In considering Islam, we are engaging not just a religion but one of the greatest civilizations in human history – one that has profoundly developed systems of thought and a rich intellectual, theological and ethical history which, from a human and academic standpoint, is fully the equal of our own intellectual traditions.

Excerpts from Joseph Cumming in Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims, 2012.

10 January 2023

Christian Scholarship and Islam, and the Legacy of Dudley Woodberry

While it is true that basic to our Christian presence among Muslims is simple witness to the Good News with reliance on the Holy Spirit and humble, godly character, and while we would be remiss to forget that the Lord Jesus was born in simplicity as a carpenter’s son, one cannot read the Bible without also noting that God has called certain people throughout history to dedicate themselves to excellence in scholarship, particularly scholarship on the thought-systems of great world civilizations.


In considering Islam, we are engaging not just a religion but one of the greatest civilizations in human history – one that has profoundly developed systems of thought and a rich intellectual, theological and ethical history which, from a human and academic standpoint, is fully the equal of our own intellectual traditions. In such a context we do well to consider how the Lord’s servants in the Bible dealt with the major world civilizations and empires of their times. The examples of Moses (with ancient Egyptian civilization), of Daniel (with Babylonian/Persian civilization), and of Paul (with Greco-Roman civilization) illustrate God’s intentional appointment of educated intellectuals during critical points of history.


We read the following in Acts 7:20-22 regarding God’s servant Moses:


At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for in his father’s house. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.


During that generation, Egypt was the most powerful and sophisticated civilization in the greater region. God providentially positioned a certain man so that he would become well trained in the educational, philosophical, literary, and cultural heritage of that civilization. God arranged for Moses to be “educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” Similarly, in our generation Providence raises up men and women of God like Dudley Woodberry who dedicate themselves to serious scholarship and learning about Islamic civilization – a civilization which has had a profound influence on world history and intellectual development during the past fourteen centuries and continuing today.


During the time of the prophet Daniel, the most powerful and influential civilization was that of the Babylonians. And similarly, God providentially positioned Daniel to master the scholarship of Babylonian civilization. In Daniel 1:3-20 we read:


Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility – young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians… To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning… At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.


Thus, in the case of Daniel and his three companions, Scripture attests not only that they became learned in Babylonian literature and thought, but that their scholarship on Babylonian civilization was “ten times better” than that of the elite scholars of that kingdom. Similarly, in our generation, God seeks godly followers of Christ like Dudley Woodberry who dedicate themselves to becoming not merely “good” scholars of Islamic thought and civilization, but “ten times” better-informed scholars than even their Muslim colleagues in areas of Islamic philosophy, literature, theology, law, and practice.


In the time following the Lord Jesus’ ministry on this earth, the Apostle Paul provides an example of a follower of Jesus who was also well educated in the religion, philosophy and literature of the great thought-system of his world – that of Greco-Roman civilization. Athens was the place of higher education in that society, much as we might think of the Ivy League or Oxford and Cambridge today. In Acts 17:27-28 we read the following in Paul’s words to the scholars at the Areopagus in Athens :


…God did this so that people would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”


In this passage Paul quotes two different writers known to Athenian scholars, probably the philosopher Epimenides of Crete (or words attributed to him) and the poet Aratus in his hexameter work “Phainomena.” What is particularly striking is that Paul was apparently prepared to cite such quotations impromptu in an interactive situation. In order to do so, he would have to have spent substantial time on earlier occasions poring over Greek philosophical and poetic texts, taking careful note of points of common ground that might constitute a basis for dialogue and a starting point for making the Good News intelligible to the Athenians. Similarly, in our generation, God raises up men and women who make the effort to become familiar with the writers and poets and philosophers commonly known to Muslims around the world. Sometimes Christians look for “magic keys” to communicate with Muslims. But God is looking for people who will do their homework, who love Muslims enough to devote long hours to learning and understanding what Muslims believe and how Muslims think and feel, in order to speak with them in a way that will be meaningful.


