95. Evangelisation and Proselytisation: Christianity and Islam
95. Evangelisation and Proselytisation: Christianity and Islam

95. Evangelisation and Proselytisation: Christianity and Islam

Last week’s post examined the subtle difference between proselytisation and evangelisation. Today’s post discusses the spread of the two religions from the Middle East to the entire world. Religious texts encourage believers to seek new converts and provide believers with the framework for establishing new communities.

In Christianity, evangelisation and missionary activities are based on the injunction of Jesus Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations; baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). One also recalls that Jesus had earlier sent his twelve disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and the seventy-two to the towns and villages where he was to go.  

When he sent the twelve apostles and charged them not to visit any foreign territory, he said: 

“whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart. As you enter the house, salute it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matt 10:11-14). When Jesus sent the seventy-two to visit the other towns and villages, he said: “whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 10::4-5).

In Islam, the injunction is more forceful as the Qur’an, to an extent, appears less tolerant of non-Muslims.

“O believers! Indeed, the polytheists are spiritually impure, so they should not approach the Sacred Mosque after this year. If you fear poverty, Allah will enrich you out of His bounty, if He wills. Surely, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise” (Qur’an 9:28).

“Fight those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day, nor comply with what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, nor embrace the religion of truth from among those who were given the Scripture, until they pay the tax, willingly submitting, fully humbled”. (Qur’an 9:29).  

“The Jews say, “Ezra is the son of Allah,” while the Christians say, “The Messiah is the son of Allah.” Such are their baseless assertions, only parroting the words of earlier disbelievers. May Allah condemn them! How can they be deluded ˹from the truth˺?” (Qur’an 9:30).  

However, there are contrary messages from Allah in the Qur’an too. For instance – “Indeed, the believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabians—whoever truly believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good will have their reward with their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve” (Qur’an 2:62).

“Let there be no compulsion in religion, for the truth stands out clearly from falsehood. So whoever renounces false gods and believes in Allah has certainly grasped the firmest, unfailing hand-hold. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (Qur’an 2:256).

“Had your Lord so willed O Prophet, all people on earth would have certainly believed, every single one of them! Would you then force people to become believers?” (Qur’an 10:99).

“Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly” (Qur’an 60:8).

There are several discussions on how Islam, through military conquest, conquered North Africa and the Middle East, which were previously Christian and have produced three popes and great saints, such as Augustine and Athanasius. When compared with the Christian expansion strategy, these discussions often condemn the Muslim conversion strategy.

As a Christian and a Catholic priest, I argue that such feelings may be one-sided and prejudicial because these sentiments are based on Christian evangelisation in the contemporary era, which does not correspond to Christian evangelisation in the past. We were somewhat guilty of what we accuse Muslims of doing.

First, religion is an integral part of every human society. What is sometimes confusing is considering the major religions as the only existing religions. Humans had always had a relationship with the divine before some religions emerged as institutions. These pre-existing religions are often described as animist, traditional, or pagan. The naturalistic, anthropological, sociological, and psychological theories on the origin of religion affirm that religion has always existed in human society as humans attempt to navigate their realities.

Based on this, it is wrong to assume that people had no religion before Christianity. Christianity is about 2,000 years old, yet it is among the youngest religions in the world today. Whenever we happily talk about the spread of Christianity around the world, we should always remember that it displaced an existing religion. In our context, it ousted African Traditional Religion, which is somewhat making a comeback now. 

Second, Jesus was explicit on his preferred model of evangelisation of not imposing the faith on anyone. The early Church adopted this model in their evangelisation and never imposed conversions on people. Although they were heavily persecuted and killed, the Church continued to grow through the power of their testimonies.

However, on 27 February 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which officially made Christianity (Catholicism) the State religion of the Roman Empire, giving the Church spiritual and political powers. From then, things began to change as the new status effectively constrained people to believe in order to be valuable in society. Together with the Christian testimony, Europe quickly converted to Christianity, leading to the inculturation of European culture and traditional religion into Christianity.

Nevertheless, the Church’s official authorisation of the conversion of non-Christians became clearer during the conquest of the Americas and Africa – a period known as the ‘Age of Discovery’. There were several papal bulls to that effect, now described as the “Doctrine of Discovery”.

In the coming weeks, I will examine some of these papal documents, which show that the Christian expansion strategy in the past somewhat corresponds to what we accuse Muslims of doing. Why is this necessary?

Effective inter-religious dialogue requires that each religion fully understands itself. Criticising Islam’s strategy while ignorant or refusing to admit that we were once guilty of that same strategy undermines our moral vantage position in any inter-religious discussion.

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


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