In my local church, many of us frequently engage in street evangelism on the streets of Lagos. Sometimes we would run across a Muslim who sees it as an opportunity to evangelize us in return and then the interfaith discussion gets interesting, but very rarely productive.
These Muslims talk about Jesus, but very clearly the Jesus they describe is very different from the one found on the pages of the NT. They talk about faith, but they don’t have a category for how someone’s else death can pay the price for the sins of others. It can be frustrating.
Our struggles fit into the larger struggle that Christians face when discussing with Muslims. It is genuinely hard to do interfaith dialogue well. Too often it is an exercise in finding the lowest common denominator that both sides can agree on. Too often, the statements issued at the end of these dialogues have no distinctly Christian flavour in them and end up being banal statements that could be said by any morally upright person in society. That is why we often hear phrases like “we all serve the same God” from these debates.
Interfaith dialogue, especially between Christians and Muslims, is important and urgent. This is especially true in Nigeria, which simultaneously has the 5th largest Christian population and the 5th largest Muslim population in the world! The fact that interfaith dialogue is hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Too often our evangelism can seem to be an exercise in sheep-stealing from other Christian traditions. It is good to invite malnourished sheep or sheep whose diet consists of various slow-acting poisons to a proper feast, but we need to ask ourselves hard questions on why we find it so much easier to convince the already converted than to convert the ten of millions of unconverted Muslims in Nigeria.
That is why reading the writings of Samuel Ajayi Crowther is a welcome corrective to much of our current debate. Even though he lived 2 centuries ago, his religious context was strikingly similar to us. He was born an animist in southwest Nigeria, he was captured by slave raiders when he was 12 and sold to Portuguese slavers, whose vessel was intercepted by the British and resettled in Freetown. He would grow to become a renowned linguist, who translated the Bible into Yoruba, wrote the 1st book in Ibo and the 1st book in Nupe. He also became the 1st African to be consecrated a bishop in the Anglican church in 1864. His story is fascinating and the ups and downs of his life are still causing debate, including a recent apology by Archbishop Justin Welby on the racism he suffered at the hands of the church.
Bishop Crowther traveled often on missionary trips within what would later become the country of Nigeria and he spent much time in dialogue with leaders of other faiths. Here we have his account of his visit to Ilorin, a Muslim town in the West of Nigeria.
Jan. 7th, 1872,Sunday–As we had not a very convenient room to hold all our party, at my request a shed was erected yesterday by our landlord, adjoining the verandah, which afforded shade.
At 9 a.m. I read the morning prayer, by which time a large group of people had collected in the compound, and sat with profound silence to witness the Christian mode of worship, which they had never seen before; unlike their Mohammedan practice of kneeling, bowing, and repeating the same form of prayer ever so many times, while at the same time some persons may be talking, and others laughing or transacting business close by them while saying their prayer. On this occasion there was serious silence, and devout attention was observed among the worshippers, which gave solemnity to the scene, as if the place was sanctified by those acts of worship. As many as had their prayer-books heartily joined in the responses in the reading of the Psalms, and in the Litany; the reading of the lessons, and a variety of prayers appointed for the Church service, showed the spectators that Christians have more edification in their acts of worship than mere repetition of forms of prayers. In the afternoon I got my horse saddled to answer the King’s request; I took only one of the clerks with me to carry my bag of books. On my arrival outside the gate of the palace I halted, while the King sent to call several of his principal officers, the Lemamu, or chief priest, and other mallams (Muslim teachers) to be present. In a short time the palace was filled with a large assembly of people of all descriptions. The King having got all ready, I was invited in, and at his request, to tell them something of the Christian religion. I opened my bag and took out my English Bible and the Yoruba translations, the English prayer-book and the Yoruba translation, and my pocket English Dictionary (Johnson’s), and the Yoruba Vocabulary; having classed these six books side by side, I explained to the audience that the Yoruba translations of the Scriptures will always interpret the English by my reading the same passages in both; that the nine prayers in the English language have been translated into Yoruba, which we have been using in all our mission stations in the Yoruba country.
