The Zwemer Center can be traced back to “the Muslim Research Institute” of the US Center for World Mission, Pasadena, CA in September 1977. It was founded to undertake the concentrated research needed to finally open the Muslim world to the Gospel.
The following year, a “Muslim Evangelization” conference in 1978 was held at Colorado Springs, that co-opted the Board of the Muslim Research Institute. It added several members to it and commissioned them to develop an institute to serve the missionary community. The community they had in mind was yet a fledgling community of missionaries to Muslims. The Institute was to undertake much-needed research to discover who our Muslim neighbors (local and global) are, what they believe and practice, and then explore and experiment with new initiatives to present them with the Gospel.
Reaching back into history to find a suitable name, the Board chose the name of Samuel Zwemer. He was the greatest missionary America had ever sent to the Muslim world and earned the title “Apostle to Islam.” Zwemer lived and traveled in North Africa and the Middle East, mobilized students for missions, founded and edited the academic journal “Moslem World,” taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, and wrote about 50 books about Muslims and the religion of Islam. He also wrote tracts in Arabic for evangelistic purposes.
The missionary among Moslems (to whom the Cross of Christ is a stumbling-block and the atonement foolishness) is driven daily to deeper meditation on this mystery of redemption and to a stronger conviction that here is the very heart of our message and our mission. The secret of the missionary passion.
Although men and women are spiritually equal before God they have different functions and responsibilities. There are four ways in which the primacy of men over women is affirmed in the Qur’an: (1) man is physically stronger (Q 2:228); (2) men may discipline their wives (Q 4:34); (3) in a legal situation. In the 1980s there was much debate in Pakistan as to whether in a court of law the testimony of one man is equaled by the testimony of two women or of one woman. In the end it was decided that in each case the judge would decide – a solution which pleased neither the fundamentalists nor the liberals. The question of evidence in court stems from one particular Quranic verse ( 2:282). However, Muslims put a very high store on the Hadith or Traditions. Some hadith raise interesting questions about the position of women. Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives, was not happy about being categorized with dogs. Bukhari, in his collection of Hadith (Vol.2, 135) records that Muhammad said that “Prayer is annulled by a dog, a donkey and a woman (if they pass in front of the praying people). I said you have made us (i.e. women) dogs.” (4) Finally, in the matter of inheritance (Q 4:11). Generally a daughter inherits half of what would come to her brother. The rationale is that the son has greater economic responsibilities. “Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God has gifted the one…
When Zwemer was asked to be the keynote speaker at the very first Urbana missions conference in 1946 (before it was called “Urbana”), he chose the theme “The Cross in Christ’s Commission.” This was seven years into his “retirement,” and six years before his death.
World War II had just ended the year before. The world was reeling under the uncertainties of atomic weapons and how the new antagonistic superpowers would go forward. Zwemer began his message,
All of Christendom and the best thinkers of the non-Christian world face the New Year with deep forebodings and a consciousness of crisis. It may be doubted whether there has ever been a time when the Christian church was beset by so many and such powerful foes. . . . Everywhere we read of persecution, closing of doors, bitter opposition, the patience of unanswered prayer, or the flaming sword of martyrdoms. The Christian church is under fire in a hostile world — a world of disillusionment and hopelessness.
This was seventy years ago. It reminds us that there never has been an ideal time for a great missionary movement. The time is always now. Into this setting, Zwemer spoke the only message that he believed could carry the day in such a world: the message of the cross…