At a time when Britain had major political and economic interests in the Middle East, Hedley Churchward had only one concern in mind while going on a pilgrimage to Mecca; the pleasure of Allah. Hedley Churchward, later known as Mahmoud Mobarek, was the first recorded British Hajji in history.
Abdulhakim Murad, a lecturer Cambridge University Islamic Studies department, narrates for us the fascinating conversion story of Hedley Churchward, the first recorded British-born Muslim who carried out the rites of Hajj on a five-month journey to Kaaba.
Hedley Churchward (Mahmoud Mobarek) was born into one of the most rooted and most well-known families of England, who owned the second oldest house (older than 700 years) of Britain. His artistic talents were recognized at an early age as a result of which he studied art. His field of specialization was theatrical scene painting and in 1880s, he became famous with his paintings.
On an inspirational trip through Spain, Churchward’s eyes met glamorous Islamic architecture for the first time and he continued his journey across to Morocco where he was impressed by the purity and gentleness of Islamic lifestyle. After several trips to Morocco, Hedley Churchward announced his shocking decision to his family: He had taken the Shahada and converted to Islam.
For a convert, Churchward had great achievements in the field of Islamic studies. He studied at Al-Azhar for years and became both a preacher and a prominent Sira lecturer at the Qadis’ Academy.
In Cairo, Mahmoud Churchward was assigned to decorate one of the city’s mosques. Moreover, it was thanks to his intercession that the President of South Africa, Paul Kruger granted permission for the construction of the first mosque in Witwatersrand, South Africa. Later, Churchward got married to an Egyptian woman, who was the daughter of one of the leading Shafi‘i jurists of Al-Azhar.
Since his conversion to Islam, he had been thinking and feeling that he had not become fully integrated with Islam. Thus Churchward decided to go to Mecca to carry out the rites of Hajj in an effort to complete the Five Pillars of Islam. Abdulhakim Murad narrates Churchward’s deep thoughts and feelings on going to Mecca through Churchward’s own words:
‘One evening, as I strode along the looming Pyramid in the sunset, and saw the jagged skyline of Cairo behind the dreamy African dusk, I decided to carry through what I had intended to do ever since I turned a Moslem – I would go to the Kaaba at Mecca.’
It was the year 1910 and the politico-religious circumstances demanded him to prove his sincerity in his Islamic faith, since no Non-Muslim is allowed to enter the borders of Mecca. He was subjected to a three-hour examination by the Qadi of Egypt to determine the extent of his faith. After a successful exam, his ‘religious passport’ was endorsed by the Qadi as well as the chief Ottoman cleric of the time and many leading scholars and imams to overcome the possible bureaucratic obstacles.
Churchward set out South Africa (Johannesburg) for Mecca in 1910. He had an exhausting steamship journey via Bombay. There he arranged an old pilgrim ship, the SS Islamic which was captained by a fretful Scotsman and armed against pirates and made its way to the Red Sea.
At the Sudanese port of Suakin, he paid a visit to the British Council and was informed that he would not be allowed to disembark at Jeddah. Yet, he was able to make it safely to Jeddah, where he contacted the Ottoman officials and encountered no problem. There he also communicated with his pilgrim guide and they set out for the Holy City with two donkeys in the following evening with Halley’s Comet blinking them the star-splendid sky.
As Churchward has recorded, “‘Against the stars I saw rock faces; we seemed to be trotting through a kind of canyon. Saving the fall of our donkeys’ feet there was nothing to be heard, not even a jackal. … Bang! Explosions suddenly rang some place high in the dark hills. No mistake, those were rifle shots … The growing brightness showed a very picturesque old building, a kind of tower several hundred feet above the road. From the steep path serving the structure some fez-adorned figures ran down. They wore uniforms and held guns in their hands.’
These attacks by desert Arabs on pilgrims were common despite the efforts of the Ottoman officials. Yet Churchward was able to get through dangerous situations of the hot and exhausting trip successfully. Trusting that Allah will arrange everything for the best, they had finally arrived in the Holy Land.
The first phase of Churchward’s five-month journey to Holy Land was completed as Churchward and his companion set foot in Kaaba, the House of Allah.
Mahmoud Churchward was the first British Muslim who saw the Kaaba in 1910 and was honoured by being the first British guest of Allah.
Abdulhakim Murad (Tim Winter) is a British Muslim scholar and teacher born in 1960. He studied Islamic sciences at the University of Al-Azhar. He is currently the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer of Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, Director of Studies in Theology at Wolfson College, and a doctoral student at Oxford University, where he is studying the relationship between the government and Sufi brotherhoods in the Ottoman Empire. Murad is also the secretary of the Muslim Academic Trust (London), Director of The Anglo-Muslim Fellowship for Eastern Europe, and Director of the Sunna Project, which has published the foremost scholarly Arabic editions of the major Sunni Hadith collections.