by Benjamin-Lee Hegeman
Lessons to learn from the way Christian writers have reacted to Muslims and the Islamic faith.
“I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)
What an amazing answer to prayer that the global Christian community is finally waking up to the unique Islamic identity among them! The Church must never return to the now naïve period of, say, 1997, when most journalists in Western nations dismissed resurgent Islam in the lullaby mantras of “peace in our times” or “mutual tolerance” and “reciprocal compatibility” in Western nations. Global Christians are now more informed.
Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center September 11, 2001 (9/11), I wrote to my supporting constituency from the Islamic interior of French West Africa and asked them to focus on three maverick prayer requests: (1) that the Lord would open the eyes of the Western media to the agenda of key global Muslim leaders, (2) that the Lord would unplug the world from OPEC-Islam and cause the age of electric/bio-fuel engines to emerge and (3) that all Christians might learn the art of Christ-centered engaging conversations with the Muslims they know. God is answering all three concerns in remarkable ways.
Yet, a grim danger awaits us: reporting on Islam can generate profound fear. The emerging engagement of Christian journalism and conversations with Muslims requires the courage to distance ourselves from fearful attitudes toward Muslims (which I will refer to as dhimmi attitudes). Dhimmi (or dhimmitude) means a vassal “pact” in Arabic and describes the fearful life of the Jewish and Christian community in any subjugated nation. Following a successful jihad invasion, historically Muslims invariably forced infidels to convert by the sword while allowing “the People of the Book” (scriptural monotheists) to continue their private faith—provided they lived in a posture of humiliation, insecurity, abasement and fear while following strict vassal rules and excessive taxation. (To be sure, Christians did the same during and following the Crusades [1096-1291], forcing the same type of humiliation on Jews and Muslims while violently forcing “pagans” to baptize.) It is of paramount importance that missionaries read about dhimmitude. The most seminal work on Islam that I would recommend is Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis.
The subjugated life of dhimmitude had a disturbing, fear-inspiring impact on historical Christian writers. From 635 AD onward, vast Eastern Orthodox and Iberian Catholic Church communities were forced into dhimmi subjection to Islamic caliphs. Christian writers responded in one of three major ways: by becoming (1) reconnaissance writers (defined by a fearful and defensive style), (2) dhimmi writers (defined by a fearful, cautious and submissive style) or (3) engagement writers (defined by a fearless and engaging style). All three styles are still around today.
Saint John of Damascus (675-749 AD), a Greek Orthodox writer, was the first to compose the defensive posture of the Church in the face of massive Byzantine losses (from 634 onward) to Islamic jihadists and subsequent caliph rulers. Defensive writers, whether in Islamic lands or outside of them, feel the burden to signal the Church and the world concerning the heretical and/or inherent danger in Islam. Those who sense this profound alarm do the necessary reconnaissance research and then express their writings in one of four ways.
1. Silent warners are those who alert the Christian flock concerning Islam and the harmful intent of certain Muslims. In this style, they write like Mosaic spies returning from a reconnaissance mission in Canaan. This was the style of Saint John of Damascus, who, having a brilliant grasp of Arabic and Islam, wrote his warnings in mostly Greek to the Church concerning what he called the “Ishmaelite heresy.” His latter works were in Arabic, as required by the caliph of Damascus.
2. Apologetic debaters countered the accusations of Muslims with scripture, philosophical logic and ethics. This style emerged during the more tolerant open (ijtihad) period of the Abbasid Empire (750-1258 AD). The Nestorian Christians in the Abbasid era enjoyed limited success with this style and often attempted to score jousting points as literary contestants against Muslim philosophers. A modern day example is Jay Smith, the American Mennonite missionary in London, England, who believes open and visible debates with Muslims on Speaker’s Corner are the necessary prelude to quiet coffee shop follow-up conversations.
3. Vocal polemicists sought to expose and condemn what they saw as the heretical doctrine, the violent teaching and the evil deeds within Islam. These writers do not shy away from attacking the morality of Muhammad or demonizing Islam. Even the Byzantine Emperor Basil I (811-886), for example, ordered the philosopher Nicetas to write a book to refute the Islamic errors in order to win over Muslim enemies. He failed to win anyone; however, many westerners continued to write polemic works read chiefly by Christians. There are many Americans writing in this style, especially since 9/11. There are also Muslim Background Believers (MBB) such as Abd El Schafi, who, instead of using Western philosophical arguments, relies on the Qur’an, the Hadiths and Islamic commentators. While the academic content has changed from Byzantine times, the polemic approach and the use of an exposing tone has not.
