Massey was a military officer from Britain who served in the British Indian Army in the early 20th century. His astounding journey to Islam, entangled in hardships and extreme challenges, started in the 1920s. Before we delve into that journey, however, an incident from 1919 is worth mentioning that attests to Massey being a truly principled and compassionate soldier.
The Amritsar Massacre
In those days, the British occupation of India began to face large-scale opposition. Many people in India were demanding complete independence from Britain, resulting in frequent protests and riots across the country. The situation was particularly tense in the province of Punjab, where Massey was posted. The British had banned all public gatherings in the province, but an estimated crowd of 20,000 gathered in Jallianwala Bagh in the city of Amritsar to peacefully protest the British occupation. Massey, a Major at the time, was among the troops tasked with breaking up the gathering under the command of Brigadier-General Dyer.
Jallianwala Bagh was a park with a five-foot high wall and only one entrance. In a shocking and inhumane move, Dyer stationed his troops at the entrance and ordered them to open fire at the unarmed crowd. At that critical moment, Massey refused to fire – his conscience would not allow him to kill men, women, and children peacefully protesting against a foreign occupying power. Nevertheless, the troops that opened fire ended up killing at least hundreds of protesters. For his bold act of defiance, Major Massey was court-martialed by the British and demoted to the rank of Lieutenant.
A Soldier Disciplined
Let us now move on to the incident that introduced Massey to Islam. Several years after the Amritsar Massacre, Massey was promoted to the rank of Major again, and posted as the commanding officer to the town of Attock in northern Punjab (in modern-day Pakistan). Massey was a single man who often socialized at the local army club. One day, while gazing out the window of his office, Major Massey witnessed an interesting little episode. A soldier, laden with a sack of bricks, was being driven around the ground by his Sikh commander – as was obvious from the latter’s turban. Whenever the soldier slowed down, the commander lashed him on the back and ordered him to maintain his pace.
About an hour later, this soldier was given half an hour to rest, during which he went straight to the water tap and performed ablution. Though he rinsed his mouth, he did not drink any water, which surprised Major Massey as it was the scorching afternoon heat of June. Then the soldier stood on the burning ground to pray, but as soon as he raised his hands to mark the beginning of the prayer, the commander announced that his break was over, and ordered him to resume running.
At that point, Major Massey summoned the soldier to his office, and inquired about the matter. It turned out that the soldier had been late for parade by a few minutes, and that punishment was apparently the Sikh officer’s usual way of exercising prejudice against his Muslim subordinates. Massey asked the soldier as to why he had not drunk any water, to which the soldier replied that he was fasting, as was compulsory for Muslims during the ongoing lunar month of Ramadan. Curious still, Massey insisted that the soldier could have quenched his thirst with a few drops of water only while no one watched; after all, it was almost unbearably hot outside. The soldier replied that Allah, the only God, watches him all the time, and that the soldier would rather give his life away than disobey Allah. This reply left an impression upon Massey.
In Search of the Truth
In the following days, Massey kept thinking about the devotion of the Muslim soldier to his God. He realized he wanted to know more about the philosophy of Islam, which was a minority religion in India, and Massey knew very little about it. A week later, Massey took a few days’ leave which he spent inspecting and purchasing Islamic books in English from a bookstore in the nearby city of Rawalpindi. After returning to Attock, he became deeply immersed in his studies, reading books on Islam and a few chapters of the Quran, recently translated in English by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.
Massey gradually became more interested in his spiritual pursuits and less in the social life at the army club. The more he read about Islam through its original sources, the more he became convinced that the Quran was the unaltered word of God. He began to view Islam as a complete code of life for the entire humanity to follow. He continued learning more about it through personal study, and eventually decided to embrace Islam, despite the risk it posed to his career as a British military officer.
