Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

Review Article: Outside In

Margins of Islam: Ministry in Diverse Muslim Contexts

Edited by Gene Daniels and Warrick Farah (Pasadena: William Carey), 2018, 240pp, £12.30 (Amazon), £7.66 (Kindle)

I was in Indonesia last year, teaching in a couple of seminaries.[1] That vast archipelago constitutes the most populous Muslim-majority nation on Earth. Just a few months earlier, the country was shocked when radical Islamists (from one family as it happens) killed thirteen worshippers at Easter services in the city of Surabaya.[2] That violent extremism seemed far away from the folk I met there, such as the middle-aged hijabi who sat next to me on the long train journey across the island and offered me a share of her snacks. I also met the leader of a movement of people, outside mainstream evangelicalism, who meet regularly in small groups to read the Bible and worship Jesus. After twenty years, the movement’s leaders reckon their numbers have now reached six figures. The key feature of these vignettes for our purposes is that all these people would identify as Muslims.

Since then, I have met a number of Muslims as I have visited universities around the UK. Let me introduce some of them to you: the young Mancunian woman in her hijab, the mature Iranian man who dare not go home for fear of the state, the Algerian researcher trying to make sense of the modern world, the Egyptian postgraduate student who asked me why Christians are so private about their religion, and the young Saudi woman who told me she had rejected Wahabi Islam when she saw what IS was doing.

What staggering diversity. How do we make sense of Islam in a world of such variety? What, after all, is Islam? Is it a religion or a way of life or something else? This question has vexed our politicians for some time. It is ten years since the then French President Nicholas Sarkozy said, “The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it is a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement.”[3]

Not wishing to be outdone by a Frenchman, the then British Foreign Office minister, Chris Bryant, made this pronouncement:

I should make it absolutely clear there is no culture and there is no religion in which forced marriage should be acceptable or indeed is acceptable. I know there are maybe some people who think this is an issue about Islam – it is not. Islam does not recommend or accept forced marriage. Marriage in every religion has to be freely and openly consented to.[4]

Since then, however, we have watched the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the spectacle of the rise and fall of a self-declared caliphate, the bloody civil war in Syria, the mass migration of millions of refugees, and the egregious terrorist attacks in London and Paris as well as the Middle East.

An outspoken British pastor writes this about the “Muslim menace”: “While the BBC and the Left do their best to shield the Muslim community from blame, it cannot be denied that the Muslim religion itself is the root cause of the atrocities.”[5] He goes on,

Such a horrific and spine-chilling verdict is demanded ever since IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in May 2015: “Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting. No one should believe that the war we are waging is the war of the Islamic State [IS]. It is the war of all Muslims, but the Islamic State is spearheading it. It is the war of Muslims against infidels. Oh Muslims, go to war everywhere.” This is the purest expression of the vicious Prophet Muhammad’s mission to turn the world into a global Caliphate.[6]

Is “Muslim religion” the cause of the atrocities? What, after all, is Islam? And who is a Muslim: the ranting al-Baghdadi or the quietly-spoken Iranian refugee? The Surabaya bombers or the Algerian academic? Furthermore, who speaks for Islam: French politicians or British pastors? Or Muslims themselves?

Purpose and Structure

In our day, an unprecedented number of Muslims are coming to Christ. This tremendous answer to prayer should not leave us complacent, however, as the number of Muslims in the world grows by thirty-two million per year, mainly through high birth rates (204). So, the challenge of engaging the Muslim world with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is undiminished.

One of the editors of Margins of Islam, Warrick Farah, argues that, “Islam is perhaps the greatest challenge the church has ever faced. Yet it is not simply that we do not know the answers; we are also unsure of the nature of the problem” (205). As we have seen in politics, so also in making disciples. This slim volume, written by seventeen reflective practitioners with significant experience of a wide variety of Muslim contexts, is a major contribution to examining that problem.

Farah’s co-editor, Gene Daniels, tells us three reasons why this book was compiled: to show that “even in our age of globalization and mass-marketed mission methodologies, context still matters”; to demonstrate how this works out in various situations, through case studies; and to help the reader apply the insights to their own ministry (209-10).

