Lecture 10: Islam as a "Missionary" Religion
Course: Introduction to Islam
Lecture: Islam as a "Missionary" Religion
I. Great Qur’anic Passage #7: Surah 2, ayah 256, “No Compulsion”
Islam as a missionary religion. We have to address the question many of you are already raising about how does Islam spread and what is the nature of that spread? In order to introduce this, I want to turn to a passage in the Qur’an which is one you absolutely must be familiar with because this is quoted by Muslims with extreme regularity. This is Surah 2, ayah 256 which says, “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” That phrase is extremely important in Muslim thought. “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” This raises the question, what is the relationship between the so-called “jihad” and this kind of no-compulsion idea? This is quoted often in order to distance Muslims from this kind of violent associations with this sort of Islam, though a lot of the title of this is based on truth.
How did Islam spread? Essentially, what happened in the scholarship over the years is that the Western writers tended to emphasize the militaristic
expansion of Islam and people were given a choice to dissent, pay the alms tax or die in this story. So there was a very strident kind of jihad view of Islamic spread. The Muslims, on the other hand, tended to assume that everybody came to Islam with great peacefulness with no resisting to this wonderful invitation like a great Billy Graham Crusade, “Just come forward and take on the five pillars, etc.” I’m quoting Abdullah Yusuf Ali, a Muslim scholar who writes on this verse and says, “Compulsion is incompatible with the Islamic religion because religion depends upon faith and will and these will be meaningless if induced by force.” Those are pretty strong words, given the fact that you have swords being brandished in a lot of Muslim history; and in the Qur’an itself we already quoted the passage in the Qur’an about “lie in wait, ambush them, slay them, cut them down.” These types of passages are in the Qur’an.
II. Is Islam a Missionary Religion?
We have to do a little more reflection on the nature of Islam as a missionary religion. I will be honest with you, I don’t know that we can completely sort out some of the tensions here. I think it is very, very difficult. I will give you some examples of why it is difficult to always give a very clean answer to this question. We want to ask the question, “How is Islam spread, how did it spread and what is the relationship between the jihad passages and the more calm missionary passages?”
To introduce that, I want to make these more general comments, quoting Max Müller, famous nineteenth-century historian of religion, who defined a
missionary religion in the following way. He said: “A missionary religion is one in which the spreading of the truth and conversion of unbelievers are raised to the rank of a sacred duty by the founders or their immediate successors.” He is simply defining a missionary religion as a religion which puts conversion as a high priority in the mystery and outreach of the religion. So according to this, he classifies both Christianity and Islam as missionary religions. He also classifies Theravada Buddhism as well. That is another whole story which would take us far afield.
I think it would be fair enough to say that we recognize that among the monotheistic religions anyway, Islam and Christianity share a basic commitment to being missionary religions. That is, they spread and proclaim the truth that one sees as universal.
We all know that in the New Testament, Christ gave the great commission and that great commission is in all the Gospels, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” for example, Mark 16. These are examples of the great commission found in the New Testament.
A. Da’wah – Surah 16:125; 42:13,14
The Qur’an likewise has what they would call essentially a great commission. You will find this passage in Surah 16, ayah 125. This passage is known as the “da’wah.” Again, it is a very important passage and this is another one of the passages which you must know. That is why we are devoting the whole lecture to discussing this passage in part. This passage opens up, “Call men to the path of your lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation. Reason with them in the most courteous manner. Your lord does know those who stray from his path and those who are rightly guided.” That passage is quoted essentially as a great commission type passage by Muslims. “Call men to the path of your lord. Kindly exhort them.” There is no hint of jihad in this type passage. This is the problem that we essentially have here. On the one hand we have Surah 16, ayah 125. If you read Surah 42, ayah 13 and 14, you have this kind of no compulsion, “Call men to the path” type emphasis.
B. Jihad – Surah 8:38,39; 47:4
On the other hand, the Qur’an also seems to teach as well, the idea of jihad. For example, in Surah 8:38, 39 and 47, ayah 4. I will quote the Surah 8 passage: “Make war on them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religion reigns supreme.” Surah 47, ayah 4: “When you meet the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their head. When you have laid them low, bind your captive firmly. In the al-Hijja when the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, seize them, lie in ambush everywhere for them. If their intent is to say the prayer and pay the alms tax, let them go their way. Allah is forgiving and merciful.” That is a very difficult thing. Here on one hand, you are saying to slay them, ambush them, kill them if they don’t pay the alms tax; but if they do, Allah is forgiving and merciful, let them go.
