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Saim Abd al-Samid: “That Tried Friend”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 27, 2013

Saim Abd al-Samid was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, probably in the late 1870s (there remains much research to do before his story can be fully known). He was a member of an upper-class family, and received an excellent education, graduating from “the highest official institution” of that city as a civil engineer/surveyor. Whether it was his family ties or his professional accomplishments that were responsible, in 1901 he arrived in Aintab, Syria (now Gazientep, Turkey), as a member of the city council where he was known as Saim Effendi (Effendi being a Turkish title indicating Saim’s place in Ottoman society).

Aintab is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back to the ancient Hittites, and being known in the history of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Byzantines, and other conquerors. At the turn of the 20th century, Aintab was home to about 45,000 people. Two-third of the population were Muslim, as was Saim Effendi; one-third were Christian, largely Armenians. In 1901, when Saim Effendi arrived at Aintab, that town was home to one of the Latter-day Saints’ two largest branches (the other being Aleppo, 60 miles to the south). “Largest” is a relative term, of course; after more than 15 years of proselyting in Turkey and Syria,

the Aintab branch had a few dozen members, led by missionaries “from Zion.” In 1901, those missionaries included Joseph Wilford Booth of Alpine, Utah, who, by the time he died in Haifa, Israel, in 1928, had devoted 30 years of his life to the Saints of the Middle East, during multiple missions and while working for their survival and support during short returns home. Elder Booth’s companion was Lester Mangum, another young man of Utah County (he is the “Mangum” of BYU’s “Knight-Mangum Hall”).

Given his social standing, education, and apparently secure financial situation, it is not surprising that Saim Effendi was a cosmopolitan young man who sought out the company of other interesting men, including English-speaking foreigners. Within a short time of his arrival at Aintab, Saim Effendi had made the acquaintance of the Mormon missionaries. Saim Effendi called often at the mission headquarters, and sometimes escorted the elders on visits to gardens and prominent people where they could not have visited on their own. Sometimes he assisted the elders with their language studies, and sometimes he answered their questions about local customs and Islam. Once he brought a nice inkstand and gave it to Elder Mangum as a gift specifically to encourage him in his language study. They chatted about politics, and religion, and social behavior.

Sometimes Saim visited during days when Church meetings were scheduled. He attended testimony meetings that spring, and once when he happened to be at the mission home for a young people’s meeting, he joined in to speak “very interestingly on the social relations of the young people of different sex. This is a notable event for us as it is probably the first speech ever made by an Islam [Muslim] before a congregation of Saints.”

One day the conversation between Saim Effendi and Elders Booth and Mangum somehow turned to the subject of tithing. Saim was intrigued by the subject and asked many questions. The elders explained tithing, and its uses among the Saints. According to Elder Booth, Saim “accepted the principle and expressed his desire to be numbered among the tithe payers.” From that day, he paid tithing to the elders, but asked that his name not be recorded on the Church’s books – that could have caused him problems with his family and government.

Soon after this development, Elder Booth was called away to work with the Saints in other parts of the mission. With Elder Booth inaccessible, and while waiting for his own president, Albert Herman, to arrive in Aintab in Elder Booth’s place, Elder Mangum was at a loss for counsel when an unprecedented event happened in early August. He turned to apostle Francis M. Lyman, the president of the European Mission, for advice:

A circumstance has arisen for which I have no sure precedent … an Islam officer has asked for baptism. …

About a year ago he heard of the Mormons and upon coming to Aintab some six months ago he hunted us up and has since been quite an earnest investigator, with the result above named. Our natural explanation of the Trinity, he says, attracted and held him from the first.

Of course you are well enough acquainted with affairs in this land … to know that for an Islam to openly declare a change of faith is almost equivalent to court death. Realizing this, he asks for secret baptism and confirmation, having in view an early migration … Even if he should wish to declare his intentions openly I should hesitate to grant permission because of our undefined relations with the government. …

Therefore my question is simply this: Under the circumstances is there any objection to baptizing the young officer as he wishes? He asks for baptism now because of the added strength and light which he believes that ordinance will give him.

President Lyman’s advice was simple: “Let the young officer come to us [in England] and be baptised on his way to Zion if he does not wish to wait till he gets [there].”

