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Posted on Thu 1 January 2015

Longing for Community: Church, Ummah, or Somewhere in Between?, A Review Essay

This book on the theme of Christian witness in Muslim settings contains contributions from some twenty missiologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and linguists. It spans a huge range of mission involvement spread over several continents, and there is much practical wisdom to be found here. We need to remember that these were addresses presented to a mixed conference, and therefore we should not demand too much academic rigor from them.

The chapters concentrate heavily on the questions of effective evangelism, conversion, and discipleship, but there is little here about the social, economic, and political dimensions of Christian mission. Given the disciplines of many of the contributors, there is a somewhat uncritical use of the social sciences and their jargon, without a sufficient amount of theological rigor being brought both to the use of the social sciences and to the description of various missionary situations in which the contributors find themselves.

A glaring omission is ecclesiology. Individual stories are well told and groups described, but often with little information regarding how the authors view the significance of the church for mission, in both its local manifestation and its universal nature. A few of the contributors are from a Muslim background, one of whom does mention the church as being significant for converts as they transfer from one community to another.

As so often today, the phenomenon of conversion is considered from anthropological and sociological perspectives, but we need more on conversion’s spiritual and theological aspects, as well as the priority of the missio Dei in this and other areas of mission. The issue of continuity and discontinuity is a complex one and needs to be examined in all of its aspects, with both the positive (as praeparatio evangelica) and the negative (the lingering on of the undesirable) meriting due attention. It is indeed useful, as in one of the contributions, to tabulate both what has attracted converts to the new faith (a sense of God’s love, security, freedom, guidance, and so forth) and what has turned them away from their old way of life (such as empty ritual, inflexible law and customs, and distance from the divine).

In the entirely laudable project of seeking to communicate the Gospel in an Islamic milieu, there is always the lurking danger of lapsing into a dhimmi mentality which assumes the validity and priority of an Islamic worldview and value system. Some of the great heroes of the faith, mentioned by the only Roman Catholic contributor, made huge sacrifices for Christ and evoked the admiration of numerous Muslims and Christians. The difficult question, however, is to what extent they accepted the prohibitions of Islam on freedom of expression, belief, and the right to change one’s belief. The same question can be asked of many missionary projects today: To what extent are they simply accommodating themselves to a dhimmi framework? And is campaigning for greater freedom simply a waste of energy?

Given that the connection of Islam to Muslim-majority cultures is particularly strong, does there not need to be, nevertheless, a proper distinction between religion and culture? Should not this be so, even if many cultural practices and values are derived from a particular religious tradition? The problem with identifying culture entirely with religion is that contextualization can begin to look very much like capitulation. The issue becomes sharply focused in the debate about “insiders,” or followers of Jesus within Muslim communities who maintain their Muslim identity. To what extent has there been conversion if people continue to participate in the salat (ritual prayer), make the shahada (the Muslim profession of faith), derive their knowledge of Jesus and devotion to him mainly from the Qur’an and the Hadith, and so on? Other questions concern the relation of communities of such followers (if they are in communities) to other local churches and the worldwide church. Also, how are persons and cultures to be transformed by the Gospel if the status quo ante is largely maintained? There remain serious questions about whether such communities or persons will be allowed to survive within the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam).

We must remember that evangelists and missionaries stand within the apostolic tradition and are not semidetached from it or outside it altogether. This means, for instance, not making up elements of contextualization but using the rich and varied sources of Christian tradition—for example, in patterns of worship, liturgy, the public reading of the Scriptures, and forms of private devotion. In Islamic contexts, we are particularly fortunate that so much has been taken from Eastern Christian traditions and can be reappropriated without violence to the integrity of the Gospel. The problem sometimes is that Western Christian missionaries, and even Westernized indigenous Christians, are unaware of this rich heritage waiting on their doorstep or are suspicious of it. In some places, Islam is an import into an existing Christian culture; elsewhere, both Christianity and Islam have come from outside. Whatever the case, rich resources for inculturation are available because of the historic interaction between Muslims and Christians. Let us use them!

The book represents a brave attempt at assessing the many opportunities and problems for Christian witness in Muslim contexts. I hope it is only the beginning and that some of the issues raised in this review essay will be tackled at the next conference and in any publications that result from it.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali

January 2015

A copy of this essay can be downloaded from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research website Vol. 39, no. 1 (2015)

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