoy; Camdruddin Amiruddin Latif;  Alibhoy Mulla Jeevanji; Sir Theodore Morison;  Halil Halid Bey.  Most had a connection with India under British rule: Ameer Ali, retired judge of the Bengal High Court; Morison, former principal of the Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh and now member of the Secretary of State for India’s Council in London; Jeevanji, philanthropist from Karachi settled in East Africa; Kaderbhoy, an aspiring barrister from Bombay;  Latif  and Abdeali Anik, both businessman in London, also from Bombay. The name that stands out is of the Ottoman man of letters, Halil Halid Bey, who was much travelled to the west of Constantinople, but never to the East.  He was also present at subsequent meetings in 1911. Who was he and how did he get to be so closely involved in the London Mosque Fund?

Çerkeşseyhizâde Halil Halid  –  a title marking his family connection with the Çerkeşseye sufi orderwas born in Angora in 1869.  After attending the Beyazit madrassa and completing further legal studies in Istanbul, he worked for the veteran journalist Ebuzziya Tevfik Bey. He arrived in England in 1894, which was to be his home for eighteen years.  Based on letters of introduction provided by Ebuzziya, he earned his way as a translator and later helped publish a dissident journal that was critical of Sultan Abdul Hamid’s autocratic style and the various cliques associated with the Palace. The Census of 1901 records him living as a lodger at 8 Holles Street, off Cavendish Square, but now employed as vice-consul at the Ottoman Embassy at Bryanston Square. Sultan Abdul Hamid, whatever be the criticisms levelled against him, did not take harsh measures against opponents but instead wooed them back to loyal service. However, Halil Halid resigned after writing a report critical of the Ambassador, and around 1902 took up further studies in Turkish literature with Professor Grenville Browne in Cambridge. He also taught Turkish at the Cambridge University Special Board of Indian Civil Service. He was awarded a master’s degree in 1902, for studies in political law.

Halil Halid stablished his name in London’s literary circles with the publication in 1903 of an autobiographical account of early life, The Diary of a Turk, which was described in the Daily Telegraph as “one of the most interesting books on Turkey ever published in this country.  His essay, ‘A Study in English Turcophobia’, was published by the Pan-Islamic Society of London in 1904, as the first in its series of pamphlets. In 1909, he supported the ground-breaking venture of Hafiz Mahmud Shairani, the Society’s secretary, to publish a forgotten seventeenth century English manuscript on the life of the Prophet, peace be on him – Henry Stubbe’s ‘Life of Muhammad and a defence of Islam’.  Halil Halid was also aware that London’s Muslim society not only comprised visiting nawabs and aspiring barristers at the Inns of Court, but there were the lascars in the East End.  An article he wrote for the journal Sirat al-Müstakim in March 1910 referred to the merchant seamen who stoked the boilers on steam ships (he called them the ateşçili – ‘firemen’), but on shore ended up in the “despicable taverns”, in a fallen moral state (süfliyyet-i ruhaniyye) and prey to missionary activities. He referred to the need for proper marriage contracts when mixed marriages were taking place. He made the case for a mosque that “would lead to the right path those who need that kind of spiritual guidance”.

The systematic campaign to raise funds for the mosque owed much to Abdullah Mamun Suhrawardy, a graduate of Calcutta University who arrived in London in 1903. He was able to combine his studies for an MA at University College, qualifying for Bar at Middle Temple and authoring of texts on Maleki fiqh and other Islamic topics with leadership of the Pan-Islamic Society.  For him, it was to be a ‘Pan-Islamic Mosque’, with an estimated cost of £100,000. He launched a public appeal, even travelling to Paris in 1904 to seek the support of the visiting Shah of Iran. According to newspaper reports of the period, “two sites are under consideration, one on the south side of the river, a little south-west of St. Thomas’s Hospital, the other almost opposite, near the Houses of Parliament” (Daily Mail, 9 November 1905).  However, funds were not forthcoming – apart from donations by two merchants in the Shah’s entourage. Suhrawardy was also shocked by the bigotry and prejudice that surfaced in the wake of the press coverage.  The hostility continued for many years – the Church Times on 13 January 1911 for example complaining that it would be “degenerate” if  non-Muslim supporters of the project were to “help to set up the Crescent in a Christian land”

Following Abdullah Mamun Suhrawardy’s departure in December 1906, the vision of a prominent mosque in the Empire’s capital city was taken up by colleagues in the Society (the Pan-Islamic Society was renamed the Islamic Society in 1907).  Among them was ‘Bertie’ Khalid Sheldrake – of the pickle manufacturing business in South London – who had been introduced to Islam by Suhrawardy while still a schoolboy.  He provided an account of what happened next,