Writing to a friend in October, Elder Mangum reported:

There is also a young man of Constantinople, who is city engineer, and a member of the city council of this place, that will leave at the earliest opportunity. I should have baptized him some time ago, but Apostle Lyman advises that this action be postponed until after his departure from this land. Of course, at the best it could have been only a secret baptism, but the Apostle thinks even this too risky. If I could have the honor of baptizing the young man and it were my only baptism while here, still I should count my labors far from being small. He is one of those whose faith is the moving principle in their lives, and his friendship is not lightly esteemed.

But Saim abd al-Samid would not wait. Albert Herman, another elder in the Turkish Mission, reported to Salt Lake:

The Aintab branch is also making headway. An Islam of Aintab holding a government position as civil engineer secretly got baptized into our faith, we gave him a long trial and got convinced of his veracity; he will have to keep himself secret till ready to immigrate, otherwise his life might be taken, we proposed to him to get baptized when out of the country, but he was too anxious and would not wait. The first Mohammadan in the Ch. of J. Ch. of L.D.S. I pray, that this also might be kept secret among you.

Saim was baptized on 19 November 1901, by Elder Mangum, in Aintab. He soon afterward notified Elder Booth, who recorded in his diary, “Received letters from Pres Herman and Lester Mangum of Aintab. They inform me of … the baptism of that tried friend Saim Effendi, on the 19 ult by Elder Mangum and his confirmation by Pres A. Herman. This is the first Islam that has ever joined the church to my knowledge.” That baptism was reported in the Millennial Star in December (“Elder Lester Mangum of the Turkish Mission, in a letter from Aintab, Syria, reports a baptism there on the 19th ult.”) But the name of the new convert was not publicly reported. In fact, you might notice that in none of the quoted correspondence is Saim’s name recorded … yet enough details were reported to identify him, had their mail been seen by unfriendly eyes …

(To be continued)



33 Comments »

  1. You mean he was born in “Constantinople (now Istanbul)”?

    Comment by Mark B. — August 27, 2013 @ 7:41 am

  2. Yes, Mark. I’ll fix that, and YOU can start getting up at 4:30 to write posts.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2013 @ 7:44 am

  3. And, now that I’ve read the entire post: wonderful! What an amazing story–which evokes two additional stories. One was told by Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, about the young Pakistani military officer who joined the church while on assignment here in the U.S., who likely faced serious risks upon returning to Pakistan, but whose response to those risks was “But it’s true, isn’t it?” The other is the story of my client in my first political asylum case–an Afghan who joined the church here in New York. We reopened his case based on the changed circumstances–that his conversion to Christianity would result in persecution or death in Afghanistan, which was then ruled by the Taliban. We won the case, and he’s now a U.S. citizen. And, by the way, he makes some of best pizza in Brooklyn. (Let me know if you’re ever in Coney Island–I’ll give you directions to his pizzeria!)

    Comment by Mark B. — August 27, 2013 @ 7:54 am

  4. If that’s 4:30 mountain time, Ardis, that won’t be much of a problem. :)

    Comment by Mark B. — August 27, 2013 @ 7:55 am

  5. This is really great, Ardis. Thanks!

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 27, 2013 @ 8:11 am

  6. An exciting piece of history. Can’t wait for the rest.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 27, 2013 @ 8:36 am

  7. Thanks, Mark, J., Bruce. Bruce, one of your family members played a role in helping me uncover this story — I’ll tell that in a note tomorrow.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2013 @ 8:41 am

  8. Oh my goodness. What a cliff-hanger, Ardis, and a remarkable find.

    This does bring back many memories of wonderful Turkish friends, members, and investigators. It’s making me smile to remember the warm hospitality my companions and I enjoyed from random kindhearted Turks, as well as the Turkish members of the Church. It was a struggle for the Turkish members in many ways; it was an uphill battle to belong to the Church. I wonder how they’re all doing now.

    Comment by Amy T — August 27, 2013 @ 9:04 am

  9. This is a remarkable post Ardis!

    During my state side mission I came into contact with multiple Muslims who showed great interest in our faith. Most of these followers of Islam were foreign students at the large university where I served for some time. We taught one man multiple lessons at the local institute building after repeated requests from him, only to learn that there were specific (but not publicly printed) guidelines which detailed a variety of reasons why we could not teach this young man in his certain situation. It put not only him in danger, but his family back home, his friends, and even ourselves and the church into a precarious position. We agreed mutually and respectfully with the young man (under the direction of our mission president and the area president) that it was in everyone’s best interest to discontinue teaching him. However, I often look back and wish circumstances would have been different.

    This story of Saim flooded my mind with memories and wishes from long ago. And there is a part of me that wishes I would have been gutsy enough (or disobedient enough?) to keep on teaching my Muslim friend and pushed onward in an Elder Mangum sort of style.

    Thank you for sharing this! It is a gem of church history.

    Comment by Stan — August 27, 2013 @ 9:14 am

  10. What! You’re going to make us wait for Part 2?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 27, 2013 @ 9:20 am

  11. Thanks, Amy and Stan — you both are witnesses to the hospitality and spirituality of those who follow Islam, and I’m glad you’re willing to say that.

    All comments so far have been wonderful,and I hope there are many more. I also hope this caution is unnecessary:
    It’s not impossible that someone might use this post as a launchpad for political or unpleasant comments. Anything not relevant to this post, and not in the usual spirit of Keepa, will be edited or deleted. Let’s carry on in the way that we’ve begun.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2013 @ 9:26 am

  12. Yes, Gary, ’cause I’m mean that way! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2013 @ 9:27 am

  13. […] http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2013/08/27/saim-abd-al-samid-that-tried-friend/ […]

    Pingback by “Saim Abd al-Samid: ‘That Tried Friend’” — August 27, 2013 @ 9:59 am

  14. Can’t wait for the rest of this. I’ve just been reading Lawrence in Arabia, which talks about the situation in the middle east before and during World War I. I’ve wondered how the LDS branches and converts in Turkey and Syria, both parts of the Ottoman empire, fared during this time. The Armenians mentioned in Aintab were in for a grim time during the war, and while the official Ottoman policy was one of tolerance for Christians and Jews, that could vary widely depending on local authorities and circumstances.

    We have a small number of Muslin converts in our stake, and a good friend of ours is Muslim from Iran, and his wife is LDS and a former Relief Society president in our ward. Fascinating story, Ardis, can’t wait for the rest.

    Comment by kevinf — August 27, 2013 @ 10:47 am

  15. Wow! Having been born and raised in a society where people migrate fairly easily from one religious denomination to another (and do!), this line reminded me of a very different reality:

    “he will have to keep himself secret till ready to immigrate, otherwise his life might be taken”

    Comment by David Y. — August 27, 2013 @ 11:08 am

  16. I have to come back and note in some embarrassment that although I did know quite a few Turks on my mission, both friends and investigators, I didn’t know any Turkish members. The members I was thinking of were Persian, and I’m rather mortified to have made that fairly major mistake.

    One thing that always puzzles me when I think of the Turks I have known is their history of warfare and genocide. (I’m saying this having also known a number of Armenians and Kosovars.) The history seems totally at odds with their friendly and hospitable nature.

    I wonder if Dr Peterson, who just added a link to this post, would have any insights. (Anything that would fit in a blog comment, I mean; I realize it’s not a simple question.)

    I took a class on Judaism and Islam from Dr Peterson and Dr Ricks before my mission and found it of great practical use a year or two later in Germany. (There’s nothing like knowing the identity of the guy in the picture on the wall of a Turkish home to create an instant relationship of trust.)

    Comment by Amy T — August 27, 2013 @ 11:11 am

  17. I recall seeing something in a BYU-TV program about how a critical element i the Church receiving official recognition in Israel was the fact that there was proof that it had been operating in that land before 1948. That proof consisted of the graves of a couple of LDS missionaries, whose remains were buried there rather than being returned to their homeland. I wonder if Elder Boothe was one of these?