After an introduction by Daniels, the book is divided into three parts:

1. In “Conceptualizing Islam” two big foundational questions are asked: who represents Islam? and how do Muslims shape and use Islam?

2. “Engaging Muslims” consists of fourteen case studies from various parts of world, from North Africa to Indonesia to Central Asia and Britain.

3. In “Reframing Missiology” the editors return to reflect on the case studies and pull together the various threads to draw conclusions and application to the missiological challenge.

Central Concern

The central concern of the book is, quite simply, to aid cross-cultural workers seeking to communicate the gospel to Muslims by helping them to understand Islam better. Consider it an exploration of the following questions: what is Islam, who is a Muslim, and what difference does it make?

Most books about Islam, by Muslims as well as by evangelicals, describe normative or classical Islam and might be called “Islam from above”. Such books are not wrong. They are just inadequate to explain the huge variety of expressions of Islam one actually finds around the world.

The approach of the contributors to this book is to look at Islam from below. As such, then, they examine Islam from the “margins” (xviii). The margins are the places where someone who is used to normative Islam might be tempted to say, “They’re not even real Muslims” (105). And these margins are found wherever there are Muslims.

The difference between top-down and bottom-up approaches is missiologically foundational, as Daniels explains: “These precise religious boundaries do not work well for us in mission because biblically based ministry is not about engaging the religion of Islam; rather it is about engaging people who are Muslim” (xvi, original emphasis).

Throughout the book we encounter contributors wrestling with what this means in the contexts with which they are most familiar: Robin Dale Hadaway, for example, writing about Sufi-oriented Islam and African Traditional Religion, asserts that, “Folk Islam blends pure Islam with early religious customs and habits of everyday people” (70). Ted Esler, discussing the status of non-observant Muslims in Bosnia, suggests that, “It may be better to call these… nominal, not secular” (41). Daniels, observing Russified Muslims of the former Soviet Union, reports that the people themselves use the word “Muslimness” to mean, “a shared community identity which is prioritized over the practice of religion” (134).[7]

These quotes highlight the difficulty of the issue: is “Muslimness” a question of identity, beliefs, practices or heritage? If you were hoping the book would give you a definitive answer, you will be disappointed. On the one hand, we are given so many variations. On the other hand, we are told that, “Of course, there are limits to how much any religion can stretch. At a certain point a group’s beliefs or practices move so far from the core that they become recognized as a distinctly different faith” (xviii), the case of Baha’i being the exception that proves the rule.

Evelyne A. Reisacher – as far as I can tell the only female contributor – in her foundational chapter, “Who Represents Islam”, suggests four possible ways to approach the problem, and commends Talal Asad’s model, combining the universal and local forms, and past and present expressions in a “discursive tradition” (7-8).[8]

Paraphrasing the work of Shahab Ahmed, Farah defines Islam as “a process of ‘meaning-making’ undertaken by Muslims as they interact in their context with the revelation given to Muhammad” (14).[9] He goes on to propose that we consider viewing Islam as “one strand in the braided rope of society” (18, original emphasis), a model that makes so much sense when one reads the case studies.

Reviewing his own ministry journey, Farah suggests that the braided rope analogy has aided him in forming a missiological understanding.

I assumed Muslims believed the things I thought Islam taught. But when I started to listen and enter the challenge of exploring my Muslim friends’ faith, I discovered that the search for true Islam was not only illusive but also irrelevant. Instead, I decided to build my understanding of Islam on my friend’s understanding because that is what Islam was to him, and in the context of genuine dialogue and witness that is what is most important. (19)

Research Methodology

A recent article in a missiological journal argues that, “The Western world, and Evangelical Christians must understand Islam ‘as it is’, not as they imagine it to be.”[10] This begs the question, how exactly can we know what Islam is? What should be our methodology?

Historical Perspectives

Though a number of the case studies include a short historical outline, a few major on a historical approach to explicating their subject. Such is the case with Rick Kronk’s chapter on Magrebi Muslims in France and Patrick Brittenden’s chapter on the Berbers of North Africa.

Brittenden draws at least two helpful lessons from the history of Berber engagement with the gospel: firstly, that rapid and wholesale conversion to Islam was largely a result of the failure of the church in North Africa (122); and, secondly, that resistance to the message of an outsider has deep roots.

Recognizing this history of resistance to the power of universalizing ideologies (whatever the flavour) is therefore a key dimension to sensitive cross-cultural ministry in this context. The evangelist or the church planter will need to recognize both this feature of resistance and the quest for identity behind it” (124).

Is the gospel a “universalising ideology”? Much missionary activity of the past two hundred years has been from centres of economic, political and military power out to the global periphery. It is, therefore, a difficult task to disentangle the gospel message from that totalising association. The fact that the centre of gravity of the world church is now in the southern hemisphere is a helpful apologetic against such an association. But it seems to me that global Christianity continues to have strong associations with Western culture and, because of this, continues to be unattractive to vast swathes of people of other religious traditions. As gospel communicators we would do well to examine our life and message to see if we are indeed commending Christ, as we may think we are doing, or if, as many Muslims continue to think, we are unwittingly commending a totalising theory that has its roots as much in the Enlightenment as it does in Scripture. Professor Richard Bauckham, in his excellent exposition of the central storyline of Scripture in Bible and Mission, demonstrates how the gospel, though universal, is not in fact, a “totalising metanarrative”.[11]

Ethnographic Perspectives

I have argued before, in the pages of this journal, for an ethnographic approach to understanding religions.[12] It is encouraging, therefore, to see the value of ethnography being recognised more by others recently.[13] Many of the writers of this volume have clearly approached their quest for understanding through ethnography. Gene Daniels spent more than a decade in ethnography alongside his church planting among Muslims of the former Soviet Union and it shows: he is able to draw on extensive quotations of key informants to make a point (134).

Patrick Brittenden, however, writing out of his experience of ministry among the Berbers of North Africa, sounds a note of caution on ethnography by outsiders (124). The Berber community has experienced significant oppression by both French colonial powers and Arab nationalists and is, therefore, resistant to attempts by outsiders to create a Berber identity for them, something that has been a feature of ethnographies written by outsiders.

In his helpful book on the history of the concept of religion, Brent Nongbri points out that, in academic discussions, the vocabulary of “religion” is used in two quite different ways that are often confused.[14] These are “descriptive and redescriptive accounts” (equivalent to the older terms “emic” and “etic”).[15] Both accounts are by outsiders, but in the former the observer is attempting to reproduce the classification systems of a group of people being studied. It is not the native viewpoint but the observer’s best attempt at reproducing it. A redescriptive account, however, makes no such effort but “freely employs classification systems foreign to those of the people being studied”, something that is essential if any cross-cultural comparisons are to be made.[16] I take it that the ethnographies that Brittenden is referring to, and to which the Berbers take exception, tend to impose categories on the data elucidated, rather than seek to allow categories to emerge out of the data, a problem with which anyone seeking to interpret Scripture is well familiar.

For the most part, Margins of Islam is a compilation of redescriptive accounts. This is inevitable given the purpose of the book. If it were not, it would be very difficult to draw out missiological lessons, as the editors do in the concluding part. Having said that, however, it is clear that a number of the authors are drawing on deep local knowledge. This would seem to be the case, for example, with Michael A. Kilgore’s chapter on Java, in which, after the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, he outlines three categories of Javanese Muslim (107).[17]

Daniels tells us that missionaries are often not familiar with a case-study method of learning and therefore find it difficult to learn from those who have reflected on their ministry situations (210). Many are tempted, rather, to learn a model for ministry and then seek to apply it when they arrive in their host community, content with a superficial analysis of the context. The value of case studies, however, is that they force us to think concretely and ask careful questions of the situation in hand; they push us to think about real people and communities encountering existential issues. The case studies in this book, then, make it hugely valuable for those in ministry to Muslims.

Philosophical Perspectives

It would not be surprising in a book of this sort to find inconsistency in the way terms and concepts are used. What is surprising, however, is that terms and concepts are used in contradictory ways without comment. These difficulties coalesce around the question of Muslim identity and highlight a fundamental philosophical issue: the distinction between essentialism and non-essentialism or, as some would see it, nominalism.

One recent advocate for essentialism puts it thus: “Essentialism is the idea that a philosophy, ideology or religion has a set of defining characteristics, and that without those characteristics, one cannot say that a particular stance belongs to that philosophy, ideology or religion.”[18] The non-essentialist approach is exemplified in this quote of Bishop Kenneth Cragg (1913-2012): “A Muslim is what Islam tells them to be and Islam is what a Muslim tells you it is” (119).

Farah argues against an essentialist view of Islam. Such a view, he argues, rightly in my view, is a product of the Orientalist movement in scholarship, that emerged in the nineteenth century (196-99). While the editors, at least, want to shun essentialism, they do accept that there are boundaries. Though they do not say so, it would seem that they prefer to view religions as, in Paul Hiebert’s terminology, centred sets rather than bounded sets.[19] Farah wants not only to avoid the false objectivity of a modern approach but also the relativism of a postmodern one (198). Religion, then, is socially constructed – “it would not exist if there were no people” (199). For this reason, we “desperately need to be alert to how we use the category ‘religion’ in mission” (199). This is a vital discussion and, for me, is worth the price of the book.

Nevertheless, one wonders where this leaves the issue of syncretism. After all, if religions are not essentialist categories with hard boundaries how can we talk about their mixing?[20] And yet a number of the contributors do so talk (84, 139, 165, 188-89 & fn., 212), a tension that Farah seems to realise but not resolve (199).[21]

Does this not also make talk of “dual belonging” at the very least confusing (167, 188)? If being a member of a Muslim community is not an equivalent category to that of being in Christ, then surely talk of dual belonging runs the risk of making it seem it is. That is not Arthur Brown’s intention, as he makes clear in his chapter on Muslim youth in a “glocal” world (188), but this danger seems to be inherent in such terminology.

Likewise, talk about conversion is also problematic. Ted Esler argues that, “conversion is a process”, and rightly warns the cross-cultural worker that, “being challenged to make a decision without adequate time to understand and process the ramifications of those decisions may create a serious misunderstanding about the gospel” (44). Too right. But the terminology of conversion is itself part of the problem. It is invariably understood in cultural and social ways and would best be abandoned altogether, without jettisoning the biblical concepts of repentance and regeneration. Talal Asad’s “discursive tradition” approach, mentioned earlier, would seem to be better able to handle these difficulties.

Paradigms for Ministry among Muslims

In a book of this sort one would expect a variety of ministry paradigms to be proposed. And that is what you get. I will identify four, though these should not be seen as exclusive models.

1. Incarnational Ministry

Implicitly, the contributors to this book advocate an incarnational posture, that is, that the minister to Muslims must seek to adapt and adjust to the culture of their host community in order to be effective. One of the leading advocates of this approach, Paul Hiebert (1932-2007), however, is criticised by Kim for his “one-way incarnational posture” (98-99).[22] Kim believes that incarnational models fall short because they “ignore the fact that cultures are constantly evolving” (98). I don’t think the fact that cultures change undermines an incarnational approach at all. One does not have to think of cultures as static in order to benefit from such a posture, as Hiebert himself clearly understood.[23] I want to highlight three issues that arise out of an incarnational approach, one from the case study on Bosnia and two from the one on South Asia.

Ted Esler urges us to appreciate the differences that an orientation to shame or guilt brings to the task of intercultural communication (45). In Bosnia, it means that a Socratic dialogue may not be appropriate, as people in a shame-oriented culture always expect a way out of an embarrassing situation. Failing to provide a way out, therefore, might scupper the relationships one has worked so hard to form and that are key to fruitful gospel work.

On South Asia, Kevin Higgins makes a fascinating point in his discussion of ministry among Sufis, who love the tales of Nasrudin. These tales, he explains, “are often intended to slow comprehension rather than to aid it” (29), rather like the parables of the Lord Jesus (Mark 4:10-12). “The communication of Jesus, and of the Sufis, is often both allusive (pointing elsewhere) and elusive (difficult to actually define)… and it presents us with the opportunity to learn more of the mystery to be discovered in the ways God works to draw people to the Way”. This point deserves further reflection.

