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Samuel M. Zwemer’s Approach to Muslim Ministry

Biographer J. Christy Wilson has appropriately named Samuel Marinus Zwemer the “Apostle to Islam.”[1]  Zwemer was born to Huguenot-Dutch parents in Vriesland, Michigan on April 12, 1867.[2] As a child, he learned to read and speak three languages, English, Dutch and German.[3] During his senior year at Hope College, Zwemer received the call to missions through the preaching of Robert Wilder of the Student Volunteer Movement.[4] After graduating from seminary, Zwemer was ordained in the Reformed Church on May 29th, 1890. Shortly after, in June 1890, Zwemer left for the mission field in Arabia.[5] It was from 1890 to 1905 that Zwemer, and later his wife and family, labored in the Arab world.[6]

Zwemer’s mission included learning the Arabic language and distributing or selling Bibles and literature to Muslims and Jews.[7] Due to the fact that his first and last name were difficult to pronounce in the Arabic speaking world, Zwemer adopted the Arabic name Dhaif Allah, “The Guest of God.”[8] During Zwemer’s furlough from 1905-1912, his ministry was mobilizing missionaries to the Muslim world, and raising funds for the mission.[9]

In 1912, Zwemer moved back to North Africa and based his mission out of Cairo, Egypt. Zwemer traveled the world raising awareness for the need of missions to Muslims. Other aspects of Zwemer’s ministry involved training missionaries to reach Muslims, encouraging BMBs, and distributing Bibles and Christian literature to Muslims.[10] Zwemer accepted a teaching position as the Chair of History of Religion and Christian Missions at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1929.[11] He continued in this position until 1937. Until his death on April 2, 1952 he continued to speak about missions and took up two more missions related teaching positions, one at Biblical Seminary in New York City, and the other at the Training Institute for the Christian and Missionary Alliance.[12]

Zwemer’s influence spread beyond those he met and trained as he authored no less than fifty books, and numerous academic articles.[13] In 1911, Zwemer founded the academic journal, The Moslem World and was its editor until 1948.

Zwemer’s Background

The Dutch Reformed church, and especially the doctrines of Calvinism, encouraged Zwemer’s zeal for missions and evangelism in the Muslim world. In his article “Calvinism and the Missionary Enterprise,” Zwemer notes that the impact of Reformed teaching on missionary endeavors to the Muslim world was based on three distinctively Reformed doctrines: the ultimate sovereignty of God, God’s glory as the goal, and God’s will as the motive.[14] Zwemer also notes that it was those from a Reformed background who were the first to go into the Muslim world from the west. He highlights the Czech Reformer, Vaclav Budovec, as the first reformed missionary sent to the Muslim world, who served in Istanbul from 1577-1581.[15] He also notes that in the Muslim world it was those of the Reformed faith who led and sustained the missions movement:

God in his sovereign providence and by his Holy Spirit has led the Reformed faith geographically to the very heart of the Moslem world. For more than one hundred years the Churches of the Reformed tradition were the only ones that went to its cradle and its strongholds in the Near East. They, more than any other branch of the Church, were pioneers in the world of Islam.[16]

Zwemer’s zeal for missions and approach to Islam were reflected and birthed from his Reformed theological presuppositions.

Samuel M. Zwemer’s Christocentric Starting Point: The Gospel

Dr. Peter Ipema’s dissertation comments that Zwemer’s theological commitments did influence his apologetic approach to Islam in that it was Zwemer’s a priori criteria that informed his methodology calling it the “missionary viewpoint.”[17] Zwemer’s “missionary viewpoint,” remained the same both in his early and later years of ministry.  In his early book The Moslem Doctrine of God (1905), Zwemer states, “In the comparative study of religious ideas there must be a standard of judgment, and a Christian can only judge other religions by the standard of the Gospel.”[18] Zwemer wrote The Moslem Christ in 1915, and without compromise makes his starting point and interpretative lens clear:

We should ask Moslems to study the Gospel in any way they like, but with only one object in view, ‘namely, that they may come face to face with Jesus Himself; that they may learn to know Him, and see how He claimed to hold a supreme position in the matter of the attitude of all men toward God, a position which none other has ever claimed.’ In other words, we should press home the question Jesus Himself put to His disciples and to the world, ‘What think ye of the Christ?’[19]

Samuel Zwemer did not waver from his original standard for his approach to Muslims and echoed his earlier exhortation in his article published in 1946, “The Allah of Islam and the God of Jesus Christ”:

But neither of them doubted that a loving approach to Moslems was Christian duty. And today, more than ever, that approach must be intellectually aware of the real issue. For in the comparative study of religious ideas there must be a standard of judgment, and a Christian can only judge other faiths by the Gospel.[20]

It is certainly evident that Zwemer never veered from his orthodox beliefs for the sake of neutrality or accommodation. 

