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Like many Anglo-Muslims of his day Churchward was the conservative, gentlemanly scion of an ancient family; indeed his ancestors possessed the second oldest housein Britain. His father ran a successful business in Aldershot, and was well-received in regimental circles, enabling young Churchward to meet Queen Victoria and the philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Shwoing an early artistic talent, Churchward studied art and became a recognised painter, specialising in the then highly prestigious field of theatrical scene painting. A familial figure in London's west End in the 1880's, he worked closely with celebrities as varied as Tennyson, Millais, Lord Leighton, and the most famous of all Victorian 'supermodels', Lily Langtry.
A leisurely trip through Spain opened the young scene-painter's eyes to the glories of Moorish architecture, and he was tempted to venture across the Strits to Morocco. Here in a world still untouched by Western influence, he quickly fell in love with the gentle and beautiful lifestyle of Islam. fter several visits, he gravely announced to his startled family that he had become Muslim. Churchward travelled on to Cairo, where he studied for several years at al-Azhar. His scholarship developed apace, enabling him to preach Friday sermons at a small mosque, and even landing him an appointment to the prestigious post of lecturer in Sira (the Prophet's [pbuh] biography) at the Qadis' Academy - no small achievement for a convert.
In need of more lucrative work, Churchward then sailed for SouthAfrica, where his art and his elegant drawing-room manner soon won him the favour of Cecil Rhodes, who made him the gift of a rare pink diamond. Moving effortlessly between the Muslim community and the Transvaal's white elite, it was thanks to Churchward's earnest intercession that President Paul Kruger granted permission for the erection of the first mosque in the Witwatersrand goldfields.
On his return to Cairo, Mahmoud Churchward married the daughter of a prominent Shafi jurist of al-Azhar, and continued his Arabic lecturing. But both his head and his heart told him that his Islam was not yet complete: the magnetic pull of the Fifth Pillar was becooming impossibleto resist.As he later recorded: 'One evening, as I strode along the looming Pyramid 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 Moselm - I would go to the Kaaba at Mecca.'
As an Englishman he realised that this ambition might prove hard to fulfil: there was a danger that the Caliphal authorities at Jeddah might distrust the sincerity of his claims to be a Muslim, and unceremoniously turn him away. He therfore petitioned the senior Ulema for a letter of recommendation. In the aweinspiring presence of the Chief Qadi of Egypt, together with Shaykh al-Islam Mehmet Jemaluddin Efendi (the Ottoman Empire's highest religious authority, who happened to be on a visit to Cairo), he submitted to a three-hour examination on difficult points of faith. Passing with flying colous, he recived a beautifully calligraphed testimonial signed by the scholars present. This religious passport was to serve him well in overcoming the bureacrstic obstacles which lay ahead.
In 1910, after a further year in South Africa, the would?be Hajji packed his
trunks and set out from Johannesburg for the Holy Land. Steamers in those days
were slow, and Churchward faced the added impediment of having to travel via
Bombay, where he spent weeks in frustrating negotiations with shipping?clerks,
officials, and an urbane Lebanese Christian who was the Ottoman consul. At last
he found an elderly pilgrim ship, the SS Islamic, and this vessel, captained
by an irascible Scotsman and armed with cannon against the threat of pirates,
chugged slowly across the shimmering heat of the Indian Ocean, visiting the
povertystricken Arabian Gulf before winding its leisurely way up the Red Sea.
The days passed slowly, and the time for Hajj was fast approaching. Steaming
at six knots, halting at small ports to deliver sacks of mail, which had to
be handed over with six?foot tongs because of the fear of plague, there was
little to do except watch the dolphins, eat curry, and pray on deck with the
Landing briefly at the Sudanese port of Suakin, Churchward dropped in on the
British Consul, who airily told him that his plans to visit Makka were doomed.
`My dear chap,' he told him, sipping an iced drink on the Consular veranda,
`to begin with you will not be allowed to land at Jeddah.'
But two days later, the Islamic steamed into the roadstead of the Arabian port.
`On the Indian deck,' he recorded, `there started a great packing of pots, portable
stoves, babies and sacks of rice.' It proved necessary to row ashore in a small
dinghy, plunging through the hot spray past a Turkish battleship that had been
moored for so long that the coral had grown up around it, immobilising it forever.
Once his little boat was beached on the sands, a short conversation with the
Ottoman officials established that all was well, and Churchward went into the
town to make contact with the local representative (wakil) of Sharifa Zain Wali,
a rich businesswoman of Makka who ran a large organisation of `mutawwifs' -
pilgrim guides. Naturally, she could not attend him here in person - as Churchward
later observed: `Owing to the immense numbers of pilgrims, hundreds of thousands,
who reach Jeddah each year, it is as impossible for these much-respected dignitaries
to escort their customers personally as it would be for Mr. Thomas Cook to chaperone
every Cockney globe-trotter through Europe. Like all her colleagues, she employed
a considerable staff, who saw that the Hajis carried through the ritual prescribed
by the Prophet.'
The Wakil took Churchward to his beautiful Arab house, and explained how to
don his Ihram clothing before letting him settle down for the night. `Finding
a level place on the irregular stones I lay down anew', he wrote. `This time
a thousand million mosquitoes hovered over me.' The following day, he telegraphed
most of his money through to Makka, and entrusted, as was the custom, the remainder
of his funds to the Mutawwif. That evening, `while the lamps of Jeddah glowed
in a tropic sunset, two donkeys arrived.' The road beyond Jeddah was little
more than a camel track, but the Wakil confidently led the small party towards
the nocturnal east, with Halley's Comet hanging splendidly among the stars above.
`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 from 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 fezadorned figures
ran down. They wore uniforms and held guns in their hands.'
`On entering here my guide signed to me that we should say the proper prayer.
Touching his heart and forehead he muttered the Fatiha and held his hands together
as if to receive Heaven's blessing. Then he said, Hena al Haram (Here
is the Holy Ground).' `Some pigeons, wild doves and other birds were the first
specimens of desert fauna I came on. They appeared perfectly tame, and fluttered
a few inches from our faces. Some sat on the hard stones and allowed the donkeys
to go right upon them. Very carefully the Wakeel led his beast around the little
creatures, for no man will dare to kill a living thing here.'
In the Holy City at last, after almost two days on the road, Churchward and
his companions entered the tall mansion-cum-hotel of the Sharifa. This pious
and aristocratic lady, a direct descendent of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), had family
connections in Cape Town, where her company of pilgrim guides had been recommended
to Churchward. Unpacking his goods, he sent her a gift of a Gouda cheese, which
was borne up to her unseen presence by excited servants. The Sharifa herself
shortly called to him from behind a wooden mashrabiya screen: `Mubarak! Welcome
to my house.' `I replied that I felt proud to live in her house, whereat she
answered that she was proud of me. `The Kafirs make good cheese,' declared the
lady, `they must have many cows."
The English pilgrim struggled up seven flights of stairs, bathed, and slept
on the roof. He was awoken before dawn by the strange lilting sound of Ottoman
bugles, and after prayers and a breakfast of melons he set off behind the Mutawwif
towards the Sacred Mosque. Taking care to scuff their feet disdainfully on some
well-worn flagstones, which the Mutawwif declared were some former idols of
Quraish which had been cast down there by the Prophet to be humiliated, Churchward
and his companion finally entered the House of God. The first stage of a five-month
journey had finally come to an end.
(Source: Feyyaz Yusuf, 'From Drury Lane to Mecca' - Q-News)