Satires and Profanities/Some Muslim Laws and Beliefs




The following notes are drawn from E. W. Lane's charming and instructive "Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians" (fifth and standard ed., 1860), a worthy companion to Sir Gardner Wilkinson's book on the Ancient Egyptians, and written about forty years since, before steam-communication had materially changed that people. The muëdoins, whose summons to prayer is one of the few audible charms of the East to a western, are generally chosen from the blind, in order that the harems and terraces of houses may not be overlooked from the minarets. Our callers to prayer are generally blind also; but this is because few clear-sighted men will in these days accept the office. The imams or priests and other religious officials are all paid from the funds of their respective mosques, and not by any contributions exacted from the people: a lesson to us with our State Church. The imams have no authority above other persons, and enjoy no respect save for reputed learning and piety; they are not a distinct order of men set apart for the ministry, but may resign or be displaced, losing with the office the title of imam; they chiefly obtain their living by other means than service in the mosque (for which their salaries are as a rule only about a shilling a month), many of them being tradesmen: here surely are several good lessons for us. The mosques are open all day, and the great mosque El-Azhar all night; the Muslims have great reverence for them, yet in many of the larger ones persons lounge, chat, eat, sleep, spit, sew, etc.: another lesson to us with our churches nearly always closed and useless. The Muslim does not abstain from business on the Friday, his Sabbath, except during the time of prayer, and for this he has the authority of the Kur-an: when will our bigoted Sabbatarians learn so much liberal wisdom from him? The Prophet did not forbid women to attend public prayers in the mosques, but pronounced it better for them to pray in private; in Cairo they are not admitted to the public prayers, it being thought that their presence would inspire a wrong sort of devotion. The result is that few women in Egypt pray at all. If ours were in like case, how many churches and chapels would attract large congregations? The Egyptians, like the modern Arabs, are not a truthful people, but there are some oaths which few would falsely take; such as swearing three times by "God the Great," or on a copy of the Kur-an "By what this contains of the word of God I"—I wonder whether the Christian Englishmen are few who falsely swear by God and on the Bible. Mr. Lane witnessed many instances of forbearance in persons of the middle and lower classes when grossly insulted; and often heard an Egyptian say on receiving a blow from an equal, "God bless thee," "God requite thee good," "Beat me again": how many of the Christians obey in like manner one of the plainest precepts of Christ? In general a quarrel terminates by one or both of them saying "Justice is against me"; often after this they recite together the first chapter of the Kur-an; and then, sometimes, embrace and kiss one another. If a similar custom prevailed here there would be little serious quarrelling; for the men would all avoid disputes save with pretty girls and charming women, and would always make it up very quickly with them. The Muslim believes that there have been six great Prophets and Apostles—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed; each of whom received a revealed law or system of religion and morality, each of the first five abrogated and superseded by the next, though all were the same in essentials. Thus the Jews from the time of Moses to that of Christ, and the Christians (if they did not accept the corrupt and idolatrous doctrine of the divinity of Jesus) from the time of Christianity to that of Mohammed, were true believers. Of course the last is the greatest Prophet, and since his revelation the Muslims only have been the faithful. The Pentateuch, Psalms and Gospels, though of divine origin, have been so much altered as to contain very little of the true Word of God; but the Kur-an is supposed to have suffered no essential change whatever. Jesus was born of a pure virgin by the miraculous operation of God, without any father human or divine. When he had fulfilled the object of his mission, he was taken up to God from the Jews who sought to slay him, and another man, on whom God had stamped the likeness of Jesus, was crucified in his stead. He will come again upon earth, to establish the Muslim religion and perfect peace and security, after having killed Anti-Christ, and to be a sign of the approach of the last day. In all these doctrines the Muslims are decidedly more consistent and liberal, as well as somewhat less superstitious than the Christians, with their God-man and trinity in unity, their damnation of Mohammed as a mere impostor and of his religion, El Islam, as a vile fabrication of stolen materials. "The Egyptians pay a superstitious reverence not to imaginary beings alone: they extend it to certain individuals of their own species; and often to those who are justly the least entitled to such respect. An idiot or a fool is vulgarly regarded by them as a being whose mind is in heaven, while his grosser part mingles among ordinary mortals; consequently, he is considered an especial favorite of heaven. Whatever enormities a reputed saint may commit (and there are many who are constantly infringing precepts of their religion) such acts do not affect his fame for sanctity: for they are considered as the results of the abstraction of his mind from worldly things; his soul, or reasoning faculties, being wholly absorbed in devotion, so that his passions are left without control. Lunatics who are dangerous to society are kept in confinement; but those who are harmless are generally regarded as saints. Most of the reputed saints of Egypt are either lunatics, or idiots, or impostors." I wonder whether this applies at all, and if it does, to what extent, to the countless saints of our Most Holy Catholic Church of Christendom. In Egypt, as in other countries of the East, Muslims, Christians, and Jews adopt each other's superstitions, while they abhor the leading doctrines of each other's faith. "In sickness, the Muslim sometimes employs Christian and Jewish priests to pray for him: the Christians and Jews, in the same predicament, often call in Muslim saints for the like purpose!" So much human nature is there in man, not to speak of woman. The Muslims profoundly reverence the Kur-an, yet will quote it on the most trivial occasions in jest as well as on the most important in earnest. They are generally fond of conversing on religion among themselves; and the most prevalent mode of entertaining a party of guests among the higher middle classes, in Cairo, is the recital of the whole of the Kur-an, which is chanted by special persons hired for the purpose, or other religious exercises. This chanting of the Kur-an takes up about nine hours. When will our fashionable Bibliolaters issue invitations for the treat of hearing poor curates or scripture readers intone the whole of the Bible, or even so much of it at a time as might be got through in nine hours?

