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  • Reflecting Christianity in Depictions of Islam: The Representation of Muslims in the Reports of the Early Royal Danish Mission at Tarangambadi, India
  • Matthias Frenz (bio)

The arrival of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg at the Danish trading post Tarangambadi in 1706 marks the beginning of the first systematically undertaken Protestant mission on the Indian subcontinent. Most of the missionaries, who acted on behalf of the Danish king, were recruited from Prussia and maintained ties with Pietist circles in the town of Halle (Saale). They regularly sent reports about general observations and their mission work to Halle, where the texts were edited, published and spread across Europe.

In this paper I will take a fresh look at the published narratives, particularly at the depictions of Muslim culture composed by the Royal Danish missionaries Ziegenbalg, Walther, John and Rottler between 1706 and 1813. My central argument is that the characterisation of South Indian Islam reflects the disputes within Protestant discourse prevalent in 17th and 18th century Europe with its clashes between advocates of Pietism, Enlightenment, Lutheran orthodoxy and rationalism. This time has often been characterised as a period of modernisation, because significant societal and intellectual innovations emerged which set the course for later developments in European history.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries different philosophies dealing with the constitution of man developed, and their proponents competed with each other. I cannot go into details here of the complex intellectual history of these centuries and elaborate on the implications for Christian missionary endeavours. I have done this elsewhere.1 I will [End Page 203] only briefly mention three interlinked issues which became crucial for the anthropology that developed in early modern Europe. In Cartesian philosophy and other schools of thought the individual subject became the focus of attention. Inner reasoning and rationality were increasingly perceived as core constituents of human nature and appreciated as driving forces in the quest for knowledge. The idea of universal progress and the belief in the perfectibility of man emerged.

The consequences drawn from these basic assumptions were manifold. Pietism was one approach to rethink the relationship between God, man and the world. The Halle school of Pietism, which had influenced the majority of missionaries working at Tarangambadi, proposed that each individual should strive for a personal relationship with God. Rebirth as a true Christian should be achieved through a process of introspection resulting in the realisation of one’s own sinful nature and the surrender to God’s grace. Thus every human might attain individual salvation and contribute to God’s plan for the redemption of the world. At the other end of the spectrum we find rationalist philosophers who turned against a theologically dominated world view. They advocated rational reasoning as the superior method to objectively generate knowledge and facilitate the progress of mankind.

Pietism, rationalism and the various philosophies of the Enlightenment period had a common ground. They are ‘modern’ approaches to overcome the deep societal, material and intellectual crises experienced in central Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century. It is sometimes difficult to establish clear cut distinctions between several schools of thought.2 Philosophers and theologians often were in close contact; they developed their ideas and approaches in relation to each other and entertained a productive tension. In the town of Halle, which was an important point of reference for the Royal Danish missionaries, the university provided a forum for public disputes over conflicting opinions.

The different currents of the discourse left their imprint on the Protestant mission. I will show in the following paragraphs how the mission reports edited and published in Halle reflect various layers of the debate. The representation of Muslims and their religion is particularly revealing because of the relative similarity of Islam and Christianity. Beyond a mere portrayal of an alien faith in the light of a contemporary European debate, the widely circulated mission reports had an educative function for the readers in Europe. The publications had both a descriptive and normative value. [End Page 204]


Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682–1719) reached Tarangambadi in 1706 together with Heinrich Plütschau. The two Germans were the first missionaries whom the Danish king sent to India in order to...


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pp. 203-213
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Archived 2009
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