Sun 6 May 2007
[Illustration: “Camels and Tombs of the Mamelukes” ca 1870]
While conducting research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library two summers ago, I came across an anonymous work entitled Letters of an Egyptian Kafir on a Visit to England in Search of a Religion, enforcing some neglected views regarding the duty of theological inquiry, and the morality of human interference with it. Published in London in 1839, the plot of the lengthily titled treatise is a series of letters allegedly written by a non-Muslim Egyptian to a Muslim friend back home. I rather suspect these were penned in a learned vicar’s study as an attempt to rationalize the superiority of Protestant Christianity over all comers. There is little to be learned about Egypt and much about the arguments Christians might use at the time to convert these descendants of the pharaohs.
The alleged author notes that he did not set out to convert to Christianity, but came to a realization that there was a superior monotheism through Natural Theology. Our Egyptian seeker read Bishop Paley, the sine qua non of a revered but pre-Darwinian approach to science in England during the 1830s. “It was just the work adapted to my state of mind,” observes the reluctant seeker, “—luminous, argumentative, philosophical, infinitely beyond any treatise of our Arabic writers” (p. 8). Armed with this intelligently designed Christian revelation, he quite naturally continues, “The light of nature, it is admitted by all, shows us that God is just and benevolent” (p. 39).
Such a realization of God’s hand in the visible universe would seem as true to a Muslim as to a Christian, so the slide into his native religion’s apostasy is intimated as gradual rather than precipitous. “The truth rose in my understanding as slowly and progressively as the Nile overflows the land of my birth…,” admitted the author who assure us he sought the true truth as devotedly as he once performed the pilgrimage to Mecca. This truth reveals itself in the letters as a benevolent New Testament vision of God, with no wrathful Jehovah in sight. “We are, therefore, not able to conceive the Deity punishing a human being for involuntary and innocent mistakes, any more than we are able to conceive a triangle square or a perfect circle with unequal radii,” concluded the new convert. Apparently he had yet to hear any hellfire and brimstone sermons from Anglican pulpits equal to the khutbas of his youth. Ironically, he could not know that Charles Darwin would use this same rationale to reject the prevailing monotheistic winds just a few decades later.
Now comes an intiguing Islamic clone of Pascal’s wager, one that the writer disparages as far from the truth. No doubt the real target here was Catholic dogma, which Protestants tended to view as a fatalistic error promulgated by hypocrites.
“… These considerations will, I think, be quite sufficient to dispose of the argument of some Moslem teachers, who in their undistinguishing zeal insist that it is safer to admit the claims of the prophet than to reject them; because (they say), if he is really what he claims to be, we shall, by so doing, escape the horrible punishments denounced against unbelievers, and if his pretensions after all turn out to be unfounded, we shall be in no worse situation or consequence or our acquiescence” (pp. 51-52).
Mercifully, the light refracted in Bishop Paley’s metaphorical eye kept the visitor from seeing the darkness of a lost, but exploitable, world not committed to a Union-Jacked Christ.
The problem for the Egyptian novice was not entrenched preaching about a vengeful God as much as it was an intolerant dogmatism that brooks no intellectual dissent. “Throughout the Moslem territory the pernicious effects of dogmatic inculcation appear to me to be remarkably exemplified” (p.90), argues the author. At this point the assumed editor of the Egyptian’s letters finds it useful to quote Edward Lane and John Lewis Burckhardt (both very recent authorities at the time) on the prevalence of fanaticism in the East. “Besides this,” continues the former Muslim, “the history of the Moslem nations (as I well know from my own researches) presents the most striking illustrations any where to be met with the fanaticism and intolerance of mankind” (p. 63). The primary example of this is a religion in which “propagation of opinions” was spread by the sword. Such sentiment would guarantee a spot for this humble treatise on the current neocon best-spinner list.
