Editor’s Note: This is a contribution by Nathan Dever, a masters student in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. It is a critical reflection of a lecture by Dr Umar Ryad of KU Leuven.
Over the last century, the field of Christian missions has undergone significant change. Today, many of the roles which missionaries used to play internationally are now performed by various other groups, often without any reference to religion. Despite these changes, many of the questions which were previously asked about missions remain relevant today. These questions center around issues such as the appropriate role of international actors in relation to local actors, the challenge of universalizing historically and contextually dependent concepts, and the proximity of private organizations to public officials.
Recently, the University of Edinburgh’s Christian-Muslim Studies Network hosted a special lecture titled ‘Islamic Reformism and western Christianity: al-Manar’s response to missionary work in Egypt in the early 20th Century,’ which illustrated some of the ways in which these questions have been engaged with historically.
The lecture, which was presented by Dr Umar Ryad, professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of KU Leuven, centered on Dr. Ryad’s research of Muhammad Rashid Rida’s response to western missionary activity in Egypt in his journal al-Manar. Although there has been much recent scholarship on the subject of missionary history in Egypt, the research which Dr Ryad presented in his lecture stands out as unique.
In the lecture, Dr Ryad described how Rida used al-Manar as an avenue to explore the societal implications of the widespread socio-political transformations which were occurring in the early twentieth century. Though Rida was based in Egypt, Dr Ryad emphasized the global reach of al-Manar, highlighting that the journal had regular subscribers in Asia, Europe, and the United States.
Given the global reach of al-Manar, and the scope of the subjects it addressed, Rida sought to incorporate intellectual developments from both inside and outside of the Arab world into his writing. However, as Rida was only proficient in Arabic, he was dependent on a network of individuals living abroad to provide him with translations of non-Arabic works. One such figure which Dr Ryad described was Zeki Kiram, a Turkish officer who lived in Berlin, and who regularly sent Rida Arabic translations of European works.
Although this allowed Rida to incorporate International works, Dr Ryad showed how these works were often repurposed by Rida to respond to the specific local challenge of western missionaries. This is particularly evident in the way in which Rida selectively deployed works drawn from fields such as Biblical historical criticism, in order to demonstrate the inherent rationality, and superiority of Islam. Just as missionaries drew from the work of Western Orientalists to support their own work, Rida developed his own polemical style, which drew from modern Western scholarship, as well as other controversial sources such as the so-called ‘Gospel of Barnabas’.
Given that British influence in Egypt during Rida’s life ensured that foreign missionaries enjoyed a relative amount of privilege in society, many others also wrote about missionaries as a challenge to Egyptian society. However, what makes Dr. Ryad’s study unique is that Rida represents an anti-missionary position distinct from both the secular-nationalist position of parties such as the Wafd, as well as that of other influential Egyptian Islamists such as Hassan al-Banna. As Dr. Ryad explained, while Rida was critical of missionaries as subversive political actors, he was not supportive of the anti-missionary positions of nationalist parties. Similarly, while Hassan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood was concerned with the expanding influence of missionary schools and orphanages among less affluent groups of Egyptians, Rida’s view differed. Although critical of much missionary work, Rida regarded education as important, and was therefore not opposed to certain ‘fair’ aspects of missionary schools. Further, rather than viewing missionary influence among lower class Egyptians as a threat, Rida viewed missionary success among these groups as a sign of their message’s inherent inferiority to his own.
In conclusion, the research Dr Ryad presented in his lecture is a unique contribution to the study of Muslim-Christian relations within the context of missionary history. While satisfying in its own right, there are still a number of points which may be worth exploring more fully in future work, three of which follow. First, in light of the often tense relationship which existed between Western missionaries and local Orthodox Christians, it would be worthwhile to explore the ways in which Rida’s critique of missionaries overlapped with that of the local Orthodox Christian community. Second, as Rida accessed non-Arabic works through mediators such as Kiram, it seems important to examine the ways in which this process may have contributed to the specific way in which Rida received and applied non-Arabic language works. Finally, it could also be interesting to look at the question of how Rida’s discourse on rationality, education, and the relationship between science and religion was influenced by the similar debates which were occurring within the Western denominations producing the missionaries which whom Rida was engaging.