Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah

Image courtesy of the Idries Shah Foundation

By Esme Allman

Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah was an Afghani-Indian, who attended Edinburgh University to study medicine in the late 1910s. Ali Shah was from a well-known Afghan family whose very presence at Edinburgh challenged proto-Orientalist ideas embedded in colonial British imagination and thought. He wrote extensively as part of The Student newspaper and Cosmopolitan journal acknowledging the war effort of the South Asian diaspora in the U.K. Ali Shah represents the intriguing stories of those moving through colonial spaces allowing an insight into the overlap of race, religion and education in a colonial context.

Ali Shah’s family history represents the extent of British-colonial engagements with the Middle East and Asia, spanning across the nineteenth and twentieth century. Ali Shah’s family were afforded territory by the British in northern India after being forced to flee from Afghanistan during the 1842 Anglo-Afghan War (Shah, 2018). The region, called Sardhana, was where Ikbal Ali Shah was born in either 1894 or 1895. He was raised in Sardhana, where his family oversaw the operation of the region. He was subsequently educated in Britain in the early 1900s and, after a family friend suggested Ali Shah should be educated in Scotland, arrived at University of Edinburgh during World War One to study medicine.

An active member of the student community

Once Ikbal arrived in Edinburgh he was an active member of the student community, writing frequently in student publications from his perspective as an Indian-Afghan. In a 1918 Memorial edition of The Student he honours the Indian students who, mobilised under the Ambulance Corps, were sent across Britain to aid the war effort. His time at Edinburgh was characterised against the backdrop of war and his position as a racialised Easterner. Ali Shah’s presence at the University of Edinburgh embodied the interactions between people, all of whom were impacted by colonialism to varying degrees. Whilst there was a hyper-visibility attached to Ali Shah because of his race and ethnicity, it is also noted he was ‘was very intrigued that the Occidentals with whom he found himself knew nothing of his culture’ (Shah, 2018).

In 1917, whilst still in Edinburgh Ali Shah met Elizabeth Louise MacKenzie at a fundraiser for wounded soldiers (Shah, 2018). MacKenzie was from a well-to-do Scottish family and her parents struggled greatly with the prospect of her marrying Ali Shah. Despite their wishes, the couple fell in love and married. MacKenzie, also known as Morag Murray Abdullah, wrote a novel titled My Khyber Marriage, detailing the symbolism attached to her love affair with her husband as a meeting of East and West.

T.A. Hasseler argues that ‘Abdullah inhabits a complicated gendered position from which she calls upon a creative and complex form of troping that enables her to articulate her accountability to both her Western colonial and Eastern matrimonial alliances’ (Hasseler, 2000, p71). This quote encapsulates the way colonial spaces gendered and racialised those moving through it, forcing a constant negotiation of individual identity and collective allegiances by both MacKenzie and Ali Shah (although in very different ways). Their marriage and subsequent travels reflected the various ways imperial spaces complicated personal relationships, creating circumstances where the most mundane of actions defied social norms and expectations.

Establishing a career as a writer and diplomat

After the couple eloped, they travelled extensively and had three children Amina Shah, Omar Ali-Shah and Idries Shah. Both produced literary works that recorded their travels as well as their world views of the colonial period. Ali Shah noted in his 1923 New York Times article, ‘Old Asia Rises to Defy Europe’, that the economic and educational expansion of the Orient contributed to its ‘awakening of Asia and the seemingly remote yet sure decline of the West’ (Shah, 1923). Ali Shah also criticised the Bolshevik expansion in Asia, arguing against the Leninist government looking towards India as a potential communism satellite state (Ali Shah, 1922). Over the course of his career, Ali Shah established himself as a writer and diplomat, reporting extensively on international relations and was ‘a friend, advisor and confidante to many leaders, such as Kemal Attaturk, Ibn Saud, the Aga Khan, and King Zog of Albania (Shah, 2018).

In 1960 MacKenzie died of cancer leaving Ali Shah heartbroken. Mourning his wife’s death, he moved to Tangier, Morocco, a place the couple had not lived together (Shah, 2018). In 1969 Ali Shah was killed in a car accident, when a Coca Cola truck reversed into him. His life captured a man moving through a world caught in transition; a place where conflicting cultures, religions and races both departed and converged with each other. During his time at the University of Edinburgh he documented his unique insights into different imperial spaces and left a legacy of phenomenal magnitude. His marriage to MacKenzie signified the impact that colonial and imperial circumstances had on a personal scale and yet, the two lived fascinating lives, closely observing and analysing the spaces they entered with great care.

I would like to end Sidar Ikbal Ali Shah’s biography with a quote from his grandson, Tahir Shah, who was a great help to the research the UncoverED team carried out on his grandfather. He recalls:

‘I was very, very small when he died. But I have a faint memory of sitting in his garden in Tangier, with the scent of orange blossom heavy in the air. He was sitting in an old chair, watching me, as though I were in a strange way his future. I feel a tremendous connection with him and in many ways have been inspired by him to write, travel and, most of all, to have an interesting life of my own creation.’


Ali Shah, S.I., 1923, ‘Old Asia Rises to Defy Europe’, New York Times, 9th September

Ali Shah, S.I., ‘The Bolshevist Advance on India’ in The Independent and the Weekly Review American Periodicals, Feb 11, 1922; 108, 3804; pp. 130

Hasseler, T. A., 2000, Identity and Imperial/Cinematic Gazing in Morag Murray Abdullah’s My Kyber Marriage, NWSA Journal, Johns Hopkins University Press, 12:2, pp.71

Shah, T. email correspondence with Esme Allman, email sent Saturday 3rd November 2018