Part-2 of the article…
The English consul, Mr. Gilbert, gave a “janissary,” probably an Egyptian soldier or ex-military person, to their party, of whom Florence remarked, “[he is] the most gentle, yet most dignified being I ever saw (I am quite afraid to speak to him).” In Alexandria, Florence wrote, “I was so very anxious to see the inside of a mosque, to see where my fellow creatures worshipped, that Mr. Gilbert good-naturedly compassed it, although he said it was an unprecedented act in Alexandria, where they are fanatical Mahometans. I am very glad to have done it, though I never felt so uncomfortable in all my life. We had to put on the Egyptian dress: first, an immense blue silk sheet (the head comes through a hole in the middle); then a white stripe of muslin which comes over your nose like a horse’s nose-bag, and is fastened by a stiff passementerie band, which passes between your eyes and over and behind your head like a halter; then a white veil; and lastly, the black silk balloon, which is pinned on the top of your head, has two loops at the two ends, through which you put your wrists, in order to keep the whole together. You only breathe through your eyes: half an hour more, and a brain fever would have been the consequence. With strict injunctions not to show our hands, we set forth in this gear with the Consul’s janissary, who had been denuded of his robes of office that he might not be known…. The mosque was full; the people crowded around us, laughing and pointing. I felt so degraded, knowing what they took us for, what they felt towards us. I felt like the hypocrite in Dante’s hell, with the leaden cap on – it was hell to me. I began to be uncertain whether I was a Christian woman, and have never been so thankful for being so since that moment. That quarter of an hour seemed to reveal to one what it is to be a woman in these countries, where Christ has not been to raise us. God save them, for it is a hopeless life. I was so glad when it was over. Still the mosque struck me with a pleasant feeling; Sigmab was struck with its irreverence. Some were at their prayers; but another was making baskets, another was telling Arabian Night stories to a whole group of listeners, sitting around him – others were asleep. I am much more struck with the irreverence of a London Church. It is so pleasant to see a place [the mosque] where any man may go for a moment’s quiet, and there is none to find fault with him, nor make him afraid. Here the homeless finds a home, the weary repose, the busy leisure, – if I could have said where any woman may go for an hour’s rest, to me the feeling would have been perfect, – perfect at least compared with the streets of London and Edinburgh, where there is not a spot on earth a poor woman may call her own to find repose in. The mosque leaves the more religious impression of the two, it is the better place of worship, – not than St. Peter’s, perhaps, but better than St. Paul’s. We mounted the minaret; the muezzin was just there, calling to prayers in the loud monotonous recitative. The abstraction of a Mahometan at his prayers is quite inconceivable; on board boat, in a storm, it is just the same; the hour comes, the Mahometan falls on his knees, and for five minutes the world is nothing to him; death may come, but it cannot interrupt him; even gain may come, but it will not disturb him. Christians say this here, and laugh at it; but you cannot laugh. The Mahometan religion takes man on the side of his passions; it gratifies all these; it offers him enjoyment as his reward. The Christian religion takes him on the side of penitence and self denial. This seems the fundamental difference: otherwise there is much good in the Mahometan religion. Charity is unbounded; and it is not the charity of patronage, but the charity of fellowship. If any man says to another, “Inshallah (In the name of God),” he may sit down at his table and partake of anything that he has, and no man will refuse. The beggar will do this with the greatest dignity. There is no greediness, no rapacity. Nothing of any value is ever stolen from you; there is no need to shut the door: they will take a trifle, but nothing else. Still what chance is there for a nation whose religion is enjoyment?”
These remarks were made at the beginning of her journey while Florence still held prejudices about Islam that were quite normal for anyone of her day reading the available literature in English or French. In spite of that, she clearly saw qualities she knew to be virtuous and acknowledged them with features amazement and passion. At the time of her journey, Muslim societies were still known for their honesty, generosity, and dignity that Florence deeply appreciated and which seem to have withered away today, though she also documented the less pleasant qualities she encountered with fairness and a high degree of objectivity.
