‘Memorial’: Writer, Activist and Scholar Shanon Shah’s Response to the Monument to Professor Edward Henry Palmer, Captain William John Gill, Lieutenant Harold Charrington RN, Khalil Atik and Bakhor Hassun (d. 1882) by Hart, Son, Peard & Co.
Dr Shanon Shah reflects on the monument in this video, and how he arrived at his focus on its quotation from the Psalms for his thought-provoking article, ‘Memorial’, below.
Khalil Atik/Bakhor Hassun
by Shanon Shah
It is not the fact that a Muslim and a Jew were buried with Christian rites, in the absence of the people who survived them, that is so disturbing. It’s also not worth speculating on the exact nature of the relationship between them and these murdered imperial scholar-soldier-spies.
Maybe it is the obfuscation of history that is so frustrating. Would anyone reading this inscription be able to place 1883, the year these men were interred, in the bigger context? The Indian Rebellion of 1857. The Mahdist Revolution in Sudan, 1881-1899. The British theft of the Benin Bronzes in 1897. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.
Suppose we set these events aside for now. Suppose, instead, we ask what this inscription might be saying (or not saying) about the “clash” of civilisations between Christianity and Islam, or between coloniser and colonised? After all, our attention is first drawn to Edward Henry Palmer, the Cambridge scholar of “rare genius”. We then linger upon the “distinguished” and “ardent” soldiers of “high promise” before we are finally introduced to the “faithful” Syrian and Hebrew “attendants” amongst this unfortunate imperial expedition in largely Muslim Egypt.
Against this backdrop, what is intriguing is the quote from the King James Version of Psalm 141 found at the end of the inscription: “Our bones lie scattered before the Pit, as when one breaketh and cleaveth Wood upon the Earth, but our eyes look unto Thee O Lord God!”
The Biblical scholars Walter Brueggemann and William H Bellinger, Jr. tell us the “faith articulated in Psalm 141 has a more introspective and reflective tone than is reflected in most psalms” (Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Psalms, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p.589). This verse, in particular, is part of a string of verses that are notoriously difficult to handle. Whose bones exactly are strewn at the mouth of the Pit? The wicked? The innocent petitioner?
In collective worship, the psalms are often recited aloud with a pause in the middle of each verse. This can be off-putting if praying this way is not in one’s habit. But the pause offers the petitioner time to taste, chew, ingest and digest each line. As a daily practice, it can induce drudgery at times but, at others, it can invoke wonderment. Other days might be marked with an ambivalent interior dialogue.
In this spirit, I am tempted to reproduce the New Revised Standard Version of Psalm 141, with the space between each verse providing room for a scriptural echo from the Qur’an, a sacred text that Professor Palmer, Khalil Atik, and perhaps Bakhor Hassun would have been familiar with.
1 I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you.
We are closer to them than their jugular vein.
Sura 50, Qaaf (Qaaf): verse 16
2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.
We have truly given abundance to you – so pray to your Lord and make your sacrifice to Him alone.
Sura 108, Al-Kawthar (Abundance): 1-2
3 Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.
Untie my tongue, so that they may understand my words.
Sura 29, Al-‘Ankabut (The Spider): 27-28
4 Do not turn my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with those who work iniquity; do not let me eat of their delicacies.
God has sealed their hearts and their ears, and their eyes are covered. They will have a great torment.
Sura 2, Al-Baqara (The Cow): 7
5 Let the righteous strike me; let the faithful correct me. Never let the oil of the wicked anoint my head, for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds.
They have bought error in exchange for guidance, so their trade reaps no profit, and they are not rightly guided.
Sura 2: 16
6 When they are given over to those who shall condemn them, then they shall learn that my words were pleasant.
Argue with them in the most courteous way, for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His way and who is rightly guided.
Sura 16, Al-Nahl (The Bee): 125
7 Like a rock that one breaks apart and shatters on the land, so shall their bones be strewn at the mouth of Sheol.
The Inevitable Hour! What is the Inevitable Hour? What will explain to you what the Inevitable Hour is?
Sura 68, Al-Qalam (The Pen): 1-3
8 But my eyes are turned toward you, O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenceless.
We are closer to them than their jugular vein.
Sura 50, Qaaf (Qaaf):verse 16.
9 Keep me from the trap that they have laid for me, and from the snares of evildoers.
Say, ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of people…against the harm of the slinking whisperer – who whispers into the hearts of people…’
Sura 114, Al-Nas (People)
10 Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I alone escape.