Zwemer’s Approach

God’s sovereignty and the preeminence of the person and work of Christ clearly guides Zwemer, giving him hope and confidence:

The Church of Christ should make use of all its opportunities to deliver the gospel message to Moslems in full expectation that the power of the Holy Spirit, whose special work it is to reveal the Christ, will in God’s own time lead to the triumph of Christianity in Moslem lands and Moslem hearts.[21]

Zwemer understood that it was not his job to convert the Muslim, but it was by the illumination of the Holy Spirit alone. He realized that only in God’s sovereign timing and will would any missionary effort with Muslims bear fruit. Samuel Zwemer’s written prayer for the Muslim world is the best example of the theology that grounded his approach:

We pray for Thy two hundred million prodigal children in Moslem lands who are still afar off, that they may be brought nigh by the blood of Christ. Look upon them in pity because they are ignorant of Thy truth. Take away their pride of intellect and blindness of heart, and reveal to them the surpassing beauty and power of Thy Son Jesus Christ. Convince them of their sin in rejecting the atonement of the only Saviour.[22]

In the “Methods and Results” section in chapter ten of Zwemer’s book, Islam: A Challenge to Faith, he exhorts missionaries to be Christocentric in their proclamation of Christ:

Preaching must have for its subject the essentials of Christianity. Preach Christ crucified. Show the reasonableness of the mysteries of revelation, of the incarnation, and of the Holy Trinity; but never try to explain them by mere philosophy.[23]

Knowledge of Islam

It is quite apparent from Zwemer’s writings, that for a missionary to be able to effectively engage with a Muslim, they must have firsthand knowledge of Islam.  Zwemer devoted almost every book and article he wrote to the primary sources of Islam, Muslim culture, and Muslim philosophy and theology, and he evaluated each aspect of the Muslim worldview through the lens of scripture. One of the features of his approach is the obligation of the missionary to Muslims to study Islam. In fact, Zwemer believed the missionaries’ ignorance of Islam to be the primary obstacle for the missionary engaging with Muslims:

Without denying the fact that Islam is in its spirit anti-Christian, that it contains much that is positively harmful in ethics, and that it is wholly deficient in those doctrines which are the very heart of Christianity, we nevertheless admit that the acceptance of the Old Testament prophets, the peculiar honours paid to our Lord, and the testimony to the sacred scriptures found in the Koran, are important preparatory elements in spite of many qualifications and denials. We must become Moslems to the Moslem if we would gain them for Christ. We must do this in the Pauline sense, without compromise, but with self-sacrificing sympathy and unselfish love. The Christian missionary should first of all thoroughly know the religion of the people among whom he labours; 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 (italics added).[24]

Deconstructive and Constructive Approaches

In the majority of his writings, Zwemer never ceased to critique Islam, the Qur’an, Muslim customs, and Muhammad.[25] At the same time, he encouraged missionaries to “cultivate sympathy to the highest degree and an appreciation of all the great fundamental truths which we hold in common with Moslem.” Zwemer was convinced that showing positive aspects of Islam was not a threat to Christian witness but rather opened the door for the missionary to share the superiority of Christianity over Islam.

Islam was a major aspect of his writing ministry, but at the same time Zwemer took great care to replace or reconstruct the Islamic falsehoods with the person of Christ and the Bible. Zwemer summarizes this major feature of his approach in The Moslem Christ:

He (the Muslim) needs to be taught Christianity and brought into the light of Bible truth. He needs to recognise the dangerous errors of his religion and turn to Christianity as the true light from heaven.[26]

According to Zwemer in Arabia: The Cradle of Islam, written critiques of Islam may be helpful in preparing the hearts of Muslims for the gospel:

As a plough breaks up the soil before the seed is sown so this kind of literature and argument will often break up the fallow ground of Moslem hearts for the seed of God’s Word.[27]

Zwemer believed that there was much fiction concerning Muhammad in the Muslim world, and that the Muslim view of Muhammad was not grounded in the primary sources of Islam.

