Imam Bashir Ahmad Rafiq’s Biography
Chapter 18: Ahmadiyyat at Hyde Park, London
Immediately opposite the Queen’s Palace in Central London, full of colorful flowers and some very tall trees, is situated a very attractive and extensive Park. On one side of the Park, there is a whole string of famous Hotels and on the other; there are shops on the Oxford Street. Right in the middle of the Park there is a beautiful lake called ‘The Serpentine’, which is spread over an area of 41 acres. In the summer, it provides an ideal location for relaxation, pleasure and boating. In the winter, when it freezes, people skate on its icy surface. On either corner of the Lake, there are some smart restaurants in which people can eat and from where tourists can buy various items of food and drink of their own choice.
Early in the morning, some affluent persons ride in the Park. Around the bridle path, there are whole rows of bushes and trees. Very often, when it is still dark, some members of the Royal Family also ride in the Park. Throughout the day, tourists, students and others, when exhausted after shopping or some other pursuits, gather in the Park. Under its trees, completely oblivious of all worldly affairs, one can see students engaged in their studies. One can also see whole families busy picnicking.
Everyone seems to be absorbed in his own pursuit. There is never any threat of interference from others. Some, stretched on the green grass, baking in the sun, calmly snore and relax. It must be remembered that brilliant sunshine is somewhat of a rarity in England. Those relaxing in the Park are least bothered by the hustle and bustle in the 361 acres of the Hyde Park.
However, the most significant and the most interesting part of the Park, situated opposite the Marble Arch and the Oxford Street is the place normally known as ‘Speaker’s Corner’. A large number gather there on Sundays. Traditionally, this corner is reserved for speakers and just about anyone can get up and speak on any subject of his choice and for as long as he likes. If a crowd gathers to listen to him, good luck for him. Some speakers continue to speak even when there is no one listening to them. To address the crowd, those who speak regularly, usually bring with them a small stool on which they stand. There is seldom a preamble to an address. The speakers just get up on their feet and begin to speak. Good speakers can attract a sizable audience. Some professional hecklers are always present who by asking various awkward questions attempt to enervate speakers and then they move on.
Some great politicians have in the past been speaking in this very Park. In his early years, Nye Bevin also started his political career in this very Park. Some outstanding socialist leaders also used to speak there regularly. In the afternoons or early in the evenings, when there was no TV and no other means of amusement were available people used to assemble there to listen to the speeches. That was the golden age of this Corner. Then, rather late on Sunday afternoons, crowds began to gather at Hyde Park Corner. Milling crowds were a common sight. One never saw a Policeman. Heated discussions ensued and were a familiar occurrence. Around sunset, the audience melted away into neighboring restaurants. Clutching their wooden stools the speakers also vanished until the following Sunday. Mainly tourist spent stress-free hours in the Park.
Now the whole atmosphere in the Park has undergone a change. Neither the speakers nor the audience seems to be serious any more and that was a special feature of the Park in earlier days. Now most speakers are from amongst the colored and foreigners and some tend to use foul language. Therefore, the audience do not have much of an opportunity to listen to opinions covering serious subjects. Even the Police are now visible and sometimes even a scuffle erupts. If this trend continues, the British Government may have to put an end to this ancient tradition.
Every Sunday, for the last half a century, some unwavering serious minded speakers have been speaking there. They were the ones who attracted crowds. Amongst them were Christians, Socialists, Atheists and Unitarians. One person, to my knowledge, had been seen in the Hyde Park Corner for a continuous period of 22 years. This person hardly ever spoke. He carried a placard on which was written “Repent for the End is Nigh”, i.e. the Doomsday is near so repent. He never made any speeches but with his placard in hand just moved around. However, if any questions were asked of him, he would open his Bible and spell out signs of the last days. He deserved great admiration for his courage. He did not represent any mission but was a mission personified.
Whoever could succeed in speaking at the Hyde Park Corner was sure to become a good speaker. There, questions were showered from all sides and professional hecklers made the speakers life miserable. Sometimes they exceeded all limits. Any speaker who could handle them would never be afraid of confronting any audience. Some Christian denominations used Hyde Park Corner as a training ground. Every week, under the guidance and supervision of a tutor, some young clergy delivered speeches. Normally, on their own, these speakers remained engaged in their speeches and only, if and when necessary, the tutor butted in and guided them. If any difficult questions were asked, the teacher answered them.
