The queen, the princess and the prophet
Although it is improbable that Elizabeth II is a descendant of Muhammad, one of the British queen's ancestors was likely a refugee Muslim princess. However, the enduring popularity of this theory speaks some harsh truths about post-colonial reality and sheds light on the intertwined history of Islam and Christendom.
Death can come at the most unexpected of moments, as occurred with Elizabeth II. Although the British queen was 96 years old, a mere 48 hours before her passing away she had appeared in good enough health to anoint Liz Truss as the UK's new prime minister. Death can also lead to unexpected reactions. One is the circulation in many Muslim circles, on social media and through WhatsApp channels, of the theory that the British queen, who is also the head of the Church of England, is descended from the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.
“May Allah protect her,” tweeted a journalist who posted a family tree purporting to link Elizabeth II to Muhammad which was retweeted thousands of times.
“RIP sister – no one rocked the hijab like you did,” wrote, perhaps tongue in cheek, another Twitter user in a viral post featuring photos of the queen in her trademark headscarves that she wore against the wind rather than for religious purposes.
For those unfamiliar with this hypothesis that links the queen to the prophet, it may seem like just another example of outlandish fake news based on alternative internet facts. But the theory, which dates back to 1986, surfaced before the World Wide Web and social media. It was first put forward in a letter sent to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by controversial genealogist Harold B. Brooks-Baker, publishing director at the sombre Burke's Peerage, a genealogical publisher which has been researching the lineage of the British aristocracy since the early 19th century. Burke's Peerage has lately distanced itself from Brooks-Baker's claim and told Snopes, the fact-checking service, that the original source was not them but a 1982 book titled Royal Highness: Ancestry of the Royal Child by Iain Moncreiffe.
If the theory proves true, this would make Elizabeth II de facto a sayyida or sharifa, which literally means ‘noble' in Arabic and is used to refer to the descendants of the prophet's family. Her son, the freshly minted King Charles III, who has expressed admiration for some traditionalist and mystical Islamic philosophers, such as Iranian-born Seyyed Hossein Nasr and British-born Martin Lings, would also be a sharif. This would mean that the British royal house is not only related to many of the royal families of Europe, as is well known, but would also be related to Islamic dynasties that claim descent from Muhammad, such as the Hashemites in Jordan or, historically, the Fatimids and Abbasids.
This complicated reality undermines one of the central narratives underpinning modern Islamist thought, the simplistic conviction that Britain, like the West in general, is at war with Islam and wishes to destroy it. It also undermines a central tenet of modern ultranationalist thinking in Britain, like other parts of Europe and America, that Islam is out to destroy the West.
So how credible is this theory and where does the alleged link between the queen and the prophet lie?
To find it, we must travel back to medieval Spain where we will seek out another royal woman, a mysterious princess from a millennium ago called Zaida. She lived in the early 11th century in Seville, Spain, which was then ruled by her father (according to Christian sources) or father-in-law (according to Islamic chroniclers) al-Mu'tamid Muhammad ibn Abbad al-Lakhmi, the poet-king of Seville.
If al-Mu'tamid was, indeed, Zaida's father, and not her father-in-law, then Muhammad may well have been her ancestor, if we accept that the lineage of the Abbadid dynasty, to which they belonged, did, indeed, stretch all the way back to the prophet, via his grandson Hassan.
That being said, it is far from conclusive that Hassan was an ancestor of the Abbadids, as it was (and remains) fairly common for Arab rulers and other notables to claim descent from the prophet's house to cement their legitimacy, even though Islam, as envisioned by Muhammad, was not meant to be a hereditary polity. Moreover, historians tend to regard earlier Islamic sources as more reliable in this matter than later Christian chronicles, so it is unlikely that Zaida was an Abbadid by blood.
