“A Presence that was Not Theirs”

Orthodox Church of Antioch

The year is 1868; the place, Damascus. A self-taught mystic calling himself Abd el Matar left his wife, family, and home to found a group of disciples in Damascus, the Shazlis, basing it on a Sufi brotherhood established in the middle ages. About forty or so people gathered about him to pray and seek God. In the words of Isabel Burton, wife of the Sir Richard Francis Burton, the consul of Damascus at the time, these Syrian peasants were praying “for enlightenment before the throne of God”. Finally, (to quote Isabel again), “they became conscious of a presence amongst them that was not theirs. At length they became assured by a vision that it was the religion of Christ which they were seeking.” In particular, “after prolonged devotional acts, all of them fell asleep, and our Lord was pleased to appear to all of them separately. They awoke simultaneously, and one, taking courage, recounted his vision to the others, when each responded, ‘I also saw Him.’ Christ had consoled and exhorted them to follow His faith, and they were so filled with a joy that they had never known that they were with difficulty dissuaded from running about the streets to proclaim that Christ is God.”   Others joined their number, so that at length about 25,000 Shazlis declared themselves ready for baptism.

This was a problem, for in that Islamic country conversion from Islam to the Christian Faith brought certain death. In vain the consul Burton offered to buy land for them outside Damascus and resettle them there. In vain he petitioned his British government to intercede on their behalf with the Turkish power then ascendant in the region. Burton was recalled to Britain, sacked without notice, honour, or severance. The Shazlis, some of whom had already been imprisoned for their new Faith, were left to their fate.

All the principal players in this lost drama are now dead, including the nameless and impoverished Syrian peasants under Abd el Matar who sought the face of God and found the Presence of Christ. The very name “Shazlis” is lost, and a Google search, after asking if you didn’t mean “shallis”, “shazly”, or “shezelles”, offers as its first Google submission, “WHEEEE, take a journey through the computer tubes of legend to hear the SourceFed team sing their hearts out!” Further Googling will turn up the reference in Burton’s memoirs cited above. That is all. The Shazlis have vanished, forgotten by all but the Christ whose Presence they unknowingly sought and unexpectedly found.

I mention the Shazlis now not only because all martyrs deserve some recognition from the Church, but also because their experience reveals that Christ loves everyone. We give lip service to the parable of the lost sheep, and happily read about the good shepherd leaving the ninety-nine in the wilderness and searching for the one straying sheep until He has found it (Lk. 15:3-6). We are more surprised to find the good shepherd actually searching. We too often imagine that the initiative in these things is all on our side; that Christ sits in heaven waiting for us to find Him. For us, religion is presented as a personal choice, as something that we choose, like items from a menu. Will we choose this item, or that; this religion, or that one; Christianity or Islam? We are the ones who do the choosing. We are not prepared when we sometimes find that Christ is the one doing the choosing, and that He does His choosing in what strikes us as odd places.

That is, we often think of the world in terms of “Us” and “Them”: “Us Christians” and “Them Muslims”; “Us North Americans” and “Them People Everywhere Else”. We are the ones who are loved by God, and they are the ones who are, if not unloved by God, are at least ignored by God. For God to really love them, they have to become Christians and become one of “us”. Admittedly our Orthodox theology doesn’t tell us this, but CNN and Fox Network often do.

It is just here that the experience of the Shazlis is so instructive. Here were a group of people unlike us in almost every conceivable way. We are affluent; they were poor. We are North Americans; they were Syrians. We are educated; they were not. We are Christians; they were Muslims. Yet, because they genuinely and earnestly sought the face of God (they would’ve called Him “Allah”), and because they really, really wanted to know the truth, Christ appeared to them, and appeared to them in supernatural power. They received a revelation, a dream, a vision. I have never received a revelation, or a dream, or a vision, and suspect that you haven’t either. But they did. That was not, I think, because they were more worthy than we are, but simply because that was what they needed at the time. They needed a vision; we don’t, and because they needed it, they got one. Their revelation, of course, confirmed our own Faith, for they no sooner awoke from the visionary dream than they concluded that Christ was God, and sought for baptism.