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — August 27, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

  18. What a story! How you have enlivened an otherwise dull afternoon! How fiendish of you to parcel this story out one tantalizing bit at a time…

    Comment by Diane Peel — August 27, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

  19. Really, really interesting, Ardis. Great find!

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 27, 2013 @ 3:13 pm

  20. One heckuva story. Completely unexpected.

    Comment by Adam G. — August 27, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

  21. Raymond, there are five LDS missionary graves in the Middle East, and since Elder Booth’s grave is so convenient to Jerusalem I suspect his must have been one they were aware if. I don’t know the details of any recognition process, though.

    Thanks, all, for your recognition of this as an unusual story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

  22. Dah! But how does it end?

    This would make a great trivia question in Celestial Pursuit. Something like, “When was the first known time that a Muslim gave a speech before a Latter-day Saint congregation? 1901 Aintab, Syria; 1948, London, England; or 2006 Provo, Utah. :-)

    Comment by Nathan Richardson — August 27, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

  23. Nathan, there’s not one detail of that correct answer that anyone would see coming, is there!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

  24. It wasn’t President Booth’s grave, but the graves of elders Clark and Haag, in the Templar cemetary in Haifa.

    Comment by Allen — August 27, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

  25. John Alexander Clark died Feb 8,1895; buried Templer-Cemetery Haifa, Palestine.
    Adolf Haag; died Oct 3,1892; buried Templer-Cemetery Haifa, Palestine.

    Comment by Kendell — August 28, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

  26. Hi Ardis, my name is Jabra Ghneim. I am an Arab convert to the church and a professional linguist. If you need help with anything please contact me. My email address is [edited]. Very interesting story. So many Muslims join the church every year and they end up either immigrating to a country where they can practice or they remain behind then fall through the cracks. We just do not have the structure to support them. Hopefully one day true equality will reign in the Islamic countries and people will become able to convert to whatever religion they want. I hope that Saim’s name will be submitted for temple ordinances if that has not been done yet.

    Comment by Jabra Ghneim — August 29, 2013 @ 10:08 am

  27. SUPER WONDERFUL POST Ardis! Loved it! Even if the whole Istanbul not Constantinople bit at the beginning got me thinking about old “They Might Be Giants” Songs ;)

    Comment by andrew h — August 29, 2013 @ 10:32 am

  28. andrew, that’s nobody’s business but the Turks’.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 29, 2013 @ 10:33 am

  29. Jabra, I’m very glad to hear from you, especially your willingness to lend your linguistic skills. I’ve edited your email address to spare you the kind of email it might attract, but I’ve kept it in my files. (If anybody else has a legitimate reason to contact Jabra, please write to me.)

    One of my hopes in finding and publicizing Saim’s story is that he might be a beacon to converts and their children, to know that they aren’t alone and that they have such an early pioneer in their own or a related culture.

    Thanks, everyone, for your response to Saim Abd al-Samid.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 29, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  30. Re: #27

    “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was written in 1953, and was #10 on the Billboard charts that year, as recorded by The Four Lads. The version by They Might Be Giants is just one of the more well-known covers.

    Church connection: the song was also covered by the (now) BYU a capella group Vocal Point, on their first album “Instruments Not Included.”

    Comment by lindberg — August 29, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

  31. Jabra Ghneim,

    In my Ward (Peterborough 2) We once (several years ago now) had a missionary called Elder Ghneim who was from Palestine.

    Was that you by any chance?

    Comment by Mike Stone — September 17, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

  32. Dear Sirs. My name is Juan Carlos Tagtachian, from Buenos Aires, Argentina. My 4 grandfathers were born and came here almost 90 years ago. I´m very interested in this story. Could you tell me the number of mormoms in Aintab at the beginning of 20th century?. I´m trying to make a census of all the armenian families of Aintab. My assumptions indicates that there were 6.000 armenian families in the 1904, if we count 6 children per family.

    I´d appreciate if you could send me any further information of Aintab, if it`s not inconvenient for you.
    Humbly yours,
    Juan Carlos Tagtachian

    Comment by Juan Carlos Tagtachian — January 28, 2014 @ 10:12 am

  33. Juan Carlos, I will have to research those figures. I will do that, and write to you in a few days when I have that information. I’m glad you found this post and I’ll do what I can to help your project.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 28, 2014 @ 10:52 am

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