Thursday, August 29, 2013

Would You Trade Henna for a Bible?: Missionaries and Merchants in Qajar Iran

In research for my last post on henna use among gender-defiant Jewish dancers in Central Asia, I came across Persia: western mission, the memoirs of an American missionary named Samuel Joseph Wilson. In it he includes an amusing story about henna that I thought I would share here. I found his life-story fascinating, so I begin with it before describing the incident.

Dr. Samuel Joseph Wilson was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 11, 1858. He was apparently a intellectual prodigy, graduating at 18 with a B.A. from Princeton. He then went to Western Theological Seminary (then in Allegheny, PA, today merged with Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), received an M.A. in 1879 and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1880. He left right away for Persia, where he spent the rest of his life as a missionary. He worked hard to convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity; while his books are filled with his success stories, though, he had little long-term impact on the religious life of these communities. 

He competed for converts with the new faith of the Bahá'u'lláh, what is now the Bahá'í faith, and he eventually wrote a book exploring its history and theology (Bahaism and Its Claims, 1915). He was also the author of a popular book on Persian culture (Persian Life and Customs, 1895), a fictional romance set among Persian Armenians (Mariam: a romance of Persia, 1906), and a series of lectures on Islam in the modern world (Modern Movements Among Moslems, 1916). 

In 1916 he was sent to deliver relief funds from the Red Cross to Armenian refugees from the Ottoman-sponsored genocide in eastern Turkey; working in difficult conditions and a cold winter, he fell ill with typhoid fever and died. The Princeton Alumni Weekly records that the cable with news of his death “came as a great shock,” especially for his family who had stayed in the United States “since it was too dangerous and difficult for them to return to Persia under present conditions” (1916, pg. 52).

The Mission School in Tabriz, of which Wilson was the principal, and where he died, aged 58.
Photo from Wilson, Persian Life and Customs, 1895, pg. 306.

American missionary Robert Elliot Speer called him “one of the ablest and most courageous” missionaries and noted that “his long life of fidelity was crowned with its rich reward” (Speer, 1917, pp. 191 and 194). He was a popular speaker and skilled linguist, translating church literature himself into Armenian and Azeri (Anderson, 1999, pg. 743). 

In Wilson's missionary work, he was especially concerned with preparing and distributing Bible translations, and supported translators working with Farsi, Turkic languages like Azeri and Kyrgyz, Armenian, Neo-Aramaic, and Kurdish (Wilson, 1896, pp. 314-327). In his book, he describes the difficulties faced by the colporteurs [distributors of religious literature], who had to carry books by horseback through harsh terrain, and attempt to distribute them to people in poverty, often illiterate, and frequently uninterested.

One of Wilson’s anecdotes includes henna in an interesting way. He writes that a missionary in Zanjan was attacked by a henna merchant in the marketplace for the blasphemy of claiming Jesus as the divine Son of G!d. The missionary responded by claiming that Ziyarat Ashura, a Shi‘i poem commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, refers to Hussein as the son of G!d [note — this seems to be a misunderstanding of the phrase thar Allah wabna tharih, more literally ‘the blood of G!d and the son of [G!d’s] blood’]. They took the argument to the local religious leader, who defended the missionary. The merchant apologized and bought the Bibles with henna (which the colporteur promptly sold).

As Wilson writes:
One [missionary] entered the bazaar at Zenjan, carrying Bibles on his arm. A Persian merchant addressed him, “What have you there?” He said, “The word of G!d, the Toret [Torah] and Injil [Gospels].” The man exclaimed in rage, “The mollah told us that whoever sold these books to subvert our faith should be killed. Beat him! beat him!” The crowd fell upon him and beat him until the blood poured from his nose. Then the Persian said, “I will pour oil over you and burn you. Your book says, G!d has a Son; you are blasphemers.” The colporteur answered, “When we say it, it is blasphemy. What is it, when you say it? Do you not say of Husain, ‘By the blood of G!d and the blood of the Son of G!d?’ What do you mean?” The man was perplexed and took him before a mollah, requesting an explanation of the phrase. The mollah to avoid entangling himself said, “It is written not to abuse the followers of the Book,” meaning Jews and Christians. Finally the merchant repented of his conduct, bought the Bibles, paying for them in henna (red dye). The colporteur sold the henna and departed (1896, pp. 334-335, italics in original).

This story leaves so many questions unanswered — what did the merchant do with the Bibles? To whom did the missionary sell the henna? And most importantly, what was the going rate for a Bible-henna trade?

How much? A bowl of henna, with a British missionary's Hebrew translation of the New Testament (early 20th century).

Anderson, Gerald. 1999 Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
“Obituary.” 1916 Princeton Alumni Weekly, Vol. 17, No. 2, October 11, ed. Edwin Norris (pp. 52-54).
Speer, Robert Elliot 1917 “Samuel Graham Wilson of Persia.” The Muslim World, Vol. 7, No. 2 (pp. 191–195).
Wilson, Samuel Graham. 1896 Persia: western mission (Philadelphia: Presbytarian Board of Publication).
----. 1895 Persian Life and Customs: with scenes and incidents of residence and travel in the land of the lion and the sun (New York: Fleming H. Revell).
----. 1906 Mariam: a romance of Persia (New York: American Tract Society).
----. 1915 Bahaism and Its Claims: a study of the religion promulgated by Baha Ullah and Abdul Baha (New York: Fleming H. Revell).
----. 1916 Modern Movements Among Moslems (New York: Fleming H. Revell).

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