Challenge and Opportunity: Abraham Kuyper’s Evaluation of Islam

March 1, 2018
Earlier this week on iAt, Matthew Kaemingk’s article mentioned Abraham Kuyper. Today, Jordan Ballor gives a more in-depth look into Kuyper’s writings, travels, and why his work still impacts us today.

Abraham Kuyper’s final major work, Pro Rege (“for the king”), was a three-volume series on the implications of Christ’s lordship over all of life. Kuyper chose to open with a biting reflection on some of the salient differences between Christianity and Islam. This contrast focuses on the central figures of the respective religions. Whereas Christians confess Christ to be both truly human and truly divine, Muslims deny any such traffic between humanity and God. While the Prophet Muhammad occupies a central place in Islam, his status is clearly and categorically secondary to Allah.

There is thus a contrast between the founding figures: Christ has divine status, while Muhammad does not. However, Kuyper ruthlessly examines a consequent contrast. The relatively higher status that Christians confess with respect to Christ does not typically translate into correspondingly greater reverence. And, even though Muslims hold that the Prophet was merely human, they hold him, his name, and his reputation in the highest possible regard. Thus, contends Kuyper, “The indifference toward Jesus encountered in Christian countries, or cowardly silence when the Divine Founder of our religion is defamed, is virtually unheard of in Islamic nations when it comes to Muhammad.” Even though Muhammad occupies a lower status as a mere human being, he is held in greater regard—at least as evidenced by public zeal and piety among Muslims—than Jesus is by Christians.

In Pro Rege, Kuyper uses this dissonance to enter into a vigorous and exhaustive argument for the need for greater acknowledgement of and obedience to Christ’s lordship in the Christian life, both individually and communally. This series was preceded a half-decade earlier by a voyage around the Mediterranean Sea in which Kuyper directly encountered Islam in various expressions and diverse contexts.

After leaving public office upon his electoral defeat in 1905, Kuyper took this lengthy trip throughout the Mediterranean countries, including Turkey, Palestine, Egypt, the Sudan, Tunisia, and Algeria. Kuyper kept a record of his travels, which were later published under the title Around the Old World-Sea (Om de Oude Wereldzee). A selection of chapters from this two-volume work has recently been translated and published as On Islam, part of the larger Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series.

Throughout his travels, Kuyper was confronted by the diversity, vitality, and comprehensiveness of the Islamic faith. In Islam, Kuyper sees a world-shaping civilization force, one with the cogency and dynamism to rival Christianity. Kuyper’s reflections remain salient today, as his engagement of and appreciation for the motivating power of religion surpasses the now-defunct, mid-twentieth-century hegemony of narratives of secularization. Max Weber, Kuyper’s near-exact contemporary, once observed that “magical and religious forces, and the ethical ideas of duty based upon them, have in the past always been among the most important formative influences on conduct.” Whereas Weber saw an increasing decline of the influence of such forces, however, Kuyper maintained their ongoing validity and significance, even amid doctrinal development and contextual change. “Religion,” says Kuyper, “is mightier than any other single factor in the course of our personal life and in the history of the nations because it stirs the deepest part of our being.”

In this sense, Islam represents a special challenge for Christianity, as in Islam the close connection between religious belief, ethical duties, and social formation remains fully formed. In the centuries following the Protestant Reformation and political revolutions in Europe, the necessity of such coherence was increasingly dubious, as Weber observed and as philosophers like Charles Taylor have likewise contended. Islam, by contrast, having undergone neither a kind of religious reformation nor rational enlightenment analogous to that of the nominally Christian west, stands as a clear challenge to and even a rebuke of Western secularization.

From a secular Western perspective, Islam may appear to be unreformed and unenlightened. For Kuyper, however, the vital power of this religion, this all-encompassing worldview, was undeniable. It was, as he puts it, a mystery or an enigma, a riddle that had to be acknowledged and wrestled with. Kuyper opens the second volume of his travel narrative with a chapter on “The Enigma of Islam,” and as he observes, “Islam appeared suddenly, like a brilliant meteor, in seventh-century Arabia, and from Mecca it quickly began its miraculous victory march. This is one of the most difficult phenomena in world history to explain, especially from a psychological angle. The puzzling character of its rise has still not been fully unlocked.”

In some ways Islam’s progression mirrored that of earlier Christianity, which overtook the previously pagan Roman empire. But the differences between the two are also illustrative. Whereas Christianity moved organically and slowly, Islam moved rapidly and through the use of strength. “Islam burst forth with a force that nothing could withstand. It drove out everything that stood before it. It cast aside the prevailing spirit and put the spirit of Islam in its place. So deep and fast was the stamp it impressed on the people it conquered that fourteen centuries later they still live in the spirit of Islam,” writes Kuyper.

For Kuyper, Islam is a comprehensive and all-encompassing world- and life-view, with coherence and vitality that rivals Christianity: “That rule over all of life for the faithful comes from Allah is a firmly fixed notion for every Muslim. This gives all of life under Islam an all-encompassing unity and, consequently, the power of constancy. To worship Allah and to be bound to his will in all things are one and the same.” In this sense, Islam is a clear challenge and danger to the lordship of Christ and the fidelity of Christian communities.

Kuyper’s evaluation of Islam is not merely dismissive or negative, however. Challenges represent opportunity as well as danger. One of the opportunities occasioned by the rise of Islam was for Christian communities to rediscover and rededicate themselves to the fundamental truths of their own confession. This is essentially the purpose of his later project in Pro Rege.

Another opportunity provided by Islam is acknowledgment of the need to work through and find common ground—in social if not confessional terms—wherever possible. The groundwork for this is laid in large part through Kuyper’s earlier work on Common Grace, which acknowledges the good in this fallen world wherever it might be found, whether among Christians or among non-Christians. In this way, Kuyper recognizes the power and contribution of Islam. It is the strictest expression of monotheism, for instance, and one which manifests the clearest connection between divine sovereignty and human obedience.

At the time of Kuyper’s Mediterranean travels, the rise of Asia was the predominant feature of international affairs. Japan had defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, a result that raised the specter of Asian domination. Kuyper’s travel narrative opens, in fact, with his reflections on the contemporary “Asian danger.” Kuyper had become prime minister in the Netherlands in part by pursuing political cooperation with Roman Catholics, even while he maintained the confessional and religious differences between Reformed and Roman Catholics. In an analogous way, on the world stage Kuyper looks toward the possibility of cooperation between the great monotheistic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—to negate the increasing dangers of Asian polytheism.

From our perspective more than a century removed, such considerations may appear strange, even fanciful. But, Kuyper’s ability to recognize what was and was not required by fidelity to his own confession provides a wonderful model for cross-cultural and interreligious engagement today. His attempts to grapple with what it might mean to live peaceably wherever possible in the global community with neighboring Muslim nations give us a glimpse as to what it might mean for us to live peaceably with our own Muslim neighbors, who are no longer merely in other nations but truly right next door.

About the Author
  • Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, as well as a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics for the Moral Markets project. He serves as a general editor of the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology, and is the author and editor of numerous volumes.