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Fifth column

August 3, 2019

In search of an Ottoman Kashmiri


August 3, 2019

Dr MA Sherif is a committed researcher with the zeal of a detective and patience of a saint. Last month, we met in an East London café as he elaborated on his search for a 19th century pan-Islamist Kashmiri.

Shaikh Abdul Rasul, a religious scholar, businessman and adventurer from Srinagar, was born around 1845 and died in Cairo in 1915. This story is based on meticulous research by Dr Sherif who has been conducting biographical research on 19th and 20th-century Muslim personalities and has written several essays and books on the subject.

As a young boy, Abdul Rasul left Kashmir and lived in Cairo in the 1860s. Perhaps he joined his father, Haji Abdul Karim, who had settled there and dealt in imports of silks and fine Kashmir shawls. During the late 1870s, Abdul Rasul lived in Constantinople (now Istanbul), teaching Persian at the Mekteb-e Rusdiyesinde in Dersaadet. After the end of the Russo-Ottoman war of 1876-78 Rasul went to London and befriended a diamond merchant from Punjab, Mirza Peer Bukhsh, who had founded the Islamic Society of London.

In September 1880, writing from Mirza Peer Bukhsh’s home in Russell Square, London Rasul proposes an idea to the Ottoman authorities for a pan-Islamic journal that would encourage an alliance between Indian Muslims and the Caliphate:

“Excellent sir, Since the Ottoman sultanate is the bearer of the great Islamic caliphate, it is needless to mention that it is the authority for all Muslims for reference and refuge. As is known by all, it is essential for the Islamic population, who comprehend this important subtle point, to make sacrifices for the sake of the Ottoman Empire.

“Therefore, your well-wisher has been working for encouraging an Islamic alliance and moral and spiritual attachment of Muslim people in India as far as possible.

“As before, nowadays I am working on a publication through the agency of a fellow townsman, an Indian nobleman. In this newspaper from London, I publish news about the disturbing actions of Gladstone, supporters of Russia in London and other people who of the same political opinion, and how Muslim people are wronged and oppressed. I beg to present a copy of the newspaper to his Majesty with my sincere feelings.

“11 Shawwal 1297 [16 September 1880]

“Your Indian well-wisher Abdul Rasul, who was a Persian teacher in Kanlica High School in Dersaadet nine months ago, resident in central London.

The proposed publication was ‘Gayrat’, a monthly that was later produced around 1881 but could only go for a few issues. At the time the Ottomans were careful not to antagonize suspicious British authorities, so ‘Gayrat’ ceased publication for lack of their financial support. It is perhaps at this time that Abdul Rasul was placed under the surveillance of British Intelligence.

In August 1881, British forces entered Egypt. The naval forces bombarded Alexandria and occupied the Suez. Political reforms brought about by nationalist leader Colonel Urabi were banned, causing widespread resentment within Muslim circles. Abdul Rasul could not rest, and perhaps as a clandestine operation on behalf of the Ottoman Embassy, or of his own volition, he offered his services as an interpreter to a retired British army general and now war correspondent, Sir Henry Havelock-Allan, who wished to observe the campaign in Egypt. After all, Rasul could speak Arabic, Persian, Turkish and French. However, his services were terminated very soon, because, according to the British intelligence reports “he was found carrying on his intrigues with the rebels and [therefore] sent back to England”.

After the death of his friend Mirza Peer Buksh, Abdul Rasul took up service with the exiled king of Punjab, Maharaja Duleep Singh. By the 1880s, the Maharaja was disillusioned with the Raj and laid his claim on the Koh-e Noor diamond ceased from his ancestors. He also believed in the prophecy that one day the Sikh kingdom would be restored under its rightful heir. This took him to Moscow to seek the Czar’s help for a Russian advance into India, to coincide with a proposed Sikh uprising. While in Moscow in 1887, Duleep met up with Jamaluddin Afghani, and the two “collaborated in issuing manifestos, which was distributed by an Afghan [sic] named Abdul Rasul in Cairo” – according to Afghan historian Abdul Hakim Tabibi writing in his ‘The Political Struggle of Sayid Jamal ad-Din Afghani’. British Intelligence files place Abdul Rasul in Moscow as well and report his actions.

The Muslims of Moscow had taken Abdul Rasul up and sent a carriage to the city’s mosque, but Duleep refused to go. His ‘private secretary’, as Rasul described, seemed to be making his own alliances – Sikander Khan of Herat, General Alikhanov, the governor of Pendjeh, and Musa Khan, Prince of Kazan and aide-de-camp to the Czar, seemed most encouraging. They were all Muslims. Rasul was meanwhile corresponding feverishly with ‘conspiratorial’ figures in Constantinople . . . Around 20 October [1887], Abdul Rasul left Moscow heading for the Middle East via Paris. He carried with him a very secret Russian army plan for some sort of action in Egypt.

Growing suspicious, the British authorities in Cairo detained Abdul Rasul in the early 1890s. He was interrogated and imprisoned for a short time at the Asigarh Fort in India, and then deported to England. There is a census record indicating that in 1891 he was residing in London’s Warren Street area. It is from this point onwards that the trail runs cold.

According to the Probate records at the British Public Records Office, Rasul owned “cultivated lands at Ibrahimieh, Markaz of Hehia in the Mudirieh of Sharkieh” around Cairo. He had a business importing silk goods from Japan and India, and also Kashmiri shawls. His family continued to live in Cairo: sons Abbas Abdel Rasul Kashmiri and Ahmed Abdul Rasul Kashmiri; daughters Fatma (married Galal-el-din Kashmiri), Aziza (married Mohamed Abdel Rasul Kashmir). His wife Amina died in Cairo in October 1919.

What were Abdul Rasul’s activities in London in the 1890s and beyond, and when did he settle in Cairo? Who were his close friends and associates in London and Cairo? Did he leave any letters or memoirs? Does he still have any relatives in Srinagar? Was he an Ottoman spy? Dr Sherif would love to hear from any descendants, archivists, and historians who can help to complete the picture on the life of a great cosmopolitan Kashmiri.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli