- Missions chrétiennes en terre d’islam, Moyen-Orient, Afrique du Nord (XVIIe–XXe siècles): Anthologie de textes missionnaires ed. by Chantal Verdeil
From the seventeenth century through the twentieth, Chantal Verdeil explains in her introduction to this excellent volume, Christian missionaries who ventured into the Islamic societies of the Middle East and North Africa rarely converted members of the Muslim majority. Instead, Catholic and later Protestant missionaries almost always converted people who were Christian already—if indeed “conversion” is the right word to describe the shift of, say, a Maronite Catholic in Lebanon to Latin Catholicism or of an Armenian in Turkey to some form of Protestantism. The goal of this volume is to explore this paradox: the tension between missionaries’ aspirations to convert Muslims and the reality of the circumstances that prevented them from doing so. It does so while examining the writings of Catholic and Protestant missionaries who came from France, Italy, Sweden, Great Britain, and the United States and who variously worked in the “land of Islam” from the early 1700s to the late 1930s.
Arising from an interdisciplinary research group sponsored by the Institut Catholique de Paris, this volume belongs to a series that anthologizes missionary writings. The book begins with a superb introduction that surveys major trends in and debates about the history of Catholic and Protestant missions in the heartlands of the Islamic world. Seven strong chapters then follow; these are the work of a distinguished group of scholars based at French, Swiss, and Dutch institutions. Each chapter analyzes the work of missionaries in a particular region while presenting a selection of primary-source documents—mostly reports and letters from archives—that shed light on missionaries’ engagement with, or attitudes toward, Muslims and Islamic societies, often in the context of their work among local Christians and sometimes also Jews.
The missionaries presented here were diverse, and yet striking similarities in their attitudes and concerns connect them in ways that give coherence to this volume. In her essay on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Iran, for example, Florence Hellot surveys the challenges that both French Lazarist and American Presbyterian missionaries faced when including Muslim students in schools alongside children who came from the very small and beleaguered local Christian communities that missionaries were trying to bolster. Covering the same period, Karène Summerer-Sanchez considers how both French Catholic and British Protestant missionaries in Nablus and Hebron (Palestine) offered schooling and medical care to Muslims while expressing concerns about what they perceived as the Muslim relegation and seclusion of women. If the missionaries could not convert Muslims to Christianity, then could they at least “convert” them to believe that females belonged unhindered in public spaces? This question preoccupied Swedish evangelicals in Bizerte (Tunisia), too, as Christian Chanel shows. Writing [End Page 966] in 1912, for example, one Swede in Bizerte described bringing schoolgirls to play outside during recess, only to see them frightened when a group of men came to stare at them.
One of the most striking Catholic-Protestant parallels that surfaces in this volume relates to groups that French scholars call “dissident” Muslims but that Anglophone scholars are more likely to call “heterodox”: groups like the Alawites of Syria and the Alevis of Turkey. Bernard Heyberger presents the report of Carmelite priest Giacinto di Santa Maria who visited Alawites in Syria in 1709. Father Giacinto described how the Alawites seemed Muslim in some respects (for example, in avoiding pork and practicing male circumcision) and definitely not Muslim in others (notably, in their beliefs about metempsychosis, or human reincarnation into other animals after death). They occasionally seemed somewhat Christian, too, as when they practiced a secret bread-and-wine ritual. Jump forward to 1855, and a remarkably similar account about Alevis appears within the chapter of Hans-Lukas Kieser on the work of the (Protestant) American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in what...