There is a great need of a house of prayer, and a scheme was commenced by the Islamic Society to procure the money for that purpose. The plans were duly drawn and submitted to H.I.M. the ex-Shah [deposed in 1909], whilst he was in Paris, by Dr. Suhrawardy . . .  The scheme dropped for the time, and it was not until Professor Halil Halid Bey commenced afresh that these speculations materialised. Halil Halid (who is the gifted author of ‘Diary of a Turk’, and ‘Crescent versus Cross’) has indeed worked hard, and visiting Turkey and Egypt for funds, soon placed the Mosque Fund upon a firm basis. Then, in co-operation with the Right Hon. Mr. Justice Ameer Ali, P.C. (whose books are standard works on Islam) an influential committee was formed, and since that date things have gone forward very rapidly. . . £100,000 is the figure decided upon, and the total still falls far below that sum. Here is an opportunity for Muslims all over the world to serve Islam. Does it not seem terrible to think that although Christendom’s outposts are established in all Muslim countries – take, for example, the new cathedral at Khartoum – yet London, the capital of the might British Empire, has not place for worship for the resident Muslims, who must either take a long journey by rail, or are compelled to hold Namaz in a room in a London restaurant.  (The African Times & Orient Review,  July 1912)

 Halil Halid described his efforts in more detail in articles in Ottoman journals. His role has been largely unrecognised. There is much new information in his report published in March, 1910 in the Turkish weekly Siratul Müstaqim,

Also presence of a mosque in London will enable an activity centre for bringing Islamic feelings together. Although the temples of other religious sects’ societies are more or less built on the basis of nationalistic principles, Islam’s masajid manifests their existence with a more noble and superior purpose, namely with the intention of [serving] humanity (maksad-ı insaniyyetele): that is the White race (cins-i ebayaz, the Yellow race (cins-i asfar), the Black race (cins-i esved). Whether they be Asian, European, and African do not have an effect . . . [all] humankind addressing a humble prayer under the Islamic flag (liva-yı islamiyyet) in front of the Creator with the same feeling of devotion . . .

The existence of a mosque in London also would be an auspicious antecedent for similar buildings, one by one, in other big Western cities. It would show to European Christendom, which is powerful enough to exert influence in the East, the time has come to respect Islam with its spiritual power in the West.

The purpose of building a mosque in Britain was also encouraged by the deceased orientalist Doctor Leitner, who was originally Hungarian but became British later, and Abdullah Quilliam, who appeared subsequently. The money that came out from the pocket of Muslims for this aim has been wasted . . . Therefore, the powerful, conscientious desire of Muslims for many generations for the purpose (of building a mosque in London) is more seriously worthy of consideration.

When I shared my humble opinion with the esteemed (fazıl-ı şehir) Sayyid Ameer Ali, who is a retired Indian judge and today a resident with his family in Britain, he said: “If Muslims of the Ottoman Empire are in the vanguard, be sure that the other Muslims will follow this track of virtue. Let’s say 5,000 liras is collected in Turkey, I can have 15, 000 liras collected in India”. When I explained the idea to a wealthy Egyptian, he said, ‘‘I will donate 500 liras if help starts coming in from all sides’’.

After these exchanges, I went to the Ottoman Bank’s London branch. I explained my vision to the manager and asked whether the branches of the Ottoman Bank could collect donations from people across the Ottoman lands (memalik-i Osmaniyye), protect them and send to the London branch.  The honourable manager responded supportively, saying that it was the Bank’s responsibility to present services to people in Ottoman lands and that he would write for permission to the head office in Istanbul . . .

If in one or two years if I can see the signs of the construction of a mosque in London, I will deem myself to reach the biggest happiness in my life – and the holiest one. The problems in this cause will be numerous, but as the British say – problems are created to be overcome. In any case, guidance and assistance is from Allah.

This account highlights the work prior to the establishment of the London Mosque Fund. It also conveys the cordial relationship with Sayyid Ameer Ali and other activists in the Islamic Society. Hafiz Mahmud Shirani, the Society’s secretary, paid tribute to Halil Halid in the same issue of  Sıratul Müstaqim in his letter to its editor: “It is worthy of gratitude and appreciation that you have a citizen who has won all our admiration, who is standing alone in the square (meydana) in this country, a worthy exemplary, and whose knowledge is proportional with his efforts in the way of Islam.”

