Lady Evelyn Cobbold cuts a unique figure in the annals of the Hajj, as the first British woman revert to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and to visit Madinah. Born in 1867 Lady Evelyn was a Scottish noblewoman who reverted to Islam. She was reputedly the first western woman to enter Makkah. Lady Evelyn, aka Zaynub Cobbard, had to seek special permission to perform the Ḥajj, announcing her intention to Saudi Arabia’s minister in London, Hafiz Wahba, who in turn wrote to King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in Riyadh, requesting formal permission. Deciding to perform the pilgrimage at the age of 66, she stayed with the Philbys in Jeddah while awaiting permission to go to Makkah, and received visits from various dignitaries, notably the King's son the Amir Faysal, later to become King Faysal.
Lady Evelyn wrote a book of her experiences titled ‘Pilgrimage to Mecca’. It takes the form of a day-by-day journal, sprinkled with side notes on the history and merits of Islam. She is the first English writer to have given a first-hand description of the life in the women's quarters of the households in which she stayed in Medina, Mecca and Mina - an account remarkable for its sympathy and vividness. Her book was first published in 1934.
Lady Evelyn wrote, “I am in the Mosque of Mecca, and for a few seconds I am lost to my surroundings because of the wonder of it. We are walking on white marble through a great vault whose ceiling is a full fifty feet above us, and enter pillared cloisters holding the arched roof and surrounding an immense quadrangle…I had never imagined anything so stupendous…We walk on to the Holy of Holies, the house of Allah [the Ka’bah] rising in simple majesty. It would require a master pen to describe the scene, poignant in its intensity of the great concourse of humanity, of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in a fervour of religious enthusiasm…I felt caught up in a strong wave of spiritual exaltation…”
And, “The influence of the Hajj cannot be exaggerated. To be a member of that huge congregation gathered together from the four corners of the earth, on this sacred occasion and on the sacred spot, and to join with this mass of humanity, in all humility, in the glorification of God, is to have one's consciousness impressed by full significance of Islamic ideal, is to be privileged to participate in one of the most soul-inspiring experiences that have ever been granted to human beings. To visit the birthplace of Islam, to tread the sacred ground of the Holy Prophet's (Peace and Blessings of Allah be Upon Him) struggle to call erring humanity back to God, is to re-live those hallowed by the memories of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, long toil and sufferings in glorious years of sacrifice and martyrdom, is to have one's soul kindled by that celestial fire which lighted up the whole earth. But this is not all. The Hajj above everything else makes for unity among Muslims. If there is anything that unifies the scattered forces of Islam and imbues them with mutual sympathy it is the pilgrimage. It provides them with a central-point to which they rally from all corners of the earth. It creates for them annually an occasion to meet and know one another, to exchange views and compare experiences and unite their various efforts to the common good. Distances are annihilated. Differences of sect are set aside. Divergences of race and colour cease to exist in this fraternity of faith that unites all Muslims in one great brotherhood and makes them conscious of the glorious heritage that is theirs. “
Having spent the winters of her childhood in Algiers, she often escaped the Villa to visit Mosques. Lady Evelyn also learned to speak Arabic. She converted to Islam after meeting the Pope in Rome. She describes the meeting with the Pope in her book, “…..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.”While her reversion to Islam may not seem astonishing to many, at the time it was very difficult for members of the aristocracy, alienating them socially, to say the least.
Lady Evelyn died at age 95, in 1963. She lived through World Wars, journeyed much of the Middle East, and it’s likely she heard about the fall of the Caliphate too. Her funeral was held in Glencarron in Scotland and was presided over by the Imām of the Woking Mosque on a cold winters day in January. She requested that Sūrah Nūr be read at her funeral. Her grave stone is inscribed with a verse from Sūrah Nūr, “Allahu Nurus Samawaati wal ardh” , Allāh is the Light of the heavens and the earth.”
