Samuel Zwemer and his Arabian Mission: 1891–1913

An American Calvinist missionary named Samuel Zwemer set out in the 1890s with the goal of claiming Arabia for Christianity. He failed, of course, but his writing seems – to me at least – highly important given its prescience and the timelessness of his observations. This piece looks at his life and work on the Arabian Peninsula.

Over fifteen years have now passed since the attacks of 11 September 2001 and it can be difficult to recall the nature of the debate that existed between the mostly Christian West and the Islamic world before then. The world of 10 September 2001 was a profoundly different place to the world we inhabit now. For most Westerners in the pre 9/11 world (particularly the United States where ‘for more than two centuries, Americans [got] away with not knowing much about the world around them’), Islam was another exotic eastern religion. Things were to change drastically.

Western media in the years following the attacks has often felt saturated with information on Islam, leaving other religious philosophies such as Zoroastrianism, Hinduism or Buddhism in the shade. For instance, it is unlikely that many Westerners would be familiar with terms like Theravada and Mahayana, the two major branches in Buddhism. On the other hand, words like ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’ – the two major Muslim denominations – are commonly heard.

Young, educated Westerners with little interest or knowledge in their own religious heritage can often list rudimentary differences between the various Muslim sects. It seems unusual that the post 9/11 world would be a place where Westerners are frequently accused of being ignorant and intolerant of Islam. Yet Westerners are routinely chastised for Islamophobia and for their misunderstanding of the ‘religion of peace’. A survey carried out by the Pew Research Center, an American think tank organisation based in Washington, showed that significantly more Americans could name Ramadan as the Islamic holy month than could name the four Gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is not what one would expect from a nation of ‘incurious know-nothings’.

Despite the vigour and passion of contemporary debate between the West and the Islamic world we should remember that the West (or Christianity if you prefer) and Islam have been locked in ideological battle for a lot longer than recent events might lead us to believe. Perhaps no-one typifies the Christian side of this battle than Samuel Zwemer. Known to many as the ‘Apostle to Islam’, Zwemer spent several years as a missionary in the heartland of the Islamic faith: Arabia. Over a century may have passed since the publication of his first book, Arabia, the cradle of Islam (1900), but it (and many of his other works) describe a world that at times is startlingly familiar to modern eyes.

Superficially things have changed considerably over the course of the twentieth century. Dubai is no longer a village known primarily for its pearls and the discovery of oil in the region has changed the game irrevocably. But in many ways Arabia seems to have stood still or even gone backwards. The ideas and observations in Zwemer’s books are especially relevant today and given the nature of a modern world where Islamic fundamentalism and Evangelical Christianity play increasingly influential roles, it seems appropriate to absorb the views of a man who took a scholarly and analytical approach to both.

Samuel Marinus Zwemer was born in Vriesland, Michigan in 1867, the thirteenth child in a Reformed Church minister’s family. His family ‘belonged to an evangelical subculture in the Netherlands that echoed the values of a similar subculture in America’. An anecdote from his senior year at Hope College (a liberal arts university in Michigan) sums up neatly both his humanitarianism and the strength of his faith. Robert Wilder, a pioneer of the Student Volunteer Movement, visited the campus to present the needs of various missions. As part of his presentation he had a map of India on display with a metronome placed in front of it. It was set so that each time it ticked back and forth one person in the Indian subcontinent died who had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. This so affected the young Samuel Zwemer that at the end of the lecture he pledged himself immediately to missionary work. Even more than a century on, the story of the metronome has the power to elicit deep spiritual reflection. For a young man of strong faith living in a culturally confident West it was extremely moving.

The missionary movement of which Zwemer was a member (the “Arabian Mission”) was founded with two other highly educated young Americans, James Cantine and Philip Phelps. Their idea was to form a Protestant mission ‘whose activities could be directed toward the Arabic-speaking lands and specifically toward Arabia, the heart of Islam, which they considered a big challenge’. Inspired by men like Ramon Llull (1232 – 1315), Zwemer relished the difficult challenge of trying to convert Muslims. The Arabian Mission’s aim as set down by its charter was to crusade against Islam in Arabia and its ultimate goal was to ‘occupy the interior of Arabia’. Even given his cultural inheritance of Europe’s soaring power and influence in the world (Zwemer’s parents were Dutch) added to his cultural confidence as an American, this aim showed incredible self-belief.

