The Opportunities Facing the Church Today


1. The Advent of Islam in South Africa.

During the seventeenth century the Dutch won control of what is now Indonesia as well as other parts of the East and some coastal ports of India. At the same time they established a small settlement at the Cape chiefly as a refreshment station for their ships sailing to the East. As the community expanded a number of Muslims were brought from Indonesia and those other parts to the Cape as slaves. Included among them were a number of political figures who were causing trouble in the Dutch colonies and who were accordingly banished to the Cape.

Some fifty Muslim men of prominence were brought to the Cape in the ship "Voetboog" in 1694. Among them was an exile, Shaykh Yusuf, who had been stirring up much opposition to Dutch rule in the East Indies. This group immediately set about establishing Islam in the colony and during the eighteenth century, as more slaves were brought from the East, Islam settled and became a prominent feature of local life in the Cape Peninsula.

Today there are some two hundred thousand Muslims in the Western Cape, known commonly as "Cape Malays", who are descended from those early expatriates. They have adopted the Western culture and speak English and Afrikaans as home languages, having lost virtually all contact with their original homelands and languages.

The Indian Muslims, who today number close on two hundred thousand as well, came to South Africa in similar circumstances. During the eighteenth century the British began to gain control of much of India and in the nineteenth century conquered the Cape Colony and Natal. Just as the Dutch had brought Muslim slaves to the Cape from their colonies in the East, so the British brought Indian labourers from India to work on the Natal canefields. Most of these followed Hinduism though a number were Muslims and Christians. Samuel Zwemer describes how these early labourers came to the province in those days:

Shortly afterwards a number of Muslims, chiefly from northern India, emigrated independently to South Africa and settled as traders in the country. Their descendants today are distributed throughout the Transvaal and Natal as well as parts of the Cape. They too have adopted the Western culture and generally speak English as a home language, though many, particularly among the older generation, still speak Urdu and Gujerati fluently.

Today the Muslims number just over one per cent of the peoples of South Africa. For up to two hundred years they have been settled in the country and many are now from the fourth and fifth generation of those who first came here. Most of them have become thoroughly Westernised and communicate freely with their compatriots.

Thus there has been, for nearly two centuries in South Africa, a phenomenon which in the last forty years has become commonplace throughout the West. Significant Muslim minorities live in the midst of a predominantly Christian society. In most cases in the West the societies concerned have large Protestant majorities where the evangelical Church has been strongly established for a long time. In Europe and North America, for the first time, Muslim communities live within the traditional strongholds of the Christian Church and are at its doorstep. In South Africa, however, a prototype of this worldwide phenomenon first came into being nearly two hundred years ago so that the Westernising process has been complete for many generations. What significance does this hold for the Church in this age? We need to briefly examine certain statements made by Samuel Zwemer many years ago and events in his life pertaining to the South African situation to get a hint at the immense opportunities that this type of situation presents to the Church.

2. Zwemer's Visit to South Africa and its Effects.

Samuel Zwemer was one of the greatest missionaries ever to serve in the Muslim world. He was an American of Dutch descent and rightly became known as the "Apostle to Islam". Born in 1867, he was blessed with a long life great endeavours, and died in April, 1952.

He worked as a missionary in Arabia for sixteen years. He ventured all over the Middle East, speaking to Muslims of Jesus Christ, and distributing the Word of God to them. He visited Yemen, Iraq, India, Persia and Indonesia amongst others. He travelled all over North Africa. His vision for the Muslim world knew no bounds. He sought to discover, as far as possible, the spread of Islam throughout the world and the prospects of Christian missionary work in Muslim lands. The whole world of Islam was truly his parish.

He also wrote many books, conducted numerous campaigns all over Europe and North America to awaken concern in the Church for the evangelising of the Muslim world, founded the quarterly journal The Moslem World in 1911 and the Fellowship of Faith for the Muslims in 1915. There have been few missionaries in the world who have possessed his vision, zeal, faith and, above all, his love and concern for the people to whom God had sent him.

Most maps showing the spread of Islam in the world ignore South Africa altogether. This is hardly surprising for, as we have already pointed out, only one in about seventy-five South Africans is a Muslim and only one in every two thousand Muslims in the world lives in this country. They appear to be a negligible minority. Yet, when Zwemer wrote his book Mohammed or Christ in 1916, he devoted a whole chapter to Islam in South Africa. In 1929, when he wrote his book Across the World of Islam, he devoted another whole chapter to the same subject. One of the chapters in this book was simply titled Islam in North Africa and the next Islam in South Africa. This seems logical enough until one considers that the Muslims of North Africa outnumber those in the country of South Africa nearly eight hundred to one. Zwemer obviously had a very special interest in the Muslims of this country and clearly saw good reason to devote more attention to them than their numbers would seem to justify. He also wrote a few articles in The Moslem World on the Muslims of South Africa. In one of his books he says:

His concern for South Africa, so obviously out of all proportion to the relatively small number of Muslims in this country, is proved all the more by the fact that when he came here in 1925 at the request of the major Protestant churches to address the many evangelical conferences held that year on mission work among Muslims, he did not allow himself a pleasant holiday in this country but travelled some six thousand miles throughout the sub-continent to discover the spread and numbers of Muslims in it. We know that Zwemer's vision was spread broadly over the whole Muslim world. Why, then, did he devote so much time and attention to the Muslims of South Africa?

Even after returning to Europe and North America he continued to give much attention to the situation here. In a brief biography on his remarkable life we read:

We believe that Zwemer found opportunities in South Africa that he discovered nowhere else in the Muslim world. Here alone he found Muslims scattered freely in a predominantly Protestant society, speaking the languages of the Christians, and adopting their culture. He saw great opportunities for developing sound friendships between Christians and Muslims in such circumstances and expresses his impressions very forcibly in these words:

He devoted so much time and attention to South Africa because he saw circumstances in this land favourable to the cause of evangelism among Muslims such as he saw nowhere else in the world. Yet another of the phenomena which he noticed relative to the Muslims of South Africa, now settled in a Western environment, was the extent of their education and the opportunities which this likewise presented. In one of his articles he says:

He was clearly impressed by the character of the Muslim community he discovered in South Africa and its remarkable accessibility in contrast with many of the closed Muslim societies in the traditional world of Islam. He did not specifically define his vision for this country but obviously saw tremendous opportunities for an effective form of evangelism among Muslims which he saw nowhere else.

Today the South African situation has become even more settled in its unique form and the Muslims of this country are more approachable today than they were in his time. This situation, however, has mushroomed all over the Western world and a universal opportunity to evangelise Muslims in a way hitherto impossible (and for over thirteen centuries at that) has been laid at the feet of the traditional Christian Church

During the North American Conference on Muslim Evangelization at Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs in 1978 Dr. Max Kershaw delivered a paper entitled The Comparative Status of Christianity and Islam in the West. He outlined briefly the distribution of Muslims in Europe and North America and analysed its character. A summary of the responses of the participants at this conference is most informing:

There is indeed a wide open door before the Church in the West the likes of which it has not known during thirteen centuries of Christian-Muslim inter-communication. In the next section we shall briefly consider five of the advantages which this phenomenon affords to the Church and in the last section of this chapter shall analyse the opportunity thus presented to Christians as a whole in the West to become involved in effective evangelism among the Muslim communities in our midst.

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