When I joined International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) in 2010, one of the courses I was assigned to teach was what is now renamed “Islamic Literature in English.” Although I had studied Islam and read the Qur’an in its original language, I had never taught an organized course of study on Islamic literature before. Therefore, I needed to prepare thoroughly before mustering enough confidence to run the course.
In order to get a better grip on the subject, I started collecting and reading books and other materials on the subject. IIUM Library was of immense help in tracking down and acquiring resources.
One of the books I borrowed from the library was James Kritzeck’s Anthology of Islamic Literature (in two volumes ). Among the authors featured in this book is Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936). I turned to Kritzeck’s chapter on the British writer and came across these lines:
Today Marmaduke Pickthall is perhaps best known as a translator of the Koran, a British convert to Islam who produced the nearest thing to an “authorized” English version of its sacred book. But he once enjoyed widespread and deserved acclaim as a novelist, and was ranked among the best of his contemporaries in this art.
As Kritzeck has pointed out, like many others, I knew Pickthall only as a British Muslim convert and an English translator of the Qur’an, not as a novelist or a travel writer. Hence, Kritzeck’s information about Pickthall’s literary career came as a total revelation to me. It led me to read many other works on the British novelist, and I contemplated writing an essay on him.
What eventually brought me to produce this essay is Anastasia Valassopoulos’s interview with Claire Chambers which was published in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing in 2018. In Valassopoulos’s “Britain Through Muslim Eyes: An interview with Claire Chambers,” Chambers makes the following observation about the reception of Pickthall’s works:
People tend to remember him for his translation, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an (Pickthall  2004). Most don’t realize that he wrote about 30 novels. He was as well known in the early 20th century as H.G. Wells and E.M. Forster, and those authors thought he was great.
On a personal note, I majored in English literature at the University of Dhaka, completed a PhD in English and comparative literature at the University of Portsmouth and taught the subject for many years. However, before my encounter with Kritzeck’s book, I had never learned that Pickthall was a literary artist of the first order.
Pickthall was one of the writers E.M. Forster read “during the gestation of his” A Passage to India (1924) to gain a greater understanding of issues related to the representation of the Other. Sources Forster used in writing his Alexandria: A History and Guide (1922) included Pickthall’s Said the Fisherman (1903) and The Children of the Nile (1908). One of Forster’s remarks about Pickthall reads: “He does not sentimentalize about the East, he is a part of it, and only incidentally does his passionate love shine out.”
Pickthall lived in British India from 1920 to 1935. After the publication of A Passage to India, Forster sent a copy to Pickthall for it to be reviewed in the latter’s Bombay Chronicle. In a letter of 18 July 1924, Pickthall wrote to Forster:
How very kind of you to send me your Passage to India. I have read it with a strong desire to understand what it is that so depresses all my fellow countrymen here, except of course the purely animal among them. I cannot say that I have fathomed it exactly, but your book has given me ideas which I shall try to express when I review it in the Bombay Chronicle.
Pickthall was born into a middle-class English family. He attended Harrow School, the alma mater of a number of Prime Ministers (including Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru), literary luminaries and many other notable figures. At an early age, he traveled most of the countries and important cities in the Levant, which he later described in his travelogues.
Through his association with the influential literary and political magazine The New Age from 1912 to 1920, Pickthall played a leading role in the literary world of early twentieth-century London. In the weekly (that focused on “Politics, Arts, and Letters”), his name was featured prominently alongside other regular contributors, including George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), H.G. Wells (1866-1946), Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), T.E. Hulme (1883-1917), Ezra Pound (1885-1972), Edwin Muir (1887-1959) and Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923).
Pickthall published his first novel All Fools in 1900 and continued to produce many more until he left for India in 1920. He even published more than one novel in certain years. During Pickthall’s years in India, among other activities, he edited the Bombay Chronicle and Islamic Culture: The Hyderabad Quarterly Review, delivered Madras Lectures on Islam that comprised eight lectures – now contained in The Cultural Side of Islam – and completed his translation of the Qur’an.
Given his impressive literary achievements, I wondered what could be the reason behind Pickthall’s near deletion from the history of English literature.
Recently, I came across Saudi scholar of English literature Ebtisam A. Sadiq’s book titled Marmaduke Pickthall Reinstated: What Canon? (2016). In his review of the book, Peter Clark (author of Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim ) said that Pickthall’s “reputation was for many years in eclipse … [and his] embracing Islam and being a dissident in the First World Wars had not helped that reputation.”
Clark appears to identify two reasons that prevented Pickthall from being part of the literary canon. One is his embracement of Islam in 1917 and the other is his conscientious objection to military service during WWI. He refused to serve the British against the Turks in the war, for which his politician friend Aubrey Herbert (1880-1923) regarded him as “England’s most loyal enemy.” However, Pickthall himself maintained that he was “pro-Turk, but not anti-British.”
Pickthall’s criticisms of British policy vis-à-vis Turkey through a series of articles in The New Age and his refusal to fight Muslims during WWI can be considered a lesser defiance of national authority if compared to the American writer Ezra Pound’s support for and collaboration with Italy during WWII. From Italy, Pound launched letter writing and radio broadcast campaigns against the USA. His opposition to US President Franklin Roosevelt and his support for Italy’s fascist dictator Mussolini was so effusive that he “had found in Mussolini an Augustus for whom he could be a Virgil.”
Pound was indicted on charges of treason, especially for his pro-Axis and anti-American wartime speeches on Radio Rome. As he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial, on 14 December 1945 he was confined in a mental hospital in Washington, DC. He was released on 18 April 1958 “on the condition that he leave the United States.”
Ezra Pound’s political dissidence did not deny him recognition as a literary figure. In fact, the more than a decade-long period of incarceration earned him the “greatest fame and influence,” especially in the western literary and artistic tradition.
It may be suggested that Marmaduke Pickthall’s political stance during WWI would not have ruined his literary reputation had the added factor of conversion to Islam not been present. Various anthologies have included selections from Pound’s poetry. We do not know when and if at all Pickthall would be immune to the politics of canon formation and be included in literary anthologies as a novelist and a travel writer.
Pickthall’s absence from the canon and curriculum has deprived students and academics alike. The long overdue inclusion of his works in both will enrich English literature studies, delight the lovers of travel literature and “remedy a long period of neglect”.
Md. Mahmudul Hasan competed an English Literature PhD at Portsmouth in 2007. He is currently with the Department of English Language and Literature at International Islamic University Malaysia.