Sabbat the Arabian

SABAT THE ARABIAN: or, the Apostate

By the Rev. Robert M. M‘Cheyne,

Minister of St. Peter’s Church, Dundee.

SABAT was the son of Ibrahim Sabat, of a noble family in Arabia, who trace their pedigree to Mahomed. Abdallah was his intimate friend., and also a young man of good family. They agreed to travel together, and to visit foreign countries. Both were zealous Mahomedans. Accordingly, after paying their adorations at the tomb of their prophet, they left Arabia, travelled through Persia, and thence to Cabul. Abdallah was appointed to an office of state under the king of Cabul, and Sabat leaving him there, proceeded on a tour through Tartary.

While Abdallah remained at Cabul, he was converted to the Christian faith by the perusal of a Bible belonging to an Armenian Christian, then residing at Cabul; for the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit. In Mahomedan countries it is death for a man of rank to become a Christian. Abdallah endeavoured, for a time, to conceal his conversion; but finding it no longer possible, he determined to flee to some of the Christian Churches near the Caspian Sea. He, accordingly, left Cabul in disguise, and had gained the great city of Bochara in Tartary, when he was met in the streets of that city by his friend Sabat, who immediately recognized him. Sabat had heard of his conversion and flight, and was filled with indignation at his conduct. Abdallah knew his danger, and threw himself at the feet of Sabat. He confessed that he was a Christian, and implored him by the sacred tie of their former friendship to let him escape with his life. “But, sir,” said Sabat, when relating the story, “I had no pity. I caused my servants to seize him, and I delivered him up to Morad Shah, king of Bochara. He was sentenced to die, and a herald went through the city announcing the time of his execution. An immense multitude attended, and the chief men of the city. I also went and stood near to Abdallah. He was offered his life if he would abjure Christ, the executioner standing by him with his sword in his hand. ‘No,’ said he, ‘I cannot abjure Christ.’ Then one of his hands was cut off at the wrist. He stood firm, his arm hanging by his side, but with little motion. A physician, by desire of the king, offered to heal the wound if he would recant. He made no answer but looked stedfastly towards heaven, like Stephen the first martyr, his eyes streaming with tears. He did not look with anger towards me. He looked at me, but it was benignly, and with the countenance of forgiveness. His other hand was then cut off. “But, sir,” said Sabat in his imperfect English, “he never changed, – he never changed. And when he bowed his head to receive the stroke, all Bochara seemed to say, What new thing is this?”

Sabat had hoped that Abdallah would have recanted when offered his life; but when he saw that his friend was dead he resigned himself to grief and remorse. He travelled from place to place, seeking peace, but unable to find it. At last he thought he would visit India. He accordingly came to Madras. Soon after his arrival he was appointed, by the English government, a Mufti or expounder of Mahometan law. And now the time drew near when a striking change was to take place in his own views. While he was at Visagapatam, exercising his professional duties, Providence brought in his way an Arabic New Testament. He read it with deep thought, the Koran laying before him. He compared them with patience and solicitude. And, at length, the truth of the Word fell on his mind, as he expressed it, like a flood of light. Soon after he proceeded to Madras, a journey of three hundred miles, to seek Christian baptism; and having made a public profession of his faith, he was baptised by the Rev. Dr Ker, in the English Church, by the name of Nathanael, in the 27th year of his age.

When his family in Arabia heard that he had followed the example of Abdallah, and become a Christian, they sent his brother to India to assassinate him. While Sabat was sitting in his own house at Visagapatam, his brother presented himself under the disguise of a faqueer or beggar, having a dagger concealed under his mantle. He rushed on Sabat and wounded him. But Sabat seized his arm, and his servants came to his assistance. He then recognised his brother! The assassin would have become the victim of public justice, but Sabat interceded for him, and sent him home in peace, with letters and presents to his mother’s house in Arabia.

Sabat seemed now desirous to devote his life to the glory of God. He resigned his office, and came, by invitation, to Bengal, to assist in translating the Scriptures. There he published several works. His first was entitled, “Happy news for Arabia,” in the common dialect of his country, containing an eloquent elucidation of the Gospel, and a narrative of his conversion.

It was in the end of the year 1807, that Sabat ar­rived at Dinapore, and joined himself to Henry Martyn, who was then labouring at that place. In him Mr Martyn confidently trusted that he had found a Christian brother. No sooner had he arrived than he opened to Mr Martyn the state of his mind, declaring that  the constant sin which he found in his heart filled him with fear. “If the Spirit of Christ is given to believers, why,” said he, “am I thus, after three years’ believing? I determine every day to keep Christ crucified in sight, but soon I forget to think of him. I can rejoice when I think of God’s love in Christ; but then I am like a sheep that feeds happily, whilst he looks only at the pasturage before him, but when he looks behind and sees the lion he cannot eat.” “His life,” he said, “was of no value to him; the experience he had had of the instability of the world had weaned him from it; his heart was like a looking-glass, fit for nothing except to be given to the glass-maker to be moulded anew.” It is not to be wondered that Mr Martyn believed all things, and hoped all things, concerning one who uttered, with much earnestness, such sentiments as these; so that he observed to Mr Brown, who had sent Sabat from Calcutta, that, “not to esteem him a monument of grace and to love him, is impossible.”

