Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Samuel. M. Zwemer:
A Man to Remember

December 17, 2007

 

In this century, not many have lived who had the talent and drive of Samuel Zwemer. During his lifetime he exerted a tremendous influence  on the Christian mission to Islam, as well as the worldwide advance of the Church and the Gospel.
(Robert E. Speer, quoted in J. Christy Wilson, Jr,  The Apostle to Islam…” International Journal of Frontier Missions, Oct.-Dec., 1996, p. 106)

One of the defining issues in the free West is its encounter with a radical version of Islam, which is diametrically opposed to the secular spirit of our age. Instances of such encounters between two very different ways of life are everywhere.  

Clashing Cultures

Here is a case in point taken from a letter published in the National Post (Nov. 23), written by a student at the University of Toronto, who had taken a course in the history of Islam.  During a break in a lecture on sharia law, she chatted with a fellow student and told him that she thought that stoning people for adultery, or any other reason, was barbarous and uncivilized. She continued: 

His response was to assure me that things weren’t so bad any more because the Koran permits a sentence of 80 lashes to be substituted for the stoning penalty. He apparently thought I would consider flogging to be civilized.  Feeling very cold, I asked him if he thought a person who had been raped should also be lashed. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I felt sick. 

This student’s experience underscores the need for knowing how we should indeed respond to radical Islam. One problem is that there is much confusion as well as denial about the real nature of Islam. Some think that radical Islam is a corruption of true Islam, which at heart is a religion of peace.  

That confusion even exists within the broader Christian community, where many insist that Islam and Christianity have much in common. How to get clarity in this dilemma?  How and where do we find reliable guides or mentors who can help us obtain insight into a difficult and confusion subject?  

Fortunately, there are many, and here the Internet can provide an invaluable service. In this article I want to single out one person who spent a lifetime in the Christian mission to Islam, traveled widely and lived many years in the Middle East. He mastered the Arabic language and wrote more than 50 books about Islam. He became a teacher of generations of students whom he helped to understand Islam and inspire them to take part in bringing the Gospel to the Muslim world. 

Reaching Out to Islam

Samuel M. Zwemer was born into a Dutch immigrant family in 1867, in Vriesland, Michigan, where his father was pastor in the Reformed Church in America. Early in his studies at Hope College and then New Brunswick Seminary, he decided to become a missionary to the Arab World.  In 1888, there were no existing American Christian mission organizations to the Muslim world.  That was the year Zwemer and a few like-minded students started the Arabian Mission, which served as a springboard for a much-expanded Christian mission effort. 

Zwemer completed his seminary training and was ordained in 1890, when he traveled to Beirut to begin his study of the Arabic language. From there he traveled to Cairo, where he together with a few others explored various possibilities open to them. They decided to start their mission work in Basra (which is in current Iraq) where he worked for six years. There he married Amy Wilkes, a trained missionary nurse from Australia. 

They started a new mission station on Bahrain, which was then a British-held island in the Persian Gulf. While there, Zwemer wrote the first of his numerous books, Arabia: the Cradle of Islam, which went through four editions between 1900 and 1912. 

He soon became widely known as a gifted speaker and writer. While on furlough in the U.S. in 1905, he was offered the position of field secretary of the Reformed Board of Foreign Missions, as well as the traveling representative of the Student Volunteer Movement, both of which he accepted.  

The next five years were occupied with traveling and speaking at many conventions and other events. He was the moving force behind the first General Conference of Missionaries to the world of Islam, held in Cairo in 1906. In 1910, Zwemer participated in the influential World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, where plans were laid to begin a quarterly publication called The Moslem World. 

Despite his demanding schedule of travel, speaking and writing, Zwemer served as editor of this publication without remuneration for thirty-seven years, never missing an issue.  His energy and capacity for work must have been enormous. (We are also told that he had a twinkle in his eyes and a great sense of humour.)  

 In 1912, he also began teaching at the Presbyterian Seminary in Cairo, the city where the oldest and most influential Islamic Al-Azhar University is located.  In the next years he traveled widely to speak at numerous venues in North Africa. In South Africa he was able to address Christians in English and Dutch, and in Arabic at meetings of Muslims.  He also traveled and lectured in India and Indonesia. He even traveled to China where he was also invited to speak at mosques in several cities because of his ability to speak Arabic and his understanding of Islam. 

While addressing conferences in 1922 in Algiers, Tunis and Sousse, Zwemer gave addresses on “Islam as a Missionary Problem.” As reported by J. Christy Wilson, Jr., quoted above, Zwemer recalled the church fathers who had been there  - Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine – when North Africa was one of the greatest centers of the Christian church. At that time, it had large churches, libraries and a Christian population numbering in the millions. Then came the tidal wave of the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. The libraries were burned and the churches were either made into mosques or destroyed.  Populations were blotted out and North Africa became ‘ The Land of the Vanished Church.’ 

