Some Thoughts on the ApostolateAmong Muslims

By Fr. J N. M. Wijngaards*, Al-Basheer, Vol. 2 No. 4 (1973) pgs 195-204

From many points of view it would seem that the time is ripe for adopting a new plan for the apostolate among Muslims in India. This plan should be daring and bold. It should spring from the vision of faith and yet be tempered by realism. It should be wide enough to embrace the problems affecting the whole national Church, but also leave scope for individual initiative and specific charisma.

I am fully aware that no single paper can do justice to all that would need to be remembered and said about the subject. In selecting what I decided to say I allowed myself to be guided by my own sense of priorities. However, the purpose of this presentation is not restrictive.     It does not want to exclude other views or approaches.  Its sole aim is to seek clarification and direction, and to stimulate the Church to a response.

I have grouped the thoughts that came to my mind in the following sequence:

  1. Courage – a necessary virtue.
  2. Outline of a ten years’ plan.
  3. Reflections on the means.
  4. Our long-term objective.
  5. Why a new beginning?

1.  WHY A NEW BEGINNING?

As all the other major religions in the world, Islam has been deeply affected by the process of secularism. The profound changes of society as it moves towards greater urbanization and industrialized living have also forced Islam to re-evaluate its religious foundations. Perhaps, the process has affected Islam even more than other religions as it is more deeply rooted in social structures. The modern Muslim is as devoted as we are to .progress of science, to the development of man’s natural resources and to the establishment of world peace. Just like in other religions orthodox views and ancient traditions are being discarded in a search for what is most fundamental in man, in society and in mankind’s relationship to God. Never has there been such a common ground for religious discussion as in our own times.

Add to this the specific situation of Muslims in India. Having been cut off effectively from the main bulk of Muslims that live in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Muslim citizens of India have slowly, but surely been involved in a process of integration. In spite of deep seated prejudices and occasional communal riots, the present day Muslim indentifies himself with India. In his quest for his rightful place within the Indian community, he explores his relationships with Hindus, Christians and other religious groupings. The doctrine of “peaceful co-existence” has social and religious as well as political implications. The Indian Muslim of today is, therefore, more approachable than ever.

One of the greatest obstacles to a meaningful contact with Muslims has been with Christians themselves. In their apologetic and defensive attitude they barred the possibility of a better understanding. The prejudice of Christians regarding Muslims has been and still is one of the greatest obstacles in the way of bringing Christ to Muslims. The deeper realization of the providential role played by non-Christian religions and the movement towards sincere dialogue, which has been so well expressed in the Vatican Council, have radically changed the possibilities; The new theological insights have given the Church the means by which a new beginning can be made in the discussion with Muslims.

A hindrance of the past has also been a certain missionary bias in favour of Hindus. Lord Ellenborough, Governor General of the East India Company from 1842 to 1844, is credited with the policy statement: “I cannot close my eyes to the belief that the Muslim race is fundamentally hostile to us and, therefore, our true policy is to conciliate the Hindus.” (Muslim Civilization In India, p 293). Although not expressed in the same terms, the Christian mission has often decided on the same policy. In fact, even today there is a tendency of simply identifying India with Hinduism as if Muslims are a priori considered a foreign intrusion. The new missionary awareness that found its expression in the All-India Seminar has initiated the movement that could eventually correct the bias of past years.

Finally, the modern age has brought us new possibilities of evangelization and dialogue. One of these is the powerful new network of communications media. Isolated groups such as the Muslims have always been, can now be reached in an entirely new fashion through the channels of press, radio, correspondence and film, It is these means that can operate as effective mentality changers and that can provide the Church with a new instrument through which communication can be held with the Muslim community.

For all these reasons it seems that as the Church in India today reflects on its own undiminished mission of bringing Christ to man, it finds itself confronted with a new challenge as far as ‘Muslims are concerned. The old prejudices as if dialogue with Muslims remains fruitless and as if Muslims will never accept Christ should once and for all be buried. The priority established regarding the mission towards Hindus should be modified so as to include a proportionate use of resources and personnel for the work among Muslims. Christ’s command that His Gospel should be preached to every man should now be realized by a conscious and determined new beginning, a new beginning that will definitely commit the Church towards a sustained and well-planned apostolate for and among Muslims.

  1. OUR LONG-TERM OBJECTIVE

It would not be correct, in fact it would be rather theologically disastrous, to say that our long-term objective is “that all Muslims may become Christians”. Scripture never says that God want all men to be Christians. It says that God wants “that all man be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Ti m 2,4). It is true that every man ‘s salvation comes only through Christ’s redemption (1 Tim 2,5-7), but that does not mean that this salvation “in and through Christ” could only be reached through formal incorporation in the Church. In God’s providence there are more ways in which this can be achieved.