But what I would like to focus upon is not the thought, “See? We Christians were right”, but rather “See? Christ loves everyone and will manifest Himself to anyone who truly seeks Him”. Christ does not simply sit in heaven and wait for people to choose His religion. He is not sitting idly at the right hand of the Father, patiently drumming His fingers and hoping that we take the initiative to find Him. He searches even now for the lost sheep, whether that sheep be a secularist, or a Jew, or a Muslim, and often the sign that He is closing in on the lost sheep is that the sheep itself begins to seek Him. It is as the prophet Jeremiah said long ago: “You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). That promise did not just hold good for the children of Israel in Jeremiah’s day. It also held good for everyone ever after. And as history shows, it held good for the Muslim Shazlis of Damascus. They sought for God with all their heart, and found Him. It no doubt surprised them quite a bit to find that the God they sought was called Jesus, and that bore in His hands the print of the nails that He suffered when He died for them. But find Him they did, and they found Him not only because they sought Him with all their heart, but also because He was seeking for them. This is what St. Paul meant when he said that God was not the God of the Jews only, but also the God of the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29).

This, I suggest, is the most important fact about our non-Christian neighbour, whether that neighbour be secular, Jewish or Muslim, whether that neighbour be across the street, or in far-away Damascus: God is searching for them. The true God is their God, and Christ even now is actively seeking them. They are not so much enemies as potential brethren and fellow-communicants. Who in Damascus in the early 1860’s would’ve thought that the Muslim Sufi Abd el Matar would soon be confessing Christ as God, and heading towards the crown of a Christian martyr? With other Muslims, he sought God with all his heart, and this crowd soon found among themselves “a presence that was not theirs”. That presence was the Presence of the good shepherd, searching for His lost Sufi sheep. The Shepherd continues that search for all His lost sheep to this present hour.

Christmas service in an Antiochia cathedral in Damascus, Syria.
Christmas service in an Antiochia Orthodox cathedral in Damascus/ Alexander Zverev, Pravmir.ru

Source: No Other Foundation

2 Comments
  1. Riaz Ali Carmali

    In the Name of ALMIGHTY GOD, THE MOST GRACIOUS, THE MOST MERCIFUL.

    Dear Lawrence Farley,

    By the Grace and Favour of ALMIGHTY GOD, the ONE AND ONLY GOD, THE TRANSCENDENT,

    I am a Sufi Muslim and a Sufi Muslim Theologian and Researcher.
    I’ve also studied deeply Christianity.
    And I’ve studied Judaism, Hinduism and Sikhism.

    Regarding your post, I have the following to say.

    It seems that Nowadays, criticising and vilifying Islam, has become a habit and a way of living for many people.
    I sincerely hope that you no not belong to this category of people.

    Now, regarding Mr Abd El-Matar and his Shazli followers, they did not see The Noble Prophet Jesus Christ [may peace be with him (pbwh)]. Had they really seen Jesus Christ, they would immediately follow the Religion Christ and all Prophets like him brought to Mankind: Real Islam.

    Prophet Muhammad (pbwh) did not found a new religion. He was ordered by ALMIGHTY GOD, THE ONE, THE TRANSCENDENT, to restore the Religion ALMIGHTY GOD gave to Prophet Abraham (pbwh).
    And the Religion of Abraham is the same Religion ALMIGHTY GOD gave to all Prophets that came before Abraham including Prophet Adam (pbwh)
    Even the Noble Angels and Archangels follow Islam.
    Islam means both, Submission to the Will of ALMIGHTY GOD, and Peace.

    There is no record in any credible History book that Mr Abd El-Matar really existed.

    But let us suppose that you are right and both Abd El-Matar and the Shazlis existed.
    What they saw was not Jesus Christ.
    They saw Satan in the form of Jesus (pbwh).

    Let me correct you about a mistake you’ve made. Islam does not condemn former muslims to death. If they want to abandon Islam they are free to do so, and only ALMIGHTY GOD, THE ONE, THE TRANSCENDENT, will judge them in the Day of Judgement, as ALMIGHTY GOD teaches us in the Holy Quran, on the following Passages:
    — “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut (believing in false gods and rebellion against THE ONE TRUE GOD) and believes in GOD has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And GOD is Hearing and Knowing.”
    (Holy Quran, Chapter 2, Verse 256)
    — “And whoever of you reverts from his religion to disbelief and dies while he is a disbeliever – for those, their deeds have become worthless in this world and the Hereafter, and those are the companions of the Fire, they will abide therein eternally.”
    (Holy Quran, Chapter 2, Verse 217)
    — “And whoever denies the faith – his work has become worthless, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.”
    (Holy Quran, Chapter 5, Verse 5)
    — “And leave Me with the matter of the deniers, those of ease in life, and allow them respite a little.”
    (Holy Quran, Chapter 73, Verse 11)
    — “Leave ME with the one I created alone”
    (Holy Quran, Chapter 74, Verse 11)

    It is true that some Muslim Countries sentence to death muslims that abandon Islam, but this practice is against Islam as shown above.
    So, Mr Lawrence Farley should know our Holy Religion before vilifying Islam.

