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A Brief History of the Zwemer Center (a.k.a. Zwemer Institute)
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.
Move to Columbia International University (CIU)
Initially, Don McCurry was appointed to carry the Muslim Research Institute to the next level, followed by many years of service by Robert Douglas, and then Jim Dretke, who moved it to Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. With the retirement of Jim Dretke and the resulting search for a new chief executive, the Zwemer Institute board wondered whether the present location, configuration, staffing, and resources of the Institute were adequate and ideally suited to the furtherance of the Institute’s ends. They suggested that ZI’s purposes may alternatively be served by some kind of affiliation with an institution such as Columbia International University because of its historic commitment to Christian missions.
Exploratory inquiries and discussions followed in January 2003 concerning the potential merits and implications of transferring the Institute to CIU. Zwemer chairman Jack Chapin and board members were sufficiently satisfied with the positive potential, and they encouraged CIU administration to develop a written proposal, defining a formal relationship between the institute and the university to be presented to the Zwemer board. Upon prayerful reflection and discussion, the CIU administration concluded that CIU’s mission, core values, Great Commission vision, reputation, educational programs, institutional capabilities, and existing commitments and achievements in Muslim Studies represented an ideal platform for preserving and extending the legacy of Samuel Zwemer.
It was decided that the resources and reputation of the institute, that bears his name, would enhance, and expand CIU’s effectiveness in reaching Muslims for Christ, which had already established a Muslim Studies program in 1996. The merger has proved beneficial to both CIU and Zwemer. It was renamed the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies, and Warren Larson, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at CIU, was appointed as director. On October 8, 2004, there was a special Zwemer chapel, followed by a luncheon. Present was the CIU board, several outside guests, and a number of CIU faculty and students. The current director is Trevor Castor, and under his capable leadership, the Center continues to be used by God in preparing workers to reach Muslims for Christ.
Goals, Mission, and Vision
- Establish the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies, “operating under the exclusive jurisdiction and authority of the CIU board of trustees … Designate, promote, and resource a distinct entity within the university … ”
- “Assume full authority and sacred responsibility to preserve the honor and perpetuate the ends for which the Samuel Zwemer Institute was constituted.”
- “Offer all formal, non-formal and informal curricula, educational research, and resources related to the study of Islam.” The only change from Zwemer’s original purpose was to provide solid academic preparation in carrying out the mission of God among Muslims. Note that non-credit courses are available at minimal cost for those who do not need a degree (see the Zwemer website: zwemercenter.com)
- “Maintain and expand” non-formal training to churches, mission agencies.
In conjunction with the CIU mission of evangelizing and discipling the nations in this generation, the mission of the Zwemer Center is to prepare Christians for faithful ministry among Muslims in the United States and around the world. The vision has always been to make Zwemer the premier place in North America to study Islam from an evangelical Christian perspective.
- Built and maintained a program, known internationally for an in-depth study of Islam and evangelizing Muslims
- Completed the MA in Muslim-Christian Relations degree and a PhD in Intercultural Studies with many focusing their thesis on Muslim-Christian Relations
- Raised awareness of Muslim need for the gospel through seminars in churches and mission conferences all over the world
- Published widely in numerous venues in the wake of 9-11; we have received many opportunities in major publications (both Christian and secular) and have given dozens of interviews
- Assembled resources: 9,000 volumes on Islam, including archives and about 30 relevant periodicals on Islam (In the early years, we added about 22 books per week. Zwemer’s library was moved from Concordia to Columbia and archives cataloged; we have also received books from CIU alumnus, Abe Wiebe, and from Samuel Pickens, grandson of Samuel Zwemer).
- Produced (and maintained) an attractive website with a growing number of articles, podcasts, field guides, courses, and opportunities for research (Hundreds of thousands of people visit the website every year, including pastors, who want their churches to reach Muslims in their midst)
- Made nearly all of Samuel Zwemer’s 50 books accessible on the Zwemer website
- Made the MA in Muslim Christian Relations available online (It is not uncommon to have students taking online classes on multiple continents)
- Changed the title of the degree from “Muslim Studies” to “Muslim-Christian Relations,” as we’re not just about studying Islam, or analyzing Muslims; rather, we want to listen to them, relate to them, and befriend them (The goal is still to reach Muslims for Christ).
- Taught hundreds of students and many serve long-term in predominantly Muslim settings
Personal Reflection on Teaching Islam from an Evangelical Christian Perspective
My own teaching has largely been shaped by many years as a missionary in Pakistan. I am also grateful for the influence of Dudley Woodberry at Fuller Seminary, as well as Samuel Zwemer (see below). In my view, evangelicals need a clear understanding of Muslim teaching, history, and culture. Training should include how Christians can relate to them, and even partner with them in community development. This means designing courses on the Qur’an, Muhammad, approaches to Muslims, folk practices, and some apologetics. Educators need to have experience with Muslims, a passion to reach them for Christ, and to be grounded in the Bible. At all times, they need to be fair and accurate in whatever they say about Islam and Muslims. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case.
Over a decade ago, Christianity Today published my critique of certain evangelical approaches to Muslims: “Unveiling the Truth About Islam: Too many Christian books miss the mark.” In some cases, I believe it still holds true today.
This is part of what I said:
“… Since September 11, 2001, I have seen a sharp increase in books about Islam by American evangelicals. Even if the titles do not include the word “unveil,” most attempt to expose Islam for its theological, historical, and moral shortcomings. According to Richard Cimino of the New School for Social Research, evangelical attitudes toward Islam have hardened since the attacks, positing that Islam is an essentially violent religion. Responses to the cartoons depicting Muhammad in parts of the Muslim world have only strengthened such perceptions. Unfortunately, too many of these evangelical polemics are historically inaccurate, theologically misinformed, and missiologically misguided. Apparently, a lot of us simply dislike Muslims (usually without knowing any). When we critique Islam, we need to be fair and accurate. Those of us who make Muslim-Christian comparisons must do so from a position of informed engagement, as those who have worked with Muslims. When we review historical tensions between the two faiths, we must apply rigorous historical analysis. When we write about Islam, we must remember that love is the greatest apologetic…”
I went on to say that the tendency by some evangelicals is to demonize Muhammad, stereotype Muslims and present a simplistic view of the Qur’an. One book claimed the anti-Christ would be a Muslim and that Islam would take over the United States in thirteen years! Fortunately, two other books reviewed received a high grade, and currently, some evangelicals are coming out with better material.
Finally, in today’s extremely polarized world, I think it is helpful for evangelical teachers of Islam to remember what Samuel Zwemer said when he launched The Moslem World in 1911: “If the Churches of Christendom are to reach the Moslem world with the Gospel, they must know of it and know it.” He called for “a deeper study of the problem [Islam], as well as a more thorough preparation of its missionaries and a bolder faith in God, in order to solve it.” Then he added this: “The Christian missionary should first of all thoroughly know the religion of the people among whom he labors; ignorance of the Koran, the traditions, the life of Mohammed, the Moslem conception of Christ, social beliefs and prejudices of Mohammedans, which are the result of their religion, ignorance of these is the chief difficulty in work for Moslems” (The Moslem Christ, p. 183).
Dr. Warren Larson is the former director and now serves as a Senior Research Fellow and Professor for the Zwemer Center for Muslim-Christian Relations at Columbia International University. He served among Muslims for 23 years in Pakistan.