Faith in Action

The basis of what follows is the introduction I gave at the MFest event for The Unknown Fallen on Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1.

I was told to ‘speak from the heart’, so I did, feeling a need to clear the air on a few matters.

Firstly, I recently watched an interview conducted by Yusuf Chambers and have to correct one point. He said it was the work of Allah who had brought us all together on this project. I disagree, it was God who guided me, but thankfully, God, Allah, Jehovah, Nkosi, Mungu are all names for the same being. Behind the differences, are many similarities – we need to scratch for them.

Secondly, this seems the perfect opportunity to say thank you to my students who helped me see the world differently. Time has erased many of their names from memory and due to data protection, I can’t refer back to notes I would have kept to remind me – I don’t envy the historians of the future. Significantly, back in November 2000, I was asked by two relocated Muslim brothers from the old City of Jerusalem what all the fighting was about. ‘We are all brothers and sisters’, they said, ‘all children of Abraham’. My world opened and I was to learn that Apartheid which I’d lived through and seen the end of was not just about colour. It extended to religion too and was really about economics and self preservation of specific groups. People who were not white or black, were likely to be Muslim or Hindu and they lived, as blacks and whites did, in separate spaces so we couldn’t mix although in my home town there was a Muslim Indian family who owned prime property in the city centre and who by decree of Boer Paul Kruger could not be moved even at the height of Apartheid – and they’re still there today. Lesson: don’t take things at face value.

Thirdly, I need to confess that had I come to The Unknown Fallen cold post-publication, it’s unlikely I would have bought the book. Why? It’s only on allied involvement, therefore biased. Islam is contentious within its own communities and more widely. Why, for example, am I told that the Aga Khan whom I understand, from the documents I’ve used, to be the Islamic leader in East Africa isn’t Muslim? And given the divide between north and sub-Sahara Africa, the latter would be ignored and left out, as it often has been in general overviews of the war published before 2014.

At a conference in June 2017, Luc, Vera and I met. The conference organised by Diversity House aimed to Break the Myths around World War 1 in Africa and as a result of my challenging a statement made about Britain being racist by not giving black porters shoes at the start of the war, I was invited to speak at an earlier event and invited back to this one. About three months later, Luc got in touch – I hadn’t put him off by my ranting about Africa being ignored in remembrance events in Britain and how Africa will remember its involvement if Britain gives due regard to the sacrifices its Empire made. For Africa, World War 1 was just another war in a string of many, this one differed in length and that now black men were instructed to shoot and kill white men.

Luc wanted information on Muslim involvement in sub-Sahara Africa during World War 1. Thankfully I’d been working on the topic for a journal article. The challenge was I couldn’t use the same material for copyright reasons and as I didn’t know when the article was being published, couldn’t cross-reference it. As it turned out, the article wasn’t published as I refused to discuss how the campaign in East Africa had influenced the development of Islam and I had stated that the German Governor had declared a jihad. This was not possible, I was told, as he had no authority. I couldn’t argue – Islam is not my specialism; World War 1 Africa based on documentary evidence is.

But isn’t life amazing? The day I met with Luc and Vera to discuss my contribution, researching at the British Library I came upon a telegram from the Muslim League of Southern Africa to the Governor General Lord Buxton. It expressed sympathy on the loss of his only son and gave reassurance that the Muslim community was fully behind the British war effort. There was the new information I required which could be built on.  But that was not enough.

Over the years, I have learnt to check assumptions and to do so carefully. For this I have my phd supervisors to thank. I challenged the view of Lord Kitchener which they would only accept with documentary evidence, which I found. What a pity he hadn’t been allowed to return to Egypt at the start of the war, although I also believe he was the best man to head Britain’s war effort but that’s all for another day. Lesson: Dig down, till you find the truth.

So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the Cape Corps, comprising Cape Coloureds, were not Muslim. How did I get to that assumption? Dr Abdurahman of the African People’s Organisation had written something like 32 letters offering to raise a contingent of 500 Cape Corps for service in the war, and he was Muslim. Documentary evidence though pointed out that the Cape Corps was Christian – important for dietary provisioning. So, I learned only last year (2017) of the difference between the Cape Coloured and the Cape Malay – people of my own country. I now wonder how many Muslims renounced their faith in name to serve in the two Cape Corps. There’s no mention in the white officers’ memoirs of the two corps of any religious differences, or of religion being mentioned at all that I’m aware of.

