a brief biography
‘Action is the Life of all and if thou dost not Act, thou dost Nothing.’ (Gerrard Winstanley) Before we consider the life-story of the British Muslim and Koranic translator, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, it is as well to recall that aspect of the practice of every believer without which there are only ashes: holiness of life. In the case of Pickthall, this was a luminous, steadily progressing reality which impressed all who came into contact with him. Even his unbelieving first biographer, Anne Fremantle, opined that ‘had he changed from evangelical or even from high church Anglicanism to the Roman faith, doubtless the machinery of sanctification would have by now been set to work.’ He was a man of discreet charity, the extent of whose generosity was only discovered after his death. He turned down lucrative and prestigious speaking tours and the pleasures of travel in favour of his last and, in his eyes, greatest project, acting as headmaster to Muslim boys in Hyderabad. He witnessed the dismemberment of his beloved Ottoman Caliphate while rejecting bitterness and calls for violent revenge, convinced that Allah’s verdict was just, and that in the circumstances of the age, Islam’s victory would come through changing an unjust world from within. Above all, he was a man who constantly kept Allah and His providence in mind. Pickthall’s humility did not prevent him from taking a rightful pride in his ancestry, which he could trace back to a knight of William the Conqueror’s day, Sir Roger de Poictu, from whom his odd surname derives. The family, long settled in Cumberland, came south in Dutch William’s time, and Pickthall’s father Charles, an Anglican parson, was appointed to a living near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Charles’ wife, whom he married late in life, was Mary O’Brien, who despite her Irish name was a staunchly nonconformist daughter of Admiral Donat Henry O’Brien, a hero of the same Napoleonic war which brought Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam’s grandfather fame as master of Victory at Trafalgar. O’Brien, immortalised by Marryat in Masterman Ready, passed on some of his heroic impulses to his grandson Marmaduke, who throughout his life championed a rather Shavian ideal of the saint as warrior. It may be no coincidence that Pickthall, Quilliam and, before them, Lord Byron, who all found their vocation as rebellious lovers of the East, were the grandsons of naval heroes. Marmaduke was born in 1875, and when his father died five years later the family sold the Suffolk rectory and moved to the capital. For the little boy the trauma of the exodus from a country idyll to a cold and cheerless house in London was a deep blow to the soul, and his later delight in the freedom of traditional life in the Middle East may have owed much to that early formative transition. The claustrophobia was only made worse when he entered Harrow, whose arcane rituals and fagging system he was later to send up in his novelSir Limpidus. Friends were his only consolation: perhaps his closest was Winston Churchill. Once the sloth and bullying of Harrow were behind him he was able to indulge a growing range of youthful passions. In the Jura he acquired his lifelong love of mountaineering, and in Wales and Ireland he learned Welsh and Gaelic. So remarkable a gift for languages impelled his teachers to put him forward for a Foreign Office vacancy; yet he failed the exam. On the rebound, as it were, he proposed to Muriel Smith, the girl who was to become his wife. She accepted, only to lose her betrothed for several years in one of the sudden picaresque changes of direction which were to mark his later life. Hoping to learn enough Arabic to earn him a consular job in Palestine, and with introductions in Jerusalem, Pickthall had sailed for Port Said. He was not yet eighteen years old. The Orient came as a revelation. Later in life he wrote: ‘When I read The Arabian Nights I see the daily life of Damascus, Jerusalem, Aleppo,...
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