Myth busting: William Gladstone’s quote about the Quran

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A popular anti-Muslim meme echoes the words of Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone. Accompanied by a stock image of Gladstone is the quote, “As long as there is this book [the Quran], there will be no peace in the world.”

On August 10, Britain First posted the image to their Facebook page, which drew thousands of shares and comments. But what is the truth behind it?

To understand this quote fully, we must look at the religious makeup of Victorian England, the foundations of which viewed Islam as a violent heresy at odds with the dominant Christian identity. It is worth remembering that England did not have a registered mosque until Christmas Day 1889.

Gladstone’s Christian identity was no different, but he was also a liberal internationalist who often clashed with the conservative mantra of Empire and nationalism, a mantra embodied by his great political rival Benjamin Disraeli.

The quote re-entered the public consciousness in 2009 after an episode of BBC’s Today programme. It did not take long for some anti-Muslim websites to pick up the story.

Gladstone’s true views about Islam are often misconstrued or impossible to verify. Any malice towards Islam is a product of fraught 19th Century relations between Britain and the Ottoman Empire.

In 1876, a Bulgarian revolt against Ottoman rule brought violent reprisals and thousands died. When news reached Britain, then Prime Minister, Disraeli, downplayed the tragedy in order to keep good relations with the Ottomans and maintain Britain’s own empire, as he feared the growing influence of Russia.

Disraeli’s blasé approach incensed Gladstone and he did his best to highlight their plight with the pamphlet “The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East.” Gladstone was a humanitarian who sought to defend and protect Christian minorities within the Ottoman Empire. The pamphlet proved so popular that it sold 200,000 copies within one month.

Gladstone rejected Islam as the true path to God but championed the pluralistic notion of freedom of faith. During the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), Gladstone opposed intervention and spoke in defence of faith, as he recognised that Islam is one of the great religions of the world:

“Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him. Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own.”

He went on to argue that God’s love transcended borders and was not limited to “Christian civilisation.”

Nor should we overlook Gladstone’s towering intellect and commitment to scholarly pursuits. During his lifetime, he read around over 20,000 books and owned 30,000 titles. Near the end of his life, he brought a plot of land to build a library upon, with the help of his daughter, and a member of his staff.

The library’s original name was ‘Monad’ – the first number and symbol of unity. A library intended for all as Gladstone believed that strong academia put you on the path to truth. Of the 15,000 books he personally annotated, we can include ‘The Life of the Prophet [Muhammad].’ In 2011, Gladstone’s Library opened up an Islamic reading room.

If alive today, Gladstone would likely reject the bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and fundamentalist mindset that refuses to engage with Islam on any meaningful level.

So we can consider this meme busted.

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