The subject I first broached was the sonship of Christ, as declared by the Angel Gabriel; I opened St. Luke 1:28-35, which I first read in English, after which I turned to the same passage in the Yoruba translations and read it, and told them that so it had been before the era of Mahomet (archaic spelling of Muhammad). The second subject I brought before their notice was the doctrine which Christ taught of Himself, John 14: 6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me.” Having read that in English, I turned to the same passage in the Yoruba translations, which I distinctly read to them. The third subject was His commission to His disciples, Matt 28:18-20, which I read in like manner.
This passage elicited the question from the King, whether Anabi Isa (Jesus the Prophet) was not to be the Judge of the world?
I replied that I would not answer the question off-hand, but read it to them from the word of Christ Himself; so I turned to Matt 25:31-34, which I first read in English, and then from the Yoruba translations, to which profound attention was paid. This again elicited the question, How soon will He come? the reply was given by turning to Acts 1, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power.” Also, Luke 12:39, 40, “And this know, that if the good man of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. Be ye therefore ready also; for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not” I supported this by reading the Rev. 22:10-12, “For the time is at hand. He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still. And behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me, to give to every man according as his work shall be.” Having read this portion from the Yoruba translations, there was a long silence, when some one near the King suggested the question: What does your (Litafi) Bible say of Mahomet? I replied that as it was not till 622 years after Christ that Mahomet established his doctrine, our Bible is quite silent about him I was then asked which was the fuller, our (Litafi) Bible or the Koran? I replied that our Bible was very full, containing the Taureta, the Pentateuch; the Sabura, the Psalms of David, with the Prophets; and the Lanjil, the Gospel; showing each division from my English Bible; from which books certain subjects were picked out or alluded to in the Koran when it was composed. I told them that Christian missionaries are now in Stamboul (Constantinople), and in Mizra (Egypt), and Smyrna, where the truths of Christianity are being examined and inquired into by many Mussulmans (archaic spelling of Muslims), who desire to know them. I told them also that we have established schools at Lagos, Abeokuta, and Ibadan, as also at Bonny, Brass, Nun, Onitsha, and Lokoja, with a view of carrying out Christ’s commission; “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations.”
Then I was requested to read a prayer to them out of the Prayer Book, so I read the one for the Queen’s Majesty, first in English; when I was reading it in Yoruba I told them that the name of the sovereign in whose dominions we reside may be substituted as occasion might require. They admired the prayer as being very suitable.
I then explained to them the use of the dictionaries, to illustrate difficult words which may be met with in either language, without the aid of a teacher, who may not be at hand. The King asked to see my Yoruba Testament, which I handed to him; he opened and looked at it; the type, of course, was quite different from Arabic characters. After it was examined by the Lemamu, it was returned to me by saying, that I was truly a learned Lemamu! and then the query, how I came to know so much of book knowledge? The readiness with which I turned to passages in the Bible to answer any question put to me, without hesitation, rather astonished them. There was no argument, no dispute, no objection made, but questions asked and answered direct from the Word of God. After a general conversation about other matters, it was getting dark, the King expressed regret that I had not been earlier at the palace. On leaving I promised to send him a copy of an Arabic Bible, in which they would find those passages which we had referred to on this occasion in my English and Yoruba Testaments.
Two decades later, reflecting on his vast experiences evangelizing unbelievers in similar circumstances to his experience in Ilorin, Bishop Crowther would write “After many years’ experience, I have found that the Bible, the sword of the Spirit, must fight its own battle, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”. May we go out and engage our Muslim neighbors with the same confidence that Bishop Crowther had.
- Bishop Crowther’s report of the overland journey from Lokoja to Bida, on the river Niger, and thence to Lagos, on the sea coast, from November 10th, 1871 to February 8th, 1872
- Crowther, Experiences with Heathens and Mohammedans in West Africa (London: 1892), p. 28