This article is a response to “Courage in Our Convictions: The Case for Debate in Islamic Outreach” by Jay Smith, January 1998, EMQ.
Jay’s approach appears to have a straightforward logic to it. It focuses on the central issues of authority, and appears to offer a way of resolving the apparent impasse in Christian witness to Muslims by destroying the very foundations of Islamic belief.
But there are arguments against it. The history of Christian mission to Islam teaches that many who have seen this approach in operation, and have even been involved in it, believe that it is not the way ahead. Perhaps the best-known episode regarding this method is the Agra debate of 1854 also known as the Mohammedan Controversy which involved the CMS missionary Pfander.1
As is usual after such debates, neither side admitted defeat. What’s more, it does seem that the Christian side came out rather badly. The Muslims certainly felt the missionaries had been beaten at their own game.2 After the debate Pfander remained committed to the polemical method, presumably concluding that they needed to do it better. But other missionaries who were present turned away from that approach, feeling it had been misguided. One of them was Thomas Valpy French, Pfander’s assistant at the debate. It was not that French turned away from the task of witness. He simply came to believe that it was not best served by Pfander’s provocative methods.3
French is not the only example. Temple Gairdner, a missionary in Cairo in the early part of this century, wrote:
We need the song note in our message to the Muslims…not the dry cracked note of disputation, but the song of joyous witness, tender invitation…" 4
Co-existing here is a passionate commitment to witness with a deep sense that disputation proving the other wrong is not the way to do it. This perception seems to be widespread among Christians, past and present, who are concerned with making the gospel of Christ known to Muslims.5
The lesson seems to be that whatever short-term success it has, in the long term polemic evangelism does not work. It is better to concentrate on the positive message and find appropriate ways to get it across.
One could argue that if there is truth in this appeal to history and some Christians would take a much more positive view of the Agra debate and Pfander’s general approach it still doesn’t prove anything conclusively. The Spirit may be leading us into a new way of engaging with Muslims. But hopefully only after opening oneself up seriously to the wisdom of Christians past and present who were and are as committed to mission as we are. Gaudeul’s two-volume work Encounters and Clashes will be a valuable resource for anybody wanting to learn from history.6
A related issue is that of public debate, the classic context in which polemical exchanges take place. Here again, it’s important to take seriously some of the lessons from history. Both sides in a Christian-Muslim public debate almost always go away thinking they’ve won. Barbara Daly Metcalf looks at the question of public debates in her study of the Muslims of late 19th-century India. She suggests that while on the surface the declared intention of such events was an honest pursuit of the truth, the reality is that many other dynamics were at work. Rarely did either side genuinely enter into the other’s mental world. Too often those involved were really addressing their own community. Many undeclared social and psychological functions were being served by these debates.7
These observations will seem questionable to some and do not necessarily translate directly into our contemporary context. One need not conclude that public debate is in all circumstances wrong. But there are warnings to be heeded. Clearly we need to be aware of the purpose of the debate. We must also question whetherthere is more or less contact between Muslims and Christians after the debate. And whether the debate has built bridges or barriers.
SOME FINAL POINTS
Jay is well aware that his method would not work easily in many parts of the world. He also acknowledges that it is perhaps an approachsuited only to the pluralist, democratic, open kind of society in which we live. One which is typified by Hyde Park where there is freedom to attack any belief under the sun. That’s an interesting, but not entirely convincing, point. Thomas Valpy French and Temple Gairdner were working under the protection of the British Empire. They knew missionaries could get away with whatever they wanted to say. It was not simply pragmatic reasons that led them to doubt the value of the polemical approach. They were asking the theological question, "Given that the gospel is what it is and tells us what it does about God, can it be made known in ways that are appropriate to all?"
This raises another question. To what extent should Christians allow Muslim approaches to mold the way they respond? Is it right to argue that because Muslims feel at home in a polemical, gladiatorial setting Christians should meet them there and give as good as they get, fearing that if they don’t they will be thought half-baked believers with no real convictions? Or is there something inherent in the gospel which stands against that approach?
Having made these criticisms of Jay’s approach, I must acknowledge the importance of his contribution. Jay has certainly brought the question of apologetics into the spotlight. He has prompted us to think hard about this vital question and about our use of today’s information technology in the process. Jay has also shown exemplary courage and tenacity in his witness for Christ among Muslims and in his self-control in the midst of heated debate.
Jay would be the first to ask for his approach to be assessed by fellow Christians. I hope his paper will help the wider Christian community reflect on what it should be doing in this area.
ONE FINAL COMMENT
The points I’ve raised should not be taken to imply that we are to avoid disagreement and simply cultivate nice polite friendships with Muslims, sweeping all differences under the carpet. There are approaches to discussion with Muslims which actually want the controversial questions about God, Christ, redemption, and Scripture to be honestly, patiently, and openly examined, but which fear that these key questions will be obscured if we make our primary aim to disprove the faith of the Muslims. There is more than one way of getting to controversial questions. Many Christians believe it is best to do so by showing we have made all the effort we can to understand where Muslims are coming from, and yet continue to affirm our commitment to the gospel, and give good reasons for doing so.
1. Powell, Avril. Muslims and Missionaries in Pre-Mutiny India (Curzon Press, 1993), see also Bennett.
2. Powell, 271.
3. Powell, 238-9.
4. Chapman, Colin. Cross and Crescent (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 297.
5. Chapman, on Henry Martyn, p. 211.
6. Gaudeul, Jean-Marie, Encounters and Clashes: Islam and Christianity in History (Rome, Italy: PISAI, 1990).
7. Metcalf, Barbara Daly. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton University Press, 1982), Chapter 5, especially pp. 215-25.
EMQ, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 36-38. Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.