In 1929, Zwemer was appointed as professor of missions at Princeton Theological Seminary where he taught till his retirement in 1938 at the age of seventy-one. He continued teaching and speaking at training institutes, seminaries, conventions and churches where he taught and inspired large numbers.  In 1946, Zwemer was a keynote speaker at the first Inter-Varsity Student Foreign Mission Fellowship Convention held in Toronto.  

At age eighty-three, Zwemer attended the sixtieth anniversary celebration in Kuwait of the mission to the Muslim world he had founded. In early 1952, he suffered a heart attack after he delivered three addresses at a meeting of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship in New York City. He died on April 2, 1952, and after a memorial service held in the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, his body was transported to Holland , Michigan, where it was buried in the family burial plot. 

A Rich Legacy

The life of this deeply committed and gifted servant of the Lord, who laboured diligently in a very difficult arena of Christian service, was ended. But the fruits of his work in the lives of an untold number of people are beyond measure. Zwemer left us a rich legacy of wisdom and insight into the religion of Islam - a topic that has assumed a new urgency for the West in an unprecedented way. 

Much of his work is still available to us in the form of many articles, original books, archived volumes stored on the Internet, and biographies by J. Christy Wilson Sr.: Apostle to Islam (1953), and Flaming Prophet (1970). In addition, Roger S. Greenway, professor emeritus at Calvin Theological Seminary, has edited a volume of Zwemer’s writings under the title Islam and the Cross. (P&R Publishing Co., 2002) 

Professor Lyle VanderWerff described Samuel Zwemer as “a pioneer missionary of the Reformed Church in America and mentor to many mission witnesses to Muslims,” who had challenged his readers with these words: 

We must become Muslims to the Muslims if we would gain them for Christ. We must do this in the Pauline sense, without compromise, but with self-sacrificing sympathy and unselfish love. The Christian missionary must first of all know the religion of the people among whom he labors; ignorance of the Koran, the traditions, the life of Muhammad, the Muslim concept of Christ, the social beliefs…. ignorance of these is the chief difficulty in work among Muslims. (“Christian Witness to Our Muslim Friends,” IJFM, July-Sept.1996, p.112) 

The collection of Zwemer’s writings edited by Roger S. Greenway, Islam and the Cross, introduces us to the central issue in the meeting of Islam and Christianity, which is part 1 of this book. Part 2 is a fascinating discussion of the influence of Animism on Islam. 

Zwemer writes that although the Koran presents Christ as one of the greater prophets, it does not recognize him as the Son of God, who came into the world to take upon himself the sins of the world. On the contrary, the Koran denies Christ’s deity and his atoning death and resurrection. It calls those who confess this central teaching of the Christian faith liars. (Surah 9:30) 

In the chapter “Mohammed and Christ” Zwemer shows that Mohammed becomes in fact the Muslim Christ. Islam has coined two hundred and one titles of honour for Mohammad, including some that suggest he is more than human, such as: “The Forgiver, the Perfect, the Light, the Interceder, the Truth, the Mediator, the Holy One, the Pardoner of Sins….”  

St. Paul wrote that the cross is a stumbling block to Jews and Gentiles, yet it is God’s way of reconciling sinful people with a Holy God. Zwemer urges his readers never on that account to consider Muslims our enemies, “but prove to them that we are their friends by showing not by our creed only, but by our lives, the power of the cross and its glory.” (p.53) 

A Composite Religion

Although Islam presents itself as the latest and infallible revelation of God, Zwemer shows that the practice of many Muslims is heavily influenced by pre-Islamic pagan beliefs, notably Animism. The latter is the belief that inanimate objects possess souls or spirits, which can be evil or beneficent. Such spirits, both good and evil, are believed to be present also in all people.  

Interestingly, in a discussion between Mohammad and his favourite wife Ayesha about just this topic, the prophet confirmed that evil spirits exist in all Muslims and non-Muslims, including himself. But he then assured Ayesha: “Yes but my Lord Most Glorious and Powerful has assisted me against him, so that he became a Muslim.” (This exchange was recorded by Abdullahesh-Shabli, in what Zwemer describes as “the most famous volume of all Muslim books on the doctrine of jinn [spirits].” p.95) 

This collection of essays, preserved for us by Roger Greenway, first published between 1921 and 1941, contains a compelling message for us today. It gives us a glimpse of a godly man, thoroughly committed to the historic Christian faith and filled with the desire to show in word and deed the love of Christ to the Muslim world.  

May this brief overview of the life and work of Samuel Zwemer whet your appetite to learn more from this wise and amazingly effective teacher.

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