Graphic version of this page
BRISMES Logo

 Transcript of Plenary Session by Dr Grahame Davies 

Wednesday 13 July 2016, BRISMES Annual Conference 2016 at the University of Wales Trinity St David, Lampeter

Grahame Davies

Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

While it is, of course, a great pleasure to be here in the beautiful surroundings of west Wales, it might not be immediately obvious how much material Wales itself can contribute to the study of Middle Eastern affairs.

I hope in this lecture to show that in fact the connections are many, varied, and longstanding - and significant.
I’m going to present a study of 900 years of Welsh contact with Islam as recorded in literary works in Welsh and English. I believe a study of this interface can add to our understanding of the long-standing interplay between Islam and the various cultures of the British Isles, because, of course, it is not merely majority non-Muslim societies which have contact with Islam; minority non-Muslim societies have too.

I have collected as many substantial references to Islam and Muslims in Welsh literature as I could - from the Crusades to the present, from medieval manuscripts to epistolary e-mail novels. Most of the material up to the early 20th century is in Welsh, as is a considerable amount of the material since then. Some two hundred extracts in all: poetry, novels, dramas, biography, autobiography, theology, travelogues, travel guides and reportage – anything as long as it was sufficiently opinionated to reveal something of social attitudes.

My aims include: informing the debate about Islam and the West, in the context of one small European nation; providing Welsh Muslims with a wider historical context for their own experience; and contributing to the perpetual debate about identity within Wales itself.

In doing this research, I encountered some myths. Myths such as the frequent assumption – familiar to many of you, I’m sure – that research into Islam must be a study of extremism; the assumption that any study of Wales and Islam must be of recent Muslim settlement in Wales – when in fact, the historical relationship is largely the product of Welsh people’s presence in the lands of Islam. And finally there’s the belief, or perhaps the wish among my compatriates that the Welsh are singularly given to tolerance and kindness in intercultural relations. This is often accompanied by the proud assertion that Wales has ‘the oldest registered mosque in the UK,’ registered in 1860. However, the ‘oldest mosque’ story is in fact a myth. The mosque concerned (in Glynrhondda Street, Cathays, Cardiff) was registered not in 1860 but in 1991. The oldest registered mosques in Britain are, as you know, in England - in Woking and Liverpool, and date from the 19th Century. The myth of the oldest mosque has been thoroughly examined by Dr Sophie Gilliat-Ray, who runs the centre for the study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University. Nonetheless, despite her meticulous work, the myth lives on, and continues to be a source of pride. This fact illustrates one of the the main themes of my study, namely that in the vast majority of the portrayals of Islam I have found in Welsh literature, the primary concern is with the identity and character of the observer, not the observed. This material is not a window on a wider world; it is a mirror held up to our own.

So much for the myths. what about the facts. I’ll sketch out a few of the main areas of contact between Welsh writers and Islam throughout history.

First of all, the Crusades of the late 11th to late 13th centuries. Not the best way for two cultures to come into contact, of course, but significant. The Journey Through Wales, written in 1191, records the travels of the cleric Giraldus Cambrensis on a recruitment tour for the Crusades in 1188, providing an invaluable record of Welsh society and Welsh-Norman relations. Wales therefore owes one of its most important prose texts, indirectly, to Islam.

Perhaps Wales owes something else too: two hundred extra years of independence from England. The Crusades began twenty years after the Norman Conquest of England, and lasted for the same two centuries, give or take a decade, during which Wales remained unconquered. Contemporary records suggest that although the Welsh shared Crusader ideals, when it came to actually sending manpower, they prioritised their domestic battle of survival against the Normans over the distant religious war, taking the opportunity to regain lost territory when the Normans went on crusade.

The Chronicle of the Princes, from 1092: says how William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, left England to govern lands in France left by his Crusader brother:

And while he stayed there, the Britons, being unable to bear the tyrrany and injustice of the French, threw off the rule of the French, and they destroyed their castles in Gwynedd and inflicted slaughters upon them.