The men were not mere dreamers; Zwemer alone could add knowledge of medicine and pharmaceutical work to his expertise in theology. They knew precisely how difficult the mission to Arabia was. People routinely told them that it was foolish to want to go to such a fanatical people, but Zwemer’s response was: ‘If God calls you and no board will send you, bore a hole through the board and go anyway’. Needless to say, the man was not for stopping and he was eventually granted permission to leave for Arabia. After arriving in Beirut in 1890, the next few years saw Zwemer get married as well as travelling to various parts of Arabia, including Muscat, Yemen and Bahrain. Before going any further though, it is essential to take a closer look at Zwemer’s ‘philosophy of mission’. What for him constituted successful missionary work, and what were his techniques in the field?

First and foremost, Zwemer understood the importance of the Bible. In his 1907 book Islam: a challenge to faith, he states that ‘the distribution of God’s Word has proved the best method for beginning work in all Moslem lands’. Zwemer always looked upon the book room and Bible depot as the most important element of the mission station and he described the Christian literature he utilised as ‘leaves for the healing of the nations’ in his program of mission strategy. It should also be noted how prolific an author he was; the books he wrote himself make up ‘more than five feet on the shelf’.

The second element of Zwemer’s strategy in the field concerns his techniques for preaching. This he did not simply ‘do’. He seemed to put a great deal of thought into it, realising that to succeed in his job required not only the word of God but also sensitivity and cunning. In his first book, Arabia, the cradle of Islam (1900), he quotes from a small volume written for missionaries preaching specifically to Muslims by a Rev. Arthur Brinckman: ‘If possible always address your audience from above. Sitting down is sometimes better than standing; you are not so likely to get excited, the attitude is less war-like in appearance. Be with your back to a wall if possible; there are many reasons for this. When drawn into argument, keep on praying that you may speak slowly, and with effect. When asked a question do not answer quickly – if you do, you will be looked on as a sharp controversialist only; think over your answer first, and give it most kindly and slowly. If possible always quote a passage near the beginning or end of a Koran chapter and there will be less delay in finding it’.

Zwemer’s use of this passage shows his attention to detail. Preaching in Arabia was on a different plane to anywhere else and he knew his approach would have to be meticulous if he was to succeed. He writes himself that the method of preaching that best suited Muslims (and the Orient in general) was not necessarily from the pulpit or the platform. He says that ‘preaching in a larger sense includes talking with men by the wayside, or in the coffee-shop, with a group of sailors on deck, or to the Mohammedan postman who brings your letters’.

Why were different methods so important in an Arabic context, though? For one thing, Arabs at this point would have had every reason to feel like a downtrodden people. Arabia was a part of the Ottoman Empire, with certain enclaves controlled by the British. Zwemer recounts one story of his soldier-companion, a Turk, harassing a poor peasant on the road. (We can safely assume the Arabs of Palestine were treated no better by their Turkish masters). The peasant’s donkey is loaded with two large baskets of grapes which the soldier empties onto the ground. Upon seeing that the grapes are unripe he proceeds to beat and curse the man. Zwemer writes that it is ‘no wonder that intense hatred lives in every Arab against the very name of Turk’.

Most of the time completely defenceless, Zwemer would have been an easy target for popular anger, and not only because of his preaching. He writes of an experience in Aden in which ‘wild Arabs of the village’ threaten to hold him as a hostage because they believe him to be English. He escapes kidnapping thanks to his guide Nadir, who assures them ‘with a threefold Bedouin oath’ that Zwemer was neither a government official nor an Englishman, but an American traveller. Experiences like this must have given Zwemer an understanding of the local psyche; the feeling that they were being occupied and had to be protective of their faith, an integral part of Arab identity. He knew respect was key and that, for example, appearing to ‘talk down’ while preaching would have been unhelpful.

