To British Muslims who may be easily charmed by King Charles III
The seductive power of the British monarchy still exerts a gravitational pull on British Muslim communities today. On a popular level, we see this in the fervent hope that King Charles III is a closet Muslim who bears a royal connection to the Hasanid Sayyids through the medieval Spanish aristocracy.
From the 1990s, some Sufi sheikhs have been keen to claim a crypto-Muslim theory about Charles’ hidden personal Islam on the basis of their own spiritual dream-visions. The genealogical claim of Muhammadan lineage in the royal family is also historically dubious. So both claims can be safely set to one side.
The truth about Charles is that he is a committed Islamophile. He has studied the Quran and even started learning Arabic to further that end. He is a fan of Martin Lings’ (Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din’s) acclaimed biography of the Prophet Muhammad, and the noted English Sufi and Keeper of the Oriental manuscripts at the British Library.
"It is uncontroversial to say that Charles III is the most knowledgeable of all English monarchs about Islam and the most sympathetic towards it in the monarchy's millennium-long history"
The King is tolerably well read in Sufi doctrine. He has an abiding interest in Islamic architecture, arts and gardens. He set up the School of Traditional Arts near Regents Park that teaches the traditional Islamic arts at masters level, and he is patron to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, where he has sponsored a Young Muslim Leadership Programme. In 2007, he set up Mosaic, a mentoring programme focused on Muslim young people.
Thus, it is uncontroversial to say that Charles III is the most knowledgeable of all English monarchs about Islam and the most sympathetic towards it in the monarchy's millennium-long history. One of his gardens at Highgrove is modelled on a Turkish carpet.
Besides his focus on Islam, King Charles has also studied Greek Orthodoxy and frequently visited Mount Athos in part because his paternal grandmother, Alice, was an Orthodox nun. Similarly, he has also studied Judaism with some seriousness and is close to the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.
In the nineties, Charles floated the idea that his title as King should be changed from “Defender of the Faith'' to “Defender of Faith”, which he argued better reflected the original sense of the Latin title, Fidei Defensor.
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It was a seemingly subtle change but one that had the potential to transform his role from protector and head of the Anglican Church to an expanded interfaith role most suited to multi-faith Britain in the twenty-first century. This was partly driven by his engagement with French metaphysician and Muslim convert René Guénon’s doctrine of perennialism, or the belief in the transcendent unity of all religions.
His suggestion of a wider sense of Fidei Defensor was criticised at the time for diluting his role as head of Anglican church, and in recent years he clarified that he accepted the title as it stands. However, according to his biographer Robert Johnson, he remains committed to forging a strong connection to all faiths in Britain as King. In less welcome times than the multiculturalist, post-Cold War nineties, British Muslims will welcome the ascension of a Muslim-friendly monarch.
Let me end on a note of scepticism. We should recognise the tremendous soft power of the British monarchy. It blunted the end of direct Empire by being the glue that held together the Commonwealth: the violent end of the Empire was papered over with the soft afterglow of a precarious comity of nations.
When Elizabeth ascended the throne, independence struggles had won freedom, most notably in India, but Britain was still a great colonial power in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Throughout decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, the British undertook violent suppression of uprisings or worked, often with the Americans, for the removal of independently-minded leaders in Burma, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, Malaysia, Oman and Yemen.
Perhaps the bloodiest of these was the crackdown on the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya in the first eight years of Elizabeth’s reign. Most of the colonial archives showing evidence of internment camps, torture, rape, and mass hangings and killings were deliberately destroyed. It was only in 2011 that Kenyan survivors were allowed to sue the British government.
It remains customary for heirs to the Crown to serve in the British military, as Prince Harry did in Afghanistan. Even though as commander-in-chief of the British Armed Forces, Elizabeth’s and now Charles’ role is delegated to their government, all military personnel make their pledge of loyalty to the monarch.
"My final plea to British Muslims is not to be easily charmed by Charles and rush unthinkingly for the photo, career and funding opportunities and the imperial gongs at the crowning of a new Islamophilic monarch"
The nation’s might is embodied in the royal person, so behind the soft power of monarchy also lies the steel of British military power, and so to the extent that the recent monarchs provided legitimacy to the violent end of Empire, they should be held accountable.
So, in many ways, Elizabeth's longevity delayed Britain's post-imperial reckoning in changing the way it sees itself in the world, but after Brexit no one should hold their breath.
For years, the Royal Family and Charles in particular sold millions of pounds’ worth of military hardware in the Arabian Gulf, and the monarchy will be used to front future trade deals with autocrats with a penchant for the romance of royalty. Charles played a central role in pushing British arms exports to Arab regimes after the Arab Spring, totalling £14.5 billion, which have been used to suppress democracy and commit war crimes.
Royalty does so much to hold up our class system, old money and the public-school elite that runs Britain. The treatment of Meghan Markle and non-white staff at the Palace shows that it is a profoundly white institution. At its core, the monarchy is fundamentally anti-meritocratic.
So, my final plea to British Muslims is not to be easily charmed by Charles and rush unthinkingly for the photo, career and funding opportunities and the imperial gongs at the crowning of a new Islamophilic monarch.
Instead, we should, at the very least, take a conscientious pause to ponder what the implications really are of monarchy in terms of natural justice and fairness in twenty-first century Britain.
Yahya Birt is Research Director at the Ayaan Institute in London and is a community historian who writes about the history of Islam in Britain. His latest book is The Collected Poems of Abdullah Quilliam.
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