Middle East Published Articles Zwemer

Islam and the Bigotry of Conviction


The Muslim World (TMW) is one of the leading academic journals covering Islam worldwide. Strange it would call its own history “bigoted”.

It was founded in 1911 by Samuel Zwemer, a founding father of Protestant missions in engagement with the oft-rival monotheistic faith. Now published by Hartford Seminary, like much of the Protestant mainline its original evangelistic fervor has faded.

Still I was startled to read the concluding sentence of an informative historical biography TMW published in commemoration of their 100th edition:

A century later, TMW has successfully broken ranks with religious provincialism and bigotry, and lives up to the present motto of the Seminary “exploring differences and deepening faith.”

Is this a fair account of all but TMW’s most recent scholarship?

The article notes the academic rigor exhibited from its beginnings to the present day, and despite this conclusion is charitable towards its earliest pioneers and the belief system that propelled them. But it chronicles the development of TMW from a Protestant missionary endeavor to a nonsectarian survey of Muslim-Christian relations. Begun by “the apostle to the Muslim world,” it is now edited by a Muslim.

Editors had to choose between faithfulness to its evangelizing mission to the Muslim world, and thus remain a primary resource for missionary activities, or tilt toward an academic oriented journal concerned with dialogue with Islam. …

To be sure, the journal might have faltered and disappointed many in its hundred years of existence; however, its faithfulness as a forum for academic articles on Islam (both current and past) and Christian-Muslim relations has survived.

Zwemer is called a “pioneering scholar of Arabic” and noted as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is said to have had “a keen knowledge and understanding of Islam and Muslims,” who included contributions from the “best minds of its times.”

But at the same time it appears to reduce his era of TMW to a historical record of peculiar mentality:

For posterity, the journal represents an invaluable source of missionary activities and scholarly papers on Protestant theologians’ and missionaries’ perception of and thought about the Arab and Muslim world. In that sense, TMW is a priceless wealth of information thanks to Zwemer.

A shift took place under the subsequent editor, one the author approves of. Edwin Calverley (1948-1953) did not necessarily break with the missionary heritage, but wished to reorient presentation:

Associate editor under Zwemer, his first editorial promised “nothing inaccurate, unfair or ill-mannered about Islam.” Calverley’s meticulous academic mind and concern for truth and his determination impressed his contemporaries. He sought to enable readers (missionaries and theologians) to discover what Muslims thought of themselves.

But the editor the article seems to respect most is Kenneth Cragg (1953-1960), the Anglican Arabist:

He led the journal toward a professional and academic authorship. There is no doubt that Cragg’s command of the issues at hand and his own expertise allowed him to make bold changes in the direction of the journal. He took seriously the conscience of Islam and Muslims’ sincere and deeply held set of convictions about the one and only God.

Unlike Macdonald, he did not see Islam as a Christian heresy or as a symbol of man’s perversity as Zwemer, or another way of salvation as liberal theologians. He saw Islam as a theological problem and not as a religious problem or a socio-cultural one.

Cragg asked both Christians and Muslims to show hospitality of mind and a proper attention to the religious other. He invited them to “enlarge [their] hospitality of heart and thought.” His bold and creative writing allows for Islam to speak for itself.

William Bijlefeld (1968-1992), however, followed with a definitive focus on Muslim-Christian relations as the journal’s reason for existence. The author notes his contributions dispassionately but provides a telling quote:

We may be liberated of much confusion and frustration if we interpret the concept of mission not in the sense of an attempt to ‘impose truth’ on others, but as an honest effort to reflect and realize in our time the Compassion of God who IS the truth.

This is still a Christian sentiment, but is it a proper understanding of the heritage of Zwemer and others? Did they see their efforts as imposing truth, as described? Would it not rather be one of deciphering and demonstrating, however polemic in orientation?

Here the stage is set for the author’s joltling conclusion, following two cursory paragraphs about most recent developments. The journal now accords with this long range plan:

Strong academic programs, creative scholarship in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations; local, national and international initiatives in Christian-Muslim relations; and leadership to religious communities and congregations in interfaith and ecumenical relations.

