During the last two decades, some severe criticisms have been leveled at the missionary work which has been undertaken since the days of William Carey. We are told by these critics, for example, that missions among Muslims have been a failure. Most of the missionaries of the past, so the critics say, were not good at "cross-cultural communication." This happened because missionaries failed to "contextualize" the Christian message.
In this paper I refer to evangelical missionary theorists who have espoused and propagated this way of looking at the modern missionary enterprise as the neo-evangelical missiologists. I would like to examine their thesis about the alleged failure of missions among Muslims from three inter-related perspectives: the historical, the theological, and the biblical perspectives.
In attempting to work out a new methodology of missions, several neo-evangelical missiologists base their endeavors on their own interpretation of the history of missions in the last 200 years. This is specially the case when they are re-thinking the Christian mission to Muslims. They seem to be oblivious of the fact that the Christian-Muslim encounter began almost fourteen centuries ago! The difficulties we face as we seek to reach Muslims with the gospel are embedded in history long before the rise of the Protestant missionary enterprise. To put all the blame on the messengers of the gospel during the last 200 years does not only ignore history, but it dishonors the testimony of countless Christians who lived under Islam and who were not ashamed of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We must never forget these points of history: according to the Arabian prophet,
In the Islamic tradition, the whole system of Christian doctrine has been judged as inferior and corrupt. Islam alone is the final and complete faith. As some Muslims remind me in their letters, the preaching of the Christian faith is anachronistic. As far as Allah is concerned, Inna deena 'inda Allahi al-Islamu, i.e., the accepted religion with God is Islam!
Rather than to indulge in too much introspection as we survey the history of missions to Muslims during the last two centuries, we must bear in mind that, as far as Muslims are concerned, there is no need to consider seriously the claims of the Christian message. The true gospel, the Injeel, no longer exists, for the Christians have corrupted it. Anyhow, the Quran has superseded and supplanted the gospel. There is nothing more striking about the Muslim's attitude to other religions than his absolute conviction about the superiority and finality of his faith!
The majority of the peoples conquered by the Arab armies in the initial days of the conquest were Christian. Their Christianity was not pure. Some were Chalcedonian, while others entertained erroneous teachings concerning the two natures of Jesus Christ. But in all fairness to these Eastern Christians, we must not write them off as if they presented no Christian testimony to the invaders. Granted that they were weak in the areas of biblical anthropology and soteriology, they all confessed their faith in the triune God, the deity and sonship of Jesus Christ, His atoning death on the cross, and the complete trustworthiness and final authority of the Bible.
The writings of the Christians of the Middle East who lived during the caliphates of the Umayyads (7th and 8th centuries) and the 'Abbasids (8th- 13th centuries) reveal that they did not hesitate to explain why they did not Islamize. It is very surprising to read the contents of their apologetical and polemical works. Many Christians worked in the courts of the caliphs in Damascus and later on in Baghdad. They conversed freely about points of difference between the two religions. Some neo-evangelical missiologists seem to forget that the core of the Christian message was adequately defended by the conquered Christians of the Middle East. The hardening of the attitude towards the Christian faith among Muslims happened before the conversion of the ancestors of many European and American missionaries!
Having referred briefly to the role played by the Christians of the conquered lands, we may consider the record of some of the pioneer Protestant missionaries who worked in the Arab world. I am better equipped to deal with this part of the Muslim world, since my pre-seminary education took place within the Arab world. Furthermore, my own involvement in the Muslim world has continued because of the very nature of my ministry. I have had the privilege of corresponding with thousands of Arabic speaking listeners, both Muslim and Eastern Christian. Thus, my knowledge of Islam is neither purely academic nor archaic.
Does the historical record uphold the charge that the pioneer missionaries who labored among the Muslims were intent upon spreading their culture as well as the gospel? Let's take the history of the American University of Beirut. This institution of higher education is considered the most powerful academic institution in the entire Middle East. But it was not founded as an American cultural mission. Its original name was the Syrian Protestant College, and it was founded by Presbyterian missionaries in 1866. The founders planned to teach all the subjects in Arabic. The Evangelical Church which they organized was an Arabic speaking church. Its liturgy was simple, the Word of God was central, and every part of the worship service was in Arabic. When we think about the translation of the Arabic Bible, the names of some pioneer missionaries like Eli Smith and Cornelius Van Dyck come to mind. Their wonderful work was accomplished with the help and cooperation of such Lebanese scholars as Yazigi and Bustani. One of these early missionaries, the Rev. George Ford, learned the language so well that he composed Arabic hymns which are still used today in the evangelical churches of the Arab world!
