Sutcliff’s ‘Blood & Sand’ explores the life of the scotsman Thomas Keith (Ibrahim Agha) who was captured in Egypt. He converts to Islam, taking a lead role in Muhammad Ali Pasha’s army (Ottoman Governor and de facto Ruler of Egypt) and in 1814 is appointed the Governor of Medina. Sutcliff, meticulously writes the story of Thomas. She thanks Michael Stardorth for giving her the story of Thomas and helping her shape this story. I couldn’t find anything about Michael Stardorth or how he came across the life of Ibrahim Agha.
Thomas Keith was from Edinburgh and apparently had studied at Leith Academy and was part of the British expedition in Egypt fighting in the Napleonic wars. He was captured and introduced to Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt. He becomes very close to Muhammad Ali’s son Tussun, and joined him in the Jihad against the early Saudi uprising in Hejaz. The book narrates how Ibrahim Agha courageously fought the forces of Abdullah Ibn Saud (d. 1818, who was put to death by the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II for his rebellion).
Tussun Pasha ( 1794–1816) was the younger son of Muhammad Ali Pasha. A Mosque in the Citadel of Cairo is dedicated to him.
Thomas’ conversion to Islam as Ibrahim is fascinating. ‘Was there so much difference between his own faith and Islam? So much of the religion he saw practised about him seemed familiar to his Presbyterian (Protestant) upbringing: the simplicity and lack of ceremonial, the exclusion of graven images, the concept that no priesthood should come between man and his God. Any Muslim of good character, he had learned, could lead the prayers in the Mosque, though in practise it was generally a teacher, a man who had taken it up for his life’s work.’ Thomas is described as a practising Muslim, giving up alcohol & pig meat whereas many of Muhammad Ali’s entourage enjoyed alcohol.
Thomas was in great awe when he saw the Prophet’s Green Dome for the first time, exclaiming, ‘Even the Wahhabis have not quit dared to pull this down.’
In his last speech to his soldier, Thomas says,
My comrades-in-arms, you who are my friends and my brothers, in less than half an hour we shall charge the Wahhabi war host, and unless it should come to pass by some miracle that Tussun Pasha is close behind them, we shall charge them alone, and in doing so, pass by the shortest, but also the surest way to Paradise.’
We fight in the name of the Prophet, against those who have trampled down his people and desecrated his tomb; therefore let each of us set our hearts to sending four, even five of these heretics to Eblis, before we ourselves come to the gates of Paradise.’
‘Oh my brothers, charge! For Ali Ibn Talib!
Ibrahim Agha tastes martyrdom as Tussun’s army doesn’t get there in time.
The only fictional part of the book is his wife Anound, as Sutcliff remarks, ‘I felt that he deserved a happy marriage, no matter how brief, and so I gave him Anound with my love.’
To what extent is this is all true? It seems accurate. I’m hoping to read the other 4 books that mention Thomas Keith (Ibrahim Agha). Sutcliff’s insight into Islam, its practises, the region of Hijaz etc. are pretty accurate. Unlike other western writers who have made basic mistakes suggesting Muslims prostrated in funeral prayer or prayed 4 units of Jumah Fardh.
So the next time you visit the blessed city of Medina Sharif, remember a Scot gave up his life saving the City!