Last week we took a respite from our series on the history of missions to discuss Donald Trump and his perceived manipulation of Christianity. This week, we return to our series once again, but this time we find ourselves in Cairo. In the wake of the horrific attacks in Brussels, and the resultant xenophobic rants regarding Muslims coming into this country, today’s blog seeks to focus on a missionary who served Muslim communities. William Henry Temple, or simply Temple, Gairdner (1873-1928) served for almost three decades in Cairo, Egypt (Tucker, 244).
Gairdner’s role as a missionary to Muslims was aided by his ability to learn very quickly, including learning Arabic “well enough to become involved in teaching in less than a year” (Tucker, 243). He also, along with his wife (they were married in 1902), used their musical talents to put on concerts to draw Christians and Muslims together (Tucker, 243). Importantly, Gairdner changed his tactics in ministering to Muslims in Cairo. He shifted from the typical missionary strategy of arguing the differences between Christianity and Islam to more calmly discussing the problems that Muslims had with Christian beliefs (Tucker, 244). He even sought to engage Muslims where they were.
Gairdner spent time trying to work with Coptic Christians in the area, but found few of them were very interested in helping out with the missionary work among Muslims (Tucker, 245). Gairdner’s publishing and his teaching left resources to his mission after his death in 1928 (Tucker, 245). Tucker also notes that Gairdner’s real legacy was the resulting increased desire for people to pick up his mantle of missionary work among Muslims, particularly in the Anglican Church (Tucker, 245).
Although Gairdner could be seen as successful in many ways, there were problems in the mission, notably a lack of helpers. This greatly hindered Gairdner’s publishing work, and even though he spent a year studying Islam with world-renowned experts, he was unable to really make an impact in the scholastic realm (Tucker, 244-45). Gairdner himself even lamented it, noting that he could have made a real contribution to the field. He also saw some of his fellow-Christians renounce their faith and convert to Islam (Tucker 243). So, while he did have some modest successes, one might say that he had just as many setbacks.
I want to point out that in today’s religio-political climate in the United States, we have a variety of opinions, especially with regard to Muslims. I think that Gairdner might assist us by his passion for working and engaging with the Muslim communities around us. As mentioned above, there have been a number of xenophobic responses to ISIS-claimed attacks around the world, most notably by Donald Trump. Trump has said several times that the United States should start banning all Muslims from coming to this country. Ted Cruz likewise has recently stated that Muslim communities around this country need to be monitored. I think such positions on Muslims would appall Muslim missionaries like Temple Gairdner. His methodology was to engage Muslims, not fear them. He even lamented the Coptic Christian Church near him for not doing more to minister to Muslims that were a part of their own communities.
Last night, while watching election coverage of “Western Tuesday” (yet another moniker assigned to a day when more than one state holds a primary), I heard several analysts talking about how each time there has been a ISIS-led terrorist attack around the world, Donald Trump gets a bump in the polls. I find such reactions by the American people alarming to say the least. Without getting too political (although I fear I may have already), I would say that we should be worried when we hear things like, “We have no choice but to ban all Muslims from entering this country,” from our presidential front-runners. I would also say that we should be shocked and appalled when such statements are met with exuberant applause by the masses.
Temple Gairdner took issue with the standard Christian missionary practice of his time, which was to fiercely debate Islam and Christianity. His approach sought to meet Muslims where they were and engage their beliefs. While I recognize that Gairdner’s methods were rooted in mission work and politicians like Trump and Cruz are focused on political strategy, I think Gairdner’s legacy still fits. His time in Cairo was not always happy and not always met with successes, but he nevertheless remained there until his death because he believed in the work he was doing. He believed in God’s call on his life. I would even contend that he had a heart for Muslims. I wish that our political climate, particularly political establishments that are aligned with a Christian majority, would share Gairdner’s sympathy and love for Muslims and eschew Trump’s xenophobia. After all, this country was founded on religious freedom, and I hate to break it to many people out there, but Islam is a religion.
What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues? Is today’s geopolitical climate too different from from Gairdner’s to make these assertions? Has ISIS changed the game permanently?