In fact, the absence of any mention of religion in most memoirs suggests it was not an issue – remarkable when you know that the majority of Indian, Arab and black troops were likely to be Muslim based on where they were recruited from – tribes or micronations along the African coast and slave routes. We know there were Christians, Hindus,  Sikhs, men of Jewish faith and ‘pagan’ as they were referred to then, all serving together with Muslims – all suffering together from ration shortages and surviving on what got through and was scavenged. Yet, no one mentions religious requirements, and neither do they feature in the ration allocations recorded in the Pike report into medical conditions. In fact ration quotas are based on function and ethnicity, not religious.

Men served together, loyal to their commanding officer, the one who would ensure their safety and security, not ideals of right and wrong and this is why the jihad declared by the German Governor failed. Neither did his instructions to fly the crescent moon above the German bomas or forts attract British soldiers away from their fight. They had all confidence in their leaders. As a result, I had no issue writing about Muslim involvement on both sides of the war and had to have Luc explain the impact of doing so on the overall project. Entering the realms of politics would be messy – this together with the comments received on my article reconciled me to The Unknown Fallen being about the Allied involvement. We cannot run before we can walk and within one camp, that of the Allies, there is much to discover about the diversity of contribution and the humanity of man – that is mankind.

The book appears unbalanced. In all, there are at least 4 sections on Africa, three contributed by myself and I’m conscious I’ve not said anything today about West Africa – it’s in the book. Luc was addressing knowledge gaps, looking at what would entice people to become engaged. And it’s worked as I’ve subsequently been hearing from non-Muslim people I’ve introduced to the book.

We argued over the images which are meant to be ‘unique’ – I instantly recognised Juma, but none of Luc’s invisible (to me) experts had – everything was double and triple checked to ensure appropriateness of language and content. I’ve said on numerous occasions, this is the most thoroughly reviewed and rigorously checked book I know.

Now, looking at the book, it’s good to see Juma’s familiar face, those of the South African Native Labour Corps and the West African Frontier Force. It feels like home in some ways. But I’m constantly awed by the image of the Christian service taking place at the same time as Muslim prayers, the vast sky over Verdun and the regalness of some of the portraits.

Isn’t it sad though, that I felt I had to ask Luc to include a disclaimer that the original author was describing people as he saw them – with an artist’s eye – in admiration. I think he,  the artist, would be horrified to learn that what he’d written was seen as hurtful and derogatory by some today. We can’t apply today’s criteria to assessing the past. We need to understand the past as those who were there lived it and interpreted it – warts and all. Only in this way will we truly understand the sacrifices all made in their attempt to make our world slightly better.

It’s time to get rid of all this ‘colonial’ and ‘decolonising’ speak, recognising that the world view of Africans is different to that of Europeans and that within each group there are other differences. It undermines honest discussion of the war and its legacy. And I believe we have a lot to learn from Africa in this regard. There were no nationalist agendas impacting on the war in East Africa. Nationalist ideas came later evident in the Rwanda genocide,  Nigeria’s Biafran war, Idi Amin’s policies in Uganda and the current strife in Sudan amongst others. We can’t recreate the World War 1 context and in many ways I don’t think we want to, but I do believe we can learn a lot from how people worked together because of a common understanding and faith which was not nationalist or religious based, a situation where mankind realised the value of others because of who they were as individuals.*

I’m constantly reminded of this in my research and it’s what makes The Unknown Fallen a special book. It’s been, and remains, an honour. And I’m the proud owner of a copy of The Unknown Fallen – ask anyone who’s had to be subjected to me showing the book off.

Baraka Allahu fika (May God’s blessings be upon you). Shukran.

Reflecting on the talk, slightly changed above, and the huge interest the French instruction on Muslim burial received, I started thinking about the burials in Africa – I don’t know how many CWGC headstones there are representing the different religions, although we know there are cenotaphs for the Indian soldiers and Askari Monuments for the Carriers, Porters and local soldiers some of whom might have a headstone (if they were known to be of one of the major religions). So I did a simple search on the CWGC website and discovered the following ‘war dead records’ in WW1:

Christian  – 407 (19 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Muslim – 7 (15 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Jewish – 0 (90 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Sikh – 2 (1 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Further investigation proves that all relate to first or family names… It’s obviously going to take some more digging to identify the religious breakdowns as depicted on the headstones than a simple search. If anyone gets there before me, please share your findings.

* I don’t usually listen to recordings but this one by Ben Okri caught my eye and supports exactly what I feel about ‘colonising’ and ‘decolonising’. A legace of the British Empire is the British Commonwealth of Nations – something else Okri addresses and appropriate to be included here.

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