Imperial Evasion

IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY meeting with the Islamic world, Europe, while sometimes changing its mind, believed it already knew all that was necessary. Thus Western thought frequently engaged, not in a debate with Islam, but in internal debates about Islam.

On the topic of nineteenth-century Africa, these debates focused less on comparative religion that on colonial policy. One of the initiators was Reginald Bosworth Smith, a Harrow schoolmaster who knew no Arabic, had no cross-cultural experience, and was no great theologian.

Nearly all of Smith’s writing has a single theme: the responsibilities attached to British imperial power. Patriotism allied to moral earnestness sounds through his work—including his strangely influential Mohammed and Mohammedanism (1874).

His desire is that British power, beneficent in intent, shall be beneficent in reality. To act in the right way is to act in the Christian way, and Britain is a Christian country. Indeed, he declares that Christianity is the birthright of the English.

To this Smith adds a cheerful evolutionism. He arrives at a formulation whereby all religions are moral, rather than theological, in origin. They have come into existence to meet social and national moral needs. They raise humanity gradually toward God.

Following Smith’s theory of the origins of religions, one can readily acknowledge that Islam established righteousness at the time of its birth. For instance, while Christians commonly complain of the depressive effect of Islam on women, it can be shown that Muhammad significantly raised the status of women in early Arabia.

But the theory can go further. Islam can still establish righteousness today, whenever it encounters a people at a lower stage of development than itself. Without, therefore, giving up the idea of the superiority of Christianity, and even leaving open the possibility that Muslims will eventually see the need for a higher ethical norm, Islam can be seen as Christianity’s ally in the task of raising humanity.

This is not, of course, the vision of missionary Christianity. Smith’s vision is that of birthright Christianity, the fortunate inheritance of Britain. As imperial expansion brought British rule to more and more peoples where Islamic influence was already at work or at hand, Smith’s book could be read as a tract for the times. The expansion of Islam might actually improve the lot of “native peoples.”

That was not to say that Islam was true, and certainly not to say that it had any relevance to Western society. All questions of truth claims could be bypassed; the administrative convenience was that Islam was, or could be, socially elevating.

Christianity’s failures

Smith’s views were enthusiastically endorsed by the Afro-West Indian man of letters Edward Wilmot Blyden, who wrote with the authority of one who had been a Christian missionary. He could give Bosworth Smith’s argument a new dimension, detailing on the one hand the baleful effects in Africa of a Christianity heavily imbued with Western values, and on the other the blessings already brought to Africa by Islam.

Islam had brought unity instead of tribal division. It had kept foreign influence at bay. It had provided a basis for economic and cultural progress. It had harmed the African psyche less than Christianity had, for Western color prejudice and the imposition of Western cultural norms had confused African Christians and inhibited African artistic expression.

Further, Islam was less materialistic than Christianity. In colonial society an African had little to gain by becoming a Muslim, but everything to gain by connecting with the mission-dominated education system.

"I believe,” Blyden wrote, “that Islam has done for vast tribes of Africa what Christianity in the hands of Europeans has not yet done. It has cast out the demons of fetishism, general ignorance of God, drunkenness, and gambling, and has introduced customs which subserve the highest purposes of growth and preservation. I do not believe that a system which has done such things can be outside God’s beneficent plans for the evolution of humanity.”

As a rhetorician, Blyden outpaces Smith, but it was Smith who haunted missionary writers and speakers for a generation to come. And their concern was not usually with his facile theology, but with his sociology. This sociology appealed to a great deal of the educated British public, whose opinions created the climate in which administrative decisions were made.

New doors closed


The growing empires of the Western powers collided with Islam from West Africa to East Asia. The foremost ruler of the world’s Muslims was no longer the sultan of Turkey but Queen Victoria. The Royal Republic of the Netherlands also claimed vast numbers of Muslim subjects, and the twentieth century was to bring a time when, with the caliphate collapsed and Turkey secular, the emir of Afghanistan was almost the only genuinely independent Muslim ruler left in the world.

Thus most of the Muslim world passed under the rule or dominance, of powers that had always been considered Christian. But, despite the optimism of some missionary commentators, this did not usher in a great new era of accessibility.

Indeed, the colonial powers were sometimes more efficient at gatekeeping than the sultan had been. There seemed now good reasons why public policy should control the access of missions, not only to areas that were Islamic, but also to areas in which Islamic influence was, or might soon be, at work.

The era of imperial expansion is, of course, the era of missionary revival. Hundreds of new missionaries from the West pushed the frontiers of mission forward, seeking—in the eloquent title of a popular series of books at the time—the Conquests of the Cross. As regards Africa, the idea developed of a race with Islam, a competition for the peoples of the continent.

And what appeared to the mission constituency to stand in the way was the colonial administration, so tender of Islamic susceptibilities, it seemed, and so misled by the spirit of Bosworth Smith about the social effects of Islam, that it encouraged Muslim expansion and hindered Christian conversion. In the race for the soul of Africa, Christianity must contend with handicaps and heavy weights imposed by the administrative policies of Christian countries. CH

By Andrew F. Walls

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #74 in 2002]

Andrew F. Walls, a scholar at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh, is author of The Cross—Cultural Process in Christian History (Orbis, 2002), from which this article was adapted. His essay on this topic originally appeared Journal of Religion in Africa 29 (No. 2, 1999). Used by permission.
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