Zainab Cobbold’s life journey is a testament to resilience, courage, and unwavering faith. Born in 1867 into Scottish aristocracy as Lady Evelyn Murray, she would eventually embrace Islam and become a pioneering figure in British-Muslim history. From her early years split between Scotland and North Africa to her remarkable conversion to Islam and historic pilgrimage to Mecca, Zainab’s story is one of profound spiritual awakening and impactful advocacy.

Lady Evelyn Murray’s conversion to Islam-to Zainab Cobbold

In 1911, Zainab embarked on a transformative journey through the Libyan Desert with her friend Frances Gordon Alexander, resulting in their joint publication, “Wayfarers in the Libyan Desert,” in 1912. This journey deepened her interest in Islam, leading to her formal conversion by 1915, where she adopted the Arabic name Zainab.

By 1915, she boldly declared her adherence to Islam, adopting the name Zainab, notably in the presence of the Pope, who inquired about her religious affiliation assuming she was Catholic. Despite societal expectations, her conversion held profound significance, particularly for an aristocrat, as it entailed relinquishing social norms. Her profound belief in Islam’s ability to bring peace and happiness to humanity shaped her convictions and actions throughout her life.

Zainab Cobbold: Historical Pilgrimage to Mecca

Zainab made history in 1933 as the first Muslim woman born in the United Kingdom to perform the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite restrictions in place for Europeans, her special dispensation allowed her to embark on this profound spiritual journey. She formally announced her intention to Saudi Arabia’s minister in London, Hafiz Wahba, who sought formal permission from King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in Riyadh. Her personal account of the pilgrimage, published in 1934 under the title “Pilgrimage to Mecca,” provides a unique and enlightening narrative of her experience, including her awe-inspiring first sight of the Kaaba and the deeply spiritual practice of Tawaf.

This is her description in her diary of the first time she saw the Kabah and Tawaf:

“We walk on the smooth marble towards the Holy of Holies, the House of Allah, the great black cube rising in simple majesty, the goal for which millions have forfeited their lives and yet more millions have found heaven in beholding it … the ‘Tawaf’ is a symbol, to use the words of the poet, of a lover making a circuit round the house of his beloved, completely surrendering himself and sacrificing all his interests for the sake of the Beloved. It is in that spirit of self-surrender that the pilgrim makes the ‘Tawaf'”.

Zainab Cobbold: A Legacy of Faith, Philanthropy, and Social Impact

Zainab’s literary legacy provided invaluable insights into Islam, spirituality, and the Muslim experience in the West, while her philanthropic endeavours exemplified her compassionate spirit, uplifting marginalised communities and leaving a lasting impact on society. Her unwavering dedication to social reform, women’s rights, and fostering interfaith dialogue continues to inspire generations, serving as a beacon of hope and empowerment. Zainab’s remarkable journey came to an end in 1963, but her legacy lives on. As stipulated in her wishes, she was buried on a remote hillside on her Glencarron estate in Wester Ross, facing Mecca, with the inscription “Allahu nur-us-samawati wal ard” (“Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth”) on her gravestone. Despite the absence of Muslims in Scotland to perform her janazah, the Imam from Shah Jahan Mosque, Woking, travelled through snow to honour her final wishes. Zainab Cobbold’s life serves as a shining example of faith, resilience, and dedication to making a difference in the world.

This post is part of our Muslim Heritage series, you can read about the remarkable legacies of inspiring Muslim figures and institutions who have etched their impact on history here.