Of course, one should not hide the fact that some of the later missionaries did attempt to foist Western concepts on the people of the Middle East through the instrumentality of educational institutions which were modeled after Western schools. This is a part of my personal experience as I have had the privilege to study and later on to teach in Roman Catholic and Protestant mission schools. But this later development took place after the triumph of religious liberalism in Protestant missionary circles. That this was a factor in the decline of missionary work among Muslims cannot be denied. But I am puzzled by the fact that neo-evangelical missiologists do not seem to take this sad fact into account. I am referring to the impact of liberalism on missions. Why this silence? Is history a lesser authority than the newer discipline of cultural anthropology?
May we still maintain that Christian missions among Muslims have failed when for more than a quarter of a century (between the two great wars, while the Middle East was under British and French colonial rule) the gospel was seldom heard in most of the mission schools? I shall never forget many commencement speeches, which were disgusting, for they contained nothing biblically Christian, just plain platitudes. No wonder that some of the graduates of mission schools joined radical movements, including the Communist parties of their respective countries!
To sum up, a careful study of the history of Islam and the Christian presence in the Muslim world indicates that the thesis that missions to Muslims have failed, and that this failure would not have taken place had the pioneer missionaries and those who followed them contextualized the gospel, cannot be sustained. Islam from its beginnings had a built-in bias against the Christian faith. This strong anti-Christian motif has solidified across the centuries. Western culture has indeed invaded the Middle East and other Islamic countries. This took place primarily because of the triumph of Western imperialism among the followers of Islam. We cannot speak of the temporary setbacks of missions to Islam without taking into account the destructive role played by liberalism in the mission field. And finally, as we end this historical excursion, we thank God for the advent of radio missions and the awakening of many nationals to testify of their faith among their fellow citizens who follow the Muslim way. The gospel is being proclaimed without Western baggage, and equally without the novel methods of syncretistic missiologies.
Neo-evangelical missiologists would like the church to embark on new ways in missions to Muslims since they claim that the old methods of the last 200 years have been faulty. As we have noticed in Part I of this paper, a careful study of the history of the Christian-Muslim encounter during the last 1400 years does not sustain the thesis of these missiologists. The difficulties in the Christian mission to Muslims are not to be located in the alleged wrong methods of Western missionaries but in the Muslim tradition itself. From its inception, Islam has been a consciously anti-Christian faith, and its basic motifs have been anti-redemptive. So when we continue to study the reasons for this radical shift in the attitude of some Western missiologists towards Islam, we discover that the inspiration for the call to change did not come from a re-discovery of a thoroughly biblical theology, nor from a fresh appreciation of the rich Christian tradition, but from an inordinate fascination with the new discipline of cultural anthropology. I will now dwell on this important point. In his contribution to the Consultation on Gospel and Culture held at Willowbank in Bermuda, in January 1978, Stephen C. Neil began with these words:
Throughout history, religion and culture have been inextricably connected. There has never yet been a great religion which did not find its expression in a great culture. There has never yet been a great culture which did not have deep roots in a religion. (Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture, edited by John R. Stott and Robert Coote, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI 1980. p.1)
In spite of this timely observation by a veteran missionary scholar, one could not help but notice among the many papers read at the Consultation a lack of a deep interest in the theological dimensions of the problems we face in missions among Muslims. Culture was regarded as the important bridge which will enable us to reach the Muslims with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is as if the "discoveries" of cultural anthropology have provided us with a modern Aladdin's lamp which will solve all our problems. This novel attitude is in marked contrast with the approach of the pioneers. They did not merely confine their scholarly pursuits to the study of Islam, its history and its practices. They reflected theologically on Islam. One thinks, for example, of Samuel Zwemer's The Moslem Christ. An excellent and lucid study in the area of Islamic Christology and its implications for missions. Another classic is the monumental work of Prof. J.W. Sweetman: Islam and Christian Theology: A Study of the Interpretation of Theological Ideas in the Two Religions. This missionary scholar who labored most of his life in India (prior to its partition in 1947) shows the extreme importance of a deep theological reflection not only on Islam but equally on Christianity in its relation to Islam.
When we look at the contributions of scholarly men such as W. Montgomery Watt, we cannot escape noticing that the theological approach remains very prominent. In his book The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, whole sections of the book deal with such themes as: God's Determination of Events, The Support in Tradition for Predestinarian Views, The Distinction between Iman (faith) and Islam, God and Evil, The Createdness of the Quran, The Attributes of God, The Denial of Anthropomorphism, and The Maturing of Sunnite Theology.