G. Hartwell Jones, author of the 1912 volume Celtic Britain and the Pilgrim Movement, noted: '...the Welsh chiefs did not make a prominent figure at this juncture of supreme interest to Christendom.'

Some braved excommunication by refusing to enlist. Others enlisted but stayed home, not, Jones said, fearing Muslim scimitars, but fearing the Normans stealing their lands. If the Welsh were more reluctant than the Normans to enlist, then it’s arguable this might have affected the balance of power, distracting Norman military resources, and delaying the final conquest of Wales. Welsh freedom only ended in 1282 at the hands of the recently-returned Crusader, Edward the First, five years after the final Crusade. It’s intriguing to speculate that Islam may have bought Wales time to become a nation.

Those Welshmen who did go on crusade left some literary legacies, in poetry and in prose, with English chronicles noting a Welsh-versus-Parthian archery contest and a Welsh prisoner of the Saracens released after invoking Saint David. Welsh versions of the Deeds of Charlemagne circulated widely, and crusading language was common.

All the references to Islam are negative. And this, sadly, is true of nearly all the portrayals I found, from whatever period. In the 14th Century, for instance, we find Iolo Goch, Owain Glyndŵr’s praise poet, accusing a colleague of having ‘calon Mahumed,’ the ‘heart of Muhammad’. In the early 16th century we find poets such as Lewis Glyn Cothi expressing a desire for conquests in the Turkish Sultan’s realms.

As for later treatments, conciliatory material is scarce. Crusading imagery was invoked by Welsh authors right up to World War One and beyond. Only after World War Two do we find irony and subversion, for example with William Owen Roberts in his 1987 novel of the Black Death, Y Pla, ‘Pestilence’, having a Muslim assassin as protagonist.

I’ve lingered over the Crusades as they’re the earliest period of Welsh-Muslim literary portrayal, and because the conflicted attitudes formed then underpin those in the material we will examine, more briefly now.
Throughout Welsh history, we find knowledge of Islam widespread among religious professionals, whether theologians at their desks in Wales or missionaries in the field. Many religious works discuss Islam. Some are informed, others ignorant; almost all are dismissive. Many saw the perceived failure of Islam as a sign of the Second Coming and of the Millennium. Many hymns talk of converting the 'Turk'.

Y Ffydd Ddi Ffuant, ‘The Sincere Faith’, by the influential Protestant theologian Charles Edwards, 1667, is a history of Christianity and has a section on Islam, with long translations from what he says are the ‘best parts’ of the ‘Alcoran’. But it’s very hostile. Here, in translation, he says:

And now, reader, you can see that the true religion [he means Christianity]  was among men long before this bungler  [he means Muhammad]  stitched together his patchwork of deception and led himself astray in many of his principles. It is easy to believe that plenty of people in his day found him charismatic and asked him for wondrous signs to make them believe his prophecies, and that he could not provide any, and that he simply used bondage and massacre to shut the mouths of those who opposed him. And that his lust and his greed for plunder, and for blood are clear signs of the nature of his spirit.

In the 18th century, polemicist Elis Wynne’s phantasmagorical satire, Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg ‘The Visions of the Sleeping Bard’, the author visits Hell and finds a dispute between 'Mahomet' and the Pope as to whether Catholicism or the Koran has caused most mischief. Lucifer, called to adjudicate, says a particular protestant sect (one of Wynne's particular enemies at the time) had caused more trouble than both of them! Again, as with so many of the items in this study, Islam serves a domestic agenda.

For first-hand accounts of Islam by Welsh Christians we find a huge number of travelogues, manuals, memoirs and biographies by missionaries and pilgrims – an extensive literature of travel and intercultural contact which, incidentally, gives the lie to impressions of Welsh insularity. The Welsh went everywhere the British Empire could take them. Travel does not always broaden the mind, however, and until the last half-century or so, most such Welsh portrayals of Islam were at best grudging, and at worst, grossly prejudiced.

