The Roots of the Syrian Crisis by Peter Clarke
In the 1890s a twenty-year-old Englishman was in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He had been travelling for a year in Palestine and Syria and was deeply affected by all he saw.
He told an elderly official of the mosque that he wanted to embrace Islam. The old man advised against such a move. ‘Wait till you are older,’ the old man said, ‘and have seen again your native land. You are alone among us . . . God knows how I should feel if any Christian teacher dealt with a son of mine otherwise than as I now deal with you.’
Twenty years later that young man did embrace Islam. He was Marmaduke Pickthall, and he went on to render the Holy Qur’an into English, deliver khutbas at mosques in London, and was finally buried at the Muslim cemetery at Brookwood.
Twenty years before Pickthall’s first visit to Damascus, another very different British traveller came to that city. He was between visits to Najd in the Arabian Peninsula. Charles Montagu Doughty later wrote an account of his travels in Arabia Deserta. That book opens with an encounter between Doughty and a Damascus friend:
A new voice hailed me of an old friend when, first returned from the Peninsula, I paced again in that long street which is called Straight; and suddenly taking me wondering by the hand ‘Tell me (said he), since thou art here again in the peace and assurance of Ullah, and whilst we walk, as in the former years, toward the new blossoming orchards, full of the sweet spring as the garden of God, what moved thee, or how couldst thou take such journeys into the fanatic Arabia?’
These two testimonies of the century before last bear witness to a tradition of openness and inclusiveness in Syria, of a legacy of accepting religious difference. The Muslims, Christians and Jews of Syria were sure of their faith...