Winston Churchill’s most famous reflection on Islam comes from his book The River War (1899), which chronicled his time in Egypt and Sudan. The following passage is especially damning of Islam and has been used by amateur historians, journalists, bloggers, and those with a political agenda to color Churchill’s legacy with false perceptions of Islam, creating an impression that he was both Islamophobic and a bigot:[1]

 

How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. 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.

Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities thousands have become brave and loyal soldiers of the queen: all know how to die: but the influence of the religion paralyses 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. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science – the science against which it had vainly struggled – the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.[2]

 

However, the use of this passage to justify Churchill’s position on Islam is very problematic and misleading. First, it must be understood that Churchill was going through a particularly anti-religious phase when he wrote this. During this period he was fairly contemptuous of all major religions, including Christianity. Second, this passage exists in this form only in the first edition of The River War, which ran for only one year until it was condensed into one volume in 1901, leaving out large swathes of text at Churchill’s request, including the section cited here.

 

The next issue, that this passage raises is that form of this passage which typically appears, in blogs, newspapers etc suffers from creative editing. This  creative editing by journalists and others leave out key portions of the passage such as the praise for Dervish Muslims who ‘have become brave and loyal soldiers of the queen.’ This creative editing also leaves out Churchill’s point that the only thing that differentiates Christianity and Islam, is Christianity’s relationship with science, which reinforces Churchill’s broadly humanitarian views. It is also notable that creatively edited version of the quote was popularized by Winston Churchill’s grandson, Winston Churchill III, who was a journalist that focused on the Middle East.[3]The fact he was an outspoken advocate of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, might further illustrate how this quote has been used to politicize Churchill’s legacy.

 

Additionally, this quote is typically taken out of context. Churchill was referring to the Dervish Muslims who were members of the Mahdiyya, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, rather than all Muslims. This again if obvious in the edited out passage ‘Thousands have been brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen.’ The key thing is the number ‘Thousands’. The Indian census which had already reported as early as 1880 that ‘Nearly 41 millions are Mohammedans; so that England is by far the greatest Mohammedan power in the world, so that the Queen reigns over about double as many Moslems as the Khalif himself.’[4] Having been stationed in India, Churchill would have been aware of this, not least because he served with British Muslims and Sheiks. It is also obvious, which in the passage, ‘It has already spread throughout Central Africa…’ Again, had Churchill been speaking about the entire Muslim faith, he would have undoubtedly mentioned the North West Frontier of India, where he fought Islamic fundamentalists.

 

However, Churchill certainly reserved his most damning comments specifically for the Islamic Dervish population in Africa. In Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. 6, he regularly referred to the Dervish Mahdiyya as ‘restless fanatics’ and ‘fanatical hordes,’ which was actually in step with orthodox Islamic authorities, or the Ulema, at the time.[5] This was because the term ‘Mahdi’ (or guided one) is the prophesized redeemer of Islam and is roughly equivalent to ‘Messiah’ (or anointed one) in Christianity.[6] By declaring himself Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed, the leader of the Dervish Empire, was actually committing something of a heresy against orthodox Islam by suggesting that was he who was guided by the prophet and the not the sultan of the Ottoman Empire who was also the caliph and, thus, the successor of the Prophet.

 

In reality Churchill’s view of Islam was far more complex than this quote would suggest.  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]  Several examples include, Adrian Morgan, ‘Winston Churchill on Islamism’ <http://www.islam-watch.org/AdrianMorgan/Winston-Churchill-Islamism.htm > accessed 6 April 2011; Anonymous, ‘Winston Churchill on Islam and Why he was Right’ <http://www.articlesbase.com/politics-articles/winston-churchill-on-islam-and-why-he-was-right-293496.html> accessed 6 April 2011; M. Savage, ‘Winston Churchill on Islam’ <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwuduAaWvxU> accessed 6 April 2011; Al Ghurabaa also published an online book entitled UK at War with Islam (2006), see P. Risdon, ‘Winston Churchill on Islam’ <http://freebornjohn.blogspot.com/2006/02/winston-churchill-on-islam.html> accessed 6 April 2010.

[2] Winston Churchill, The River War, first edition, Vol. II (London, 1899) pp. 248-50.

[3] See Winston Churchill, ‘Churchill on Islamic Fundamentalism’ in Carolina Journal  3 March 2006; http://www.carolinajournal.com/exclusives/display_exclusive.html?id=3158 accessed 21 November 2013;

[4] Savile , In How India Was Won by England Under Clive and Hastings (London, 1881)p.viii.

[5] Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. 4 (London, 1958) [hereafter, HESP] pp. 341, 369; for traditional Islamic opinion of the Mahdiyya see Heather Harkey, ‘Ahmad Zayni Dahlan’s ‘Al-Futuhat Al-Islamiyya’: A Contemporary View of the Sudanese Mahdi,’ Sudanic Africa: A Journal of Historical Sources, Vol. 5 (1994), pp. 67-75.

[6] According to tradition, the ‘Mahdi’ acts as something of a Steward form a period of years until the final return of the Messiah and together they rid the world of evil. Belief in the Mahdi is more prevalent in Shia  Islam. See Moojan Momen, An introduction to Shiʻi Islam : the history and doctrines of Twelver Shiʻism. (New Haven, 1987).

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