Lessons from the past

December 2020

At the time of the rising of the Crescent the Church in both the East and the West was in a weak and degenerate state. The extraordinary success of the Muslims seemed to utterly paralyse the missionary spirit of the church. However, in the west there was missionary spirit, for did not the centuries from that of the Hegira onwards see the evangelism of the whole of Northern Europe, a work that bears a roll of missionary names as great as the greatest – St. Aiden of Lindisfarne (died 651), Boniface, the Apostle of Germany (715-755), Anksar, often known as the Apostle of the North (ninth century), and a host of less-well known men? Nevertheless, it was not to the Muslims that these men went. For whatever reason, the fact remains that until Henry Martyn landed in India in 1806, the history of the effort of Christianity to save Islam is represented by just one or two isolated names.

Earliest missionary activity amongst Muslims

In the century after Muhammad, John of Damascus, who held high office under the Saracen Caliph of Damascus, at least studied Islam and attacked it in his writings. A section of a larger work by him is in “The superstition of the Ishmaelites,” and there are also two short dialogues or disputations between a Christian and a Muslim. Such disputations are still continuing today. Al Kindy (the apologist is, of course quite a different person from the Muslim philosopher of that name), wrote ‘The Apology of Al Kindy’ in c. 830. Though their efforts were individual and unsupported they pointed the way to the method of the patient study of Islam itself, its language literature and thought, and to the publication of works, apologetic and aggressive which were calculated to win followers.

The centuries passed. In the twelfth century, Christendom made its greatest effort – the Crusades. The Crusaders came against Islam with the sword, the cross on their shields but not dominating their souls. Rivers of blood flowed, prodigies of valour were displayed, but what was effected. It may be that the Crusaders had their place in the providential scheme – occupying the attention of the Muslims while Europe was very slowly passing from weakness to strength. But from a religious point of view the result was yet further to embitter the relation between Christian and Muslim, and to obscure the true spiritual issue that the Muslim problem presented and continues to present.

Yet, even in those days some isolated individuals perceived that Islam could not be cured by any remedy such as force. Petrus Venerabilis, the Benedictine Abbot of Clugny (d.1157), studied Islam with sympathy and scholarship. He was the first to translate the Quran into any European language, and he pleaded for the translation of Scripture into Arabic. He wrote controversial books, and declared his regret that he could not contend in person against Islam. He urged that Christianity must for its own life “defend itself against Mohammedan attacks and win Moslems by our proof of the truth.” He also said, “Whether Mohammed’s error is denounced as heresy, or as pagan, or heathen, we must oppose it by our pens, we must oppose it by our deeds.” He condemns the Crusades as a failure, and said “I come to win the Moslem not as people oft do with arms, but with words; not by force, but by reason; not in hatred, but in love.

St. Francis of Assisi, too, longed after the Muslims who knew not the Lord. It sound more like the romance of one of his own miracles than sober missionary reality to read how in 1219 he suddenly broke away from his great work in Italy, and sailed to Egypt, and there met the Sultan of Egypt, El Kamil, face to face. A contemporary record of this spiritual exploit is given in a letter by a Crusader:“Having come into our army he has not been afraid in his zeal for the faith to go to that of our enemies. For days together he announced the Word of God to the Saracens, but with little success; then the Sultan, King of Egypt, asked him in secret to entreat God to reveal to him by some miracle which is the best religion.”

Raymund Lull

Raymund Lull is the real miracle of mediaeval Christendom in relation to Islam. He was a missionary without forerunner before him, or support during his life, or followers to carry on his work or work out his glowing ideas. He resembles a brilliant meteor that flashes through the midnight sky, only to emphasise the darkness that preceded and the darkness that immediately followed.

Lull was born on the island of Majorca in 1235, and grew up under the shadow of the disappointment and depression of the failure of the first Crusades. Nor was the fact that his father had helped in the victorious movement against the Saracens in the West calculated to sweeten the family feeling in regard to them. The first thirty years of Lull’s life were passed in the island of his birth, and in Spain at the court of James 2, King of Aragon. His history strongly reminds us of Francis of Assisi and Zindendorf, who like Lull were popular in the world, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. And then, to each of them came in their youth the appealing vision of the crucified Christ, and each of them was obedient to the heavenly vision. Raymund Lull had everything this world could give him: brilliant, versatile, splendidly successful; knight, poet, musician, scholar, philosopher, nobleman, courtier; what did he lack?