Dudley Woodberry embodies the intellectual commitment we see in the prophets Moses and Daniel and the Apostle Paul. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard under Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb, who was perhaps the greatest western scholar of Islam of his time. In that context Dudley studied the same Arabic texts that Muslim scholars study when they train at the elite Al-Azhar University in Cairo , and thus Dudley became “learned in the wisdom of the Egyptians.” Then, in addition to keeping up his textual scholarship, Dr. Woodberry took up an additional scholarly interest in the popular piety found in the contemporary “lived Islam” of Muslim-majority cultures around the world. Dudley blended the best of text-based scholarship with the anthropological and sociological study of Islam as it is lived by ordinary Muslims day to day. And he did this at a time when very few evangelicals engaged in either kind of scholarship. Then, through his leadership, those who studied directly under him or who were influenced by his writings and public speaking produced a generation of excellent Christian scholars in both areas.


One of the central principles of interfaith relations is that when we talk about the beliefs of another person or group, we must strive to represent them so accurately that those who hold those beliefs would agree, “Yes, you have accurately described what I believe.” Otherwise, the other person or group feels misrepresented or tendentiously distorted, and the opportunity for mutual understanding is lost. Unfortunately, a significant amount of Christian scholarship on Islam has not followed this principle, and has presented Islam and Muslim beliefs in a way that Muslims themselves feel misrepresented and misunderstood.


By contrast, Dudley Woodberry has embodied this principle of accurately representing the beliefs of Muslims and the tenets of Islam in his own scholarship, while also faithfully bearing witness to his own Christian faith in a manner that is winsome and truthful. In this way, he has provided us with an active and excellent example of scholarship that does not bear false witness, but presents truth with respect and love. And through his influence he has left a legacy of Christian scholars of Islam who are committed both to excellent scholarship on Islam and Christianity and to respectful witness of their faith in Christ.


Twenty-five years ago, when I began as a young man living and working in a Muslim country in North Africa, I looked around for role models of godly Christians who had lived long-term among Muslims and consistently conducted themselves in a Christ-like manner toward their Muslim neighbors. At that time, I noticed something about the people who stood out for me as outstanding role models, of whom Dudley Woodberry was one. They all seemed to combine a certain loving and gentle quality with a deep trust in divine sovereignty. I concluded that either people like me who did not possess that kind of character and faith were not going to be effective in authentically following Jesus among Muslims, or else the experience of living and working daily with Muslim friends and neighbors would change us and sanctify us over time, so that eventually we would take on the loving, gentle character and trust in God’s sovereignty that I saw in Dudley and other role models. Of course, I’m still working on sorting out whether I will have those beautiful qualities by the time I go to be with the Lord! But I feel Dudley embodies in his person his own philosophy of ministry. This is a man whom it is impossible not to like. He is such a lovable human being, and so humble for such an accomplished man. This is evident in his hilarious self-deprecating humor and the uproarious stories he frequently tells at his own expense. But beyond his humor, anyone who spends time with Dudley will note that his whole demeanor is humble and gracious, and he is always seeking others’ well-being. After rubbing shoulders with Dudley , you quickly notice these characteristics, and you know that Muslims who interact with him swiftly perceive these same qualities.


What is the legacy of Dudley Woodberry? Dudley has both modeled and inspired others to emulate the kind of genuine hospitality toward both Muslims and Christians that encourages friendly conversations, and the kind of rigorous, excellent scholarship on Islam that illuminates and instructs us toward truth, and the kind of respect and love and humility that should be the hallmarks of Christian witness.


