Sweet First-Fruits (Bakoorah Shahiya). A tale of the Nineteenth Century, on the truth and virtue of the Christian Religion.

Sweet First-Fruits (Bakoorah Shahiya). A tale of the Nineteenth Century, on the truth and virtue of the Christian Religion.

William Muir (1819-1905) was a committed Evangelical Christian and was invited to preface many missionary biographies and memoirs, speak at conferences and to publicise Zenana missions. He wrote “If Christianity is anything, it must be everything. It cannot brook a rival, nor cease to wage war against all other faiths, without losing its strength and virtue.” In his official capacity as principal of Edinburgh University, Muir chaired many meetings of Evangelists at the university, organised to support overseas missionary efforts, and addressed by speakers such as Henry Drummond. In India, William Muir founded the Indian Christian village Muirabad, near Allahabad. Muir was impressed with the discovery of the Apology of al-Kindy; he lectured on it at the Royal Asiatic Society, presenting it as an important link in what he saw as a chain of notable conversions to Christianity, and later he published the translated sources. A proselytising text, Bakoorah shahiya (Sweet First Fruits) was published under his name as well, but this work had actually been written by a convert to Protestantism from Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Bakoorah Shahiya, ‘sweet/ or ‘delectable first-fruits,’
is a work in many respects the most remarkable
of its kind which has appeared in the present day.
It is a first-fruits of what we may expect from the
reformation now so steadily spreading among the
Eastern Churches, and as such, may take the highest
rank in apologetic literature, being beyond question
one of the most powerful treatises on the claims of
Christianity that has ever been addressed to the Ma-
hometan world. It is singular, also, as a work which
only a native Christian could accomplish one who,
though born and bred in the East, has cast aside
the corruptions of an effete ecclesiasticism, and has
embraced in all its purity the faith preached in the
same lands eighteen centuries ago. Further, it is
remarkable as showing what a powerful influence this
reformation is bringing to bear upon the Moslem
population around. From the days of their Prophet
they have been used to look with contempt and
despite on Christianity, as represented by a ritual
which to them is nothing short of idolatry. But
now they have learned to regard the Christian faith
exhibited by the Reformed Church in its pure and
simple worship with respect, and listen with patience,
if not sometimes even with approval, to appeals such
as are made so powerfully in the Sweet First-fruits
to the teaching of the Book accredited by their own
Coran as the Word of God. Christianity has in this
way gained a prestige in the East Syria and Egypt
in particular which it is difficult to over-estimate,
and which may shortly lead to unexpected results.

A few details will now be given regarding the
writer of The Sweet First-fruits.

He was born and bred a member of one of the
Eastern Churches but, convinced that its teaching
was unscriptural, and its ritual and practices idola-
trous, he cast off its profession, and embraced the
gospel in all its simplicity. For so doing he was
cast out by his family, and passed through a bitter
time of trial. The following are some particulars I
have learned from a friend regarding him.

His family (he writes) were specially devout in
saint-worship, Mariolatry and adoration of the holy
Eikonat (pictures). When he was about seventeen,
many years ago, I was awakened at midnight, one
dark rainy night, by a knock at my door. The servant
opened it, and the youth came in, drenched and chilled.
He and his mother had come on a visit to his brother,
and while here he studied the New Testament, and
as a result refused to kiss the pictures, pray to the
saints or to the Virgin, or confess to a priest. On
the night in question he had persisted in studying
his New Testament, when his mother and brother
threatened him with expulsion from the house if he
did not desist. He would not yield, and at midnight
they drove him out into the storm and darkness (it
was winter), without clothing or bed. He came to
me, and I gave him a home. The home persecution
continued relentlessly. He said to me, “Oh the
persecution of tears! I could bear beating, but my
mother’s tears are hard to bear. She thinks me lost

The trials thus suffered were probably not less
bitter than those of the Moslem converts in this tale
when cast adrift from their homes and families, and
which our author describes with all the pathos of one
who himself had gone through the same (p. 1 1 1). He
became a teacher and then a preacher of the gospel,
and as such still survives. It would endanger his
safety further to identify him. I will only add that,
although unacquainted with any European language,
he is otherwise an accomplished scholar, deeply versed
in the Coran and Moslem tradition, and, as will be
seen by the reader, a most powerful apologist.

