Article on All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral in Cairo

Back in 2015 an article of mine on All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral in Cairo was published in Anglican and Episcopal History (Vol 84:1). I thought that with the rising interest of Christianity in the Middle East I should share it here.

The article begins with the note that in 1839 the Egyptian leader Muhammad Ali made a gift of land to the local Anglicans for the construction of a church. Also, the beginning of Anglican mission there was through the Church Mission Society (CMS) and the London Jews Society (today known as the Church’s Ministry among Jewish People) as far back as the early 1800s.

Click here to read the whole article.

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Evangelicals in North Africa

I am pleased to share that Evangelicals around the World (Thomas Nelson, 2015) is now available.

My own contribution is a chapter on Evangelical Christians in Egypt and North Africa.

Check out the PDF here.

“Evangelicals in Northern Africa and Egypt”, chapter in Evangelicals around the World

I am pleased to share that my chapter on evangelicals in Northern Africa and Egypt which was published in Evangelicals around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century (Thomas Nelson, 2015), can now be read in part at books.google.com. You can also buy the book at Amazon.

Also, my chapter on the topic can now be read in PDF form HERE.

Review of Kathryn Kraft’s book on Converts from Islam to a Christian faith

Searching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Arab WorldSearching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Arab World by Kathryn Ann Kraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kathryn Kraft’s book is a study of groups of converts from Islam to Christianity in Egypt and Lebanon. Working in the field of sociology of religion, she attempts to analyse and understand the consequences of the decision to leave Islam and embrace a Christian faith. (Why the indefinite article? This is never explained but I’m certain this is not the way that converts speak of their faith.)

Her intent is clearly explained on page 16: After telling us, at some length, about her methodology and research experience, she will utilize two Islamic doctrines, tawhiid and umma, to “explore the lives, cultures and values of converts from an Arab, Muslim background.” She does this by treating a number of idealized topics (hence the word “heaven” in the title): the perfect researcher, perfect unity (tawhiid), perfect community (Umma), perfect dream, perfect believer and a perfect identity. A recurring theme is that these converts (and it is good that she uses the correct word here—convert) have a vision and hope for something in converting to Christianity that they do not ultimately achieve. In making the dangerous and difficult move of converting they are hoping for heaven on earth, but in fact meet with disappointment on multiple levels. They are disappointed by churches that don’t welcome them, by missionaries who are overbearing or pastors who are disconnected, they are alienated from their (Muslim) families and nations, they are disappointed by the intolerance of Islamic law, and so on (anomie is the technical term which Kraft uses to summarize this state).

That Kraft is frank about the difficulties faced by Christians from a Muslim background is refreshing. Much of the material that exists about these converts tends to lionize them and portray them as having faith to move mountains and standing up under persecution like Polycarp or Perpetua. This does indeed happen sometimes, but Kraft’s exploration of the other side of the coin is welcome, even if at times the “anomie” of these “deviant persons” tends to overpower the equally genuine truth that these converts often have a powerful and refreshing sense of hope and love which they had not experienced in Islam.

Kraft is able to explore some new territory in relation to these converts. How do converts manage the question of self-identity in a country like Egypt where they cannot legally change their religion from Muslim to Christian? How do they relate to their families? What are the effects of leaving a structured diin like Islam, with set fasts, pray times, a manner of chanting the Qur’an, for evangelicalish Christianity (mostly), which tends to eschew such structure and (blandly, perhaps) encourages people to simple pray to God whatever is “on their heart”? Also welcome is Kraft’s willingness to acknowledge the complexity of the convert identity, and her treatment in Chapter 7 of various strategies used by converts to figure out how to live as Christians from a Muslim background is nuanced and does not oversimplify the topic. In engaging with the question of identity she is following in the footsteps of Seppo Syrjanen who composed the first sociological case study of converts from Islam to Christianity.

There are problems with the book, however. At times it was not clear to me whose voice was speaking: the convert’s, or hers? Some sections had a wealth of quotations from her sources which were helpful and welcome, but at other times one could go for pages reading the author’s analysis on some facet of conversion life without reading a single quotation from the sources themselves. This does not mean that her conclusions are false, my own research among converts (Arabs and Iranians, mostly) actually tends to back up most of her points. But there are sections where allowing the voices of the researched subjects to be present before going on to analyse them would improve the reading experience.

As to the methodology and her own reflection on herself as a researcher (the end of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2), I am ambivalent. Students doing scholarship among MBB’s in the Muslim world, and especially the Arab world, will find this lengthy section helpful and indeed may well want to use it as a template for their own methodology section. Comaprisons to nuns leaving the convent may warm the heart of anthropologists, but add nothing to the book. Readers who simply want to know about the converts from Islam may well want to skip her chapter on “the perfect researcher”.

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make in relation to field research is related to how to analyse the data. After weeks, months or years of interviews, e-mails, conversations, visiting churches and hearing sermons and songs—one must figure out how to go about identifying what stays in and what stays out, what is worth exploring more and what is not, what gets a whole chapter in the thesis, and what gets a paragraph or an appendix or is simply saved for future articles. It is at this point that

Kraft makes her most puzzling move by choosing two Islamic concepts: tawhiid and Umma. Kraft has claimed that she wants to let the converts speak on their own terms, using their own ideas, and not impose ad extra her own presuppositions. So why would she choose these two concepts? The question is never answered in her book.

