Samuel Zwemer: Apostle to Islam
25 August 2013
biography of Lilias Trotter that I first heard about Samuel Zwemer. Because Miss Trotter's biography was such an excellent read, and with Mr. Zwemer's impressive title (undoubtedly not self-given!) of "Apostle to Islam," I felt certain that this book would be even better! After all, she was merely a "missionary," while he was an "apostle." Unfortunately, Apostle To Islam: A Biography Of Samuel M. Zwemer by J. Christy Wilson did not at all live up to my high expectations, nor to the high $33 price I paid.
The book starts off as most biographies do, with a modest summary of the subject's journey from birth into adulthood. Then follows a paltry two chapters — only 21 pages! — giving details about Mr. Zwemer's early years as a missionary in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. This was by far the most interesting part of the book, and also, unfortunately, the shortest part! Subsequently, things when downhill rapidly.
Just when the story was starting to get interesting and to the point, the author shifts gears and goes into excruciating detail about Mr. Zwemer's activities in fund-raising for missions to Muslims, being a magazine editor and a publisher of literature for Muslim outreach, being a liaison between various missions organizations, traveling around the world to a multitude of missions conferences, being a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and more — all of which occupied the remaining 47 years of Zwemer's life and the remaining 180 pages of this biography. Numerous times I had to force myself to continue to the bitter end!
In light of how much attention, and how many pages, the author devotes to minutely detailing Mr. Zwemer's participation in regional and worldwide missions conferences — including schedules and itineraries, lists of topics discussed, long roll calls of then-well-known missionaries in attendance, and summaries published by the conference committees — it seems that Mr. Wilson is especially enamored by them. But for the life of me I can't understand how that makes Mr. Zwemer an "apostle to Islam." From what I can see, I think the book has been grossly mistitled — it should have been called, Apostle to Missions Conferences: A Biography of Samuel M. Zwemer. There's always the possibility that Mr. Zwemer was an apostle to Islam, but you would never know it from reading this account of his life!
Of course, not everything is dismal about this book. There were a few selections here and there which were worthy of my colored highlighting pencil, which I will share here:
On various occasions in later life Zwemer made the remark, "I have always lived from hand to mouth, but it has been the Lord's hand and my mouth."Pretty thin pickings — unlike some other books I have read, I obviously did not use up much of my colored pencil on this book. However, Mr. Wilson's treatment of Mr. Zwemer's life is not the only, nor the most important, problem with the material presented in this biography. There are other, deeper, more fundamental issues regarding the sharing of the Good News of Yeshua (Isa, Jesus) with Muslims which need to be addressed.
A conference delegate reported on a message given by Zwemer, writing, "Dr. Zwemer preached on the duties of the Church as elder brother, to the prodigal son, as Islam. The thought was new and startling to many of us, but we were soon convinced and condemned after hearing the preacher's heart- and soul-piercing message, that the Church must, in order to reach the heart of this prodigal son, be like the Father, watching for his return and ready to embrace him and welcome him to the Father's house. Islam is our brother who can only be won by the love of the Church — love which needs to be like that of the Father in the touching parable of the prodigal son."
Zwemer once remarked that if all the Popes had had wives, like Peter, whom they claimed was the first Pope, they would never have dared to say they were infallible!
As Sherwood Eddy has stated: "If Zwemer had never set foot in Arabia or Egypt, if his service had been confined to the colleges and churches of America... his work would have been monumental. Zwemer was the blazing prophet of every platform summoning the Church to its most difficult task [of evangelizing the Muslim world]."
The first problem of missions to Muslims in Zwemer's time was the West's Colonial Christianity. As Raymond Ibrahim helpfully explains in his generally un-helpful book, Crucified Again,
For the past 500 years, from the beginning of Europe's worldwide exploration, colonization and imperialism, with Christian missionaries following close behind, non-Europeans were not only expected to convert to Christianity, but also to convert to European culture as well. Non-European cultures were looked upon as savage and demonic, or, at best, backwards and uncivilized. To become Christian and to become Western were one and the same thing.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, an infidel from Christendom, invaded and subjugated Egypt, the heart of the Islamic world, with barely a struggle. This crushing defeat was followed by any number of European powers conquering and colonizing much of the Muslim world.... For the first time, Muslims began to emulate the West in everything from politics and government to everyday dress and etiquette. To be successful and prosperous, one had to follow the West and its victorious ways. Thus during the colonial era and into the mid-twentieth century, all things distinctly Islamic were seen by Muslims as relics of a backward age, to be shunned. Most "Muslims" were Muslims in name only.