4. Academic critics cite the litany of struggles and tensions within Islam and the widespread “copying” from other religions that is found in the Qur’an. This style emerged after the European Enlightenment. These writers’ warnings are based on source criticism and history, not philosophy, theology or morality. The German Semitist scholar, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), pioneered research in textual history and philological backgrounds, first in Hebrew for the Old Testament and then in Arabic for the Qur’an. Great interest was taken in collecting old Islamic manuscripts for research and trying to construct a Sitz im Leben background to explain why Muhammad might have produced the Qur’an we have. A modern but more secular example is the apostate scholar Ibn Warraq.
The value of these four defensive writing styles is mostly in-house. These writers recognize the paramount importance of warning fellow Christians concerning all types of heresies, hypocrisies and harm—our own as well as Muslim. And frankly, if courageous Christians and Jews do not thoroughly examine Islam, very few others will dare to do so in today’s world. Most secular writers are becoming so “tolerant” (read: frightened) that they rarely criticize Muslims or Islam, and if they do, then they only criticize the Wahhabi.
Most Muslims share this hyper-caution. Islam, as a religious force, does not welcome critical self-examination and Muslim intellectuals might risk their lives by seriously critiquing their own faith and practices. The exception is Irshad Manji, a Muslim and open-lesbian television commentator in Toronto. For this very reason, Jewish and Christian defensive writers critique Islam “on Muslims’ behalf,” hoping it will stir debate toward theological openness (ijtihad) or a renaissance of sorts. The chief weakness of defensive reconnaissance writers is that they augment the fear of Muslims, rather than abate it. And fear left untreated will turn into hatred, and hatred is the worst possible (hopefully unintentional) by-product of defensive writers. Notwithstanding, we should esteem such courageous writing and accept it in the same way aviation organizations document all accidents and crashes of air vessels, knowing that the conclusion of “pilot error” will bring shame to some but wisdom to all.
Dhimmi writers exercise extreme caution and feel it is reckless and not Christ-like to offend Muslims or to awaken latent hostilities. As they see it, words of kindness, affection, respect and admissions of guilt define Christianity far better than any self-defensive critique. For them, “a kind word turns away wrath.” Therefore, these cautious authors write exhaustive works in a style that wins the admiration of Muslims. They are honored when Muslims praise their work more than Christians praise their work. Most Christian leaders expressed this posture during the Danish cartoon clashes of 2006. As these Christian leaders saw it, to provoke Muslims only increases violent responses, if not terrorism, and such journalism was viewed as dangerous, irresponsible, foolish and destructive. All such cautious writers address the very real problem of fear from an angle of “sympathetic scholarship,” which, being framed in hyper-caution, means they are dhimmi writers writing from a “cringe culture.” There are five groups of dhimmi writers.
1. Academic dhimmis try to reconstruct history from a Muslim perspective and supply generous social scientific data in Islam’s favor. For such writers, it is critical that Christians see Islam through Muslims’ eyes—which they assume is possible. These writers hope the fears of all parties involved will be de-dramatized. The father of this perspective was the German Enlightenment scholar, Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), who presented Muhammad very positively, if not nobly, by using only the Qur’an. It opened an era of romantic recasting of Muhammad and the discarding of former demonized Islamic images. To this category belong the current popular writers Karen Armstrong and John Esposito, as well as most of the modern films of Islam, such as The Kingdom of Heaven. They do indeed seek to make us feel good about the majority tolerant, moderate, peace-loving Muslims. Since 9/11, many university professors have written what deserves to be called “lullaby literature” in that they calm the readers with selective and romantic pro-Islam insights and soothing quotes that help readers realize that “there is nothing seriously wrong with Islam except your attitude toward it.” That very few evangelical missionaries working among Muslims hold this view is, I believe, sufficient commentary.