III. Reconciliation of Da’wah and Jihad
Surah 2:190; 22:39; 48:16; 60:7-9
This has created a tension in Muslim theology between these two ideals they call the da’wah and the jihad. There has been a ton of Islamic literature about the jihad and da’wah and how they relate to each other. It is not a very easy issue.
What we are going to do briefly is simply summarize one of the ways this is dealt with by Muslims. Just to quote for you, Anson Atterbury, well known scholar, in his book, “Islam in Africa” he tries to completely contrast Christian missionary practice with Muslim practice by saying that Islam was proselytism through conquest, Christianity was conquest through proselytism. He is arguing essentially, Islam spread by saying, “We will give you the sword first and if you attack, okay, then you can proselytize. Christianity sought to win you to Christ and through that, they overcame political rivals, like in the Roman Empire.” I am quoting him from this book: “The Muslims could go out to the infidel and press the claims of Muhammed. The infidel is under obligation to recognize and believe. If he chooses to refuse, then came the forced choice, believe, pay tribute or die.”
So we have the tension here between the Muslims who are saying historically it is spread peacefully. You have the historical evidence of swords and major battles. You have in the Qur’an itself the passage which says, “no compulsion and kindly exhort.” Yet you have them lying in ambush to kill people and to seize them, lop off their heads.
We cannot accept as a Muslim that these passages are in conflict, that they are contradictory, that Muhammed is changing his mind. There has to be reconciliation. So how to Muslims reconcile these two passages? How do they reconcile these two doctrines? There is definitely an interpretation that many Muslims have put forward, that the jihad applies to infidels, unbelievers. The Islamic quotations would apply to people that were at least monotheistic. Many Muslims argue with that point of view, that is one way. The other major one is the one that I have here, which is the major one, that it is reconciled by saying that there is a priority that you must always begin with the da’wah. You must put your kindly expectation, no compulsion, forward first. But if they reject this, then again, you would come back with, no matter who it is that rejects this, what the answer is next. But if they, being the idolater, reject it, then you would pronounce the jihad. That takes you to actually a combination of the two.
I have chosen the reconciliation of da’wah and jihad because I want to show you how the Muslims have their Qur’anic support for this. They quote four
passages to support that the da’wah must precede the jihad. Of the four passages, Surah 2:190 and Surah 22:39 I think are extremely weak. I do not really see how you can read it and you are reading into it, I think. Surah 48:16 is a plausible interpretation; but the best of the four is Surah 60:7-9. Let’s look at the very best one because that way we can know if you can buy that. If you don’t even buy #4, there is no point in looking up the others because this is definitely the best of the four. This is found in Surah 60, ayah 7-9. “Allah does not forbid you to be kind and equitable to those who have neither made war on your religion, nor driven you from your home. Allah loves the equitable. But he forbids you to make friends with those who have fought against you on account of your religion and driven you from your homes and have led others to do so. Those who make friends with them are wrongdoers.” This passage does make a distinction between two different kinds of people, the kind that want to fight with you, and those who don’t want to fight with you. Once again, this has been used to support the previous idea; it is also used to support the idea of saying that given the opportunity to respond, find out if they are prepared to make war with you. I think that you would say, “This is our message.” As one Muslim scholar says, “Anybody in a good will with an open mind will quickly see the truth of the Muslim message and therefore explain it to them. If they accept it, great. If they don’t, then you have the authority to pronounce a jihad on them.”
Essentially, the basic point is, the da’wah precedes the jihad, that is the basic pattern of this idea; that you first give them the call and then if necessary, you pronounce war on them. This can be subdivided into two categories possibly: those who are prepared to accept the mini status – for example, the monotheistic people or whatever, people of the Book, who are prepared to live and cohabitate with the Muslims in a culture and get on with their work.
It does not really mar the Muslim garment for other monotheistic people to be present. But you would be authorized to fight against people who are idolatrous. So that is a possible variation of this basic theme. But the basic idea is that the da’wah in either case would precede the jihad. The idea would be that you cannot pronounce a jihad on anybody unless you have first taken the opportunity to respond peacefully.
The real question, of course, is whether or not that is what happens, if you accept that as the paradigm, and even if you accept that as the legitimate paradigm. Certainly, in the Christian ethic, it is not legitimate to have any jihad of any kind, any time, regardless of peoples’ rejection of the Gospel. So even in their best explanation, I have problems theologically with the basic idea of what this kind of thing means. But accepting that as the Muslim idea, how did it happen and what is the point of this?
