My last blog entry explored why Churchill’s oft quoted excerpt from the River War is as inaccurate example of his larger relationship with the Islamic World.  Which surely begs the question what were his reflections on Islam? The truth is that Churchill rarely reflected on the tenants of Islam as a religion. Instead,  he tended to see Islam as an essential competent of ‘the Islamic World’, a sort of cultural, religious, and geographic space which served as something of a civilizing force in harsh lands.   So Churchill’s views on Islam were complex and helped to inform his unique ‘Churchilllian perspective’ on the Islamic world as a whole.


In order to understand Churchill’s opinion of Islam it is important to start with the larger picture of how he felt about religion in general. Clearly, like most of his contemporaries, Churchill was heavily influenced by monotheistic, Judeo-Christian traditions. The evidence for his preference can be seen in Churchill’s anti-Hindu bias in the 1930s and his disdain for the lack of a coherent, if not more Westernized, religion in African pagan tribes in his reflections on his trip to Africa. It might be understood that Churchill equated Christianity with progress and civilization, whereas other monotheistic religions, while useful in helping to bring civilization to the regions where they were practiced, were essentially retrograde forces when compared to Christianity.


However, despite Churchill’s reverence for Christianity, he ‘paid tribute to Christianity as an outsider.’  After reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) and Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man (1872), Churchill adopted a vaguely atheistic view of religion, and though he passed through an ‘aggressive anti-religious phase,’ he basically became a humanist who believed in something of a God who ‘shaped the destinies of England and of Winston Churchill in particular.’  So, for Churchill, religion was intrinsically linked with civilization and progress. It is through this prism that Churchill’s views on Islam can be appreciated.

Churchill’s earliest reflections on Islam were written in a letter to his old schoolmaster, Rev. J.E.C. Welldon, on 16 December 1896 while Churchill was undergoing his self-education in India. Welldon had a major influence in the creation of Churchill’s world view, and the two men debated the importance of Christian missionary work in India. Welldon argued for the spread of Christianity in India and elsewhere and argued that ‘it is not stranger that a religion issuing its self from London should naturalize itself in Calcutta than a religion issuing itself from Jerusalem should naturalize itself in London.’ But Churchill was quick to retort that such an analogy was ‘not quite just.’ Churchill argued that his main reason for depreciating missionary work was that he thought, ‘Providence has given each man the form of worship best suited to his environment.’ Though Churchill had not reached the apex of his aggressive atheistic phase, his increasing move away from dogmatic Christianity was evident as he continued his rebuttal, ‘I imagine that this religion was originally evolved in a process of time by the influence of material forces – climate and physical – acting on the “innate upward” striving by which all human beings are impelled.’ Churchill then turned to the geographic limitations of Christian influence by writing, ‘in nearly nineteen centuries [Christianity] has not spread South or East. In all that time no nation of Black or Yellow has accepted it. Centuries of missionary work in China have been barren! […] Nor have the religions of Buddha – Mahomet [the Prophet Mohammed] – and Confucius gained a single white convert.’ Recognizing his position as out of step with Welldon, and most British Christians, Churchill then reflected that had he lived in the days ‘when the influence of Buddha – of Christ – or of Mahomet began to disturb […] the more primitive forms of worship’ he would have ‘probably opposed […] the great movements they initiated.’ Churchill concluded that ‘while religion is natural to man, some races are capable of a higher and purer form than others. I believe the Asiatic derives more real benefit from the perfect knowledge of his religion than of partial comprehension of Christianity.’[1]


This letter is significant because it illustrates Churchill’s early ideas on religion, including Christianity and Islam. While his rebuttal was intellectually based on Darwinist concepts and was heavily informed by The Martyrdom of Man, it is somewhat remarkable that Churchill seems to hold Islam and Christianity as equals, each playing a part in the progress of civilization in the geographic region that best suits the religion. This was ultimately why Churchill thought missionary work was little more than a fruitless errand. This was clearly echoed in the portion of Churchill’s account of Islam in The River War which had been regularly left out when the work was cited over the years. That is, when he insinuates that the only thing that separates Islam and Christianity is the latter’s relationship with science.