As for those who disbelieve, it makes no difference whether you warn them or not: they will not believe.
Sura 2: 6.
Psalm 141, New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
The Qur’an quotations taken from the translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008).
There are so many ways to analyse the colonial or racialised relationships of power that this memorial reveals, or perhaps more accurately, conceals. I mean, we’ll never actually know how these men felt – about themselves, about each other, about the circumstances that brought them together, and about their final moments alive. Aspects of human experience such as thesehave always intrigued me, probably because of my own personal circumstances. I am mixed race, gay, Muslim, Malaysian by birth and upbringing, and I am now based in the UK where I am civilly partnered with an English Anglican priest. My family in Malaysia and my closest friends in the UK and Malaysia are also religiously and racially very diverse. So, I’ve lived and breathed interfaith relationships from the moment I was born.
This is probably why I’m fascinated by how people use religious texts and teachings. And maybe that’s whyI was drawn most powerfully to the scriptural excerpt that the memorial’s inscription closes with. Because as a gay Muslim, now in a loving relationship with a gay Christian, I’ve always been fascinated by how religious texts have been transmitted, lived and engaged with. What do different people claim these texts really mean? How do these meanings shift or transform depending on the intentions and experiences of the transmitter and the recipient? And, if we’re talking about believing Muslims and Christians, what about the intentions of the Divine author?
And some meanings have been imposed upon people more than others, while other meanings have been silenced, erased or censored.
Sometimes it’s not even about meaning. It’s about the questions or ideas that certain passages raise, again depending on the context. For example,how many Christians in Britain knowthat British authorities actually banned the Magnificat, the song of the Virgin Mary, in colonial India because they were afraid it would spark ideas of justice, equality and liberation among the natives?
But back to this memorial. I was pleasantly surprised that the verses from the Psalm chosen for the inscription are actually quite enigmatic. A bit like what we know or don’t knowabout the relationship between these men. I’m not sure this was intentional. But, anyway, instead of finding a definitive answer about the meaning of these verses, I decided to follow where they took my heart – into a rich interior dialogue between the Qur’an and the Bible. These are two scriptures that are very close to me as a Muslim with a deep and abiding love for the wisdom of other religious traditions.
About Shanon Shah
Dr Shanon Shah holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from King’s College London, where he is currently Visiting Research Fellow. He previously lectured in religious studies there and at the University of Kent, and currently teaches religious studies part-time at the University of London Worldwide’s Divinity programme. He is the author of the monograph The Making of a Gay Muslim: Religion, Sexuality and Identity in Malaysia and Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and is an editor at Critical Muslim, the flagship quarterly publication of the Muslim Institute (a London-based educational fellowship).
Shanon is currently the Director of Faith for the Climate, a London-based network of faith-inspired climate justice activists, and also conducts research on minority religions and alternative spiritualities at the Information Network on Religious Movements (Inform), a research charity based at King’s College London. His research and teaching interests include the ethnographic study of religion, contemporary Islam and Christianity, new religious movements, gender and sexuality, popular culture, and social movements.
Before moving to the UK, Shanon was an award-winning singer-songwriter, playwright, and journalist in his native Malaysia. His multiple-award-winning 2008 play, Air Con, about homphobic and transphobic bullying in an elite boys’ school in Malaysia, received a much-acclaimed online revival in September 2021.
Find Shanon on Twitter.
About the Monument
Professor Edward Henry Palmer, Captain William John Gill, Lieutenant Harold Charrington RN, Khalil Atik and Bakhor Hassun were all murdered in the Sinai Desert in August 1882. The three Englishmen, travelling in Arab dress, were acting for the British government; Atik, a Syrian Christian, was in Gill’s employ as a guide; and Hassun, who kept the fact he was Jewish concealed, was the expedition cook. What became known as the ‘Sinai Massacre’ was a story of robbery and betrayal as well as murder so violent that when their mutilated bodies were discovered by a search party some two months later, it was impossible to distinguish whose bones were whose.
The remains of all five victims were brought back to England and interred in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, following a funeral service ‘with Christian rites’ on 6 April 1883. The place was marked by the brass wall memorial created by the renowned metalwork company Hart, Son, Peard & Co. In addition to an outline of the murder, it presents both Christian and Muslim objects in the corners of its highly decorative border, as well as the colonial symbol of Britannia, weeping in the desert.