Sweet First-fruits is a romance a delightful story,
and as such well fitted to attract the Oriental reader,
and rivet his attention. But its frame-work is prim-
arily designed to give scope and opportunity for
presenting to the Moslem reader the proofs of the
Christian faith, the purity and genuineness of our
Bible, its attestation by the Coran, and the consequent
obligation on Moslems to obey its precepts. The argu-
ment is developed, in the dialectic style, between a
party of Christian converts and their former com-
panions. The tale is, I am assured, ‘founded on fact,’
not the history as a whole, for that bristles with
startling improbabilities (all the more charming, as
such, to Oriental readers of Eastern tales) but the
separate scenes. ‘It purports,’ my friend tells me, ‘to
be simply an historical novel, and the author does not
claim that the events really occurred, but similar
events have occurred in different parts and at different
times.’ What is here told may, then, be assumed to
have, in point of fact, either actually happened in
times past or, from the present attitude of Islam
towards Christianity, to be of possible occurrence
any day.

It may be mentioned that the very day when our
author left his home, a Mahometan was cast into
prison close by for becoming a Christian. And my
friend adds that ‘the facts connected with the perse-
cution of Moslem converts coming thus to his know-
ledge just at the time when he was himself suffering
the loss of all things for Christ’s sake, made a deep
impression on his mind.’

The scene of the romance is the city of Damascus.
An epistle from a Christian friend falls into the hands
of some inquiring Moslems, who call together certain
friends to hear it and discuss what answer should be
given. These, to the number of twelve, have repeated
debates, in which the argument for the genuineness
of the Old and New Testaments, as borne testimony
to by the Coran, is discussed at length. After several
meetings the whole party are convinced, and resolve
to adopt the Christian faith all excepting a bigoted
and fanatical youth, who, when he sees how the argu-
ment is going, hurries off to his Master, an equally
bigoted and intolerant Sheikh. The Sheikh starts up
in delight at the prospect of a religious fight, and
addresses a letter of specious friendship to expostulate
with the inquirers.

Sheikh Aly, the leading figure in the romance,
replies in a letter holding firmly by the truth. The
hostile Moslems, gathered in large numbers in the
Sheikh’s house, are greatly excited when the reply is
read out to them. After sending a deputation with
no better success, to expostulate with “the perverts,
information is lodged in the court of the Waly
(governor) of the province, who, finding the matter
serious, calls a council, before which the converts are
summoned. They remain firm, and are being led
away to prison, when, at the recommendation of the
Cazee, an upright and kindly affectioned man, they are
recalled in order that they may be blandly reasoned
with. A truly characteristic scene follows. Coffee
and refreshments are served, and the chief citizens, in
groups of two or three, gather round each of the little
company in the halls of the palace, and bring every
kind of blandishment to bear upon them. Three
yield to these influences and recant. The rest are
sent to prison, and the case reported to the Porte.

Then the hostile and fanatical party, on the prin-
ciple of doing evil that good may come, lay a snare
with the view of enticing the converts to speak de-
spitefully of the Mahometan faith that being a
capital offence in Moslem lands. With this intent
they enter the prison, ostensibly on a friendly visit to
induce the perverts to repent. They succeed in
drawing out the youngest and simplest of the party,
who, when pressed to say whether he believes in the
Coran, replies,

If I did, why then should I become a Christian?
The conspirators on this throw off the mask, cry
out in feigned indignation, and cover the innocent
confessor, as ‘a Christian dog and swine,’ with all
kinds of vituperation. They then lodge a complaint
in court, supported by false witnesses, that he had
denounced the Coran and blasphemed the Prophet.
The case is reported as one for capital punishment
to the Porte, and an answer, received by telegraph,
directs his execution. On the following day he is
beheaded in presence of the officers of state and
a military parade, and before a vast concourse of
spectators. The martyr’s noble bearing, his last
words, and the farewell to his wife and sister and two
little sons, are all told with much power and pathos.

