Said's Orientalism and Pentecostal Views of Islam in Palestine

Article excerpt

The prevailing attitude of American Protestant missionaries toward Islam in 1916 is reflected in a training document compiled by the Board of Missionary Preparation, which helped prepare Christian missionaries for overseas service in Muslim lands. In discussing the rise of Islam, the document begins by stating that the personality of its founder is deeply impressed upon Islam. It mentions that Muhammad was reportedly raised in the fear of God: "How to escape the future vengeance was his problem, and it weighed upon him to such an extent that his personality evidently became unsettled. He had always, in all probability, been psychically pathological, and now he began to hear voices and see visions. For a long time he was in doubt regarding their source, whether from evil spirits or from God. How he was led to the fixed conclusion that they came from God we do not know." (1) This sort of reductionist view of the Prophet Muhammad was bound to widen the chasm of estrangement rather than build a bridge for intercultural communication between Christian missionaries and Muslims.

In this article we closely examine the views of Islam espoused by early Pentecostal missionaries in Palestine. Some of the very first Pentecostal missionaries sent out from the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles went to Palestine, arriving in 1908. In its first ten years the Pentecostal mission there gained a foothold in Jerusalem, due primarily to the efforts of three pioneering missionaries: Lucy Leatherman, Charles Leonard, and A. Elizabeth Brown. In the interwar period the Pentecostal mission expanded its territory into Transjordan, Syria, and Persia, but it was severely tested and lost its momentum during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, World War II, and the Partition Crisis of 1947. In the War of 1948 the Pentecostal missionaries fled from Palestine as their preponderantly Arab clients were swept away in the Palestinian diaspora. After 1948 a valiant attempt was made to sustain the mission, but it eventually lost its vitality and suffered its demise in the 1970s. (2)

Conceptual Tools for Intercultural Analysis

As with all missionaries, the Pentecostal missionaries in Palestine were faced with the challenge of bridging the cultural distance between themselves and the indigenous peoples they wished to evangelize. The classic work Orientalism, by Edward Said (sah-eed), provides a method for analyzing the intercultural attitudes of missionaries. (3) This article borrows from Herb Swanson's groundbreaking study "Said's Orientalism and the Study of Christian Missions" (2004), in which the author suggests five theoretical concepts of Said's intercultural analysis that might be of value for missiology: dualism, the other, intimate estrangement, discourses of power, and textual attitudes. (4)

Said uses the term dualism to refer to the polar distinctions ("us" vs. "them") made between the West and the East. In Said's view, Western Orientalists have concocted an image of the other that is the exact opposite of the way Westerners view themselves. This image contrasts the "static" qualities of the East (strange, uncivilized, cruel, and exotic) with the "progressive" qualities of the West (dynamic, progressive, enlightened, and humanitarian). For Said, the relationship between Orientalists and the Orient is one of intimate estrangement. Although intimately acquainted with the cultures of the Orient, Orientalists, because of their presumption of Western superiority, are estranged from Orientals. The dark side of Orientalism is the political aggression that it fosters. Said believed that, as a discourse of power, Orientalism misrepresents the East in the interest of legitimating Western colonial domination over the East. Said contended that the means of this domination can be detected in its textual attitudes, that is, the ideological perspectives embedded in the discourse. According to Said, the ideology of Orientalism is an oppressive strategy of caricaturing the "essence" of the Orient by using pejorative terms as a means of justifying Western domination of Arabs and the Muslim East. …