Winston Churchill once seriously considered becoming a Muslim, according to a recently discovered letter. However, his family entreated him to “fight against” the desire to convert to Islam.
Churchill served as an officer of the British Army in Sudan, and this gave him the opportunity to closely observe Islamic society. He wrote to Lady Lytton in 1907 that he “wished he were” a Pasha, which was a high rank in the Ottoman Empire. In private, he even started to dress in Arab clothes.
Churchill developed an obsession for Islam and the culture of the Orient, so much so that his family felt obliged to write to him to dissuade him.
In a letter dated August 1907 Churchill’s future sister-in-law wrote.
“Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalise, Pasha-like tendencies, I really have.
If you come into contact with Islam your conversion might be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed, call of the blood, don’t you know what I mean, do fight against it.”
The letter was discovered by Warren Dockter, a history research fellow at Cambridge University. It was written by Lady Gwendoline Bertie, who later married Churchill’s brother Jack.
However, Dr Dockter told the Independent that he believes Churchill was not serious about converting.
He said, “He was more or less an atheist by this time anyway. He did however have a fascination with Islamic culture which was common among Victorians.”
That fascination took an unexpected turn in 1940, when Churchill, although deeply involved in Britain’s war with Germany, gave his support to build what became the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park in the hope of winning the support of Muslim countries for the war.
He later informed members of parliament that “many of our friends in Muslim countries” had expressed appreciated for this “gift.”
But Churchill did criticize some Islamic practices.
In 1899, he wrote in his account of of the war in Sudan, “The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.”
He continued, “Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralizes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith.”
Dr. Dockter discovered the letter while researching his forthcoming book Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East.