Mohammedan Missions in the Near East: A Sermon Preached in Lincoln Minster
By William John Oldfield.
London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1903.
MOHAMMEDAN MISSIONS IN THE NEAR EAST
"Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord." 2 KINGS x. 16.
WHEN, in our earlier days, we read Old Testament history, we took it as a matter of course that the monotheistic religion of Israel should be propagated by the extermination of unbelieving tribes, and preserved by the massacre of apostates, because we thought it was all done in obedience to the Divine command, or at least with the Divine sanction. And when, with this thought in our minds, we come to the New Testament, and find it soaked through with the idea of a God who loves all mankind--an idea which underlies the teaching of the Old Testament, but apparently not the practice--we are not surprised that men should sometimes have said that the God of the Old Testament is a different God from the God of the New. But when we have set ourselves to examine this problem, we have learned to realize the now well-recognized fact that Old Testament history records the simple [3/4] progress and evolution of man's moral and religious nature, subject only to the general guidance of Divine inspiration.
Thus Jehu was evidently a man of some nobility of character, and beloved by those under him, but he did not rise above the character of his age. His ruthless massacres are represented, therefore, as the outcome of his zeal for the Lord; but a later age denounced these same massacres, so that Hosea could say: "Yet a little while, and I will avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu" (Hosea i. 4). And in his day the golden calves of Beth-el and Dan were part of the national form of worship, and there was no public opinion to condemn them; but the historian, writing later, could reflect the spirit of a more advanced age, and say: "Howbeit from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, Jehu departed not from after them, to wit, the golden calves that were at Beth-el, and that were in Dan" (2 Kings x. 29), and "Jehu took no heed to walk in the law of the Lord God of Israel with all his heart: for he departed not from the sins of jeroboam, which made Israel to sin" (ver. 31). And thus we see the explanation of facts which would otherwise be inexplicable in the face of a recognition of God's abiding Providence; later instances of which bring a blush of shame to our cheeks for the honour of Christianity. The Israelites, in their extermination of the tribes of Canaan; Jael, in her murder of Sisera; Jehu, in his [4/5] massacres; the followers of Mohammed, in their devastations; the judges of the Inquisition, in their autos da fé; the agents of Queen Mary, in the fires of Smithfield; the Puritans, in their extrusion and persecution of the Church clergy--all believed that they were doing God service, even as did St. Paul, when he gave his vote for the death of Stephen.
And when we take a survey of the world at the present time, we see all these various conditions still in existence. Some nations are centuries behind others, and might well be described in the words of Old Testament descriptions of ancient heathen people. But there is this difference: the world of mankind has made progress forward, and through the influence of Christianity, the highest nations have a higher standard of justice--of right and wrong--than the world has ever known before. It is not a question of exceptional individuals who have been in advance of their age, it is the fact of the combination in whole nations of a higher moral standard, and a higher intellectual standard for the people of those nations as a whole: this it is that forms the most conclusive external proof of the superiority of Christianity, and the watchful direction of a patient God over the progress of free-willed beings.
This thought should guide us in our plans and deliberations for the evangelization of the world. God is working, has never ceased working, towards that end. If we forget that fact, and base our [5/6] plans on the principles which guided the Israelites, forgetful of all the lessons God has taught us in the interval, and go forth with the conceit that our own English form of Christianity is the only form of religion that God can accept, our work will be doomed to a considerable measure of failure,--failure which will not necessarily be measurable by lack of converts, but by waste of misdirected energy.
