Lady Evelyn Cobbold – A Scottish noblewoman

In 1934 the London publisher John Murray issued “Pilgrimage to Makkah”, an account by Anglo-Scottish convert to Islam Lady Evelyn Cobbold of the Haj she had undertaken the previous year, at the age of 65. Lady Evelyn was the first British-born Muslim woman on record as having made the pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage to Makkah” takes the form of a diary, and the writing is fresh, immediate, and rich in description. As a woman, Evelyn was able to give a rare depiction of female life in Makkah and Madina. At the same time the book contains substantial digressions on the history and merits of Islam. The foreword was contributed by Sheikh Hafiz Wahba, Saudi Minister in London.

Lady Evelyn’s pilgrimage attracted much media attention, and her book was widely reviewed. The Manchester Guardian newspaper said: “If she may be thought to be a little prejudiced in favour of her adopted faith, we have been accustomed to hear in its disfavour so much which is based upon pure ignorance and antipathy that a little over praise, if such it be, comes as a welcome relief.

It might have been expected that Lady Evelyn would have entered the ranks of those legendary women travelers to the Middle East who are still celebrated today. They include Lady Evelyn’s great-aunt Lady Jane Digby Al-Mezrab who married a Syrian sheikh, lived in the desert and was buried in Damascus.

One might also have thought that in the climate of recent years, when ”British Muslim” has become a troubled term and the subject of much debate, there would be renewed interest in this British convert who tried through her travels and writing to increase understanding between two religions and cultures. And yet Lady Evelyn Cobbold and her book seemed to remain largely out of sight.

Now London-based Arabian Publishing has rescued the book from relative obscurity through publication of a handsome new edition which includes a lively and illuminating 80-page introduction, “From Mayfair to Makkah”, by William Facey and Miranda Taylor.

Facey is a museum consultant, writer and publisher specializing in the Arabian Peninsula. Taylor is a freelance writer (under her maiden name Miranda Haines) who first became interested in Lady Evelyn when she was editor of Geographical, the monthly magazine of the Royal Geographical Society. She discovered that Lady Evelyn was her great-great-great-aunt, and since then she has collated archives, photographs and family stories related to her.

The new edition also has detailed notes on Evelyn’s original text by Dr Ahmad S Turkistani, Professor of Islamic Orientation and Mass Media at Al-Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University, Riyadh. Dr Turkistani, who was born in the Asir region, has been director of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences at Fairfax, Virginia. He has performed the Haj numerous times and has covered it for local and international media including CNN International TV.

The book includes 30 pages of black and white photographs. There is a picture of the flat slab on the grave of Lady Evelyn, who died in 1963 aged 95, at her Scottish Highlands estate in Wester Ross. On it is inscribed an English translation of verse 35 of the Qu’ranic Surah “Light”.

Facey and Taylor give a thorough account of the life of this extraordinary aristocratic Anglo-Scottish Muslim woman, a socialite who combined a love of Islam and the Middle East with a passion for Scotland and outdoor pursuits. She was a gardener and a first-class angler, rifle shot and deerstalker; the first British woman to shoot a 14-point stag.

One section of the introduction, ‘Lady Evelyn as a British Muslim’, places her in the context of the still little-known history of Islam in Britain. She was friends with convert Marmaduke Pickthall, the gifted linguist and writer whose 1930 translation of the Qur’an, “The Meaning of the Glorious Koran”, is still highly regarded. But there was little sign that she was much aware of the public implications of her faith. This was in contrast to Pickthall, and solicitor William Henry Quilliam, known as Abdullah Quilliam, who established a mosque in Liverpool in 1889-91. The Ottoman Sultan proclaimed him Shaikh Al-Islam of the United Kingdom in 1894. Evelyn emphasized the private belief side of her religion, which Facey and Taylor see as a very European model of religious faith.