Church history confirms this. The process of Christianization often takes many centuries. A genuine incorporation into Christ and growth into matured expression of his perfection requires fundamental changes that cannot be obtained within a few years. There is no need for anxiety about the fate of individuals. More important in the process of Christianization is whether the new people of God are properly imbibing the new reality of Christ, whether it is achieved as a true assimilation and not as a merely external adoption. When defining our long-term objective for the Church’s apostolate to Muslims in India, we should be sensitive rather to the correct approach than to immediate sensational results. In its fullest sense our long-term objective will be to bring Christ to every Muslim or to work until every Muslim belongs to Christ. But in a more realistic sense the long-term objective will have to limit itself to better definable and clearly attainable targets.

Keeping the above remarks in view, I would suggest that the long-term objective in Muslim apostolate should be seen as having three distinct aims:

A.  Every Christian in India should have correct information about Islam and a proper attitude towards Muslims

Our work among Muslims will be doomed to failure as long as so many prejudices keep prevailing among our people. Ignorance of Muslim belief and moral ideals is one of the chief causes for this prejudice. We will have to disseminate proper and correct information about everything pertaining to Muslims and discuss the implications so that the Christian community is more positively oriented towards contacting their Muslim brethren. This process of instruction and motivation should especially be directed towards (a) priests, (b) religious and (c) lay leaders.

B.  Every Muslim in India should have a correct picture of the Christian message.

Muslims have wrong notions about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Redemption. Closely related to it is a basic misunderstanding of the Christian concept of God and God’s plan of redemption, a misunderstanding that is not merely intellectual but mostly emotional. The popular image of Christianity, of its practices and doctrines, is so distorted that effective communication with the Muslims at present is practically ruled out. Correcting this image and presenting the adequate message in a form that is cornpatible to the Muslim mind and heart is, therefore, of the greatest priority. As special groups that need to be contacted individually we may mention (a) intellectuals, (b) orthodox leaders and (c) women (because they are so difficult to reach).

C.  Every Muslim who wants to embrace Christ should be able to feel at home in the Church.

It is God’s grace that gives people the final call to embrace Christ fully. Christ will surely give this grace to whoever is well-disposed towards it. The problem lies not with God, but with us, with the Church. In the present circumstances it is extremely difficult for a Muslim who becomes a Christian to feel at home in the Church. The Muslim is used to very strong social bonds with his co-religionists: in the Church he feels isolated and alone. The Muslim is aware of belonging to a great religious tradition. As a convert he usually feels looked down upon even by his new Christian brothers. Even more than his Hindu counterpart, a Muslim is attached to his customs, symbolism, artistic tradition and religious ritual: joining the Church is for him like entering a strange world. A Muslim who becomes Christian should be able to recognize in the prayers and ceremonies of the Church the fullest expression of the positive elements contained in Islam. To achieve all this, to form Christian communities in which Muslims will feel at home, much will need to be done.

  1. REFLECTION ON THE MEANS

Before we start drawing up a definitive practical Ten Year Plan it will be necessary to review the means at our disposal in reaching the objective.

A.  Language.

Attainment of our objectives is dependent upon communication. And communication can only come about if we have an adequate control of the language spoken by the communicants. At present effective communication with Muslims is practically excluded by the very fact that we do not have sufficient, or sufficiently qualified, persons to communicate with them in their own language. Urdu is a case in point. Although the majority of Muslims speak Urdu, we do not have a sufficient number of writers and speakers to effectively address them in their own language. Our first means in reaching our objective should, therefore, be the conquest of languages spoken by the Muslims. I mean by this, not only the acquisition of this language by the personnel working among the Muslims, but the effective saturation of those languages with adequate Christian literature, whether it be in the form of books, articles or Christian documents.

On a deeper level, language should also provide us with the key to solving many misunderstandings. It is a well-known fact that prejudices are often based on the use of dissonant terminology and the absence of liberating notions and concepts. The effective conquest of the language area should entail a rigorous examination of available terminology in Muslim literature and a critical evaluation of our own terminology in comparison to it. This work of hammering out a religious language that will be understood by both groups will obviously have to involve intellectual leaders on both sides.

B.  Personal contact.

It has always been the conviction of Christian apostles that personal contact is the best means of bringing Christ to others. However, experience has also taught that evangelistic contact often tends to bring about just the opposite effect of the one intended. Direct pastoral visits, valuable though they may be in many circumstances, are often viewed by Muslims as potential attacks on their faith and Islamic loyalty. The very setting of these visits precludes openness and co-operation on their part. In many areas evangelistic contacts will either be ignored or vehemently repulsed.