Let us bring these principles to the treatment of practical matters in the near East. We come at once face to face with Islam. We ask ourselves whether the deficiencies in the characters of Moslems are due to the backwardness of the race, or to the insufficient power of elevation in their religion. We read that in the opinion of many the religious character of the average Mohammedan is superior to that of the average Christian; and to a superficial observer there is much to support the theory. Islam is no longer propagated to any extent by the sword. The unconscious influence of the West has taught them the better way of preparing and sending out missionaries. So much advance has been made. Can we say that the advance is much more than that? A Mohammedan fellah never forgets to say his prayers--a poor Christian often does forget. The captain of a P. & O. steamer once said to me: "All my sailors are Mohammedans; during the fast of Ramadan not one of them tasted anything from [6/7] sunrise to sunset. Now it is Lent; how many of my passengers are keeping the appointed fast of your Church?" Again, the valuable land on which the English Church is built, in the heart of Alexandria, was given by a Mohammedan Khedive. The Mohammedan Government of Egypt will sell public lands to any Christian mission at half the market price; they admit into the country goods destined for Christian missions free of duty; they allow Christian missionaries to travel on their lines of railway at half-fares. But none of these things proves the power of Islam to form character. The careful observance by the fellahin of the forms of religion is only what we should expect from a purely pastoral and agricultural people, whose whole life is spent with Nature. The other facts may be credited to a far-seeing desire to derive benefit from close contact with Western civilization and education. And if this explanation be denied and called uncharitable, then all we can say is this: Some Mohammedans have been better than the teaching of their religion, while no Jew or Christian has ever been able to reach the height of the teaching of his, and many have fallen far below it. The one is an ideal, unattainable in its full perfection by man on earth, but ever pulling him onwards and upwards, because Divine; the other is a human teaching, marvellous indeed, not only attainable, but actually capable of being surpassed. Such a religion can have only a limited [7/8] existence: it is quite incapable of keeping pace with man's needs as he advances. The true external test of the value of a religion is its power of building up character to form a nation. With all its millions of adherents, there is no nation of any importance professing Islam, while every first-class nation is Christian. Tried by this test, we must thankfully yet tremblingly confess our belief that God has not only granted to our nation in Christianity the highest form of religion, but also the highest light yet vouchsafed to man for the true understanding of Christianity.
With this treasured gift, and the command that goes with it, we cannot sit still. We must share our light with others. And in this work we have a larger book of experience open before us for our guidance than man has ever had before. We see that God takes on a people at the point to which they have attained, and leads them gently onwards. He does not condemn those who are a few centuries behind others as unworthy of consideration, and "hopelessly corrupt." "With many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it" (Mark iv. 33). "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now" (John xvi. 12). And St. Paul adopts the same principle when he says to the Corinthian Church: "I fed you with milk, not with meat, for ye were not yet able to bear it: nay, not even now are ye able" (I Cor. iii. 2). We dare not neglect carrying the [8/9] message of salvation to the Mohammedan, but we are obliged first to ask, When and how shall we go?
What are the conditions? We go with a message of love. But in Palestine the Mohammedan can say to us: " How can you come to us with a message of love when our soldiers are obliged to keep the peace among you at the very places you revere as sacred to the memory of Him Whom you call the Teacher of love? How can you come to us with a message of love, when no Jew dare pass through the area at the Holy Sepulchre under pain of being stoned to death by you Christians, though He Whom you worship was Himself a Jew? when you use the spot near which He prayed ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,' as the place where you persecute those for whom He prayed? You tell us that your religion will elevate us, and yet we see the priests of the Greek Church in our midst uneducated, degraded, neglected, and compelled to beg alms of every passerby for the bare means of existence; and when in Egypt the representatives of Christianity are those whom you yourselves despise, and whom we have for centuries kept in subjection, and learned to treat with scorn? And how can you missionaries come to us and tell us that your teaching is what has made England great, when your nation contradicts much of your teaching? You say that it is a precept of your religion that Sunday should be [9/10] observed as a day of rest. Your own nation, through our English officials, says that it does not matter, and they keep our Friday instead. You say that you have religious fasts and feasts to be observed, but your own people neglect them, and herald in our fasts and feasts with the firing of guns by your soldiers; and in this way your own nation acknowledges the equality, if not the superiority, of our religion." Can we wonder if, in the face of all these facts combined, our Mission congregations consist chiefly of those who have for very various reasons left the Christian Church of their baptism? May we not say that for Mohammedan missions in the near East the fulness of time is not yet come?
And if we look at the problem from another point of view, we seem to be led to the same conclusion. In Egypt the Mohammedan is in close contact with Western civilization. That contact necessitates his advance. There is probably no backward country in the world that is at the present time making such rapid progress as Egypt. But Islam, by its very character, cannot keep pace with that advance. The time cannot be very far distant, reckoned by the ages of the world's history, when the point will be reached where the Egyptian must part company with Islam. Christian missions must prepare for that time.
