Abdul-Azim Ahmed – Wales’s First Muslim Grave14 March 2023
The pursuit of “firsts” is always enticing in history as superlative claims help justify the importance of the findings in question. But such claims are always contentious and prone to contradiction.
Given this, it is with some hesitation I’m sharing the story of the first Muslim grave in Wales – at least the first on record, and with the hope that rather than being fixed as fact, this claim is soon undermined by an even earlier record.
In early March 2023, I visited for the second time Bethlehem Chapel in Pwlltrap, St Clears, a short distance from the town of Carmarthen in West Wales. There, in the picturesque Welsh countryside, is a chapel with a graveyard in which is buried Amelia Kadija Baksh. The grave is, as I mentioned, the first recorded Muslim burial in Wales. Unlike other early burials, such as those in Cardiff, Swansea and Mostyn, it was not a Muslim seaman who was buried there. Nor was it a soldier from the Indian subcontinent, of which there about a dozen in places like the Brecon Beacons. Instead, Amelia’s story is much more unique for her time in history.
Amelia Davies, as she was named, was born in 1867 to a reasonably well-known family in Carmarthenshire. Her father and grandfather had various professions, from running a public house to farming. She was raised in West Wales until, according to census records, she found her way to Cardiff in 1881 to live with her sister. There are very few other records available to know about her early life, but in her twenties, she became newsworthy. In 1891 she had moved to live with her brother in London. While there, she met Sheikh Meeran Buksh. The Buksh family produced several notable figures in the history of India, especially during Empire, and Sheikh Meeran Buksh was amongst them. He held an organizing role in Anjuman-i-Islam in Lahore, as well as the Mahommedan Association of Lahore (though the latter may simply be a translation of the former). In the 1890s, he was in London as a law student.
It’s not entirely clear how Sheikh Meeran Buksh and Amelia met. It is possible that Sheikh Meeran was lodged in her brother’s home at the same time as she was living there. However they happened to meet, they decided to marry. News reports detail the ceremony, which was conducted in the Liverpool Muslim Institute, and officiated by Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam. Amelia had converted to Islam and taken the name Kadija (while news report spelt it Khadija, her gravestone spells it Kadija). Abdullah Quilliam is a well-known figure amongst those who study Islam in Victorian Britain, and research continues on his prolific activities. Riordan Macnamara believes Sheikh Meeran heard of the Liverpool Muslim Institute at meetings he organized as part of Anjuman-i-Islam, and counts him as one of Quilliam’s earliest supporters.
Newspaper reports indicate the wedding was conducted on Friday 4th December 1891, Amelia being 24 years old. The newspaper articles paint a vivid picture, describing both the bride and bridegrooms dress, as well as Quilliam’s sermon, praying that their marriage is as blessed as “Adam and Eve, the Holy Prophet and Khadija, Fatima and Ali”.
Unfortunately, the marriage was fated to come to a sad and abrupt end. Sheikh Meeran Buksh was sitting through an appeal against accusations of impropriety that had his membership to Gray’s Inn rejected. An article from The Western Mail dated from 16th August 1894 details the outcome: –
“…and after the charges had been thoroughly and carefully examined on the 18th and 19th December last , the learned judges unanimously came to the conclusion that there was no foundation whatever for the statements made against Sheikh Meeran Buksh, and gave their decision absolutely in his favour, stating at the same time that the charges were founded purely on religious jealously by some of the Hindu community in India, the learned Sheikh being a Mahomedan.”
On the last day of his appeal, the 19th December 1893, Amelia Khadija Baksh passed away at the young age of 26. Linda Fox, a descendant of Amelia Khadija Baksh, researched the story of Amelia, locating her death and marriage certificate. The death certificate indicates she died from a brain hemorrhage, a sudden and unexpected cause that likely came as a shock to Sheikh Meeran.
Further news reports give account of Sheikh Meeran’s heartbreak, the devotion of the couple to each other, Amelia’s earnest conversion to Islam and memorization of the Quran, and crowds gathering to welcome Sheikh Meeran back on his return to India.
Amelia’s story is remarkable in many ways. I do not believe Amelia is the first Muslim to be buried in Wales, though I think it likely she is the earliest historians will be able to identify. Any stories of adventurous Muslim travelers, captive Muslim slaves from the Crusades, secret medieval conversions, or slain Barbary Muslim pirates remain unverifiable. Such stories may be rooted in truth, but we’ll likely never know for sure. The only verifiable convert before Amelia Kadija Buksh is the 3rd Baron of Alderley Lord Stanley, born 1827 and died in 1903 (the dates of Lord Stanley’s life only stress how short Amelia’s was). The Baron Alderley was buried in Chester, though he held Welsh estates (and his aristocratic background has already prompted some to challenge me on how far the Baron can be counted as a “Welsh” Muslim).