The answer came when in the midst of composing a love-ballad; he saw a vision of Christ crucified, which was repeated three times. From this time on, he renounced his careless and sensual life, and took for his motto “He that loves not, lives not, and he that lives by the Life cannot die.” This, then, is the first thing that distinguishes Lull from many of his time – his religion was a passionate personal faith, inwrought in him by a direct personal conversion through the Spirit of Christ.

From now onward his actions have a quality and are wrought on a scale that is almost incredible. He began by a period of quiet solitary study that lasted nine years! That, perhaps, was quite in keeping with his time: but the resolution formed then takes him out of his time altogether and sets him, in reality, alongside Henry Martyn more than half a millennium later. It was the resolution to dedicate his life to the evangelisation of Islam.

This decision of Lull’s was unheard of, undreamed of. The Saracens were loathed as the conquerors in the East, hated as the partially vanquished in the West. Lull’s first claim to undying memory is that alone and unaided, he formulated the duty of the Church towards Islam. This following one sentence is enough to place Lull in the front of the greatest missionary-saints the world has ever known: “I see many knights going to the Holy Land beyond the seas, and thinking that they can acquire it by force of arms; but in the end all are destroyed before they attain that which they think to have. Whence it seems to me that the conquest of the Holy Land ought not to be attempted except `in the way in which Thou and Thine Apostles acquired it, namely, by love and prayers and the pouring out of tears and blood.”

“Language study” has a familiar ring to the modern missionary. Lull set an unsurpassed standard in the matter of language study. Then there were no grammars, dictionaries, ready-made language teachers; what should he do? He was driven to purchase a Muslim slave, and with his aid studied the Arabic language for nine years!

During these nine years he was also engaged in one of the most celebrated works of mediaeval philosophy. His purpose driven intention in the area of philosophy was entirely a means of forwarding his whole life in convincing Muslims of Christian truth. Like Bacon’s Novum Organum , Lull’s Ars Major was to be an infallible key – not, however, to the truths of nature, but to the truths of God. Today the book is dead, dead with the whole scholastic system which gave it birth: in its day, however, it may well have served its definite purpose, for the philosophical thought of Islam in those days was as scholastic and Aristotelian as that of Christendom. Nevertheless to us there is an eternal lesson to be learned from the writer of Ars Major – that the presentation of Christian truth and the cause of missions in general, and missions to Muslims in particular, are worthy of the highest talent, and the highest creative effort that our educational system can produce. We learn, too, what is hardly sufficiently recognised today, that home work and foreign work are one, and that in the domain of theological research itself the impact of one on the other ought to lead to creative work. For Ars Major was not composed for Muslim missions alone, but for the whole Church, a system by which every thinking man might arrive at the truth.

When Ars Major was finished, Lull began to lecture on it in public. His aim was two-fold – to strengthen the “home Church” in itself, and to awaken it to the duty and possibility of Muslim evangelisation. The latter idea became a passion with him. He valued the importance of winning universities, he persuaded the King to establish and endow a monastery which should be simply a missionary college. He tried to organise other missionary colleges in different parts of the country. He lectured at the universities, he interviewed kings and church leaders, and stood before church councils and assemblies, and was not ashamed. For his object was, in his own words, “to gain over the shepherds of the Church and the princes of Europe.” He went to the highest in the Church; he appealed to the Pope to help the foreign missionary movement. But the great man was not worthy; and the leaders of the Church had more “important “things to do. How do these “important” things look today?

He had plans for the curriculum of these colleges. It included of course, a thorough training in theology: but not only so, in philosophy also, in Arabic language and literature, and the geography of missions. He wrote: “Knowledge of the regions of the world is strongly necessary for the republic of believers and the conversion of unbelievers, and for withstanding infidels and antichrists. The man unacquainted with geography is ignorant where he walks or whither he leads. Whether he attempts the conversion of infidels, or works for other interests of the Church, it is indispensable that he knows the religion and environment of all nations.”

Yet the man was alone! His inspired suggestions were not taken up. At the age of seventy-five, after returning for an arduous time in North Africa he “conceived the idea of founding an order of spiritual knights who were ready to go to the Saracens, and recover the tomb of Christ by a crusade of love.” This was at a time when the Pope and Councils of the church were trying to work up another Crusade of the old type. Yet some religious Genoese noblemen and ladies had offered to contribute 30,000 gilders for the enterprise, and one word of encouragement form Pope Clement V, or the General Council of Paris, might have set on foot a spiritual and Missionary Society, with incalculable results. But that word was not spoken. The leaders of the Church did not lead, nor even follow; and the dauntless old man, now in his seventy-ninth year, went back to North Africa, disdaining the idea of rest or retirement, to win there a martyr’s crown.