Again, the methods of thought of East and [10/11] West are wholly different. A Western controversialist will find himself constantly baffled in his attempts to prove his points by the ordinary method of a logical sequence of ideas. An Eastern does not feel bound to accept a conclusion because a chain of reasoning seems to lead him to it. He loves an argument, but after two or three hours' hard talking you may find him fall back upon some such position as this: Such a thing ought to be so, therefore it is so. In the larger towns this is probably being broken down by higher education and contact with Western thought; but God has prepared a better weapon than that. An American, skilled in all the teaching of Islam, when engaged in a public controversy with a Mohammedan, found himself very thankful for the assistance of a Copt who was present. Here is God's instrument, ready to hand. The educated Copt of the future will be the natural means of placing Christianity in a light that the Mohammedan can accept. He has higher intellectual ability; greater power of mental concentration; a natural capacity for assimilating the teaching of the West and clothing it in an Eastern garb; he knows all the unexpected twists and turns of an Eastern mind--here surely is the instrument ready to hand, only requiring to be brightened and sharpened. The rust on the blade, and the dulness of the edge, are plain for all men to see; but it may not on that account be rejected, [11/12] and bits of it broken off to make of it something new and different. The Coptic Church has been wonderfully preserved by God, and it must be for some purpose in the one Divine plan. If we do not believe that, then while we can account for all its failings, we have no explanation of its continued existence.
Then again, a Copt turned into a Western type of Christian is often spoiled in the process. He has lost that beautiful simplicity which is a remarkable characteristic of the unspoiled Copt; insomuch that the style of a letter will often reveal to you whether your unknown correspondent is a simple Copt, or one who has been influenced by the mixed life of the large towns, or one who has left his Church for one of the many forms of Western Protestantism. And be it remembered that there is no dissent in Egypt except what Western Christianity has carried there. Of the two indigenous Churches of the land, the Greek Orthodox is for the resident Greeks, with less than 3000 Egyptians, and these only in three towns of the Delta; while the Coptic Church is the national Church with 600,000 Egyptian adherents.
To sum up.--A degraded and despised form of Christianity is a standing hindrance to the evangelization of the Mohammedans who dwell side by side with them. The Mohammedan is advancing, and his limited faith is already beginning to break down under the strain. The Copt is advancing, [12/13] intellectually and socially, but his intelligent grasp of the faith is not at present advancing in equal proportion. His very existence is a standing tribute to the steadfastness of his character, and, surrounded for centuries by temptations to legalized self-indulgence, he has maintained a high moral standard. He is capable of forming a natural link between the thought of East and West; but if he be wholly Westernized this capability ceases to exist. All that is needed is that these powers and capabilities should be brought out, and educated, and guided, and disciplined, and strengthened. If we do this, we shall be using the ground which God has already up to a certain point prepared, and wonderfully preserved in the face of influences which must otherwise have overwhelmed it.
"Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord." Jehu's method of showing his zeal was the method of his age. God has taught us much since then. Judged by our present knowledge, Jehu's zeal would seem to be zeal for power, zeal for self-interest, zeal for his own plans, anything but zeal for the Lord. In our modern missions do we not sometimes forget these lessons, and show great zeal for missions, zeal for our own plans and ideas, and not zeal for the Lord? It is often very difficult to be quite sure that we are on the right course; but surely we cannot be going far wrong when we allow ourselves to be guided by the consideration that every lesson of human history [13/14] in the past and all the facts of present conditions agree in suggesting that, instead of planning something quite new, we should take up the work at the point where God has allowed it to stop until the fulness of time should come for further advance to be made.
I will conclude by quoting a writer whose wide experience gives his words great weight. In Mohammedanism: Has it any future? Mr. Robinson says: "We do well to remember that if ever we are to win over the Mohammedans to what we believe is the truer faith, it must be by means of these Eastern Churches. No form of Christianity introduced, whether from London or from New York, presented as it must inevitably be in a Western dress, is ever likely to appeal very strongly to the Eastern mind. On the other hand, but once restore to the Churches of the East freedom and opportunities for education and reform, and there is no reason why history should not repeat itself, and why the members of these Churches should not become missionaries to the Mohammedans amongst whom they live, and with whose methods of thought they, as Easterns, are so fully in sympathy" (p. 47). And turning to Egypt, he says: "A reformed Coptic Church would be the best possible agency wherewith to bring Christian influence to bear upon the Mohammedans of Egypt" (p. 70). Most missions--perhaps all--would agree with that statement as a theory; but [14/15] some will not allow the possibility of reform, and few will agree as to the lines which that reform should follow.
Let us pray for guidance to Him Who has promised to be with His Church even to the end of the world, and Whose Holy Spirit is given to guide us into all the truth.