One more reference to a recognized historian, Bernard Lewis, who taught before his retirement both at the University of London and at Princeton University. His writings on the history of the Middle East are filled with deep theological insights. In the quarterly journal American-Arab Affairs, the following comments appeared in a review of Lewis' latest book, The Muslim Discovery of Europe.
In trying to account for this lack of interest in the world of Christendom, Professor Lewis offers two principal explanations, one historical, the other theological. The second explanation (theological) for the Muslim attitude derives from the politico-religious character of Islam. For the followers of Muhammad, Islam is the final dispensation of a revealed truth. As such it logically engenders among the Muslim community a sense of ultimate fulfillment in being chosen to receive the final revelation from God through his Messenger the Prophet. As Professor Lewis suggests:
The Muslim doctrine of successive revelations culminating in the final mission of Muhammad led the Muslim to reject Christianity as an earlier and imperfect form of something which he, himself, possessed in the final, perfect form, and to discount Christian thought and Christian civilization accordingly. After the initial impact of eastern Christianity on Islam in the earliest period, Christian influences, even from the high civilization of Byzantium, were reduced to a minimum. Later, by the time that the advance of Christendom and the retreat of Islam had created a new relationship, Islam was crystallized in its ways of thought and behavior and had become impervious to external stimuli, especially those coming from the millennial adversary in the West (American-Arab Affairs, Spring 1983, Number 4, p. 155).
While theology in Islam has not played the same role that it has in Christianity, and while the Shari'a (Law) is more prominent in the mind of the Muslim than Kalam (theology), we may not jump to the conclusion that Islam is a non-theological religion. For example, when Muslims attack the Christian faith, it is always done in terms of the so-called theological and doctrinal errors of this religion. Consciously or unconsciously, Muslims give theological grounds for their instant rejection of the gospel of Christianity.
In the light of all the foregoing considerations, and having noticed how even secular scholars cannot but seek to understand Islam theologically, how are we to assess the words of the Rev. John Stott in his Foreword to Down to Earth? Writing about the meager results of missions among 600 million Hindus of India and the 700 million Muslims of the world, he remarks:
Although different answers are given to these questions, they are basically cultural. The major challenge to the world-wide Christian mission today is whether we are willing to pay the cost of following in the footsteps of our incarnate Lord in order to contextualize the Gospel. Our failure of communication is a failure of contextualization (p. viii).
According to the Rev. Stott, we have made hardly any progress among Muslims because we have not made the right analysis which would have shown us that our problems are basically cultural! As if when dealing with Muslims it is quite easy to separate the theological from the cultural. According to the Rev. Stott, the incarnation of the Son of God has become the prototype for proper contextualization. And since we are not willing to pay the price of following in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we refuse to contextualize, and thus we fail to communicate the good news.
These are far-reaching charges. In my readings of scholarly works produced by non-evangelical Christians or by non-Christians, I see no such one-sided emphasis on the cultural aspect of Islam. Nor do I encounter the new jargon of some Western missiologists. It pains me so much that it is some of my dear brothers in the faith who are espousing these novel theories and making far-reaching statements about failure of missions to the Muslims. That we must study and learn the cultures of the people to be reached for the Lord is axiomatic and has never been doubted by any serious missionary of the gospel. The first Western missionary to Muslims, Raymond Lull, did not go to his field of labors in Tunisia before learning the Arabic language and culture. He even lobbied for the introduction of the study of Arabic in the universities of Europe. Enough has been mentioned in the first part of this paper to indicate that the pioneer missionaries excelled in learning Arabic as well as the culture of the people. None of them ever dreamt of staying for one or two terms in the mission field. Their graves in Beirut, Cairo, and elsewhere in the Middle East testify to their complete devotion to the cause of Christ. They respected the uniqueness of the person and mission of the Messiah and tried to model their missionary activities in the tradition of Paul and the other holy apostles, and not after an incarnational model!
Since Islam claims to be a revealed and theistic religion, are we right when we place so much emphasis on a cultural approach to Islam? As Stephen C. Neil observed when he was referring to the close relationship of history, religion, and culture: "the church entered into easy relations with that culture only when the religion which underlay it had ceased to be a living force." But when we consider Islam, the words just quoted gain added weight. There is hardly an aspect of Islamic life and culture which has not been infused with the Muslim faith. It is impossible to separate between Islam as culture and Islam as a religious faith. Islam has shaped its own theistic worldview.
