Preparing servants of Christ to participate in the Great Commission is an important task which requires continual evaluation and honing. We live in an exciting time in history in which Muslims in various contexts have opened their hearts to the gospel. Coming from a Muslim background myself, I thank God that He is so richly extending His grace to Muslims in our times.

Though many are making laudable efforts in missionary training, I observe mounting confusion surrounding the concepts of “Monoliths,” “Diversity,” and “Essentialism” regarding Muslims, their beliefs, and their practices. Lately, a false dichotomy regarding Muslims and Islam has been set up by Christian missiologists. Their false dichotomy teaches that it is impossible to appreciate Muslim diversity and simultaneously recognize any beliefs that are “essential” to Islam.

As we say back in the old country, “Iran sharpens Iran.” In this spirit I will attempt to unravel this false dichotomy, the absurd logic behind it, and the missiological problems which flow from it. In turn, I welcome scrutiny and interaction with what I will present. 

Diversity: The True Picture of the Global Islamic Umma 

Muslims worldwide constitute a growing number of people. A google search today is showing a total of about 1.8 billion Muslims. Muslims come from a myriad of ethnic-linguistic groups, each with their respective cultures. 

Furthermore, the Umma features significant sectarian diversity: Sunnis, Shi’ities, Sufis, and more. Currently I am residing in the Balkans, where I am in contact with Bektashi Muslims—a branch of Islam with which I was previously unfamiliar. This group represents one example of the hundreds of Muslim sub-groups. Of course, internal discussions exist within Muslim sub-groups whether others are, in fact, Muslims. The Sunni-Ahmadiyya tension in Pakistan constitutes one notable historical example. 

In addition to sectarian diversity, there exists tremendous diversity of observance and devotion within each group. For instance, in 1990 I was serving with Youth with a Mission Middle East in Cyprus. We were doing street outreach and evangelism among the many Lebanese who had left their country due to its civil war. One day I was speaking about eternal things with a zealous young Shi’ite Lebanese man as well as an older Iranian man who was also trying to flee his country. Both were Ithna- ‘Ashara (Twelver) Shi’ites. Though I spoke of the salvation in Christ, the Lebanese man countered enthusiastically by speaking of the excellencies of Muhammad, Ali and Imam Husayn. He looked to the Iranian man, hoping for support and endorsement of what he was saying. The Lebanese man said to the Iranian man (who was looking increasingly sea-sick): “You are a Shi’ite, you believe these things too, right?” Immediately, the Iranian man perfectly dead-panned his response, “Yes…..I believe this….I am an Iranian….I have to believe it.” Diversity exemplified.

Since I am writing to Christians, it will help to see the parallels between the global Islamic umma and Christians worldwide. We Christians have various branches of Christianity and countless denominations, especially within Protestantism. Anyone can observe a diversity in practice and devotion among the adherents of any church or denomination. Essentially, the Muslim world is no different. Muslims are very diverse.

Monoliths and Essentialism: Setting up the False Dichotomy

While the previous section would likely have not generated controversy, this section pokes into a thorny debate. Some Christian missiologists are rebuking others for presenting Islam and Muslims in an overly simplistic fashion. For example, Bradford Greer (pseudonym) rebuts Doug Coleman’s research on insider movements as follows:

“The first assumption that Dr. Coleman makes is to view Islam through an essentialist lens. Essentialism defines faith in very limited terms. Islam, for instance, is often described in terms of a particular set of classical interpretations of Islamic sacred and legal literature. Coleman’s essentialist view of Islam causes him to conceptualize and define Islam in a monolithic manner and disregard the significance of the actual diversity in faith and practice that exists within and across Islamic communities.” 1

The Glossary of this same book on insider movements offers its own definition of essentialism: “essentialist view of religion(s). An approach to religions that regards each religious system as basically monolithic, defined by an “essence” of core ideas, beliefs, and values shared by all its adherents.” 2

The definition presented here conflates religions with adherents and is therefore unhelpful. The unit of analysis is the religion. However, the definition is based on analyzing the people who purportedly adhere to the religion. Indeed, is it possible to find any idea, belief or value that is shared by all (that is, literally, every single one) of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims? Or by all of the world’s 2 billion-plus Christians? Likely, at least one outlier could be found somewhere! Thus, this definition seems to be a leaky pontoon bridge.

