TO picture Mary Bird's work it is necessary to look at Persia and the Persians as known to her for nearly a quarter of a century. During this time a gradual disintegration of much that formerly stood for Persian thought and attitude has been going on, and the change in the outlook of the people has been marvellous, much greater than in the thousand years preceding it, yet that country itself is almost unchanged.
Looking first at the land of Persia, it is now barely three-quarters of a million square miles in extent (one-third of what the Persian empire was in the days of Xerxes), with the Caspian Sea and Transcaucasia on the north, the Persian Gulf on the south, Afghanistan and Baluchistan on the east, and the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates on the west. The greater part of it consists of a tableland from 2500 to 3000 feet high, encircled by mountain chains on the north, west, and south. Three-quarters of the entire surface is desert land, some of it sandy and much of it salt.
The mountains are many of them magnificent. Mount Demavend is 18,600 feet high, and is always snowcapped on its northern summits. Some ranges are rugged and bare in the extreme, their sides covered with huge loose boulders, as though giants had been at play. Others may be thought dreary and monotonous; but when once the spirit of the mountains possesses one, they are all attractive in their ever varying brown, red, purple, and yellow colouring, in their height, their jaggedness, or their symmetry, and rich in unexplored ore, they are typical of much of the untouched riches of Persia. There are large plains, absolutely fiat and apparently narrow, but many average sixty miles in width. Some are green in the spring, when they and the hills put on their most attractive guise, and are bedecked with crocuses, lilies, exquisite blue thistles, and many other flowers called by the natives merely "red flowers" or "white flowers."
To the Persian the desert, or Lút, is inseparably bound up with his character, life, and religion. The appeal of the desert to some Western minds is marvellous, with its vastness, bounded by the horizon, by the everlasting hills, or by a fascinating mirage; with its simplicity and with its silence!
Between the mountain ranges valleys are found, made fertile by mountain torrents, with rocky nooks fringed with maidenhair fern; and cool precipitous defiles connect the plains at different levels. Sometimes at the edge of a plain or the foot of a mountain appears a village with two or three large gardens, forming an oasis. Here rare fruits and flowers, valuable trees and running water make for the native mind a veritable Paradise, and lend truth to the scenes of picturesque beauty celebrated in history, poetry, and song, and indissolubly connected with the land of Persia. The atmosphere in general is remarkable for its dryness and purity. The seasons correspond with those in England, but the summer heat and winter cold are both greater. Except on the shores of the Gulf, or on the borders of the Caspian Sea, the rainfall only averages ten inches; and there are few days in the year when the sun is not shining. It has been said that the birds of Persia have no song, the flowers no scent. It is only necessary to spend twenty-four hours in a garden in Shiraz, "the home of the nightingale and the rose," and reminiscent of Hafiz, Sadi, or Lala Rukh, to agree with Hafiz, that
The bulbul at dawn, laments to the East wind;
Of the havoc that the rose and its scent made.
Whatever route a traveller takes to Persia his rate of progression lessens as he gets nearer to his destination. The alternatives are, across Europe and the Caspian Sea; by the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Caspian Sea; or by Suez, Bombay, and the Persian Gulf. By the first route the country in normal times can be reached in less than a week, but when once Persian soil is touched troubles and delays begin. In the whole country there are only two very short railway lines, one of four miles to a shrine outside Teheran, and the other only slightly longer in the north-west. Since the Russian occupation of the north some good roads to the capital have been made, but after leaving Teheran, most of the roads are merely tracks across the desert, fifteen or twenty often running side by side, made by the passage of myriads of caravan animals during the course of long ages. Where the roads are level it is possible to drive, keeping the same vehicle but changing horses, usually driven four abreast, every ten miles. In this way sixty or seventy miles a day may be covered. The alternatives are: riding on horses, mules, or donkeys, or on bicycles (which often need to be carried rather than carrying their riders); or in kajavas, i.e. wooden panniers, a pair of which, with or without covers, are tied together and slung over the back of a mule; or in a tacht-i-ravan or moving throne, carried on poles with a mule behind and another before, in which the traveller can recline. This last is looked upon as the first-class carriage of Persia, and for it the hire of four mules is charged! Progress, except by carriage, is very slow, twenty or twenty-five miles being considered a good day's or night's journey.
