There are many today who are voicing severe criticisms of the mission work done since William Carey’s day. The suggestion is made that mission endeavours have failed due to the ‘western baggage’ which accompanies the missionary. In other words, the missionaries were not good at cross-cultural communication; they failed to contextualise the gospel. Neo-evangelical missiologists conclude that we must look for new ways to evangelise Muslims today.

 

The Historical Perspective

Several missiologists seem to work out their plans for a new methodology of mission based exclusively on their interpretation of the history of the modern enterprise of the last 200 years. They do not seem to be aware of the Christian-Muslim encounter which began 14 centuries ago. They appear oblivious of the fact that Islam rejected the Christian faith more than a millennium before the rise of the modern missionary enterprise. Even a simple reading of the Quran shows us that Muhammad was quite aware of the belief of the Christians of Arabia and southern Syria, but somehow he became convinced that the Bible had been corrupted prior to his call to prophet-hood.

As far as Muslims are concerned, there is no need to consider seriously the claims of the gospel, for the true gospel no longer exists. Anyhow, the Quran has superseded and supplanted the gospel. There is nothing more striking than the absolute assurance which Muslims have concerning the finality and superiority of their faith. It is all there in the Quran and the Hadith; their pronouncements about Judaism and Christianity are final.

 

The majority of the people conquered by the Arab Muslim armies in the initial days of the conquest were Christian. Their Christianity was not pure, some were Chalcedonian while others entertained wrong teachings about the two natures of Christ. But in all fairness to them, we must not write them off as if they presented no Christian testimony to the invaders. Granted that they were very weak in the areas of Biblical anthropology and soteriology but they all confessed their faith in the triune God, the deity and sonship of Jesus Christ, his atoning death on the cross, and the trustworthiness and final authority of the Bible.an the absolute assurance which Muslims have concerning the finality and superiority of their faith. It is all there in the Quran and the Hadith; their pronouncements about Judaism and Christianity are final.

The writings of the Christians of the Middle East, who lived during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, show that they did not hesitate to explain why they did not become Muslims; the contents of their apologetic and polemic works provide this information. Khalif’s had Christians as their court poets and private physicians and they conversed freely with them about points of difference between the two faiths. This is often forgotten by some missiologists who blame missionaries for not adequately presenting the Christian message, a message which was defended by the conquered Christians of the Middle East.

As far as the legacy of Islam is concerned, it has inherited a strong bias against the Gospel. It forms the very heart of the Muslim faith and the Muslim’s commitment to his religion. The hardening of the Muslim’s attitude toward the Gospel took place long before some of the ancestors of European and American missionaries had been Christianised. We must not lose our historical perspectives if we criticize the missionaries of the last 200 years.

 

Pioneer Christian missions to Muslims

Does the record uphold the charge that the pioneer missionaries were intent upon spreading their own culture as well as evangelising?

I will confine my remarks to the missionaries who worked in the Arab world since I am better equipped to deal with the subject, being myself a part of that culture.

Let us begin with the educational institutions which they founded. Up until 1975 the American University of Beirut was one of the most powerful academic institutions in the entire Middle East and its hospital was considered the best. But this academic institution 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 subjects in Arabic. The Evangelical Church which they organized was an Arabic speaking church. The liturgy was simple, the Word of God was central, and every part of the worship service was in Arabic. Of course, the translators of the Bible were both Lebanese Christians and American missionaries. Some of the early missionaries learned Arabic so well that they composed poetry in Arabic. Even the enemies of the Gospel today in the Middle East have to acknowledge in their writings the great role played by the missionaries in the revival of the Arabic language and culture.

The above remarks 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 these same educational institutions. The very fact that the Syrian Protestant College became the American University of Beirut and that English replaced Arabic as the language of higher education indicates that a shift took place and that it was not for the good of the cause of Christ among the Muslims.  But, we must remember two facts: first, the decline of Arabic in missionary institutions occurred at the time of the growth of religious liberalism in missionary circles. Second, and this is a more potent factor, western imperialism played a big role in attempts to westernise the countries of the Middle East.  This was even more pronounced in lands which came under French colonialism than in those areas which were administered by the British colonialists.  To discuss the relative success or failure of modern missions without taking into account the wider picture and the milieu which surrounded them is quite irresponsible