A riot, stirred up by the enemies of the converts,
and headed by a wild and half-crazed fanatic, creates
alarm in the city, and is only put down by military
force. The excitement thus prevailing affords suf-
ficient ground for reporting the continued presence
of the converts at Damascus as dangerous. A re-
script in answer from the Porte sanctions their
exile, with the view of preserving the peace of the
city and Deyr al Camr, a Christian town in the
Lebanon, is fixed on as the place of banishment.
During the interval of about a fortnight the Cazee and
the Mufty repeatedly visit the prison, and have long
arguments to induce Aly and his party to recant.
The gist of the apology (chaps, x. and xi.) lies here.
The discussion, in a lively dialectic style, runs over the
whole of the issues against our faith, and is so ably
conducted on the Christian side, that the Cazee and
the Mufty are virtually worsted at every point, while
the amenity of the conference is maintained through-
out. The debate, though carried on with sprightliness
and vigour, may be felt tiresome from its length and
occasional repetitions, by the European reader, but
I do not think it will be so by the Oriental.

At last the party are led away to the Lebanon,
where they are welcomed and made much of by the
citizens of Deyr al Camr and the country round
about. The place of exile, at first kept secret at
Damascus, after a couple of months comes out and
the converts are then visited by their friends, many of
whom are led to follow in their steps. After a time
the expatriation is bruited abroad, and accounts of it
find their way into European prints. The consuls in
Syria make inquiry, and at the instance of certain
of the chief Powers, lay the case for remission of exile
before the Porte. In reply, a despatch is issued from
Constantinople, explaining that in the Turkish em-
pire there is by law absolute freedom to all classes in
matters of conscience and religious profession. The
little company, it proceeds to say, were exiled, not
because of their conversion, but to avoid tumult and
disorder in the fanatical city of Damascus. So soon
as the fear of this should pass away, permission would
at once be given for their return. Accordingly,
after a little more than a year’s expatriation, the
company journey back to their homes, where they
are received with delight and rejoicing by relatives
and friends. Omar’s widow, who embraces her
martyred husband’s faith, is persuaded to marry Aly’s
brother, in order that her two sons may be brought
up as Christians. At last Aly, now very old, falls
sick, and an affecting account is given of his death-
bed. His old friends come in hopes of inducing him
to recant, but retire, wondering at his noble attitude,
earnest expressions, and faith undaunted by the
prospect of impending death. His last words, de-
cease and burial are graphically described. The bier,
escorted as a precautionary measure by a guard
from the Waly, and followed by a vast crowd, is
carried to the Christian church, where a touching
address is delivered by the minister, and a hymn
sung the whole listened to reverently by the great
assembly. The body is then borne to the Christian
cemetery, and committed to the dust. Over the
grave is erected a beautiful monument, with the
verses the aged disciple loved most to repeat and in
large golden letters his dying words, ‘Lord Jesus,
receive my spirit.’