Dr. Zwemer, missionary to the Muslim world in the early twentieth century, wrote, "tolerance toward converts from Islam seems often to be in direct proportion to the proximity of foreign government and their influcence, and the impact of Western civilization in breaking down fanaticism." The colonial and post-colonia era, roughly 1800-1950, was the Golden Age for Christians in the Muslim world.... Up until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the overwhelming majority of Western scholars had been convinced that the Westernization of the Muslim world was nearly complete, that Islam was an all but spent force, at best a cultural heritage for nominal Muslims.
This was a tragic mistake which generations of Christian missionaries made for centuries, and in many circles unknowingly continue to make today. Unfortunately, worldwide Christianity continues to suffer the huge negative repercussions which have resulted. In the Muslim world, among numerous others, this means seeing Christianity as a foreign religion, used as a tool for Western imperialism. Reality has been so distorted in the Muslim mind by Western colonialism that they fail to understand that Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion founded by Middle Easterners.
But even this huge problem could most likely be overcome if it weren't for the second even-more-serious problem with both historical and modern-day missions to Muslims. But before I address that issue, I need to share some more excerpts from this book. One thing I noticed throughout this biography of Mr. Zwemer was his glowing optimism about the openness of the Islamic world, and the great opportunities for evangelization which were there for the taking. Let me give you a some examples:
In Zwemer's time, in the early decades of the 1900's, there was a lot of optimism regarding the evangelization of Muslims, and to a large extent the Islamic countries seemed wide open. So what happened to that optimism, openness, and the glorious results which Zwemer expected "in this generation — God wills it" ? Because obviously, the situation between Christianity and Islam is much, much different then it was a hundred years ago. Why did all of these high hopes come crashing down?
When discussing missions work in Persia [Iran], Zwemer wrote, " The Cross of Christ is in the field. No one doubts it and no one is ashamed of it. The work of evangelization has the right of way in mission policy. Education without evangelization is not dreamed of by anyone in Persia.... To evangelize the whole country — that is the practical issue. The whole country, now open and responsive, should be evangelized before new and sinister forces exert greater power."
In a missions conference address entitled "Unprecedented Opportunities for Evangelizing the Mohammedan World," Zwemer proclaimed, "The hour is ripe. The situation, despite long neglect and almost universal apathy in many Christian circles, so far from being discouraging, is full of hope and pregnant with unprecedented opportunities.... We here and now call upon the Holy Church throughout the world to rise to a new crusade and win back the Mohammedan world to Christ in this generation. God wills it. Amen."
At another conference, Zwemer asked, "Shall we give Western Asia [the Middle East] to Him [Jesus], or shall Western Asia remain the Empire of Mohammed? Shall Bethlehem hear five times a day 'There is no god but God [Allah], and Mohammed is God's [Allah's] apostle', and shall not a single one of us dare go, if God wills, unto Mecca itself, the very stronghold of Islam, and preach the Gospel of the great King?"
In 1906 the first General Conference for work among Moslems met in Cairo.... The vast extent and the problems as well as the hopefulness of [missionary] work for Moslems were for the first time brought into focus.... New hope and courage and a sense of unity in the tremendous task was produced among the delegates and reflected through them to the missions [organizations] which they represented. It may be said that the Cairo Conference marked the beginning of a new ear in the Christian Mission to Moslems. [Emphasis in the original.]
A French scholar wrote an article entitled "The Conquest of the Moslem World" in which he went on to show that politically and socially much of the world of Islam was under the governments of Christian lands and that social progress in the Moslem countries and advances in education had largely come through Christian missions.
