Florence Nightingale: A Person of Distinct Character and Courage

In 1849, a young English lady journeyed with family friends from her native England to Egypt. Twenty-eight-years-old at the time, she had not yet married, and by Victorian standards she was proving to be of an “intractable nature.” In taking such a journey abroad, she hoped it would help her decide what to do with her life. It turned out that the voyage did, in fact, help her commit to her mission, to which she had felt a strong calling but had refrained from embracing wholeheartedly up until then. Her name was Florence Nightingale.


She went on to found modern Nursing and to effect permanent changes in health care, hospital design, statistics, military organization, and global politics. She inspired a Swiss humanitarian to establish the Red Cross, which is currently the single most important relief organization in the world and whose highest achievement award is named after her.

She received medals and awards from several heads of state, including the Ottoman Sultan, Abdal Majid, for her selfless service to Turkish soldiers, and the British regents, Victoria and Albert, for her similar service to British soldiers. At the end of her life, she was acknowledged as one of the most influential women who had ever lived. Many people recognize the name. Few, however, know how truly distinguished she was. At a time when her inspiring story should be a model for our young, recent attempts have been made to diminish her work by focusing on the flaws and frailties of this seemingly impeccable woman. However, if Florence Nightingale were alive today, she would no doubt not bother flattering such busybodies with a response.

Instead, she would simply go on about her work: serving the helpless and needy. Such attacks seem to be the perennial price the great must pay, who overlook the faults of those who attack them even as those who attack them feel the need to point out their faults.

Among Florence’s many gifts, one that is often overlooked is her uncanny power of observation, which served her well as she administered care to those in need. It was this keen ability of hers to observe others and her surroundings that enabled her, during her year in Egypt between 1849 and 1850, to perceive certain truths about Islam and Muslim society that are more relevant today than ever before. Although many biographers have depicted her life in its entirety, in their discussion of her trip to Egypt they have been strangely oblivious to its impact on her subsequent decisions.

Florence was born on May 12, 1820 in Florence, Italy, while her family was sojourning

there, and her mother appropriately named her after the city. The Nightingales were well-to-do British landowners, and her father associated with the Whig party and was involved in the anti-slavery movement. He was also a Unitarian and by its doctrine did not accept the divinity of Christ. Florence, because of political problems associated with her father’s affiliation with the Unitarian “dissenters,”was raised in the more mainstream Anglican Church, but her writings reveal a strong Unitarian flavor nevertheless, no doubt from her father’s influence, and Unitarians today claim her as one of their own.

While Florence was growing up, her father, who had no male children, treated her as a son, bestowing upon her the full attention a firstborn male in Victorian England would normally enjoy. Himself a graduate of Cambridge University, Florence’s father chose to give Florence the best university education possible, but at home, since at that time women were not allowed to attend universities in person. However, free thought flourished among the Unitarians, and women raised in Unitarian households were often highly educated.

As recently as 1873, a notable scientist argued that “an overindulgence in matters of the mind would shrivel a woman’s reproductive organs” and that their minds were “too fragile for difficult mental activity.”1 This was certainly not the case with Florence, who threw herself into her studies with a relish, rising daily between the wee hours of 4 and 6 a.m., while her family still slept, to prepare her day’s lessons. Her curriculum included Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, history, grammar, philosophy, and mathematics.

She also studied the newly emerging social sciences and the embryonic science of statistics.

In fact, the invention of the pie chart, so commonly used in presenting data today, is attributed to her. By the age of 15, Florence had translated sections of Plato’s dialogues from the original and by 16 had mastered Homeric Greek. The great Hellenic scholar and pre-eminent translator of Plato, Benjamin Jowett, even had her edit and critique his still-studied introductions to the Platonic dialogues, as well as its summaries. When she was in her late 20’s, while traveling with her family in Austria- Hungary, Florence had lengthy conversations with nuns and monks in Latin.

As an adherent to Jeremy Benthan’s increasingly influential Utilitarianism, Florence’s father had a profound influence on his daughter’s early education. At the same time, he often spearheaded radically progressive issues both in England and the United States that reflected the concerns of the mainstream Unitarian Church. Florence’s mother, Fanny, though also from a staunch Unitarian household, but conscious of herself more as a lady of her time, would usually retire to the drawing room with her only other daughter, Parthe, to work on their embroidery, while Florence and her father headed for the library to discuss metaphysics, politics, and current social issues.

