Death can come at the most unexpected of moments, as occurred with Queen Elizabeth II. Although the British queen was 96 years old, a mere 48 hours before her passing she had appeared in good enough health to anoint Liz Truss as the U.K.’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 was also the head of the Church of England, is descended from the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.
“May Allah protect her,” tweeted a journalist, alongside a family tree purporting to link Elizabeth to the Prophet Muhammad that 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 another example of outlandish fake news based on alternative internet facts. But the theory, which dates 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 genealogist Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director at the somber Burke’s Peerage, a genealogical publisher who has researched 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 its original source was not them but a 1982 book titled “Royal Highness: Ancestry of the Royal Child” by Iain Moncreiffe.
If the story were true, it would mean that Elizabeth is de facto a “sayyida” or “sharifa,” Arabic for “noble” and 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 like Iranian-born Seyyed Hossein Nasr and British-born Martin Lings, would also be a “sharif.” Thus, the British royal house would be related not only to many of the royal families of Europe, as is well known, but also to Islamic dynasties that claim descent from the prophet, including the Hashemites in Jordan as well as, historically, the Fatimids and Abbasids.
This complicated reality undermines one of the central narratives underpinning modern Islamist thought, which is 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, as in 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 begin?
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 named Zaida. She lived in the early 11th century in Seville, which was then ruled by her father (according to Christian sources) or father-in-law (according to Islamic chroniclers) Al-Mutamid Muhammad ibn Abbad al-Lakhmi, the poet king of Seville.
If Al-Mutamid was, indeed, Zaida’s father, and not her father-in-law, then the prophet 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 the prophet, 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 ones, so it is unlikely that Zaida was an Abbadid by blood.
However, it is feasible, though not certain, that Zaida and Elizabeth 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. I concluded that this meant 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-Mutamid 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-Mutamid 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 but also conquered the territories of its Iberian Muslim allies. Seville fell to the Almoravids in 1091 and Al-Mutamid was exiled, despite Alfonso’s offer of assistance that failed to materialize.
Caught up in this tumult, Zaida fled the Almoravid onslaught and found refuge in Alfonso’s court, where she became his lover, giving Alfonso his only son, Sancho, who died in 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 Almoravids and even tried to brand himself the emperor of the two religions.
Whether Zaida is an ancestor of Elizabeth 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. One of Zaida’s descendants, Isabel Perez, was sent to England in the 14th century to marry Edmund, the duke of York and son of Edward III, Elizabeth’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 marginalized because Elizabeth is perceived by the British establishment to be, to borrow from Truss, the “rock on which modern Britain was built.”
For those British Muslims who are also royalists, the idea that their late queen is “theirs” not only in the present but also in the past 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 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 U.K.’s shores, Elizabeth’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 eulogize the British sovereign. Additionally, her purported Islamic ancestry has elicited a surprisingly high level of interest in the media and on social media. This reflects the polarized, confused, confusing and complex way in which Britain’s former colonies relate to the memories of the British Empire and the royal family that 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 reign. This sentiment is worsened by the U.K.’s occasional forays into neocolonial 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 U.K.’s conservative elite, not to mention the establishment’s growing nostalgia for the 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 long before he led the U.K. government. 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 postcolonial disappointment in some countries, there is a narrative that romanticizes the pre-independence era. This phenomenon manifests itself in a wide range of attitudes and behaviors, from nostalgia in Egypt for 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 among Raj nostalgists from Britain but also among the Indian middle and upper classes.
Across the former empire, there are complicated love-hate sentiments toward 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 U.K.’s departure from the European Union elicited considerable confusion among formerly colonized peoples. 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 neighbors? How could a country that had little confidence in our ability to self-govern fail so miserably to govern itself?
The pomp and circumstance surrounding Elizabeth’s death appears to have restored some of the larger-than-life, fairytale fantasy associated with what had been the largest empire in history, covering a quarter of the world at its peak 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, but the British also played a central role in creating and protecting the region’s petrostates. 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 Sept. 12.
This demonstrates how the British were not the enemies of Islam — generally they were 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 (apart from being monarchies).
Against the backdrop of this polarization and the growing hatred associated with it, the repeated popularity of the theory about Elizabeth’s Islamic heritage expresses, at a certain level, a deep-seated and desperate desire to find common ground. However, whether the British queen has Muslim ancestry is irrelevant in the end 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.