Traditional apostolate amongst Muslims has made frequent use of so-called professional contact. Christians performed services in Muslim countries by running schools, managing hospitals, looking after the poor and the aged, and taking an active interest in their fellowmen in general. In many instances these professional contacts have proved a valuable means of breaking down barriers of distrust on the part of Muslims. They have come to recognize the Christian professionalist as a man of honour and integrity, a religious person with ideals worthy of esteem. However, in other cases the method has not proved so efficient. The Christian professionalists have been suspected of ulterior motives and often no personal contacts could be established.

The ideal personal contact, the kind of contact that holds the greatest promise is the contact of common living. I mean with this the kind of fellowship in work, in community life, in prayer and in common endeavours that breaks down misunderstandings and that makes persons friends and brothers. This method of approach has found some practical means of expression in Indonesia, the Middle East, North Africa and even in India. Potentially it contains the seeds of becoming the most powerful form of dialogue. Its’ only, but serious, limitation lies in the fact that few persons only can benefit from the living contact of one active Christian.

It is here that the means of communication, perhaps, offer a new solution. It is characteristic of these means that they can extend personal contacts in a multiplication of relationships that had never been dreamt of before. We should carefully study if the value of personal contact, the living together, the intimate knowledge of persons, personal witness and presentation cannot be effectively translated and multiplied through these means of communication. A parallel may be useful here. The living personality of Gandhi has had a far greater impact on the masses then the theoretical principles of the nationalistic movement. Yet, very few people actually met Gandhi. He was made alive to them through the means of communication.

C.  Specialization.

Ideally speaking, every Christian should be an apostle to his Muslim neighbour. In the concrete circumstances however this is too much to be hoped for immediately. The average Christian of the present day neither possesses the knowledge nor the motivation to be able to dialogue effectively with his fellow Muslims. Moreover, many specific groups of Muslims, particularly the intellectuals and the orthodox, need the guided approach carefully directed to them, There will be the need of persons within the Church who specialize on questions concerning Muslims and their religion.

Specialization is also imperative from an organizational point of view. The demands made on the Church today require the skills of professionally equipped persons in many widely divergent fields: in the positive sciences, in theology and comparative religion, in sociology and psychology, in secular development, in liturgy, catechetics, labour and leadership, and in many other fields. A proper impetus and a sustained attention cannot be given to any of these apostolates without certain persons specializing in its organization and pursuit. The same applies to the apostolate for Muslims. The Church will only make an impact on the problem if it can set aside a number of dynamic and dedicated persons for this task.

The New Testament indicates a further reason for specialization. It teaches that the Holy Spirit gives different charismata to different people. The apostolate for and among Muslims is itself a charisma. Within this wider charisma there may be specific gifts: of being able to do research, of having the ability of easy contact and making cordial relationships, of clarity of expression, of attracting youth etc. For some the natural field of approach will be in the sphere of education, for others in pastoral visits. The apostolate for Muslims will certainly benefit from giving the fullest recognition to such individual charismata.

D.  Integration in the Churchs work.

The Church in India has established various structures and channels through which it exercises its apostolate. The very size of the country and the complication of the different aspects of the apostolate require such an organization. Therefore, if the apostolate for and among Muslims is to be successful it will have to be integrated properly into the already established and well-structured apostolate of the Church in general.

This means in the first place that the maximum use should be made of available structures. The proper approach towards Muslims and the teaching of correct information about them should, for example, be integrated into the teaching imparted at Seminaries, training institutes, re-orientation seminars and theological courses for the laity. Approaches towards Muslim communities should be undertaken in collaboration with the local bishops and parish clergy. The Christian attitude towards Muslims should be manifested through the institutions, especially schools and hospitals, run by the dioceses or religious orders.

The integration is also demanded in a more organizational manner. The apostolate for and among Muslims will need to be properly affiliated to the Commissions of C.B.C.I. concerned with different aspects of the apostolate and with other national undertakings that have a bearing on its objectives. To give freedom of action to persons who have the charismatic possibilities, the correct establishment of relationships with the pre- existing institutions is of vital importance.

We might approach the same matter from a slightly different angle. There are two categories of persons who are of vital importance for the organized apostolate of the Church in India today. The first category is obviously that of the bishops who both individually and collectively carry the main responsibility for the apostolate. The second category is that of persons who occupy key positions in the apostolate, at times by the explicit appointment of the bishops, at times by, special developments or their particular gifts. To this group belong the heads of institutions, commissions, organizations and movements that actively influence the work of the Church. It also includes religious superiors and those who in the course of time have acquired an influential role in different aspects of the Church’s work. The apostolate for Muslims should be organized in such a way that it receives the support of both these categories of persons. It should at all times have the clear and outspoken mandate of the Bishops. And it should be effectively linked to the providential structure through which the apostolate is exercised in other fields.

*Fr. Wjingaards is a professor at St. John’s Regional Seminary, Hyderabad.  This paper was prepared for presentation at the Roman Catholic All-India Consultation on Evangelism held in Patna, 3-8 October, 1973.