When it is remembered what a road means to the Oriental, it seems strange that the people of a country with such a past should in this twentieth century be still dependent on caravan animals to take themselves or their merchandise along what can be only regarded as desert tracks. The semi-mythical Semiramis in the earlier days of the Babylonian empire built a royal road through Media and called it after herself; after this she did the same for Persia. Herodotus tells us that Darius the Mede built a royal road from Susa to Sardis fifteen hundred miles long, with inns and bridges and guard houses. But where are these roads to-day? To the Oriental mind a road, a way, the king's highway, suggests the idea of a kingdom, planned and controlled by a personal sovereign, and a sure course to one's destination for those who keep to the road. The stricter followers of Mohammed say that "the way" was shown in what their prophet said and did, also in what he sanctioned by his silence. And so in Oriental thought generally, "the way" is the road that has been prepared for those who would travel aright. May the day soon dawn when both actually and figuratively a "way" may be prepared in Persia for safe and comfortable travel, and may it be that "an highway shall be there, and a way . . . the way of holiness."
The rivers of Persia are mostly short and are sometimes lost in the desert. The bridges over them are often impassable, and the stream must be forded, though this is difficult in the spring when the melting snow of the mountains fills the river beds with rushing torrents. It is more or less a rule in everything in Persia never to repair when damage first occurs, but to leave the destruction to work until the choice lies between leaving a ruin, or rebuilding or remaking.
Persia probably contains eight or nine million inhabitants, half of whom dwell in the villages and are mainly engaged in agriculture. They grow the best wheat in the world, some of it at a height of nine thousand feet, and their crops of cotton, opium, rice, barley, and tobacco are all profitable--two and even three crops being raised on one field in a season. Their orchards, vineyards, and gardens produce fine pears, melons, pomegranates, quinces, peaches, apricots, nectarines, mulberries, plums, and cherries, and grapes and oranges of many kinds. A fourth of the inhabitants dwell in the cities and are engaged in the study or profession of philosophy, theology, or poetry. Some are large landowners, scions of the royal house, hangers-on at the Court or the houses of the great. Others are merchants, shop-keepers, weavers, potters, workers in silver, copper, brass, and leather, or labourers.
The rest of the population belong to the "Ilyats," or wandering tribes, tent dwellers possessing large flocks and herds, who spend the spring and summer on the mountain slopes, and winter on the plains. These tribes are chiefly of Arab, Turkish, and Persian extraction, and the leading ones are known as Bakhtiaris, Lurs, Kashgais, Kurds, Afsharis, Baluchis, and Gypsies. Though each has its distinctive features, the Bakhtiari, a large and prominent tribe at the present day, may be singled out for special notice and regarded as representative of them all. The Bakhtiaris are a most interesting nomadic people, inhabiting a mountainous part of Persia, and possess a dialect of their own. They differ considerably in temperament from the town dwellers, being very warlike, and often quarrelling amongst themselves. They are ruled by the Il-Khani, whose kingdom stretches over a hundred miles of Persia and the whole of Persian Arabia. In many respects the Bakhtiari resembles the Highlander in the days of Rob Roy; he is open-handed, a good friend but a bad enemy, and has somewhat hazy ideas as to the rights of property. Every man is a born horseman, and also an excellent shot even when firing at full gallop.
In the winter, all the chiefs (or Kháns, as they are called) migrate to Shuster (the ancient Susa), and stay in that city until the spring. Miss Bird was once asked to visit the wife of a chief. She described her visit thus:--
"The good lady is large all ways--length, breadth, and thickness--she has handsome pearl and gold nose stud and earrings, massive gold and turquoise bracelets and neck ornaments, and is very well tattooed, especially round the knees and ankles. She has rheumatic gout in most joints, which I fear will be bad to cure. Cousin Isabella (Mrs. Bishop) once stayed a night with them, and they asked most affectionately after her, saying: 'A good lady, kind-hearted, not selfish, would give medicine to the poor, and touch their wounds. Give her our salaams, tell her we do not forget her.' Then to me, 'If we love we love always; if we hate we hate always, we never forget.' Their women are said to be very moral, as they shoot immoral women! But polygamy is the custom. This chief's son has fourteen wives already, and he is a young man."