Blessed Florence Nightingale: “‘Religion is not devotion, but work and suffering for the love of God. This the true doctrine of the Mystics…Where shall I find God? In myself…I must be in a state for Him to come and dwell in me. That is the whole aim of the mystical life…”

Florence’s maternal grandfather, the parliamentarian William Smith, sponsored the successful Unitarian Toleration Act of 1813, which insured that unbelief in the divinity of Christ was no longer considered a crime in England. Smith was also at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement led by William Wilberforce, and they campaigned for 40 years until the Parliament finally abolished slavery under the British flag and passed laws that led to the prohibition of the trans-Atlantic slave commerce and the policing of Atlantic waters by British naval ships. The Nightingales were extremely proud of Smith’s work, and although he died when Florence was only 15 years old, she too would become inspired to be an active force for social change.

When Florence reached the age of sixteen, she believed that God was calling her to a great cause she could not yet discern. In a private note to herself, she wrote, “On February 7th, 1837, God spoke to me and called me to His service.”2 Though her mother had high ambitions for her young, talented, and very attractive daughter in society, Florence found the petty ambitions of Victorian women intolerable. She refused several marriage proposals, including that of a well-placed and very wealthy suitor, a certain Lord Houghton.

Her comment about these proposals was, “I knew God had not made me to tend to Garden parties.”

During an influenza epidemic in December, 1837, Florence looked after the sick of her local parish, displaying an indefatigable and selfless service to their needs. She had a strong calling to serve the poor, though it deeply troubled her mother who was concerned about the behavior demanded of a woman of her social standing. This remained a source of conflict in the

Nightingale house, and, during a visit by the famed American philanthropist, Dr. Samuel

Gridley Howe in 1844 (whose wife Julia would become immortalized as the composer of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), Florence asked to speak to him privately.

When they were alone, she asked him, “Dr. Howe, do you think it would be unsuitable and unbecoming for a young Englishwoman to devote herself to works of charity in hospitals and elsewhere as Catholic sisters do? Do you think it would be a dreadful thing?”

His answer was, “My dear Miss Florence, it would be unusual, and in England whatever is unusual is apt to be thought unsuitable; but I say to you, go forward if you have a vocation for that way of life; act up to your inspiration, and you will find that there is never anything unbecoming or unladylike in doing your duty for the good of others. Choose, go on with it wherever it may lead you, and God be with you.”It should be noted that at the time, her goal of charity nursing was considered outrageously improper for a lady of social standing since nurses were largely drawn from the underclass of England and even carried with them a stigma of ill-repute.

However, Doctor Howe was expressing a particularly “American” view of things, which, as a new breakaway nation, encouraged the tearing down of “antiquated” European social barriers whenever they were oppressive. Though basic civil rights may have been in effect from the beginning of human law, social rights were entirely unknown in the pre-modern world, and the idea that one was entitled by birthright to pursue a career not associated with one’s place in society was unheard of outside religion and to a lesser degree in the military. What was ironic in this case was Florence Nightingale’s wish to step down in rank to serve humanity, rather than ascend higher on the social ladder, in what today is known as “upward mobility.” During frequent visits to London and a trip to mainland Europe, Florence was exposed to “high society” in upper-class British culture, but in all this, she never forgot her calling to God. In a private note she wrote that in order to make herself worthy of God’s service she would need to overcome “the desire to shine in society.” But she was already shining – her natural beauty and delicate features, coupled with her evident sincerity and selflessness made her highly desirable marriage material.

She often complained however about the lack of men who wished to accompany her on her journey of discovery. The call of God was too great for her, and she could not see her way

clear to serve both God and husband at the same time. Florence would have found a kindred soul in Islam’s Rabia Adawiyya, the great 9th century Basran mystic who refused marriage several times, preferring passionate love of God as a devotional path instead.