However, it is feasible, though not certain, that Zaida and Elizabeth II are related, given the porous cultural and political frontiers of medieval Spain. For much of the seven centuries in which Iberia had a Muslim presence, the peninsula was in a constant flux of shifting power and allegiances between its Muslim and Christian kingdoms. Beyond the headline conflict between Islam and Christendom, Muslims and Christians often went to war with their coreligionists and made alliances with the supposed enemies of their faith. In a previous essay about the little-known alliance between the iconic Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and the equally iconic Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, I covered some of this counter-ideological history. This revealed, I concluded, that Muslims and Christians can simultaneously be foes and friends, both with each other and among themselves – and that sharing a religion is no guarantee of peace, just as belonging to different faiths is no assurance of war.
Although a Muslim ruler, al-Mu'tamid was a vassal of the Castilian King Alfonso VI and paid his Christian overlord a tribute known as parias in medieval Spain. When the drain of these taxes, which had weakened his kingdom's power, became too much, al-Mu'tamid stopped paying them, which prompted Alfonso to lay siege to Seville.
The Muslim sovereign of Seville had also, against the warning of his son, sought the aid of the Almoravids, a dynasty based in Marrakesh. Just as later crusaders would sack and occupy Constantinople instead of aiding it during the Fourth Crusade, the Almoravids not only fought Alfonso VI but also conquered the territories of its Iberian Muslim allies. Seville fell to the Almoravids in 1091 and al-Mu'tamid was exiled, despite Alfonso's offer of assistance that failed to materialise.
Caught up in this tumult, Zaida fled the Almoravid onslaught and found refuge in Alfonso's court, where she became his mistress, giving Alfonso VI's his only son, Sancho, who died in the battle before his father. Confronting repeated defeats at the hands of the Almoravids who were dashing his dream to rule over all of Iberia, Alfonso tried to forge alliances with Andalusian Muslims against the Almoravid's and even tried to brand himself the Emperor of the Two Religions.
Whether Zaida is an ancestor of Elizabeth II depends on whether she converted to Christianity and took on the Christian name Isabel (interestingly, the medieval Spanish form of Elizabeth) to become Alfonso's fourth wife, as some historians posit, or whether this Isabel was a different woman, as other historians maintain. If Zaid was Alfonso's spouse, one of her descendants, Isabel Pérez, was sent to England in the 14th century to marry Edmund Duke of York, son of Edward III, Elizabeth II's 17th great-grandfather.
Why does the distant ancestry of a 96-year-old ceremonial monarch who had no political power matter? Rationally, it does not, especially for those of us who oppose the system of monarchy and believe in equality and meritocracy. But symbolically it matters to some British Muslims who feel marginalised because Elizabeth II is perceived by the British establishment to be the “rock on which modern Britain was built”, in the words of Liz Truss.
For those British Muslims who are also royalists the idea that their late queen is “theirs” not only in the here and now but also in the there and then holds a certain alluring appeal because it is a foil against the suspicion, racism and constant questioning of their loyalty to which they are subjected. Of course, many British Muslims are not royalists because they recall the many crimes of the British empire in their ancestral homelands, especially the Indian subcontinent – for them, whether or not Elizabeth has some Muslim ancestry is neither here nor there. These conflicting attitudes to the queen's death have led to some tension and heated exchanges between Muslims opposed to the crown and those who support it.
Beyond the UK's shores, Elizabeth II's death has drawn more attention than one would expect in Arab and Muslim countries – as it has done across the Commonwealth – with presidents, kings and emirs tripping over themselves to eulogise the British sovereign. In addition, her purported Islamic ancestry has elicited a surprisingly high level of interest in the media and on social media. This reflects the polarised, confused, confusing and complex way in which Britain's former colonies relate to the memories of the British empire and the royal family which once embodied it.
On the one hand, there is the still simmering anger and bitterness triggered by memories of the long history of Britain's subjugation and exploitation of the peoples it regarded as inferior, not to mention the many colonial crimes the empire committed over the centuries, including brutal wars, massacres, famines and slavery – some of the abuses, such as the ruthless and cruel suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, even occurred during Elizabeth's watch. This sentiment is worsened by the UK's occasional forays into neo-colonial misadventures, such as the invasion of Iraq. It is also deepened by the continued denial or understating of the harsh legacy of British colonialism among many members of the UK's conservative elite, not to mention the establishment's growing nostalgia for the days of empire.