Once Churchill was posted in Sudan he reflected again on Islam in his book The River War, however his thoughts were not limited to the often quoted negative reflections of Islam as discussed above. He recognized that the Islamic nature of the Dervish revolt was merely the religious character of a nationalist movement. Yet he believed that this would be lost on many in England who might think the Dervish revolt was one based entirely in religious affairs. He almost maintained a tone of disdain for those who entertained such a concept, and bunked the idea that Islam caused the Dervish revolt:


Fanaticism is not the cause of the war. It is a means which helps savage people to fight. It is the spirit which enables them to combine the great common object before which all personal or tribal disputes become insignificant. What the horn is to the Rhinoceros, what the sting is to the wasp, the Mohammedan faith was to the Arabs of the Sudan – a faculty of offense or defense. It was all this and no more. It was not the reason of the revolt. It strengthened, it characterized, but it did not cause.[2]


Additional evidence of Churchill’s evolving opinion of Islam can be seen in his respect for the Mahdi. He argued that the Mahdi’s accomplishments exceeded those of the founder of the Mohammedan faith. His respect for the Mahdi’s military accomplishments equals his treatment of Saladin in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.[3] Churchill concludes that he did not know ‘how a genuine maybe distinguished from a spurious Prophet, except by the measure of success’ and that should an Islamic historian ever write the history of Sudan, he ‘will not forget, foremost among the heroes of his race, to write the name of Mohammed Ahmed.[4]


Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, political radical, Arabist, and poet

As Churchill entered the Liberal Party and the most progressive phase of his career, his fascination with the Orient (and to some degree, with Islam) grew. He often spent time with Wilfrid S. Blunt, the political radical, Arabist, and poet, who by 1905 had become ‘the avatar for anti-imperial causes’ and an active force for the ‘regeneration of Islam.’[5] Churchill and Blunt even dressed up in Arab clothes, a tradition they carried on into the twilight of their friendship.[6] In a letter to Lady Lytton during this period, Churchill declared: ‘You will think me a pasha. I wish I were.’[7] Churchill’s curious fascination with Islamic culture even became obvious to others around him. He received a letter from his long-time friend and soon-to-be sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, who implored him not to convert to Islam:


Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalism, pasha-like tendencies, I really have; you are not cross my writing this, so if you come in 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.[8]


However, Churchill’s fascination with Islam proved only to be aesthetic and passing. His knowledge of Islam was largely predicated on Victorian notions, which heavily romanticized the nomadic lifestyle and honor culture of the Bedouin desert tribes. As a result, Churchill never really acquired a deeper understanding of Islam. During the early 1920s when he was Colonial Secretary and was leading the effort to restructure the Middle East, Churchill had to ask about the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam, revealing his ignorance of the Islamic religion. It was perhaps, remarkable that he had the presence of mine to ask the question in the first place. While the aesthetic nature of Churchill’sunderstandingof Islam is unsurprising, his destiny nevertheless became intertwined with that of the Islamic world.

For more on Churchill’s thoughts on the Middle East and the Islamic World check out my book, Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2014).

[1] Churchill to J.E.C. Welldon, 16 December 1896, in Randolph Churchill (ed.), Winston Churchill Companion, Vol. 1, Pt. 2, pp. 712-13.

[2] Winston Churchill, The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan, second edition (New York, 1964) [hereafter, RW],p. 30.

[3] Churchill, HESP, Vol. 1, pp. 226, 232.

[4] Churchill, RW, second edition, pp. 43-44. See also[4] James Muller, ‘War on the Nile: Winston Churchill and the Reconquest of the Sudan’ in Political Science Quarterly No.20 (1991)  p. 231.

[5] R.F. Foster, Lord Randolph Churchill: A Political Life (Oxford, 1981), pp. 111, 120.

[6] Churchill’s dressing in Arab garments with Blunt was first recorded in a letter from Wilfrid Blunt to Lady Anne Blunt, 5 July 1904, in the British Library Manuscript Collection, Correspondence between Lady Anne and W.S. Blunt (Wentworth Bequest) Vol. CCXC, BL, MSS, Add. 54107. Blunt recorded this type of occasion again in his diary for 19 October 1912 in Wilfrid Blunt, My Diaries: Being a Personal Narrative of Events, 1888-1914 (London, 1919) p. 812. This was corroborated by Clementine Churchill in Jack Fishman, My Darling Clementine: The Story of Lady Churchill (London, 1963), p. 46.

[7] Winston Churchill to Lady Lytton, 19 September 1907; Randolph Churchill, (ed.) Winston S. Churchill Companion, Vol. 2, Pt. 2 (London, 1969) [hereafter all companion volumes will be WSC,C,], pp. 679-80. A ‘pasha’ was a rank of distinction in the Ottoman Empire.

[8] Lady Gwendoline Bertie to Churchill, 27 August 1907, WSC,C, Vol. 2, Pt. 1, p. 672. Orientalism, as Lady Bertie means it, is not orientalism as Edward Said refers to it. Here, she simply means a fascination with the Orient and with Islam, especially as she feared Blunt’s influence on Churchill.

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