Riots, Debates, and "Khutbas"
Borden's Colorful Letter after 15 Days in Cairo
This is the 8th in a series on the life of William Borden, the millionaire missionary who died en route to China's Gansu Province, adapted from his biography (BordenofYale.com), which I helped edit for republication (Aneko Press, Jan 1, 2024).
The following letter from William Borden to his mother gives a fascinating overview of how the young missionary was getting acclimated to his temporary1 field of service in Cairo:
January 15, 1913
Saturday we had a very interesting session at the Study Center, and in the afternoon I went out with Mr. Gairdner to visit old Cairo and the C.M.S. hospital. As this is well on the outskirts of the city we got a good ride on our wheels. Later we called on a Syrian family in which Mr. Gairdner thought I might be received as a paying guest2. They had a surprisingly nice place, and as it was an unexpected visit the cleanliness and order could not have been put on for our benefit. They insisted upon giving us refreshments, which consisted of some kind of liquid in little liquor glasses, quite harmless, followed by a teaspoonful of grated coconut put into our mouths by our hostess!
Sunday, I started my first work for Muslims by distributing khutbas3, little sermons in Koranic style gotten out by the Nile Press. It required some courage to take the first plunge, with my two words of the spoken language, “Do you read Arabic?” and begin offering these booklets on the streets. But I soon found that it went very well, and I have given out about fifty already. Only one or two have declined to take them.
Monday night I went to my first service in Arabic. It was at the American Mission headquarters and most interesting. A few weeks ago, it seems, a rumor got abroad that Mudbuli, a Muslim saint, had come out of his tomb and had taken refuge in the Greek church nearby—a pretty good exchange, considering the dilapidated state of the tomb. Of course, the more educated scoffed at the idea, but multitudes believed it, with the result that there was quite a riot at the time. Soon after, in a newly published Muslim book attacking Christianity, the author said that the resurrection of Christ was just like this Mudbuli affair, the story of a lot of silly women. He called attention to this as a great joke! But there is a Muslim convert here, Michael Mansour, a former El Azhar student, who went to the place where the book was printed and got out five hundred circulars saying he would answer the above statement, debating it with anyone who would come. This was the gathering Dr. Zwemer and I attended. He was half expecting a riot, as the place was packed with Muslims. The meeting opened and closed with prayer, however, and Mansour spoke for nearly an hour4, holding their attention so that there was no disturbance and only one or two went out. It was a great triumph, and though I could only understand an occasional word, I was very glad to be there.
This afternoon I had a fine time, going off into the native bazaar with Dr. Zwemer to a book shop. It was near the Azhar, and we had a fine chance to get rid of all the khutbas we had, to students and others, and one of them bought a Gospel. Among the books we purchased were some Korans, and when these were put in the bottom of the carriage there were strong objections immediately and they had to be put up on the seat beside the driver. The outing was great fun, for we not only did this work but had a great time together. This book-shop man, by the way, is an enquirer who has already been a couple of times to see Dr. Zwemer5. Things are on the jump here, especially when you are with Dr. Zwemer.
Don’t forget that Borden was in Egypt to learn Arabic in preparation for a life of service among the Muslims of China’s Gansu Province.
Borden was making arrangements to board with a Syrian family, so that he might hear Arabic spoken as much as possible. The plan about which he wrote to his mother did not materialize until a month later. The Syrian family turned out to be Christians.
Future posts will look at this “khutba” literature ministry in much more detail.
Can you imagine a meeting like this being possible today in a Muslim nation? It seems things have changed in 111 years, and not for the better.