Higgins also observes that models of evangelical personal devotion presented to Muslims are often “noisy,… contrived and shallow… or dry and stale and… offer no encouragement or opportunity for actual experience of God” (30). He argues, rightly in my view, that this is a “major challenge for evangelical witness” among people who desire a deep experience of God. His suggestions of other models of spirituality, however, are drawn largely from Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. The rich vein of devotion found in the writings of the Puritans, for example, seems to be unknown.

2. Open Discipleship in Society

Alan Johnson describes two patterns of church among Thai Muslims (166-67):

1. Abandonment, in which Muslim Background Believers physically leave their community and integrate into a Thai church; and

2. Secret disciples, who remain in their community but leave it to meet with others to read the Bible and pray with an individual or house group.

Clearly neither of these patterns enable the open witness of disciples in their community. Johnson reports, however, that attempts are being made to develop new patterns of corporate witness of Christ-followers in which Malay identity markers are visible. Johnson argues that, “Since the perceived loss of Malay identity is the greatest obstacle to reaching these Muslims, the key to developing context-sensitive ministry should [be to] allow believers from this background to follow Christ within their social setting” (166). This must surely be the case throughout the Muslim communities that are described in this book and many others that are not.

One context where this issue of identity and community is significant is in the UK. Phil Rawlings notes that the church in the UK is slowly learning to engage with Muslims (154). However, a “further challenge for them… is to learn how to provide a true spiritual home for those from a Muslim background who do come to faith in Jesus”. Whilst Iranian asylum seekers might integrate into local British churches – they have burned the bridges to their natal communities – it remains a huge obstacle to the majority of British Muslims to do so, as their communities are very much intact and the act of joining a British church is seen as a betrayal. If we want to see British Muslims coming to Christ in their families and in larger numbers, we must create groups in which they can openly read the Bible and pray together without being thought of as having rejected their birth communities. Such an approach demands great patience and understanding on the part of existing local churches as well as on the part of those who send and support those who work in this way.

3. Liberating Liminality

In Patrick Brittenden’s contribution on the Berbers of North Africa, he makes much of the liminal nature of the Berber experience, living between the two realities of their own ethnicity and the universalising forces of Islam. Followers of Christ also inhabit a liminal space, the “liminality of discipleship” (126). This liminality is corporate: “As disciples called into the body of Christ, the visible church must intentionally take up a place between church and culture….” I struggle here to understand how the church can occupy a space “between the church and culture”. Individual disciples may well feel that they live in such a space, but how can the church? In the context it would appear he means between global Christianity and the wider Berber culture. This is readily understandable to anyone who has sought to make disciples among those of other religious traditions. Christians of other backgrounds may indeed cause Berber believers to feel a radical pull away from their birth communities. And when that happens, the liminal space occupied is not one in which the believer is isolated and unfruitful but one that creates a bridge, “‘translating’ the gospel in the national context so that it facilitates the church’s contribution to the ongoing story of algérienneté (Algerian-ness)” (128), what the author calls “liberating liminality”.

4. Power Ministry

For at least one contributor, “animistic” beliefs figure strongly in a discussion of ministry approaches. People often described as animistic have a desire for power over malevolent spirits and forces. Taking his cue from Charles Kraft’s philosophy of dynamic equivalence, C. G. Gordon argues that, “cross-cultural workers who desire to see real transformation of that society must be aware of the underlying reasons why these Muslims continue to connect with their animistic practices and rituals”. And, “since the people of the Tarim Basin intuitively seek for life-giving power, missionaries among them must find ways to teach, demonstrate, and live out the gospel as the very power of God” (180).[24]

While I do not disagree with this, I am concerned that, in his efforts to explicate Uyghur culture, the author seems to engage in insufficient critical reflection. Does the author believe that, “There are many places in the Tarim Basin where people encounter the spirit world” (175) or is he merely using phenomenological language? Clarity would be appreciated here. Sadly, the importance of this has been proved in the uncritical acceptance that marks the writing of Kraft, leading to bizarre and destructive ministry practices.[25]

Likewise, Robin Dale Hadaway elucidates the fear factor in the culture of some Muslims, such as the Beja tribe of Sudan, who maintain elements of both Sufism and African Tribal Religion (78): “Thus gospel messengers to the Beja must… focus their presentation on the area of fear-power” (79). Agreed. But that presentation must not be rooted in the Bible as divine “case-book” (after Kraft).[26] Rather, it must be rooted in the Bible as understood through the lens of the great arc of salvation history.