Greer critiques Coleman by means of a classic “false dichotomy,” proposing only two viable options when other viable options exist. Greer presents two options: 

A. One who recognizes the diversity of Muslims must accept that there is no “essential Islam.”

B. One who claims there is an “essential Islam” thereby denies the diversity of Muslims.

What Greer misses (or obscures) is another viable option: 

C. It is possible for an essential Islam—some core, indispensable beliefs—to exist, at the same time a robust diversity exists within the Muslim community.

More Missiological Examples of the Essentialism-Diversity False Dichotomy

My own doctoral research included Muslim and ex-Muslim interviewees from 18 different birth countries. This study, was presented in the International Journal of Frontier Missiology with the sub-title “Assessing the Impact of Theological Deviation on Social Acceptability in Muslim Communities.” 3 It was critiqued by L.D. Waterman and Gene Daniels (both pseudonyms) along lines similar to those utilized by Greer:

“This points toward what seems to be a philosophical weakness in Farrokh’s paper: the presupposition that Islam is a singular, unified entity; therefore a sample from any segment is a valid sample for the whole.” 4

Waterman extends this train of thought: “It seems almost any attempt to make a global generalization about Islamic faith, practice, values or reactions can be contradicted through citation of counter examples where that generalization would be untrue.” 5

Though Waterman and Daniels mis-represented this research which indeed recognized the diversity of Muslims, their statements contain a kernel of truth: one can almost always find an anecdotal outlier to any generalization. Nevertheless, Daniels and Waterman fail to avoid Greer’s false dichotomy. For example, belief in one God might be proposed as an essential Islamic belief; any Muslim child like myself would have learned that in their first lessons at the mosque. However, one can find many self-identifying Muslims throughout the world who are, for all intents and purposes, atheists. How does one square this circle? 

The helpful way to resolve this issue is to understand that there exists both an essential Islam and a practical diversity in which some nominal adherents may not affirm the core beliefs. Their personal non-belief does not negate a core belief of the faith. If it did, no religion in the world could even hope to have a single article of faith.  

Another example of this missiological improvisation is provided in the Introduction to Margins of Islam, in which Gene Daniels considers how to best prepare people for ministry to Muslims. He states: 

“One tried and true way is through studying classic texts such as Samuel Zwemer’s Islam and the Cross, Phil Parshalls’s The Cross and the Crescent, or perhaps Answering Islam by Geisler and Saleeb. Unfortunately, these excellent books share a common weakness with other missiological books on Islam: they approach Muslims as if they were a monolithic bloc because they all follow the same religion.” 6

Why Misrepresent the Work of Other Missiologists?

In the quote above, Daniels has again raised the Diversity-Monolith-Essentialism issue. Yet, Daniels has mis-characterized the works of these authors. In Answering Islam, Geisler and Saleeb do indeed provide an Appendix describing the distinctives and differences between Sunnism, Shi’ism, Sufism, The Ahmadiya Movement, and The Nation of Islam. It is actually not believable that scholar-practitioners such as Zwemer and Parshall would fail to appreciate the diversity of Muslims by deeming Muslims a monolithic bloc. 

In the exchange cited above, Douglas Coleman responded to Bradford Greer’s attempt above to “simpleton-ize” him as follows: “In suggesting I hold to an essentialist approach, Greer only footnotes one specific example from the dissertation. Interestingly, I intended this example, at least in part, to demonstrate the very diversity of which Greer suggests I am ignorant.” 7 It requires a low threshold of knowledge to understand that Muslims worldwide are very diverse. It would seem that missiologists from the pro-insider movements perspective would do well to abandon this line of argument and merely engage on the facts and merits of the discussion. 