Evelyn was born in 1867 in Edinburgh to the Earl and Countess of Dunmore. Her father, Charles Adolphus Murray, was a renowned Scottish explorer. He traveled to many parts of the world, and Evelyn sometimes accompanied him. With her English mother Gertrude, she shared a spiritual reflectiveness.

Evelyn wrote in “Pilgrimage to Makkah” that she was often asked when and why she became a Muslim, but “I do not know the precise moment when the truth of Islam dawned on me. It seems that I have always been a Muslim.”

Evelyn’s affinity with the Arab world originated in her childhood. Her father often took the family to North Africa, and they had a villa in Cairo. They also spent winter months in a villa outside Algiers. “There I learned to speak Arabic and my delight was to escape my governess and visit the Mosques with my Algerian friends, and unconsciously I was a little Muslim at heart.

Evelyn married John Dupuis Cobbold in a church in Cairo in 1891, and went with him to live in the manor house of Holywells in Suffolk. In 1911 she travelled with a female companion to what she called the Libyan Desert, actually the Western Desert of Egypt. She recorded her experiences in the first of her three books, “Wayfarers in the Libyan Desert”.

The Cobbolds’ marriage ended in 1922. As part of the generous divorce settlement, her husband bought her a house in Mayfair where she entertained her friends, including a number of Arabs. Among the Saudis she met was Amir Saud Bin Abd Al-Aziz Al-Saud, and the new edition of her book includes a photograph of him on a visit to England in 1935 or 1936, standing with Hafiz Wahba.

The French couturier Molyneux had his studio at the bottom of Evelyn’s garden and she bought all her clothes from him. Even when travelling in remote parts of Algeria and Morocco, her slender figure would be clad in the fashions of the day.

When she decided to go on the pilgrimage to Makkah she consulted Hafiz Wahba and he wrote to King Abd Al-Aziz Ibn Saud about the matter, but she left England before receiving an answer and sailed from Suez to Jeddah. Her hosts there were the explorer Harry St John Philby (Hajji Abdullah Philby), who had converted to Islam in 1930, and his wife Dora. Philby also had a house in Makkah given to him by the King.

On the ship from Suez she met Sir Andrew Ryan, Britain’s Minister to Saudi Arabia. Facey and Taylor give examples of his repeated waspishness about her; they think Evelyn suffered from the suspicions of officialdom in the West towards Islam, as shown by Ryan’s attitude and by the Geographical Journal’s scathing review of her book.

Ryan alleged that Evelyn’s book was of very little value, but at least was better written than would have been anticipated. He attributed this to the collaboration of a “distinguished literary personage”. There is evidence that she collaborated with two prominent Muslims in writing her book; she told Pickthall their names but these are now lost. Evelyn waited two weeks in Jeddah before receiving permission to proceed to Makkah after the King’s son Amir Faisal Bin Abd Al-Aziz, viceroy of the Hejaz and the future monarch, vetted her together with his assistant in foreign affairs Shaikh Fuad Hamza. Evelyn met Amir Faisal at a tea party, during which his 10-year old son Abdullah “won all our hearts” with his dignity and self-possession.

After permission had been granted, Philby told his mother in a letter that he had arranged for Evelyn to stay with Arab families in Madina and Makkah. “It is obviously better for her not to stay with me at Makkah. It might be misunderstood as she certainly doesn’t look as old as she is! – rather like Gertrude Bell in figure and mannerisms, slim, active, rather snobby and full of quite entertaining chatter.” Philby provided a driver Suleiman and an escort, Mustafa Nadhir, for her travels. They journeyed first to Madina and then returned to Jeddah before leaving for Makkah.

One of the most powerful experiences for Evelyn was the Tawaf (circumbulation) around the Ka’bah in Makkah. “It would require a master pen to describe that scene, poignant in its intensity of that great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in fervor of religious enthusiasm. Many of the pilgrims had tears streaming down their cheeks; others raised their faces to the starlit sky that had witnessed this drama so often in the past centuries.”


Source: Saudi Gazette

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