Lady Evelyn Cobbold (d. 1963) was the first British Muslim woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj, in 1933. Born in 1867 Lady Evelyn was a Scottish noblewoman and a convert to Islam; she spent the winters of her childhood in Algiers, often escaping the Moorish Villa to visit Mosques; she also learned to speak Arabic. She took the name Zaynab and ‘came out’ as a Muslim before the Pope when he asked if she was a Catholic. Her conversion to Islam may not seem extraordinary to many, but to convert in the early 20th Century to a religion that was fairly new to the West, was unheard of. It was especially difficult for members of the aristocracy, as it meant they had to forego drinking alcohol, something that would have been socially alienating to say the least. She had to seek special dispensation to perform the Ḥajj, announcing her intention to Saudi Arabia’s minister in London, Hafiz Wahba, who wrote to King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in Riyadh requesting formal permission.
Lady Evelyn, who struck up friendships with other British Muslims such as Abdullah Quilliam, and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (distinguished interpreter of the Qurʾān into English), documented her journey in a journal that was later published. Afforded a degree of luxury as she travelled by car with a guide, she writes:
“I am in the Mosque of Mecca, and for a few seconds I am lost to my surroundings because of the wonder of it. We are walking on white marble through a great vault whose ceiling is a full fifty feet above us, and enter pillared cloisters holding the arched roof and surrounding an immense quadrangle…I had never imagined anything so stupendous…We walk on to the Holy of Holies, the house of Allah [the Ka’bah] rising in simple majesty. It would require a master pen to describe the scene, poignant in its intensity of the great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in a fervour of religious enthusiasm…I felt caught up in a strong wave of spiritual exaltation…”
As a woman she had intimate access to the female side of domestic life in the two Holy Cities; others before her, mostly men, had not been afforded this opportunity. She died in 1963, having lived through both World Wars, journeying through much of the Middle East, and likely hearing about the fall of the Caliphate too. Her funeral was held in Glencarron in Scotland and was presided over by the Imām of Woking Mosque on a cold winters day in January. She requested that Sūrah Nūr be read at her funeral and her grave stone is inscribed with a verse from it: “Allāh is the Light of the heavens and the earth.”