A report in Lahore Ahmadiyya Urdu magazine, written by Maulana Yaqub Khan, but translated and compiled by Dr Zahid Aziz read:
“It was on the 26th January 1963 that at 8pm, there was a telephone call, asking to speak to the Imam. I answered it and found that the caller was a British woman who informed me that Lady Evelyn Cobbold had died at her ancestral home in Inverness. The caller said that as Lady Cobbold was a Muslim, she had phoned the Islamic Cultural Centre in London to ask for help in organising the funeral, and they had given the contact of an undertaker. I said that the undertaker would not be able to conduct the Janaazah prayer, and that that prayer is the crux of the funeral. She said: This is why I have phoned you, because I know that for the funeral prayer an Imam is required, not an undertaker. Undertakers can be obtained in Inverness, she said, but as I received no help from the Islamic Cultural Centre, this is why I am calling you.”
He writes, “I asked her if the deceased Lady had left any instructions. She replied that the Lady had expressed the wish that when her body is laid in the grave her face should face Makkah. Hearing this, I was deeply moved by the Lady’s strong attachment to the religion of Islam. I said that, however difficult it might be, someone from here must go to her funeral. After some thought, I said that in order for the face to be towards Makkah, the grave would have to be aligned in a certain direction. If the grave were to be dug as they are usually dug here, this instruction cannot be fulfilled. She understood this point. I asked her to phone again the following day, when we would have worked out what to do. Shaikh Muhammad Tufail had gone to London, and when I mentioned this to him the next day, he agreed to go.”
“Shaikh Tufail travelled in the sleeping carriage of the train from London on Wednesday night and arrived in Inverness at 8am the following morning. A man had come to meet him at the railway station. From there they travelled 60 miles by car through the mountains. Lady Cobbold was the eldest daughter of the Earl of Dunmore of Scotland, and her estate was located 60 miles from Inverness, called Glencarron. The estate is so large that within its grounds it took nearly an hour even by car to reach the hunting lodge.”
“Lady Evelyn had chosen a high hill in the middle of the estate and instructed that she be buried at its peak. When Shaikh Tufail reached the lodge he found that there were 30 to 40 people gathered there, including landed gentry from that area. Earlier I had sent him a telegram with instructions about the direction of alignment of the grave. The grave was dug accordingly and was ready when the coffin was brought there from the lodge.”
Upon reaching the lodge, Shaikh Tufail discovered that Lady Evelyn, or Zaynub, rather, had further instructed that, no Christian minister be brought to her funeral. She wanted the funeral prayer to be in Arabic, with certain specified verses of the Quran being recited.
“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as (if there were) a niche and within it a lamp, the lamp is in glass, the glass as it were a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east (i.e. neither it gets sun-rays only in the morning) nor of the west (i.e. nor it gets sun-rays only in the afternoon, but it is exposed to the sun all day long), whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself), though no fire touched it. Light upon Light! Allah guides to His Light whom He wills. And Allah sets forth parables for mankind, and Allah is All-Knower of everything.” (Surah Noor, 24:35)
She also specifically requested that the verse “Allahu Nur-us-samawati wal ardh” (Allah is the light of the Heavens and the Earth) be inscribed on her gravestone.
In the lodge Shaikh Tufail found her library contained many books on Sufi-ism as well as a copy of the 1917 edition of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s English translation of the Quran.
Lady Evelyn had written, “I am often asked when and why I became a Muslim. I can only reply that I do not know the precise moment when the truth of Islam dawned upon me. It seems that I have always been a Muslim. This is not so strange when one remembers that Islam is the natural religion that a child, left to itself, would develop. Indeed, as a Western critic once described it, ‘Islam is the religion of common sense.’
“The more I read and the more I studied, the more convinced I became that Islam was the most practical religion, and the one most calculated to solve the world's many perplexing problems, and to bring to humanity peace and happiness. Since then I have never wavered in my belief that there is but one God; that Moses, Jesus, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, and others before (peace be on all of them) were prophets, divinely inspired, that to every nation God has sent an apostle, that we are not born in sin, and that we do not need any redemption, that we do not need anyone to intercede between us and God, Whom we can approach at all times.”
Umm Muhammed Umar