Dr. Richard Oakes Discusses "The Challenge of Islam"
Islam poses several challenges to today’s world. There are the popular uprisings against political leaders in many Muslim-majority countries, the Arab Spring, for example. There is the mass-migration of Muslims to Europe, Germany in particular.
There is the rise of political Islam along with its associated violence. There is the rising involvement of Muslims in the politics of Western democracies. Challenges from Islam are not new; Islam has been confronting Christianity since its very beginning.
By 712, Islam had expanded out of Arabia and gained control of the Levant, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula, in which not only was Christianity tolerated, but it was the official state religion. At the turn of the 20th century, most of the Muslim world was controlled by the British Empire, so Muslims became embroiled in two World Wars. Just as colonialism was ending, Western Powers carved a Jewish homeland out of a region that was almost entirely populated by Muslims.
The Western Hemisphere has likewise interacted with Islam from early on. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, many West African Muslims endured the Middle Passage, only to become slaves in the Americas. While Morocco was the first country to recognize the independence of the United States in 1777, the U.S. found itself defending its merchant marines from the Barbary Coast pirates in 1805 through a military attack on Moroccan soil. To forever commemorate this victory, the Marine Corp Hymn starts with the phrase “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our country’s battles.” Current encounters with Muslims did not start with 9/11, but they include the 1956 Suez crisis, Palestinian’s hijacking and bombing of airplanes from 1969 to 1988, the 1973 oil embargo, the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, among a host of other events.
While all of these encounters are interesting and important, I want to focus on another arena, an arena that is of particular importance to the followers of Jesus Christ. Islam poses a theological challenge to Christians living in secular societies. While most Muslims live in Muslim-majority countries, including many that are explicitly Islamic Republics, very few Christians live in the only explicitly Christian state, the Vatican; most all Christians live in secular democracies. It is therefore important to understand that there are three different world-views competing for attention, Islam, Christianity and secularism. Who is it Who has paid a price sufficient to win the hearts and minds of the lost? Who is it Who can solve mankind’s problems? So, how do the followers of Jesus Christ, and the WRF in particular, rise to the theological challenges posed by Islam to Christians in secular societies?
Christians rising to the challenge of Islam is not a new idea. St. Francis travelled to Egypt in 1219 to challenge the Sultan to a trial by fire, like Elijah did with the prophets of Baal. Raymond Lull of Spain learned Arabic in order to preach the Gospel in Tunis intermittently from 1285 to 1315. Samuel Zwemer, a Reformed American missionary, served in Arabia and Bahrain from 1891 to 1905 and in Egypt from 1913 to 1929.
Samuel Zwemer founded the Muslim World Journal in 1911 at Hartford Seminary in order to facilitate scholarship about Islam and missions to Muslims. The American Universities in Cairo and Beirut were founded, funded, and staffed by American Presbyterians starting in 1866 and 1919 respectively. Yet, none of these fine Christian institutions remain a beacon of the truth of the Gospel. The Muslim World Journal is now edited by an evangelist for Islam. Hartford Seminary now trains Muslims to be chaplains and Imams. The American Universities in Beirut and Cairo have accepted large grants from a Muslim. These voices that used to proclaim the Gospel in the public square are now controlled by Muslims. The Zwemer Center for apologetics that is housed at Columbia International University no longer teaches the apologetics or polemics for which its founder is famous.
The WRF website includes a blog that discusses its concern with Islam as follows:
In the 21st century in certain parts of our world, Islam has become the major force confronted by evangelical Reformed Christians. Missions, evangelism, and apologetics are all involved in responding Christianly to the challenge of Islam. How can/should Christians deal with this challenge so that the challenge, in fact, becomes a Kingdom opportunity?
Some religious leaders believe that there are moral and ethical "points of contact" between conservative Islam and evangelical Christianity. Are there? And if there are, how should these "points of contact" be utilized? But in addition to possible moral and ethical "points of contact" between Islam and Christianity, some scholars believe that there are theological "points of contact" between Christianity and Islam, that both religions share, for example, a "common word" and perhaps even worship the same God.
At our 2010 General Assembly in Edinburgh, a decision was made to commit the resources of the WRF to an intensive study of how we might assist our members in understanding Islam and in ministering in the context of Islam and that Consultation was carried out in November of 2011.
During the last five years, the WRF has made substantial progress on how it intends to respond to sex trafficking, abuse of women, sexual abuse of children in the church and even, to a degree, gay rights and ministry to the impoverished. Despite the fact that the WRF recognizes Islam as “the major force”, not just one force among many, the last five years of “intensive study” has not yielded answers to:
1) What combination of missions, evangelism, apologetics, polemics, debate, and inter-faith dialog will make the encounter with Islam a Kingdom opportunity?
2) Are there moral, ethical and/or theological “points of contact” with Islam?
3) Do “points of contact” represent agreements between Christianity and Islam or are they common terms or concepts that present opportunities to reach Muslims for the Kingdom?
4) How will WRF respond to “A Common Word between Us and You” that 138 Muslim scholars proffered in 2007?
5) Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
6) How will WRF respond to “The Insider Movement”?
7) How will WRF come to a concise understanding of Islam and how it will engage with Muslims?
8) How will WRF assist its members to come to an understanding of Islam?
9) How will WRF assist its members in ministering to Muslims?
WRF must decide whether it considers Islam to be a legitimate way to attain salvation or whether Islam offers false hopes that lead Muslims to eternal damnation. These, and other questions, must be answered in order to determine how WRF will engage with Islam. While I have answers to all of these questions, the answer to question 7 is that the consensus of Islamic scholars within WRF must answer these questions in the form of a concise document that is then presented to the general assembly for approval. Suggesting the way forward when the essential questions have not been answered is a bit of a leap. Nonetheless, I will outline an answer to the last two questions that is not entirely contingent upon the answers to the first six questions.