Such is the tale, charming in itself, and of inesti-
mable value as a pleasing vehicle for the arguments
of the Christian advocate. Indeed, I make bold to
say that the Moslem world has never, since the rise of
Islam, had an appeal made to it under more favour-
able circumstances, nor one more likely to ensure
respect, if not force conviction. Differing from all
former treatises, it contains not one word offensive to
the Mahometan, beyond the strength and conclusive-
ness of the reasoning, which, indeed, is mainly drawn
from the Goran itself. Other works may have been
more able and learned, but they have alienated and
offended the Moslem reader by attacks on the Pro-
phet and his teaching. The “argument turns mainly
on the attestation of the Jewish and Christian Scrip-
tures by the Goran. They are there praised as a
guide and a light, perfect and complete in all that
is excellent, a light and direction to mankind
and their observance enjoined as obligatory on
‘the people of the Book.’ All this is admitted by
the Moslem apologist, but he impugns our present
Bible as corrupt and tainted. The Christian advocate
then pins his opponent on the horns of a dilemma,
if tampered with, it must have been either before or
since the rise of Islam. It could not have been before,
else why the praise of these same Scriptures by the
Prophet, and his injunction that the Jews and Chris-
tians of his day should follow them? and it could
not have been since, seeing that copies and transla-
tions were scattered all over the world long before
the days of Mahomet, and were also in the hands of
sects and Churches hostile to one another. Again, as
regards our Saviour’s Divinity, much stress is laid on
the remarkable epithets and attributes assigned in
the Coran to the Messiah, as ‘the Word’ and ‘Spirit of
God,’ His supernatural birth, etc. descriptions which
place Him incomparably above all other prophets
and (although there are passages of a contrary sense)
are inexplicable, excepting on the assumption of a
Divine nature. These views are pressed home with
an authority, persistence and vigour from which, as
an argumentum ad hominem, there would seem to
the Moslem to be no way of escape.

This translation of the First-fruits I have made for
several reasons. There are three classes for whom it
may be useful. First, the English reader. It is well
for our own countrymen to have before them a pic-
ture of the suffering which converts to Christianity
in Moslem lands must endure, in order that their
sympathies may be drawn out towards those who in
our own day are passing through the same fiery trial,
and also that they may encourage and support those
who are labouring in this interesting field, and may
pray God to give strength to the tried. The English
reader must not judge the work by our Western
standard. Reiteration and pleonasm are a virtue, and
not a defect, in the Oriental student’s eye and I
doubt not that, improbabilities and repetition not-
withstanding, his interest will be kept up to the end.

Next, there are missionaries and others who may
wish to offer the Arabic original to their Mahometan
friends, but are not familiar with the language in
which it is written, it is right that these should be
satisfied of its value by having an outline of its con-
tents. It is further possible that such may find in this English version arguments that will prove serviceable
in conference with the Moslem people, as well as an
admirable model of the spirit in which such argu-
ments should be conducted.

There are also in many lands more especially
India, Turkey and Egypt a large and increasing
class of Mussulmans, versed in the English language,
to whom this version may be more accessible and
easy to understand than the original Arabic, and
who may find in it sufficient material to show that
the gospel cannot with consistency and safety be
neglected by any professor of the Moslem faith.

The present work illustrates the paramount impor-
tance of encouraging the reformation among the
Christian populations of the East, for it is only through
them that we can reach the Moslem peoples with the
slightest hope of success. We may and ought to do
all in our power to enlighten the ancient Churches
and so be doing Christianity a good service. But
nothing short of a real reformation, carrying with it
the abandonment of their superstitions, will avail to
make the Moslem world look upon these churches
otherwise than with the pity and compassion with
which we regard a fetish heathen. It was their wor-
ship of the creature, the adoration of pictures and of
the Virgin Mary, which gave Mahomet himself and
his immediate followers the power to overthrow
Christianity in the East, and which in times past have
rendered weak and impotent all attempts at conver-
sion even to the present day. The Moslems still cast
in the teeth of the Christian advocates that passage
in Sura Maida in which the Messiah is asked by the
Almighty: ‘O Jesus, Son of Mary, hast thou indeed
said unto men, “Take Me and My mother for two
Gods, besides God? and then triumphantly quote
the reply of Jesus: ‘God forbid, it is not for Me to
say that which I ought not.’ The UNITY is bound
up in the heart of a Moslem and no teaching which
recognises or goes hand in hand with the ritual and
practices of the ancient Churches has the smallest
prospect of influencing the Mahometans of the East.

Another hopeful point is the respect with which
the Reformation is regarded as emanating from the
English nation. The reader will not fail to observe
the dominant attitude assumed in this work for the
Christian faith as politically in the ascendant. Thus,
when the Cazee advances the rapid spread of Islam
and overthrow of great kingdoms as evidence of the
faith, Sheik Aly quietly points to its decline in the
present day before the prowess of Christian nations
(p. 137). Far different is it with the ancient Churches
of the East. It is not their fault that they have
been cast into the dust and trodden under foot all
through these long centuries, indeed, ever since the
conquest of Syria in the reign of Omar.

