“Islam is Christianity’s greatest challenge.” In that succinct sentence the Reverend Melvin A. Wittler, a United Church of Christ missionary in Turkey, summarized an afternoon’s conversation concerning Christianity and the Middle East. His words lingered in my mind as I left Bible House in Istanbul on a late August afternoon and walked through the congested Egyptian Spice Market toward the Galata Bridge, connecting artery between the old and new parts of the city. Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, was once the theological capital of Christendom; today it is one of Islam’s largest and most sacred cities. From the chief minaret of the massive Yeni Valide Camii, or New Mosque, came the clear voice of the muezzin uttering the Muslim’s call to prayer that is also a confession of faith: “I bear witness that there is no god except God; I bear witness that Muhammad is the Apostle of God.” As the invitation echoed over the sounds of street, market, and harbor, it seemed to offer eloquent testimony to the accuracy of Wittler’s remark.
No matter how one views the issue—theologically, historically, or practically—Islam is Christianity’s chief rival for the loyalty of mankind.
First, theologically, Islam is Christianity’s most skillful and articulate intellectual competitor. Since it is the only world religion born since the advent of Christianity, its very existence is a challenge to the finality of the Gospel. Islam is also the only universal faith that claims to have surpassed and superseded Christianity. This is done, not by a rejection of Jesus, but by a radical reinterpretation of the man and his meaning.
Starting with the affirmation that Muhammad is the last and greatest apostle of God, Islam relegates Jesus to the position of the penultimate prophet. He is honored as the next to last in a series of twenty-eight prophets stretching back through Alexander the Great and Abraham to Adam. In the teachings of Muhammad, recorded in the Koran, are found the ultimate and uncorrupted revelations of the will of God. God’s message given to mankind through Jesus was adulterated by the Church, especially Paul. In due season, however, the Comforter promised by Jesus appeared in the person of Muhammad. The truth was restored. Muhammad, therefore, must eclipse Christ as God’s last word; the Koran must correct the confused narratives of the New Testament; the good advice of the Prophet must replace the good news of the Savior; the crescent must be substituted for the cross.
From its inception, therefore, Islam has been Christianity’s most dangerous doctrinal challenge. It offers “another Christ,” “another gospel,” another way of salvation. With a peculiar Christology, a divergent revelation, and an alternative presentation of the prophetic succession, Islam holds up to the world an interpretation of holy history and the life of Christ radically different from that reported in the Scriptures. For this reason some of the medieval fathers regarded Islam as a Christian heresy. It was a doctrinal deviation similar to Arianism. Regardless of the merits of that position, the danger is obvious. Islam takes the principles, personalities, events, and promises of sacred history and revises and uses this familiar material in a manner foreign to the spirit and letter of primitive Christianity. This new synthesis is presented to the world as the pristine revelation of God. It is precisely at this point that Islam becomes Christianity’s greatest theological challenge, for it is the oldest and most widespread surviving revision of the Gospel.
Second, historically, next to Judaism, Islam is Christianity’s oldest competitor. It is also the most successful. Only the confrontation with Israel dates back further than the thirteen-century-old conflict between Christianity and Islam. Islam has also been the only world religion to win great numbers of converts from Christianity. From the seventh century until modern times the Church steadily lost ground to Islam. From Morocco to Mesopotamia, countries once under the cross took up the crescent. Palestine, the home of Jesus and the early Church, became an early addition to the caliphate. Egypt, the motherland of Christian monasticism and a center of theological reflection from Origen to Athanasius, came into the orbit of Mecca. North Africa, where all Western theology had its roots in the labors of such Latin fathers as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine of Hippo, was incorporated into the world of Islam. Anatolia, the site of Paul’s early journeys, of the ecumenical councils, and of much of patristic theology, became a province of Islam. Of the five great patriarchates of the ancient Church—Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—only Rome remained free from Muslim conquest. From Spain to Syria Christianity retreated from the lands that gave it its birth and early nurture. And except for the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas, Christianity has never recovered areas lost to Islam.
Third, practically, Islam is Christianity’s greatest missionary competitor. It is Christianity’s major rival today for the allegiance of the peoples of the developing nations of Asia and Africa. Even in urban America there is some interest in Islam in the ghettos. With nearly 500 million adherents, Islam is second in size only to Christianity. This world of Islam, stretching from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean across three continents to the islands of the Pacific, is the earth’s largest missionary field. Yet the Muslim peoples through the centuries have remained the most unresponsive of all nations to the appeal of the missionary witness. In its very inception, Islam stands as a judgment on the Church of the seventh century for its failure to evangelize Arabia; by its continued existence, it testifies to the most tragic failure of the Church’s evangelistic mission in the successive ages. This alone would make Islam Christianity’s greatest challenge.