“The problem is not that we were once in charge [in Africa], but that we are not in charge anymore,” former prime minister Boris Johnson, flipping history on its head, wrote 20 years ago in The Spectator, a magazine he edited when he was a journalist and not yet premier. Almost a third of Brits, according to a 2020 YouGov poll, emphatically agree, believing that Britain's former colonies were better off when they were part of the empire.
While few in the former colonies would agree that they were better off under British rule, some do look back fondly on some aspects of the empire they never experienced or witnessed. Drawing on an inferiority complex (known in Arabic as “the foreigner complex”), bred by centuries of European domination, and tapping the deep sense of post-colonial disappointment in some countries, there is a narrative which romanticises the pre-independence era. This phenomenon manifests itself in a wide range of attitudes and behaviour, from nostalgia in Egypt towards the reign of the country's last king, Faruq, who ruled under British tutelage, to the popularity of former British colonial hill stations, such as Simla, not only amongst Raj nostalgists from Britain but also amongst the Indian middle and upper classes.
Across the former empire, there are complicated love-hate sentiments towards the British, who are both deeply despised and profoundly admired. Older people in particular tend to have a picture of the British as highly efficient, educated, pragmatic and cultured. That is partly why the debacle around Brexit and the incompetence and nepotism of the leaders who spearheaded the UK's departure from the European Union elicited considerable confusion among the formerly colonised. How in the world did the British manage to run an empire upon which the sun reputedly never set if they can't even manage their own affairs with their nearest neighbours? How could a country which had little confidence in our ability to self-govern fail so miserably to govern itself? This message was amplified during the debacle of Liz Truss's short-lived 45 days in office, though many in India and Africa glow with pride at the appointment of Rishi Sunak, despite his extreme wealth and elitist background, as her successor.
The pomp and circumstance surrounding Elizabeth II's passing away appears to have restored some of the larger-than-life, fairy tale fantasy associated with what had been the largest empire in history, covering a quarter of the world at its greatest extent in 1920, just six years before Elizabeth's birth. The smooth transition of power must have resonated in countries where the death of the head of state leads to a period of instability or even conflict. And for countries run by absolutist monarchs, such as the Gulf states, or hereditary presidents, such as Syria, the fact that the British queen reigned longer than any autocrat must have seemed familiar, though the fact that she was little more than a ceremonial figurehead must seem both alien and an appealing alternative to those suffering under the yoke of autocracy, even if they dream of full-fledged democracy and meritocracy.
Of course, many of these autocrats have the British, at least partly, to thank for their fiefdoms. Not only did the British (and the French) carve up the Middle East into its modern states, the British played a central role in creating and protecting the region's petro states. Pakistan also exists thanks to the British partition of India in 1947 to appease the All-India Muslim League, and the queen was Pakistan's first head of state. Pakistan even declared a day of national mourning for the deceased monarch on 12 September, as if people can mourn at the state's command.
The British were not the enemies of Islam – they were generally the enemies of anyone who stood in the way of their interests and became allies with those who served their interests. That explains why and how Saudi Arabia, the land on whose territory Islam was founded, has been a staunch ally of Britain for over a century, despite the two sides having almost nothing in common.
Against the backdrop of this polarisation and the growing hatred associated with it, the repeated popularity of the theory about Elizabeth II's Islamic heritage expresses, at a certain level, a deep-seated and desperate desire to find common ground. However, whether or not the British queen has Muslim ancestry is neither here nor there because, with or without her, Islam and Christianity have common roots and a shared history. Who is a friend and who is a foe depends on so much more than religion, and, for most societies, changes regularly according to the circumstances of the moment.
This is the updated version of an essay which first appeared in New Lines magazine on 14 September 2022.