See the so-called Ordinance of Omar against Jews and
Christians; ‘Coloured stripes must be sewn on their garments,
and those of their slaves, and restrictions observed as to flow-
ing robes, their women to wear yellow veils abroad, riding
allowed only on mules, and with wooden stirrups and wooden
knobs on their saddles, the figure of Satan must be on the door-
posts of their houses, tombs level with the ground. They were
debarred from offices of state, their children forbidden to be
wonder is that they have survived at all, proof of the
marvellous vitality of our faith even thus corrupt.
But not the less must we take note of the sentiment
which leads the Moslem to look down with com-
passion and disdain upon the ancient Churches of
the East: Nestorian, Coptic, Jacobite, and Greek,
as well as the Romish secession. This sentiment of
the social and political degradation of the ancient
Churches is so ingrained in the mind of every Moslem,
that, conjoined with their abhorrence of the quasi-
idolatrous rites and practices which pervade their
ritual, it is no wonder that Christianity in the East
has made little way, but has remained, all these
twelve centuries, passive and helpless under its op-
pressive yoke. And so it will remain with any effort
of the Churches themselves, and not less of those who
would work in conjunction with them. In establish-
ing an Eastern propaganda, for which the path is now
being thrown so marvellously open, it would be a
fatal mistake to attempt the work hand in hand with
the unreformed Churches. The contempt of centuries
would attach to it. The attempt, so far as concerns its
influence on the Moslem world, is doomed to failure.
Far otherwise is it with such efforts as are now
being made by the Churches which distinctively
taught in Moslem schools, or by Moslem masters, churches of
recent date to be demolished, no cross to be paraded at their
festivals, or erected in any street.

They call themselves ‘evangelical,’ planted in Syria and ad-
joining lands, and rapidly extending there in numbers
and in influence. They come into the field as a young
and vigorous force, which at once socially, politically,
and spiritually command from the Mahometan races
surrounding them, candid inquiry and respect. The
position is, as our author shows, apologetically un-
assailable, and already ‘first-fruits,’ the promise of an
abundant harvest, have plentifully been gathered in.

It must not be lost sight of that such a treatise as
the present could have been composed by none other
than a native of the country, and by one, moreover,
who has cast off the superstitions prevailing there.
The whole energy of our Churches should therefore
be thrown into the grand work of pressing forward the
movement which has been so hopefully commenced,
and of multiplying the number of men who, like
our author, natives of the East, and imbued with
the spirit of the gospel in all its simplicity, are thus
fitted for the work of the Apologist, and for attracting
the Moslem population to the Christian faith. That
there should in the Church at home be any difference
of opinion and practice on this point is marvellous.
It can only arise, one would fain hope, from the
situation being imperfectly understood, for what
loyal Christian would prefer the interests of Churches,
however ancient and interesting, to the spread of the
gospel among the myriads of Moslems now awaken-
ing to the call? One makes bold to say that our
author’s Apology, in the present state of Eastern
lands, heralds a new departure. I do not think I
am unduly sanguine in believing that if all our
Churches united heart and soul in the work, there
would arise an ever-extending field of Christian enter-
prise in the East, and an ingathering therefrom, such
as has not been seen since the first establishment of
the Christian faith in these lands. And may many
be raised up in this great reformation to emulate in
their labours the honoured author of Sweet First-
fruits !

I trust that this work, in its original text, will be
widely disseminated wherever Islam prevails and
also that translations will at once be made into the
vernacular languages of Turkey, Persia, India, and
other lands in which Mussulmans dwell. It is ours
to provide the means, it is His to add the blessing,
and to grant that a rich harvest may follow the
dissemination of these Sweet First-fruits.

W. M.
March, 1893.



















PRAISE be to the Heavenly King, who hath revealed
the truth unto us in the Holy Scriptures a guide
unto His people, and a light to show forth His
glory !


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