Florence was characteristically more generous in her comments than Egypt may have earned at that time, and several contemporary Egyptian scholars expressed their opinions on the overall moral degradation of 19th century Egypt. The famous Azhari scholar, Abd al-Majid Sharubi, who would have been a young student at the time of Florence’s visit, wrote an entire book on the merits of complete isolation from society because of the overall corruption and moral negligence he observed all around him. He writes, “The weapons of arrogance and hypocrisy have strengthened, and ostentatious piety and foul behavior have elevated their towering walls. The majority of people now are characterized by the worst qualities: they openly manifest envy, resentment, backbiting, and dissembling; their hearts are sickened with hidden hypocrisy; they now turn away from the spiritual world and occupy their tongues with lies and dissembling, vying in such things with other heedless people.”
In opposition to the abstinence of Christianity, Florence Nightingale viewed Islam as a pleasure-driven religion, which has remained one of its lasting aspects for many people, since Islam does not deny the sensual enjoyments of humanity but simply restrains them for one’s own good. If she had been more aware of the lives of the Muslim saints at the time of her visit, she would most certainly have welcomed the spiritual path of Islam in which the overcoming and actual annihilation of the experiencing self is the goal. In her later years, she wrote, “You must go to Mohametanism, Buddhism, to the East to the Sufis and Fakirs, to Pantheism, for the right growth of Mysticism.” In her book, Notes from Devotional Authors, she mentions that one of her favorite poems was by a Persian mystic:
Four things, O God, I have to offer Thee
Which Thou has not in all Thy Treasury;
My nothingness, my sad necessity,
My fatal sin and earnest penitence.
Receive these gifts and take the Giver hence.
Florence’s own spiritual search and desire to understand the path of total surrender was a constant theme in her writing. The word “surrender” is repeated over and over to describe her own desired state with God. “True religion is to have no other will but God’s,” she quotes a medieval mystic, adding, “Compare this with the definition of Religion in Johnson’s Dictionary: ‘Virtue founded upon reverence of God and expectation of future rewards and punishments’; in other words, on respect and self-interest, no love.” She also wrote, “We really love God if we desire to do his Will. I make it my earnest prayers that I may live so as to have fulfilled the will of God in everything.”
During her stay in Cairo, Florence witnessed a terrible scene of child abuse and remarked that she saw, “… a police officer, who seized a miserable boy, threw him down, and dragged him away. The boy’s white turban came undone, and streamed upon the wind; the bastinado stick appeared: the Secretary (our friend) tried to interfere, but could do nothing. It made one quite sick, as all the details of government do in this horrid country.”
Florence commented several times on the injustices she witnessed that troubled her so deeply. She noted how corrupt the Christians in Egypt were and how poorly they reflected the teachings of Christianity. She also made this remarkable observation: “[The] Arab would be the most thriving man in the world under any government but this. He will be beaten almost to death, as they often are, rather than give up.”
What Florence was witnessing and struggling to come to grips with was a people under the oppression of the most wretched tyranny. She described a village she saw in which all of the inhabitants’ noses and ears had been cut off, the punishment for refusing to pay taxes. Florence visited another village completely razed to the ground, with its men, women, and children massacred because they rebelled against the local government for seizing their farmlands. It is to
Florence’s credit that she did not attribute these unspeakable turmoil to the Islamic religion but to the rulers over the people. Tragically, anarchy like these have continued up to our own day, leading many to mistakenly conclude that Islam is responsible for the repressive governments and abuse of fundamental human rights now so common in the Muslim world. At the same time, Muslims have failed to cast a critical eye on their own conditions, too often placing the blame on the “West” and its client Muslim states. These naive conspiracy theories fail to examine the deeper problems that existed long before the colonialists and their neo-colonial creations ever implanted an influence over Muslim populations. Such theories, so enticing to defeated peoples, result in either passivity or seething resentment, neither of which are conducive to bringing about effective change.
