Christianity vs. Islam in Africa: A 19th Century Debate

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Abuja National Mosque in Nigeria

Christianity had failed, announced Reverend Isaac Taylor, Canon of York, to a British audience in 1897. It had failed to civilize the savage, barbarous Africans. Islam, he continued, had been more successful than Christianity in ridding that continent of its evils — evils like cannibalism, devil worship, and human sacrifice.

Not only had Christianity failed to civilize the savage, he said, but it had extended European trade, which also extended “drunkenness and vice and the degradation of the [African] people” (Prasch 51).

His Christian audience, offended and upset, responded audibly to his statements. The London Times, reporting Taylor’s speech, included their reactions to his statements in parentheses: (sensation), (“Oh, oh!”) and (“Oh.”) The Times also included the audience’s reaction to the speakers who followed Canon Taylor and denounced his ideas: (cheers).

But Canon Taylor comments continued, despite his audience’s unfavorable reaction. “Islam is an imperfect Christianity,” he stated, “a half-Christian faith.” He believed that this made Islam more appropriate for Africans than Christianity because it appealed to the physical, sensual nature rather than the intellect. Africans had a “lower intellect” and could not reach the height of Christianity without first ascending to Islam, which, though not on level with Christianity, was higher than animism or other African traditional religions. On the other hand, he said, Christianity was more appropriate for the British because they were a “higher race” and could comprehend its abstract, “lofty” truths (Prasch 51).

The Islam/Christianity debate raged in the London Times for several months after Taylor’s speech (see dates below). Most of the attacks attempted to disprove Taylor’s statement that Islam had been more successful than Christianity.

Responding to his critics in the Times, Taylor admitted that missionaries did some good, but suggested that they failed because their efforts were misdirected (London Times, 31 Oct. 1887, 13.)

In a following letter, he took that argument a step further: Christianity in Africa not only failed to do good, but it actually produced character defects and rebellion. (In his own “misdirected” way, he might have had a point. Though Christian missions were a failure in the 19th Century, Christianity grew like wildfire in the 20th Century as Africans began to form their own churches, separate from the mission churches. Christian Africans were often leaders in the nationalist and independence movements against the colonial powers. Canon Taylor’s “rebellious” African Christians did indeed prove to be a problem for Great Britain.)

To back up his statement, Taylor quoted an army official, Major-General Blaksley, who claimed he would use an unconverted African as a servant because he could trust them; but, Blaksley said, “even slavers” avoided neighborhoods where Christian Africans lived because they were so “‘unutterably bad'” (London Times 17 Nov. 1887, 13.)

Both Taylor and Blaksley apparently assumed that “good character” meant “reliable servant,” perhaps because they, like most of 19th Century Great Britain, believed that the British had a God-ordained right to lead other nations and other nations had a God-ordained position to serve the British.

Though Taylor’s critics wanted to argue that Christianity was successful, they cited statistics that indicated a huge number of unconverted “savages” in order to prove that Islam had failed (London Times 31 Oct. 1887, 9 & 13.) Ironically, they defeated their own position.

Though Taylor believed that Christianity was the superior faith, he also felt Christianity needed a long period of time before it changed society, or before it was possible to see how it had changed society.

In one letter, he argued that it would take Africa “many generations…to outroot the hereditary savagery and animalism of anthropoidal cannibals; it can only be by slow degrees that, with their gross animal natures, they will be able to ‘Rise upward, working out the beast,/ And let the ape and tiger die.’”

Taylor’s racism prompted his suggestion that Islam was more appropriate for Africa. But Taylor did not simply believe that Islam was inferior to Christianity. He also wrote that there were lesser forms of Christianity, “lower fanaticisms” (such as Methodism), and these lesser forms might have more success in Africa (London Times, 17 Nov. 1887, 13.)

Canon Taylor’s pro-Islamic arguments echoed the writings of Dr. Edward W. Blyden, a West Indian Black who emigrated to Africa when he was seventeen and went on to become a professor, a diplomat, and a government official in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, Taylor’s racism also confirmed Blyden’s belief for why Christianity had failed.

Christianity, Blyden wrote, was exclusively for the white race and required black converts to deny their racial heritage (Blyden xiii). Islam, on the other hand, lacked racial prejudice and espoused universal brotherhood (xiv).

Blyden argued that it was an insult to the black race to suggest that Islam was more appropriate for Africans because it appealed to their physical or sensual nature. Instead, he blamed racism for Christianity’s failure to spread (viii).

“Protestantism has no Negro saints,” he claimed. “In what Protestant university would a Negro professor be tolerated?” If the spirit of racism had not been alive in Christianity, he reasoned, it might have been more successful (39-40, 44).

Blyden and Taylor’s arguments were not mere intellectual debates. The ideas they articulated had far-reaching effects across the continent of Africa.

The strong belief that Christianity, civilization, and commerce were tied together gave the British a mandate to conquer nations around the world. Their fear of Islam — both as a religion and as a competitive trading force — played a part in colonial policy. Commerce took the upper hand far too frequently, and by intertwining it with religion and concepts of “civilized” behavior, the problems multiplied.

The British did have a problem with racism in Africa. Ultimately, conversion to Christianity and a western education were not enough to confer a “civilized status” on Africans. A “civilized Africa” might have meant the British would have had to give up their position of wealth, status, and leisure. Though the missionaries promised equality, their promises rarely materialized under the British Empire.

Islam had and continues to have its own problems in Africa, which I will write about in another article.

The conflict between Islam and Christianity still rages today, but in a violent way, as Christian and Muslim forces fight against each other in such countries as Chad and the Sudan.

Sources:

  1. L.E. Elliott-Binns, Religion in the Victorian Era (London: Lutterworth Press, 1936)
  2. Edward Blyden, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1967[1887])
  3. Times (London), 8 Oct. 1887, p. 7; 31 Oct. 1887, p. 13; 17 Nov. 1887, p. 13; 31 Oct. 1887, pp. 9 & 13.
  4. Thomas Prasch, “Which God for Africa: The Islamic-Christian Missionary Debate in Late-Victorian England,” Victorian Studies 22 (Autumn 1989): 51-73.
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