Florence received God’s call a second time on the Nile River in Egypt several years later. She had toured Europe with her family and friends, the Bracebridges, who invited the Nightingales to join them on a subsequent trip to Egypt. The English considered Egypt a romantic and exotic destination, the land of“Arabian Nights and the Bible” as Florence herself wrote. Napoleon had invaded Egypt in 1798, only a few years earlier, and in spite of the brutality of the colonial expansionism that came from this invasion, the immense Description de l’Egypte, one of the founding works of Egyptology, resulted from the investigations of the dozens of French scholars who accompanied him. In London, Florence had met the noted Prussian Ambassador to London and amateur Arabist, Baron Bunsen, of whom her sister, Parthe, wrote in a letter, “Flo [took] tea with the Bunsens to receive the dernier mot on Egyptology.” And she added that “Flo” was going on a voyage to Egypt “laden with learned books.”Florence Nightingale first arrived with the Bracebridges at Aboukir Bay in Northern Egypt, where they hired a boat formerly used by a Turkish bey for his harem, and set out for Cairo and from there to Upper Egypt and Nubia. Although it was a luxurious sailing boat, it was also equipped with oars enabling the crew to row out of any passing doldrums. At this time, Europeans generally preferred the “modern” speed of steamboats on journeys up the Nile, but Florence wrote, “I would never go in a steamer on the Nile, if I were never to see the Nile without it.” Their more gradual journey up the Nile took a total of three months, and Florence complained of its haste, wishing it could have taken longer. She shared this disdain of modern obsession with speed, progress, and novelty with her American contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, who, during the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable, remarked that the only news people would be interested in was that the Queen had succumbed to influenza.

Florence traveled to Egypt at a time when the political conditions were tyrannical and thoroughly corrupt. Mehmet Ali’s reign had just come to an end, and his son died four months after ascending the throne in 1848. Abbas, a grandson of Mehmet Ali, filled the vacuum. Florence noted in several letters how cruel and despotic his reign was and that Egyptian politics was a violently unhealthy mix of beatings and harem intrigue. She saw that Mehmet Ali, who fancied himself the “civilizer of the East,” had not been dead six months and already scarcely a trace of his institutions remained. She attributed this to his arrogant pride and said, “because none of these tried to find out what man was put into the world for, and the words ‘the vanity of human greatness’ press into my mind with a force a sermon never gave them; mind, not the vanity of divine greatness.”

Greatly disenchanted by organized religion generally, and with the Evangelical wing of the Church of England in particular, her feelings spilled over into strong feelings about the Church itself.

Florence’s initial impressions of Egypt, and of Islam in particular, were understandably negative. Egypt was corrupt, impoverished, and seemingly on its last legs. Much of what she saw came as a tragic surprise. She had never seen people in Europe living in such degrading and oppressive conditions as those she found in Egypt. But as her journey unfolded her perceptions of both Islam and the Egyptian people began to change due to a combination of personal experience and the fact that she was reading all the available literature that she could during her many leisure hours.

It also appears that Florence had several mystical experiences while in Egypt. Once, while traveling on the Nile, she wrote that the question of what God wanted her to do was finally resolved. She noted in her journal: “Long morning by myself at old Kourna. Sat on steps of the portico, moving with the shadow of the sun, and looking at the (to me) priceless view. God spoke to me again.” A week later, still on the Nile, she added, “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for Him alone without reputation?”

Florence’s very first letter from Egypt was dated November, 19, 1849: Yes, My Dear People, I have set my first footfall in the East, and oh! That I could tell you the new world of old poetry, of Bible images, of light, and life, and beauty what that word opens. My first day in the East, and it has been of the most striking I am sure, – one I can never forget through Eternity.

Of her first dawn on the Nile she wrote, It looks not lurid and thick, as very brilliant colours in an English sky sometimes do, but so transparent and pure, that one really believes one’s self looking into heaven and beyond, and feels a little shy of penetrating into the mysteries of God’s throne.

Ref: seasons | autumn – winter 2003-4

Title of the full article: Florence of Arabia
By Hamza Yusuf

….To Be Continued

2 thoughts on “Florence Nightingale: A Person of Distinct Character and Courage

  1. A fascinating commentary. I had no idea she was a scholar with such an impressive intellect, literate in Homeric Greek, who dedicated her life to God and hamankind. Extraordinary.

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