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Alexander Russell Webb - 1/3



Compiler's Note:
Alexander Russell Webb (1846-1916) was an American journalist, newspaper owner, and sometime Consul-General of the U.S.A. in the Phillipines, who embraced Islam in 1887 and started an Islamic missionary movement in the U.S.A. in the 1890s.

Webb had some correspondence with Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and the Ahmadiyya Movement about Islam and its propagation, and was much influenced by them, although he was never a member of the Ahmadiyya Movement. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is, thus, associated with the start of the spread of Islam among Westerners in the U.S.A., just as he is also associated with the start of the spread of Islam in Europe through the Woking (England) and Berlin Muslim missions of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement.

Given below is a speech on the life of Webb made by Nadirah Florence Ives Osman at a meeting of Muslims held in Steinway Hall, New York, in November 1943 under the auspices of the Webb Memorial Committee. The speech appeared in the issues of The Light for 8th and 16th April 1944.

For convenience, we have divided her speech into three sections, and at the end of the first two sections have provided some supplementary material about Webb which is to be found in Ahmadiyya sources.

Contents:

First section of speech.
Compiler's comments on first section.
(See Second section and Third section in separate files.)

Speech: first section

We are commemorating, as Muslims, at this meeting, the birthday of Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb. November 9th, 1846, this very human little boy was born, at Hudson, New York. His father, Alexander Nelson Webb, was the proprietor and editor of the Hudson Daily Star for over a period of 35 years. Muhammad Webb says of himself:
"I was not born, like some boys, with a fervently religious strain in my character. I will not even assert that I was a good boy. I was emotional in later years, but not mawkishly sentimental, and always demanded a reason for everything. I attended the Presbyterian Sunday school of my native town, when I could not avoid it, impatient to get out into the glad sunshine and hear the more satisfying sermons preached by God Himself through the murmuring brooks, the gorgeous flowers, and the joyous birds. I listened incredulously to the story of the Immaculate Conception and the dramatic tale of the vicarious Atonement, doubting the truth of both dogmas."
From the centre of a rich family life, which he shared with two sisters and three brothers, Alexander went forth to the public schools of the town. He was later sent away to boarding school, the "Home School", at Glendale, Massachusetts, but completed his higher education at Claverick College, which was then in existence near his home town.

At Chicago.

Before the boy had reached sixteen, his literary tastes were made evident by his writing numerous essays and short stories. The Civil War came to a close while he was still at his schooling. Fifteen years earlier, Horace Greely, the head of American journalists, born on a rocky New Hampshire farm, had thundered the advice which still echoed to our own times, "Go West, young man, and grow up with the nation," in his Hints toward Reform. It is not surprising, therefore, that this son of another editor should leave for Chicago when he finished college. His departure was typical of all the children of the family: one brother became a prominent physician in San Francisco; others settled in St. Louis or Unionville, Missouri. Only Alexander was to return east in later life.

In Chicago, the young man with a writing itch first turned to trade. He engaged in the jewelry business.

Buys a paper.

In 1871, Webb was burned out by the Chicago fire. He returned to New York City, connecting for a time with Tiffany and Company. Then he returned to Chicago to represent another large jewelry concern. Two years later he had enough capital to purchase The Missouri Republican at Unionville, Mo., which he conducted for nearly three years. Moving on to a more active field, he became city editor of the St. Joseph, Mo. Gazette, associating for years, intimately, with a beloved poet of America, Eugene Fielde, and still he kept climbing to more responsible newspaper posts. We find him, at last, on the editorial staff of the Missouri Republican of St. Louis, the second oldest and one of the largest daily newspapers in the United States.

Discards Christianity.

Before Webb had gone into the newspaper business, and following the Chicago fire, the young man had disowned Christianity for himself. He was too honest to remain a hypocrite. He tells us that he then drifted into materialism, and for several years had no religion at all except the Golden Rule, which he declared he followed "about as closely as the average Christian." "Firmly materialistic", he continues, "I looked at first to the advanced schools of materialistic science, and found that it was just as completely immersed in the darkness of ignorance concerning spiritual things as I was." But something happened to this materialist after he entered the newspaper game.

Studies Buddhism.

In 1875 Madame Blavatsky created a furore in New York City by founding the New York Theosophical Society. Two years later she published Isis Unveiled, which was at least a national curiosity and stimulus. In 1881, Webb commenced the study of Oriental religion. He had not found Christianity any more attractive after returning to study it more carefully and truly, he tells us. He found its moral ethics most commendable, but not different from those of every other system. Its superstitions, grave errors and inefficiencies caused him to wonder why any thoughtful, intelligent person could accept it seriously. Oriental religions and spiritual philosophies now engaged his time. He had access to a library of about 13,000 books where he spent four to seven hours a day, taking time that he really needed for sleep, in his search to find God and to solve the riddle of the universe. He began with Buddhism, then he joined the Theosophical Society.

Consul General at Manilla.

Craving yet more time to study and experiment in religion, Webb decided to terminate his journalistic activities, which did not give him enough free time to do all that he desired. He was fortunate to secure an appointment from President Cleveland to the post of Consul General at Manilla, the chief of the Philippine Islands. This was in 1887.

The Philippines were then in the hands of Spain, but they had become a centre of extreme mental activity. To Webb, now 41 years of age, it was the threshold to the new world of the East. In the mean time Webb had married, in the West, a widow from Cincinnati, Ohio, who had a little girl. Their family was then increased by the births of two daughters and a son. Mr. Webb took them along with him to Manilla.