To begin to meet the challenge of Islam, we must ask two questions. First, why have we failed? And second, what do we have to offer the Middle East?
Why Have We Failed?
The results of evangelization in the Middle East, when measured statistically, have been meager. The explanation for this lies in large measure in the various cultural, political, and spiritual difficulties involved in witnessing in the Muslim world.
First, there is the cultural barrier. Christianity is both a native and a stranger in the Middle East. It had its birth in Palestine, which is geographically at the heart of the Middle East, and the Church during its first seven centuries was centered around the eastern Mediterranean. No one could deny that Christianity was an Asian religion. Yet today Christianity is regarded in the area as Western, and the Church is often felt to be an alien element in the Middle East. As in the first, so in the twentieth century, Christ “came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11).
In part this is because Christianity is believed to be the religion of foreigners. It is described as the Greek Church, or the Roman Church, or the European Church, or the American Church. This opinion is reinforced by the legacy of thirteen centuries of armed conflict between the Muslim and Christian communities. Christians still recall with sorrow the armies of Islam, both Arabic and Ottoman, and lament the loss of the East. The Muslims remember with distaste the Christian counterattack in the Crusades. More distinct in their memory is the record of Western imperialism in the region, beginning with the French annexation of Algeria in 1830 and climaxing in the occupation of the Arab lands after the defeat of the Turks in World War I. Today this historical animosity is kept alive in the Muslim mind by the Western origin of, and continued support for, the nation of Israel. Christianity is thus identified with a rival civilization: the West. To turn Christian would be to ally oneself with the alien oppressor.
This suspicion appears to be confirmed by the absence of indigenous Christian churches in the Middle East. There are exceptions, of course, as in Lebanon. But one searches in vain for a native Turkish, Arabic, or Persian church. In most of the area Christianity is the religion of ethnic minorities, as Greeks and Armenians. To compound the problem, the loyalty of these groups is sometimes questioned, and for a Muslim to join such a church would be to defect from “the nation of Islam” and associate himself with elements regarded as a “fifth column.”
A closely connected cultural difficulty concerns the status of Christians. Christianity is viewed as the religion of an inferior class of people. Many Muslims believe that the communicants of the Christian churches—Coptic, Greek, Armenian, Syrian—are descended from losers; they are considered to be the heirs of people inferior in arms to the Arabs and the Turks in the Middle Ages. Though tolerated (and in the Middle Ages Islam was much more tolerant than Catholic Europe), these subjugated peoples were relegated to a religious ghetto and a secondary place in society. Cut off from the larger community by custom, conviction, conscience, and social class (sometimes also by language), the ethnic churches became passive, pessimistic, and introverted. They neither sought nor welcomed converts from the Muslim world; indeed, they were frequently forbidden to do so. The churches were isolated from society. At the same time many Muslims came to feel a real pride in their religion and became convinced that to turn Christian would be to exchange a higher for a lower status. Christianity is the religion of slaves and subjects, Islam that of masters and rulers.
The result of these cultural developments has been that Christianity is severed from its roots in the region. As a “cut flower religion,” it flourished for a while under Muslim rule and then withered. It will be very difficult for Christianity to overcome these cultural barriers in the Middle East.
Second, there is the political barrier. Dr. Roderic H. Davison, professor of history at George Washington University, once said that in the Middle East “religion is politics, politics is religion.” The American concept of the separation of church and state is quite new to the area. From the time of Muhammad, Muslims believed that legal, political, military, and spiritual powers should be united. The Koran was to be the law of the land; citizenship was determined by religious commitment; the state was to embody the community of Islam. Under the caliphate, such a fusion of religion and politics existed from the seventh until the twentieth century.
Since the abolition of the caliphate after World War I, different patterns have come to prevail. Some Muslim states, such as Turkey, have tried to separate religion from political administration; others, such as Pakistan (which means “Holy Land”), with its capital at Islamabad (“City of Islam”), have attempted to revive the Muslim theocracy. Regardless of the alternative chosen—the secular or the sacred state—restrictions, either statutory or implied, circumscribe the work of the missionary. These limitations concern such matters as proselyting, holding public meetings, church construction, and the consequences of a change of faith. They exist because in the Middle East religious activity is by definition political action. Such conditions make it very difficult to establish church life as we know it in the United States.
