Norman Anderson and the Christian Mission to Modernise Islam

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Todd Thompson
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Todd M. Thompson’s valuable study, Norman Anderson and the Christian Mission to Modernise Islam, charts the relationship between two strands of the intellectual life and career of the British academic, missionary, and sometime intelligence officer Norman Anderson through the middle decades of the 20th century. A student of law who would go on to produce pioneering scholarship on the impact of the growth of Western-led ‘modernity’ on the Islamic legal tradition in Asia and Africa, Anderson was also a committed evangelical Christian deeply concerned with understanding and confronting the challenges facing the missionary movement across the Islamic world. Thompson attempts, mostly successfully, to show how these two central concerns of Anderson’s public life helped shape each other, to the extent that the products of his intellectual engagement with Islam in the modern world should be considered in terms of a “Christian mission” against the implicit backdrop of Britain’s imperial legacy.

Thompson’s work is perhaps best understood alongside a growing body of historical scholarship on Western engagement with Islam in the context of European military, legal, and cultural domination which seeks to understand the nuances and particularities which characterized various approaches to the question of the fate of Muslims and Islam in the modern world. Some such works, such as those by Niall Green on Islam and the army in colonial India and John Slight on the Hajj under the British Empire, have taken an institutional approach.  Others, such as Roger Owen’s biography of Lord Cromer or Warren Dockter’s study of Winston Churchill’s lifetime of engagement with the Islamic world, have done so through a focus on the individual imperial actor. While Thompson’s work clearly falls into this latter category, it differs in two significant ways.

Firstly, while those aforementioned studies have been mostly concerned with the high age of British imperialism, when British officials and scholars had the very real sense that the destiny of Islam was in their hands, Anderson’s career largely overlapped with the period of imperial decline and decolonization, an era in which issues such as the threat of pan-Islam gave way to more pragmatic concerns relating to the fate of the colonies which Britain was, in theory, preparing for independence. Secondly, while those studies conceive of their subject matter as a “British” engagement with Islam, Thompson instead emphasizes Anderson’s evangelical background and basically Christian impulse.

Leaving Cambridge as a high achiever with an interest in the post-Ottoman lands of the Middle East, a background in law, a “passion for evangelism”, and a “serious interest in missionary work among Muslims” (36), Anderson’s career took him across the Islamic world from northern Nigeria to India, bringing him into contact with some of the most influential of those 20th century figures concerned with the place of Islam and Muslims in the modern world, including the future King Idris I of Libya, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, and the Islamist ideologue Abul A’la Maududi of Pakistan.

Throughout, Anderson’s concern was to encourage an accommodation of the Islamic legal tradition with the modern nation-state through a conservative reforming process, with the broader aim of welcoming the newly independent Muslim states into the “Family of Nations” through a civilizing process defined by the rule of law. Thompson charts in detail Anderson’s participation in numerous international academic and political conferences and debates while a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Here, he attempted to chart a middle ground between what he discerned as two opposing trends - the self-defeating radical approach of those modernists determined to shake off the vestiges of the entire Islamic legal tradition in favor of a haphazard engagement with the sources of Islamic law on the one hand, and the basically backwards, reactionary instincts of those determined to reject the onslaught of Western-led modernity on the other. For Anderson, the appearance of fidelity to the tradition and deference to its guardians, the ‘ulama, within the basic framework of institutional progress, was the key to winning the Muslim minds required to further the cause of legal reform. This would in turn help to advance the status of non-Muslim minorities and women across the Islamic world, and thus bring the new states into line with the highest ideals of civilization as he conceived it.

Thompson rarely attempts to explicitly evaluate the successes or failures of Anderson’s efforts. Yet there is an inescapable feeling that the broader picture is one in which the limitations of Anderson’s approach are exposed. An interesting section devoted to Anderson’s role in the reform of the penal code in northern Nigeria closes with the acknowledgement that the reform was rolled back just a few years after Anderson’s death. Meanwhile, the final chapter argues that Anderson’s basic commitment to the vision of a Western-led modernity as the only feasible framework for the development of Islam made him ill-prepared for any understanding of the growth of so-called “fundamentalism” among Muslims from the 1980s onwards which went beyond a polemical dismissal.

What of Anderson’s missionary efforts? Chastened, though apparently not quite disillusioned, by a disquieting experience as a youthful missionary in interwar Egypt, his expectations and assumptions regarding the prospect for missionary success amongst Muslims appear to have adapted to the realities of the world he operated in. Though the connection between Anderson’s missionary concerns and his academic and political endeavors become lost somewhat in the sections concerning his continued evangelical activism in the post-war decades, Thompson paints a convincing broader picture, suggesting that Anderson came to conceive of his devotion to the cause of reform of the Islamic legal tradition as an expression of his missionary impulse.

The extent to which this represents the Christian mission to modernize Islam is unclear, though the nature of Anderson’s particularist Christian background and the often substantial disagreements which sometimes characterized his engagement with his fellow Christian colleagues render the premise doubtful. Rather, they demonstrate the fragmented nature and often fragile influence of the 20th century Christian, and indeed Western, engagement with Islam, wherein lies the value of this work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Conor Meleady is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Todd Thompson is Assistant Professor of History in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. His research focuses on the intersections of British and Middle Eastern history in the twentieth century as well as the comparative histories of Western and Middle-Eastern Christian engagement with Islam.


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