Christian missions in the Middle East began during the decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire which came to an end at the close of the First World War. During the era of the Mandate with the French ruling in Syria and Lebanon, and the British in Palestine, Jordan and Iraq, there was a golden opportunity for missions among Muslims. Yet during this same period, Christian missions of the mainline denominations were at their weakest due to the triumph of liberalism. I cannot understand why this fact is not mentioned by neo-evangelical missiologists. Is history a lesser discipline than cultural anthropology? How can we say that true Christian missions have failed when for more than a quarter of a century and during a period when freedom of religion was greater than in the past centuries, the gospel was seldom heard in most of the mission schools?can University of Beirut and that English replaced Arabic as the language of higher education indicates that a shift took place and that it was not for the good of the cause of Christ among the Muslims. But, we must remember two facts: first, the decline of Arabic in missionary institutions occurred at the time of the growth of religious liberalism in missionary circles. Second, and this is a more potent factor, western imperialism played a big role in attempts to westernise the countries of the Middle East. This was even more pronounced in lands which came under French colonialism than in those areas which were administered by the British colonialists. To discuss the relative success or failure of modern missions without taking into account the wider picture and the milieu which surrounded them is quite irresponsible.

The above remarks 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 these same educational institutions. The very fact that the Syrian Protestant College became the American University of Beirut and that English replaced Arabic as the language of higher education indicates that a shift took place and that it was not for the good of the cause of Christ among the Muslims.  But, we must remember two facts: first, the decline of Arabic in missionary institutions occurred at the time of the growth of religious liberalism in missionary circles. Second, and this is a more potent factor, western imperialism played a big role in attempts to westernise the countries of the Middle East.  This was even more pronounced in lands which came under French colonialism than in those areas which were administered by the British colonialists.  To discuss the relative success or failure of modern missions without taking into account the wider picture and the milieu which surrounded them is quite irresponsible

The greatest carrier of western baggage and culture was the colonialist. After Napoleon’s campaigns in the Middle East had come to an end, the rulers of Egypt, for example, began to send students to France for their higher education. And even though these students were accompanied by their Muslim chaplains, yet that was not enough to insure their immunization against the secularised western culture.

To sum up, a careful study of the history of Islam and the Christian presence in the Muslim world indicates that the view that missions to Islam have failed, simply cannot be sustained. Islam from its beginnings had a built-in bias against the Christian faith and this position has solidified across the centuries. Western culture has indeed invaded the Middle East and other Islamic areas, but that was due mainly to the spread of western colonialism. If we may speak of a setback in missions to Islam, we must consider the destructive role played by the liberals in the mission field. The advent of new technology allows the continuation of the Gospel being preached to the Muslims without Western baggage.s in the Middle East had come to an end, the rulers of Egypt, for example, began to send students to France for their higher education. And even though these students were accompanied by their Muslim chaplains, yet that was not enough to insure their immunization against the secularised western culture.

 

The Theological Perspective


Culture is being regarded as an important bridge which we must use in order to reach the Muslims. This attitude to other cultures and specifically to Islam reveals a refusal to engage in a sound theological reflection on the subject. It is as if the “discoveries” of cultural anthropology have provided the missiologist with a modern Aladdin’s lamp which will solve all the problems. This attitude is in marked contrast with the approach of the pioneers. They did not confine their scholarly pursuits to the study of Islam, its history and its teachings and practices, but they reflected theologically on Islam.

In Muslim-Christian relationships across the ages theological points of view must be taken very seriously. When Muslims attack the Christian faith, it is always done in terms of the so-called theological or doctrinal errors of their religion. The doctrines of the Trinity, the Deity of Christ and his sonship, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the Fall, the need for redemption through the vicarious sufferings and death of the Messiah, all these teachings are formulated in a theological way. Consciously or unconsciously, Muslims give theological grounds for their instant rejection of the gospel.

Yet, in the minds of some the problem is not theological but cultural. The doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God is made the proto-type of contextualisation! And because some have not followed this pattern missions have failed amongst Muslims. That we must learn the cultures of the people to be reached is axiomatic and has not been doubted by any serious missionary. The first western missionary to the Muslims, Raymond Lull did not go to Tunisia before learning the Arabic language and culture. He tried in vain to convince the pope of his day to see the importance of Arabic studies, however, he did lobby for the beginning of serious study of the sacred tongue of Islam in several European universities.