It is to Lull’s first-rate greatness that his mighty purpose never flagged, not even under the depression of ill-success, want of support, nor increasing years. How many men are capable of starting an arduous quest at 54 years? Yet it was at this age that Lull calmly determined to teach by his example what the Church refused to learn from his precept, and to drive home the duty of missionary effort by sailing for Muslim North Africa. And that in the very year of the fall of Acre, which rang the death-knoll of Christian authority in Palestine, and must have sent a thrill of fierce intolerant exultation mingled with hate and contempt through the whole of the Muslim World. He set off alone, with all the eyes of Genoa curiously fixed on him. The thought of the dreadful life and perhaps death awaiting him in Africa seized him. He faltered! And his ship sailed without him. The agony of his soul oppressed his body, out of measure, even unto death, so much so that his friends carried him away from a second ship which he had embarked, certain that his life could not last out the voyage. News of yet a third ship was brought, and he finally determined to push forward. From that moment he tells us he “was a new man.” Peace came to his agonised spirit, and, with it, health to his body. The ship sailed and Lull was on-board.

In Tunis for two years he disputed, made and shepherded converts, was imprisoned, sentenced to death, and finally banished. In Majorca and Cyprus he preached to Jews as well as Muslims, in Armenia for a year he laboured among the Nestorians. Returning to North Africa, at Bugia in Algeria he disputed for a year and a half, again he made a circle of converts, and again was thrown into a dungeon, and tempted with worldly benefits for six months and urged to apostatise. Finally he was deported with ignominy, and shipwrecked on the coast of Italy. Last of all, when he saw that he had done all, and that there was nothing left for him in this life, he returned to Bugia, where he encouraged his converts for one whole year in seclusion. At the age of eighty years he faced the raging public who dragged him outside the city wall, and there stoned him to death.

We have seen how supremely great Lull was in respect of his missionary ideals. In particularly he was respected in his method and manner of presenting the truth, both private and public. In regard to the first, prophetic fire and love must have been joined to the supreme ability given by absolute command of language and subject, for we know that he made converts in his disputations. In regard to the second point, though he did not neglect the comparatively easy task of criticising the prophet of Islam, he concentrated all his religious, theological, and philosophical acumen on showing the hopeless inadequacy of its conception of God. And his negative criticism is accompanied by a glowing positive teaching on the philosophy of distinctively Christian truth, which is expounded with vitality and vigour that raises a doubt whether even now missionary thought itself has quite absorbed all that is contained in it. In an age when the Muslims were hated and fought with, he loved them and sought to win them. He was martyred in 1315. The meteor disappeared, the night remained.


After the work of Henry Martyn, which he laid down in death at the age thirty-one Pfander and others took up the Muslim missionary challenge, and since then it has been carried on uninterruptedly with slowly increasing momentum. Pfander was a German-Swiss, who worked in Persia for twelve years, in India at Agra, and Peshawar, and later in Constantinople. He died after forty years of service. He was the first whom circumstances enabled him to write, print and circulate a standard controversial work – Mizan-ul-Haqq (The Balance of Truth). It was written in German expressly for publication, and expressly with the Muslim mind in view; by himself or others it was translated into nearly every language in which mission work amongst Muslims is done. Its effect has been very great; it has been answered and counter-answered; it has been used to win souls; to this day it is available as a standard work. It has proved the first of a whole great literature, which every year multiplies in increasing volume and range for the winning of Muslims to Christ.

Pfander possessed the three great requisites for public controversy – absolute command of the subject, absolute command of the language idiom, the thought idiom, and the manner idiom of the people; and absolute command of himself. His memorable public controversy at Agra, at which Thomas Valpy French was also present will never be forgotten. Both sides claimed the victory of course, but two of the ablest of the Sheikhs on the Muslim side afterwards came out for Christ – names ever memorable in Muslim missionary annals, Imad-ud-din and Safdar Ali.

Lull martyred as he knocks at the gate of North Africa; Henry Martyn dying in solitude at Tokat; Valpy French dying in his lonely house at Muscat – Who will follow in their steps?

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