In historical hindsight, I might note that his mother religion, intolerant as it came across, was no match for the Inquisition or the malicious Malleus Malefactorum witch burnings in Europe, in part because of a civil-minded European imperial presence and the tantalizing Tanzimat reforms (which ironically began in 1839 as the author was publishing) Ottoman state practices. But the psychological impact could be just as cruel. “Threats and insults, obloquoy and proscription, reproaches and sneers, the malice of looks and whispers, and innuendos, are as real violations of right in this matter, as the sack and the bowstring” (p. 119). Muslim children were said to be taught in their schools to hate infidels, meaning Christians and Jews of course. Ordinary citizens of Muslim countries were too prejudiced to question the preachings of their religious leaders and content to merely repeat the words of the Quran without understanding. For anyone who thought Daniel Pipes was an original, think again.
The author is clearly concerned about his fellow Egyptians left alone in their ignorance of the truth his trip to England revealed. Saul blinded on the road to Damascus is reversed to Mustafa on his way to Plymouth. Having now seen light under the gray English skies, he makes the startling claim that there are no moral books in al-Azhar and the “utmost licentiousness” reigns in the holy city of Mecca. Staid Oxford with its Bodleian code of conduct surely stood in stark contrast. “… If I could be for a moment the muezzin of the earth, to call men not indeed to prayers, but to the nobler homage of doing justice and promoting truth, it would stay the dogmatist and the persecutor in his presumptuous work” (p. 128), he dreams. Reason should be able to trump dogma, since Natural Theology reveals a rational God over all. (I recognize that if he had found truth in Berlin, it would have been über alles.)
In this 1839 perspective truth was on the modernity march. “My friend,” cautions the Egyptian, “the reign of truth is at a distance, but it is certain. Let modern physical science, with its thousand discoveries, be once introduced among the Moslem nations, and it will undermine, sooner or later, every religious and moral error that darkens the land” (p. 136). The “Modern Egypt” so recently visited by Lane was about to enter a new era, thanks to the enlightened gentlemanly natural scientists of England. How could our kafir convert know that Darwin would thwart the righteous efforts of old Paley?
Here the prophet takes over from the theological profligate. The author quotes a tradition about Solomon overseeing the building of the Israelite temple in Jerusalem. It is reported that Solomon died while leaning on his staff, but fooled the genii he had ordered to complete the work by appearing to survey the work from a distance. When the work was done, God permitted a worm to gnaw Solomon’s staff (a topic for Orientalist psychoanalysis, if ever there was) so that the body of the great king naturally toppled and was revealed as a corpse. The genii was upset at this trick, but the work was accomplished. The genii here is the Islam of the Egyptian’s youth and “it will fall to the ground as lifeless as a mummy” (p. 140). Little did he realize the growing interest of museum-creating moderns in such mummies.
It is striking, if not pathetic, how up-to-date bias-wise this assessment of more than a century and a half ago reads. Christianity is idealized as the modern synthesis, somewhat easier to do before Darwin published The Origin of Species and Mendel planted his beans, and physical science is posited positivistically as the harbinger of a technological revolution under the Creator’s watchful eyes. Islam is destined to crumble because it is mere dogma, incapable of reform and intolerant of more rational alternatives. Such a view should be forgiven within reason for 1839, but the biblically proportioned longevity of this prejudice is well illustrated by present day Christian preachers who assume their triune God must trump Allah and political neocon artists who worship democracy to the extent of shirking their moral duties. Ironically, the genii of Islam is still quite alive, Solomon sems far less wise today and Bishop Paley is no longer required reading for students (although still influential in recent attempts to substitute “intelligent design” for evolutionary science).
At the very end of the treatise the author owns up to being branded an apostate, if he were to return to Egypt. “In every country, a dissident, or apostate as he is called, from his native religion, is regarded with greater odium, and treated with greater severity, than a foreign unbeliever who was not educated in it” (p. 155). Nostradamus could not have foretold the fate of Salman Rushdie any clearer. But there is a double irony here. First, converts from Islam to Christianity are so rare as to make apostasy a non-issue in most Muslim countries. Second, department store religion is a very recent phenomenon and your mother religion can no more be erased than the mother who brought you into the world.
The real writer of this treatise, no doubt a Christian who thought reason could win the Muslim lost, knew in his saved heart he had a monopoly on the truth. This very minor work is in a rare book collection of the Bodleian, perhaps not read there in well over a century and probably not to be looked at again by a serendipitous researcher for another century. Truth, indeed, is stranger than fiction; at least it is in this historically hindsighted insight.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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