First, he has modeled and inspired others to emulate a lifestyle and attitude that encourages friendly conversations between Muslims and Christians. Quite simply, Dudley Woodberry helps Christians and Muslims love each other in ways that honor Jesus. Dudley has had cordial conversations with Muslims of all kinds of backgrounds, from princes in the Saudi royal family, to poor Afghan villagers, to cosmopolitan Muslim American businessmen. In these conversations, Dudley has been consistently respectful of his Muslim friends and their convictions while faithfully expressing his own Christian convictions. You can see the cordiality and respect in the way he conducts himself in every relationship, regardless of the faith background of the other person.


The beautiful hospitality shown by him and his wife, Roberta, and their three sons toward both Muslims and Christians in their various homes in Pakistan , Afghanistan , Lebanon , Saudi Arabia , and America is well-known by many. How many Muslims, Christians, and those of other faith backgrounds have experienced the Woodberry family’s warm and caring hospitality and have been touched by this expression of love? The biblical virtue of hospitality, which is often forgotten in the West and about which I have learned so much from my Muslim neighbors and friends, is a virtue that I have also learned from observing and receiving the Woodberrys’ exceptional hospitality.


Dudley Woodberry has also modeled and inspired others to emulate excellent Christian scholarship on Islam. Throughout the years, too many Christian writers on Islam have been sloppy in their research, jumping quickly to spurious conclusions, and painting a picture of Islam that Muslims feel is an inaccurate and distorted caricature of what they actually believe and live. In contrast, Dudley has modeled what a faithful Christian can do in undertaking serious scholarship on Islam with integrity – beginning with his doctoral research on medieval Islamic law and on the twentieth-century theology of Ḥasan al-Bannā, and continuing with his analysis of contemporary South- and Central-Asian Ṣūfī piety. Dudley ’s example inspires us to avoid jumping to oversimplified conclusions, but instead challenges us to engage in rigorous study of relevant primary sources in order to understand in a nuanced way Muslim beliefs and practices and Islamic theology, Islamic philosophy, and Islamic law. Not only does Dudley provide an excellent model for credible research on Islamic primary texts that shed light on important beliefs and practices, but he has promoted the application of social sciences like cultural anthropology and sociology to understanding with greater integrity the dynamics of Muslim-Christian relations, helping us communicate more effectively on matters of faith. Dudley Woodberry’s academic legacy is evident through his own writings, through his deanship at the Fuller School of Intercultural Studies, and through his influence on countless other Christian scholars of Islam.


Finally, Dudley Woodberry has modeled and inspired others to emulate the kind of Christian witness that is irenic, respectful, humble and loving while at the same time deeply faithful to the historic Christian faith. Dudley ’s convictions as an evangelical believer in Jesus Christ are evident to all who meet him, not just by the fact that he talks about Jesus, but by the manner in which he goes about talking about Jesus. Every Muslim who has known Dudley would say that Dudley Woodberry is a gracious, loving, and respectful person, and that Dudley Woodberry is a man of deep faith in Jesus Christ. And every Christian who has known Dudley would say that Dudley influenced us in that direction.


Muslims frequently try to “evangelize” Christians. I have been the “evangelized” as often as the “evangelist.” And I have rarely felt violated by Muslim friends’ efforts to evangelize me; in fact, I have understood that often they were honoring me as a person, because they cared enough about me to be concerned that I understand something they consider to have eternal consequence. Dudley likewise taught me about honoring people as we demonstrate and bear witness to our faith in the Lord Jesus. Dudley has always stood unambiguously for faithful witness that does not engage in coercion, inducement, exploitation, disrespect or demeaning of the other. Every Muslim who meets Dudley – indeed every human being who meets Dudley – quickly knows what he believes and that he stands firmly in the mainstream of the historic Christian faith, but finds this to be refreshing and winsome even if they disagree with those convictions, because of the demonstrable respect shown in the manner in which Dudley interacts with others and expresses his own convictions.


Respectful understanding, love for Muslims, excellent scholarship, warm hospitality, and humble, cordial witness: Dudley has modeled these qualities and has inspired many others to emulate him. This is the legacy of Dudley Woodberry.