Some of the Muslim soldiers were subject to conversion attempts by the YMCA (The Young Men’s Christian Association).

Some soldiers received small cards with Biblical verses on them, translated into their own language with culturally relevant pictures under them. One such example is this card, quoting a verse from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus states, ‘I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life’.

The soldiers were told to post these home to their families with their letters. Many obliged. One wrote in a letter to his friend: ‘A lady gave me this. I do not know what it is. She told me to send it to my home. So I sent one home, & am sending the other to you’. Interestingly, the card was printed in Germany, leading the censor to speculate that it could be an attempt ‘to make use of the devout to distribute cards like this … in the hope of making trouble’.

The YMCA also distributed envelopes inscribed with ‘The Army Young Mens’ Chrisitian Association of India’.  In a letter, the censor informs his General that while ‘It is all done out of the merest kindness of course, but the results might be lamentable’. He adds that such attempts to convert the Muslim soldiers are ‘problematic’ and ‘ill-timed’.

Indeed, the soldiers’ religious satisfaction was often taken seriously. One letter from the censor states: ‘The Indian soldiers, like most Orientals, value the minute observation of their religions far above anything else, and a few rupees expended on Qurans … would give more pleasure than a great deal of sweetmeats and tobacco’.

On the other hand, some soldiers expressed a duty in their letters to call non-Muslims, especially the French, to Islam. Any sign of this, such as requests for books about the basics of Islam, would be stopped immediately.

Source: BL L/MIL/5/825/1.

Mahomed Khan

Rank: Lance Dafadar (non-commissioned officer)

Regiment: 6th Cavalry

French women were the cause of much debate among Muslim soldiers, some of whom were able to speak French as the months passed. Many letters show their intrigue at French women and suggest that many French families treated them with respect. Although initially, most were wary of issues such as eating from the hands of non-Muslims, they soon realised that it was permissible to marry French women (though the Hindu soldiers were not allowed to do so). It is claimed that many soldiers married French women, although this is likely to have been an exaggeration. Nonetheless, this was a controversial matter, so when Mahomed Khan decided to marry a French woman in early 1917, there were mixed receptions from his comrades and family.

A letter from Abdul Ali, a soldier in the same regiment as Khan, explained to a friend how Khan’s marriage was ‘an extraordinary affair’. Khan ‘is engaged to a Frenchwoman on the understanding that he becomes a Christian’, he wrote, adding that they would be married within days. ‘We have done our best to prevent it’, he continues, ‘but all has been in vain’.

Khan’s family also responded with hostility to his marriage. A few months later, Khan himself would write a letter to them in which he claimed that he was forced to marry the woman when she wrote to the King for permission to do so. He goes on to claim that the Colonel called him, and when he insisted that the girl becomes a Muslim, he was demoted. When the girl wrote to the King again, the marriage took place, ‘but I swear to God that I did not want to marry, but after the King’s order I should have got into grave trouble if I had refused’. This story was almost certainly untrue.

Sources:

David Omissi, ‘Europe through Indian eyes’, The English Historical Review, p. 388.

David Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War, letters 492 and 535.