Rainswept and bleak, Gleann Fhiodhaig in the northwest Scottish Highlands couldn’t be more different from Jabal Ar-Rahmah, which shimmers in the baking heat and desert climes on the outskirts of Makkah, known to millions of Muslim pilgrims around the world as Mount Arafat. Despite the thousands of miles that sets them apart, there is an indelible link between the two, thanks to an unlikely Victorian explorer and convert to Islam.
Lady Evelyn Cobbold, a descendant of William the Conqueror, was a feisty adventurer, writer and pilgrim known to her Muslim friends as Zainab. She was also the first British female convert to perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah; not an easy task for a 66-year-old in 1933, even for someone from such a privileged background as hers.
Born in 1867, her faith surfaced and was affirmed in Rome when she and a group of influential friends had an audience with the Pope. To the astonishment of those around her, when he asked if she was a Catholic, Cobbold’s response was quite unexpected.
“When His Holiness suddenly addressed me by asking if I was a Catholic I was taken aback for a moment then replied that I was a Muslim,” she wrote years later in her book Pilgrimage to Mecca. “What possessed me I don’t pretend to know as I had not given a thought to Islam for many years.” It turned out to be a triggering moment for her, so much so that she decided to prepare to go to Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage.
Inspired by her story, a group of British converts to Islam embarked recently on their own small pilgrimage to the hillside grave at the meeting of two mountains, north of An Sidhean and east of Càrm Gorm, where Zainab’s mortal remains lie. In her declining years, she planned her final resting place down to the last detail, including a favourite Qur’anic inscription on the gravestone. It was her wish that she would be buried according to the rites of Islam. When she died in 1963, her wishes were duly carried out on her favourite piece of land where she had earned a reputation as a formidable stag hunter and deer stalker. It was, therefore, quite fitting that as our disparate band of converts reached the site of her grave a magnificent stag emerged from a blind dip and peered down at us before turning away and disappearing.
While performing Hajj is one of the basic pillars of Islam which endeavours to reward followers with the spiritual journey of a lifetime, the trek to the remote valley on Lady Cobbold’s Glencarron estate also provided those of us who embarked on the odyssey with some precious introspection and sense of wonderment.
Like the Hajj, it was a physically demanding journey. In Scotland, every step of the 20-kilometre hike was a challenge, with ever-changing weather conditions, including hail, rain, snow, cold wind and sunshine; it proved to be exceptionally tough going for some of us. However, the rewards at journey’s end were uplifting.
Sadly, very few Muslims make their way up the hillside to say their salaams and pay respects to the memory of this remarkable woman. Irish convert Batool Al-Toma, founder of the Convert Muslim Foundation, a British charity that provides support networks for people new to Islam, believes that little is known about Zainab Cobbold because her achievements were dismissed in the macho and competitive world of predominantly male travellers and explorers which existed at the time.
Al-Toma has resolved to change that and make more people, especially converts to Islam, aware of Zainab and her legacy. She organised the small caravan of cars to Gleann Fhiodhaig. “We can learn a lot from her and the way she challenged narratives that presented Islam as dry and prescriptive,” explained Al-Toma. “She saw it as a beautiful, loving, peaceful faith full of life and inspiration.”
As Zainab set off on her astonishing journey to Islam’s holiest site, she took notes and eventually published the remarkable story of her journey via Europe, Sudan, Egypt and Jeddah. Just like today’s pilgrims, she had to give proof of vaccinations; hers had expired and so she was given boosters, one in each arm for smallpox and cholera before she was allowed to sail from Sudan to Jeddah.
While today’s would-be Hajjis are required to apply online for a visa, back in 1933 the first ruler of the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, had forbidden European Muslims from performing hajj until they had spent at least a year “on probation” living in Jeddah. Zainab’s only way of performing the Hajj was to get special permission from the king himself.
“Unfortunately, more than once a European has entered Mecca, professing himself a Moslem, only when writing up his experiences to enhance his reputation by allowing the world to think he was performing the pilgrimage at the risk of his life,” she wrote at the time, “and the Arabs naturally resent this abuse of their hospitality.”