When, oh when?

Ladies will learn with approval that it is thought improper, and even disreputable, for a man to be single. Mr. Lane was a bachelor during his first two visits to Egypt; and in the former of these, having to change his residence, engaged another house. The lease was duly signed and some money paid in advance, but the inhabitants of the neighborhood (who were mostly descendants of the Prophet) would not have an unmarried man in their midst. The agent said they would gladly admit him if he would but purchase a female slave, thus redeeming himself from the opprobrium of not possessing a wife of some sort. He managed to secure a house in a less scrupulous quarter, but had to engage that no creature wearing a hat should visit him. The Sheykh or chief of this quarter often urged him to marry; Lane objected that he intended to live in Egypt only a year or two longer. The Sheykh answered, with great moral force and earnestness, that a handsome young widow a few doors off would be glad to marry him, on the express understanding that he should divorce her on going away; while of course he could do so earlier if she did not suit him. Now this young widow, in spite of her religion and veil, had several times contrived (the Sage saith that there is nothing a woman cannot contrive, except to refrain from contriving) to let our Oriental Englishman catch a glimpse of her very pretty face; and the miserable bachelor was reduced to plead that she was the very last woman he would like to marry pro tempore for he felt sure that once wed he could never make up his mind to part with her. Doubtless all our single men, and especially our Christian young men, would much rather be deemed disreputable and denied decent lodgings than establish their character for virtue and respectability by buying female slaves, however cheap, or marrying nice young widows divorcible at pleasure! As to polygamy, Mr. Lane remarks that it can only be defended as preventing a greater immorality than it occasions; and that Mohammed, like Moses, did not introduce but limited and regulated it. The ancient Egyptians had but one wife each, though they might have slave concubines. Polygamy, however, is rare, and rarer among the upper and middle classes than the lower; "I believe that not more than one husband in twenty has two wives." The mere sentence, "I give myself up to thee," uttered by a female to a man who proposes to become her husband (even without the presence of witnesses, if none can easily be procured) renders her his legal wife if arrived at puberty. A man may divorce his wife twice, and each time take her back without any ceremony, unless she has paid for it by resigning the reserved third of the dowry, furniture, etc.; but if he divorces her the third time, or puts her away by a triple divorce conveyed in one sentence, he cannot receive her again until she has been married and divorced by another husband, who must have consummated his marriage with her. To divorce her, he simply has to say, "Thou art divorced," or "I divorce thee"; but the woman cannot separate herself from her husband against his will, unless it be for some considerable fault on his side, such as cruel treatment or neglect. The facility of divorce has depraving effects, upon both sexes. Many men in the course of ten years have married twenty, thirty, or more wives; and women not far advanced in age have been wives to a dozen or more successively. "I have heard of men who have been in the habit of marrying a new wife almost every month." But such conduct is generally regarded as very disgraceful; and few persons in the upper or middle classes would give a daughter in marriage to a person who had divorced many wives.

