Christianity and Islam: Lessons from Africa

Article excerpt

J. Paul Martin*

I. INTRODUCTION

As we end the twentieth century there is a resurgence of interest in religion and the role it plays in our lives.l Religion and, unfortunately conflicts that are religiously defined have returned to center stage in world politics.2 After years of neglect, more academics are examining religious beliefs and practices. They recognize, perhaps, the de facto role religion plays in the lives of large segments of the earth's population and in the decisions of many world leaders.

Certain works and the popular press have suggested an inherently conflicting relationship between Islam and Christianity.3 The potential for conflict between Christianity and Islam is augmented by modern communications and increasing population movements that bring about an unprecedented intermingling of religions, eliminating religiously homogeneous communities virtually everywhere.4

However, Islam and Christianity have much in common.5 They come from related theological traditions, and both believe in a single omnipotent God who is concerned with human history and who has sent messengers to guide human beings to salvation.6 Proselytization7 has characterized the history of both Christianity and Islam, although its intensity has varied from group to group, and historical period to historical period, within each tradition. Today, Muslims and Christians are increasingly intermingled. They now live more often in the same spaces, which increases the danger of competing for the same souls.8 Decisions on the permissibility of Muslim customs are finding their way into western legal systems, which, though secular in form, still reflect their Christian origins.

In some parts of the world, Christian-Muslim antagonisms exhibit, and in others could regain, the political force they possessed during the period of the crusades in the late Middle Ages.9 Some people in the West identify political Islam as the major enemy of Western Civilization.lo On the other hand, others seek to improve relations between the two faiths. Christian groups are reformulating their theologies of mission to reject pejorative concepts like proselytism to talk about witness, dialogue and cooperation.ll The increasing religious pluralism of modern society has brought these segments of the Christian church to appreciate the importance, and indeed the necessity, of institutionalized tolerance in the civic sphere.

This Essay uses historical and theological reflections on Christian missionary work in Africa to reach beyond the stereotypical view that religions are necessarily in conflict with one another and that the West is fighting Islam for souls. It seeks to develop a vision of a path toward a peaceable social order based on contemporary concepts of human rights. Religion and society are obviously multifaceted. My research on missionary work in Africa shows that religious missions involve much more than competition for souls. Their net results are pervasive and it is important to take into account the resulting big picture. My basic thesis and the lessons we can learn from Christianity and Islam in Africa are: (a) the relationship between religion and "civilization" as a whole is complex and descriptions should not be unduly simplified, let alone reduced to stereotypes; (b) social equilibrium depends on the continuing, gradual interpenetration of different cultural, economic and political traits and traditions; these processes are impeded when public policies try to separate out, socially or physically, the different traditions; and (c) while still to be improved, human rights represent the best set of common standards to assure a peaceable social order.

II. IMPACT OF RELIGION ON SOCIETY

In the modern world, increasing pluralism is both an empirical fact and a process that requires astute public policy to ensure a peaceable social order.12 World views and national policies that juxtapose or, worse still, separate or demonize as inimical traditions, ideas and practices that have significant numbers of adherents, inevitably lead to social tension, and may lead to violent social conflagrations, as we have seen most recently in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland. …