Saturday, 10 September 2011

Early 20th century Islamic apologetics

In this post, I want to consider two books written by well-known British converts to Islam, William Abdullah Quilliam's The Faith of Islam (1892) and A Western Awakening to Islam by the fifth Baron Headley (1914).

There is something of a retro feel about the references to "Mahomet" and "Mussulmans", but the apologetic strategies of both books are strikingly modern in a number of ways.

- Islam was compatible with Britishness

Lord Headley makes a point of affirming that Muslims are loyal subjects of the British Empire.  As for Islam being an alien religion, he notes that Judaism and Christianity too are religions of the East.  Moreover, Britain (he says) was suffering from a moral decline, and Islam would provide a solution to this.

- Islam was a rational faith

Both writers affirm that Islam is a simple and rational faith.  Headley was aware that he was writing in "an age of scepticism", and he claimed that Islam was not superstitious and that it offered "freedom from the dogmatic tenets of the Romanists and Protestants".  Quilliam likewise contrasted the tenets of Islam favourably with the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

- Islam did not entail violence or persecution

Is Islam a religion of the sword?  "Never was there a greater fallacy", replies Quilliam, who tells his readers that Islam does not persecute other religions.  Headley agrees: he cites the "no compulsion in religion" verse from the Qur'an (2.256) and says that "there is no truth in the constantly repeated charge that the Koran incites its readers to propagate Islam by oppressive or violent measures".

- Islam was superior to Christianity

Quilliam and Headley were writing for a largely Christian audience, and in this area their writings do seem a little dated.  It is noteworthy, however, that they are prepared to argue against Christianity not only on the basis that it is doctrinally false, but also on the grounds that it is bigoted and intolerant.

Both men say that Christian Englishmen are too quick to condemn Islam.  Headley says that Christians are lacking in charity and speaks of the "[b]igotry and fanaticism" of contending Christian churches.  He compares the "love and toleration" shown by Muslim missionaries with the "compulsion and condemnation" seen among their Christian counterparts.  He quotes examples of Christians being rude about Islam, and includes a memorable passage of satire on Christian sectarianism:
A certain man was walking along a street when he met a gentleman attired in black with a white clerical collar and tie. He said to the clerical one, "Oh, can you tell me something about religion?" "Oh yes, my friend, I can; verily you can only rightly believe in the truth of Hokey Pokey Whisky Bung. If you really believe this you will be saved." The inquirer after truth thanked his informant and said, "I don't feel quite sure about it; it's good of you to tell me. I will think it over." He then walked on, and further down the street met another gentleman attired in similar garments, and put the question to him, also mentioning the fact that he had heard that "Hokey Pokey Whisky Bung" was certain to lead to the better land. The cleric number two held up his hands in horror and amazement, and said, "Oh, my poor friend, you are being led in the path which leadeth to destruction if you follow H.P.W.B.; it is altogether wrong, and probably, instigated by the Evil One: there is but one really safe path which you may tread to heaven, and that is Hikey Pikey Sikey Krikey. In this there is certain salvation. I will tell you all about it if you will give me a good living, a comfortable income, and a bit of land on which to build a church. But, my dear Christian friend, if you don't believe in H.P.S.K., you will infallibly be burnt for ever in hell fire." The anxious one walked a little further on and met yet another man attired like the others in decent black with tie and collar, and asked him about the correct thing in beliefs; but this one gave him such a pitiful account of sitting on clouds with harps and unpleasant companions that he said, in desperation, "Well, religious experts differ so much that, as a layman, I am utterly bewildered and know not what to believe."
He claims that Muslims are more friendly to Christians than Christians are to each other, and says that he has become a better Christian by becoming a Muslim.

- Islam was not oppressive to women

Both writers make this point.  Headley says that "[t]he true Muslim regards his women folk as sacred, and he spares no pains to make them happy and comfortable."  In Britain, by contrast, women like flappers and suffragettes were dressing immodestly and interesting themselves in indecent subjects.  Old Headley had traditional views on gender, as expressed in a remarkable passage that I can't resist quoting:
The other day I was travelling in the Underground Railway, and found myself sitting opposite to a young lady whose apparel caught my attention. This particular young woman was not very pretty in the face, but her other attractions were, I am bound to say, almost irresistible. She had on a very fine silk and affectionately clinging drapery, which was of the slit-up-one-side variety. Her nether limbs were most exquisitely moulded, and were encased in the finest black silk stockings, through which the delicate pink skin showed up with much effect.... [A]s she crossed her legs... I saw a dainty watch on a dainty garter.... There were two or three other men in the compartment, and they gave me quizzical glances. I knew what was passing in their heads, and they knew what was passing in mine. It was something like this: "Well, I never did see better shaped limbs; but I'm glad she's not my daughter".

- Islam was morally admirable

Like a good liberal, Quilliam affirms that Islam is a religion of equality, with, for example, no racial discrimination.