The Revival of Christianity in Syria: Its Miracles and Martyrdoms (Colonial Church)

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The Revival of Christianity in Syria: Its Miracles and Martyrdoms (Colonial Church)  (1871) 
Review of The Revival of Christianity in Syria: Its Miracles and Martyrdoms, published anonymously under the name "P" by Isabel Burton

The remarkable incidents narrated in this pamphlet, following as they do upon the accounts recently received of the Babs, or Babis, in Persia and at Baghdad, would seem to indicate a simultaneous movement among some sections of Islam towards Christianity. As far as our scanty knowledge of the Babis goes, they appear to Be one of the numerous esoteric sects whose attention has of late years been directed to the study of the Christian Scriptures as a source of Divine enlighten- ment. "The Christian Revival in Syria" is referred by "P." to a widely different origin. He evidently coincides with those who on becoming acquainted with his alleged facts "will expect to hear that Christianity has revived spontaneously, unaided by missionaries, eate- chists, or consuls," in the " fanatical Moslem land " of Syria, especially in Damascus. "The conversion of the Mahometans," he subjoins, "has begun at last, without England's sending out, as is her custom, shiploads of Bibles, or spending one fraction upon it;" and as "Saul of Tarsus became St. Paul, not by reading, nor by Conversations with Christians, but by the direct interposition of Jesus Christ," even so, ac-' cording to the writer, miraculous intervention alone is to be accredited with the conversions which he enumerates.

The movement is stated to have begun in 1868 among a small body who had been initiated into the Shadili order of Moslims by one Abd el Karim Matar. This order of Dervishes was founded by Abd el Husayn Shadili, who died at Mecca, A.d. 1258. It admits of two main divisions, the Sharai and Ghair-Sharai; that is, the Orthodox and the Heterodox. The vital tenets of the latter are stated to be the following:—

"1. God alone exists. He is in all things and all things are in Him —evidently mere pantheism. 2. All things visible and invisible are an emanation from Him, and are not really distinct from Him—this is the Eastern origin of the classical European 'divince particula aurw.' 3. Heaven and hell and all the dogmas of positive faiths are allegoric?, whose esoteric meaning is known only to the Sufi. 4. Religions are a matter of indifference; that, however, is the best which serves as the means of reaching true knowledge, such as El Islam, whose philosophy is Tasawwuf (Sufi-ism). 5. There is no real distinction between good and evil, for all things are one, and God fixes the will of man, whose actions, therefore, are not free. 6. The soul existed before the body, and is confined in it like a bird in a cage. Death, therefore, is desirable to the Sufi, whose spirit returns to the Deity whence it emanated—evidently the 'Anupadishesha Nirvana' of the Hindu, absolute individual annihilation. 7. The principal duty of the Sufi is meditation on the unity, which advances him progressively to spiritual perfection, and which enables him 'to die in God.' Without 'Fayz Ullah' (Grace of God) this spiritual unity cannot be attained; but God favours those who fervently desire such unification."

There is nothing new in these tenets, all of which have been held by some or other of the numerous sects of the Persian Sufis for centuries. $4/?, pi. Saffd, pure, and S&f, wool, of which the garments of the Sufis are generally made, are the words from which the appellation has been supposed to be derived; it is more likely, however, that the designation was adopted from the Arabs, who first borrowed it from the Greek term lotyoi. Sir John Malcolm's lucid description of these extraordinary devotees (in his Hist, of Persia, vol. ii. pp. 385- 6) leaves nothing to be desired. Summarizing their peculiar doctrines and practices, he says :—

"The Sooffees represent themselves as entirely devoted to the truth, and as incessantly occupied in the adoration of the Almighty, an union with Whom they desire with all the ardour of divine love. The Great Creator is, according to their belief, diffused over all creation. He exists everywhere and in everything. They compare the emanations of the Divine Essence, or Spirit, to the rays of the sun, which are, they conceive, continually darted forth and re-absorbed. It is for this re-absorption in the Divine Essence, to which their immortal part belongs, that they continually sigh. They believe that the soul of man, and that the principle of life, which exists throughout all nature, is not from God, but of God."

