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Al-Hajj Hedley Churchward (Mahmoud Mobarek) (Aldershot – 28 August 1929 Johannesburg), was an English set designer and painter, notable for converting to Islam and in 1910 being the first known British Muslim to make the Hajj.
Hedley's father, a member of a respected and ancient English family, was a commissar in the British Army at the time of the Crimean War. During Hedley's childhood he came into contact with his father’s rather unusual circle of friends and acquaintances, spending some time at the Court of Queen Victoria. He was sent to Kilburn College, where he “shared lollipops with the sons of South American presidents, of Indian generals, of big-game hunters, polar explorers and professional empire builders” (Eric Rosenthal, From Drury Lane to Mecca).
His painting skills were noticed at Kilburn and he was promptly commandeered to produce backdrops. He was later apprenticed to the well-known scene-painter Walter Brookes Spong of Sadler's Wells Theatre, and in the 1880s became an important part of London’s West End circle of artists, working at the Globe Theatre and Drury Lane, and with notable figures such as Tennyson, Millais, Lord Leighton, and Lily Langtry.
On a trip to Spain, Hedley Churchward first made his acquaintance with Islam. He was awed by the Alhambra in Granada and the stunning architecture of the Córdoba Mosque, developed a liking for the landscape of Al-Andalus, and determined to travel to Morocco. He became steeped in Arab culture, gradually exchanging his western clothing for local garb and announcing to his family that he had adopted Islam.
In Cairo, his growing reputation in the Arab world, resulted in a commission to decorate one of the city's mosques. He built a home for himself close to the Pyramids, and became a student at the Al-Azhar. He proved an able scholar, and soon preached sermons at a small mosque, winning an appointment as lecturer in Sira at the Qadi's Academy. In the years that followed he shuttled between England and Morocco, also managing to visit Australia and South Africa to investigate work opportunities. In South Africa his art and easy elegance gained him the patronage of Cecil Rhodes and the favour of the Randlords. Churchward's intercession with President Paul Kruger resulted in the construction of the first mosque on the Witwatersrand.
His many visits to Cairo led to his marrying the daughter of a Shafi Jurist of Al-Azhar. After his conversion he planned on making the Hajj to Mecca, amidst doubts expressed by the British Embassy in Cairo. He was subjected to a lengthy examination by the Qadi of Egypt to determine the extent of his faith and knowledge. Passing the test, he received a testimonial ornately endorsed by the chief Ottoman cleric, leading scholars and imams, certifying his suitability for the pilgrimage.
Hedley and his wife settled amongst the Cape Malays of South Africa. A year later Hedley left Johannesburg on the first stage of his hajj. The steamship voyage went via Bombay, where he arranged passage on an ancient pilgrim ship, the SS Islamic. The vessel, armed against pirates, and captained by a cantankerous Scotsman, finally made its way to the Red Sea. The boat docked at the Sudanese port of Suakin, where Churchward called on the British Consul, to be informed that the Arab authorities would almost certainly not allow him to disembark at Jeddah. Having arrived in Jeddah, Hedley encountered no problem with the officials and set off the following evening with two donkeys and a pilgrim guide with Halley's Comet a brilliant spectacle in the heavens.
After two days of hot and exhausting travel, Hedley and his guide arrived in the Holy City.
A large number of Churchward's paintings and drawings are preserved at the University of Witwatersrand.
- Rosenthal, Eric & Churchward, Hedley:From Drury Lane to Mecca – Being an account of the strange life and adventures of Hedley Churchward, etc. (1931)
Media related to Hedley Churchward at Wikimedia Commons