An Adaptive Approach to Mission

The final part of the book seeks to bring the threads of the fourteen case studies together in missiological application. Here Farah proposes an “adaptive” approach to mission (196-97):

If we don’t begin with the local expressions of Islam, we end up assuming something other than what our friends hold to be true, and therefore miss the vital and necessary connection for the power of the gospel to do its transformational work specifically in that context. (200)

Farah argues that, because the concept of religion is so flexible, dealing with Muslims on that level may end up clouding mission. So, he proposes, “instead of bypassing religion in our missiological approaches,… a more fruitful way of engaging Muslims is to deal with idolatry, which, depending on the context, may be a much more specific topic than Islam” (201).

An Evaluation

The great strength of the book is that it is written by reflective practitioners, that is by gospel workers who have thought long and hard about their ministries. Sadly, this sort of reflective practice is too uncommon. If they have had any training, such as at Bible college or seminary, many workers seem to plunge into cross-cultural ministry with hardly a thought about the context in which they find themselves.

Daniels tells of a missionary he met who had gone to Central Asia to work with students (xviii). It was two years before the missionary realised, to his great surprise, that the students were Muslims. As you can imagine, he was completely unprepared. Training for gospel ministry must include preparation to exegete the context as well as to exegete the text. If that is absent from the beginning, the likelihood of a worker becoming a fruitful, reflective practitioner is not encouraging.

Another strength of this book is the academic rigour with which each of the authors tackles his or her subject; in fact, nearly all the authors have a doctorate in a relevant subject. This is no guarantee of faithfulness to the Lord, of course, but it does reflect the seriousness with which these writers approach their work. Footnotes and references are judicious rather than exhaustive. Scholarship is not paraded but kept low-profile, making the work accessible to the non-specialist.

One is struck also by the depth of experience of the writers. In Ted Esler’s account of the secular Muslims of Bosnia, for instance, he writes about what women were wearing as he strolled down the main streets of Sarajevo in 1990 (41). And such decades-long observation is the rule in this cohort of gospel ministers. This makes it an immensely practical book. Not that the writers go into detailed mechanics of ministry to Muslims. Such an approach would violate the important principle that they are attempting to inculcate in the reader: to discover for oneself, by careful attention to both the New Testament and the precise context, how to apply principles of ministry.

Weaknesses in the book are few and far between. Two practical omissions lessen its general usefulness: there is no glossary for the non-specialist to consult – what is “baraka” (120)? – and serious study is hampered by the lack of an index.

Three more substantial issues, however, need further attention. These are worldview, animism, and the transmission of culture.

1. Worldview

A number of the writers employ the term “worldview” in their writings. Their use of the term, however, is not consistent. Rick Kronk talks about the “Muslim worldview” (48) while C. G. Gordon talks about the “Uyghur worldview” (172). One wonders whether such terminology means anything more than simply “the way Muslims think” or “Uyghur culture”. If it is anything more substantial, then, going with Kronk and Gordon would there be a Uyghur Muslim worldview and a completely different one for a Uyghur who comes to Christ? I am not sure how to resolve this. The concept of worldview has been so much a part of evangelical thinking, including my own, for decades, but it seems to bring as much confusion as clarification.

To add to the complexity, Esler writes that, “secularism is not a worldview” but “secular humanism” is (41, see also fn. 5). Secularism, as he expounds it, would better be labelled “secularity” as, he argues, it is “primarily the absence of religion, rather than a cohesive belief system”. And so, we come back to “religion”. Perhaps, in the light of these studies, it would be better to say that secularity is the presence of religion without it being acknowledged.