The women deem it more incumbent to cover the upper and back part of the head than the face; and more requisite to conceal the face than most parts of the person. Many among the lower classes never conceal their faces; women may often be seen with nothing but a narrow strip of rag round the hips. The face-veils have the advantage of leaving the eyes visible, which are generally the most beautiful of the features; fine figures being more common than altogether handsome faces; though some faces are of a beauty distinguished by such sweetness of expression that they seem the perfection of female lovliness, "and impressed me at the time with the idea that their equal could not be found in any other country." The women of Cairo are less strictly guarded than in most Eastern lands; wives are proud of the restraint as showing that the husbands value them highly, looking upon themselves as hidden treasures. To such an absurd extent do Muslims carry their feeling of the sacredness of women that entrance into the tombs of some women is forbidden to men; and a man and woman are never buried in the same vault, without a wall between them—as if their very corpses might get up to mischief. For adultery on the part of the woman the Kur-an prescribes death by stoning, but drowning is generally substituted. Unless detected by an officer of justice four eye-witnesses are required; failing these, the accuser is to be scourged with eighty stripes. This extraordinary law is traced to an accusation of adultery against the Prophet's favorite wife "A'isheh," who was thus absolved from punishment, and subsequent revelations established her innocence. If we had a similar Law here we might close our Divorce Court. If a husband without any witnesses accuses his wife of adultery, he must swear four times by God that he speaks the truth, and the fifth time imprecate God's curse on himself if he is a liar; but the wife can counterbalance this by swearing four times by God that he is a liar, and the fifth time imprecating God's wrath on herself if he speaks the truth. The commentators and lawyers have agreed that in this dilemma the marriage must be dissolved. When a peasant woman is found to have been unfaithful to her husband, in general he or her brother throws her into the Nile, with a stone tied to her neck; or cuts her to pieces and then throws these into the river. In most instances a father or brother punishes in the same manner an unmarried daughter or sister who has been guilty of incontinence. These relatives are considered more disgraced than the husband by the crime of the woman; and are often despised if they do not thus punish her. Women in easy circumstances are put to bed for from three to six days after childbirth; but poor women in the same case seldom take to bed at all, and after a day or two resume their ordinary occupations, if these do not require great exertion.

The law of inheritance is remarkable in two respects; primogeniture is not privileged, and in most cases the share of a female is half that of a male in the same degree of relationship. A debtor is only kept imprisoned for debt if he cannot prove himself insolvent; but if able, he may be made work out what he owes. Apostacy from the faith is death if not recanted on three warnings. Blasphemy against God or any of the Great Prophets, whether repented or not, is instant death: on the ground that apostacy or infidelity is but ignorance and misjudgment, while blasphemy shows utter depravity. If Christians blaspheming Mohammed were punished as are Muslims blaspheming Christians, what a number of our enlightened clerical teachers would have died the death of malefactors!

The Copts, or descendants of the ancient Egyptians, said to number about 150,000, are Christians, but scarcely a credit to that religion whose votaries boast of its civilising and elevating character. The fact is that in advanced countries the Christianity has been civilised by the Secularism, not the Secularism by the Christianity; in countries where the sciences and arts are stationary or retrograde, Christianity proves that it has in itself no motive-power, and is generally even more degraded than the other superstitions around it. Mr. Lane almost despaired of learning anything about these Copts, until he had the good fortune to become acquainted with a character of which he had doubted the existence—a Copt of a liberal as well as an intelligent mind. They hate the Greeks and all other Christians not of their own sect much worse than they hate the Muslims themselves. The priests are supported only by alms or by their own industry. Their language is a dead one. They pray seven times a day, in the course of these reciting the whole Book of Psalms, as well as chapters of the Bible, prayers, etc.: a fine example to their lax co-religionists here. They have long and arduous fasts. In spite or because of all this they bear a very bad character as sullen, avaricious abominable dissemblers, cringing or domineering according to circumstances. The one respectable Copt discovered by Lane admitted that they are generally ignorant, faithless, worldly, sensual, and drunken; he declared that the Patriarch was a tyrant and suborner of false witnesses; that the monks and priests in Cairo are seen every evening begging and asking the loan of money, which they never repay, at the houses of their parishioners and other acquaintances, and procuring brandy if possible wherever they call. So much for our esteemed fellow-Christians in Egypt, descendants of what in heathen times was long the foremost nation, in the world.