Nonetheless, in many ways Amelia can be counted as a symbolic progenitor of the Welsh Muslim community. It is remarkable and rare to be able to point to a figure in history and be able to say this was among the first of this community. Today there are in the region of 67,000 Welsh Muslims, and though there are no firm numbers, several hundred of them are no doubt Welsh Muslim women converts.
Other aspects of Amelia’s story prompt questions too. There was no shortage of paternalistic, dismissive, and sometimes explicit racism in discussion of Islam and Muslims in newspapers from the Victorian era. That said, there was a certain acceptance of Amelia Kadija’s conversion and marriage to an Indian Muslim. Her faith was spoken of positively. Her husband was described as “determined and persevering”, and perhaps most notably, she was buried in an Independent Welsh chapel under her Muslim name, Kadija, with seemingly no objections. There are no indications as to how far her Muslim rites were observed during the burial (though the orientation of the graves mean, should she have been placed on her right side as is Islamic tradition, she would have faced Makkah). Her husband, having taken the effort to undertake a Muslim nikkah with Quilliam, would likely have not been remiss in ensuring she had the janaza prayer, and perhaps even buried following a ghusl. Overall though, there seems to have been a remarkable degree of acceptance of her choices in life, from her family, community, and broader society.
A romanticised explanation may be that a tradition of non-conformism in Wales allowed Amelia Kadija to be treated not as a convert to a hostile, regressive, exotic religion, but simply another brand of non-conformism (Islam being simply another brand of Christian reform), a much more familiar story in Wales during this period. Amelia Kadija may be a fitting symbol of Prof Tim Winter’s contention of Islam as non-conformism:
“British Islam, as a contiguous movement, emerged not as a radical xenotransplant from a foreign place, but as a continuation of the world of congregationalism, pledges, and Temperance Hotels.”
Such an explanation however could overlook a much more simple explanation. Amelia Kadija Baksh, though from a relatively wealthy family, would have been marrying up. Sheikh Meeran Buksh was a law student, from a wealthy and celebrated Indian Muslim family, and so, the boundaries and etiquette of class and gender made such a relationship palatable to Victorian sensibilities.
Buried in this story too is another interesting dimension of Islam and Wales. Graham Davies, author of The Dragon and the Crescent, always sought to stress in his work that the Welsh view towards Islam and Muslims was in no way more enlightened, more accepting, or more tolerant than the English. His meticulous study of Islam as it emerged in Welsh literature and writing revealed the same prejudices and bigotry as in English writing. In this context then, the following excerpt from the aforementioned Western Mail news report, as the quote itself claims, is noteworthy: –
“It is worthy of note that all the Welsh gentlemen benchers of Gray’s Inn stood by him [Sheikh Meeran Buksh] through his troubles at Gray’s Inn, particularly Mr Bowen Rowlands QC MP, Mr Jeremy and Mr Griffith”
This positive confluence of Welsh and Muslim identity rarely occurred in early papers (and when it did, it was often in more disparaging terms towards both the Welsh and the Muslim).
Finally, Amelia Kadija Buksh’s story has merit for helping locate Islam in Wales. It is all too easy to relegate Welsh Muslim presence to the “docks”, to working men, and to diverse urban centres. This was not true in the earliest periods of Muslim settlement, and it is not true today. Amelia’s grave, a notable historic site in the story of Islam in Wales, is in the beautiful rural countryside of Wales.
Currently the grave is covered in ivy and moss, and Amelia Kadija’s name almost illegible. During my visit, members of the congregation of Bethlehem Chapel indicated their wish to clean the gravestone to celebrate this unique story. Or perhaps it is best to leave it as it is, a testament to how long Islam has been a Welsh religion.
I’d like to thank Susan Fielding from the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales; Arwel Jones from Bethlemem St Clears; Linda Fox, a descendant of Amelia Kadija Buksh who first researched her story; the members of the Muslim History UK WhatsApp Group; and the Jameel Educational Foundation for supporting the Islam in Wales research project.
For more information about the Islam in Wales history project, see https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/research/explore/find-a-project/view/2618934-islam-in-wales