Tuesday, 5 June 2012
Lady Cobbold’s Funeral
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
This is a report of Lady Evelyn Zainab Cobbold’s funeral. Mawlana Yaqub Khan was Head of the Woking Muslim Mission at the time and the Imam was Mawlana Shaykh Muhammad Tufail. He sent this report to Lahore from the Woking Mosque and Mission.
“It was on the 26th January 1963 that at 8 p.m. 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 janazah prayer and 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.’
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. Inverness is very far from here, like the distance between Lahore and Karachi, and even on the fast trains they have here it takes 16 hours. On top of that, the winter and snow here is making the whole country like Siberia.” It should be noted the winter of 1962–63 in Britain was exceptionally cold and severe.
The report continued, “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. Shaykh Muhammad Tufail had gone to London, and when I mentioned this to him the next day, he agreed to go. So when the woman phoned again, Shaykh Tufail obtained all the details from her about where to go and when to reach there.
Shaykh Tufail travelled in the sleeping carriage of the train from London on Wednesday night and arrived in Inverness at 8 a.m. the following morning. A man had come to meet him at the railway station. From there they had to travel 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.” This estate is in the Highlands of Scotland, in the county of Ross and Cromarty, located on the A890 road to the South-West of Achnasheen. It lies on the railway line between Achnasheen and the Kyle of Lochalsh, one of the most beautiful stretches of railway in Britain.
“The estate is in a mountainous area. The deceased Lady had chosen a high hill in the middle of the estate and instructed that she be buried at its peak. When Shaykh 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 from Woking 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. She had further instructed, as Shaykh Tufail discovered upon reaching there, that no Christian minister should be brought to her funeral; the funeral prayer must be in Arabic, with certain specified verses of the Qur’an being recited; The face must be towards Makkah; and the following should be inscribed on the gravestone in Arabic:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth ... (Surah an-Nur:35)
Accordingly, Shaykh Tufail said the funeral prayer, and uttered it loudly so that the gathering may be aware that it was in Arabic. He also recited verses from the Qur’an and other prayers in Arabic.
This Lady was a woman of great power and autonomy, and was a typical example of that class of the aristocracy of Scotland who are fiercely proud of their blood, descent and Scottish nationality, and consider the English to be inferior. Accordingly, just as Lady Cobbold fully demonstrated in her will that she was a Muslim, she also maintained in it the Scottish aristocratic tradition that the coffin was to be followed by a bag piper playing lamentful tunes.
This was the ceremony with which this 95-year-old Scottish Muslim Lady was laid to rest, on the afternoon of 31st January 1963, on top of a hill within the grounds of her huge and beautiful estate.”
This grave is mentioned in a book review of a book about the Inverness-Kyle railway. Roger Hutchinson, reviewing “Iron Roads to the Far North and Kyle” by Michael Pearson, wrote, “You know that remarkable towering Victorian edifice which is perched on the steep, bare hillside about halfway between Achnasheen and Achnashellach? It is called Glencarron Lodge. Until 1964, the train stopped there. In that year, its owner, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, died. Lady Evelyn is buried upright and facing eastward in the hills on the other side of the glen. That is because she was a convert to Islam; reputedly the first western woman to enter Mecca.”
The report ended, “Every Muslim will envy her good fortune and raise hands in prayer for her that Allah (s.w.t.) may Grant her high places in heaven also, just as she chose a high hilltop for her last resting place on earth. Glory be to Allah (s.w.t.), what love for Islam! On the one hand there is the far off Scotland and an independent-minded, woman of authority - yet Islam possesses such great power as to capture her, and it is a capture by which Islam has planted on top of a high mountain in Scotland, in the midst of a gathering of the aristocracy and the nobility, the declaration:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth ... (Surah an-Nur:35)
Lady Cobbold was the first British woman to have the privilege of performing the hajj. She has left a book of her experiences entitled, ‘Pilgrimage to Mecca.’ She also wrote another book entitled ‘Kenya, A Land of Illusion.’ The newspapers of London, such as The Times and the Daily Telegraph, published her obituary. In the book, ‘Islam Our Choice,’ her photograph and story of acceptance of Islam are printed on page 171. We have also learnt that she once visited the Woking Mosque during the time of Mawlana Sadr ud-Din.” This would place her visit during 1914–16 or 1919–1920. “She had great interest in, and was skilled in, stag hunting. All the newspapers have mentioned this in particular. Shaykh Tufail also said that on a nearby mountain there is a forest of some two hundred deer that he saw.
In 1934, she performed the Hajj. She could speak Arabic quite well. In the lodge, Shaykh Tufail saw her library and found that it contained many books on Arab Sufism as well as a copy of the 1917 edition of Mawlana Muhammad Ali’s English translation of the Qur’an. She was widowed in 1929 and never re-married.” It should be noted that the correct date when Lady Cobbold performed the hajj was April 1933, as per “The Islamic Review”, March 1934, the note under her photograph on page facing the first page. This is the issue which reports on her speech in London at the function to mark the birthday of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), held on 14th December 1933.
“On 1st February 1963, the Scottish public read with amazement and wonder, the following headlines in the Aberdeen daily Press and Journal: ‘Moslem Burial on Lonely Highland Hillside, Lady Cobbold was Mecca Pilgrim.’”