2. Dialogue dhimmis organize interfaith meetings and interfaith journals to promote mutual admiration between Muslims, Christians and Jews through spiritual exchanges and sharing doctrinal similarities. Such writers hope that shared admiration will lead to improved understanding and peace among all of Abraham’s offspring. The founders of this approach were the Nestorian patriarch Timothy (d. 824) and St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who joined the fifth Crusade (1218-1221) in the Middle East and attempted to dialogue with the Egyptian sultan, Malek al-Kamil (d. 1228). Both cases bore mutual admiration but no conversion on either side. Polite cautious dialogue is now the overwhelming position of the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic writers, most Eastern orthodox churches and most twentieth century Anglican writers such as Temple Gairdner and Kenneth Cragg. They are among the most erudite Christian writers on Islam and are esteemed as such. The concern here is whether in being so gracious, the dialogue will only amount to apologies and whispers. This is already the conclusion of American Jewish commentator Daniel Pipes, who writes, “Even the pope ‘must whisper’ when discussing Islam. It’s a sign of the times” (2006).
3. Marketing dhimmis are those cautious writers who vigorously promote Muslims’ own self-portrait. Only what Muslims say about themselves is treated as legitimate. Islam is what Muslims say it is, even if Muslims say many different if not conflicting things about Islam. All non-Muslim voices or “occidental” (Western) interpretations of the “Oriental” (Middle Eastern and beyond) Islam are entirely suspect. The most formidable writer here is the Anglican-born Palestinian Edward Said (1935-2003). The Muslim disclaimers, causes and biases are the only legitimate voice of Muslims. According to Ilan Pappé,
My bias is apparent despite the desire of my peers that I stick to facts and the “truth” when reconstructing past realities. I view any such construction as vain and presumptuous. This book is written by one who admits compassion for the colonized not the colonizer; who sympathizes with the occupied not the occupiers. (2004, Introduction)
As Pappé would have us see the Palestinians and global Muslims, any historical view that is not favorable toward “Muslim victims” is totally suspect. The Aramco World bimonthly magazine also follows this style but in a less polemic way; while entirely financed by the Saudi Aramco Oil enterprise, it uses mostly Western academic writers to market the Islamic world in the style and fashion of the National Geographic. It is even offered for free!
4. Compassion dhimmis seek to win the admiration of Muslims through as many cautious expressions of compassion and kindness as permitted of foreign workers. They write as if they suspect Muslim authorities are reading them. If they publish anything, they are usually overtly complimentary in their style. The collection of articles in Keith Swartley’s reader, Encountering the World of Islam, is marked by this dhimmi style whenever the editor introduces a new section. When overseas, such authors will only say, write or teach things that honor, respect and please Muslims or their host nation; this is despite the fact they might write entirely different and secret accounts in their confidential prayer letters.
5. Appeasement dhimmis, according to Ye’or, go the extra mile to please their Muslim superiors. As they see it, Christians living in Muslim lands must make gains in common-cause submission to the greater Islamic causes. It is felt that Christians only gain when they defer to the Muslim agenda. Ye’or calls this “theological self-mutilation” (2005, 199) and sees it as the final stage of dhimmitude before conversion to Islam.
Dhimmi writers promote themselves as peacemakers; however, in doing so they hoist the white flag. They write of Islam so romantically that it begins to resemble the three famous monkeys’ sculpture of the Japanese Toshogu Shrine: “Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.” But of the West, they write with such guilt concerning the Crusades, or the colonial period or the modern globalized sins coming from the West, that they leave the regrettable impression that apologizing is the highest form of Christian apologetics and hyper-caution the wisest guide in communication. Yet by following fear, they fall short of how Jesus or the Apostle Paul would have engaged both hostile Jews and Gentiles of their generation. We indeed do well to beware of dhimmi writers because fearful writers cause Christians to both fear Islam and to doubt the most critical activity of the Church: courageous and confident engagement with Muslims.
Engagement writers seek to engage and encounter Muslims in a variety of ways. They believe it is critical for Christians to be neither hyper-cautious nor polemic, but to be both winsome and courageous. As they see it, we must affectionately encounter, engage and convict Muslims of the truth of Christ Jesus and—in time—the errors in their Islamic perceptions. There are three writing styles of engagement.
1. Simply sharing Jesus allows these writers to launch into direct witnessing of Jesus Christ to Muslims. This is done via print, radio or conversation, sometimes without a prior understanding of the Islamic faith. Christians who do this hope to lead interested Muslims to follow their Bible studies or Internet sites. As they see it, what people really need is to hear about Jesus Christ. What better means than sharing the story of your own spiritual conversion and life victories? Many radio and television programs to the Arab world wisely share witness material and most of it is all about Jesus instead of Islam or Muhammad. This writing approach avoids any negative focus on Islam or Muhammad but also avoids shedding any light on the struggles that the Muslim mind has in coming to Christ.