There are exceptions, however. Seafaring, and Wales’s rich maritime literature, comprising primarily the memoirs of mariners, has many examples of Welsh-Muslim contact. Generally, sailors – whether they meet Muslims as pilgrims, as passengers, as shipmates, or on shore – seem notably broad-minded. In one unusual case, John Penri Davies’s 1976 memoir, the Welsh officer finds himself an object of deference to the Muslim crew. Later he finds they had thought he was Allison Winn, son of the prominent British Muslim convert, Lord Headley. In fact, Davies had been substituted at the last minute for Winn, who was unwell.

Descriptions of the funerals of Muslim shipmates provide the warmest portrayals. For instance, in a 1977 memoir by WE Williams. Here in translation:

This was ... one of the children of Mohammed. Losing him was a bereavement for us all, as the ship’s family is a small and tight-knit one, and being close to death has a strange kind of effect on us. ... One of the family was gone.

The list of Welsh writers who have travelled in, and written about, Muslim lands and Islam is long and includes tradespeople, academics, teachers, health-seekers, holidaymakers, spouses of Muslim partners, government officials, journalists, sportspeople, egyptologists, and most recently, backpackers. Many record thought-provoking encounters.

Among the major figures, we find the African explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, born John Rowlands in north Wales and raised there until a teenager, breezily reporting his intention to change the religion of Mtesa, the ruler of Uganda: ‘I shall destroy his belief in Islam, and teach the doctrines of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Or the novelist Richard Hughes, author of A High Wind in Jamaica, recounting his travels in Morocco in the late 1920s and early 30s, providing a by-no-means-isolated example of piety-envy, when a British man comments wistfully on the faith of a Muslim friend: ‘I wish I had a God I could serve as Omar serves his!’

Warfare was another means of contact. Not the Crusades this time, though they do echo in the relevant literature, particularly in the First World War, when British forces seized Palestine and Jerusalem from the Turks, a pet project of the Welsh-speaking British Prime David Lloyd George, whose Baptist Christian upbringing predisposed him – so he said – to sympathy with the Zionists whose aims were advanced by the Allied victory.

For his domestic audience, in Wales particularly, Lloyd George was happy for the Palestine campaign to be portrayed in Crusading terms. His own war memoir was called The Great Crusade, and it displays his particular distaste for the Turks. Other writers of the period unashamedly drew Crusading parallels. A.G.Prys-Jones’s poem, ‘Palestine 1192-1917’, has the line ‘Lion-heart hath come again to claim you for his own.’

That is the view of an armchair crusader. Those who served were sometimes less simplistic. The religious dissident Tom Nefyn Williams’s enthralling 1949 autobiography, Yr Ymchwil ‘The Search’ recalls, in Gaza in 1917, Welsh soldiers, waiting to attack, singing Christian hymns. As they advance, they hear a terrible cry. Here in translation:

Not Welsh: not English either. Just as suddenly, an uncertain and strange silence descended again: the entire Turkish patrol had been killed. Had some of them prayed for the protection of Allah? Did some village or home flash into their memories, yes, faster than their cry? had they been listening, perhaps, to our hymns about the cross and the love of Christ. The general opinion was that they must have heard us singing.

Another Welsh-language author, Cynan Evans-Jones, later Archdruid of Wales, also encountered Muslims while serving in the Eastern theatre of war. His famous poem, ‘Salaam’, is affectionate. Here in translation:

I learned the greeting I love the best
When the sons of the east met the sons of the west.

And the wish they share is my wish too
– May the Peace of God ever be with you.

And of course, there’s T.E.Lawrence, born at Tremadog, near Lloyd George’s childhood home at Llanystumdwy. Scarcely can anyone with Welsh connections – except of course Lloyd George himself – have had more influence on the fate of Arab lands. His autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, portrays the complexity of a war between Muslim Arabs and Muslim Turks, each with Christian allies.

So, a spectrum of responses: Muslims as adversaries, as fellow war-victims, as examples of piety, as comrades.