When there is illness in the households of the chiefs the doctor in charge of the C.M.S. Isfahan hospital is sent for, all the expenses of the journey being paid and a handsome fee given, besides many presents. They are very lax Mohammedans, and the Khans generally have but small liking for the mullas. They want an English missionary doctor to live amongst them, being quite willing to guarantee a hospital, and if necessary, give the full salary of the doctor. A great sphere of work is open amongst such a race as this.
The Persians belong to the Aryan or Indo-European family, as Darius Hystaspes asserts in the inscription on his tomb. The word "Iran," which is the native name for the country ruled by the Shah, is the word "Aryan" in another form.
The language of the Persians in its most ancient form is closely akin to Sanskrit, in its most modern form to Hindustani; in all its forms it has affinity with the tongues of the West; and has been called "the Italian of the East." The character of the people, too, is in many respects Western, and they are considered "the French of the East."
The Persian physique is Caucasian, with a high forehead, well-formed nose, large, dark, impenetrable eyes, a short upper lip, a well-rounded chin, and very dark hair. Persians when young are of slight build, but well-knit and muscular. They are one of the few white races of Asia. Intellectually they are a well-endowed race, of quick understanding and imagination, lively and humorous, fond of pleasure and sport, with a strong love for their language and their exquisite national poetry. They are inquisitive, unreliable, and lacking in energy. Time is little valued. They are polite in word and gesture, and apparently generous, but sometimes with the hope of favours to come! They live at the heart of that part of the world in which the virtue of hospitality has a pre-eminence in its obligations and in its significance that is unknown to the same degree elsewhere. Persians are loyal to causes and to individuals. But they have had no moral standard, and their inconsistencies are due to absence of principle. What a Persian lacks in breadth of view he makes up in concentration. He can take in a difficult idea if it be put into few words.
The following characteristic Persian story was told by Miss Bird:--
"The owner of a large henna mill in Yezd was very heavily taxed by the governor. Not being willing to part with such a large proportion of his gains, he announced he had taken Huzrati Abbas into partnership and would devote his share of the profits to the poor. Of course the governor could not do such an impious deed as to tax the property of one of the great saints, so the man was let off. The people coming to buy henna brought native offerings of tiny looking-glasses which were stuck all over the sides of the great mill stones, with strips of bright-coloured paper between. Trade has greatly increased, the camels which turn the stones are decorated with tassels of bright wool and bells; the living partner is said to be steadily amassing a fortune, but it is whispered that the portion of Saint Abbas for the poor is not large!"
Until the establishment of the Constitution in 1906 the Shah was absolute ruler and master of the lives and goods of all his subjects. This now is slightly modified. The law is based on the Qur'an, but as the new Government is founded on Western ideas, the two are not compatible, and it is difficult to avoid friction.
A governor-general rules over each of the twenty-seven provinces, who is directly responsible to the central Government. The nomad tribes are ruled by chiefs who are responsible to the governors. It largely depends on these men whether the condition of a particular district be one of unrest and danger to life and property, or of settled peace under strong and wise control.
A good deal has been said on the Persian beliefs in past ages, and there is still something to be added in order to bring the account into harmony with present day facts.
Only a small remnant of the ancient Zoroastrians now live in Persia--about eight thousand in Yezd and a few hundreds in Kerman. Outside these cities they have their towers of silence, where the dead are exposed. Many restrictions, including a poll tax, were placed upon them by the Mohammedans, as a result of which some nine-tenths of the followers of Zoroaster left Persia and settled in Bombay, where they are most prosperous. Miss Bird in one of her letters thus refers to the Parsis of Yezd: "The Parsis live in a large quarter of their own, with much wider and cleaner streets than in the Moslem part of the town, also in several villages near. The women are utterly ignorant, they speak Dari and do not readily understand modern Persian." The men are well educated and want schools for their girls. Many are merchants. They have good gardens and well-kept land, agriculture being strongly upheld by their religion. In the Zend-Avesta it is written, "Whoso cultivates barley, cultivates righteousness." They are moral, industrious, and intelligent; truthfulness is upheld by their religion; murder, theft, and polygamy are counted sins. They have no gospel, superstition is broadcast, yet a comparison of Zoroastrianism and Mohammedanism shows the life of the Parsis to be stronger and purer than that of the Moslem.