In 1910, Dr. Zwemer and others got together and formed a group to support the Nile Mission Press in order to increase the quantity of Christian literature for Muslims. Their stated purpose was "to encourage and promote the use of the printed page, since it is our conviction that this has a unique value as a means of carrying the Gospel to Mohammedans. The printed message finds an entrance into many doors closed to the living witness and can proclaim the Gospel persistently, fearlessly and effectively."
The last quote in the passages above gives vital clues about the second serious problem with missions to Muslims which I previously alluded to. Rather than boldly marching into Mecca and preaching the Gospel, as Mr. Zwemer so passionately urged — "if God wills" — Zwemer and the rest of the Church decided instead to play it safe and let literature take the lead instead. The reasons listed in that quote are very telling, so I want to look at them carefully and in detail.
The first red flag is their statement, "The printed message finds an entrance into many doors closed to the living witness..." How true! If you want to remain a living witness, then many doors are closed! But consider that the Greek word for "witness" in the New Testament is "martus," from which we directly get our English word "martyr." In the early Church, so many "witnesses" for Yeshua were killed for their faith that the word "witness" came to mean that very thing: a martyr. So even though doors are closed for "living witnesses," they always have been, and always will be, wide open for "dead witnesses," that is, martyrs. As missionary Steve Hyde wrote:
There is really no such thing as a closed country. There are such things as dangerous countries, but not closed countries. Do you know with an American passport there is no where you cannot go? For about 200 of the 238 countries in the world an American doesn't even need a visa. You can just buy a ticket and go! Can an American go to Iran? Of course! And they do every day! Can Americans go to Cuba? It is a huge American tourist destination. Can Americans go to North Korea? With a little finessing, yes. Can Americans go to Saudi Arabia, or even Mecca? They do by the tens of thousands each year. Americans can even go to the moon! So, just so you know, there is no such thing as a closed country. Of course there are countries which are potentially more dangerous than others and plenty which lack the "lifestyle" which people are comfortable with America, but a "closed country" — there is no such thing.To finish looking at the quote from Zwemer's publishing ministry, the last part states that, in contrast to "living witnesses," printed literature "can proclaim the Gospel persistently, fearlessly and effectively." This is another honest statement which perhaps reveals more of their inner motive than they would have liked. By constrasting the benefits of literature compared to human missionaries, they are stating that "living witnesses" are generally not persistent, not fearless, and not effective! But rather than focusing on helping Christians to become these things, and perhaps even martyrs, instead they poured their efforts into using literature to do the job the Christian missionaries were either unable or unwilling to do. Literature can be an effective tool for sharing the Gospel with Muslims, but it can never, never be a substitute for living and dying witnesses!
If the Church of a hundred years ago had had the vision and the willingness to fulfill the role of martyrdom to which the New Testament calls all followers of Yeshua, the Muslim world could very well have been won for Yeshua in that generation — "God wills it," Zwemer had proclaimed. But Christians of that time, like Christians today, loved their earthly lives and comforts more than they loved Yeshua and the unsaved Muslim world. This sad spiritual state of Yeshua's Church caused Zwemer's prophecy to be fulfilled in an alarming fashion by the Iranian Revolution: "The whole country [of Iran], now open and responsive, should be evangelized before new and sinister forces exert greater power." [Emphasis mine.] No one can doubt that "new and sinister forces" did exert their power to take Iran in a completely different direction, which may yet have catastrophic consequences for the whole world.
So, in closing, what is my final analysis of this biography of Samuel Zwemer? Unless you are a modern Christian-conference junkie who needs a desperate fix by reading the detailed accounts of past conferences, then there is no reason to read this book, let alone pay around $30 to actually purchase it! On the other hand, if you are wanting to read authentic accounts of apostles to Islam, then you can't do better than to get your hands on A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter and the aptly-titled Defying Death: Zakaria Botross — Apostle to Islam. These are two inspiring biographies which will strengthen your heart and stir your soul!
As I mentioned above, if Mr. Zwemer was indeed a true apostle to Islam, then it is not very evident in this uninspiring, unprofitable book. And if he was a true apostle to Islam, I sincerely hope that someone will do the necessary research and then write a book which puts that story into the hands of the Church. In this hour when our Islamic future is rapidly approaching, the need is greater than ever before!