I want to say that I spent a good bit of time in my own masters’ work looking at this question. I studied under a scholar at Princeton University who is a well-known Islamist, his name is John Ralph Willis an African-American scholar and a brilliant guy. He didn’t know much about modern-day Islam, but he knew a lot about Islam in the ancient world. His main focus was on pre-colonial Islam in Africa, actually. He was very interested in this topic and we discussed it quite a bit. I think the more I studied this question, the more I came away saying that this is a very, very complicated issue indeed. It is not as simple as one might expect.
What I think history shows, as best as I can tell, is that the Muslims basically spread Islam through both ways throughout its history, the da’wah and the
jihad. I don’t think that this precedent of the jihad after da’wah and the priority of the da’wah is an argument that really holds water historically. Nor can you say that Islam spread through the sword only in Africa. That simply is not true. It is also not true to say that Islam spread only through peaceful traders and marabouts.
Basically, what happened when Islam landed – this is a massive overview, but a general view of it – Islam landed on the African Continent actually in the year 700, actually started to get there in 640. So early on after the death of Muhammed, Muslims are arriving in Africa. They have major invasions that began in the 700s. Those are clearly military invasions. In that sense, those early military invasions of Africa are setting a very powerful precedent for this jihad idea. If you look particularly at the spread of Islam from the death of Muhammed in 632 to the battle of Tours in 732 where Charles Martel stopped the Muslims in the battle of Tours in France, there is a ton of bloodshed, a ton of bloodshed that happens in that one-hundred-year period. This is called, “the glorious one hundred years of Islam” because if you look at a map of the world, you have Islam spreading in a double pincer movement. You have Islam dramatically flowing out of Arabia, marching across Persia and into what is today Pakistan, the Indian subcontinent, all part of the continent at that point. This becomes a major Muslim area, a major thrust eastward all of the way to India and the Muslims will eventually control India through the sultanate. You have Muslims invading across North Africa, sweeping across Africa, coming across the Straits of Gibraltar into the Iberian Peninsula, which is today Spain and Portugal. They take over all of Spain and don’t get expelled, by the way, until ironically the year 1492, famous date in Western history. That date is also important because the last of the Muslims were expelled from Spain. They had lost power by the thirteenth century; but nevertheless, they were there for a long time. The takeover of Spain is stopped by the battle of Tours in France.
You have this massive movement, both westward as well as eastward in one hundred years and these are military maneuvers. The problem is that when
you get into Africa, this is where it gets a little complicated. You look at the story of just this kind of spread, there are a lot of swords being brandished. The problem is, the Sahara Desert is right here.
IV: Case Study: Islamic Traders Paradigm vs. Murabitun Paradigm
The Sahara Desert cannot be crossed in the seventh century by armies, that is not technologically possible at that point because the desert is too vast. So there was the discovery of the camel as a tool of trade, which was a huge breakthrough technologically. What you eventually have develop are camels that can cross the Sahara Desert and bring a person safely through the Sahara. They eventually mapped out a few oases and this happened. I’m almost tempted to tell you another of the Hadiths about Muhammed’s friend selling somebody an extra thirsty camel, but I will refrain. There are interesting camel stories in the Hadith.
They crossed the Sahara and these people are not part of Muslim military machinery, they are just people trying to make money. They are there to trade. They are trading things they got from the Silk Route. Remember, we talked about the whole connection with the Silk Route with Arabia. They are trading goods. For the first time, there is contact between European civilization and black people groups in Africa. It is happening through this camel trade long before western traders and explorers were there.
Meanwhile, there is this process, this is so slow, the Berber people groups and the business peoples of Northern Africa are slowly being Islamized. They originally came to Islam through the sword, but their children are being brought up as Muslims. So some of these begin to come down as peaceful traders to sell goods and whatever else, into sub-Sahara Africa. That happened for another four hundred years. You eventually begin to see Muslim groups spring up in sub-Sahara Africa that had no idea that Islam was a military force. If you look at certain African countries among people groups and say, “How did Islam start in this group?” there are many examples where Islam did emerge in that group through peaceful means.