There are still Jewish quarters in most of the large towns, and in spite of the old feeling of toleration shown to the Jew, his lot to-day is often very sad. "Yahiidi"--Jew--is a term of contempt. As a race the Jews are downtrodden and despised. Philanthropic and educational work are done amongst them by French Jews. The Anglican and the American Presbyterian Churches are doing much in the way of medical, educational, and direct spiritual work; the latter being valued since the Old Testament is read and taught. The Jews always held a prominent place in Miss Bird's sympathies. The first Persian woman convert to Christianity was a Jewess whom she had taught.
Christians are numerous, many of them being members of the old Eastern Churches--Armenians and Nestorians--while some are converts from the non-Christian faiths. There is a greater degree of religious liberty now than at any other time since the Parthians ruled, but there is still much to be faced when those who have been followers of Mohammed declare themselves on the side of Christ.
Mohammedanism, the national faith of the Persians for nearly thirteen hundred years, proves them to be a vanquished people. Their religion is a standing testimony to their defeat by the Arabs. It is sad to see an ancient and honourable land crushed beneath the heel of a creed which, though possessing some elements of truth, is most deadly in its effects. The Persians have much in them which might make for righteousness, were they not stifled by a creed which knows nothing of love or progress.
A Persian prince once said to the writer, "All that is bad in Persia comes from Mohammedanism." And Canon Robinson writes: "Students of Mohammedanism . . . have not distinguished with sufficient care between Mohammedanism in theory and Mohammedanism in practice . . . nothing is easier than to draw an attractive picture of the benefits Mohammedanism ought to confer upon its converts, and of the high morality which its teachings ought to produce . . . nothing is more impossible than to find any Mohammedan country of which such a picture would be other than a caricature." ["Mohammedanism. Has it any future?" pp. 30, 32.]
Christ was the greatest of the prophets in Mohammed's eyes, and is therefore revered by his followers, but to them He is not the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. Mohammedans are as a rule a solemn and austere people, probably because to them God is solemn and austere and distant. They have nothing dear or human in their religion, nothing that even calls forth their pity or their love, only what engenders fear and absolute submission. Islam is summed up in "complete surrender to the will of God." The creed is "Islam," a verbal noun derived from a root meaning submission to, faith in God, and the believers who so submit themselves are called Moslems, from the participle of the same root.
When the first white streak of dawn appears, when the morning star sets, and the sun rises, the solemn and impressive cry of the muezzin rings out from every minaret, "Allah Akbar," etc.--"God is most great, there is no God but God. I testify that Mohammed is the messenger of God--Come to prayer, come to salvation, prayer is better than sleep--God is most great, there is no God but God."
Mohammed's moral reformation was for his day and generation colossal, and his influence for good has been widespread. But all his influence has not been for good, and the greatest blot on his achievements and on his system has been and is the degradation of Mohammedan women. The traditions represent him as saying, "I have not left any calamity more detrimental to mankind than women." He either meant that the evils he bequeathed to his followers were not serious, or, and it is very evident that this was the case, he looked upon womanhood as such an evil that there was nothing in the world to approach it. Hence the lot of a hundred million Moslem women. The Qur'an does not deny souls to women, though the idea is often taken for granted. In Islam men appropriate every advantage and privilege for themselves, and, to their everlasting shame be it spoken, have done everything possible to humiliate and debase womanhood. Girls are only brought up to be the slaves and toys of men, and for the most part are kept in a state of mental ignorance (for example, in Persia only three women in a thousand are educated), and are voiceless and defenceless against all attack. The veil, polygamy, and women's spiritual status, and all that these stand for, constitute her chief disabilities. When we look at the women of Persia, how little is suggested of strength and beauty, how much of oppression, of lack of development, of waste of power, of unsatisfied lives. And as the nation cannot rise above its womanhood how handicapped must the race be, of whom they are really the controlling force!
