Islam’s steady expansion and Christianity’s ebb and flow: A reflection


Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock

Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock

Baptist theology professor Mark Farnham reflects on Scottish historian Andrew Walls’s work relating to the Incarnational mission of Christianity and how it has resulted in a different sort of expansion than that of Islam:

Nineteenth-century Christian missions exploded across the globe with the general expectation that the gospel would penetrate the whole world, and that the evangelism of the world would conceivably be completed within a century or so. That sense of optimism is not so prevalent today, probably in part because of the decline of Christianity in parts of the world that were at one time the fountainhead of Christian faith. A review of the past century reveals that regions in which Christianity had at one time taken root have not always remained Christian for long (think Europe). In contrast, Islam’s progress has tended to be more stable, rarely giving up territory once it has been claimed.

In his book, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (T&T Clark, 2002), Scottish historian Andrew Walls explains the difference between the expansions of the two major religions:

Islam can point to a steady geographical progression from its birthplace and from its earliest years. And over all these years it has hitherto not had many territorial losses to record. Whereas the Jerusalem of the apostles has fallen, the Mecca of the prophet remains inviolate. When it comes to sustaining congregations of the faithful, Christianity does not appear to possess the same resilience as Islam. It decays and withers in its very heartlands, in the areas where it appears to have had the profoundest cultural effects. Crossing cultural boundaries, it then takes root anew on the margins of those areas, and beyond. Islamic expansion is progressive; Christian expansion is serial (p. 13).

If Walls is correct, this raises some troubling questions. Why does Christianity wax and wane so consistently, while Islam rarely experiences the same fluctuations? Why do the faithful of Christianity possess what seems to be a more tenuous faith?

Walls asks and answers some of his own questions to provide some answers:

Do the resiliency of Islam and the vulnerability of Christianity reflect something of the inherent nature of the two faiths? Does the very freedom of response inherent in the Christian gospel leave it open to ultimate rejection? Is the Christian impact durable only when there is sustained, unceasing penetration of the host culture? Christianity has no culturally fixed element, as is provided by the Qur’an fixed in heaven, closed traditions on earth, perfection in law in shari’a, single shrine in Mecca, and true word every where in Arabic. If the acts of cultural translation by which the Christians of any community make their faith substantial within that community cease—if (if one may use such language) the Word ceases to be made flesh within that community—the Christian group within that community is likely to lose, not just its effectiveness, but its powers of resistance. Most cultures are in frequent change or encounter with others, so the process of translation is endless (p. 13).

In other words, Islam survives in a given culture because it remains unchanged and sees itself as embattled against cultural difference or change. As a result it can remain monolithic and isolated from the culture. In a world distressed by the culture-destroying power of technology, secularization, urbanization, and other such forces, the unchanging nature of Islam provides a rare sense of security and stability. There is no need to contextualize or adapt. Americans, who have grown up in a constantly changing culture, often forget that not everyone in the world embraces cultural change or the overturning of traditional practices to the same extent that they do.

On the positive side, Christianity has thrived in many parts of the world precisely because the gospel is a message to every tribe and tongue, and while the message must remain the same, the medium and the method are readily adaptable to other cultures.

Complete the article here.

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3 responses to “Islam’s steady expansion and Christianity’s ebb and flow: A reflection

  1. As one who knows Islam a bit, I’d disagree with this diagnosis. It would be nice if the author had included some more justification for his conclusions. Islam is not *that* static or rigid, and it has been very multicultural and egalitarian from the start. Muhammad’s closest companions included Ethiopians and Persians, brotherhood and unity of man is a central concept, ‘all religions are one’, etc.

    I’d think the author is right in that there is a distinguishing element in the very nature of the two faiths. Perhaps it is the influence and the role of the clergy which is far more pronounced (and infamous) in Christian history?

  2. Interesting. It’s refreshing to read about differences in these two religions without being subjected to bias towards either. I am personally fed up with vitriol of media Christians who spew out their ignorance of Christianity and other religions and cultures.

  3. Interesting. Could one take such conclusions as evidence for the necessity of tradition? Not to the point of Islam, mind you, but enough to establish some sort of stability.

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