The Allied victory in the Great War led to the British Mandate in Palestine and tensions between Arabs and Jewish settlers. Lily Tobias, a Jewish woman from the Swansea valley, emigrated to Palestine with her husband Philip Valentine Tobias in 1935. He was killed during an outbreak of violence against the Jewish community. Soon afterwards, Lily Tobias wrote The Samaritan, subtitled An Anglo-Palestinian Novel, the story of a Zionist woman settler. The book commends characters of all faiths who behave with mutual respect. In this passsage, an Arab policeman visits a Jewish victim of an Arab riot, assures them of his protection, and says many Arabs had saved Jews from the rioters. She replies: 'I thank you again, Saadi,' said Edith, 'Father of Yusif, you have lightened my heart. May God bless you and your family and all your people. May we live in peace together.'

The novel shows that hope to be fragile, as the honourable Arab policeman is murdered by extremists. The book ends on a note of uncertainty.

Another Welsh-Jewish literary testimony comes from Judith Maro, born in Mandate Palestine, a Jewish Haganah rebel against the British, who later married a Welsh soldier, moved to Wales and raised a Welsh-speaking family. Her 1972 memoir Atgofion Haganah ‘Haganah Memories’, recalls how she went, disguised as a boy, to a Gaza mosque to spy on an incendiary speech by the mufti of Jerusalem.

Elsewhere, however, she recounts friendships with Arabs, and her Haganah-based novel Y Porth Nid A’n Angof, ‘The Remembered Gate’, has a highly-sympathetic Arab Muslim as a major character, although again he falls victim to extremists.

It’s interesting to note that, when we include the German Jewish refugee to Wales, Kate Bosse-Griffiths, who favourably portrayed a Muslim woman living in Wales in a 1957 novel,we find that the most informed and sympathetic Welsh literary interpreters of Muslim experience have been Welsh Jewish women.

A further area of contact came with the Second World War, when many thousands of Welsh soldiers served in Muslim lands. Two eisteddfodau were held in Cairo, and a Welsh newspaper, Seren y Dwyrain, ‘The Star of the East’ was published there. Material from this period shows a variety of attitudes to Muslims by Welsh servicemen, ranging from the respectful to the dismissive.

As an example of the former, in the short story, ‘Yr Effendi a’r Eisteddfod’, a Welsh soldier proudly takes an Egyptian, Hassan Awad, to an eisteddfod in Cairo, where the winning bard is invested with white neo-druidic robes. ‘I suppose,’ says the appreciative but puzzled Egyptian, ‘That Welshmen wear these djelabirs at home when they’re not in the army. Am I right?’

The 1960 novel Ym Mhoethder y Tywod, ‘In the Heat of the Sands’, by ex-soldier W. Hydwedd Boyer, realistically portrays the conflicting attitudes. On a visit to wartime Cairo in search of drugs, his characters encounter a confusing jumble of deprivation and piety. Hearing a Muslim at prayer, one soldier thinks of the old Welsh hwyl, or religious fervour, and wonders why nations cannot live in peace. The other simply simply dismisses the Muslim with a curse and a racial insult.

Generally, in servicemen’s encounters with Muslims, perceived weakness or corruption elicits pity and contempt, while piety and tenacity are respected. Those were the perspectives of privilege, a perspective which, post-war, was about to change.

The final historical period of my study encompasses: conflict in post-Mandate Israel and Palestine, decolonisation, the Islamic revolution and the Rushdie Affair, the Gulf Wars, and 9/11 and its aftermath. The Welsh responses are varied. Generally, over this period, Welsh portrayals of Muslims become less negative, though possibly due less to increased appreciation than to reduced Western Western confidence.