It is true that Martyn was often grieved by the ungovernable temper of the Arabian, – often to such a degree, that he could only find relief in prayer for him. It is true, also, that the few notices we have of him in Martyn’s correspondence, almost always speak, with sorrow, of his pride – his vanity – his wrath. Still, it does not appear, that during the two years in which they laboured together in translating the Scriptures, the faithful missionary was ever shaken in the good opinion which he had at first formed of him. But “the Lord seeth not as man seeth, for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”

On 1st Oct. 1809, Martyn left Cawnpore, and came with Sabat to Calcutta. On 7th January 1811, he left the shores of India, never to return. He did not live to hear of the sad apostasy of his dearly beloved and longed for Arabian.

It was in 1815 that Sabat openly apostatised from the faith which he had so long espoused, by publishing in Calcutta, a virulent attack upon the Gospel, “denying the Lord that bought him.” Calcutta rung with the intelligence, – the righteous sorrowed, – the unrighteous triumphed. Spiritual religion was decried. Native converts were suspected. Contempt was poured upon the blessed office of the missionary. But “the Lord hath made all things for himself; yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.”

Sabat soon deserted Bengal for the settlement of Penang. He made an unsuccessful trading voyage to Rangoon, after which he reappeared at Penang with the wreck of his fortune. A British Officer, then a resident there, has detailed the rest of Sabat’s history. (The account which follows is obtained from the statements of Colonel MacInnes, inserted in the life of Mr Thomason.) “During his stay in this island I had the opportunity of knowing him thoroughly. I saw in him a disappointed man, uneasy, and agitated in his mind. He attributed all the distress of his soul to the grief he felt for having abandoned Christianity. He desired to receive again this holy religion, as the only means of recovering the favour of God. He declared that he had not had a moment’s peace since he had published his attack upon Revelation, at the instigation of Satan, – an attack which he called his ‘bad work.’ He told me also that what had led him to this fatal step was the desire of revenging himself upon an individual to whom he thought an attack upon Christianity would be more painful than any personal injury. But he had no sooner executed this detestable project, he added, than he felt a horror of the action, and now he only valued his life that he might be able to undo the pernicious tendency of his book, which he thought would be great in Mahometan countries. He never spoke of Mr Martyn without the most profound respect, and shed tears of grief whenever he recalled how severely he had tried the patience of that faithful servant of God. He mentioned several anecdotes to shew with what extraordinary sweetness Martyn had borne his numerous provocations. ‘He was less a man,’ he said, ‘than an angel from heaven.’

His apostasy had excited much observation in the East. There appeared in the Penang Gazette an article which announced the arrival and the opinions of this famous person, but which expressed the apprehension that was generally entertained of his sincerity. Sabat had no sooner read this article than he himself wrote to the Editor. He affirmed that he did indeed profess Christianity anew, and that it was his intention to consecrate the remainder of his days to the advancement of this holy religion in the world. In conformity with these declarations, rather than lodge with a Mahometan, he went to stay at the house of an Armenian Christian, named Johannes, a respectable merchant who had known him at the time of his baptism at Madras. While there, he every evening read and expounded the Scriptures, to the great satisfaction of his host, who was a very worthy man, but very inferior to Sabat in talents and knowledge of the Scriptures. In this last respect I imagine few men have surpassed Sabat.

But, in spite of these promising appearances, he continued to frequent the Mosque, where he worshipped, indiscriminately, with all the other Mahometans. In defence of this conduct, he cited the example of Nicodemus, who, although a disciple of Jesus, persevered in the public profession of Judaism. Sometimes he reviewed the arguments in favour of Mahometanism, as if to display his talents in defending a thesis which was manifestly untenable; but soon confessed, though with manifest repugnance, that Mahometanism only owed its success to fraud and violence, and that Mahomet himself deserved no better name than that of an impostor.