Embraces Islam.

Before a year had passed, the American Consul General made the discovery of certain books and documents which he had not seen in the United States, and which had been written by Muslim authors. He tells us that they aroused his most intense interest in the Islamic system. He at once gave himself up entirely to the study of Islam, so far as his official duties would permit. All by himself, from books, without ever having seen a Muhammadan, Alexander Russell Webb became a Muslim. Looking back over his quest, Webb described it in later years:
"I began to compare the various religions in order to ascertain which was the best and most efficacious as a means of securing happiness in the next life."
(Speech continues in Second Section.)

Compiler's comments on the first section of the Speech.

At this point we give fuller and more accurate details about the circumstances of Webb's acceptance of Islam. Before he went to the Philippines, Webb had been corresponding with Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in Qadian, asking for guidance on the teachings of Islam. Some of this correspondence was reproduced by Hazrat Mirza in his book Shahna-i Haq, published in 1888.

In his first brief letter to Hazrat Mirza, written sometime during 1886, Webb says that he has seen a letter by him (i.e. by Hazrat Mirza) to someone offering guidance to the true religion, and this has aroused his interest. He adds that while he has studied much about Buddhism and Brahmanism, and to some extent about the teachings of Zoroaster and Confucius, he knows little of the Prophet Muhammad. He says that he is wavering with regard to what is the right path, and while being a priest in a Christian church he can preach no more than general moral teachings. At the end he says that he is in search of the truth. His address is given as: 3021 Easton Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri.

Hazrat Mirza does not give the text of his own reply, but he does reproduce the full English text of Webb's second letter, dated 24th February 1887, and his reply to it. Despite the length of Webb's letter, we may reproduce it here for our readers' interest. Webb begins:

"I cannot adequately express to you my gratitude for the letter received from you under date of December 17. I had almost given up all hope of receiving a reply but the contents of the letter and circulars fully repaid me for the delay. After reading your circulars an idea occurred to me which I will present to you for your consideration. "
He then speaks of his desire to visit India, but regrets that it is not possible due to his circumstances. He continues:
"Therefore a visit to India being out of the question it occurred to me that I might, through your aid, assist in spreading the truth here. If, as you say, Islam is the only true religion why could I not act as its apostle or promulgator in America? My opportunities for doing so seem to me very good if I had someone to lead me aright at first. I have been led to believe that not only Muhammad but also Jesus, Gautama Buddha, Zoroaster and many others taught the truth, that we should, however, worship God and not men. If I could know what Muhammad really taught that was superior to the teachings of others, I could then be in a position to defend and promulgate the Muhammadan religion above all others. But the little I do know of his teachings is not sufficient for me to do effective work with. The attention of the American people is being quite generally attracted to the oriental religions but Buddhism seems to be the foremost in their investigations. The public mind, I think, is now more than ever fitted to receive Muhammadanism as well as Buddhism and it may be that through you it is to be introduced in my country. I am convinced that you are very much in earnest. I have no reason to doubt that you are inspired by God to spread the light of truth. Therefore I would be happy to know more of your teachings and to hear further from you. God, who can read all hearts, knows that I am seeking for the truth, that I am ready and eager to embrace it wherever I can find it. If you can lead me into its blessed light you will find me not only a willing pupil but an anxious one. I have been seeking now for three years and have found a great deal.

"If you can help me I hope that you will do so. I shall keep your letter and prize it highly. The circulars, I will have printed in one of the leading American newspapers so that they will have a widespread circulation. I shall be happy to receive from you at any time matter which you may have for general circulation and if you should see fit to use my services to further the aims of truth in the country they will be freely at your disposal, provided of course that I am capable of receiving your ideas and that they convince me of their truth.

"I am already well satisfied that Muhammad taught the truth, that he pointed out the way to salvation and that those who follow his teachings will attain to a condition of eternal bliss. But did not Jesus Christ also teach the way? Now suppose I should follow the way pointed out by Jesus, would not my salvation be as perfectly assured as if I followed Islam? I ask with a desire to know the truth and not to dispute or argue. I am seeking the truth, not to defend my theory.

"I think I understand you to be a follower of the esoteric teachings of Muhammad, and not what is known to the masses of the people as Muhammadanism; that you recognise the truths that underlie all religions and not their exoteric features which have been added by men. I too regret very much that I cannot understand your language, nor you mine; for I feel quite assured that you could tell me many things which I much desire to know. "

In his reply, dated 4th April 1887, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad expresses his delight and satisfaction upon receiving Webb's letter, and writes that:
" the object which I have in view for which I have dedicated the whole of my life [is] not to confine the spread of the light of truth to the oriental world but, as far as it lies in my power, to further it in Europe and America where the attention of the people has not been sufficiently attracted towards a proper understanding of the teachings of Islam. Therefore I consider it an honour to comply with your request.

"Your friendly words permit me to entertain the happy idea that I may soon receive the good news that the natural moral sense has attracted not only you but many other virtuous people of America towards the call of truth in order to find the true guidance."

In this letter Hazrat Mirza promises to write and send to Webb a booklet on the teachings of Islam.

It is clear, therefore, that Webb had been studying Islam before he went to the Philippines, wishing even to become a missionary of Islam. His correspondence with Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, while still in the U.S.A., was not merely one of the factors which influenced him to accept Islam shortly afterwards in the Philippines, but, as we will later show, Webb actually stated that he became a Muslim because of Hazrat Mirza.


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