There are four stages through which a man must pass before he attains to that of divine beatitude. The first is that of Humanity, which supposes the disciple to live in the observance of the precepts and rites of the established religion; the second is termed the Road, on attaining which he may abandon all religious forms and ceremonies; the third is the stage of Knowledge, when he is deemed to have acquired inspiration; in the fourth and last "his corporeal veil will be removed, and his emancipated soul will mix again with the glorious Essence from which it had been separated, but not divided."

As the Shadili, therefore, is neither a new creed nor one peculiar to themselves, there are no a priori grounds to account for its professors having been supernaturally singled out to be the recipients of Christian privileges. The author, indeed, does mention that through their influence not a Christian life was lost in their quarter during the dreadful massacre of 1860. "Many," he adds, "were hidden by the people in their houses, and were sent privily away without the walls after the three days of bloodshed had passed;" whereupon he piously suggests that these acts of mercy on their part were specially remembered in the grace to which they were subsequently called. It would be presumptuous to pronounce an opinion either way on this suggestion; at the same time it appears to us that "P.," if not so fully bent on attributing the conversion of the Shadilis exclusively to miraculous intervention, would not have overlooked the possible beneficial influence which the Christians while under their protection may have exercised upon them.

After two years spent in praying night and day for enlightenment, Abd el Karim Matar and his acolytes "were assured by a vision that it was the religion of Christ which they were seeking." On one occasion about forty of them, after prolonged devotion, fell asleep, "and our Lord was pleased to appear to all of them separately. They awoke simultaneously, and one, taking courage, recounted his vision to the others, when each responded, 'I also saw Him.'" They were consequently so filled with joy that "they were hardly dissuaded from running about the streets to proclaim that Christ is God."

On a subsequent occasion, whilst praying for a guide to direct them in the new way, sleep again overcame them, "and they saw themselves in a Christian church, where an old man with a long beard, dressed in a coarse brown serge garment, and holding a lighted taper, glided before them, and smiling benignantly, never ceased to cry, 'Let those who want the truth follow me."' After three months' search through the city for the living representative of the vision, one of the Shadili recognised him in the person of Fray Emanuel Forner, Superior of the Convent of the Spanish Franciscans at Damascus. To him the neophyte told his tale, and next day the remainder flocked to the monastery. The poor padre was greatly perplexed, fearing some political intrigue, but "he received them with touching kindness, he gave them books which taught them all the Christian doctrine, and he instructed them how to meet in prayer for mutual comfort and support. Lastly, he distributed to each a crucifix, the symbol of their new faith." These statements made by "P." seem at variance with his absolute denial of all human instrumentality in the conversion of the Shadili.

Fray Emanuel's procedure in order to ascertain the truth of the alleged visions was as follows :—

"Assembling his brethren and presiding himself, he began with Salih, and he examined and cross-examined the converts separately. He found them unanimous in declaring that on the first night when they witnessed an apparition, they had prayed for many hours, and that slumber had overcome them, when the Saviour Jesus Christ appeared to them one by one. Being dazzled by the light, they were much afraid; but one of them, taking courage, said, 'Lord, may I speak?' He answered, 'Speak.' They asked, ' Who art thou, Lord?' The apparition replied, ' I am the Truth, whom thou seekest. I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God . . . .' On another occasion the Blessed Virgin stood before them with the Child Jesus in her arms, and, pointing to Him, said three times in a clear and distinct voice, ' My son Jesus Christ, whom you see, is the Truth.' There are many other wonderful revelations," adds the writer, "whose truth I can vouch for, but I feel a delicacy in thrusting them before unbelievers.'"