    Mr Lawrence Farley’s mistake resembles the mistake of those who wrongly blame Catholic Christianity for the mass killing of millions of innocent people at the hands of the Inquisition, from the V century CE (Common Era) until XVIII century CE.
    The fact is that the Catholic Church did these mass killings which are against Catholic Christianity in particular, Christianity in general and most important of all the Holy Bible (nowhere in this Sacred Scripture ALMIGHTY GOD, THE ONE, THE TRANSCENDENT, says that innocent people should be killed).

    Islam is so tolerant that It teaches that True Muslims, True Christians (those who are Absolute Monotheists and believe the FATHER ALONE as GOD), true Jews, provided that they believe in the ABSOLUTE ONENESS OF ALMIGHTY GOD and in the Day of Judgement, and provided that they do godd deeds in this worldly life, they may be saved from Hell Fire and enter Paradise.
    About this matter, ALMIGHTY GOD, THE ONE, THE TRANSCENDENT, says:
    — “Indeed, those who believed (the Muslims) and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans (Absolute Monotheist people that are neither jew, christian or muslim) – those among them who believed in GOD and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their LORD, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.”
    (Holy Quran, Chapter 2, Verse 62. Holy Quran, Chapter 5, Verse 69)

    Non-Muslim Western Scholars, both Christian and Non-Christian, have proved that Christ never claimed divinity.
    According to these Scholars, until the Council of Nicea, which took place in the IV century CE, the majority of Christians were Absolute Monotheists, regarded THE FATHER as THE ONE AND ONLY GOD, and regarded Jesus Christ as the Messiah and a great Prophet of ALMIGHTY GOD, and as a Slave of ALMIGHTY GOD.

    Indeed, Islam teaches that all creatures of ALMIGHTY GOD are Slaves of ALMIGHTY GOD.
    Christianity and Judaism teach the same, though they may use a different language.

    Coming back to the above mentioned Scholars, before the Council of Nicea, there were many Absolute Monotheistic Christians, like the Ebionites, the majority of the Gnostic Christians, the followers of Arius, and many more.
    They even state that Christ’s intention was not to create a new religion. He just wanted to revive the True Teachings of the Religion that were forgotten by the jews, as Christ clearly states in the Bible when he says:
    — “Do not think that I have come to loosen the law or the prophets. I have not come to loosen, but to fulfill”.
    (Holy Bible, The New Testament, Book of Mathew, Chapter 5, Verse 17)

    The fact is that Prophet Jesus Christ (pbwh) never claimed divinity and always said that everything he taught, was by the Order of ALMIGHTY GOD.

    Now, Mr Lawrence Farley does not know even his own Scripture!!

    There are many Passages in the Holy Bible that clearly say that Christ was just a human being and a Prophet and Messenger of ALMIGHTY GOD.
    The Old Testament is so full with Passages that mention that ALMIGHTY GOD IS THE ONE AND ONLY GOD, and that HE has no son and no partner, and that nothing is like HIM, that we will only mention, in this study, some Passages of the New Testament.
    Let us see some.

    “And do not choose to call anyone on earth your father. For ONE is your FATHER, who is in heaven. Neither should you be called teachers. For One is your Teacher, the Christ”
    (Holy Bible, New Testament, Gospel of Mathew, Chapter 23, Verses 9 and 10).

    “Therefore, when you give alms, do not choose to sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the towns, so that they may be honored by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be in secret, and your FATHER, who sees in secret, will repay you.”
    (Holy Bible, New Testament, Gospel of Mathew, Chapter 6, Verses 2, 3 and 4)

    “And one of the scribes, who had heard them arguing, drew near to him. And seeing that he had answered them well, he questioned him as to which was the first commandment of all. And Jesus answered him: “For the first commandment of all is this: ‘Listen, O Israel. The LORD your GOD is ONE GOD. And you shall love the LORD your GOD from your whole heart, and from your whole soul, and from your whole mind, and from your whole strength. This is the first commandment.’ But the second is similar to it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him: Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth that there is ONE GOD, and there is no other beside him; and that HE should be loved from the whole heart, and from the whole understanding, and from the whole soul, and from the whole strength.”
    (Holy Bible, New Testament, Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12, Verses 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33)

    “So then, produce fruits worthy of repentance. And do not begin to say, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God has the power to raise up sons to Abraham from these stones.”
    (Holy Bible, New Testament, Gospel of Luke, Chapter 3, Verse 8)

    “And it happened afterwards that he went to a city, which is called Nain. And his disciples, and an abundant crowd, went with him. Then, when he had drawn near to the gate of the city, behold, a deceased person was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. And when the Lord had seen her, being moved by mercy over her, he said to her, “Do not weep.” And he drew near and touched the coffin. Then those who carried it stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead youth sat up and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother. Then fear fell over all of them. And they magnified GOD, saying: “For a great prophet has risen up among us.”
    (Holy Bible, New Testament, Gospel of Luke, Chapter 7, Verses 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16)
    The reader can perfectly notice in this passage that the crowd acknowledged that Jesus (pbwh) raised the dead not with his own power. He raised the dead with the Power ALMIGHTY GOD gave him. And they only glorified GOD, THE MOST HIGH, and thanked HIM for sending Jesus as HIS Prophet, as it can be read, «and they magnified GOD, saying: “For a great prophet has risen up among us.”»