A Missiological Echo Chamber has Emerged

In an interchange between missiologists Harley Talman (pseudonym) and Jeff Morton, Talman rebukes Morton for holding essentialist views. Talman, like those above employing a false dichotomy, springboards without warrant into an assumption about Morton’s views on Muslim diversity: “Essentialism has been essentially abandoned as a valid paradigm among scholars of religion. Yet it drives your analysis and conclusions and seems to blind you to the diversity that actually exists among Muslims.” 8 

These redundant accusations, using common terminology, and blatant misrepresentations that seek to simpletonize other missiologists, indicate that a missiological echo chamber has emerged. This echo chamber emanates from and resounds through the halls of a Western missiological-academic complex. This bodes poorly for those being trained inside that echo chamber. Nevertheless, it is the brave voices in the wilderness, such as those of Coleman and Morton, who are breaking up the waves of the echo. 

The View of Muslims regarding an “Essential Islam”

The real question regarding whether an Essential Islam exists must be answered by Muslims themselves. The Common Word document written by 138 Muslim scholars in 2006 is perhaps the most consequential interfaith document in our lifetime. The document was well received by many evangelical Christian leaders, with a Yale Response, signed by over 300 Christian leaders. Interestingly, the Muslim authors make a clear statement in the Preamble that they do unwaveringly hold to an “Essential Islam.”

The central creed of Islam consists of the two testimonies of faith or Shahadahs, which state: There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. These Two Testimonies are the sine qua non of Islam. He or she who testifies to them is a Muslim; he or she who denies them is not a Muslim.” 9

Sine qua non is a common Latin phrase defined as “something absolutely indispensable or essential.” 10 These Muslim scholars and leaders clearly present an Essential Islam. Of course, among the 1.8 billion Muslims of the world, there may some who do not agree with them. That reality does not disprove the existence of an Essential Islam.

Problems Resulting from the Christian Missiologists’ False Dichotomy

The Diversity-Monolith-Essentialism false dichotomy is far from an academic issue; it has created devastating consequences for Christian missions.

1. The Downward Spiral: Reductio Ad Absurdum 

If, as missiologists such as Bradford Greer, Gene Daniels, L.D. Waterman and Harley Talman suggest, there is no Essential Islam, then likewise no belief could be considered “un-Islamic” or “anti-Islamic.” Take, for instance the seemingly reasonable statement: “Belief in reincarnation is un-Islamic.” This statement could not be made, however, since such a statement would require Islam to be essentially anti-reincarnational. Now, if one interviewed every one of the 1.8 billion persons in the world who self-identifies as Muslims, it might be possible to find one who believes in re-incarnation. 

Stated simply, if there is no belief that is essentially Islamic, then there can likewise exist no belief which is essentially un-Islamic. Monotheism therefore could not be an essential Islamic belief. Polytheism could not be an essentially anti-Islamic belief. In the non-essentialist world proposed by these Christian missiologists, Islam—and all other religions, for that matter—would collapse. They could not possess any belief that would be essential; nor could they insist that any belief be forbidden. They could only morph together into some type of primordial swamp of ideas. This is reductio ad absurdum

2. The Subversive Deconstruction of Islam through neo-Colonialism 

Joshua Fletcher (pseudonym) has written one of the best treatments of the missiological challenges surrounding the Essentialism debate in a recent book, Muslim Conversions to Christ. His section, “Non-Essentialism and Defining Islam: Insider Movement or Subversive Deconstruction? 11 gets right to the heart of this issue. He addresses essentialism and non-essentialism in great detail. He notes that external judgments and definitions by outsiders to Islam may result in “subversive deconstruction.” 12 He wisely recommends that what is or is not to be considered essential in a religion is best left to adherents of the religion themselves. 

