In my previous contributions on missions, I dealt with two specific defections from the historic Christian faith, Pluralism in Theology and the Church, and Universalism. These developments took place within Western Christianity, both in Protestant and Roman Catholic circles. In this essay, and the next one, I will be covering the global challenge of Islam, with special emphasis on the fact that Islam is more than a Religion. This reality is not easily recognized by the average American, since his understanding of this subject is limited by an individualistic concept of religion, namely, a system of belief and a code of ethics that are limited to the life of the individual, his family, and his or her house of worship.
Unlike Europeans, North Americans have had very little experience with Islam and Muslims. During the modern era, several European nations colonized huge sections of the Muslim world, and thus, gained a direct knowledge of Islam. Before that, during the early and late Middle Ages, some European countries were conquered by Muslims who colonized them for centuries. Think, for example, of Spain. The Arab/Islamic conquest began in 710, and lasted until 1492! Most of Central and Eastern Europe came under Islamic rule for hundreds of years. Would you believe it, Salonika in Northern Greece, was still under Ottoman Turkish rule as late as 1912?
The first American encounter with Muslims occurred soon after independence. The pirates of Tripoli terrorized maritime trade in the Mediterranean, so the U.S. Navy had to deal with them. The real American experience in Muslim lands took place when missionaries of the Presbyterian Church, the Congregational Churches, and the Reformed Church in America, began their missionary activity in the Middle East, in the 19th century. Their work among Eastern Christians and Muslims forms a glorious chapter in the history of missions in the Modern times.
It was after World War II that the United States got really involved in the Muslim world. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, and U.S. oil companies were the first to develop and market it. When the French and British pulled out of the area in the aftermath of World War II, it was the United Sates that sought to fill the vacuum. Israel was born in 1948, and ever since that day, Americans have been drawn into the intricate diplomacy that seeks to keep Israel alive and to convince the Arab/Muslim states to co-exist with the Jewish State.
Finally, thanks to the radical changes in the immigration laws in Canada and the United States, millions of Muslims from the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East, have settled in North America. They use the freedoms of the host countries not only to freely practice their faith, but also to proselytize among their neighbors.
But why single out Islam from among all other religions that have established their presence in Canada and the United States? Should we not pay equal attention to Buddhists and Hindus? Certainly we should. But Islam is much more than a religion. A leading expert on the history of the Arabs and of Islam was the late Lebanese/American scholar, Philip Hitti. He taught at Princeton University for almost fifty years. His book, Islam: a Way of Life has three parts. Part One, Islam As Religion; Part II, Islam as State; and Part III, Islam As Culture.
The development of a religion that was born in Arabia, into a “way of life,” is rooted in its specific history, a history that is inextricably wedded to its founder, Muhammad. Born in Mecca in 570 AD, he began preaching the absolute unity of God at the age of forty. Very few people believed in his message. In 622, he migrated with his few followers to Medina. There, he acted both as Prophet and Statesman. By 632, the year of his death, he had conquered Mecca, and gained the submission of the warring tribes of Arabia. His successors, the Caliphs, began the conquests of the territories of the Persian and Byzantine Empires. By 732, the new Arab/Islamic Empire stretched from Spain to India! Most of the Eastern Christians became subjects of Muslim rulers, had to pay a poll tax, and accept a restricted way of life, in order to remain in their own religion.
The second Islamic expansion took place when the various Turkish tribes from Central Asia Islamized, after coming to the Middle East to serve as mercenaries of the Muslim caliphs in Baghdad. After the Mongolian invasion of the Middle East, and the fall of Baghdad in 1252, the Turks took over the cause of Islam and continued its conquests.
In 1453, they brought an end to the Byzantine Empire when they overran Constantinople, and changed its name to Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks colonized vast territories in Central and Eastern Europe. Twelve years after Martin Luther penned his 95 theses; the Turks laid their first siege of Vienna, with two more to follow during the same century!
This brief survey of the rise and expansion of Islam demonstrates that it spread primarily through conquests. In fact, Islam regards wars of conquest, as an essential part of the faith, calling it, Jihad. At this point, I must add that I do not want to minimize the fact that Islam is a religion, like other religions. It is a theistic religion, teaching that God is both the Creator and the Governor of the world. It has its religious rites and houses of worship. On the other hand, Islam has a specifically political component that is essential for the proper functioning and well being of the community of believers. Muslims must live under “Shari’a”, the Islamic law, and their rulers must enforce it. An Islamic state guarantees the development of a specifically Islamic worldview or culture. Since, Islam is religion, politics, and culture, in one entity, Muslims carry with them, consciously or unconsciously, the ideal of establishing ultimately an Islamic regime where the rule of Allah takes a concrete shape in the here and now. When circumstances are favorable, Muslims are bold enough to advocate and proclaim their political philosophy in Western lands, as they have done recently in the United Kingdom.
As a result of this monolithic view of life in all of its dimensions, and of the theocratic motif that animates the essence of Islam, it has not fostered any sort of societal pluralism among the subject peoples. Thus, Islam managed to bring an end to the existence of the church in North Africa. In the Middle East, its severe restrictions on the life of Christians ended in making a former majority into an ever decreasing and marginalized minority.
Before the 1950s, Muslims lived in exclusively Islamic countries. As of the middle of the 20th century, millions of Muslims have settled in Western Europe and in North America. This is a completely new phenomenon. By now, Muslims have achieved a high degree of visibility, and have begun to demand representation among both governmental and non-governmental institutions. The Department of Defense is now recruiting Muslim chaplains. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have had one of their sessions opened with prayer by a Muslim clergyman. In Cook County, Illinois, Muslim inmates have succeeded in banning the distribution of Christian literature that mentions Islam.
Not content with acceptance and visibility, Muslims are quick to protest any objective reference to Islam that is unacceptable to their sensibility. They are quick to silence any honest description of life under Islamic regimes. I still remember vividly an occasion in my own life, the 30th Anniversary of my broadcasting the Gospel in Arabic in the direction of North Africa and the Middle East. In an interview with a reporter of the Chicago Tribune, I was asked why my broadcasts were aired from outside the Arab world. My response was that, due to the lack of freedom of religion, no radio station in the Middle East would broadcast my messages. No sooner than this interview was published, that I received a severely critical letter from an official of an Islamic organization in Chicago. He demanded that I apologize in the pages of the newspaper to the Islamic community of Chicagoland! At the same time, he published a strongly worded rebuttal to my words in the Tribune’s Letters to the Editor section. He had the audacity to claim that I had abused the freedom of speech as guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, when I said that there was no freedom of religion in Muslim countries. Unfortunately, later on, no editorial word appeared in the Tribune sustaining my statement that freedom of religion in Islamic lands is simply the freedom of propagating Islam, and that unlike America that guarantees freedoms for all its minorities, Islam has no such practice in its 1400 year history.