None of the pioneers ever dreamt of staying only for one or two terms on the foreign field. Their graves in Beirut, Cairo and elsewhere testify to their great devotion to the cause of Christ. They respected the uniqueness of the person and mission of the Messiah and modelled their missionary activities after the tradition of Paul and the other holy apostles and evangelists, not after the incarnation model.

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 culture and Islam as a religious faith since the latter has shaped a uniquely Islamic world view.

When we reflect theologically on the subject and ask ourselves what the basic motif of Islam is and what distinguishes it from the Christian faith, we may come up with several answers. We may point to the traditional points of controversy, such as the authenticity of the Bible, the atoning death of Christ etc. Islam claims to have been sent from God in order to correct these false teachings and thus bring true deliverance for mankind. We may then say this is the élan in Islam, its message of truth for mankind, truth about the Godhead.

Yet, I would like to suggest that the basic motif of Islam is its teaching of the native goodness of man, his ability to save himself and to construct a peaceful world order by doing the revealed will of Allah. For us Christians, it is important to realise that the Muslim religious tradition not only denies the crucifixion of the Messiah, but equally denies the very necessity of redemption. Islam has always taught a doctrine of man which does not take into account the disastrous consequences of sin. Sin in the sense of sinfulness or propensity to break the law of God, is foreign to the mind of a Muslim, it has never been a part of his doctrinal tradition.

This unwillingness to reckon with the consequences of the Fall has predisposed Muslims to welcome all the theories which advocate the native goodness of man. In reading Arabic literature dating from the 1800’s, one is reminded quite often of the affinity between the Muslim doctrine of man and that advocated by such men as Rousseau and Voltaire. Not that they shared the French writers’ hostility to religion, but they found in them allies who had dissented from the Christian understanding of man. A strong belief in the native goodness of man and in divine revelation without redemption, form a powerful motif in Islam.

Many modern missiologists tell us that our past efforts have failed because of our failure in the cultural area. The implication is made that if we take this and that element from the Islamic way of worship and culture our mission will be successful. This approach, however, is very shallow and does not reckon with the theological subjects which are so important to Muslims. No matter how much we contextualise, the stumbling block remains: there is no need for redemption according to Islam. The Quranic doctrine of God takes care of the need for forgiveness. Allah is both Rahman and Raheem (Merciful and Compassionate) and he forgives without recourse to the death of the Messiah.

We must situate the discussion of the Christian mission to Muslims on a sound theological foundation to do otherwise is to part company with a long Christian tradition.

 

Preaching and Proclaiming


When we view the modern contextualzation movement among evangelicals from the Biblical perspective one notices immediately when perusing the writings of those who conceptualise, the impact of the theologies of the World Council of Churches. There is strong emphasis on “incarnational” theology and less emphasis on preaching and proclamation.

The God-ordained way of missions across the ages and in all lands and among all cultures is expressed in the writings of Paul:

> “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

He stated his missiology both negatively and positively:

> “For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the Gospel not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power! (1 Corinthians 1:17).

Paul must have been tempted to compromise, to contextualise and to make the message acceptable to the hearers. He knew very well that the pre-suppositions of the Greeks precluded a belief in the resurrection of the Christ and the presuppositions of the Jews precluded faith in a crucified Messiah but he did not compromise. This is what he said:

> “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.” (1 Corinthians. 1:18)

In applying these words to the situation in the Muslim world, we have to admit 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 did not and could not have permitted the Messiah to be killed by the Jews.

This great emphasis on proclamation may sound rather out of place in an age when dialogue or other means are fashionable yet the words of Paul remain very clear:

> “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”

We cannot avoid the offence of the Gospel. The contextualisation which the Muslims will require of us to make our message acceptable to them is nothing less than unconditional surrender. It is rather naïve on the part of the contextualizers to think that Muslims will settle for anything less than Islamisation.

Paul’s mind was focused on the message. This does not mean that he neglected what is called today, in the language of the missiologists, 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 proper message but gave himself with the message.

Today the lines of Christian missiology are blurred. The Liberationists quote scripture in order to re-interpret the meaning of salvation. Neo-evangelical missiologists are eager to stress that they do not want to part with the historic Christian tradition however, if we follow in their footsteps we will not be showing fidelity to the tremendous missionary heritage which was solidly based on the evangelical truths of the Bible.

 

 

Article extracted from a paper prepared by Bassam M. Madany.

Leave a Reply