By Roy Oksnevad
Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide are rethinking what it means to be Muslim in today’s world and grappling with issues such as modernity, globalization, and secularism. This debate is felt profoundly within the Muslim community as it relates to questions of education, democracy, freedom of religion, women’s rights, and human rights. What makes this debate so complicated is that Islam is anchored to its early history. Islamic doctrine and practices of its founder Muhammad have been legally codified as the best example of a fully submitted life. To use Christian missiological language, all Muhammad said and did is supracultural and is to be imitated to the letter. Nasr recognizes that modernity has affected Islam in profound ways. Possibly the most sinister is reductionism.
One of the effects of modernism upon Islam has been to reduce Islam in the minds of many to only one of its dimensions, namely the Shari’ah, and to divest it of those intellectual weapons which alone can ward off the assaults of modern thought upon its citadel. The Shari’ah is of course basic to the Islamic tradition. But the intellectual challenges posed by modernism in the form of evolutionism, rationalism, existentialism, agnosticism, and the like can only be answered intellectually and not juridically. Nor can they be answered by magical wedding between the Shari’ah and modern science and technology to take place. The successful encounter of Islam with modern thought will not take place simply through the expression of anger and the display of self-righteousness. It can only come about when modern thought is fully understood in both its roots and ramifications, and the whole of the Islamic tradition brought to bear upon the solution of the enormous problems which modernism poses for Islam. (Nasr 1987:109)
Moosa points out that early Muslim modernists understood modernity in a very different way than it is currently perceived. Reason was held to be universal. Muslim modernists saw four effects of applied reason. First, reason was used as a defensive weapon in apologetics. Second, rationality was to combat superstition against popular religious practices. Third, rationality was to lessen the dependency on authority of charismatic Sufi mystics and religious authorities of the scholars. Fourth, rational Muslims could get their inspiration and guidance directly from the Qur’an. (Moosa 2003:118) However, Moosa points out that,
“With some exceptions, the critical light of modern knowledge developed in the humanities did not illuminate the Muslim modernists’ theories, as applied to the interpretation of scriptures, history and society, the understanding of law, and theology.” (Moosa 2003:118)
He goes on to state, “In fact, at the slightest hint of the application of modern knowledge to the traditional Islamic sciences, traditional ‘ulama called for the excommunication of the above mentioned Muslim modernists.” (Moosa 2003: 118-199) How was modern Islam received? The Progressives have the ear of the academy but their ideas have not filtered down to the masses. Traditionalists have a stranglehold on the Islamic institutions. The Radical Revisionists/Islamists are the rogue element within society, wreaking havoc throughout the Muslim world and posing a great threat to local and world stability. Islam’s one dimension of Shari’ah is viewed as the answer to the modern world but the modern world views it as restrictive and archaic.
The same questions can be asked of Christianity: “Has modernity affected Christianity in profound ways?” Is it possible that the Christian response to Muslim ministry has also been shaped by this same seduction of reductionism or rationality? Are Christians in the West guilty of reducing the gospel to a set of propositional truths? Are our strategies set by a rationalistic orientation so that we believe an apologetic approach is the best way to bring Muslims to Christ? Do we believe the one-dimensional rational approach to Islam will undo all the misinformation Muslims have been fed about Islam and Christianity? In reducing our approach to apologetics, do we overlooked the emotive (emotional) and volitional (will) dimensions of the gospel?
Has the modern idea of reductionism also shaped our strategies in reaching Muslims? Are we guilty of reducing the gospel to a minimum set of beliefs with the perceived understanding that this reduced gospel will make it easier to win Muslims to Christ? Are our ideas of contextualization minimalistic so we divorce form from meaning? Is our ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) reduced to a private confession so church can be performed in mosque? Are we guilty of neglecting to connect believers to the universal church?
Christianity is more than propositional truths. It is living in dynamic relationships which transparently display the transformation of a Spirit-filled life in submission to Christ. Christ reduced the 10 Commandments into the two dimensions of loving God and loving man. But Christ did not reduce the message to propositional truths. The message was incarnational (relational – Phil. 2:5-11) and transformational (not being conformed to the image of this world – Rom. 12:1-2). It was hard teaching that was difficult to understand and offensive to the hearers (“are you going to leave me too?” – John 6:25-71), but it was life-giving (John 6:63). The church was called to open obedience (Matt. 10:32-39). May our message not be shaped by our times but by the life lived with Christ (Acts 4:8-13).
Bennett, Clinton. Muslims and Modernity: An Introduction to the Issues and Debates. New York: Continuum, 2005.
Heibert, Paul. “Critical Contextualization.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research. 1987-07-0111:3, 104-112.
———. “Form and Meaning in Contextualization of the Gospel.” In The Word Among Us, edited by Dean S. Gilliland, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989.
Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam.” In Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism, 111-127, edited by Omid Safi. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Traditional Islam in the Modern World. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
Rahman, Fazlur. Islam & Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Ramadan, Tariq. Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. New York, Oxford University Press, 2004.