The author overestimates, I think, the significance of tawhiid, which refers to the monadic monotheism of God’s essence in Islamic theology. Kraft believes that this tawhiid is refracted onto the life of the Muslim by creating a unified and integral way of life. For instance, tawhiid would resist the idea that secular order and religious order should be separated from each other. And so, she appears to believe, in leaving Islam converts are hungering for this same sort of integrated life and identity they had experienced (maybe?) in Islam, but become disappointed when this dream of heaven on earth is not fulfilled in Christianity.

The implication is that there is something special about Islam, because of tawhiid, that makes the Muslim (and ex-Muslim) hunger for a well-integrated life and identity that is not present in other societies. This is a problematic claim. Is it not more likely that modernity tends towards compartmentalized, fragmented identities, and that the normal way to be human, including for non-modern Christians, is to desire and perhaps attain such an integrated life? This position has been argued extensively by Peter Berger in his book, Facing Up To Modernity: Excursions In Society, Politics, And Religion. According to him, Modernity has created five key problems. One, abstraction: this is related to the mass state and media, and the rise of the Machine, and the destruction of what have been historically integrated communities (71, 72). Two, futurity—as children of Modernity are always focusing on the future and not the present or the past. Three, individuation: entailing the separation of the individual from the collective, which has led to greater anomie. Four, liberation: people have liberty to choose who or what they will be, but that liberty may convert itself into being forced to choose, and thus become oppressive, this experiencing of being forced to choose is called the heretical imperative. Five, there is secularization: “Modernization has brought with it a massive threat to the plausibility of religious belief and experience” (78).

One could ask similar questions about the concept of the Umma. Are we to believe that the desire to belong to a close-knit and united community is particular to Islam? Is it not in fact particular to many forms of Christianity throughout history (if not evangelicalism today)? In other words, it is not Islam that is different here, it is modernity that is bizarre and novel in its willingness to fracture and compartmentalize facets of the human life, and while not all Christianity is the fruit of modernity, evangelicalism certainly is.

Kraft’s choice of two concepts from Islam, a religion which her converts claim to have left, to explain how Christians live is the most problematic and puzzling aspect of this book. In spite of this over-reliance on the explanatory power of tawhiid and Umma, her analisys actually succeeds quite well. I just wish she would have used different words to treat the topic. After all, the chapter on tawhiid is very much about relationships, and the chapter on Umma about community. Simply acknowledging that relationships and community are integral aspects of what it means to be human—whether one is Christian or Muslim—and that the convert’s life cannot be examined without treating the two topics would have sufficed.

The book’s conclusion (the final chapter) is its strongest note, with Kraft briefly explaining the next frontier of exploration in relation to Christians from a Muslim background: the second generation. How converts raise their children in societies like Egypt where the extended family is Muslim and the child is, according to the dictates of the shari’a, by necessity Muslim and must be taught Islam in school—these topics are completely unresearched to my knowledge.

Kraft has provided us with a valuable book, one of the only ones in existence about converts from Islam to Christianity. Her sober treatment of the difficulties they face and the complexity of their strategies in negotiating identity and relationships outweighs any deficiencies on might identify, and mean that, without a doubt, this book will be indispensable reading for any scholar researching similar converts.

Reviewed by Duane Alexander Miller, NETS Book Reviews, October 2013

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You may also download the PDF of the review here.

The Murals in All Saint’s Cathedral in Cairo

The Murals in All Saint's Cathedral in Cairo

Six days of Creation
Six days of Creation
The Nativity
The Nativity
Transept Mural
Left Transept Mural
Mural over entrance to cathedral
Mural over entrance to cathedral

Murals and art in All Saints’ Cathedral (Anglican/Episcopal) in Cairo. All photos ©Duane Alexander Miller 2013.

Additional pictures can be found at my Flickr page.

Photo of the Grave of Temple Gairdner in Cairo

Photo of the Tomb of Temple Gairdner in Cairo

Public Domain, 2007.

Temple Gairdner is one of the great figures in the history of Anglicanism in Egypt, and in the history of Christian witness to Muslims as well. A colleague took this picture of his grave in Old Cairo and gave me permission to publish it in the public domain.

‘Milestones’ by Sayyid Qutb

MilestonesMilestones by Sayed Qutb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Qutb (1906-1966) was born in Egypt and was, and still is, a guiding light for the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the Muslim Brotherhood now controls Egypt and Gaza, it is a good time to become more familiar with his ideas. In this book he formulates his position that all the world, including so-called Muslim states, are in a state of jahiliyya or ignorance. He proposes a way to resolve this problem and see the entire world, eventually, submitting to the benevolent will of its Creator in the form of the shari’a.

I can see why this book ended up being so influential for Muslims around the world. It is certainly a call to arms and a return to Qutb’s erroneous and fantastic version of early Islam. His main problem is history–he has little understanding of what actually occurred in the days of the so-called Rightly-guided Caliphs (al khulafa’ al rashiduun). His mythical ‘golden age’ is not so different than how fundamentalist Christians view the Apostolic Church. The difference between those two origin myths though can be summarized in one phrase: the sword of the religion (sayf id diin).

The originality of Milestones is Qutb’s incorporation of the (imported) revolutionary concept of the vanguard, so important to, for instance, the Bolsheviks. He proposed the formation of a vanguard which by its example and piety and voluntary submission to the will of Allah would attract people to itself, eventually resulting in the rebirth of a true Islamic civilization in dar al islam, which would eventually spread throughout the entire world. The Muslim Brotherhood was the first such vanguard. And today it controls Egypt and Gaza and has outposts throughout the world, including in the form of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) in the USA.

This short book is well worth your time. Not because it is particularly well-written, but because it has been extremely influential and continues to shape our world today. If Qutb is right, the time of jahiliyya for the most populous nation in the Middle East is now over, and the true reign of God has come.

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