Persia/Chapter 22

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The Persians, unlike the other professors of the Mahometan faith, manifest a spirit of toleration towards those whom they regard as infidels, worthy of the imitation of many a Christian community. To show how this spirit is encouraged by the present government, either from a principle of justice or from political motives, we shall adduce a circumstance that happened some years since in the province of Adherbijan, under the ministration of Abbas Mirza, heir-apparent to the throne.

One day, in the month of January 1807, a Persian belonging to the household of the prince-royal thought fit to insult publicly an Armenian merchant of the city of Tabreez, and to abuse him in the grossest manner, for no other reason than the difference of their religions, the Armenian being a Christian. The latter hoped at first to silence Iris aggressor, by addressing to him some pretty sharp reproofs: but a zealous Musulman, acknowledging no other legitimate right than that of his own strength, despises the eternal principles of justice. With defiance on his brow, and blasphemy upon his lips, it is his delight to insult the weak and to calumniate the Christian religion, when he can do it with impunity. Not content, therefore, with personally affronting the Christian merchant in an outrageous manner, this Persian servant launched out into the most atrocious language against Christ, his gospel, the sign of the cross, and other emblems of our religion. These blasphemies roused the indignation of the Armenian to such a degree, that, to punish the aggressor and to avenge his religion before the public, he laid hands on him, and after giving him a sound beating, left him extended on the ground, and quickly returned to his own house.

The man, covered with dirt and blood, presently got up and went straightway to the palace of the prince his master, to prefer his complaint against the Armenian merchant, by whom he had been so roughly handled. He took good care to conceal from the prince the real cause of their quarrel, and interlarded his story with many false allegations against the merchant. Abbas had too much penetration not to perceive the means by which his servant hoped to strengthen his complaint; he nevertheless listened with patience to his whole deposition, which embraced a variety of circumstantial details that had all the appearance of truth, but in reality were nothing but fictions. He then summoned before him the Armenian merchant, and determined to examine him in full divan, and hear what he had to say in his defence. At the same time, he ordered the persons who had witnessed the fray to attend. After hearing their declarations and evidence, the divan was convinced that the servant had without provocation attacked the Armenian, and uttered blasphemies against the Christian religion, and that for these causes only the merchant had beaten the Persian. After this unanimous decision of the divan, the prince commanded the Christian and the Musulman to be confined in separate prisons.

With a view to prevent similar offences in future, to give satisfaction faction, as it were, to the Christians resident in the country, and to administer justice with the sanction of those who are the guardians of the laws of Mahometan states, Abbas convened a divan composed of the Sheik-ul-Islam, and the principal ulemas of the city of Tabreez, and proposed the following questions, which he required them to answer in succession, according to their custom:—

Question. Was the Lord Jesus (Hazreti-Iysa) a real prophet sent by God?—Answer. Yes.

Question. Are the laws contained in his noble gospel (Indjili-sheryf) just or not/—Answer. Yes, they are just.

Question. Is it permitted by our laws to blaspheme the Lord Jesus and his noble gospel?—Answer. No, it is unjust.

Upon these unanimous decisions of the ulemas, called in such cases, fetva, (sentence) the prince-royal ordered the merchant to be set at liberty, and his servant to be punished with one hundred strokes of the bastinado; and he dismissed him from his service, as a warning to all who should be disposed to insult the professors of a different religion from their own.

Similar sentiments were displayed by the monarch himself, on a more recent occasion:—In April 1815, the vicinity of the capital was visited with an extraordinary drought. The Sheik-ul-Islam of that city, who was held in high consideration by the king and the court, but who was not acquainted with the good intentions of the sovereign towards all his subjects without distinction, imagined that he was performing an action well pleasing to God and his majesty, in collecting in his house two hundred of the populace, and persuading them that the drought and the consequent dearth of the productions of the soil, were a punishment inflicted by the Almighty, because people frequented the taverns kept by the Armenians; adding that to appease the divine wrath, they ought to destroy those haunts of impiety. By such language, the Sheik-ul-Islam inflamed the minds of his hearers, who tumultuously proceeded to the quarter inhabited by the Armenians, and in the presence of the Sheik, demolished one of their churches, and pulled down the houses of several dealers in wine.

It was not long before the king was informed of this outrage. He ordered the Sheik-ul-Islam, and the persons whom he had instigated to its commission, to be immediately apprehended and brought before him. Being apprized of his majesty's indignation, they had concealed themselves in different parts of the city; and the Sheik-ul-Islam, who had most to fear from the king's displeasure, sought refuge in the mosque of Shah Abdul Azym, a few miles from Teheran, which is an inviolable sanctuary for criminals, and even for murderers. The mosques in which the Imams or their children are interred, enjoy the same privilege.

The royal guards, however, discovered and secured twelve of these people, who were carried before the king. He was surrounded by all his ministers. "Audacious wretches!" said he, "who commanded you to act thus? What law authorizes such proceedings? Is the Sheik-ul-Islam your sovereign, or the ruler of this country? Ye have violated the laws of my dominions; by them I condemn you: depart from my presence." The legal penalties were immediately enforced, and the culprits were obliged to pay the Armenians an indemnification of one thousand toomauns. His majesty then sent for the principal persons of the Armenian nation. "It is my wish," said he to them, "that all my subjects, of what religion soever they be, should enjoy a just liberty, and live unmolested under the protection of my royal authority." He then promised to inflict condign punishment on the Sheik-ul-Islam, and exhorted them to pray to God for the preservation of his life. At the same time, Feth Ali Shah ordered his treasurer to pay to these notables the sum of three thousand toomauns out of his privy purse, as a compensation to the Christians for the injury they had sustained. He moreover commanded that the Armenian church should be repaired at the expense of government, and that restitution should be made for such furniture and effects as had been damaged or destroyed.

If the preceding facts exhibit a laudable relaxation of Mahometan rigour towards those whom they regard as infidels, the following whimsical anecdote proves the Persians to be the least fanatic of all Musulmans, in permitting doubts to be publicly raised among themselves against points of faith inculcated by their own religion.

A mollah, preaching one day in a mosque, strongly insisted on the examination which the deceased have to undergo from the angels of death, Nekyr and Monkyr, as soon as they are deposited in the tomb. "Don't believe a word of it!" cried one of the congregation, "for one of my slaves died a few days since; I filled his mouth with rice, and on digging him up again to-day, the rice was just as I left it. Now, it is morally impossible for a man to give answers even to angels, with his mouth full." Such an argument, brought forward in any other place than a mosque, in Turkey, would not have passed without answer.