Lady Zainab Cobbold
As of 2011 there were nearly three million Muslims in the UK — although the vast majority of these reside in England. Most of the Muslims who are now settled here have come to live in the UK as a result of migration. However, there are an ever growing number of white Britons converting to Islam; especially women.
The sight of Muslim women has become normal in this country, although sadly not always accepted, and has become so because of the growing communities all over the country. Not only that but with media, news and social media the world has become a vastly smaller place, where people are now able to interact and learn about people from all over the globe, from all walks of life.
In Victorian Britain, it would have been a completely different matter of course. And yet, Lady Evelyn Cobbold — who later became known as Zainab Cobbold — converted to Islam in a time when it was completely unheard of. She was born as Lady Evelyn Murray, becoming Cobbold when she married. She was born in Edinburgh in 1867. Throughout her childhood, her father took her family to North Africa every winter, spending half her upbringing in Algiers and Cairo. There she learned to speak Arabic and loved keeping company with the local children, visiting mosques with them and she was tended to by Muslim nannies.
Lady Zainab Cobbold later claimed that she had no recollection as to when she first became Muslim and felt that she had always been. In fact, she first declared herself as a Muslim when she met the Pope.
“Some years went by and I happened to be in Rome staying with some Italian friends when my host asked if I would like to visit the Pope. Of course, I was thrilled…. When His Holiness suddenly addressed me, asking if I was a Catholic, I was taken aback for a moment and then replied that I was a Moslem. What possessed me I don’t pretend to know, as I had not given a thought to Islam for many years. A match was lit and I then and there determined to read up and study the Faith.”– Zainab Cobbold
She was friends with a fellow convert to Islam, Marmaduke Pickthall (who translated the Qur’an to English), from 1915. There were also a series of letters in correspondence with friends in North Africa and Syria, who referred to her as ‘our sister in Islam’, showing that she seemed to be Muslim at this stage.
It seems that Zainab’s relationship with, and conversion to, Islam had an effect on the relationship with her family and more specifically, her marriage. She and her husband separated in 1922. Following his death in 1929; she began seriously pursuing the prospect of being able to perform Hajj.
Zainab became the first Muslim woman born in Britain to perform Hajj; not only this but she also wrote a book of her accounts and this was published — Pilgrimage to Mecca. Zainab was aged 65 when she performed Hajj in 1933.
“Today the news has come through that I am permitted to do the pilgrimage to Mecca and visit Medina. I had for so long lived in alternate fits of hope and despair, that I can scarcely credit that my great wish is at last to be fulfilled.”
Zainab also wrote a book entitled Wayfarers in the Libyan Desert, which was about her travels in Egypt with a female companion in 1911.
Zainab died 30 years after she performed Hajj and was buried in accordance with her faith, in remote and beautiful Inverness. Her gravestone reads: “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.”
The Victorian era produced more converts than we may realise. People who travelled or lived abroad; people working in the military or posted in a job in one of the countries that Britain colonised. These converts were regarded as eccentric and educated by the general population and media.
Today’s era; migration and globalisation has brought other cultures and religions to our doorstep. The number of people, especially women, converting to Islam is rising. Converts today however, tend to be regarded and branded as brainwashed.
What must it have been like to be a Muslim convert in those times… Were people curious rather than suspicious? Muslims are in the minority in this country now but in comparison it must have felt lonely in that era. Zainab experienced difficulties in her relationships with her family, as many converts do today, but without a wide Muslim community to support and welcome her.
People think conversion to Islam is something new and scary but in fact, Islam has had a relationship with this country for an age. Going back to the crusades there have been British converts — we just don’t get taught about these things.
Safiya Cherfi is a writer and book reviewer based in Scotland. She mostly writes short fiction and speculative fiction. She has written a full-length novel that was long-listed for the Laxfield Literary Launch Prize in 2021.