It is likely that Halil Halid did not wait for the London manager of the Ottoman Bank to receive instructions and took up the matter on a visit to Constantinople. It was there that he established the first bank account for collecting funds for the mosque, as recorded in this report The Times of 28 October 1910,

A movement has been started by Mr. Halil Halid for the creation of a mosque in London. In view of the increasing number of Mahomedans coming to England from India, Egypt, and Turkey for purpose of study, it is felt that Mahomedan parents desirous of sending their sons to England to school or University will do so with more confidence if there is some provision for their spiritual needs. It is intended that the mosque shall possess a reading room, library, and lecture hall, which shall be available for the discussion of all subjects with the exception of politics. Subscriptions are already being received by the Ottoman Bank at Constantinople from Turkish sympathisers with the movement, and the support of all who are interested in Mahomedans in India, Egypt, and Turkey in Great Britain will be enlisted.

He travelled to Egypt and Istanbul to publicise the project and raise funds. While in Cairo he met Rashid Rida, who wrote about the visit in Al-Manar (March 1911).

The need for The Times to add, “with the exception of politics” perhaps reflected an anxiety in the corridors of power in Whitehall.  Suhrawardy had been under surveillance while in London for association with an anti-colonialist network of students from India and his influence from a distance was possible.  There was even a ‘History Sheet’ on Suhrawardy in the Secretary of State’s office, marked ‘Secret’! It noted that on his return he took up a post at Islamia College in Lahore and put forward a scheme to Sultan Abdul Hamid for the further education of students in Constantinople. He also became active in the anti-colonialist swadeshi movement that called for a boycott of European goods.  

Though Halil Halid was an anglophile, he was prepared to challenge government policies that were ill-informed on Muslim issues or directed at weakening Ottoman power. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia Herzogovina in 1908, in contravention of an international treaty, the British government took no action. Halil Halid promoted an economic boycott movement, that was taken up far and wide in Muslim communities. For fair-minded Englishmen like Scawen Blunt, the silence of their government on the illegal annexation was “a notable failure” and he put the blame on Edward VII. 

Halil Halid also clashed with one of the establishment’s ‘experts’ on Muslim affairs who had put forward the British policy line that the khalifa of Muslims should not be an Ottoman but an Arab. Halid’s response was robust and educational: “Sir George Birdwood betrays signs of ill-will towards the Ottoman Khalifate. The Ottoman Empire assumed the title of ‘Khalifate’ more than 300 years ago, when the keys of the holy places of Islam were handed to Sultan Selim by a Sherif of the Prophet’s family. Millions upon millions of Musulmans respected this title ever since that time . . . it makes very little difference whether Sir George Birdwood’s ‘Arabs’ or ‘Wahabis’ in the desert-land of Arabia object to recognise this title or not” (The Times, 11 August 1908).  

Halil Halid also had a key role in organising the visit of Ottoman parliamentarians in 1909, elected under a new constitutional framework that promised positive changes in Ottoman finances and administration.  As a spokesperson for the Young Turks movement in England, Halil Halil urged for “sympathy and understanding of Great Britain” (London Evening Standard, 20 October 1909). While apparently welcoming, the Government was unsympathetic to Young Turk aspirations, seeing a well-governed Ottoman State as a danger to its interests,

If Turkey really establishes a Constitution and keeps it on its feet, and becomes strong itself, the consequences will reach further than any of us can yet foresee. The effect in Egypt will be tremendous and will make itself felt in India. Hitherto whenever we have had Mahometan subjects, we have been able to tell them that the subjects ruled by the head of their religion were under a despotism which was not a benevolent one; while our Mahometan subjects were under a despotism which was benevolent…”. (Foreign Secretary Lord Grey, July 1908)

The Government thus would have breathed a sigh of relief when the London Mosque Fund’s Executive Committee, meeting on 24 April 1911 decided to open an account at the Bank of England and seek the transfer of funds from the Ottoman Bank of Constantinople.  Halil Halid was not present at that meeting, but there was no ill-will between him and Syed Ameer Ali, and 1200 liras were duly deposited.

Ameer Ali was very much the elder statesman of the Muslim community in Britain when he retired and settled in England in 1904. The common ground was provided by membership of the Pan-Islamic Society and shared friendships with two Turcophile academics at Cambridge University, Professor E. J.W.  Gibb at Cambridge, and his colleague, Professor Granville Brown.  Halil Halid presented a report at the Executive Committee meeting on 20 July 1911 on the work done in Egypt and Turkey. The Minutes note, “The Committee considered Mr. Halil Halid’s work satisfactory and a vote of thanks was accorded to him”.  

Halil Halid and Ameer Ali took each other into confidence on the problems being faced in raising funds. There was a disastrous fire in Istanbul in July 1912, which had compelled him to divert 300 liras of 500 liras collected for the mosque through the Sabah journal to its victims. He wrote to Ameer Ali on 26 July seeking his approval for this use. The response was the following day, “Honourable Halid Bey, I received your letter. I express to you that I am very touched and sad by the fire and I completely appreciate your opinion of passing on the remaining donation.”

