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William Carey's Muslim encounters in India: the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society of England in 1792 and its sending of William Carey to India the following year resulted from Carey's sermonic pamphlet, An Enquiry into the Obligation of the Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen.

Carey's missionary activity among Hindus in the Bengal province of India is widely known, particularly among Baptists in England and America. Indians, too, readily acknowledge Carey's important place in the modernization of their country, its languages, and educational standards.

In his Enquiry, Carey estimated that the population of India was 50 million "Mahometans and pagans," that is, Muslims and Hindus. (1) The suggestion that India had a roughly equal number of Muslims and Hindus was born out by Carey's actual experience in India. The population of the villages he visited was often evenly divided between those two groups. (2) Why, then, did Carey target only half of India's non-Christian population, the "pagan" or "heathen" Hindus, for conversion? The reasons are several; not only do they indicate how little had changed in Christian-Muslim interaction since the Middle Ages, they also help us to understand the current attitudes of Christian missionaries toward Muslims.

Muslim Hostility Toward Christianity

Carey wrote in the Enquiry that most of Africa and a sizeable proportion of Asia and Europe were under Muslim control. That was also largely true of northern India at the turn of the nineteenth century. Although Britain's commercial presence in India was steadily increasing, governmental control of India did not pass into British hands until 1857-1859. Previous Christian attempts to evangelize Muslims in India had met with disappointment. In 1319, four traveling companions of Jordanus, a Dominican friar, were killed by Muslims while on their journey to the East. (3) After the Muslims established the Mogul Empire in India, Emperor Sahjahan took captive 4,400 Christians, some of whom recanted their faith in order to survive. A century before Carey arrived, Catholics, Anglicans, and Moravians attempted missions in Bengal but with practically no success among Muslims. (4) Those like Carey who knew this history must surely have been wary of encountering Muslims and even somewhat fearful for their lives.

While the hostility of Muslims toward Christians might begin to explain Carey's targeting of Hindus instead of Muslims, it is not a sufficient explanation. For, in the Enquiry, Carey wrote, "The impediments in the way of carrying the gospel among the heathen must arise, I think, from one or other of the following things;--either their distance from us, their barbarous and savage manner of living, the danger of being killed by them, the difficulty of procuring the necessaries of life, or the unintelligibleness of their languages." (5) Carey obviously let none of these obstacles prevent him from carrying out his missionary vision among the "heathen" Hindus, not even his perception that he could be putting his life at risk in the process. How much greater a threat could Muslims have posed than what Carey already expected from Hindus? Yet, he did not consider work among Muslims to be the reason for his going to India. On January 17, 1793, he wrote to his father: "I am appointed to go to Bengal, in the East Indies, a missionary to the Hindoos." (6) Carey's sincerity in accepting this commission is beyond question, but his commission was to minister to Hindus, not their Muslim neighbors and governors. If his convictions existed not because the potential danger posed by Muslims was any greater than what Carey anticipated from Hindus, then what accounted for his exclusive focus on the latter?

Carey's Debates With Muslims

Carey felt a particular "calling" to work among the "heathen," a term which to him excluded Muslims. He divided the world's population into Christians (sub-categorized by Catholics, Protestants, and Greeks), Jews, "Mahometans," and "Pagans." The Muslims were not considered to be pagans from a Christian perspective because they claimed, as did Christians and Jews, to serve the one true God. Making population estimates based upon an average number of people per square mile, Carey calculated that 420 million people, or 57.7 percent of the world's inhabitants, were pagans. (7) Relying on impressions from travel books, Carey concluded that over half "of the sons of Adam ... are in general poor, barbarous, naked pagans as destitute of civilisation, as they are of true religion." (8) Carey, therefore, saw a greater need for missionary work to commence among the 57.7 percent of the world that was pagan rather than the 17.9 percent that he believed to be Muslim, despite an equal distribution between those two particular groups in his targeted area of northern India. Besides, over three hundred years of suspicion and mistrust since the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 had done little to change the western image of Muslims as brutal, superstitious, and intolerant.

In truth, Carey at first found little evidence from his encounters with Muslims in Bengal that would contradict this perception, that is, when be finally met with them. Carey arrived in India late in 1793 at Bandel, a Portuguese settlement thirty miles from Calcutta. (9) According to his letters, this village was comprised of Catholics and Muslims, although Hindus lived within a two-mile walk. (10) Carey recorded his first meeting with Hindus on November 7, 1793, but his first meeting with Muslims did not take place until January 19, 1794, and the meeting was in Manicktulla, despite the fact that he lived among Muslims at Bandel.(11) Carey seemingly could not avoid the Muslims despite his concentration on Hindus.

