Editors: Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor & Jamie Gilham
Publisher: Hurst, 2023
Format: Hardback
Pages: 264
Source: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/muslim-women-in-britain-1850-1950/

This is a fascinating  and eclectic collection of biographical essays on eight strong-willed women with a connection to Muslim life in Britain. Apart from these main personalities, which include the previously unknown Olive Salaman of Cardiff and the better known World War II heroine Noor Khan, there are  many equally engaging side stories that convey the social and political context of the times. The contributors are experts in their field, but they bear their learning lightly and the result is a text  accessible to an non-academic audience.

The earliest of the personalities considered in detail in the book is Nafeesa Keep, born in 1844, an American who worked with Quilliam at the Liverpool Muslim Institute for one year, 1894 – 1895. The historian Matthew Sharp describes how in that brief spell, she achieved prominence as a speaker, including at an event in London organised by the Anjuman-e Islam in 1895 to protest against Armenian aggression.  Dr. Sharp’s work in the Ottoman Archives provides details of her break with Quilliam. Nafeesa Keep subsequently led an itinerant life in various countries, including Australia where she died in 1925, “having seemingly rejected Islam”.

Hamid Mahmood’s essay on Fatima Elizabeth Cates is poignant, because of her trials so reminiscent of the experiences of the sahaba and sahibiyat.  When as a teenager she brought the Qur’an home to study, her mother attempted to burn it – “I will not allow such trash in my house.”  Unlike Nafeesa Keep, “her life revolved around Quilliam and his small group of English converts.”  She was a writer,  public speaker and a poet. She bore Quilliam a son, and he was at her bedside when she died in 1890. Hers was the first internment of a Muslim at the Anfield Cemetery.  In a striking example of how the past can inspire  the present, her biographer established a madrassa  in London in 2014 named after her.

Professor Saraya’s detective work to provide a well-rounded view of Olive Salaman, ‘the mother of Cardiff Yemenis’  is a model for biographical researchers. Her quest has required searches in  BBC audio-visual footage, oral history records at the National Archives of Wales, and  the Mass Observation surveys held at the University of Sussex.    Similarly, Jamie Gilham has unearthed much detail in the stranger-than-fiction life of Gladys Milton Palmer,  who married into the family of the ‘White Rajas of Sarawak’ and took the name Khairun Nisa on finding the path to Islam in 1931.  Gilham’s expertise as a historian of British Islam has allowed him to make the connections with Khalid Sheldrake, Pickthall,  Lord Headley and the Aga Khan. An unexpected find is Khairun Nisa’s friendship with Durru Shehvar, daughter of the exiled Caliph AbdulMejid II, while both were living in Nice, prior to her marriage to the eldest son of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1931.

In some cases, the link of these female personalities to life in Britain is tenuous, though the accounts provided are absorbing and informative. The Begum of Bhopal Nawab Sultan Jahan, who ruled Bhopal from 1901 to 1926 only visited England twice, in 1911 and 1925.  It was on the first of these that she gave a fillip to Leitner’s abandoned project in Woking. According to Diane Robinson-Dunn, “she pledged to resuscitate the building, which, by that time, had been closed and neglected for over a decade.” Similarly, another of the eight personalities in Muslim Women in Britain, Hannah Rodda Robinson, “lived as a Muslim for only a few months at most in England before relocating to the Ottoman Empire.”   She married an Ottoman army officer and was known as ‘Fatma Hanem’. The ubiquitous Quilliam features in her life as well, with biographer Gareth Winrow describing his help to her in obtaining a good word in the Ottoman Court.  Two of Fatma’s sons died in the Great War serving in the Ottoman army; one became a famous Galatasaray goalkeeper.   Bertha Cave is better known as the first woman to challenge the Inns of Court for enrolment and qualify as a barrister.  Professor Judith Bourne, author of the wittily named essay ‘No Room at the Inn’, is uncertain when Cave came to Islam, and whether it may be related to her marriage, at the age of twenty  four,  to a much older Colonel Altof Ali in December 1905 in London. The reception was a grand affair at the Savoy attended by many members of the Pan-Islamic Society of London. In building a picture of Cave’s life,  Professor Judith Bourne has had access to Altof Ali’s papers. The marriage was short lived, and Cave died in Canada in 1951.