For this let TMW be saluted. And in the drift away from Zwemer’s heritage no critique is needed. This is the development of much Protestant theology over the past 100 years.

It is worthwhile to review this history through the lens of a publication. And as mentioned, the author is by no means disrespectful. All of which makes his concluding sentence so surprising.

“Religious provincialism.” Very well, that can be seen as a fair enough term for Christian exclusivity. Such a belief may indeed influence one to interpret only through the light of one’s own faith.

But is this “bigotry”? Such a term suggests instead its application on the speaker. Christian exclusivity is a belief, as is the accompanying missionary mandate. That one imagines God will ultimately condemn the religious other has no necessary bearing on one’s treatment of that other in this world.

Zwemer and his colleagues confidently critiqued Islam and found it lacking. Perhaps they also devalued the Muslim mind for holding to it so tenaciously. But as best I know, they studied conscientiously and argued respectfully.

The author does not bring out anything otherwise. And if Zwemer bears even a tinge of bigoted guilt for his attitudes, the author commends later editors of similar Christian belief for their academic care and faithfulness in representing Islam.

Where then is the bigotry? Is it in this quote from Zwemer?

We hope to interpret Islam as a world-wide religion in all its varied aspects and its deep needs, ethical and spiritual, to Christians; to point out and press home the true solution of the Moslems; namely, the evangelization of Moslems; to be of practical help to all who toil for this end.

These words are taken from TMW’s first editorial. But Zwemer repeated them again in his final editorial in 1947. His call for mission held steady from first to last, and in yielding editorship it was stipulated the journal continue upon the same philosophy.

Did it continue with Cragg? The author quotes him from shortly before he became editor, writing in TMW:

Our readiness to make Christ known and loved is the direct measure and consequence of what, so known and loved, He means to us. An apology to Christian mission is no more, no less, than an apology for the Christian faith.

And Cragg was even clearer in his own book, The Call of the Minaret:

If Christ is what Christ is, He must be uttered.  If Islam is what Islam is, that “must” be irresistibly. Wherefore there is misconception, witness must penetrate: wherever there is the obscuring of the beauty of the Cross it must be unveiled: wherever men have missed God in Christ He must be brought to them again.

The language of Cragg reflects a different age than of Zwemer; does it reflect a different conviction? Either way, if either is bigotry then most Muslims must also be damned. So must everyone who holds to a conviction and wishes others to discover its value. In his labeling of the now-rejected heritage of TMW surely the author is calling the reader to the truth-as-he-understands-it. And should he not be praised for so doing?

Whatever your conviction, study well the convictions of others. Report them accurately. If you are motivated to do so to disprove and dispel, so be it. The effort is worthy, and closer will all parties come to the truth.

But let your motivation move deeper, and do so in respect, honor, and love for the one who holds opposite conviction. You are equals. You are human.

At core, I suspect both Zwemer and the author of this article to be of this character. That either one may betray the principle is understandable; conviction of truth can make blind to malpractice.

But it need not, and should not. Right conviction of truth not only commands the mind but also orders the heart. Love is the protective virtue. Christian faith is a primary source for both, though too many fail to draw them in balance. Perhaps other faiths share similar struggle.

The Muslim World was, and is, a chronicle of this struggle. Let all embrace it, read, and learn. Listen well, and speak freely.

This article was first published at the Zwemer Center.

Americas Published Articles Zwemer

The Application of Sharia Law in the United States


In 2008 a Moroccan man and his 17-year old wife immigrated to America. Not long after she filed a restraining order against him, claiming her husband was raping her. The husband did not deny their sexual relations were non-consensual, but said that in his religion, the wife was supposed to submit and do all that he desired of her. The New Jersey judge found that given his understanding of Islam, he did not intend to commit a crime, and was therefore innocent. The restraining order was denied.

Cases like this set off alarm bells that shariah law is coming to America, and in fact is already here. Called “creeping shariah,” this case is given as just one further example of the United States nation forsaking its heritage in an effort to be politically correct and yield to the pressures of local Muslims to live by their own laws, and not our own.