I would piggy-back (a term acceptable to some non-halal Muslims) on Fletcher’s argument by suggesting that foreign definition of a religion has a neo-Colonialist effect. Such initiatives uproot or even destroy the identify markers and essential beliefs a faith community—though it be comprised of many sub-communities—has established for itself. This is especially ironic since the accommodational approach toward Islam that metastasized into the insider movement paradigm sprung from a sense of post-Colonial guilt after World War II. 

3. The Growing Threat to a Necessary Biblical Essentialism

As stated above, Christians worldwide are very diverse. Evangelicals have historically conceded that many Christians, even from within our own circles, are perhaps nominal. Nevertheless, Christian missions has derived its strength and its urgency from biblical Essentialism. As the early missionary Peter preached, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). What can this be if it is not an essentialist statement? Paul adds, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). For this reason, Christians go to the nations to share the good news.

Conclusions:

To simplify matters in this final section, I have presented some conclusions in bullet point form. 

  1. Religions must have one or more essential belief to be identifiable as a religion. 
  2. Christians and Muslims have historically viewed their respective religions as possessing some essential beliefs. 
  3. By the rules of logic, a doctrine or belief prohibited by a religion also functions as an essential. For example, “Islam rejects polytheism” is an essentialist statement.
  4. Religions, though featuring their respective doctrinal essentials, will also invariably feature diversity on doctrines they consider non-essential, resulting in denominationalism and fragmentation. 
  5. Adherents of any religion may exhibit of wide diversity in their level of conviction, devotion, or practice; many may be merely nominal adherents.
  6. External voices which dictate to indigenous people that their religion can have no essential beliefs have a neo-Colonial effect.

In the corrective response to the Non-Essentialism initiative associated with insider movements (IM), Travis Myers provides a helpful recommendation:

“While recognizing a great diversity among Muslims in belief and practice, we should reject the IM [insider movement]proposal to redefine and maintain Islamic identity based on the erroneous refutation of “essentialism” regarding Islam (meaning, there really is no singular essence of what Islam is and ought to be according to Muslims themselves, and therefore it can be defined as anything, including a socio-religious shell to house orthodox Christian beliefs).” 13

Myers does a favor to Christians and Muslims alike. His recommendation will also prove helpful to those involved in training Christians to bear witness to their faith in Christ in diverse Muslim contexts. 

Notes:

  1. Bradford Greer, “Appendix 3: A Review of A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives by Doug Coleman, in Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus Within Diverse Religious Communities, John Travis and Harley Talman, editors. William Carey Library, Pasadena, CA, 2015., p. 640, emphasis added.
  2. Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus Within Diverse Religious Communities, John Travis and Harley Talman, editors. William Carey Library, Pasadena, CA, 2015., p. 651.
  3. http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/32_2_PDFs/IJFM_32_2-Farrokh.pdf.
  4. Gene Daniels, quoted by L.D. Waterman, p. 82: http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/32_2_PDFs/IJFM_32_2-Waterman_Farrokh.pdf.
  5. ibid.
  6. Margins of Islam: Ministry in Diversity Muslim Contexts, Gene Daniels and Warrick Farah, editors, William Carey Library, Pasadena, CA, 2018, emphasis added.
  7. http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/29_1_PDFs/IJFM_29_1-BookReviews.pdf, p. 47
  8. Understanding Insider Movements, ibid., p. 260.
  9. A Common Word Between Us and You: 5-Year Anniversary Edition, MABDA English Monograph Series 20 (Amman: The Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2012, p. 55. https://rissc.jo/docs/20-acw/20-ACW-5.pdf emphasis in original).
  10. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sine%20qua%20non
  11. Joshua Fletcher, “Insider Movements: Sociologically and Theologically Incoherent” in Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts, Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham, editors. Peter Lang: New York, 2018, pp. 179-208
  12. ibid., p. 185
  13. Travis Myers, 2019, “A City under a Hill: Five Problems with Insider Movements.” https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-city-under-a-hill.

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