Several neo-evangelical missiologists tell us that our past efforts among Muslims and others have failed. They place the reason for our failure in the cultural area. The implication of their claims are unavoidable. Contextualize, take this and that element from the Islamic way of worship and culture, and you will begin to succeed in your mission. Actually, this approach is very shallow and does not reckon with the theological subjects which are of great importance to Muslims. For no matter how much we contextualize the gospel message, the stumbling block remains: according to the fundamentals of Islam there is no need for redemption from without. The Quranic doctrine of God takes care of the acknowledged need for forgiveness. Allah is both Rahman (Merciful) and Raheem (Compassionate). He forgives sins without any recourse to the death of the Messiah.
Islamic culture, as we have already noted, is totally influenced by the Muslim faith. It is impossible to divorce the two. The difficulties in missions among Muslims are real and have been with us for fourteen centuries. At this late date in history, to suggest that we shift the emphasis from the theological to the cultural is to part company with a long-standing Christian tradition. Furthermore, it offers a false hope that once the magic of contextualization has been put into action, success is guaranteed!
We are now ready to view from a biblical perspective the main theme of some neo-evangelical missiologists, i.e., that Christian missions among Muslims have failed because of a lack of a proper cultural approach.
It is when we view the modern contextualization movement among the neo-evangelicals from the biblical perspective that we become very alarmed. One fails to see how the major biblical themes which deal with the mission of the church in the New Testament age have been taken into consideration. Furthermore, one notices upon the reading of the literature of the contextualization movement the impact of the theologies of the World Council of Churches. Just as one recognizes the eclectic nature of the WCC teachings and pronouncements, so one finds the same thing occurring among the proponents of the new missiology. More emphasis on incarnational theology and less emphasis on preaching and proclamation. There is more preoccupation with secondary issues such as forms of worship, fasting, and the timing of baptism than a genuine desire to understand the true nature of Islam and the biblical guidelines for missions among Muslims. The spirit of the new approach, as stated earlier in this paper, is not so much the Bible as the new discipline of cultural anthropology.
In this third part of my paper, I plan to deal with two main passages of Scripture which have tremendous implications for missions to Muslims: Romans 10 and I Corinthians 1 & 2. In Romans 10, Paul deals with the main reason for the failure of the Old Testament people of God in reaching their destiny. "They are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they do not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness" (Rom. 10:2b, 3 NIV).
Paul does not deny the general principle revealed in the Old Testament that "The man who does these things will live by them" (Lev. 18:5 NIV). The Jews of Paul's day believed that they could be saved by doing the requirements of the law. The Muslims believe that God is pleased with them when they live in accordance with the Shari'a (Law). Paul did not deny the truth which is revealed in Leviticus 18:5, but he taught that there was no such human being who could attain salvation by doing the law. God had revealed another way, which was compatible with the fallen state of man. Paul does not theologize as if no doctrine of redemption had been revealed. Rather, he quotes at length from Deuteronomy 30. Moses points to a righteousness which is given to the repentant sinner by God's grace. Now the instrumentality or the means for this gift is the saving Word of God.
Personifying the "righteousness that is by faith" Paul writes:
Do not say in your heart, "who will ascend into heaven? "(that is, to bring Christ down) or, "Who will descend into the deep?" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," that is the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom. 10: 6-9 NIV).
It is quite evident from these words of Paul that he puts the emphasis on both content and proclamation. Through this activity of the church, the saving Word of God comes so close to the hearers that it is as near to them as their own heart and mouth. Of course, the saving message must be appropriated. It must be believed and confessed. Paul is giving us in this chapter a very important teaching about missionary activity. He summarizes the teaching of this section of his Letter to the Romans by saying in verse 17: Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. Paul is dealing here with what is commonly known as the instrumental cause of our salvation. Saving faith, regardless of the cultural background of the hearer, comes into being in an atmosphere where Christ is proclaimed. This is not meant to aggrandize the role of the apostle or the messenger of the gospel. This is simply the God-ordained way of missions across the ages, in all lands and among all cultures.
When we come to the teachings of Paul in I Corinthians 1 & 2, we meet the same high regard for the doctrine of proclamation. In doing his work as an apostle and pastor and in correcting doctrinal errors, Paul called the church of Corinth back to the fundamentals of the faith. He stated his thesis both negatively and positively. "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel - not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power" (I Cor. 1:17 NIV).
In elaborating this thesis in the remaining verses of chapters 1 and 2, Paul equally emphasized the contents of the proclamation and the appropriate method which was compatible with the message. His agenda after his conversion was simple: the preaching of the cross of Christ. Why was Paul equally concerned about the message and the method? He was aware of the fact that the content of the message: Jesus Christ and Him crucified, required a methodology which gave all the glory to the triune God and not to man. The faith of the converts must be anchored in the power of God and not in the wisdom of man.
