Muslim Peerages: An Unexpected History

Jamie Gilham on Britain’s first Muslim Peer

Lord Ahmed has been suspended by the British Labour Party for the second time in a year after allegedly blaming a Jewish conspiracy for his 2009 imprisonment for dangerous driving. Nazir Ahmed’s elevation to the Peerage by Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 1998 was a highly symbolic moment for Britain’s predominantly South Asian Muslim community. The Pakistan-born property developer joined Britain’s second parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords, just days after another Muslim, Manzila Uddin, Baroness Polla Uddin was appointed. The pair were lauded as Britain’s first Muslim Peers, and the label has stuck: Ahmed is today still commonly referred to as ‘Britain’s first male Muslim Peer’. However, as I show in Loyal Enemies, my forthcoming book on the history of Britons who converted to Islam, this is a misnomer. Ahmed was preceded by some 130 years by a British convert to Islam, Lord Stanley of Alderley (1827-1903).

Henry Stanley converted to Islam in 1859 after working and travelling in the East. He succeeded his father, sometime Whig Member of Parliament, Edward Stanley, as a Hereditary Peer in 1869. Surprisingly little has previously been unearthed about Stanley’s life. But, in Loyal Enemies, I reveal why Stanley converted to Islam and how he fared as Britain’s first Muslim Peer and a potentially powerful political lobbyist.

Stanley fought hard for Muslims overseas, especially in India. But he also defended Hindus and Sikhs in the ‘Raj’; indeed, he lobbied for many indigenous colonised peoples. Stanley was a patriotic Englishman but, in the late-Victorian period, he rejected the idea that Britain had a right to extend its Empire. Largely considered an eccentric by colleagues and hampered during debates in the Lords by acute deafness, Stanley had only a modest impact in the short-term. His passion for justice and ambition to end further imperial encroachments were ahead of their time, but proved to be morally vindicated later in the twentieth century.

Whilst Stanley devoted much energy to foreign policy, he did not engage with growing discourse about Islam during his lifetime. In fact, Stanley was reluctant to be a public Muslim figure, let alone a spokesperson for Islam and Muslims. Rather, in addition to his ongoing activism in foreign affairs, he was as much interested in domestic causes and issues connected with his obligations as a landed aristocrat. He therefore focused on agriculture and land, taxation and, interestingly, the Anglican Church. He rallied to the campaign against disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales (where he had a large estate), arguing that the historic connection between the Church in Wales and England be preserved. To contemporaries, Stanley’s public allegiance to the Church seemed incongruous with his adhesion to Islam, which was considered to be wholly antagonistic towards Christianity. Yet, recognising that Christianity and Islam shared common roots through Abraham, Stanley respected Christianity as a ‘sister faith’. Stanley’s philosophy and lifestyle were so radical that the press wrongly assumed that he died a Christian – reporters commented that his death in December 1903, ‘removes a very prominent Churchman from the House of Lords.’ Unsurprisingly, given antipathetic attitudes towards Islam in late-Victorian Britain, Britain’s first Muslim Peer was a quiet Muslim public figure. A proper evaluation of this modest but pioneering man is long overdue.

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