From Mayfair to Mecca: Lady Evelyn Cobbold, British Muslim
by William Facey
Aristocrat, Mayfair socialite, owner of an estate in the Scottish highlands, accomplished deerstalker and angler, mother and gardener, Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867–1963) was probably unique in being also a Muslim and an Arabic–speaker. In 1933, at the age of 65, this highly unusual Anglo-Scottish aristocrat became the first British–born Muslim woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Yet the story of her life and her contribution to the literature of the Hajj have been inexplicably overlooked until now. Nor has she been studied from the point of view of what her life has to say about Islam among the British.
Lady Evelyn Murray was born in Edinburgh in 1867, the eldest child of the famous traveller, Charles Adolphus Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore. Permanently hard up, Lord Dunmore found it both cheap and congenial to cart his family off to North Africa every winter. This was how, by Evelyn’s own account, Islam was imbued in her – by a childhood during which she became, as she puts it, “unconsciously a little Moslem at heart” – and why she liked to claim that she had been a Muslim all her life. Here she was steeped in the culture and language of everyday life in the Arab Muslim world, and came to feel completely at home there.
At 24 Evelyn was married, in Cairo, to John Dupuis Cobbold, of the wealthy Suffolk brewing family. Three children followed between 1893 and 1900, but it is fairly clear that she found it hard to settle back in Suffolk. Still travelling in North Africa, by 1911 it becomes increasingly evident that she regarded herself as a Muslim. In 1922, she and her husband separated, and the Cobbolds arranged a generous financial settlement, including the highland deer forest of Glencarron, which made her a very wealthy woman in her own right. Much of the 1920s was occupied by the field sports at which she excelled, and she became the first woman to down a 14–point stag.
In 1929 her husband John Cobbold died, and it was from this point that she began seriously to contemplate performing the pilgrimage. By 1933 she was ready, arriving in Jiddah, where she was put up by the Philbys, who introduced her to the Amir Faisal and the US oil negotiators then present there. While awaiting official permission from the King for her to perform the Hajj, Philby arranged for Evelyn to travel by car to Madinah, fixing up her accommodation with a local family. Once permission arrived she would be allowed, as a travelling grandee, to go to Makkah also by car, Philby once again providing guide and driver.
Her book, Pilgrimage to Mecca (London: John Murray, 1934), gives a fascinating and sympathetic account of her Arabian journey. As much a record of an interior experience of faith as a conventional travelogue, it is remarkable for its sympathy and vividness. As a lone female Muslim, she was able to do something no traveller before her had done: to describe the female side of domestic life in Makkah and Madinah. This, and its author’s religious commitment, set her account apart from every previous English description of the Hijaz.
What sort of a Muslim was Lady Evelyn? Though she would certainly have claimed to be Sunni it is difficult to pin her down more precisely. Though clearly firm in her faith, there is no record of her performing the five daily prayers, or of giving alms to the poor and needy, during her normal life at home, though there is anecdotal evidence of her fasting during Ramadan. No doubt she had uttered the shahadah, or declaration of faith, on various occasions; otherwise, going on the Hajj seems to have been the sole other Pillar of Islam that she subscribed to.
There is a long history of British converts to Islam before her time, going back at least to the Crusades, and peaking during the 17th century when many Britons were enslaved, either to man the fleets of the Barbary corsairs, or otherwise to be absorbed into North African society. But Lady Evelyn belongs in a later category – that of educated converts in Britain itself in the late 19th century. She was contemporary with various other eminent Muslims of this type – Abdullah Quilliam, Lord Headley, Lord Hothfield, and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall himself, to name but a few.
The Western attitude to faith as a matter of private choice and practice, which works very well for Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and other religions, is perhaps not so easy for Muslims to adopt. For many, to be a Muslim is a matter of more than mere private religious conviction, to be kept behind closed doors. While historical and social experiences of the religion obviously vary, Islam is often perceived – not only by outsiders but by also by many of its adherents – to entail a commitment to a certain type of state and society, certain types of public institution especially where the law and education are concerned, and prescriptions for family life and daily public behaviour. Public space, as well as the private sphere, is considered to be its legitimate domain, and Muslims regard their religion as providing not just a personal faith but a complete social system intimately tied up with a specific worldview and norms of identity.
In contrast to this view of Islam, there is little sign that Lady Evelyn was much aware of these public implications of her faith. In regarding Islam solely as a matter of private conviction and in subscribing to it entirely on her own terms, she followed a very European model of religious belief. In this, she has to be placed in the context of her time. She lived in an age in which many members of the intelligentsia and society’s upper echelons sought enlightenment among various non-Christian systems of belief on offer.
Lady Evelyn lived on for another thirty years. She died in January 1963, one of the coldest months of the century in Britain, and was buried, as she stipulated, on a remote hillside on her Glencarron estate. Her splendidly Islamo-Caledonian interment symbolized her two worlds: a piper, so frozen that he was scarcely able to walk let alone perform, played MacCrimmon’s lament, and the Surah “Light” from the Qur’an was recited in Arabic by the equally refrigerated Imam of the Woking Mosque. A verse from the same Surah adorns the flat slab over her grave.