Major Massey decided to take the Shahadah – the declaration of faith in Islam – before the Friday sermon at a nearby mosque in Attock. He announced his intention to become a Muslim to the Imam, who was not sure what to do because the consequences of helping a serving British officer convert to Islam seemed dire. Upon witnessing the Imam’s hesitance, the quiet assembly at the mosque suddenly erupted. The people reminded the Imam of his moral duty to assist whoever wanted to enter Islam of his or her own free will; they even resolved to rise in rebellion if any undue measures were taken against the Imam. The Imam was thus convinced, and Massey uttered the declaration of faith behind him:
“I bear witness that there is no none worthy of worship except Allah; and I bear witness that Muhammad is the servant and messenger of Allah.”
Massey’s official testimony of faith was greeted with cries of Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest) from those assembled in the mosque. Converts to Islam are usually not required to change their names, but many of them do so; and Massey changed his forename to Abdul-Rahman, meaning ‘servant of the Most Merciful’. His greatest test, however, was yet to begin.
The Court Martial
Major Massey’s conversion to Islam was met with sheer hostility by the British. He was immediately court-martialed and confined to his bungalow. He was then dismissed from service in front of the entire garrison. Moreover, his possessions, including his books on Islam, were seized and confiscated. Next, his bank account was frozen, and with only a few hundred rupees in hand, he was forcibly dispatched on a train to Lahore. The clothes he wore, and the meagre cash he carried, was all he owned then. This was a new low in his life – a man who had so loyally and professionally served his country in a foreign land was treated with utmost bias and harshness merely for exercising his personal choice to follow a particular religion.
Arrival in Lahore
Already depressed at being unfairly deprived of his military credentials, Massey felt quite lost upon his arrival in Lahore. He had no acquaintances in the city, and decided to rent a room at Braganza Hotel near the railway station. He confined himself to the room for several days, reading the newspaper, but not knowing what else to do with his life. He finally explained his situation to a local man he met at a party in the same hotel. The next day, this man took Massey to an office of his religious group. What Massey did not know at the time was that this group had recently emerged as a new “sect” of Islam that proclaimed its founder as a prophet of God.
In the following days, Massey read the religious literature offered to him by members of this group, and questioned the group’s Imam about Islam to enhance his knowledge. But his questions were not answered to his satisfaction, and he became further confused, suspecting that he was drifting away from the basics of Islam. Hence, he distanced himself from that sect and persevered in his efforts to truly understand the faith that he had sacrificed everything for.
Meeting the Intellectuals
One day, while reading the Eastern Times, Massey came across an article by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, who served as Principal of the Islamia College in Lahore. Massey remembered him as the translator of his confiscated copy of the Quran, and decided to reach out to him for guidance. This proved to be a turning point in Massey’s struggle for the truth. Yusuf Ali not only helped him learn further about Islam, but also introduced him to other Muslim intellectuals of the time. Sir Abdul Qadir, President of a social welfare organization called Anjuman Himayat-i-Islam, soon managed to introduce Massey to the ruler of Bahawalpur, Sir Sadiq Muhammad Abbasi V.
A New Beginning
Bahawalpur was a small Muslim-majority princely state bordering Punjab in Western India. Although such princely states were also under the British rule, they had greater autonomy, and could maintain separate units of their armies. The Nawab of Bahawalpur was impressed by a talk Massey gave at a high-profile function in Lahore in which he recounted the reasons for his conversion to Islam. The Nawab soon offered Massey a senior post in the army of Bahawalpur, which the latter gladly accepted.
Massey thus started a new life in the state of Bahawalpur. He soon married a woman introduced to him by the Nawab himself. In the following years, Massey thrived in his role as a senior military officer, upgrading the training and administration of the Bahawalpur army, and remaining a close associate of the Nawab. Massey passed on in 1934, and was buried in Bahawalpur, having overcome the immense challenges he faced for the cause of the truth. The hardships he bore, the sacrifices he made, and the patience and determination he exhibited, are indeed a reminder of what some of the earliest converts to Islam endured in seventh-century Mecca.
(Source: “Unknown Preacher of Islam”, the introductory chapter of Prayer According to the Sunnah by Professor Muhammad Zulfiqar, published by Darussalam in 2006)