During his stay at Penang this island was visited by Jouhuroolalim, king of Acheen, a neighbouring state in the island of Sumatra. A number of his subjects, disgusted with their prince, had invited Hosyn, a rich merchant of Penang, who had some pretensions to the throne, to come and help them to depose Jouhuroolalim. Hosyn, advanced in years, made over his family claims to his son, who, under the name of Syfoolalim, (or ‘sword of the universe,’) went to Acheen. The king, reduced to extremity, appeared at Penang, in order to procure arms and provisions. Sabat offered his services, with no other end, as he assured me, than to attempt the introduction of Christianity among the Acheenois. His imposing manners, – his reputation as a man of talents, – and the high esteem which Indian nations have for Arabian auxiliaries, procured him a favourable reception with the Malay king. Sabat accompanied him to Acheen, gained such an ascendency, as to manage all public affairs, and was regarded by his adversaries as the greatest obstacle to their final triumph. But, as months rolled away, and the issue of the struggle appeared doubtful and distant, Sabat resolved to retire. Whilst occupied in effecting his retreat, he fell into the hands of Syfoolalim, who gave orders that he should be strictly imprisoned on board a vessel.

From this prison-house Sabat wrote several notes to Johannes and me, calling on us to observe, that it was with his own blood that he had traced the characters, his enemies refusing him the usual materials. In these notes, written some in Persian, the others in bad English, he recited his sufferings, which he wished us to consider as the consequence of his attachment to Christianity, and that he was in some sense a martyr. In addressing himself to me, Sabat hoped to obtain the intervention of Government in his favour; as, however he was not a British subject, he was disappointed in his expectation. Without loss of time I made use of my private influence with Hosyn, to ameliorate the captivity of Sabat, if I could not procure his enlargement. All that I could obtain was a promise that his life should be held sacred, – that Hosyn would write to his son not to make any attempt against it, and that he would mitigate the sufferings of his captivity. Whether the request of the father never reached the son, or whether the latter was only embittered against Sabat, by these efforts in his favour, cannot be known, but I had not the success I desired; and some time after, we learn­ed that the days of the unfortunate captive had been violently terminated by a frightful death; he was tied up in a sack and thrown into the sea!”

Thus lived and thus died the apostate Sabat. Let us learn three lessons from the eventful history.

1.  Let us learn to expect from the labours of our Missionaries no more than Scripture and experience warrant us to expect. In apostolic times there was a Judas who companied with the twelve all the time that the Lord Jesus went out and in among them, and remained altogether unsuspected up to that very night, when Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you that one of you shall betray me; and they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?” There was a Simon Magus who seemed to believe, and was baptised, and continued with Philip, yet his “heart was not right with God,” and he became the bitterest of the Gospel’s enemies. There was a Hymenaeus, and a Philetus, and an Alexander the Coppersmith, who, though at one time esteemed members of the Christian Church, yet became opposers, and, “concerning the faith, made shipwreck.” There was a Demas, of whom, though twice recorded among the saints, yet it is written, “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world.”

And now, among ourselves, what is the experience of every faithful minister of Christ? Is it not that many who once “did run well,” have been as it were “bewitched,” and “soon removed unto another Gospel, which is not another?” Is it not that many who seemed to have “escaped the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour, have been again entangled therein, and the latter end has been worse with them than the beginning?”

Why then shall we expect different results from the labours of our Missionaries? Is human nature different in India from what it is and has been in other parts of the world? Or shall we demand from the godly men who have gone to preach Christ among the heathen, a penetration in reading the hearts of men, which was not granted even to apostles?

If God shall indeed bless the labours of our Missionaries with an abundant harvest, more full and rich than we have either asked or thought, still let us form our expectations, tutored by Scripture and experience, and we shall not be greatly amazed as if some strange thing happened unto us, when many who are called disciples go back and walk no more with Jesus.

2. Let us learn to cleave all the faster to the Lord Jesus. If others fall away, it is because they only seemed to be cleaving to Christ, and did not really cleave to him. Let us make sure that we cleave to him. “They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us, but they went out that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”

Just as when one vessel makes shipwreck, every wary Captain is made tenfold more vigilant than before, examines to see that all his timbers are sure, his cordage and his anchors strong, – so let every falling away of those who seemed to be like minded, make us look more anxiously to our own souls, that all our moorings are secure, and our anchor indeed within the veil. When others are offended and walk no more with Jesus, may we hear the gentle voice of the Saviour saying to us, “Will ye also go away?” And may our inmost heart reply, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

3. Let us learn the awful vengeance of God upon apostasy. It is written of such men, “They bring upon themselves swift destruction.” Of Judas we are told that when he saw that Jesus was condemned, he “went and hanged himself;” and “falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.” Of Ananias and. Sapphira, who were arrested on the way to the crime of apostasy, we are told that they fell down at the apostles’ feet, and yielded up the ghost. Of Sabat, the apostate Arabian, we have seen that he was tied up in a sack and cast into the sea.

And. O! if God’s judgments upon them be so dreadful, even in this life, who can imagine the doom that waits them in the world beyond the grave, when “fearfulness shall surprise the hypocrites.” These are “wandering stars to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.”

HTML transcription copyright © 2006 David Frank Haslam

Last updated 2006-04-15