Akin to the problem of politics is that of group solidarity. Individualism as known in the Western world scarcely exists in the Middle East. Identity is discovered through membership in groups: the family, the nation, and the community of Islam. With the political restrictions that prevail, virtually the only way Christians can witness is by personal testimony on a one-to-one basis. This is indeed the approach most familiar to evangelicals. Problems arise, however, in the case of a conversion to Christianity. The convert is cut off from his former communities of meaning, and there is often no strong church fellowship with which he can identify. Social, economic, and even political persecution sometimes follow. Under these circumstances, some feel that if the Middle East is to come to Christ, it will have to be by a mass movement away from Islam to the Gospel. Communities will have to be converted. Yet mass evangelism is prohibited.
A further political factor is the upsurge of conservative Islam in the region. The Pakistani theocracy has been admired by orthodox Muslims from Turkey to Indonesia. Even in Turkey, the most secular of the Muslim states, a major Islamic revival has been under way since the early 1950s. Politicians, often Muslim in name only, sometimes use the rhetoric of religion and promise to further the ideals of a theocracy. Islam is increasingly being identified as a “national religion” with a privileged position throughout the area.
Third, there is the spiritual barrier. Part of this wall against Christianity has been constructed by the poor witness to the faith offered by some Westerners in the Middle East—some soldiers, hippies, and tourists seeking “a vacation from religion.” The impression created is that the Christian is a gavur (“unbeliever”) who is without spiritual or moral convictions. This confirms Islam’s view of the West as the “House of War” still living in “The Age of Ignorance.” Furthermore, while the Middle Easterners admire Western technology and seek to imitate it, they are unimpressed by Occidental theology. The Christian world, by failing to exemplify the faith it confesses, has given a poor witness to the world of Islam.
The major spiritual obstacle, however, is the Muslim’s belief that he already knows the story of Jesus: the tale of a prophet, born of the Virgin Mary, who preached a moral message, who met opposition, but who was saved by God from crucifixion by the substitutionary death of Judas Iscariot on the cross. Inoculated with this version of the Passion history, the Muslim seems to become immunized against the New Testament account of the Christ who died on the cross as a substitute for a sinful race of Judases. The cross is to the Muslim world what it was to ancient Israel—a stumbling block.
What Can We Offer?
In view of the enormous difficulties involved in witnessing in the Middle East, some have asked, Why persist? What is the motivation for remaining at a task that is so frustrating and unrewarding? The answer is in what we have to offer the Muslim world: love for a man, the Middle East’s most famous son, Jesus Christ. In this there is a five-fold rationale for the Church’s mission to the Middle East:
1. First, we witness because of the command of Christ that “you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Today we must reverse the order of advance given in this injunction and return from the ends of the earth to Samaria, Judea, and Jerusalem. The Church must reenter the Middle East with an invitation to discipleship so that our Lord’s Semitic kinsmen after the flesh may become his brethren according to the Spirit.
2. Second, we witness because of the truth of Christ. Truth is universal, and, as Alec Vidler has written of Christianity, “either it is true for all men, whether they know it or not; or it is true for no one, not even for those people who are under the illusion that it is true” (Christian Belief, p. 10). To a Muslim who still asks of an inscrutable deity, “Who has known the mind of the Lord …?” (Isa. 40:13), we can come with the enlightening promise, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
3. Third, we witness to the fullness of Christ. Our mission to the Middle East is our prayer in action that the day will come when the Muslim peoples will know Jesus not simply as Prophet-Teacher but also as Saviour-King. Our message to them is the same as that of Paul to the Philippians, of “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:5–11).
4. Fourth, we witness to the grace of Christ, that in Christ “all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19, 20).
5. Fifth, we witness to the fellowship of Christ, in which there is no east or west, no Jew or Arab, no male or female. This is the community of reconciliation that could mean a new day for the Middle East with a spiritual reunion of Europe and Asia, the end of the estrangement between Abraham’s sons, and an emancipation declaration for the Muslim woman. Christ, up to now the barrier between Christian, Jew, and Muslim, can become, by the grace of God, the bridge to oneness in the Gospel.
Islam is Christianity’s greatest challenge—and Christianity’s greatest opportunity. Surely the Spirit, using sanctified reason, will show us a way to find new methods of penetrating the Muslim world with the message of Christ.
C. George Fry, an ordained Lutheran minister, is assistant professor of history at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio. He holds the Ph.D. from Ohio State. Last summer he was in Istanbul studying Turkish Islam on a grant from the Regional Council for International Education.
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