Britain’s First Female Pilgrim – Lady Evelyn (Zainab) Cobbold

mecca_evelyn_face_203_203x152The History of Islam in the UK has not been extensively documented so many of it has been forgotten or overlooked. One such example is of Lady Evelyn Cobbold (Zainab Cobbold) who is considered to be the first British Muslim Woman to have travelled for Hajj to the holy sites of Makkah and Madinah. She is reported to have documented her travels in her book Pilgrimage to Mecca. It is important that her contribution to Islam in the UK is not forgotten.

Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867 – 1963) was a Scottish noblewoman and convert to Islam. Born in Edinburgh in 1867, she was the eldest daughter of Charles Adolphus Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore and Lady Gertrude Coke, daughter of the Second Earl of Leicester. Her birth into British aristocracy makes her conversion and travels as a Muslim all the more extraordinary.

Lady Evelyn spent most of her childhood in a Moorish villa perched on a hill outside Algiers. She learned to speak Arabic, and her favourite pastime was to escape her governess and visit the mosques with her Algerian friends.

A few years later, while staying in Rome, she had the opportunity to visit the Pope. She recounts in the introduction of “Pilgrimage to Mecca” that “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 Muslim… A match was lit and I then and there determined to read up and study the faith. The more I read and the more I studied, the more convinced I became that Islam was the most practical religion… Since then I have never wavered in my belief that there is but one God.”

Indeed, this belief in the Oneness of God never left her. And like many Westerners, Lady Evelyn was deeply touched by Islamic spirituality, the inner side of faith. Two years before her marriage to John Cobbold in Cairo, she wrote a poem in which she evoked the fundamental principle of Tawhid (belief in one God) in a prayer, “To Him, the One. The Essence of all” and “His Presence within and around.”

Lady Evelyn Cobbold was also known as Sayyidah Zainab, her Muslim name, and wrote an honest and sincere account of her pilgrimage to Makkah. She was excited to be the first British woman on record to have made her pilgrimage, but that gave way to a deeper emotion as she prayed in the Haram (the Holy Mosque) in Makkah. Lady Evelyn was able to see and describe the way women lived in Makkah and Madinah, something no writer had ever done before her.

One often overlooks the fact that becoming a Muslim in Europe was not easy. Islam dictated a way of life whose social norms and legislations were scrutinized by secular regimes. A citizen had the right to choose his faith, but was not given the means to follow it. Converting to Islam was also socially alienating, especially for practicing Muslims whose refusal to drink Alcohol was too often seen as a rejection of the most basic expression of Western hospitality.

Lady Evelyn’s conversion to Islam did not go well with her in-laws and worsened after the death of her husband. However, she hung onto her faith until the very end. She writes, “When I look into my journal I shall live it all again. Time cannot rob me of the memories that I treasure in my heart… the countless pilgrims who passed me with shining eyes of faith, the wonder and glory of the Haram of Makkah, the great pilgrimage through the desert and the hills to Arafat and above all the abiding sense of joy and fulfillment that possesses the soul.”

Lady Evelyn spent the last twenty years of her life quasi-secluded on her estate at Glencarron, and then in a nursing home in Inverness. Yet it is obvious that, despite the fact she had lost touch with other Muslims, she must have insisted on many occasions that her written instructions for her Muslim funeral be followed.

The Imam of the Woking Mosque was dispatched to Glencarron, in Scotland, to perform the funeral prayer on Monday Jan. 28, 1963. When he arrived, he discovered Lady Evelyn’s wishes. She had clearly instructed that a specific verse from the Surah Al Nur (Light), “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth,” be inscribed on a flat slab and placed on her grave.

 

 

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