Please accept my apologies for not getting to this next edition in a timely manner. I’ve been busy preparing and teaching a course on the spirit world, not to mention other pressing needs (Warren Larson).
In talking about bridges, I am using the term more broadly than just commonalities between Muslims and Christians. These are principles for work among Muslims. The first bridge is courage and perseverance: One of my heroes is Samuel Zwemer, and for seven years, I directed an organization named after him. Though he personally saw very few Muslims come to faith, he was probably the greatest missionary America ever sent to the Islamic world. He went out to the heart of the Muslim world in 1888. His zeal, gifts and perseverance launched a modern missionary movement to Muslims. Of him, the great historian, Kenneth LaTourette, said no one is more deserving of the title, “Apostle to Islam.” He was an evangelist, a prolific author, a compelling public speaker, and a talented professor. He went everywhere teaching and preaching to Muslims the need of a Savior; to Christians, the need to reach Muslims for Christ.
The thirteenth child in a family of fifteen, by the age of five, he could read English and Dutch and later learned German in school. Driven by an intense and somewhat nervous personality, he maintained a flurry of activity all his life: witnessing to Muslims, speaking, writing in the cause of mission to Islam, recruiting workers, and raising money to support missions. In the end he would travel to the bastions of Islam—India, the Middle East, China and the Balkans. Linguistically, he was brilliant and mastered Arabic, but acknowledged it was a challenge, especially the pronunciation. He said the guttural sound belong to the desert and undoubtedly was borrowed from the camel, groaning under the weight of his load.
When two young daughters died from dysentery in 1904, he and his wife wrote on their tombstone: “Worthy is the Lamb to receive riches.” News from the Arab world shows there is much concern for the tiny nation of Bahrain, where a Shi’ite majority feels bludgeoned by a Sunni monarchy and ultra-conservative Muslims next door in Saudi Arabia. Surely God will use the labor of Samuel Zwemer in Bahrain for the furtherance of gospel among suffering Shi’ites.
In 1912, Zwemer and his family moved to Cairo to direct the Nile Mission Press in printing and distributing Christian literature in Arabic. He felt Al-Azhar University was the intellectual and theological stronghold of Islam and nothing deterred him from spreading the good news, usually through distributing Bibles, and other Christian literature—some of which he himself had written in Arabic. He said: “No agency can penetrate Islam so deeply, abide so persistently, witness so daringly, and influence as irresistibly as the printed page.”
It was his habit each year in Cairo to take trainees to Al-Azhar University to meet the president. Once, while in the president’s office, he asked the president to look out the window: “Do you see the stars?” The president replied that it was a bright day in Cairo. With his arm around him, Zwemer said: “My friend, once the Son appears, all lesser lights disappear.” What he meant, of course, is that with Jesus there is no need of Muhammad.
Although direct and even blunt at times, his friendliness usually enabled him to talk to Muslims without antagonizing them. His desire to engage Muslims through the world of ideas enabled him to confront the intellectual strongholds of Islam. And he wrote over fifty books in English to stir up and motivate Christians; in 1911 he founded the “Moslem World” and continued to edit it for the next thirty-six years. The Quarterly was designed to give information on matters of Islamic lore at an academic level but also as a forum of Christian witness among Muslims. As long as he was editor, the magazine was evangelical and missional, but today is neither.
Not wanting to just study Islam, he grappled with practical issues and referred to the work as the “glory of the impossible.” At a North American conference he chose the text: “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at thy word, I will let down the nets.” He went on to say that the time would come when so many Muslims will come to Christ that the boats (churches) will not be able to hold them. Moved, his audience asked what they could do, and Samuel Zwemer said, “Pray.” Thus was born the Fellowship of Faith for Muslims in Toronto.
For Zwemer, Islam was a “spiritual problem.” He loved Muslims and appreciated the insights of Muslim thinkers, like Al-Ghazali (the greatest Muslim theologian and philosopher, who died in AD 1111), but felt Islam was a system that denied the gospel. The prevalence of amulets all over the Muslim world was a strong indication of Satan’s work. He felt the task of reaching Muslims was not a phrase to be bandied about easily; rather it was a deep life-purpose, a work of faith, a labor of love, and a patience of hope.” He determined never to play down the truths of the gospel–the mystery of the incarnation, the necessity of the atonement and the glory of the cross.
Yet, unlike Karl Pfander, he was not a polemicist, and did not debate Muslims publicly. His goal was not to beat up on Islam. He felt Muslims should be contacted on a personal, friendly basis, not confrontation and he believed points of contact do exist and that every Muslim heart has been prepared by the Holy Spirit. Samuel Zwemer has been proven right: Recent research shows that most Muslims who embrace Jesus do so because of the love and friendship of a Christ follower.
Surprisingly, Samuel Zwemer said the Qur’an left room for dialog, that is, he felt the Qur’an could be used as a bridge. He believed a loving but bold presentation of the surpassing grandeur and beauty of Jesus would never alienate the Muslim heart and said workers should always press home the question: “What do you think of Christ?” When he died on April 2, 1952, a grieving colleague spoke for millions: “A missionary prince has fallen in our midst.” He had persevered for the Glory of the Impossible and what we see today is a result of what Zwemer worked for. God is making the impossible come true.