A few days after seeing the child beaten by the police, Florence commented, “You cannot conceive the painfulness of the impression made upon one by the population here. It really seems to matter little whether an Abbas and Ibrahim reigns, a swine or a jackal – the only difference being that Mehemet Ali would as soon order a murder as to eat his breakfast – it did not spoil his appetite, – while Ibrahim very much preferred it – it increased his zest for the meal; and Abbas, being of weaker stuff, does not order a man to death, but to be bastinadoed, upon which death ensues. One can take so little interest in politics, when it seems to matter so little.”
Profoundly pained by seeing the widespread poverty and lack of basic healthcare and basic necessities of life in Egypt, Florence noted that even though modesty was so highly regarded and socially ordained, she saw many women without adequate clothing. She also recognized what is now called the “third world” aspect of Egypt, often referred to less offensively in present-day phrasing as that of a “developing country.” She wrote, “In Cairo itself, exquisite as is the architecture, everything is undone: either it has been begun and never finished, or it is falling to decay; but you never see anything complete, though the Pacha does not mind what money he spends.”
This is yet another sad and powerful reminder of how little things have changed. Florence expressed understanding in all of her writings and especially in this sad statement of hers as she tried to enjoy her “vacation” but was prevented from doing so by the vision of tragedy all around her: “Oh, if one could either forget, or believe, that the people here were one’s fellow creatures, what a country this would be!”
While visiting the tomb of Mehemet Ali, who in the Arab world is still looked upon with longing, Florence grieved, “Mehemet Ali’s tomb is covered with shawls and carpets. I have heard people express the wish that he had lived to see his mosque finished, so much do people’s ideas get corrupted here: and within a stone’s throw of his splendid tomb is the court where the Mamelukes died; he counted them at break of day, and when the sun set where were they? He sleeps now close to the murdered chiefs; and people can forget that murder, and laud Mehemet Ali!”
Florence also noted that she was referred to as a Christian female dog. She expectedly states, “It is not that one minds being spat on (which I have been) for a religion which one loves, but one is so afraid of the gentlemen of one’s party noticing any insult, as an Englishman’s complaint would bring a bastinado upon the poor wretch, which has often ended in death.”
Here, her concern was that harm would come to anyone defending her rather than offense at the aggression on her own person and her hurt pride. Stanley-Poole Lane was a lexicographer and English scholar-traveler whose books on Egypt were very popular in England at the time; Florence added this quote from Lane upon seeing the wretched condition of one of the villages she visited. She wrote, “Oh, the misery! However, when you hear some things, you will only wonder that the Egyptians are alive at all, not that they are wretched; for, as Mr. Lane says, they are as much oppressed as they can be and live.”
All during her journey, Florence continued to read passionately and remarked that the British consul, Mr. Murray, who was fluent in Persian, Turkish, and Arabic and who was somewhat of a scholar lent her an “Arabic library to take” with them and had given her “a most philosophic lesson in Arabic.”
Filled with admiration at some of the details of Qur’anic law she encountered in these books, she wrote, “… the laws of inheritance here (if there were but anything to inherit) is fairer than one would expect. There is no primogeniture, and the female has half the share of the male. A man has only power over one third of his property, and that he may not leave to an heir, unless with the consent of all the others. An only daughter (if there is no son) may inherit half the whole property by the Koran, and the half by common usage. The wife seems, wonderful to believe, to have entire command of own property, and the husband inherits but a fourth, if she have children; and the wife or wives inherit a fourth of their husband’s property, independently and over and above their dowry, if they have no children. With regard to children, the child of a slave-wife inherits equally with the child of the real wife! This sounds much better than one expected.”
Her astonishment at some of the inheritance laws of Islam must be understood in light of the contemporary situation for women in England, where she was not permitted to inherit because of the law of primogeniture, and a wife at that time did not have property rights of her own, her own property coming under the authority of her husband at the moment of her marriage. This 19th century “enlightened” English law deprived many women of shelter and security, a social situation also found as a pictional theme in many of the novels of “manners” by Jane Austin and others. We see in this observation in her journal, among many others, that Florence Nightingale’s desire to understand Muslim culture increased, and her appreciation of Islam grew rather than weaken as her time in Egypt lengthened. At the start, she arrived with fairly typical European prejudices, but due to her own heart’s honesty and a serious commitment to understanding every occasion, she seems to have penetrated beyond mere physical appearances.
