By Dr Abu Zayd
A former Catholic priest who converted to Islam in the late 1800s, adopted the name ʿAbdul-Aḥad Dāwūd and wrote a number of beneficial works. ʿAbdul-Aḥad Dāwūd is the former Rev. David Benjamin Keldani, B.D., a Roman Catholic priest of the Uniate-Chaldean sect. He was born in 1867 at Urmia in Persia and educated from his early infancy in that town. From 1886-89 he was on the teaching staff of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Mission to the Assyrian (Nestorian) Christians at Urmia.
In 1892 he was sent by Cardinal Vaughan to Rome, where he underwent a course of philosophical and theological studies at the Propaganda Fide College, and in 1895 was ordained Priest.
In 1892 Professor Dāwūd contributed a series of articles to The Tablet on “Assyria, Rome and Canterbury,” and also to the Irish Record on the “Authenticity of the Pentateuch.” He has several translations of the Ave Maria in different languages, published in the illustrated Catholic Missions. While in Constantinople on his way to Persia in 1895, he contributed a long series of articles in English and French to the daily paper, published there under the name of The Levant Herald, on “Eastern Churches.” In 1895 he joined the French Lazarist Mission at Urmia and published for the first time in the history of that Mission a periodical in the vernacular Syriac called Qala-La-Shara, i.e. “The Voice of Truth.” In 1897 he was delegated by two Uniate-Chaldean Arch-bishops of Urmia and of Salmas to represent the Eastern Catholics at the Eucharistic Congress held at Paray-le-Monial in France under the presidency of Cardinal Perraud. The paper read at the Congress by “Father Benjamin” was published in the Annals of the Eucharistic Congress, called “Le Pellerin” of that year. In this paper, the Chaldean Arch-Priest (that being his official title) deplored the Catholic system of education among the Nestorians.
In 1888 Father Benjamin was back again in Persia, opening a school in his native village Digala. The next year he was sent by the Ecclesiastical authorities to take charge of the diocese of Salmas, where a sharp and scandalous conflict between the Uniate Archbishop, Khudabash, and the Lazarist Fathers for a long time had been menacing a schism. On the day of New Year 1900, Father Benjamin preached his last and memorable sermon to a large congregation, including many non-Catholic Armenians and others in the Cathedral of St. George’s Khorovabad, Salmas. The preacher’s subject was “New Century and New Men.” He recalled the fact that the Nestorian Missionaries, before the appearance of Islam, had preached the Gospel in all Asia; that they had numerous establishments in India (especially at the Malabar Coast), in Tartary, China and Mongolia; and that they translated the Gospel to the Turkish Uighurs and in other languages; that the Catholic, American and Anglican Missions, in spite of the little good they had done to the Assyro- Chaldean nation in the way of preliminary education, had split the nation – already a handful in Persia, Kurdistan and Mesopotamia into numerous hostile sects; and that their efforts were destined to bring about the final collapse. Consequently he advised the natives to make some sacrifices in order to stand upon their own legs like men, and not to depend upon the foreign missions, etc.
The preacher was perfectly right in principle; but his remarks were unfavorable to the interests of the Lord’s Missionaries. This sermon hastily brought the Apostolique Delegate, Mgr. Lesne, from Urmia to Salmas. He remained to the last a friend of Father Benjamin. They both returned to Urmia. A new Russian Mission had already been estab- lished in Urmia since 1899. The Nestorians were enthusiastically embracing the religion of the ‘holy” Tsar of All Russias!
Five big and ostentatious missions, Americans, Anglicans, French, Germans and Russians with their colleges, press backed up by rich religious societies, Consuls and Ambassadors, were endeavoring to convert about one hundred thousand Assyro-Chaldeans from Nestorian heresy unto one or another of the five heresies. But the Russian Mission soon outstripped the others, and it was this mission which in 1915 pushed or forced the Assyrians of Persia, as well as the mountaineer tribes of Kurdistan, who had then immigrated into the plains of Salmas and Urmia, to take up arms against their respective Governments. The result was that half of his people perished in the war and the rest expelled from their native lands.
The great question which for a long time had been working its solution in the mind of this priest was now approaching its climax. Was Christianity, with all its multitudinous shapes and colors, and with its unauthentic, spurious and corrupted Scriptures, the true Religion of God? In the summer of 1900 he retired to his small villa in the middle of vineyards near the celebrated fountain of Chali- Boulaghi in Digala, and there for a month spent his time in prayer and meditation, reading over and over the Scriptures in their original texts. The crisis ended in a formal resignation sent in to the Uniate Archbishop of Urmia, in which he frankly explained to (Mgr.) Touma Audu the reasons for abandoning his sacerdotal functions. All attempts made by the ecclesiastical authorities to withdraw his decision were of no avail. There was no personal quarrel or dispute between Father Benjamin and his superiors; it was all a question of conscience.
For several months Mr. Dāwūd, as he was now called, was employed in Tabriz as Inspector in the Persian Service of Posts and Customs under the Belgian experts. Then he was taken into the service of the Crown Prince Muhammad Ali Mirza as teacher and translator. It was in 1903 that he again visited England and there joined the Unitarian Community. And in 1904 he was sent by the British and Foreign Unitarian Association to carry on an educational and enlightening work among his country people. On his way to Persia he visited Constantinople; and after several interviews with the SheikhuI-Islam Jemalud-Din Effendi and other scholars, he embraced Islam and adopted the name ʿAbdul-Aḥad Dāwūd.
Not much is known about this latter part of his life apart from his scholarly output. He brought his extensive knowledge of previous scriptures, their original languages and his new-found faith to produce scholarly commentaries and analyses that are enjoyed to this day.
He wrote Muhammad in the Bible—originally published in 1928 as a series of articles in the journal The Islamic Review. He also wrote for the Turkish paper the Aqsham in 1922 or 1923 “Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is the Son-of-Man.” He is the one who pointed out the biblical prophecies relating to the coming of the Prophet Muḥammad (pbuh). For instance, the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus is the establishment of God’s rule on earth through Islam, and the Paraclete foretold by Jesus—he argues—is Periqlytos, meaning Aḥmad “the praised one.”
His place and date of death are uncertain, but it is likely he died around 1940.
First published in muslimstoday