Ian Birrell: ‘Neither man has had much to do with politics, but Islamists are often having their way in their respective communities’
Eerily familiar even after his 80th birthday, Muhammad Aziz remains one of Britain’s biggest cult figures.
He first caught the eye of audiences in the 1950s, long before the East European wave of the middle-class Muslims who followed him down to Mecca or over to Afghanistan.
Only 14 at the time, Aziz was already a significant figure in the Muslim world and became an exciting figure for young Muslims in the UK, who hung on his every word, his Islamic fundamentalism, his TV shows, and the fashions he favoured.
By the 1970s, the mosques were full, as were the streets. Aziz – the “call to prayer”, the “encounter”, the “red dress”, the “half-joking fool” – became a totem for young Muslims who wanted to shed their skins in a new wave of religious fervour.
Unable to venture out of the faith – he was desperately ill at the time – Aziz’s infamy extended far beyond the mosques.
Today, as the late Mohammed Sidique Khan’s iconic image appears on the commemorative pages of magazines and billboards in the north-west and the capital, Aziz’s celebrity has faded into history.
He has more or less vanished into the mists of time, bereft of all his modern modern associations and much of the controversy he stirred in his lifetime.
Born in Newport in 1884, he arrived in the UK in 1898 aged 15.
His English was embarrassingly rickety, the only thing he could read being “mail” from his imam in Kabul. He was a nervous, at first petulant boy, and only began to read literature in the hope of influencing his imam, who did little, if anything, to benefit his education.
Looking back on that time in his life, Aziz makes no mention of his education, or of writing, or of politics, even though he was deeply involved in the 1922 European parliament elections.
He stayed in the UK until the 1920s, when he was cast off as a mad man, a security risk, a loner.
He returned to Afghanistan, then under rule of the brutal monarchy, and when that failed, he returned to the UK.
But, again, he was shunned and he struggled to find friends among fellow Muslims in Britain.
He was invited back to Afghanistan, but when the war started he again became a nuisance, almost a pariah, attending news conferences at which he made inflammatory speeches.
He was cornered by the supporters of the king and his brutalist junta.
Afghan officials adopted a sinister line towards him and he fled back to the UK, determined to be out of sight of British authorities.
His antics were highly entertaining, a media sensation, and briefly one of the Islamic world’s most prominent Muslims.
But in the later years of his life he worked at educating his flock.
Eerily familiar even after his 80th birthday, he remains one of Britain’s biggest cult figures.