Muslim Traders

The Trader and the Adventurer by guest poster Russell Stevenson

The Trader and the Adventurer

by Russell Stevenson

James Morgan, a young Mormon adventurer with the British East India Company [BEIC] descended into valley of Kashmir in fall 1850. Born in 1826, Morgan was a nawab seeking to make his fortune with the British East India Company as they made their final conquest of the Sikh Kingdom of the Punjab.

Morgan encountered a merchant named Mizra Khan while traveling through the Punjab. [1]   As a wealthy trader in yabu horses, Khan would be a useful resource for the British East India Company. Khan was impressed by the young Mormon man’s composure and “conversation.” [2]  The two men became friends, and Khan became curious about the young man’s faith.

Khan faced significant opposition from both Muslims and Sikhs when he began to investigate the faith of this enterpriser. As a Sikh state with several Muslims, religious tolerance was essential to maintaining a peaceful state.  Both religious traditions recognized that the other had a venerable heritage. Christianity—especially non-Catholic Christianity—was inextricably linked to the British imperialists.  “Oh,” Khan wrote Apostle Orson Pratt in Liverpool, “you cannot tell the feelings of indignation of some of my seik friends and the…gentlemen of the place, when they found me forsaking the Koran and spending my time in perusing Christian books.” Both Sikhs and Muslims alike formed a united front against Khan for fraternizing with Christians, and by implications, imperialists.  By the time of Khan’s conversion, Punjabi Muslims and Sheiks had reached a mutual understanding about their shared status as long-standing religious tradition. Islamic custom had absorbed aspects of other religious traditions from the Asian Subcontinent.  Devout Muslims often adhered to the caste system, and mosques resembled Hindi shrines. [3]  Khan’s sin was that he dared to embrace the religion of the colonizing Christians.

Khan was no stranger to Christian thought.  While born a Muslim, his grandfather had taught him from the Christian Bible, teachings he absorbed “with great pleasure.” When his grandfather lay on the verge of death in another region then controlled by the British, he gave his grandson a book he discovered in the local “Public Hall of Science.” [4] His grandfather showed him an old manuscript he found enjoining the Elders of the Church to bless the sick “by the laying on of hands.”  Khan found the passage fascinating and asked a missionary about it during one of his trips to Persia.  The missionary dismissed the passage as antiquated.  Khan forgot the conversation entirely—until he met James Morgan.

But Morgan was not a typical Christian minister. Morgan administered a blessing to the nazir, and the man miraculously recovered.  Moved by the power of Morgan’s blessing, Khan handed Morgan his manuscript in Persian and attempted to sputter out a few words in English describing what his grandfather had taught him.  Morgan reciprocated the enthusiasm, handing Khan copies of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the “Book of Covenants” [Doctrine and Covenants], as well as several pamphlets Orson Pratt had been publishing in the United States and Great Britain. [5]  Morgan ploughed through explaining the text to him in Persian; Khan embraced the message, and his “heart was made full of joy.”

Three months after their initial meeting, Khan informed Morgan that he was “convinced of the truth and could not suffer him to go away without being baptized.” Khan’s baptism was a family affair, and, he happily informed Pratt, “many kinsmen were present to witness the ceremony.”  After the completion of the ordinance, the desire for baptism became infectious; the entire Khan clan embraced the faith within months, including all of his wives and most of his children.

Khan never did make it to the United States,  American expatriates had warned him that the American government frowned on polygamy.  Khan had nine wives and had no knowledge of the Mormons’ embrace of polygamy.  W.W. Phelps eventually drafted correspondence urging him to come, but Phelps neither sent it nor openly acknowledged the Saints’ embrace of the system.

We know nothing of Khan’s fate.  But he presents a face of Mormonism far-removed from the imagery of stolid white men and women conquering a frontier.  Khan represented a new wave of Mormonism—a man with layered religious and cultural identities.  Yet he could  “often feel to say Khodah Buzoorgust [‘God is Great].”

Russell Stevenson is a freelance writer born and raised in rural western Wyoming. He received his undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University and his master’s degree in history from the University of Kentucky. He has taught history and religion at Brigham Young University and Salt Lake Community College.  He has recently published a biography on Elijah Ables available on Kindle.