Normally all speeches were extempore. I have never seen anyone delivering a written speech. Since the use of loud speakers was not permitted, so that even those at a distance could hear him and benefit from the speech, a speaker had to get used to speaking very loudly. In short, the Hyde Park Corner in England was a Commanding institution where one witnessed an admirable example of free speech.
The great privilege of introducing Islam into the Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner belongs to the Ahmadi missionaries. They were the first to propagate Islam there. There we got a number of converts to Islam. Bilal Nuttall was one of those. He had the rare privilege of calling Adhan on the inauguration of the London Mosque. How, from this Christian platform, the Islamic call was raised is an interesting story.
Hadhrat Chaudhry Fateh Muhammad Sial was our first missionary in England. He arrived in England in 1913. He felt that work for the spiritual conquest of Islam should commence from the Hyde Park Corner. Accordingly, he started speaking there and his efforts were blessed with success. Now hear the story in his own words.
“I went to Hyde Park on a Saturday where speakers from various faiths and societies were speaking. The Atheists attracted the biggest audience. An Atheist stood up to speak and he raised certain objections against the Old Testament and Moses. Then he enlarged his subject and started criticising all Religions and all those who believed in God. After that, he allowed a quarter of an hour for those in the audience who wished to refute his arguments. Amongst the audience, there were a few Christians. Most were Atheists and no one had the courage to speak up.
Taking advantage of this occasion, in simple terms, I spoke on the subject of existence of God. My emphasis was on ‘Divine Revelation’. I tried to explain that any knowledge based on Divine Revelations was always trustworthy and reliable. At the end of my speech, which only lasted for quarter of an hour the Atheist speaker tried to make fun of me. He said that many prophets had appeared in England and Piggott was still living. Therefore, there was no need for a new prophet. As I had no hope of being given more time to speak so, I stood aside. Some from amongst the audience gathered around me and started asking questions about ‘Divine Revelations’."
From this beginning, this process continued and for a long while the name of Islam and the name of Hadhrat Muhammad Mustafa (saw) were heard through our celebrated missionaries. When Hadhrat Yaqoob Ali Irfani toured Europe, while in London, he delivered speeches in Hyde Park on a regular basis. Influenced by his speeches our dear brother, Bilal Nuttall became a Muslim.
In the beginning, our Mission House was situated quite close to Hyde Park. Therefore, our missionaries were able to invite to the Mission House those amongst the British audience who showed some interest in Islam. There, apart from conveying the message of Islam, they were also given some literature. Hadhrat Qazi Muhammad Abdullah, Hadhrat Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, Hadhrat Moulvi Abd ur Raheem Near, Hadhrat Moulvi Sher Ali, Hadhrat Meer Abd us Salaam, Hadhrat Aziz Deen the father of Abdul Aziz Deen and Hadhrat Maulana Shams top the list of those who spoke in Hyde Park Corner.
It must be mentioned here that Mr Abdul Aziz Deen who has been referred to above was a very energetic, dynamic and sincere person. He came to England in 1928 and had stayed here ever since. His father, Hadhrat Babu Aziz Deen Sialkoti was a Companion of the Promised Messiah. During most debates he served as a timekeeper. Once, when Abdul Aziz Deen and I went to Hyde Park Corner for Tableegh, pointing to a bench, Mr Aziz Deen said:
“Look at Mr Green seated on the bench.”
I was most anxious to meet him. He met us both warmly and when we told him that Maulana Shams had passed away, he shed a tear or two and said:
“He was a great scholar of the Bible.”
Mr Green was then about ninety years old. For a while, we talked about Maulana Shams.
Whilst he was in England Hadhrat Moulvi Sher Ali also regularly spoke in the Park. A sizable crowd normally waited for him. It is strange that, possibly due to his apparent demeanor and commanding personality, no one amongst the hecklers dare bother him. Hadhrat Meer Abd us Salaam Sialkoti was also one of the regular speakers in Hyde Park. I have listened to several of his speeches. He had a complete command of the English language and was fully conversant with references from the Bible that he had memorized. Since he stood on a tall platform and was himself tall, he could be seen from a distance while he spoke.
For more than half a century Hyde Park Corner has been linked with the history of Ahmadiyyat.