    «Now he was teaching in their synagogue on the Sabbaths. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years. And she was bent over; and she was unable to look upwards at all. And when Jesus saw her, he called her to himself, and he said to her, “Woman, you are released from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was straightened, and she glorified GOD.»
    (Holy Bible, NT, Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13, Verses 10, 11, 12, 13).
    Here again, the reader can see that Jesus cured the woman with the Power ALMIGHTY GOD gave him and not by his own power. And the woman after being cured, glorified ALMIGHTY GOD and not Jesus.

    “But I hold a greater testimony than that of John. For the works which the Father has given to me, so that I may complete them, these works themselves that I do, offer testimony about me: that the Father has sent me.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Gospel of John, Chapter 5, Verse 36)
    Here, Jesus clearly shows Mankind that he is just a creature and a noble slave of the FATHER, THE ONE AND ONLY GOD.

    “Do not let your heart be troubled. You believe in GOD. Believe in me also.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Gospel of John, Chapter 14, Verse 1).
    Here, Jesus clearly says that he and GOD are totally different Beings.

    “Whoever does not love me, does not keep my words. And the word that you have heard is not of me, but it is of the FATHER who sent me.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Gospel of John, Chapter 14, Verse 24)

    “The Father is greater than I.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Gospel of John, Chapter 14, Verse 28)

    “Yet this is so that the world may know that I love the FATHER, and that I am acting according to the commandment that the FATHER has given to me. Rise up, let us go from here.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Gospel of John, Chapter 14, Verse 31)

    «“Jesus said to her, “Mary!” And turning, she said to him, “Teacher”. Jesus said to her: “Do not touch me. For I have not yet ascended to my FATHER. But go to my brothers and tell them: ‘I am ascending to my FATHER and to your FATHER, to my GOD and to your GOD»
    (Holy Bible, NT, Gospel of John, Chapter 20, Verses 16 and 17).

    “Grace and peace to you from GOD our FATHER, and from our Master Jesus Christ.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Book of 1 Corinthians, Chapter 1, Verse 3)

    “But as to the foods that are immolated to idols, we know that an idol in the world is nothing, and that no one is GOD, except ONE. For although there are things that are called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, yet we know that there is only ONE GOD, the FATHER, THE CREATOR of everything, and one Master Jesus Christ”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Book of 1 Corinthians, Chapter 8, Verses 4, 5 and 6).

    “Now a mediator is not of one, yet GOD is ONE.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Book of Galatians, Chapter 3, Verse 20)

    “So then, to the KING of ages, to the immortal, invisible, solitary GOD, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Book 1 Timothy, Chapter 1, Verse 17)

    “For there is ONE GOD, and one mediator of GOD and of men, the man Christ Jesus.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Book 1 Timothy, Chapter 2, Verse 5)

    “For at the proper time, he shall reveal the blessed and only Power, the KING of kings and the LORD of lords, who alone holds immortality, and who inhabits the inaccessible light, whom no man has seen, nor even is able to see, to whom is honor and everlasting dominion. Amen. Instruct the wealthy of this age not to have a superior attitude, nor to hope in the uncertainty of riches, but in the living GOD, who offers us everything in abundance to enjoy, and to do good, to become rich in good works, to donate readily, to share, to gather for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may obtain true life.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Book 1 Timothy, Chapter 6, Verses 15, 16, 17, 18, 19)

    “Therefore, holy brothers, sharers in the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession: Jesus. He is faithful to the ONE who made him, just as Moses also was, with his entire house. For this Jesus was considered worthy of greater glory than Moses, so much so that the house which he has built holds a greater honor than the former one. For every house is built by someone, but GOD is the ONE who has created all things.”
    (Holy Bible, NT, Book of Hebrews, Chapter 3, Verses 1, 2, 3, 4)