The Persian Moslems as Shiahs maintain the right of Ah, the son-in-law of Mohammed, and his descendants to the Imdmat or spiritual leadership of Islam, and believing the Twelve Imams to be infallible guides, give them precedence over the Khalifas. The twelfth Imam, Al-Mahdi, is said to be still alive, but invisible--showing how the Shiahs feel the need of an intermediary, a constant revealer of the will of God. Each year the months of Muharram and Safar are set apart as months of mournings for Ali and his sons, Hasan and Husain, during which all devout Moslems dress in black. The tazieh, with the Shiahs takes the form of theatrical representations of the principal events in the lives of Hasan and Husain, and endowments have been left for the annual performances. These are given twice daily for the first thirteen days of Muharram, the tenth day, on which Husain's death is commemorated, being the most fanatical day in the year. A temporary stage is erected, sometimes over a tank, in the courtyard of a large house. The chief spectators are in the windows round; others--men and women separately--are on stands erected for the purpose, some even climb trees, and the roofs are crowded. The performance begins with a very noisy band, the players riding on gaily caparisoned camels. The actors are all men and boys, who read their parts from scraps of paper given out by the prompter who walks about constantly; if any one makes a mistake he is at hand to give a visible rebuke, generally in the face. The acting is of the crudest, everything is said in a monotone, and is most difficult to understand. All the dressing and undressing is done publicly, and often some one supposed to be dead gets up and walks off the stage. Amusing and gruesome and unintelligible as most of it is to a foreigner, it is not so to the rest of the spectators. Everything is real to them. At each mention of the names of Mohammed, AH, Hasan, or Husain, the wailing and beating of breasts begins afresh, and shows how firm a grip their faith has; but it is only on their emotions, not on their hearts. To witness such a spectacle gives an insight into Mohammedanism that could not well be obtained in any other way.
In Yezd, instead of this miracle play the nakhl is carried; it is a large wooden erection hung with daggers on one side and looking glasses on the other. This custom is also connected with the Shiah martyrs. Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, is supposed to move it, but a great many people appear to help her! Then there is a night set apart for burning the effigy of Omar, a Sunni saint, but a usurper according to the Shiahs. The likeness between the burning of Omar and of Guy Fawkes is striking.
During the other six weeks of these mourning months Rûza Khánis are held constantly, often in tents erected for the purpose, at which readings and recitations from the lives of the prophets are given. There are also great "weeping" processions and "weeping" services held for men and women separately, at the mullas' houses or publicly in the streets. Any one may volunteer to "beat his breast for the prophet"; sometimes fifty or a hundred men may be seen standing in double line in front of the pulpit erected for the reading, stripped to the waist, and all beating their breasts in slow measured time, repeating in solemn, mournful tones, "Aman, aman"--mercy! mercy! Often the whole assembly join in, and their overwrought feelings find relief in floods of tears. Any who do not weep, it is said, will never enter heaven, being among the stony-hearted. Men also walk in procession with bared shaven heads and white clothes, cutting themselves with knives till the blood runs down and calling on' Ali, Hasan, and Husain. What a contrast! They suffer for their Imams or religious leaders, Christ "hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows."
During the month of Ramazán, the great fast is observed daily from sunrise to sunset, but from sunset to sunrise is spent in excess of every kind. This is no hardship for the leisured classes, but it tells on those who are obliged to work during the day. Many Persians do not fast, but they all pretend to do so. Indulgences are only granted to sick people and to travellers.
Almsgiving is fundamental and alms must be given, whether to the dervish, a religious beggar, who with his begging bowl and war axe plants himself at your door, or to the blind or lame beggars who line the road at the entrance to a town and who, especially on the eve of the Moslem sabbath, beg for alms in the names of their excellencies the prophets, the Virgin Mary, or even Jesus.
Every pious Moslem aims at one or more pilgrimages to Mecca or Meshed, or to Kerbela, where many Persians go. Much time and money are spent, but though the pilgrim has gained the name of Haji, Meshedi, or Kerbelai, and has gone up in the external esteem of his friends, his moral and spiritual standard is often infinitely lower than it was before.
The cry from the minaret, the devout praying in the bazar, or by the riverside, the meritorious fast, the pompous rich giving to the poor, the Haji returning from his pilgrimage heralded by trumpets, surrounded by friends and canopied with banners, the mosques, with their domes exquisitely tiled, or, as the shrine at Kum where Mohammed's daughter is buried, covered with pure plates of gold, are all picturesque Orientalisms; but where is the power, what is the fruit of this religion so strongly entrenched, so widely spread over the lands of the Near East?
