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Islam and the Bigotry of Conviction

The Muslim World (TMW) is one of the leading academic journals covering Islam worldwide. Strange it would call its own history “bigoted”.

It was founded in 1911 by Samuel Zwemer, a founding father of Protestant missions in engagement with the oft-rival monotheistic faith. Now published by Hartford Seminary, like much of the Protestant mainline its original evangelistic fervor has faded. Still I was startled to read the concluding sentence of an informative historical biography¹ TMW published in commemoration of their 100th edition:

“A century later, TMW has successfully broken ranks with religious provincialism and bigotry, and lives up to the present motto of the Seminary “exploring differences and deepening faith.””

Is this a fair account of all but TMW’s most recent scholarship?

The article notes the academic rigor exhibited from its beginnings to the present day, and despite this conclusion is charitable towards its earliest pioneers and the belief system that propelled them. But it chronicles the development of TMW from a Protestant missionary endeavor to a nonsectarian survey of Muslim-Christian relations. Begun by “the apostle to the Muslim world,” it is now edited by a Muslim.

“Editors had to choose between faithfulness to its evangelizing mission to the Muslim world, and thus remain a primary resource for missionary activities, or tilt toward an academic oriented journal concerned with dialogue with Islam. …To be sure, the journal might have faltered and disappointed many in its hundred years of existence; however, its faithfulness as a forum for academic articles on Islam (both current and past) and Christian-Muslim relations has survived.”

Zwemer is called a “pioneering scholar of Arabic” and noted as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is said to have had “a keen knowledge and understanding of Islam and Muslims,” who included contributions from the “best minds of its times.”

But at the same time it appears to reduce his era of TMW to a historical record of peculiar mentality:

“For posterity, the journal represents an invaluable source of missionary activities and scholarly papers on Protestant theologians’ and missionaries’ perception of and thought about the Arab and Muslim world. In that sense, TMW  is a priceless wealth of information thanks to Zwemer.”

A shift took place under the subsequent editor, one the author approves of. Edwin Calverley (1948-1953) did not necessarily break with the missionary heritage, but wished to reorient presentation:

“Associate editor under Zwemer, his first editorial promised “nothing inaccurate, unfair or ill-mannered about Islam.” Calverley’s meticulous academic mind and concern for truth and his determination impressed his contemporaries. He sought to enable readers (missionaries and theologians) to discover what Muslims thought of themselves.”

But the editor the article seems to respect most is Kenneth Cragg (1953-1960), the Anglican Arabist:

He led the journal toward a professional and academic authorship. There is no doubt that Cragg’s command of the issues at hand and his own expertise allowed him to make bold changes in the direction of the journal. He took seriously the conscience of Islam and Muslims’ sincere and deeply held set of convictions about the one and only God. Unlike Macdonald, he did not see Islam as a Christian heresy or as a symbol of man’s perversity as Zwemer, or another way of salvation as liberal theologians. He saw Islam as a theological problem and not as a religious problem or a socio-cultural one. Cragg asked both Christians and Muslims to show hospitality of mind and a proper attention to the religious other. He invited them to “enlarge [their] hospitality of heart and thought.” His bold and creative writing allows for Islam to speak for itself.

William Bijlefeld (1968-1992), however, followed with a definitive focus on Muslim-Christian relations as the journal’s reason for existence. The author notes his contributions dispassionately but provides a telling quote:

“We may be liberated of much confusion and frustration if we interpret the concept of mission not in the sense of an attempt to ‘impose truth’ on others, but as an honest effort to reflect and realize in our time the Compassion of God who IS the truth.”

This is still a Christian sentiment, but is it a proper understanding of the heritage of Zwemer and others? Did they see their efforts as imposing truth, as described? Would it not rather be one of deciphering and demonstrating, however polemic in orientation?

Here the stage is set for the author’s jolting conclusion, following two cursory paragraphs about most recent developments. The journal now accords with this long range plan:

“Strong academic programs, creative scholarship in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations; local, national and international initiatives in Christian-Muslim relations; and leadership to religious communities and congregations in interfaith and ecumenical relations.”

For this let TMW be saluted. And in the drift away from Zwemer’s heritage no critique is needed. This is the development of much Protestant theology over the past 100 years.

It is worthwhile to review this history through the lens of a publication. And as mentioned, the author is by no means disrespectful. All of which makes his concluding sentence so surprising.

“Religious provincialism.” Very well, that can be seen as a fair enough term for Christian exclusivity. Such a belief may indeed influence one to interpret only through the light of one’s own faith.

But is this “bigotry”? Such a term suggests instead its application on the speaker. Christian exclusivity is a belief, as is the accompanying missionary mandate. That one imagines God will ultimately condemn the religious other has no necessary bearing on one’s treatment of that other in this world.

Zwemer and his colleagues confidently critiqued Islam and found it lacking. Perhaps they also devalued the Muslim mind for holding to it so tenaciously. But as best I know, they studied conscientiously and argued respectfully.

The author does not bring out anything otherwise. And if Zwemer bears even a tinge of bigoted guilt for his attitudes, the author commends later editors of similar Christian belief for their academic care and faithfulness in representing Islam.

Where then is the bigotry? Is it in this quote from Zwemer?

“We hope to interpret Islam as a world-wide religion in all its varied aspects and its deep needs, ethical and spiritual, to Christians; to point out and press home the true solution of the Moslems; namely, the evangelization of Moslems; to be of practical help to all who toil for this end.”

These words are taken from TMW’s first editorial. But Zwemer repeated them again in his final editorial in 1947. His call for mission held steady from first to last, and in yielding editorship it was stipulated the journal continue upon the same philosophy.

Did it continue with Cragg? The author quotes him from shortly before he became editor, writing in TMW:

“Our readiness to make Christ known and loved is the direct measure and consequence of what, so known and loved, He means to us. An apology to Christian mission is no more, no less, than an apology for the Christian faith.”

And Cragg was even clearer in his own book, The Call of the Minaret:

“If Christ is what Christ is, He must be uttered. If Islam is what Islam is, that “must” be irresistibly. Wherefore there is misconception, witness must penetrate: wherever there is the obscuring of the beauty of the Cross it must be unveiled: wherever men have missed God in Christ He must be brought to them again.”

The language of Cragg reflects a different age than of Zwemer; does it reflect a different conviction? Either way, if either is bigotry then most Muslims must also be damned. So must everyone who holds to a conviction and wishes others to discover its value. In his labeling of the now-rejected heritage of TMW surely the author is calling the reader to the truth-as-he-understands-it. And should he not be praised for so doing?

Whatever your conviction, study well the convictions of others. Report them accurately. If you are motivated to do so to disprove and dispel, so be it. The effort is worthy, and closer will all parties come to the truth.

But let your motivation move deeper, and do so in respect, honor, and love for the one who holds opposite conviction. You are equals. You are human.

At core, I suspect both Zwemer and the author of this article to be of this character. That either one may betray the principle is understandable; conviction of truth can make blind to malpractice.

But it need not, and should not. Right conviction of truth not only commands the mind but also orders the heart. Love is the protective virtue. Christian faith is a primary source for both, though too many fail to draw them in balance. Perhaps other faiths share similar struggle.

The Muslim World was, and is, a chronicle of this struggle. Let all embrace it, read, and learn. Listen well, and speak freely.

1 Dallh, Minlib. 2010. “The Muslim world: a historical biography.” The Muslim World 100, no. 4: 424-430.

Jayson Casper is a journalist in Cairo contributing to Christianity Today, the Middle East Institute, Lapido Media, and other publications. You can view more of his writings at A Sense of Belonging.

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