In 1933, Lady Evelyn Cobbold was the first British Muslim woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and perform Hajj.
She had to seek special exemption to perform Ḥajj, announcing her intention to Saudi Arabia’s minister in London, Hafiz Wahba, who wrote to King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in Riyadh requesting formal permission.
Born in 1867 to an Anglo-Scottish aristocratic family, the daughter of the 7th Earl of Dunmore, Lady Evelyn spent her childhood winters in North Africa, Algiers and Cairo in particular. She used to escape her family’s Moorish Villa to spend time with her Algerian friends visiting mosques. It was there where she learnt to speak Arabic. She said that it was during that time in her childhood where she felt she was a “little Muslim at heart”.
She announced her conversion to Islam in front of the Pope.
“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. What possessed me I don’t pretend to know, as I had not given a thought to Islam for many years. A match was lit, and I then and there determined to read up and study the faith.”
Her conversion to Islam may not seem extraordinary today, but it was often very difficult for members of the aristocracy at that time, especially that Islam was unfamiliar territory.
Lady Evelyn who then called herself Zaynab, wrote a bestselling book called “Pilgrimage to Mecca” where she described her journey to Hajj.
“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…”
Lady Evelyn died in 1963 and was buried, as she instructed, on a remote hillside on her Glencarron estate in Wester Ross. During her funeral, Surah Al-Noor “Light” from the Qur’an was recited in Arabic. She asked that the verse “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the Earth” (Quran 24:35) be written on her gravestone.
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