Again, that is another way you have the paradigms bust a little bit. But then, what will happen later is, in Mauritania and other places in Africa, they would set up these jihad centers to train people in the jihad. They would go to these groups that had received Islam peacefully and say, “Your Islam is unorthodox, you are not practicing true Islam” because they had only gotten it through traders, they didn’t have it exactly right, there were breakdowns in
the orthodoxy of Islam. “You do not practice Islam according to the way that it was passed down in the Hadith.” They began to establish a jihad to attack these people and to force them to accept the true Islam. These are Muslims being given the jihad. This is unbelievable. Again, it is like a paradigm. This is not Muslims attacking other pagans or idolaters, these are Muslims attacking people who call themselves Muslims. Therefore, this is such a cloudy picture. So you have them attacking Idolaters in North Africa; you have them attacking Muslims in sub Saharan Africa. You have them peacefully extending Islam through marabouts, these traders in sub-Sahara Africa. The Murabitun movement was a movement founded by one of the caliphs, Umar, which we will look at later, one of the successors of Muhammed. It was authorized by Umar, but founded by a Muslim who took his name, Yahya Ibn Umar who founded the center they called Ribat. These are centers or fraternities that would promote Islamic thought and thinking. They would establish these on the coast of Mauritania and they would essentially be recruiters for jihad. This started basically like a “Back to the Bible” movement, but it was a “Back to the Qur’an” movement, “Get back to the Qur’an.” This became known as the Murabitun movement. This was a renewal movement within Islam. They definitely launched jihads in sub-Sahara Africa, no doubt about it.
Let me give you an example that shows you how this story is so complicated. The Murabitun movement came into sub-Sahara Africa and on the way down they were resisted by a people who were called the Sanahki The Sanahki is a very well-known people group in West Africa. These people were resisted. They said, “We don’t want you here, you’re outsiders, we don’t want you in our area.” They realized they had a problem here, that these people were very strong, revival, renewal movement people. So they said to the Sanahki basically, “Repent or you will die.” They launched a jihad against the Sanahki and they deceived them militarily and they forced them by sword to accept Islam. The Sanahki become Muslims by force and yet they, themselves, later on within a generation are themselves peaceably transmitting Islam into the further parts of sub-Sahara Africa. It is unbelievable.
So the relationship between da’wah and jihad are extremely complex in a place like Africa, sub-Sahara Africa. Therefore, the whole discussion about whether Islam is spread by sword or by peaceful means is not an easy one to untangle because some would try to say that in these parts of the world, they
did it by the sword; in these parts, they did not. But you cannot do that either. Even in different parts of the world, you find definite differences in terms of how Islam spread. In many parts of the Muslim spread, when they got to places where they were prepared to fight in military ventures, they found people who already were Muslims. So it becomes a very entangled picture.
I think that the Muslims have definitely downplayed the militaristic side of things. I think we have to be very fair at that point. It is not politically correct among Muslim circles to talk about this whole “repent or die” motif. There will be a lot of rejection. Today there are Muslim scholars who say about the jihad in these passages we looked at earlier, “There is no contradiction between jihad and da’wah because this is not a jihad against people militarily, this is a spiritual jihad because the word ‘jihad’ means ‘striving,’ it does not mean a military event, it means ‘striving, striving after Allah.’” So what they are saying is that this just means that you will make war against the infidelity in your heart.
This is the modern interpretation of jihad that you read in Muslim commentaries. This is in a sense a revisionist history move. Granted, the Christian writers often do not want to acknowledge that anybody ever received Islam because they actually chose to do it. That is not fair, either. I think it is something where you have to weigh the situation and be aware of the diversity in terms of how to attain to Islam. I think that even in the modern world there are not a lot of differences. There are many people out there who are called Muslims just because they were born in a certain part of the world and it is culturally significant for them to call themselves a Muslim. There are others who are forced to be Muslim because their parents or their families say that “if you do not, you will die.” Saudi Arabia has non-conversion laws. If you convert from Islam to whatever, you can be killed. Even in India today they have massive reconversion movements where they are trying to reconvert back to Islam in places where Muslims have come to Christ.
So that whole jihad motif is still there. But to be fair, I must say, there are people today around the world who have chosen. They have heard the Christian message, they have heard the Buddhist message, they have heard the Muslim message and they have chosen to become Muslims. There are reasons that we may not accept and we do not believe they are theologically valid, perhaps; but for whatever reason, they have of their own volition, chosen to follow Islam. Even today, characterizing how they will come to Islam is very, very difficult and problematic, so we will stop at that point.