Thomas Cook – The travel agent of a Muslim Caliph

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Asif Basit

The 178-year-old travel service provider, Thomas Cook collapsed on 23 September 2019. All of its flights were grounded and travellers were left stranded on airports. 

The company may have collapsed and its flights grounded, but a special element of its history will never let its name collapse and its fame will forever fly high.

Indeed, there must be a list of very important personalities that travelled with Thomas Cook in all these years, but here, we intend to mention a certain passenger who holds immense importance in the history of interfaith harmony.

As Great Britain was setting up in London the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, it was decided that a conference be held where prominent religious leaders be invited to speak about their faiths. In selecting great leaders of faiths, great towns were looked at. However, a prospective guest speaker was discovered living in a very small hamlet of the British-Indian Punjab. 

Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra was then the head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community that was rapidly spreading. It had not only spread across India but had also sent its missionaries to London by 1913. School of Oriental Studies (now SOAS) – the organiser of the conference – sent an invitation out to Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra in Qadian.

The community functioned on very limited resources, but the event demanded all possible effort to have the Caliph himself in attendance. Funds and loans were arranged, and travel arrangements were underway in no time. The Caliph left Qadian and travelled to Bombay (now Mumbai) on 14 July 1924. From the station, he headed straight to the travel agent that was making all arrangements of the long journey to and from London. He was soon seated in the office of Thomas Cook discussing and finalising plans.

Why the Caliph had chosen Thomas Cook is not mentioned in history, but we do have an assumption.

Thomas Cook & Sons had gained goodwill among Indian Muslims when it offered its first ever travel package to Hajj in 1886. 

“There were a number of travel companies taking the Indian Muslim pilgrims to Jeddah from Bombay, but the arrangements were not up to the mark,” says Dr John Slight – a lecturer in imperial and global history at The Open University, UK – in an exclusive interview to Al Hakam.

“The pilgrims were overcharged and essential elements like health and safety were being neglected. The British government hence sought the services of Thomas Cook and signed them up to be the sole service provider for the Indian Muslim pilgrims. Thomas Cook arranged for travel via steamships, their railway travel to get to the port and their accommodation in hotels”. 

Dr Slight went on to reveal that “Queen Victoria, as we know, had become interested in Islam and had a Muslim munshi working for her in her palace. In 1877, she also met a group of pilgrims who had travelled to the Hijaz for Hajj and had decided to pay the Queen a visit. Winston Churchill stated in an official memo in 1920 that ‘we are the greatest Mohammedan power in the world. It is our duty to study policies which are in harmony with Mohammedan feeling’.”

It could well be this background that led the Caliph to travel with Thomas Cook. However, the Caliphra boarded the ship named SS Africa from Bombay at 9am on 15 July 1924 and, travelling through Port Said, Damascus, Rome and Paris, arrived in London on 22 August 1924. 

From Victoria Station, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra travelled straight to Ludgate Hill where he offered prayers in accordance with an Islamic tradition regarding the victory of the Messiah at Bab-ul-Ludd (an Arabic name resembling Ludgate).

London office of Thomas Cook & Sons, 1924

It was here, at Ludgate Circus, that he visited the office of Thomas Cook several times during his stay.

Thomas Cook provided all facilities for money exchange, sending and receiving his post to and from Qadian in India and arrangements for the Caliph’s travel back home.

The Ahmadiyya community in India were given the address of Thomas Cook & Sons, Ludgate Circus, London to write to the Khalifatul Masih.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih II’s paper, titled The Ahmadiyya Movement, was read at the conference and was received with great admiration and appreciation.

Sir Denison Ross, the secretary of the conference, expressed his admiration of the Caliph and his paper in the following words:

“We had a demonstration of an electric and spiritual personality. His sparkling eye, his manly voice, his rhythmic torrent of words, his beautiful gestures and scintillating humour captivated the audience which accorded him with a great ovation.

This remarkable enterprise led to great publicity in the press and secured considerable interest for our conference”.

British newspapers covered the stay of the Caliph in London all through the couple of months that he resided in London.

There must be many things that Thomas Cook should be proud of, but we have mentioned only one that we feel is of great historic importance. After all, Thomas Cook had the honour to provide travel services to a Muslim Caliph – the best speaker at the historic conference of 1924.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIra at the 1924 conference, London

An interesting fact before we close this piece: The company, Thomas Cook & Sons was founded in 1841 in Leicester by Mr Thomas Cook. After his death, the company was passed on to his son John M Cook and later, with the death of John, passed on to two grandsons of Thomas Cook, Frank Henry Cook and Ernest Edward Cook. Newspapers announced in June 1924 that due to some “family issues”, the company had been split into two, each section to be run independently by each grandson of Mr Cook. The company must have been struggling for its survival through inheritance issues. This was just one month before Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra got the services of Thomas Cook for his travel to England. 

Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmadra delivered his historic lecture to the conference on 23 September 1924. On the same date, 95 years later, Thomas Cook wrapped up its business. It successfully remained in business for almost a whole century after the historic travel of Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIra.

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