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Shadow Boxing: The Missionary Encounter with Christian Theology in World Religions

Islam’s contemporary dependence on Christianity is one of the world’s best kept secrets.

We can observe the same pattern in contemporary terms. Lynch explains ways in which respectable contemporary Islamic movements depend for their thriving on Christianity and on the West (2011). She does this by exploring what she calls “Religious Humanitarianism” (the title of her article). Unlike their Christian equivalents, Lynch discovered that Muslim NGOs functioning in Palestine do not even pretend to say that their charitable intentions are rooted in Islam (Lynch 2011:209, 212, 213, 215, 216). Instead Muslim organisations claim to be secular. Presumably they do this on the understanding that secularism is non-religious, and that it is not Christian, and so that it is somehow compatible with genuine Islamic faith. Yet, Lynch tells us, as do others, secularism has strong and deep Christian roots (2011:209). If it were revealed that Islamic-religious humanitarianism is drawing on Christian teaching, this might be taken as something of a scandal. Hence Islam’s contemporary dependence on Christianity is one of the world’s best kept secrets.

Somali NGOs in Nairobi remain silent on their Islamic identity – fearing that otherwise acquiring funds could become more difficult (2011:210). Such silence enables some Muslim NGOs to enjoy the financial support of progressive Western Christians (2011:209). The above is to say that contemporary Islamic identities that seek favour with the West are, like other so-called world ‘religions’, very much ‘made in the West’. Those who take Muslim Scriptures sufficiently seriously are obliged to do something very different. A more literal interpretation of Islamic scriptures (the Qu’ran and the hadith) would leave much less room for the principles of compassion, love (in the sense of giving oneself for sinful others, Matthew 5:46) and forgiveness that underlie international aid provision. An Indonesiam Muslim leader illustrates this well when he stated that “The Qur’an is not a book of law but a source of law. If the Qur’an is considered a book of law, Muslims will become the most wretched people in the world” (Mohammad Amien Rais cited by Stepan (2011:131)). Traditional Islam prevents loss through conversion to Christianity by radical shaming, ostracising and even killing those who convert. Yet Islamic religion also has another friendlier face; made by western theology, laundered through being processed through secularism. One side effect of this which is the focus of this article is that it makes comparison between Islam and Christianity more difficult. This is particularly so when using English. Because Christianised Islam is communicated especially using English, efforts at comparing Islam with Christianity end up by comparing Christianity with itself.

I was asked to teach ATR (African Traditional Religions) to African students in Kenya at Kima International School of Theology in about 1998.[6] It seemed strange that I, a Westerner, should be asked to teach African students about their own traditional practices. I considered this a privilege, and took the opportunity it presented to learn more about my African students and their communities. What surprised me, however, was when in subsequent years African colleagues asked to teach the same course frequently borrowed my syllabus and drew on my notes. Surely they had a much better knowledge of ATR than I, so why re-use my materials, I asked myself? I was forced to realise that while my indigenous colleagues knew about ATR ‘as practiced’, they were less expert or confident with how ATR could be articulated using English. ‘Knowing’ ATR was far from adequate when we were preparing students for an examination system originating in the USA. Our African students had to learn to know ATR as an American or Brit would know it.

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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