Paul teaches us in a passionate way the importance of guarding the integrity of the Christian faith when it is being propagated. He must have been tempted to compromise in order to make the message more acceptable to the hearers. He knew very well that the basic presuppositions of the Greeks precluded any belief in the crucial doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, the Jewish tradition could not tolerate any teaching about a crucified Messiah. But Paul did not compromise. This is what he wrote: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God" (I Cor. 1:18 NIV).
When applying these words to the situation in the Muslim world, we must realize that the message of the cross is foolishness to the followers of Muhammad. The gospel of the cross is denied both on Quranic and doctrinal grounds. According to Islam, Allah (God) did not and could not have permitted the Messiah to be killed by the Jews. But we must recognize that Muslims throughout history have not always been totally consistent with the teachings of their faith. The legalism of Sunni (orthodox) Islam has pushed many to look for peace with God in the way of Sufism (mysticism). Also, suffering and redemption are not foreign to the minds of Shi'ite Muslims. Neither should we forget in our missionary work that Muslims are never sure about their standing with their Creator on the Day of Judgment. All these factors must be taken into consideration when we present the gospel to them, as well as when we elaborate missionary principles for work among them. But the fundamental reason why we must proclaim without compromise the word of the cross is that God has ordained it to be the means of grace for the salvation of all those who put their trust in the crucified and risen Messiah.
When we reflect on the first two chapters of I Corinthians, we also notice that Paul deals with the utter failure of man to find his way in the universe by relying on his own wisdom. "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe" (I Cor. 1:21 NIV). The implication of this apostolic teaching is tremendous. In God's sovereign disposition, He has ordained that all humanly originated attempts to find Him must fail, and they cannot but fail, since man's heart is totally darkened by sin. The only God-ordained way of salvation is through the preaching of the gospel. This great emphasis on proclamation may sound rather out of place in an age when dialogue is becoming very fashionable and when all kinds of gimmicks are being used to bring about conversions. And yet the words of Paul are very clear: God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. We cannot avoid the offense of the word of the cross. The contextualization which the Muslims require of us in order to make our message acceptable to them is nothing less than unconditional surrender. It is rather naive on the part of so many missiologists who are flying the banner of contextualization in missions to Muslims to think that the followers of Islam will settle for anything less than the Islamization of the Christian messenger!
Paul's concern was the necessity of being completely faithful to the received gospel. His mind was focused on the message. This does not mean that he neglected what is called today cross-cultural communication. As a native of the Mediterranean world, Paul was at home in several cultural milieus. He spoke the language of the people and gave not only the gospel message but himself with the message. He became all things to all men that he might win some. But he never compromised on the fundamentals. His main concern was always God-directed. Or, as he put it in the second chapter of I Corinthians:
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony of God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power (vv. 1,2,4,5).
The faith which Paul spoke about in these verses was not simply the orthodox or apostolic teaching about the Messiah. It was equally that personal faith which was evoked and created by the Holy Spirit. This is why the human instrument or channel was de-emphasized by Paul. He wanted the faith of the converts to rest not on men's wisdom, but on God's power. It was such an important subject for the apostle that he kept on discussing the crucial importance of a proper methodology. The unique role of the Holy Spirit must be maintained in any teaching about missions. Unless and until the Spirit of God touches the hearts of those listening to the proclamation of the gospel, the words of the missionary remain fruitless. As Paul put it:
This is what we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught us by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned (vv. 13,14).
Needless to say, the apostle ended his teaching about the importance of the message and the proper method which must deliver the message with a special emphasis on the unique role of the Holy Spirit. He alone is the author of conversion. Regardless of the cultural or ethnic background of any human being, and no matter how hard we try to bring the message to his attention, the work of the Holy Spirit remains indispensable for his or her conversion. Today, the mission of the universal church is at the crossroads. Unlike the early years of this century when it was rather easy to distinguish between liberal and Bible-believing and orthodox missionaries, the lines are rather blurred in our times. The Liberationists quote Scripture in order to re-interpret the meaning of salvation and desire to clothe their ideology with the mantle of the gospel. Neo-evangelical missiologists who are specially concerned about the challenge of Islam are eager to stress that they do not want to part company with the historic Christian tradition. However, our examination of their claims from the historical, theological, and biblical perspectives has shown that their map for a successful missionary endeavor among Muslims cannot stand the test. If we follow in their footsteps, we are not showing fidelity to the tremendous missionary heritage of the ancient church or of the specifically Protestant era of missions during the last two centuries.
In conclusion, I would like to submit for further reflection the following theses:
This paper is based on the presentation of Rev. Bassam M. Madany at a Caucus on Missions to Muslims held at Four Brooks Conference Center near Philadelphia, PA, on July 9-11, 1985.