But the Mohammed of history and the Mohammed of the present-day Moslem biographers are two different persons. Even in the Koran, Mohammed is human and liable to error. Tradition has changed all that. He is now sinless and almost divine.[28]

Because Zwemer saw Muhammad as a primary source for all Muslims, he suggested that missionaries challenge Muslims to discover the Muhammad of history for themselves. An example of such an exhortation is found in The Moslem Christ. Zwemer not only recommends that Muslims read their own sources concerning what is taught about Christ, but they must be challenged to study the description of Muhammad from these same sources:

We must compel Moslems to go back to Mohammed with us; to dig beneath the rubbish of tradition and in the original foundations of Islam to see what Mohammed taught in regard to Jesus Christ, and what he himself was, on the testimony of his own book.[29]

Zwemer believed that most Muslims, in their hearts, were dissatisfied with Muhammad and that his representation in the Qur’an contradictory and confusing to many. He explains how the missionary can encourage a comparison of the life of Muhammad with that of Christ:

His (Muhammad’s) relations to women especially present a moral difficulty to many Mohammedans who are beginning to think in higher terms of ethics. Therefore, while the missionary should be careful not to offend needlessly, he should boldly challenge a comparison between the life of Mohammed and the life of Jesus Christ, even as known to Moslems from their own books. Compromise in this regard will not win the respect of Moslems. They glorify their prophet, why should we not glorify ours? A loving and yet bold presentation of the distinctive truths of our religion and of the surpassing grandeur and beauty of the character of Jesus Christ will never alienate a Moslem heart.[30]

Zwemer cautions that it is “not always wise at first to compare Mohammed and Christ”[31]

In his contribution to the Edinburgh Conference in 1910 says that such a comparison is not necessary. He believed that a clear presentation of Christ from the Gospel would lead to such stark contrast with Muhammad that the Muslims would make the comparison themselves. It was not just getting the Muslim to distance himself from Muhammad, it was also Zwemer’s purpose to point them to Christ alone who fulfills their need for a mediator. He was also convinced that when Muslims encountered the purity of the life of Christ that they would become aware of their own sinfulness and need of forgiveness. Zwemer saw a relationship between deconstructive and constructive approaches in evangelism.

By admitting the truths which we hold in common with Moslems, by bidding them look away from their broken lights and flickering shadows to the “true Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world,” we can best of all help Moslems. Just as the “Moslem conception of God is base, unholy, and to the Christian utterly repugnant,”[this quote comes from the Edinburgh Conference Report in 1910] yet Mohammedan theism is a foundation on which we can build a fuller knowledge of the Godhead, of His holiness justice, and love; so Moslems who know Jesus as a mere prophet will for this very reason welcome a larger knowledge of His character, and be led from the Koran caricature to the Gospel portrait. Our preaching should be constructive, and in this way it will most surely be destructive. We can break down false ideas of God and of Christ in Moslem theology most surely and most speedily by full proclamation of those very truths which Islam lacks.[32]

Common Ground Approach

In his early work, The Moslem Christ, and later in, “The Allah of Islam and the God of Jesus Christ,” Zwemer exhorts the missionary to find common ground with Muslims, yet without compromise. Quoting from the Edinburgh Conference Report of 1910:

Just because Islam is the antithesis to the thesis of Christianity, a synthesis is possible, not by a compromise between Islam and Christianity, but by bringing to clear expression the many common features which still remain, and by showing how these common features are found in a truer form in Christianity than in Islam. Of all the common features on which we can seize as a point of vital contact with Moslems there is none superior to the fact of the Christ. Islam, as we have seen, admits His coming, His supernatural birth, His high office as the Bringer of a special revelation from God, His sinlessness, His compassion, and His power to work miracles[33]

Zwemer urged missionaries to utilize and capitalize whatever biblical truth is found in Islam as a bridge to Christ. There are nuggets of truth that are found in Islam precisely because they were taken from the Bible. However, that does not suggest that Islam is authoritative, but rather that only the source from whence these truths were taken from is authoritative, and the Muslim must be directed to that ultimate source of truth.