But according to Eugene Volokh, a conservative law scholar at UCLA, it is quite the opposite. Where US judges have made reference to shariah law, they do so within parameters long established in American legal precedent. He notes, importantly, that the judge in the New Jersey case made a legal error, overturned by a higher court which granted the restraining order.

In the effort to understand this controversial and inflammatory subject, his explanation proved very helpful. Here is a list of what is and is not allowed in the American judicial system:


Allowed: Distribution of inheritance according to religious motivation

Not: Asking the court to divide inheritance according to shariah law

US law allows freedom of contract and disposition of property. One may divide one’s property in a will according to whim, or ask a religious scholar to divide it according to shariah law. But the court does not accept competency to interpret religious laws, and would reject a request asking it to do so.


Allowed: Application of foreign law to determine marriage or overseas injury

Not: Specifics of foreign law against US code or procedural discrimination of testimony

US law will accept that two foreign individuals are married if they were legally married according to the law of their country of emigration. If in foreign nations marriage is determined according to shariah, then US courts must take this into consideration for the determination of marriage in a domestic dispute. Foreign acceptance of polygamy, however, has no application in US courts.

Similarly, if an American is injured abroad and sues a company with representation in America, tort laws are determined by the nation in which the injury occurred. But should foreign tort laws limit the value of female testimony, as for example in some understandings of shariah, this has no carry-over consideration in the American lawsuit.


Allowed: Exemption from work rules for religious reasons

Not: Unless it imposes ‘undue hardship’ on an employer or is against government interest

US law permits reasonable accommodation for religious belief, evaluated on a case-by-case basis. So wearing a hijab at work or taking time from the work day to pray may or may not be granted, based on the nature of the employment in question. A famous ruling allowing Muslim taxi drivers to decline a customer carrying alcohol may or may not have been judged correctly, but what is important is that it was based on existing American precedent, not in understanding what is right in Islamic shariah.


Allowed: Granting accommodation to students or clients that impose only modest costs on the granting institution

Not: Evaluation of these requests on the basis of which religious group asks for them

US law allows public and private institutions to better serve citizens and customers by appealing to their religious sentiments, as long as this does not damage the public interest as a whole. Banks have offered sharia-compliant loans, for example, and schools with high density Muslim populations have granted a full day off on holidays rather than just excusing Muslim students. Examples of this sort apply equally to all religious petitions, and must not be judged on the basis of which religion benefits.


Allowed: Efforts to legislate Islamic morality in heavily populated Muslim areas

Not: Unless it violates the Free Speech Code or Equal Protection Clause

US law permits citizens to lobby government to pass laws reflective of morality. In local areas therefore, Muslims are as free as others to pass legislation barring alcohol, for example. Should any locality, however, seek to encode restrictions on “blasphemy” or limit the rights of women, it will stand in clear violation of existing US law and be struck down by the courts.


In addition to Volokh’s analysis, New York attorney Sadakat Kadri wrote in Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World, that US federal arbitration law has been on the books since 1925.

Arbitration law has legitimized religious tribunals for Christian conciliators and the Jewish Beth Din, giving them force of law to issue legally binding decisions. To deny similar right to Muslims, within the context above, would require reforming that law to impact all religious communities.

There are many cases offered by those who warn of creeping sharia, and each must be evaluated on its own merits. There may be examples–many or few–in which the above descriptions have been violated. The above is offered to all who have been affected by the clamor that “the Muslims are coming.”

Indeed, they are already here and are coming as citizens within a nation of laws. They are undoubtedly changing the demographic and culture of our country, as every set of immigrants has done before. That they are Muslims, outside of the general Christian heritage of most previous groups, does add a different application of the American guarantee of freedom of religion. It may also result in these newer Americans who, either unaware or rejecting of American liberty, seek to illegally restrict individuals in their own communities.

But throughout the nation’s history the constitution and bill of rights has worked remarkably well. It should be trusted to continue, no matter the unfamiliarity of those who believe also in shariah. The United States will honor them within reason, and curb any excess that violates our order. On many issues worthy debate must take place. But we must not let fear or demagoguery permit generalization or discrimination.