In As-Suyut, Florence drank water from a public fountain donated to the town through charity, one of many which could be found throughout the Muslim world at the time. These public fountains were inspired in part by the promise of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, of a reward on the Day of Judgment to anyone who quenches the thirst of a traveler, stranger, or whomever might be thirsty. Florence notes, “And at the corner of every road is that beautiful observance of Mahometan hospitality, the covered water-tank, long and narrow, with three little starry openings, and three little dome-lings like a holy water vessel, which is always kept filled with water for the traveler arriving at the city to refresh himself, even before he enter it. I have drunk there myself, and blest the observance towards the stranger.”
When she visited an early Christian saint’s place of meditation, she reported that Egypt was almost entirely Christian in the fourth century of the Christian era and wrote, “Now, she [Egypt] is not even Mahometan.” In this intelligent observation, Florence demonstrated her understanding that it was the people who had abandoned the teachings of their faith who were to blame for all the misery she witnessed, not Islam.
On December 14th, Florence visited the Pharaonic ruins of Beni Hasan and saw two existing villages in ruins as well. She was overwhelmed by the devastation, writing in her journal, “The two deserted villages of Beni Hassan lie to the South of the fort, and what the desolation of an Arab village, when abandoned, is, cannot be described. They were destroyed by Ibrahim Pacha, and every woman and child killed. The whole gave me the idea, not of an old town deserted, but of an old world deserted.”
Reflecting on the destruction she witnessed, she wrote, “All, all the works of God, as well as the works of man, are tottering to their fall.”
In this, Florence Nightingale was following the command given in the Qur’an to travel through the world to witness and reflect on previous civilizations and their endings. The Qur’an says, “Everything upon the earth is evanescent, perishing; and nothing remains except the face of God….”And in the chapter entitled, “The Byzantines,” the Qur’an states, “Do they not travel the earth and see what was the end of those before them? They were superior to them in strength.”
Recognizing the blessing of seeing the final traces of people who were once more powerful than her own, Florence writes, “It is good for a man to be here, – good for British pride to think, here was a nation more powerful than we are and almost as civilized, 4000 years ago, – for 2000 years already they have been a nation of slaves, – in 2000 years where shall we be? – shall we be like them? It is good for Christian pride, too, to be called “dog” in the street, pointed at, spat at, as we are here. No one looks at us with respect, hardly with curiosity, – we are too low. They take our money and are done with us.”
Here is a lesson from Florence Nightingale that we should all learn and especially those of us in the modern Muslim world. We are constantly expecting and demanding our rights in the social and religious field but seem to forget that all his life, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) suffered and patiently bore many humiliation at the hands of his opponents in Mecca. He always returned their hostility with composure, showing them a superior moral stature, never becoming undone by their wickedness. In the modern world, the sin of pride has been all but forgotten.
The Qur’an clearly distinguishes between human dignity possessed by all of us and sinful pride. The first can never be taken away from anyone by another; while the second is the downfall of a self just as it was by the devil himself. Florence took each occasion of humiliation as a spiritual exercise in modesty, just as the Qur’an reminds us: “Return a wrong with a right, and you will find that the one who feels enmity in his heart toward you becomes as a warm friend.”
Having herself increased in understanding and compassion during her voyage in Egypt, as well as increasing those around her, by the end of her journey, the Egyptians who accompanied
Florence wept tears at her departure, a true indication to her noble character and the truth and sincerity of her being. In evaluating her mostly fair-minded comments and experiences throughout her stay in Egypt, we can come to appreciate something of the many realizations she had concerning both God and Islam that might help many Muslims better understand their own tradition. At the same time, her criticisms of the Muslim world are as insightful and important today as they were then, reflecting as they do her constant fairness and goodwill toward the peoples and places she visited.
This article is written by Hamza Yusuf.