Ameer Ali was a canny individual with the abilities to reach the top of his profession – as a member of the judicial committee of the Privy Council in 1909. He was able to gain the support of establishment figures such as Lord Lamington and the Aga Khan for the London Mosque Fund, thus allaying the concerns in Whitehall corridors of power and upper echelons of British society with a major mosque project. However, just as much as Halil Halid, he was prepared to put his head above the parapet to protect Muslim interests and dignity. He stood his ground during the Tripolitan War of 1911, when Britain was tacitly supporting the Italian invasion of an Ottoman wilaya. He established the British Red Crescent Society that despatched medical teams from England to help injured Ottoman and Senussi soldiers, at a time when Britain blocked Ottoman officers from joining the front via Egypt. Later, he was to admit that this work, and subsequent assistance in the Balkan wars of 1912-13 had diverted his attention from fund raising efforts for the mosque.

Halil Halid was elected to the Ottoman Parliament for his hometown Angora in 1912, but resigned after ten months. He resumed his career as a diplomat as a popular Ottoman consul in Bombay from 1912 to 1914.  He was based in Germany during the Great War, and once the Turkish  Republic was declared in 1923, took up  academic posts in Istanbul. He died in 1931. The historian Kurtuluş Öztürk notes with regret that in Turkey “today he is not well known”.

There are many facets of his life awaiting further research, such as his experiences when the Ottoman delegation visited England in July 1909. An interesting side story to this visit is the presence of Halil Halid’s mentor, Ebuzziya Tevfik Bey in the delegation.  In debates of the Meclis-i Mebusan, as the Ottoman Parliament was called, Ebuzziya had frequently cited the lack of controls being exercised by Ottoman authorities in allowing European Jews to purchase land in Palestine.  It is known that while in London, members of the delegation were invited to a luncheon by the English Zionist Federation, hosted by its chairman, Sir Francis Montefiore. Apparently there were cheers from the audience when a delegate noted that the immigration of Jews to the Turkish Empire was welcome “on the distinct understanding that they came with the intention of being loyal and patriotic citizens”  – and that it was best for Zionism to be a social rather than political movement (reported in the Daily News, 6 July 1909). What other negotiations may have transpired?

The time has come to make Halil Halid Bey better known, at least in British Muslim circles.  In July 1931, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall wrote to the treasurer of the London Mosque Fund, Abdeali Shaikh Mohamedali Anik  (the same who attended the first Executive Committee meeting in 1910!) that its funds for the mosque in the East End would be “a memorial to the late Mr. Sayyid Ameer Ali”. Perhaps he did not know of Halil Halid Bey’s pioneering role.

Jamil Sherif

February 2022

Acknowledgements & notes

The London Mosque Fund’s Minutes Book Fund and the letters of Marmaduke Pickthall are deposited in the East London Mosque Archives. The Minutes Book’s contents with an introductory essay by Professor Humayun Ansari, are published in his The Making of the East London Mosque, 1910–1951: Minutes of the London Mosque Fund and East London Mosque Trust Ltd. Camden Fifth Series, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

The author is grateful to Ottoman historian Ahmet Uçar for access to the Siratul Müstaqim digital archive and Dr. Nihal Engel for translations from this journal and other sources from Ottoman Turkish to English.

The ‘Secret’ file on Abdullah Mamun Suhrawardy is in the British Library, India Office Records, Government of India’s Foreign Department file: IOR R/1/1/61. His younger brother, Sir Dr. Hassan Suhrawardy, served as a trustee of the London Mosque Fund and was instrumental in the purchase in 1939 of the terraced houses on Commercial Road, Whitechapel, to serve as the first East London Mosque.

For further details on Halil Halid see Kurtuluş Öztürk’s intellectual biography ‘Anti-emperyalist bir Osmanlı aydını: Halil Hâlid Bey (1869-1931)’, Istanbul Aydin University, 2015.  It is based on his Master’s thesis Cambridge’de bir Türk eğitimci (Halil Halid Bey: 1869-1931), Yüksek Lisans Tezi, Marmara University, Istanbul, 2005. An English language source is S. Tanvir Wasti’s “Halil Halid: Anti-Imperialist Muslim Intellectual.” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 29, no. 3, 1993, pp. 559–579. 

The remark by Lord Grey on Ottoman constitutionalism is taken from Feroz Ahmed, From Empire to Republic, Vol. 1, Istanbul Bilgi University Press, 2008; p. 143.

The above essay will be extended insha Allah in a book on London-based Muslim activism, 1880s-1950s, under preparation.