Let the law decide.

This article was first published at the Zwemer Center.

Americas Published Articles Zwemer

Are Muslims Political Pawns?

Ben Carson (via the Chicago Tribune)
Ben Carson (via the Chicago Tribune)

All press is good press. Perhaps not always true, it is often a maxim of politics. A day after the backlash over his ‘a Muslim should not be president’ comment, Ben Carson announced windfall fundraising of one million dollars.

But perhaps it is also a maxim of religion? With the name of Islam dragged through the mud of Republican politicking and right-wing punditry, the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) seized the media spotlight and announced a campaign to freely distribute the Quran to citizens and civic leaders alike.

Back in 2001, CAIR chairman Nihad Awad reported that 34,000 Americans converted to Islam after the attacks of September 11.

It is a very natural phenomena. Media loves a negative story, which draws attention to an otherwise obscure issue. People begin to investigate, and discover the issue is not as completely negative as first reported, or stems from an extreme fringe. Then the counter-narrative emerges, in which the issue is hailed as good, or at least complicated. Conflicted over the original outrage, a moderating tone enters the issue into the mainstream.

From here, the politicking – or proselytizing – continues with precious momentum.

If conservative American evangelicals are not already concerned about Ben Carson’s comments, perhaps they should consider another pillar of culture war outrage: gay marriage.

I was raised in the 1980s. My first memory of homosexuals was local news coverage of a gay pride parade in some northeastern city, as transvestites and drag queens shouted at the cameras in an otherworldly display of an underground subculture I could never have imagined. The TV announcer could barely contain his chuckle, if I remember correctly.

Sitcoms and movies were rife with mocking humor. The AIDS scare lent credence to cries of God’s judgment. But over time society discovered the human behind the identity. Media attitudes shifted, both shaping and reflecting public opinion. The louder the protest, the greater the spotlight. Today the Supreme Court declares marriage equality.

Consider the distance traveled in three short decades. Imagine Islam in America three decades to come.

Note that in the examples above no statement is offered on the merit of Carson’s comment nor the appropriateness of gay marriage. There is a place in America for worthy debate on the morality and policy of queer issues. There is a place to discuss the nature of Islam and its compatibility with American values.

At least there should be. The fact this space is shrinking is perhaps commensurate with the retributive empowerment of the previously marginalized. May the conservative American evangelical reflect, and where necessary, repent.

But consider also the sub-Christian flaw in my argument above, quite akin to much popular discourse about Islam. The motivation is fear. Perfect love will not permit this.

Punditry highlights the illiberal character of sharia law and links the savagery of ISIS to the Quran and Islamic history. But it equates this otherwise worthy research with Islam in its entirety. Worse, it suspects imitation within every Muslim. Beware, it cries, lest one day we see Syria in Springfield.

My argument risks being similar. Beware, I cry, lest the crassness of your rhetoric win ground for Islam.

There is a better way. The conservative American evangelical must win ground for Muslims.

Islam is a religion, an idea, a way of life. Let it be praised or criticized according to its merits. But the better way is to do so with respect, humility, and hope. Muslims around the world deserve honest assessment of their faith. Whether of its religious, social, or political aspects, Christians should speak.

But Muslims in America deserve much more from their Christian neighbors. The better way is to bless, rather than demonize. To secure rights, rather than restrict them. To speak up in their defense, rather than rally a political base.

Conservative American evangelicals should be the first to depoliticize this issue entirely.

What this argument lacks is sufficient consideration of the proper place of denunciation. There is truth that is opposed to error. There are valid interests opposed to vile manipulations. There are Muslims in America and the world with political agendas to match any lobby from the right or the left.

There is a place for religion in politics. But great care should be taken against the politicization of religion. America has navigated this minefield for centuries, and Islam provides a particular challenge.

“But no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” says the constitution. Let American citizens vote as they wish, from any, all, or no religious motivation.

But let American Christians both engage and transcend the politics of the day to embrace a kingdom greater than the republic. Their obligation is to help all participate in both.

This article was first published at the Zwemer Center.