Bearing in mind that the Sufis are par excellence visionary enthusiasts, and that visions of God under different aspects, together with frequent nightly ascents to heaven, are among some of the reported miracles of their leaders; moreover, that many of them are taught to regard Christians as infidels, not because they deem Jesus to be a God, but because they regard Him as the one only God, we are not disposed to place that reliance on the Shadili apparitions which "P." evidently does; especially do we distrust the alleged vision of the Blessed Virgin. Mariolatry is rife among the Christians of the East, and there are probably few Moslims who are not aware of the cultus paid to pictures of the Virgin with the Child Jesus in her arms; but it is inconceivable, for reasons which need not be dilated on, that in a true vision, or in a vision of the reality, the glorified Redeemer should be so represented.

The results, however, of these alleged visions, combined with the exertions of the Latin Missionaries, are more tangible and of much gieater interest. It was not long before the prayer-meetings and crucifixes of the Shadili attracted the attention of the Moslim authorities, and at a secret meeting of the Majlis, or Municipal Council, to which none of the Christian members were summoned, the sentence of death was passed upon the converts, l^ot daring, however, to proceed to that extremity, they dispatched a squadron of cavalry and a regiment of infantry, supported by a strong police force, to the Shadili quarter, and succeeded in arresting fourteen of the converts as they were returning home from their evening devotions. These were lodged in different prisons, and subsequently brought before another secret Majlis, under the presidency of Mohammed Rashid Pasha, the Governor-General of Syria, by all accounts a cruel, rapacious, and godless ruler. On being remanded to prison two of the converts were suffered to escape, but in December 1869 the remaining twelve—

"Were secretly sent, ironed, vid fieyrout, to the dungeons of Chanak Kalessi, the Dardanelles fortress. Thence they were shipped off in a craft so cranky and dangerous that they were wrecked twice, at Rhodes and at Malta. At last they were landed at Tripoli, in Barbary, and they were finally exiled to the distant interior settlement of Murzuk. Their wives and children, then numbering 62 and now 53, were left at Damascus to starve in the streets, but for the assistance of their fellow-converts and of the Terra Santa Convent .... The Porte is inexorable; even H.I.M. of Austria was, it is reported, unable to procure the return of the exiles."

Considering that the Hatti-Humaioun of 1856 guaranteed life and liberty—perfect toleration, in fact—to all converts, there can be little doubt that the banishment of these men was a flagrant violation of solemn treaty engagements; and whilstwe readily join our voice to "P.'s" in calling upon the Christian Cabinets to intervene in their behalf and to provide against similar outrages in future, we nevertheless take serious exception to such language as this directed against the powers that be :—" Let Abdul Aziz call off his dog from worrying the followers of Christ for the sake of the bones thrown to him by Aali Pasha, his Grand Vizier." Such invectives are specially inconsistent from the lips of one who disclaims all human intervention in "the revival of Christianity in Syria."

"The terrible example of the Shadili families," we are told, "has not arrested the remnant; but the converts now conduct their proceedings with more secrecy. They abstain from public gatherings, although they occasionally visit Fray Dominic d'Avila, Padre Guardiano of the Terra Santa. The society has now assumed a socialistic character, with private meetings for prayer, and with other precautions of a secret order. The number of converts has greatly increased. At the end of 1869 the males in the city of Damascus amounted to 500; in 1870 it had risen to 4,100, and in 1871 it represents 4,900, of whom some 700 have been secretly baptized."

The movement has also spread into the Hauran.

"Protestantism," also, the writer says, "has had its triumphs." A few only are specified, mostly marked out for persecution by the local authorities. The efforts made by Captain Richard Burton, late H.M. Consul at Damascus, to secure free toleration for the converts are recognised in a joint letter addressed to him by the Missionaries of several London Societies. The following paragraph from the Consul's reply deserves the serious attention of all Christian Churches engaged in the work of evangelization, and especially of the Moslem Mission Society:—

"Meanwhile I recommend to your prudent consideration the present state of affairs in Syria. A movement, which I cannot but characterize as a revival of Christianity, seems to have resulted from the peculiar action of the authorities, and -from the spirit of inquiry awakened in the hearts of the people. It numbers its converts by thousands, including men of high rank, and it is progressing even among the soldiery." G. P. B.