2. Diplomatic interaction includes inviting Muslims to examine both the Bible and the Qur’an in an interactive but peaceful approach. This approach can also include writing to fellow Christians to equip them with new and improved interactive questions and answers. Patrick O. Cate, among others, has written to this subject. These writers avoid controversial polemic charges but try to use confident diplomacy to win a hearing among Muslims. Other members of this group include Dudley Woodberry, Don McCurry, Phil Parshall, Kevin Greeson, Samy Tanagho, Abd al-Masih, Charles Marsh and many others. They write and speak forthrightly but do so as diplomatically as possible.
3. Conversational fishers of men (includes one-on-one dialogue). Most missionaries working among Muslims esteem this as the finest of approaches; however, it suffers from one significant liability: it takes years and it often bears humble fruit if numbers are important. Using this style, one’s affection and respect for the Muslim keeps the interview vibrant, but so does the occasional protest and correction of the Muslim friend for disrespecting the Christian faith or our sacred Bible.
The literary counterpart to this is the “conversational dialogue literature” in which a fictional Muslim and a Christian have a theological discussion. This style of literature dates to the eighth century writings of Abu Qurra, bishop in Mesopotamia, and after centuries of disuse, was revived by the German Pietist missionary, Karl Pfander (1803-1865), in India. In his writings, he had a Christian and a Muslim compare the Bible and the Qur’an and discuss theology accordingly. Television and radio talk shows continue this format today, often between MBBs and Muslims around a political debate.
The value of engagement writers is that they steer readers between the often-fearful dhimmi writers and the fear-inspiring reconnaissance writers. Fear left untreated turns to hatred and both defensive writers and dhimmi writers leave the reader’s fear intact. Engagement writers take one beyond one’s fears, although the “simply share Jesus” approach risks exposing one’s ignorance of Islam quickly and that will only reinforce the notion that one’s failure to answer Muslim theological questions is evidence of Christian weakness and inferiority.
HOW THEN SHALL WE READ?
If you do not read any writings about Islam or ministry to Muslims, you will not escape suffering some regrettable side effects which come from simply listening to global news agencies. You will invariably harbor certain fears of Islam, anger toward violent Muslims and a sense of guilt concerning Muslim misery worldwide. You will also entertain the more marketed romantic notions of the Middle Eastern oriental cultures. None of these emotions are helpful in the Kingdom of God.
When reading about Islam or missions to Muslims, try to discern how each writer handles the “fear factor.” Reconnaissance writers will tell you the truth about Islam; however, they will frighten you. They engage in fear-journalism (which sells books), but they do not prepare you to share your faith with your Muslim neighbor. Dhimmi writers will placate the fear factor so extensively that they will convince you to not do anything to disturb these “volatile, but wonderful” people. They engage in therapy-journalism, suggesting the only real problem is your incorrect attitude to Muslims, which, of course, their book will cure. They will leave you with all your fears intact plus teach you to hoist the white flag if in doubt.
Engagement writers are your best authors, navigating between fear-mongering and fear-placating. You will discern them by noting their compassion and affection for Muslims, their honesty when explaining the Muslim crisis, the genuine Islamic dangers and the suffering of those who convert. However, they will also write of the incomparable honor and joy of reaching into the soul of Muslims and bringing them to Christ. They engage in interview-journalism, always penetrating deeper into Muslim souls and Islamic teaching with very insightful, courageous, diplomatic questions.
Read all sides but give no ground to fear. Yes, we are to be as innocent as doves (perhaps like dhimmi writers) and as shrewd as snakes (like reconnaissance writers), but we must dare to enter like sheep among wolves (like engagement writers). Indeed, the sheep of Jesus dare to walk into the midst of hostile wolves because they walk in the shadow of the Lion of the tribe of Judah. This is how we honor our Lord Jesus Christ among our Muslim friends.
Pappé, Ilan. 2004. A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Daniel Pipes. 2006. “The Pope and the Koran.” New York Sun. January 17. Accessed May 15, 2007 from http://www.danielpipes.org/article/3281.
Swartley, Keith. 2005. Encountering the World of Islam. Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster Press.
Ye’or, Bat. 2005. Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis. Teaneck, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Benjamin-Lee Hegeman, an Islamic missiologist with SIM, teaches an Islamic Concentration each spring semester at Houghton College in New York. He promotes Christian worldview teacher training in Francophone Niger and Baatonu pastoral training in Benin each fall semester.
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