Zainab thus spent most of March 1933 watching the procession of Hajjis grow from a trickle to a deluge as they passed Beit El-Baghdadi, the house in Jeddah where she was hosted. Once the king’s permission came through, though, she cashed a cheque with a friend for 200 gold sovereigns engraved with King George’s head — Saudi Arabia did not accept currency other than gold, and the silver coin known as the Maria Theresa dollar — and went on her way.
She headed for Madinah, 250 miles away, in a hire car. Joining her was a local driver and another who doubled as her equerry and courier. They were also accompanied by a Sudanese cook. Although she travelled in style her observational skills documented the mode of travel of some Hajjis who were not as privileged.
She saw strings of camels carrying tented structures called Shubreyahs containing up to three passengers resting on cushions and rugs. “Besides the pilgrims on camels, we met many on foot, toiling slowly through the scorching desert with water jugs in their hands, clad in their Ihram (or two towels) and, as they were bareheaded, many carried umbrellas,” she wrote. Her journey took 15 hours by car, but it would take ten days by camel and three weeks on foot. “Also we occasionally met an omnibus carrying intending pilgrims and luggage tightly packed, cooking utensils and water jugs tied on anywhere and the noise and clatter must have been most trying as they bumped over the rough ground.”
After reading her book before setting out in search of Zainab’s grave, the three hours that our little band of pilgrims took from our starting point to Gleann Fhiodhaig certainly felt less daunting. However, with the exception of our mountain guide, a kilted Ismail Hewitt, few of us were experienced walkers. When we finally did reach our destination, we said our personal salaams to Zainab before convert Sidi Amin Buxton from Edinburgh gathered us all together in prayer. It was a wonderful moment and the hardship and exhaustion encountered on our uphill trek seemed momentarily to slip away.
Moreover, the sun slipped out from black clouds shedding its warmth on all of us. This certainly did not happen at Zainab’s funeral on what was recorded as one of the coldest of January days during one of the bleakest winters in Scotland. According to one report available on the recently opened Inverness Mosque website, “Britain was in the grip of a vicious winter. A lone piper, shaking from cold, played ‘MacCrimmon’s Lament’ while an imam, who had travelled from London to perform the burial rites, stood firm against the biting Scottish chill as he recited verses from the Holy Qur’an. It was an extraordinary moment for one of the most remarkable women of 20th century Britain.”
One of the converts who joined us on the Highland trek was Khalil Martin from Woking Mosque. His presence was particularly poignant because Zainab’s burial was carried out by an Imam from Woking Mosque called Shaikh Muhammad Tufail. There is a wonderful account on the mosque website of the exchange of views, advice and organisation that went on behind the scenes for the burial on 31 January, 1963. Zainab had visited Woking many years earlier after taking an interest in what was Britain’s first purpose-built mosque, built in 1889 thirty miles (50 km) south-west of London.
“Zainab Cobbold was an inspirational figure and her own writings have stood the test of time,” said Batool Al-Toma. “She converted to Islam during very challenging times and when she went public she announced it to the Pope, of all people. Zainab is part of our history and heritage as converts to Islam.”
Among the hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims who will be performing Hajj in the coming days, there will doubtless be a special welcome for converts from around the world who, wide-eyed and wonderstruck, will be taking part in the greatest show on Earth. Those of us who are blessed to have made that special journey will agree wholeheartedly with Zainab’s final thoughts on her Hajj.
“Time cannot rob me of the memories that I treasure in my heart, the gardens of Medina, the peace of its Mosques, the countless pilgrims who passed me with shining eyes of faith, the wonder and glory of the Haram of Mecca, the Great Pilgrimage through the desert and the hills to Arafat, and above all the abiding sense of joy and fulfilment that possesses the soul. What have the past few days held out but endless interest, wonder, and beauty? To me, an amazing new world has been revealed.”
To everyone who is following in Zainab’s footsteps today, Hajj Mubarak to you all. If any of you are actually reading this in the Holy Cities, please remember me in your prayers and spare a thought and prayer too for Lady Zainab Cobbold, an inspiration to us all. May the Almighty Allah accept your pilgrimage, and make all your wishes come true. Ameen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.