Notes:

1 “Immigration,” Deseret News, October 15, 1856, 6; see also 1870 Utah census: United States Census, 1870,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MNCR-BYB : accessed 3 July 2012
2 Mizra Khan, Letter to Orson Pratt, December 22, 1850, Brigham Young Office Files, Reel 86. Any Khan quotation comes from this source.
3 Chandra Mallampalli, Race, Religion, and Law in Colonial India: Trials of an Interracial Family (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 217
4 The exact origins of Khan’s “Hall of Science” are unclear. In Great Britain and the United States, Originally developed for the promulgation for Robert Owens’ socialist thought, it assumed much broader objectives over the course of the century. Owens’ own hall would later host Christian lectures. Another observer noted that the “hall of science” in China was a religious hall built by the Catholics to Christianize China. Charles Darwin’s contemporary and rival, Alfred Russel Wallace, described it as a “kind of club or mechanics’ institute for advanced thinkers among workmen.” Within a few years of settling in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young ordered a similar structure built nearby the newly-dedicated temple site. See “Items,” Alexandria Gazette, May 9, 1832, 2. See also “Owenism,” North American [Pennsylvania], June 19, 1840; Alfred Russell Wallace, “The Evolution of a Socialist,” in Infinite Tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology (New York: Verso, 2002), 309; and “For the News,” Deseret News, November 2, 1850, 5; and “Seventies’ Hall,” Deseret News, January 25, 1851, 5.
5 For examples of these pamphlets, see Orson Pratt, A Series of Pamphlets on the Doctrines of the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor, 1891). John Hyde observed that when he read Pratt’s pamphlets, he “felt that he taught…deep, yet glorious truths.” See “Minutes of the Special General Council,” Millennial Star, vol. 14, no. 12(May 15, 1852): 181

 

 

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6 Responses to The Trader and the Adventurer by guest poster Russell Stevenson

  1. Russell Stevenson 5 July 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    Answer for the Admin:

    Throughout the 20th-century, American Mormons have had a propensity to adopt patriotism–and, as a result, colonialism–as a de facto aspect of their religion.

    But Khan’s narrative suggests that maybe American Mormons should think twice about accepting colonial assumptions without second-guessing them. For Mormons, Khan is/was a brother who experienced the same kind of conversion experience that American Mormons have. And as such, he deserves our equal regard.

    Mormons need to get over the colonial narratives that we’ve adopted as the “false traditions of our fathers.” There’s no better way to do that than by giving the colonized a voice and an equal place at the table in the Church.

  2. Russell Stevenson 5 July 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    Great questions!

    1) Ironically, James Morgan is more of an enigmatic figure than Khan in this case (ironic, since it’s typically the voice of the colonized that gets stifled). Given that Kashmir was becoming a booming region for the British East India Company in 1850 (the famed “Kashmir scarf” would be on display at the British World Exposition in 1851), we can presume that Morgan was doing pretty well at the time he notified Church leaders of Khan’s baptism.

    2) We do have the text of Phelps’ letter. Both Khan’s and Phelps’ letters touch on a problem that had been troubling the British Empire since the early 19th-century: polygamy. Should it be recognized? It was common enough that the British could not ignore it. And if recognized, should all religions be free to practice it? Khan knew that America was “the promised land,” but he had heard that polygamists were not safe in America. Could the Church assure him that his family would be safe? Phelps’ response reveals volumes about Mormon views of ethnicity, the Constitution, “paganism,” colonialism, and, of course, polygamy.

    But that is another post entirely. 🙂

    • admin 5 July 2013 at 7:38 pm #

      You are most welcome. I would love to explore the discussion about polygamy East and West with another post.

  3. admin 5 July 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    Russell Stevenson,
    I have some thoughts but I’m wondering why you feel that Mizra Khan is an important figure to know about in Mormon/Asian history? You presented on him during the Mormon History Association conference. What triggered your interest in him and why do you think others should know about him?

  4. Helen Horton 5 July 2013 at 6:50 pm #

    Did he share his religion with others besides Khan and his kinsmen? Did Morgan make his fortune with BEIC?

  5. admin 5 July 2013 at 6:39 pm #

    Do you have the text of the WW Phelps letter?

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