Zwemer also recognised the religiosity of the people. Never one to miss an opportunity, he writes of his journey in the highlands of Oman. The temperature is a bracing forty Fahrenheit (around five Celsius) and they are enjoying a huge fire in a local guest-room when a hundred Arabs come to visit him. After entertaining Zwemer and his companions with the recitation of Arabic poetry he takes his chance: ‘Such an opportunity was not to be neglected, and they, as an agricultural people, were interested in the parable of the Sower and the explanation…’. His methods of effective preaching did not end there. There are further preaching ‘concepts’ that appear time and again in Zwemer’s work. The first deals with the place of ‘controversy’ in preaching.

Controversy held a central place in Zwemer’s technique. He believed it genuinely hard to look at things from the Muslim viewpoint, due to the faith being so out of sync with his own moral worldview. Because of this, he considered a book entitled Manual of the leading Mohammedan objections to Christianity ‘indispensable for the missionary’. It would seem that some of the arguments he heard that were in opposition to Christianity (or in support of Islam) appeared so ridiculous that he felt it to be required reading. Certainly the treatment of apostasy was one of these things.

Apostasy in Arabia at the turn of the century was usually punished by death. A real difficulty for the mission was the protection of converts who were regularly exposed to ‘violence and death’. So crucial was the matter that in 1924 Zwemer published a book entitled The law of apostasy, which dealt specifically ‘with the difficulties Moslem converts have, and how they surmount them’.

One of the more fascinating parts of Zwemer’s personality is his almost schizophrenic attitude to the conversion of Muslims. At times his optimism shines through and the examples he gives of successful conversion seem to inspire him into working even harder for his cause. At other times he writes with a tone of resignation about the whole project. As we shall see, his positivity was based on a lack of understanding about the nature of Islam in Arabia. It would appear that when he was being pessimistic he was being realistic.

In his first book, Samuel Zwemer wrote that ‘it is not true that there have been no conversions among Moslems. In India alone there are hundreds who have publicly abjured Islam and been received into the Christian Church.’ He goes on to talk of ‘martyrs for the faith’ in Persia, ‘scores of converts’ in the Turkish empire and of success in Java and Sumatra. However, using these as examples of the ‘convertibility’ of Muslims was misguided. What Zwemer never mentions in his early works (although it would be a surprise if he never considered it) is that Indians, Javans, Sumatrans and even Persians were already converted peoples. To Muslim Arabs, Islam is as much a part of their identity as anything else, perhaps moreso. In many ways, Islam is Arabia; it is a snapshot of Arabia in the seventh century. For the Indonesian or even the Pakistani there has to be a realisation, subconsciously or otherwise, that they do not share in the glorious history of Arab expansionism. There must be the realisation for most non-Arab Muslims that they are a people conquered by Arabs in an ancient act of cultural imperialism. It is understandable that Muslims from outside the Arab sphere would not have the same affinity to Islam, ethnically or emotionally, as an Arab.

Speaking in the hard currency of numbers – that is, the number of Arab converts to Christianity – this theory seems to hold water. According to Ruth A. Tucker, Zwemer’s converts were ‘probably less than a dozen during his nearly forty years of service’. When Zwemer paraphrased contemporary thinking about missionary work in the Arab world it seemed closer to actuality: ‘Even those whose fanaticism is overcome dare not accept Christ. It is better to go to the heathen who will hear. Missions to the Moslem world are hopeless, fruitless, useless. It is impossible to Christianize them and there have been few, if any, converts’. It should be pointed out again, though, that this was the prevailing view and not necessarily the one put forth by Zwemer himself in his first book (by which point he had been on the peninsula for nine years).