Much of what Christians ‘know’ about Muslims and Islam is heavily tainted by their cultural, political, and economic biases. Most of what Christians ‘know’ about Islam has been learned from the media (TV, radio, magazines and newspapers). For the most part, the same is true for pastors and other Christian leaders. Most discussions among Christians that concern what Muslims believe and practice seem to take one of two lines of reasoning; either “all Muslims have a bomb strapped to their chests” or “all religions lead to the same place,” an appropriation of “all roads lead to Rome.” While some Christians appropriately complain that the media does a poor job of explaining Christianity, few Christians seem to recognize that the media also does an especially poor job of presenting Islam accurately. Therefore, Christian leaders must replace the secular media as their interpreters of Islam, so that they can properly inform the members of their churches.
A nuanced understanding of the similarities and the differences between Christian and Muslim beliefs and practices is sadly lacking among most Christians. Christian leaders, pastors and other Christians need to learn about Islam from people who have a religious vocabulary and understand what is important to people of faith. Some Christians are taking up the challenge of Islam by earning PhDs at secular universities, where they study the original authoritative Muslim sources in order to fairly represent Islam and Muslims to the church. This cutting-edge scholarship needs to be transmitted to the next generation of pastors who can then properly teach their congregations. Informed Christians can then be equipped to respectfully befriend Muslims and explain the truth about the person and works of Jesus.
Christians who are scholars of Islam hold a unique set of valuable skills that are best employed by continuing their research, presenting their findings at academic conferences, publishing cutting-edge articles and books, supervising graduate-level research, participating in public debates, teaching regular and intensive college-level courses, church classes and public conferences, as well as giving the media a nuanced and informed understanding of Islam from a Christian perspective. Unfortunately, most secular universities require adherence to their secular politically-correct agenda that provides little to no place for Christian scholars to critically teach about Islam. Most seminaries, Bible colleges and Christian liberal arts colleges require professors to teach so many courses that little time is left to continue their research. A structure that is especially designed to foster the development and dissemination of critical scholarship about Islam to Christians is needed. Again, I can offer several initiatives that will pull together the pieces of this puzzle, but it remains the consensus of Islamic scholars within WRF who must present a document to the general assembly for approval. Nonetheless, let us now move to the magnitude of the task at hand.
Now that millions of Muslims reside in the secular West, a few Muslim leaders have taken the initiative to explain a particular understanding of Islam. I will cite three examples here, in order to demonstrate the magnitude of their commitment, one that makes it clear that they are serious about influencing how the secular West perceives Islam. The 49th Aga Khan established London’s Ismaili Institute of Islamic Studies in 1977. Their directory identifies over 100 employees and their publications catalogue showcases some 80 books written by their staff. The purpose of this initiative is to legitimize Ismailis to Muslims, Christians and secularists, while distancing themselves from their identity as the ‘Assassins’. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz provided €60M funding for his International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna in 2011. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal gave $20M to Harvard and $20M to Georgetown in 2005, £8M to Edinburgh and £8M to Cambridge in 2008, and $10M to the American University in Cairo and $10M to the American University in Beirut in 2010. He then gave €14M to house 2,500 Islamic artifacts in a new 50,000 square foot wing of Paris’ Louvre that opened in 2012. Taken together, Saudi donations approximate $160M. These gifts were made for the purpose of prompting some of the most credible institutions to explain to the West a form of Islam that is quite different from the kind of Islam sponsored by the House of Saud.
Rather than bewailing the loss of the influence that these formerly Christian institutions had for the Gospel, Christians must redouble their efforts by developing more influential platforms. Let me open the discussion with a modest proposal for discussion among the scholars of Islam who are members of WRF:
1- Develop a coalition with other Protestants (Lutherans, Anglicans, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals), Catholics, Orthodox, Coptic and Oriental Christian organizations that are committed to reaching Muslims for the Kingdom.
2- Establish an international institute for Islamic Studies in Europe, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas by sending an RFP to the Islamic Studies departments of the leading universities in each region. Offer the winning university a donation in exchange for them housing an International Institute for Islamic Studies that will be staffed by only Christians and will be dedicated to the most cutting edge critical scholarship on Islam.
3- Equip the world’s dozen leading Christian tertiary educational institutions (Christian university, college, seminary and Bible College) with a comprehensive program in Islamic Studies.
4- Develop a program that will provide an introductory course on Islam at every accredited Christian tertiary educational institution within a decade. In most cases, adjunct professors will teach courses at several institutions. Their meager compensation must be supplemented with reimbursement of costs incurred when presenting their research at academic conferences, speaking honorariums, incentives for publication of articles and books.
5- Form an alliance with a publishing house (or start our own publishing house) that will start a series dedicated to cutting edge critical analysis of the most important aspects of Islam.
6- Start an academic journal.
7- Create a digital library that makes all Islamic books published available to all Christians who are studying Islam.
8- Found and fund a think tank that lobbies for public policy initiatives based on a deep understanding of Islamic theology.
9- Develop a panel of experts that supplies the secular media with clear and concise explanations about Islam that is appropriate to the particular current events.
10- In order for the WRF to win the hearts, minds and souls of Muslims, it must do no less than Muslims have already done. Raising initial funding of $250,000,000 seems appropriate.
I will conclude with a couple of alternatives: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”…or… we could keep doing what we’ve been doing and continue achieving the same results.