IT MUST HAVE BEEN around 1968 when my father gave me a Qu’ran. I have written my name in fountain pen inside the front cover, underlined carefully with a ruler. My handwriting had adopted the Greek ‘e’ which I must have copied from one of my school friends, in the fashion of all young girls who mimic each other to bond in death-to-the-foe sorority. I remember her name was Lynne Statham, and she had large cursive writing. Yellowing at the edges, my Qu’ran is still in good shape; a small hard book stamped by Thomas & Thomas, Karachi-3, costing 12s 6d (in U.K. only). That is 25 cents today, and the book is in English. I am not sure if it came from Pakistan or London, but I have the feeling my father gave it to me to prepare me for a special meeting.
I remember, in around 1969, driving in the rear seat of my father’s Mercedes through Highgate Cemetery, North London, where Karl Marx has found final repose, and being bussled into a drawing room (old-fashioned term for a sitting room, or lounge, to where the men used to ‘withdraw’ after dinner for port and brandies). In the room were a group of Indian, Pakistani and Bengali gentlemen who all hailed loudly my father as we walked in.
“As-salamu alaykum!” they pronounced, greeting him warmly in brotherly embrace. My father was dressed in a Savile Row suit and my mother was decked in her Sunday best. I assume I must have had my best frock on too because this was to be an initiation. I just wish somebody had had the courtesy to let me know beforehand.
Leading the proceedings was an eminent Muslim elder from Pakistan. His name was Sir Zafrulla Khan who had been a diplomat and judge at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, and my father pranced around him obsequiously, I recall. As Pa began to explain to the great man that although my mother was a British Catholic, the house always been run dutifully respecting Muslim sensitivities, and that she was an exemplary mother in this regard.
“Not once has my wife given pork to Selima! She respects that in Islam this is forbidden.”
My mother and I looked down at the floor hoping it would open into an abyss. Her face turned the colour of a rich vermillion; mine, fortunately, does not permit such a palette change. Bacon and egg was a regular breakfast before school every day without fail, and roast pork, trimmings and crackling was served at least once a month. Ham sandwiches and Heinz tomato soup were the only offerings at Saturday lunchtime, and if my father had asked what we were eating, Mother always told him she had made pressed-beef sandwiches. The predicament was breath-taking.
We said nothing in mutual sorority.
I remember Sir Zafrulla leaning forwards and asking me to repeat some words after him. I suppose I did just that – I certainly had no idea what I was saying. It must have been Arabic. Shortly afterwards, I found myself back in the car, and we were heading home to the ranch. Pa was silent but palpably relieved, and Mother was still squirming with mortifying guilt. I think supper was boiled eggs and toast fingers.
But I was apparently transformed. I, without knowing, had become a Muslim. As nothing more was offered by Pa to further my education, it was a complete non-event, and as time went on, I became extremely angry that I had promised something in a language I didn’t understand to fulfil some kind of family expectation.
Sir Zafrulla had given me some books to read about Islam, and I reached for one a few weeks ago from my library. It was the same book that Mother, on the same night of that fateful day, had read in one fell swoop in the evening, completely blind-sided and transfixed with what she was reading. It is entitled Jesus in India by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian*, the English version of a book written in 1899. The reason that Mother, educated in a Catholic convent, could not extricate herself from this slim volume can be gleaned from the introductory paragraphs of the book’s Preface:
“The main thesis expounded in this treatise is Jesus’ escape from an ignominious death on the Cross and his subsequent journey to India in quest of the lost tribes of Israel whom he had to gather into his fold as mentioned in the New Testament. Abundant evidence has been furnished from Christian as well as Muslim Scriptures, old medical books and books of history, including ancient Buddhistic (sic) to illustrate the theme. Starting upon his journey from Jerusalem and passing from thence, through Nasibus and Iran, Jesus is shown to have reached Afghanistan, where he met the Jews who had settled there after their deliverance from the bondage of Nebuchadnezzar. From Afghanistan Jesus went to Kashmir, where some Israelite tribes had also settled. He made this place his home and here he died. His tomb has been traced and found in Khanyar Street, Srinagar.
Jesus in India is not the same book as The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ by Nicolas Notovitch (which I also have in the library), although the latter was written in French in 1894 entitled Vie Inconnue de Jesus Christ. What is interesting is that Paramahansa Yogananda wrote about the same subject in one of his large volumes (which I gave to those more in need), and the Russian artist and polymath, Nikolai Roerich, writes in his own diaries in the 1920s of seeing the name of Jesus above a door in Srinagar, and of hearing the local legends of a beloved teacher from other shores who travelled across the subcontinent.
I will discuss this Muslim perspective in Part II.
Selima Gurtler is a spiritual writer, philosopher, poet and Jnana yogi.
Her modern teachings to Self-Realization and Liberation are uniquely flavoured through the perceptive eyes of her Indian and European heritage.
Free copies of her books are available for download here: https://www.emwpeace.org/publications/
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Grace Archbishop Desmond Tutu are patrons of her work.