Pir Zia Inayat Khan’s essay on his aunt, Noor Inayat Khan, is a ‘scoop’. It provides details not known in her published biographies, written by someone who is himself a sufi master and scholar of Persian literature.  While much is known of Noor, the George Cross medallist shot in Dachau in 1944, the chapter on her opens a fresh window of understanding into the inner voice of a  courageous woman of literary talent. Her father, Pir Inayat Khan settled in London in 1912 where he established a  khanqah. He also founded the  ‘Royal Musicians of Hindustan’ troupe that had extended visits in the capitals of Europe, including Moscow, where  Noor was born 1914.  She was a British citizen from birth, with connections with Scotland through her mother, Ora Ray (Ameena Inayat Khan). Noor’s her early childhood was in London, with further education completed in Paris. Pir Zia Inayat Khan puts forward three questions – ‘Was Noor British? Was Noor Muslim? Was Noor a hero?’ – and provides his assessment.

The editors have included a chapter ‘Muslim Women Travellers from South Asia to Britain, 1890s to 1930s’ by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Daniel Majchrowicz.  Though standing separate from the biographical theme of the book, it too offers  perspectives of women’s experiences. The authors have accessed numerous travel accounts and diaries written in Urdu. They also  make the interesting observation that male students were more likely to suffer racial abuse in the Edwardian era than women: “there are many instances in these travelogues that underline a shared humanity that clearly transcended the stark racial and religious barriers then inscribed in British society, such as when kindly individuals helped these travellers to manage children. Even without children, these travellers were able to facilitate new connections and build friendships.”

Muslim Women in Britain, 1850 – 1950 is a landmark and pioneering work that opens up many news lines of enquiry. Though this may be rile “the feminist historical approach”, there is much to be said, for example, of the wives who stood by their husbands immersed in socio-political activism. Between 1915 and 1925, the British Red Crescent Society, took a lead in providing medical missions in Tripolitana, the Balkans and the Riff. The powerhouse behind this effort was Syed Ameer Ali, but by his side in this work was his wife, Isabella.  Similarly, Hajja Maryam was a pillar supporting her husband Haji Taslim Ali in making the East London Mosque a community hub at its old site on Commercial Road. These types of partnerships need to be celebrated too.

In her foreword to the book, Professor Sophie Gilliat Ray rightly observes that “there has been an upsurge of interest about the history of Islam and Muslim communities in Britain, alongside the distinctive role that early converts to Islam in Britain might have played.”  These endeavours have strategic significance, because an  understanding of the past is important for present-day Muslims.

Professor John Wolff put it well in a speech to an audience at the East London Mosque some years ago:

, . . . exploring our past can help us feel rooted in our community and can provide us with a sense of belonging. By preserving our history, we can also help young people and future generations understand the tradition of which they are part, and the responsibility that they then assume in continuing its path.

This book is a useful reference in this journey. However, there is a question: who writes  our history? No doubt professional historians, whether of faith or no faith,  bring their skills and commitment, as exemplified in this volume. But does the Muslim historian bring to the table particular insights?  For example, Professor Saraya makes a passing comment on her subject, Olive Salaman,

“A final indicator of Olive’s commitment to Islam is her narrative that, after her husband’s death, she was comforted by the  idea that he received blessings every time someone prayed in the little mosque he established. Ollive alludes to the Islamic idea of sadiqa jariya, or acts of long-term charity of kindness, which continue to accrue  rewards for the benefactor long after the initial act of charity.”

Was it because as someone living the faith, she was able to read something more in an archival item and so make a connection?

JS/February 2024