A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, September 10, 2010

Something Completely Different for ‘Id: Queen Elizabeth II's Descent(s) from the Prophet Muhammad

In honor of the ‘Id al Fitr (‘Id Mubarak once again since by now everyone is celebrating it), and to take your mind off the whole US Qur'an-burning nonsense (why is the media giving so much attention to an obscure renegade "pastor" who supposedly has only 30 to 50 members of his congregation? Why give him an audience? Now he's canceling/uncanceling/keeping in the headlines), I thought I'd bring up something that many people have heard of but that still tends to catch most people totally off guard: the fact that Queen Elizabeth II is reportedly a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

No, really. It comes up from time to time. Juan Cole noted it a couple of years ago, but it often turns up in genealogy texts and the like. When you go back far enough, everybody is related to everybody else, after all. I've also heard that something like 80% of people with northwest European ancestry have a direct descent from Charlemagne; it's just most of us can't document it, while the aristocracies can. I've dabbled in my own genealogy since high school and have heard of the Queen's descent for years, but thought I'd bring it up now, when Islam and the West often seem to forget just how intertwined their histories are.

Anyway, she apparently doesn't just have just one descent from the Prophet, but multiple lines of descent through several of his children and through several of QEII's own rather varied ancestral lines. Here's one version of her several lines. There are lines from the Prophet's daughters Ruqayya and Umm Kulthum, and a couple of lines through his grandson Hussein (so she could add "Sayyida" to her royal titulature), one of which also passes through the line of the Shi‘a Imams to the 10th Imam (and a sister of the 11th), and yet another through Hussein's brother Hasan (so she's also a Sharifa), and some other variants of these.

The key is that several descendants of the Prophet married into the Umayyad Caliphal house, and when the last Umayyads fled to Spain (al-Andalus) in 750 AD they carried several Prophetic descents with them. The usual intermarriages of daughters and sisters of the Caliphs with various local rulers in Spain eventually included some marriages with local Christian rulers, which in turn put the Prophet's DNA into some of the local dynasties of what became Portugal and Castile, and also into the Hapsburg line. Given all the usual intermarriages, she ended up with multiple descents, some coming through Edward IV, but others coming in through various German and other houses later on, the latest through Mary of Teck, wife of George V and the Queen's grandmother.

One reason that this can be pretty confidently documented is that descent from the Prophet was taken very seriously in classical Islam: the sayyids and sharifs received subsidies from the state, so genealogical trees were carefully kept. (King ‘Abdullah of Jordan's family tree, which isn't hard to locate online, is probably absolutely sound, since the Sharifs of Mecca, his ancestors, kept the official records.) The Queen's being a multiple descent, it is almost certainly valid in some if not all lines.

This really isn't surprising given the intermarriage, even across religious lines, of European aristocracies, so that the Umayyads of Spain infused Prophetic descent into many European ruling houses (others came into other European lineages via Sicily and the Crusader states), combined with the fact that if we all knew our ancestry as well as the royal houses do, we might all (those of European or Middle Eastern descent, anyway) find out we're descended from rhe Prophet. (Rev. Terry Jones of burn a Qur'an day has the good Welsh last name of Jones, and the Welsh had lots of kings; I wonder . . . )

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