    These Passages show that Jesus was just a Noble Slave of ALMIGHTY GOD, THE INCOMPARABLE, THE TRANSCENDENT.
    ALMIGHTY GOD sent 124000 Prophets to teach the same Religion to Mankind:
    The Religion of Submission to the Will of GOD.
    Adam was the first human being and the first Prophet. After his demise, ALMIGHTY GOD sent, as I said before 123999 Prophets to guide Mankind to the Relogion of Truth. Some of the Prophets are Seth, Enoch (Idris in Arabic), Noah, Hud (this name has no known translation), Saleh (this name had no known translation), Abraham, Ismael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Saul, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jesus Christ (the penultimate Prophet ALMIGHTY GOD sent to Mankind) and Muhammad who is the last Prophet ALMIGHTY GOD sent to Mankind and after Muhammad (pbwh) no other Prophet will come until the Day of Judgement.
    Muhammad brought the Holy Quran, the Last Message from ALMIGHTY GOD, THE ONE, THE TRANSCENDENT, until the Day of Judgement.

    In human History, ALMIGHTY GOD, THE TRANSCENDENT, sent 124000 Prophets to teach Mankind the Truth.
    When each Prophet came, some people would accept him while others would reject him. Then, the followers of the Prophet would become a nation. A few generations after the demise of the Prophet, his followers were no longer following the Truth. So, ALMIGHTY GOD, THE ONE, THE BEYOND the Beyond, would send another Prophet. A few generations after the demise of this Prophet, again his followers were no longer following the Truth.

    And this continued to happen until the arrival of Prophet Jesus Christ (pbwh). He, by ALMIGHTY GOD’s Order restored the Truth. 400 years after his ascension to Heaven, his followers were no longer following the Truth. They falsely ascribed divinity to him.

    The World was without a Heavenly Lamp.

    So, ALMIGHTY GOD, THE ONE, THE MOST HIGH, chose Muhammad (pbwh) as HIS last Prophet and gave Muhammad HIS last Message – The Holy Quran – to all Mankind.
    Prophet Muhammad did not come to found a new religion. By ALMIGHTY GOD’s Order, he came to restore the Religion of Truth, the Religion of
    THE ABSOLUTE MONOTHEISM OF GOD.
    Muhammad (pbwh) is no longer with us, but the Holy Quran is and will remain uncorrupted until the Day of Judgement. So he who wants to find True Guidance can find it in the Holy Quran.

    May Peace be with you all.

    Riaz Carmali
    (Islamic Theologian, Islamic Researcher, Researcher of other religions)

  2. I have no intention of entering into a prolonged debate about Islam in the comments section of a blog. But a few things may be offered in reply lest readers think that Christians have nothing to say in face of Islamic claims.
    The Christian Faith teaches that the pre-eternal and divine Word of God, existing with the Father from all eternity, became flesh in the womb of a young Jewish girl and was born for our salvation. Thus Jesus of Nazareth is both 100% divine and 100% human. As a human being He shared all of humanity’s limitations (sin excepted) and thus considered the Father as His God. As the divine Word incarnate, He also declared that He was one with the Father (John 10:30), that He shared the Father’s exemption from working on the Sabbath and thus declared Himself equal to God (John 5:17-19), that men should honour Him as they honoured the Father (John 5:21-23), that to see Him was to see the Father (John 14:7), and that He was the great I AM who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (John 8:58-59, Exodus 3:14). He also accepted the confession of Thomas after His crucifixion and resurrection when Thomas confessed Him as “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28-29). And these are just citations from the Gospel of John, apart from the other Gospels. Fastening upon the verses which reveal Christ’s humanity while refusing to take into account the other verses which reveal His essential divinity is evidence of bad faith, to say nothing of a faulty reading of John’s Gospel. It is the same with your similarly faulty reading of the epistles. The Christian Faith teaches both the unity of God and the divinity of Jesus. It is very complex, as one might expect when talking about God. Islam’s monistic understanding of God (versus the Trinitarian teaching of the Church) is simplistic, more fit for children than for adults: children can understanding a monistic God; it takes adult reasoning to comprehend the Church’s Trinitarianism.
    Regarding the Qu’ran: it is clearly a merely human document, containing many inaccuracies, written by someone whose knowledge of the Christian was defective and second-hand. Thus in the surah The Story we find Pharaoh and Haman addressing each other as if they were contemporaries. The author clearly knew that both Pharaoh and Haman were enemies of the Jewish people and assumed they must have been somehow in league, when in fact they were separated from each other by centuries and hundreds of miles, Pharaoh being Egyptian (in about 1400 BC) and Haman being Persian (in about 550 BC). And the Qu’ran’s assertion that Jesus was never crucified flies in the face of every known historical canon. We may disagree with unbelievers about whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. But His historical crucifixion is beyond rational dispute.

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