The trend of Mohammedanism in Persia is towards Sufism and consequently mystic pantheism. At the present time many followers of the prophet are in revolt, some giving up all faith and becoming materialists; others secretly accepting Christianity, being intellectually convinced of its truth.
But the greatest leakage from Islam is caused by Bahâism, whose attraction for Moslems consists in the fact that it is promulgated by their own people, that it can be believed secretly, and that its professors may openly appear as good Mohammedans still. The Babis or Bahais were originally the followers of Mirza Ali Muhammad, who called himself the Bab, or gate, a holy man of Shiraz who lived during the first half of last century. The followers of his successor Baha'ullah, who claimed to be a manifestation of God the Father, increased in numbers and suffered much persecution. The present leader of the sect, Abdul Baha or Abbas Effendi, figures as the divinely appointed "messenger" for this present age to all who are ready-to accord this character to him. In 1912 Abbas Effendi visited London, and in a West End flat men and women of note gathered to listen to this Eastern sage with his dignified personality. He spoke of the oneness of the human family, God being the Shepherd; and of international peace among nations and religions, the reality of religion being the cause of unity and love. Science, education, and civilization he regarded as necessary for full religion. Professor Browne speaks of "the supernatural claim--whatever its exact nature--which Abbas Effendi did and does advance," and elsewhere he says, "The only essential in Bahai eyes are the love of Baha'ullah and his accredited successor, Abdul Baha, the belief in their divine character, and the eager desire to listen to the reading of their words . . . which are for the most part rhapsodies interspersed with ethical maxims." It follows from these extravagant claims that the religion of which these men are the founders challenges the acceptance of all the world, or at least of all those who believe in God at all. For if God's essence has been mirrored in a perfect human being, no believer in God can afford to neglect these manifestations except at his peril. But it is scarcely wise to say this before its Western friends, and Bahaism in the West is careful not to make inconvenient demands which it shrewdly perceives will not be granted. Its teaching is essentially pantheistic and Sufiistic.
Bahâism assumes the main tenets of the religion of each man whom it hopes to gain. Thus, in the West it often uses Christian technical terms, such as "Logos," in quite a different sense. For instance, Bahâ'ullah is often meant when the Logos is spoken of; and "resurrection" means becoming changed in soul, or converted to this faith.
A characteristic of Bahâism is wilful misrepresentation, e.g., in regard to the number of its converts--millions is the word commonly used, even to "fifty million souls." Present authorities suggest one hundred thousand in Persia, and possibly fifteen thousand outside, of whom two-thirds are Shiah Mohammedans. Believers may be found among Buddhists, Taoists, Sikhs, Parsis, and Jews. A more intellectual form of the teaching has been adopted in America, Russia, France, and Germany, and even in England one hundred converts may be found.
There is to most Western minds a charm about anything which comes from the East. And, when the Orient claims once again to have given birth to a new religion--a great world-wide movement--the attraction seems to a few to be irresistible. Some Westerners are drawn to Bahaism by its supposed freedom from dogma; others through its teaching of unity, brotherhood, and tolerance; while to others its appeal comes through its claim to be a world-wide religion, capable of embracing and unifying all other great faiths. But while it is possible to be in sympathy with its social and philanthropic propaganda, yet the philosophic basis and religious tenets of this new religion are subversive of the Christianity of the Gospel.
At one time this movement seemed likely in Persia to prove a half-way house towards Christianity, but now it has so developed as to be rather a barrier. Men are content to come into the twilight of this faith, and there to entrench themselves, and are less easy to move than if they had remained Mohammedans. Bahais have set themselves the task of believing all religions and uniting all men in a common brotherhood. They would do away with war and educate and elevate their womanhood. They are devoted to the person of their present leader; their periodicals are becoming numerous, and are printed in Persian and several European languages. They are a courteous people, free from contempt of others, and personally attractive. They often listen respectfully to the claims of the Gospel, yet the opposition of Bahai influence in Persia is considerable, and is increasing daily. In Teheran they have three women missionaries--a doctor, a nurse, and an educationist. It is an easy faith--easier to accept than Christianity, as a public profession is not needed, and its followers can still be loyal to Islam, while a deep self-satisfaction lulls the conscience. Like other human cults it values what is good and beautiful, and calls upon men to live noble lives, but it tells little of the power with which to carry out what it inculcates.