2. Animism

At least two contributors describe the Muslims of their region as being heavily influenced by animism. C. G. Gordon’s chapter on the Uyghurs of north-western China focusses on the assertion that “the Islam practised today in the Tarim Basin is a complex amalgamation of various belief systems mixed with an animistic foundation” (174). “Animism”, says Gordon, is a term that, “describes people who generally believe the problems they experience in life are the result of spiritual forces that can be controlled by special people using special techniques during special times and in special places” (174). Likewise, in describing the richly adorned trucks in Pakistan, Warren Larson asserts that, “behind these paintings is an animistic worldview”, which is an indication of syncretism (85).

I think the use of term “animism” is unfortunate. Coined by the early anthropologist E. B. Tylor it continues to carry connotations of the evolution of religion.[27] I prefer to use the term “primal religions” to describe the phenomena described by these writers. The word “primal” is not the same as “primitive” and does not have an evolutionistic connotation. Andrew Walls asserts that “the word helpfully underlines two features of the religions of the people indicated: their historical anteriority and their basic, elemental status in human experience”.[28] All other faiths, Walls adds, are secondary to that basic primal experience. A key aspect of the culture and religion of primal peoples is a shared belief in a multitude of spirits or other non-material phenomena that interact freely with the material world. “All other faiths are subsequent and represent, as it were, second thoughts; all other believers, and for that matter non-believers, are primalists underneath.”[29] For this reason, talk of primal impulses undergirding Muslim experience as syncretistic is surely to impose on the ethnographic data an unwarranted framework, as if Islam and animism are two species of the same genus.

3. The Transmission of Culture

Another area in which more work may be fruitful is in the relationship of culture and ethnicity. The Hui are the largest Muslim ethnic group officially recognised in China. Enoch Jinsik Kim proposes a “two-layered cultural settings model” for understand the group, with a “surface layer forged by urbanization and a core of traditional life” (97). Younger Hui are more heavily influenced by the dominant Han Chinese in their attitudes and lifestyles than their parents are. And yet one wonders if some of the shared cultural features between Han and Hui are not because of recent cultural assimilation but vestiges of a much older reality. Recent genetic studies have concluded that the Hui are not a demic group, i.e. they are not the result of a migration of peoples from the Central Asia and the Middle East, as claimed by Kim (94), but a group that has resulted from the cultural assimilation of Islamic forms by indigenous Han Chinese during Islam’s expansion into China.[30] The upshot of this is that shared cultural features do not necessarily point to the impact of modernisation but rather may be the expression of long-cherished shared values that have continued in spite of 1400 years of allegiance to Islam.

Likewise, Alan Johnson suggests that Thai Muslims are the descendants of Malay and other outsiders who settled in Thailand in the 1500s. But recent genetic studies on the Thai-Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists “showed significant genetic homogeneity between these two populations, suggesting a common biological ancestry”.[31] The significance of this to ministry among minority groups is not to dismiss the influence of deeply held traditional values in the face of modernisation. Modernity might not be that powerful after all.

Apart from several typographical errors a number of other minor issues also crept in that should have been spotted by a copy editor:

  • Rant alert: ‘homogenous’ (198) is an annoying habit of missiologists on both sides of the pond. It should be homogeneous (pronounced with five syllables). The former is a biological term and has nothing to do with homogeneity. Arthur Brown spells it correctly (190);
  • I am not sure this is an error but, if not, it is at least confusing: qingzhen is glossed three different ways (95 twice and 101);
  • A bizarre geographical error seems to have crept into the account of Islam in Britain. We are told that “the first mosque in Britain was established in Liverpool” and that “this mosque was situated in the neighbourhood of Woking” which is over 200 miles away (148). They are, in fact, two separate mosques about which there seems to be some dispute over which is the oldest.

These issues should not detract from the overall value of the book. Rather, this volume is a welcome contribution to the rethinking of Muslim ministry. I have attempted in this review article to demonstrate its strengths while also picking up on more questionable issues. I hope my criticisms do not overshadow my compliments.

Mark Pickett
Mark Pickett works with UFM Worldwide, teaching cross-cultural ministry in face-to-face settings and online at He has ministry experience in South Asia and the UK.


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