Some responses reflect the complexity of troubled histories. The poet Elwyn Evans’s excellent 1975 sequence ‘Taith yn Ol’, ‘Return Journey’, recounts a trip to Israel to revisit a wartime lover. It’s a moving and empathetic portrayal of the experiences of Jews and, as in the next extract, dispossessed Arabs. Here in translation:

I journeyed to Mecca so I might implore
That before I die I'd tread my land once more
But Allah did not answer: closed is heaven's door

Some reflect unease at resurgent fundamentalism. Richard Llewellyn, author How Green Was My Valley, sets his 1982 novel I Stood on a Quiet Shore, in the Islamic Revolution. We might pause for a quick check of the chronology here – the author of the hugely successful novel in 1939, which was made into that now very dated 1941 John Ford film with Donald Crisp, Walter Pidgeon, and Maureen O’Hara, wrote a book about the Ayatollah Khomeni and the Islamic Revolution! That’s what happens when you have a very long writing career! Llewellyn’s book criticises both the Shah and the revolutionaries.

Other responses to the revolution come in the poet Sheenagh Pugh’s 1990 sequence, ‘M.S.A.’ which portrays troubled Iranian students during the Iran-Iraq war. Her 1999 poem depicts ‘The Tormented Censor’ who:

...sees what is not given to others,
the foreign magazines before they are made
fit for the faithful. He makes them fit.

Elsewhere, there are literary depictions of fanciful Welsh-Muslim nationalist alliances, such as in Anthony Burgess’s 1989 novel, Any Old Iron. There is journalistic reportage from Colonel Gadaffi’s Libya or from the wars in Bosnia and the Gulf. There are poetic responses to the conflicts, with the novelist, poet and essayist Robert Minhinnick, writing from Baghdad in the second Gulf War, his work humane, complex, and unafraid of confronting uncomfortable issues, whether western ‘collateral damage’ or hatred between Muslims.

Many Welsh-language novels portray Muslim protagonists in world conflicts: Kurdish militants; an assimilated Muslim U.S. pilot in Afghanistan; a Pakistani suicide bomber; and – in a science-fiction future – leaders of a nuclear-armed, prosperous Muslim League threatening a decadent post-religious Europe.

Perhaps inevitably, most of these portrayals are spiced with a sense of Islam as dangerous and confrontational.
In general, the Welsh relationship with the Islamic world has few unique features. There are idiosyncrasies, but most evidence shows Wales participating in attitudes common to other Western societies with a similar pattern of historical contact with Muslims, and largely similar to those of England.

To conclude, we have portrayals of Islam in Wales itself. Nearly all are sympathetic. They include Kate Bosse-Griffiths’s 1957 novel Mae’r Galon Wrth y Llyw, which depicts marital disharmony between a Muslim couple in a Welsh town. The man despises Islam while the woman wears the veil and eats halal. A Welsh character comments: ‘This girl is a shining pearl who should be set in gold. She’s one of the martyrs’

Elsewhere we find Muslims as exotic dangers; Muslims as religious comrades; Muslims as religious challenge; Muslims as victims of racism; Muslims as a reproach to white bigotry. But almost always, Muslim characters in Welsh writing have been, and are, ciphers. Rounded characters only start to appear regularly in the last decade or so, nearly all of them in novels set in Cardiff.

The final chapter also provides examples of published creative writing by Welsh Muslims themselves. One good example, is Afshan Malik’s 1998 drama, Safar, - a full-length Welsh Muslim creative work. Here, the character Ismaat talks with a Welsh friend. For the uninitiated, I should preface this quotation by saying that Splott is a working-class district of central Cardiff famous for its unusual name. Ismaat says: ’I was different. Even when I try to fit in people keep seeing me as different. Complete strangers meet me at a party and the first thing they say is:

‘Where are you from?’

‘What do you say?’

‘Splott. But they don’t believe me. They don’t want to know where I’m from. They want to know WHERE I’m from. My genetic history. Where were my parents born? Where were my grandparents born? What the hell am I doing in Splott they think.’

The literary relationship of the Welsh and the Muslims has been largely a monologue. However, with the emergence of a Muslim literature of Wales, and the move towards more rounded portrayal on the part of Welsh writers, we have, finally, after nine hundred years, the beginning of a dialogue.

Dr Grahame Davies
Lampeter, 13th July 2016