"Women are not to be excluded from paradise, according to the faith of El Islam; though it has been asserted by many Christians, that the Muslims believe women to have no soul. In several places in the Kur-an, Paradise is promised to all true believers." They will be admitted by God's mercy on account of their faith, not of their good works; but their felicity there will be proportioned to their good works. The very meanest male in Paradise is promised eighty thousand beautiful youths as servants, and seventy-two wives of the daughters of Paradise. These celestial virgins we commonly call houris, but learned and accurate Mr. Lane terms them hooreeyehs, vividly sugesting that the Muslim saints burst into rapturous and prolonged hoorays on first perceiving them. He may also have the wives he had here below, if he wants them; and doubtless the good will desire the good. On behalf of the earthly fair sex, I must emphatically protest against this part of the heavenly arrangements. How do we know that the good husband will desire the good wife, however good, when he has two-and-seventy maidens of Paradise all to himself? The trust that he will, cannot be trusted; it is a perfidious consolation to poor women. No wonder Muslim wives are obsequious, when it depends on the will, pleasure or caprice of their husbands whether they shall be re-married in the other world or not. Mrs. Caudle herself would scarcely hazard a curtain lecture with this atrocious alternative in prospect. Try to fancy being an old-maid or grass-widow for ever and ever where all the men are very much married, having six dozen wives each at the very lowest! Such a heaven to a good woman were ten times crueller than hell. When the Muslim women have been aroused to a sense of their rights, they will insist on being treated in the next world on equal terms with the men: the meanest woman of the faithful (supposing any woman can be mean) shall have her eighty thousand beautiful servants, and her seventy-two husbands of the youths of Paradise, resplendent, adoring, ever obedient. This settled first, it will be a question for consideration between herself and her terrene spouse whether they shall combine their several establishments, or agree to be divorced by death. But I digress; women always lead us into digressions, only these are usually much more interesting than the dusty high-road along which it is our business to trudge. The meanest of Muslims will further have a very large tent bejewelled with pearls, jacinths and emeralds. He will be waited on by three hundred attendants while he eats, and served in dishes of gold, whereof three hundred shall be set before him at once, each containing a different kind of food, "the last morsel of which will be as grateful as the first." This absence of satiety, this ever-fresh vigor, I believe, is to mark all his enjoyments, however freely he may indulge in them. Though wine is forbidden in this life, he may drink of it ad libitum in the next, and the wine of Paradise doth not inebriate. He shall have perpetual youth, and as many children as he may desire. He shall be ravished with the songs of the angel Israfeel, "whose heart-strings are a lute, and who has the sweetest voice of all God's creatures." I really cannot go on; my feelings are too much for me. I remember when young being taught to sing (or rather to squall; for my voice could never have been mistaken for that of the angel Israfeel, even by a frequenter of revival meetings or music halls):

"I thank the goodness and the grace {grays?)
  Which on my birth have smiled,
And made me in these Christian days {dace?)
  A happy English child."

But now that I am a man, this same consideration fills me with bitterest sorrow and anguish, so that I am ready to bellow,

I curse the evil and disgrace
  Which have my birth defiled.
Who would have been in other case
  A happy Muslim child!

Yea, when I contrast these glowing and glorious prospects held out to the faithful by the Kur-an, with the everlasting singing in white night-gowns, amidst the howling of elders and composite beasts all over eyes (what our Heine terms "all the menagerie of the Apocalypse") in adoration of a God like a jasper and sardine stone to look upon, and of a Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes; then do I wring my hands and beat my breast and tear my hair, sighing and sobbing, moaning and groaning, weeping and lamenting most piteously—Alas! and alas! and alas! why was I born in a Christian land and reared for the Christian Heaven? Would that I had been born among the Muslims and brought up in the faith of El Islam! So should I be now looking forward (for from such a generous faith never, never would I have lapsed) unto a Paradise worthy of the name; revelling in anticipations of four-score thousand servants, uncloying courses of three hundred dishes, unlimited strong wine without inebriation, six-dozen wives of the refulgent celestial virgins, aging not themselves, aging not me; perpetual youth, unsating and unexhausting raptures for ever, and ever, and ever; and instead of having to sing my own throat hoarse, I should have the angel Israfeel to sing for me. Ah, dear God! Thou most Compassionate! Thou most Bountiful! Thou to whom all things are possible I grant that I may even yet be converted from a doleful Christian infidel into a blessed Muslim true believer! O God the All-merciful, save me from the terrors and tortures of our Sankey and Moody Christian heaven! O God the All-gracious, let me lie secure in the arms of six-dozen hooreeyehs of Paradise of El Islam! Amen, and Amen.