Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Islam, Iraq, and Some “Ancient” Missionaries

I recently read two fascinating books: Islam and the Cross by Samuel Zwemer and Pioneers in the Arab World by Dorothy Van Ess. Both served as missionaries to the Middle East and were sponsored by the Reformed Church in America (formerly known as the Dutch Reformed Church). Zwemer (1867-1952) was known as “the apostle to Islam,” and Dorothy Van Ess served in Basrah, Iraq. Dorothy was the wife of John Van Ess (1879-1949), a noted authority on the Arabic language. Some interesting quotes follow. First are those from Zwemer’s book:

“Islam is indeed the only anti-Christian religion. This world faith takes issue with everything that is vital in the Christian religion, because it takes issue in its attitude toward the Christ. By this it must stand or fall. In this respect all schools of Muslim thought are practically the same.” (1)

“Especially in lands that are wholly Muslim, nothing seems to stand out more prominently than Islam’s hatred of the cross.” (2)

“We must meet this earnest and latest challenge of our Muslim opponents not by compromises and concessions, nor by cowardice of silence, but by boldly proclaiming that the very heart of our religion, its center and its cynosure, its pivot and power, is the atonement wrought by Christ on the cross.” (3)

“That Islam in its origin and popular character is a composite faith, with pagan, Jewish, and Christian elements, is known to all students of comparative religion. Rabbi Geiger has shown how much of the warp and woof of the Koran was taken from Talmudic Judaism and how the entire ritual is simply that of the Pharisees translated into Arabic.” (4)

“Islam is also a political problem. When Muslim leaders sit down at conference tables with representatives of Western nations to discuss democracy, the incongruity of all this with the old idea of Islam as a church-state and with the whole Muslim theory of political government is self-evident. In spite of what has been said to the contrary, missionaries in the past realized the baffling character of the problem that Western colonial governments faced in Muslim lands. The chasm between democratic and Muslim political systems is enormous.” (5)

“Syncretism would be equivalent to surrender. For Islam thrives only by its denial of the authority of the Scriptures, the deity of our Lord, the blessedness of the Holy Trinity, the cruciality and significance of the cross (nay, its very historicity), and the preeminence of Jesus Christ as King and Savior. . . . At all these points the missionary problem is how to bridge the chasm with courage and tact, by the manifestation of the truth in love. The distribution of the Word of God always holds first place. . . . Islam is a spiritual problem and can be solved only in spiritual terms.” (6)

Some quotes follow from the book written by Dorothy Van Ess:

“The world of Islam, toward the end of the nineteenth century, was the great exception to the rule that this was an age of triumphant missionary expansion. . . . Those relations have been marked by bitter conflict, by the Muslim’s sense of superiority, and by his successful resistance to evangelization.” (7)

“I first saw Basrah under a full moon on the last night of 1911. . . . I have never forgotten the loveliness of my first impression of the city which was to be my home for nearly half a century.” (8)

“As soon as the British General Headquarters was established in Basrah in November, 1914, the general commanding officer appointed a military governor with two deputies. . . . A reliable police force was one of the first necessities for Basrah, and the American missionary had contacts with the Arabs which enabled him to select men who could be trusted, and who had the ability to do the job.” (9)

“I heard my Arab women friends in the harems discussing President Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points with great enthusiasm. . . . Wilson was a tremendous hero throughout the Near East at this time, and as Americans we had the advantage of basking in his reflected glory.” (10)

“The British attempted to get an idea of public opinion, to find out whether the Arabs of Iraq would favor a single Arab state, from Mosul to the Persian Gulf, under British tutelage; if so, should there be an Arab head, and whom would they prefer? The Kurds were against Arab government and favored British administration. . . . A. T. Wilson and Gertrude Bell attempted to enlighten the Arab experts at the Peace Conference about the Shiah Muslim element in Iraq (of which they knew nothing), the trouble to be anticipated from the Kurds in Mosul Vilayet, and the increasing power and importance of Ibn Saud in the Arab world.” (11)

“The rebellion of 1920 has been cited as a heroic effort on the part of patriotic Nationalists to throw off the British yoke. . . . The rebellion was put down by a British expeditionary force which was said to cost the British Exchequer about forty million pounds sterling, and caused an estimated ten thousand total casualties on both sides.” (12)

“In 1940 we had a crisis in our schools. Nationalism had developed a definite anti-Western bias.” (13)

“From early days our mission had not converts from Islam, but ‘born Christians,’ descendants of one of the minorities in Asiatic Turkey who had never become Muslims.” (14)

Conclusions: After reading these two books, I conclude that Muslims are in a general sense resistant to the gospel. Some Muslim groups are more receptive than other groups are. The more receptive groups should receive more of our evangelistic efforts than do very resistant groups. As for the very resistant groups, missionaries should wait until they are more receptive before making major efforts to share the gospel with them. This is simply good stewardship of resources—human and otherwise.

1. Samuel M. Zwemer, Islam and the Cross, ed. Roger Greenway (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2002), 26-27.
2. Ibid., 41-42.
3. Ibid., 53.
4. Ibid., 69.
5. Ibid., 151.
6. Ibid., 152.
7. Dorothy F. Van Ess, Pioneers in the Arab World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 6.
8. Ibid., 51.
9. Ibid., 88-89.
10. Ibid., 109.
11. Ibid., 110-111.
12. Ibid., 114.
13. Ibid., 146.
14. Ibid., 159-160.