By the time Islam: a challenge to faith was published in 1907 Zwemer’s opinions seemed to have been hardened by the bitter realities of Christian missionary work in the region. He again mentions the commonly held opinion of the day that missions to Muslims were mostly fruitless but he harks back to ‘pioneer heroes’ such as Ramon Llull, Petrus Venerabilis and Henry Martyn. Always his faith sees him take on the challenge with aplomb and, seemingly inspired, he quotes a female missionary based in Algeria, a Miss I. Lilias Trotter: ‘They are dead lands and dead souls, blind and cold and stiff in death as no heathen are; but we who love them see the possibilities of sacrifice, of endurance, of enthusiasm, of life, not yet effaced…To raise the spiritually dead is the work of the Son of God. But we are to believe and take away the stone from the place where the dead lay’. For Samuel Zwemer it seems the harder things got the more he relished the challenge.

To Zwemer, Arabians (and specifically Meccans) showed a complete disdain for science. ‘Modern science is laughed at and everything turns, on the Ptolemaic system, around the little world of the Koran’. This was anathema to him. Even people who believe the Christian missionary movement was little more than a form of cultural imperialism would have to admire the movement’s acknowledgement of the importance of education. There is a moral and intellectual bankruptcy in cultural relativism and Zwemer obviously thought so, too. He was not afraid to criticise this particular aspect of Muslim life. A highly educated man, that he appreciated the value of education was a given, but he also understood its importance in his battle for souls: ‘All education forces, great and small, help to undermine that stupendous rock of ignorance and superstition, Moslem tradition’.

The fourth aspect of Zwemer’s mission philosophy was his belief in the importance of real medical care in the field. Considering his medical background this is not surprising. Among the Arabs, ‘surgery is worth infinitely more than medicine…a skillful surgeon with a Turkish diploma holds the key to every door in the entire peninsula’. Perhaps it annoyed him that the locals did not see the link between education and good medical care. In that sense, at least, little has changed in the Muslim world. In the most pious regions rote learning of the Koran is still elevated above all else.

Samuel Zwemer’s first book, Arabia, the cradle of Islam, was published in 1900. Its pages document a diverse range of subjects. The first few chapters include detailed descriptions of Arabia in areas like topography, climate, geology, flora and fauna, geographical divisions, population and so on. After this he describes Mecca, including information on things like the history of the Kaaba and even the character of Meccans. He writes about Medina, Islam’s second-holiest city. The chapters that follow are reminiscent of the work of Wilfred Thesiger and occasionally Zwemer’s sharp candour reminds the reader of the early (and perhaps slightly impatient) work of V.S. Naipaul; that is to say they are essentially travelogues of various parts of the peninsula. He visits Aden (then under British control), Yemen (which he describes as the ‘Switzerland of Arabia’), Oman and the area which we now call the United Arab Emirates. He describes the camel and its various uses, recognising its importance to the Arab people. He details the regions of Arabia and beyond, describing Baghdad and a subsequent journey down the Euphrates.

Zwemer moves into a more theologically critical space after this. A chapter in which he describes things like female infanticide, polygamy and the veil, he titles ‘the time of ignorance’. This is nowhere near where Zwemer’s expertise ends. He details the political influence of the British in Arabia, the Arabian language and its literature, Arabian arts and sciences, the different tribes that exist and a history of Christianity on the peninsula. A later chapter is a potted history of modern Arabian missions beginning with Majorcan writer and philosopher Ramon Llull and finishing with his own Arabian Mission. He finishes with problems that are encountered in the Arabian field and the outlook that exists for missionaries there.

It would be fair to describe Arabia, the cradle of Islam as a great achievement. Zwemer had gone to one of the hottest places in the world and a place hostile to Christian missionaries. Many of the places he went were simply not on any maps and one’s admiration grows when reading stories such as the one that describes a trip made by Zwemer during June and July of 1891; an attempt to visit the city of San’a which had long been closed to foreigners. ‘Travelling by ship from Aden to Hodeida and then six days on mule back in the city of San’a’, J. Christy Wilson Jr. writes, ‘he was given a good deal of freedom to witness. On the boat returning to Aden, there were several British officers who were going to India. When Zwemer described his journey to San’a, they at first did not believe that he had been there. When they were finally convinced, two of these officers nominated him to become a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. He was elected for life and thus after his name he could write ‘F.R.G.S.’.

