The Question of Identity:
In all the current chaos of current identity crises, the speeches of Nigel Farage’s ‘britishness’, Trumps anti-Muslim antics and so on, the British Muslim identity is left in the spotlight. Pounded by politicians, journalists and mass media who all ask the question: what does it mean to be British, and what is a ‘British Muslim’? In such times, it is worth considering how the early converts to Islam made sense of their identity as British Muslims. It is here we meet Lord Henry Stanley of Alderley-the first British Muslim man to be a member of the British Establishment during the nineteenth century.
So what did it mean to be a Muslim? One historian explains that the aim for early converts was not to make Islam a homegrown religion, but instead, to meaningfully create connections between Islam and British norms. In fact, during the late Victorian, Edwardian and interwar eras, all kinds of Muslims attempted to build bridges between Islam and Christianity. Essentially, being a Muslim was simply to be a better Christian: Jesus was known as a prophet of God, a sender of God’s message, and Prophet Muhammed was also understood as a deliverer of the divine message.
The First Step Up the Ladder:
In terms of his upbringing, Lord Henry was on the more privileged side of things. He was brought up on his family’s large estate of Alderley Park in Cheshire. His father (Baron Edward Stanley) was an influential and wealthy English politician, so it wasn’t surprising that young Henry received a thorough education during his early years.
When many of us were most likely playing video games before our teen years, Henry became interested in the East. He grew a desire to learn the Arabic language and a zeal to explore the Orient. By the age of nineteen, he joined Trinity College in Cambridge to study Arabic and then, a year later, he moved to the Foreign Office where he worked under the Foreign Secretary. How’s that for post-graduate employment?
A Time of Confusion:
During this period, Britain and other European countries were concerned with the ‘Eastern Question’: how to deal with the Ottoman Empire and the growing demand for independence in parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. Although Henry was an excellent aide to the Foreign Secretary and admired his foreign policy, his time there was not the most joyful.
Henry had grown up in an age when Biblical literalism and Protestantism was seriously challenged by new scientific discoveries. Many of these discoveries directly contradicted Biblical accounts of the origin of creation and human life. This was also coupled with a growing philosophical uncertainty that was brought in by the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So, while Henry was in Office, he began to experience deep spiritual and philosophical identity crises, which led him to question parts of Christian theology and their implications, resulting in his eventual withdrawal from the church.
A Career Abroad:
Henry was a product of his age. Impressively, Henry was able to go beyond this: he pushed through the linguistic, cultural and geographical boundaries of his age due to his burning desire to study the Orient and gain first-hand knowledge of the ‘Other’ (the Eastern subjects and its people).
Knowing their son well enough to see that Henry was not satisfied with his role and was uncertain in his religion, Henry’s parents persuaded him to leave behind the life of a politician and pursue a junior post at the British Embassy in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1850. Here began Henry’s journey.
A Change in Direction:
At the tender age of 23, Henry found himself in the heart of the Ottoman Empire! For the first time, he would come into direct contact with Muslim culture and the Islamic way of life. His time in Istanbul reinforced his profound respect for Oriental culture and whilst he was there, he also observed international politics and policy-making being played out by European powers for their own needs, to the detriment of the Turks. This was a clear sign for Henry who soon after decided that international politics and diplomacy wasn’t his kind of thing after all.
Despite his doubts and reservations about aspects of British foreign policy, Henry continued to serve his country loyally. Although Henry had befriended several Muslims during his time in the Foreign Office in London, his exposure to a cosmopolitan Muslim city like Istanbul confirmed his desire to explore Islam further.
To add on to his already impressive CV, by 1852 Henry had become an accomplished linguist. He had learnt several European languages, in addition to Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Chinese. His achievements stood out from others since the Victorians were not known for their linguistic skills. Senior officials in the British diplomatic service appreciated his knack for Oriental languages.
A Muslim At Heart:
Henry continued closely studying Islam and reflected on his practices as well of those of the Muslims, consequently becoming very fond of the religion. So much so, that he even started wearing the Ottoman attire, much to his father’s dismay. As the political situations pressed harder on the Ottomans from the British policy front, Henry decided to explore the Muslim world through travel, going from Egypt to Jeddah, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Sure enough, the travelling influenced his beliefs. Unbeknown to his family back home in the UK, Henry had embraced Islam and thanks to his Eastern attire he was now a Muslim both in spirit and form.
The exact date as to when he became a Muslim isn’t on record, unlike many other Western Muslims, Henry didn’t leave behind any formal documentation of the journey to his faith. The exact date, time, place or circumstances are unknown to us. But like most of the early converts, Henry became a Muslim after many years of study, reflection and travel in the Middle East and Asia.
Baron to Be:
After spending almost a decade travelling in Europe and the Ottoman Empire, Henry prepared to return to the East once more, but destiny had planned otherwise. Sadly, his father died in June 1869 at the young age of around 42. Henry subsequently inherited the title of Third Baron Stanley of Alderley and Second Baron of Eddisbury. He therefore returned immediately to England to settle there permanently with his wife.
So, Henry Stanley took up the position as the first Muslim member of the House of Lords and spent the rest of his life managing the family estates in Cheshire and Anglesey whilst, at the same time, serving in his capacity as a peer of the realm.
A good leader:
Upon leadership, Henry closed all the public houses on his estates because the consumption of Alcohol was forbidden in Islam, but was more than happy to restore several Churches. Apart from being a devoted Muslim, he had a soft spot for all good cases and did not hesitate to support them.
He never lost the opportunity defend the rights of the African people, of all faiths.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he chose not to be outspoken about his faith, to avoid igniting bad feelings within his extended family because of his favour to Islam. After a lifetime dedicated to searching for knowledge, Lord Henry Stanley of Alderley passed away in Ramadan around the age of 75.
He was, in many ways, a model British Muslim.
Find out more by reading “Great Muslims of the West”, by Muhammad Mojlum Khan.