Zwemer acknowledges that some biblical truths can be found in the Qur’an or Islamic sources and refers to these as “stepping-stones to higher things”:

In considering the practical outcome of our study of the Moslem Christ, it is first of all evident that the one message for the Moslem world and for each individual Moslem, is Jesus Christ. Their knowledge of Him is so inadequate, so distorted, so insufficient, and so utterly obscured by the glory of their own prophet, that we can only use this knowledge as a stepping-stone to higher things.[34]


Zwemer deconstructed Islamic beliefs that were antithetical to the Gospel and constructed bridges from Islamic beliefs that were biblically based. For Zwemer, the primary problem was not Islam but rather the heart of man. He states this clearly in his contribution to the conclusion of the Islam section of the 1910 Edinburgh report saying,

I believe that in the entire missionary problem the emphasis should not be on the fundamental differences between Christianity and lslamism. The Moslem heart is simply the heart of man Islamised.[35]

However, Zwemer did not shy away from differences. He consistently presents the biblical God and His word as the ultimate authority and challenges the Muslim to submit to Christ as He is presented in the Christian scripture. He also used the Qur’an in his approach,

There is no better way of preaching Christ to Moslems than by beginning with the testimony of the Koran to Jesus.[36]

Finally, Zwemer looks at the Christian testimony as a defense. For if the Christian authority is believed in and applied, there is peace and harmony in the Christian’s life.

Each feature of his approach to Islam is interrelated to the other, and each one is dependent on the other. One must know Islam, so as to be able to critique it and build upon common ground. One must also know Islam to discern common ground. Christ must also be the center of all discussion. Any wrong ideas concerning Him must be corrected. Above all, it is not man who changes the heart and illumines eyes, but it is the work of God alone. God, in his timing, is the agent of change, thus there is no pressure for the missionary to convert the Muslim. It would be prudent for those called to Muslim ministries to consider Zwemer’s approach to ministry as a model for Muslim ministry today.

About the author: Dr. James J. Pursley has been a missionary in the Muslim world since 2002. Dr. Pursley is currently the academic dean of a mission school that prepares missionaries to serve in the Muslim world. Dr. Pursley received his Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies from Columbia International University (2019). His dissertation, from which this article was derived, was concerning Reformed Presuppositional Apologetics (RPA) as a model of discipleship for believers from a Muslim background. Dr. Pursley is also a MA graduate of Muslim studies from the Zwemer Center of Muslim studies (2006).  Dr. Pursley’s research interests have centered on the application of RPA to Muslim objections to Christianity, and RPA’s application to the discipleship of BMBs.

1. J. Christy Wilson, Apostle to Islam: A Biography of Samuel M. Zwemer, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1952).

2. Ibid., 19-21.

3. Ibid., 21.

4. J. Christy Wilson, Jr., “The Legacy of Samuel M. Zwemer,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research (July 1986): 117.

5. Ibid., 117.

6. Ibid., 118.

7. Wilson, Apostle to Islam, 61; 67.

8. Ibid., 55.

9. Ibid., 67-74. “The Legacy of Zwemer,” 118-119.

10. Wilson, Apostle to Islam, 78-80.

11. Wilson, “The Legacy of Zwemer,” 120.

12. Ibid., 120.

13. Wilson, Apostle to Islam, 251-253.

14. Samuel Marinus Zwemer, “Calvinism and the Missionary Enterprise,” Theology Today 7:2 (July 1950): 214.

15. Ibid., 215.

16. Ibid., 214-215.

17. Peter Ipema, “The Islam Interpretations of Duncan B. Macdonald, Samuel M. Zwemer, A. Cragg and Wilfred C. Smith: An Analytical Comparison and Evaluation” (Ph. D. diss., No. 7212817, Hartford Seminary, 1971), 76.

18. Samuel Marinus Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God: An Essay on the Character and Attributes of Allah according to the Koran and Orthodox Tradition, (New York: Young People’s Missionary Movement, 1905), 108.

19. Samuel Marinus Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, (New York: American Tract Society, 1912), 185.

20. Samuel Marinus Zwemer, “The Allah of Islam and the God of Jesus Christ,” Theology Today 3:1 (April 1946): 73.

21. Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, 180.

22. Samuel M. Zwemer, Mohammed or Christ, (New York; Chicago; Toronto; London; Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell,1916), 138.

23. Samuel M. Zwemer, Islam: A Challenge to Faith, (New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1909), 212.

24. Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, 182-183.

25. Hubers, “Samuel Zwemer and the Challenge of Islam,” 118.

26. Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, 179.

27. Samuel M. Zwemer, Arabia: The Cradle of Islam, Second Edition Revised, (New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell, 1900), 386.

28. Ibid., 184.

29. Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, 187.

30. Ibid., 184.

31. Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, 185.

32. Ibid., 182.

33. Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, 180-181; Zwemer, “The Allah of Islam and The God of Jesus,” 76.

34. Ibid., 178.

35. 1910 Edinburgh Conference Report, Volume IV, 311

36. Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, 123.

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