As mentioned above, Zwemer’s descriptions of the places he visited are as visceral and astute as even the most well-known travel literature. What follows will compare the observations Zwemer made over a century ago to the situation that exists in modern-day Arabia.

In the first few pages of Arabia, cradle of Islam Zwemer writes negatively of Mecca and its surrounds. In some ways his perceptions of this city, both its people and its streets, are symbolic of his feelings about Islam. After all, Mecca is Islam’s holiest city. Reading his descriptions of the place it is hard to imagine how he could be less critical. ‘Were we to believe one half of what is said by Moslem writers in praise of Mecca it would prove the Holy City to be a very paradise of delights, a centre of learning and the paragon of earthly habitations. But the facts show it to be far otherwise’.

Water is, as one might expect, hard to come by. When water is available it is brackish. Jeddah (which Zwemer describes as ‘the harbor of Mecca’, although it is roughly eighty kilometres away) has streets that are ‘indescribably dirty’. Before going any further we need to remember the age Zwemer is writing from. In the winter of 1884–5, the Great Powers of the world met in Berlin in an attempt to reach some kind of arrangement over trade and boundaries in West Africa and the Congo. As Paul Kennedy has written: ‘In so many ways, the Berlin West Africa Conference can be seen, symbolically, as the zenith of Old Europe’s period of predominance in global affairs’. Zwemer may not have been European and the United States may not have been the biggest player at the conference, but the thing that united both Europe and the United States was the fact that Christianity was the faith professed by the majority of its peoples. Europe was a Christian continent. The United States was a nation founded by people of European stock. Temporal ideas of ‘nationality’ would have meant little when one considered the shared Christian heritage of both regions. The fact that it was, in essence, Europeans who were the most powerful people on the planet would not have been lost on him.

Writing of this sacred land he describes the sanitary condition of Jeddah as ‘the worst possible; evil odors abound…and a shower of rain is always followed by an outbreak of fever’. Seeing for himself Islam’s holies cities perhaps Zwemer saw their disrepair as a physical manifestation of the people’s spiritual failures.

Some of the most interesting parallels between the Arabia of Zwemer’s day and the its modern incarnation are in his descriptions of the people who lived in Mecca. His portrayal of them is overwhelmingly negative. He says that ‘no honest Moslem ever spoke with praise of the citizens of Mecca’. Mecca in this context could easily stand for modern Saudi Arabia. A survey in 2008 showed that just thirty six per cent of Turks hold a favourable opinion of Saudi Arabia. In human rights terms the kingdom is a little more than a pariah state, with Amnesty International finding it guilty of practically every abuse possible.

Quoting Richard Francis Burton, the man who secretly made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1853 he writes: ‘The Meccan is a covetous spendthrift. His wealth, lightly won, is lightly prized. Pay, pensions, stipends, presents…supply the citizen with the means of idleness. With him everything is on the most expensive scale, his marriage, his religious ceremonies, and his household expenses’. These descriptions could easily be of the modern Saudi Arabian who if he is rich, is probably rich thanks to the discovery of oil under his feet. Zwemer describes Mecca as a place rife with prostitution, sodomy, licentiousness, concubinage and divorce. The true nature of the city seems to be disguised in a veneer of religiosity. He writes of ‘their exclusion of infidels, their strict fastings, their learned men, and their purity of language’. The Meccan of Zwemer’s experience seems to have a mirror in the modern Saudi Arabian if recent Wikileaks are anything to go by. They document a world where religious officials attend underground parties in which prostitution and alcohol are rife.

He notes that in a city where the locals grow rich thanks to little more than being in the right place at the right time, superstition runs rampant: ‘All sorts of holy-places, legends, sacred rocks, trees and houses abound. Every Moslem saint who tarried in the city or died there has left something to be remembered and honored’.

In his book Beyond Belief: Islamic excursions among the converted peoples, V.S. Naipaul writes of a spiritual emptiness in his childhood in the Caribbean. A child of Indian stock born and raised on the island of Trinidad, his youth was haunted by the peculiar feeling that the real world existed somewhere else. When he first visited Bombay he found holy spots in the unlikeliest of places; a tree, a rock. To him, ‘people who lived so intimately with the idea of the sacredness of their earth were different from us’. ‘Us’ in this case refers to Hindus of the Caribbean. But it also applies to the vast majority of Christians, very few of whom live in the Holy Lands of the Levant. This is in stark contrast to the Arabs who were surrounded by their own religious history. If there is a grain of truth in Naipaul’s idea then Samuel Zwemer, and indeed, most of the Christian world benefitted by being a significant distance from the birthplace of its religion. In that sense it is unique in the world, and it was no wonder Zwemer seemed frustrated by the level of superstition he encountered.

The Arabian Peninsula that Zwemer knew was far more cosmopolitan than its contemporary self. Aden (now a part of Yemen but in the 1890s governed as a part of British India), was made up of around thirty thousand people. Although not an oriental town in its administration, Zwemer noted that it had a motley character. Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asiatics and mixed races were all represented in the streets, and the population included Chinese, Persians, Turks, Egyptians, Somalis, Hindus, Parsees, Jews as well as Arabs from every part of the peninsula. Things are much different today. After a series of anti-Semitic measures brought in by the Yemeni government in the early part of the twentieth century, Aden’s once-thriving Jewish population (it stood at eight thousand as late as 1948) had been reduced to a mere two hundred by 2003.

In February 2011, Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah described Israel as the ‘root of the problem’ while addressing the situation in the Middle East. However, if the accounts of Samuel Zwemer are anything to go by modern Arab distrust of Israel has less to do with politics and more to do with the Jewishness of that state. He writes that ‘the Jew is universally despised, yet he cannot be spared, for nearly all artisan work is in Jewish hands’. These words sound depressingly familiar to modern ears. As with racism today, ignorance was the root cause: ‘…angry words arose from the “guard” because I tried to speak to a Jew. When I spoke in protest they began to strike the Jew with the butt end of their rifles, and when the poor fellow fled, my best defence was silence. On my return journey, I inadvertently raised trouble again, by mentioning that Jesus Christ and Moses were Jews – which the Arabs considered an insult to the prophets of God’.

The righteous piety preached by many Arabs combined with their astonishing ignorance must have made Zwemer understand why people spoke of the difficulties missionaries faced in trying to make Christians of Muslim Arabs. Zwemer’s work is peppered with observations about the Arabic world that can often feel prophetic. In a footnote he remarks bittersweetly that the gun used to beat the Jew was American-made. How often over the following century Americans would see their own weapons turned against them and their allies! Of course Jews are not the only non-Arabic people disappearing from the peninsula. The conservative journal Middle East Quarterly dedicated an entire issue in 2001 to a single topic: that of the disappearing Christians of the Middle East.

A debate has grown around the legacy of Samuel Zwemer, with a piece written by John Hubers in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research entitled ‘Samuel Zwemer and the challenge of Islam: from polemic to a hint of dialogue’. This appears to be an act of revisionism and there is the suggestion that Zwemer was merely a man of his time and that his judgements of Islam are a product of that age. Hubers writes that Zwemer started his Middle East ministry ‘in the spirit of the triumphalist Protestant missionary movement of the nineteenth century’ and ‘ended his career in the more chastened spirit of missions after World War I, anticipating a more dialogic approach to Islam’. That is highly debatable and it would be unwise to become an apologist for his work and try to alter his message. After all, he knew Islam better than most western scholars do today having lived at the spiritual epicentre of the Islamic faith for over twenty years.

Zwemer’s knowledge of Islam did not stop at simply living among Muslims. He edited a periodical entitled The Moslem World for thirty-five years. He knew Islam as well as anyone could hope to. In fact, Zwemer has actually become something of a hate figure among modern Muslim anti-missionary writers, proving that he never really changed his mind about the flaws he saw within their religion. In a world in which the Muslim population is exploding and Islamic terrorism becoming more and more commonplace we would do better to listen to Zwemer’s observations than to warp them with the fad of political correctness.

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