The January 1794 encounter at Manicktulla turned into a disputation on the relative merits of the Bible and the Koran. According to Carey's report, Muslims argued for the "divine original" of the Koran. They contended that it was sent to "confirm" the Bible. Carey thought it to their disfavor that none could understand the Koran in its original Arabic (for they spoke Persian), and he invoked Revelation 22:18-19 that no one was to add or take away from scripture. The Muslims responded that Jews and Christians had corrupted the Bible, which was why God revealed the Koran to Muhammad. From Carey's perspective, if the Bible was true, it needed no confirmation from the Koran, but if the Muslim contention that the Bible had been corrupted was true, the Koran only "confirmed" corruption and was therefore also corrupt. (12) In either case, the superiority of the Koran would be refuted. On another occasion, Carey told a congregation of Muslims and Hindus at Mudnabatty "that their books were like a loaf of bread, in which was a considerable quantity of good flour, but also a little very malignant poison, which made the whole so poisonous that whoever should eat of it would die." (13)

The theological impasse of the first Carey-Muslim debate was typical of most of the subsequent encounters between them. The Muslims would have been particularly difficult to convert in any event since they believed that their religion and holy book were six centuries later and thus a more complete divine revelation than Christianity. But as Sunil Kumar Chatterjee noted, political circumstances were also of consequence. Muslim rule over India during Carey's time was in a degenerative condition. The Mogul rulers had become weak; no strong spiritual leadership for Muslims in India existed. The economic and educational achievements in the country were declining, and as a consequence, there was already apprehension that if the British Christians wrested control of India from the Moguls, the Christians might try to convert Muslims by force, as the Muslims had done to some Hindus. (14)

For Carey's part, he found little evidence to overturn the preconception of Muslims as argumentative to the point of narrow-mindedness. Though he recognized their zeal as "very great," (15) he still referred to them in his letters as superstitious, "foolish," "bad," and disappointing. (16) This last description came out of his witness to a Muslim named Sookman, who first appeared interested in the Christian answer to what he must do to be saved, but waned in responsiveness so that Carey "almost fear[ed] to hope" for his conversion. (17)

Despite the lack of response from Muslims, Carey did not avoid preaching to them. Instead his efforts toward reaching Muslims with the gospel increased. He told an amusing story of some Muslims who had never seen white people and thought that perhaps Carey's wife Dorothy was the missionary and that the term "wife" applied to himself! (18) He recalled discussing with most of the inhabitants of a Muslim village the universality of sin and holiness of God, questioning a fakir whom some of that village thought had turned a pot of water into milk, and preaching to Hindus and Muslims in his house.

After moving to Serampore in 1800, Carey made weekly visits to surrounding villages to preach to Hindus and Muslims. (19) Yet, not until 1802 in Serampore, two years after he baptized his first Hindu and nine years after arriving in India, did Carey baptize his first Muslim, a man named Peroo. (20) When Carey and other missionaries founded the Serampore Native School and Serampore College, in 1800 and 1818 respectively, the curriculum offered Persian and Arabic to attract Muslim students. Yet, Chatterjee commented that Carey's outreach yielded little evangelistic success, (21) and F. Deaville Walker opined that of the one hundred or so Indians Carey baptized, only five were Muslims. (22)

Reasons for Carey's Lack of Success

Two significant events help to complete our understanding of why Carey himself found Muslims so difficult to reach. The first occasion came out of the tragic death of Carey's five-year-old son Peter in 1794. The Carey family moved six times within their first year in India, and during those travels, family members contracted but survived malaria and dysentery. When young Peter developed dysentery, however, he was unable to withstand it and died within a few days. (23) Peter's death sent Dorothy Carey into an irreversibly deep depression. In order to bury Peter, the Careys needed assistance, but Hindus practiced cremation and had strict regulations against contact with the dead. The Muslims buried their dead but had taboos against handling the bodies of non-Muslims--one of the stipulations offered by Shaikh Hamadani for protection to non-Muslims (zimmis) in India was that "they are not to bring their dead near the graveyards of Muslims." (24) These conditions prompted Carey's words in October 1794:
 I could induce no person to make a coffin, though two carpenters are
 constantly employed by us at the works. Four Musselmans, to keep each
 other in countenance, dug a grave; but, though we had between two and
 three hundred laborers employed, no man would carry him to the grave.
 We sent seven or eight miles to get a person to do that office; and I
 concluded that I and my wife would do it ourselves, when at last a
 servant, kept for the purpose of cleaning, and a boy who had lost
 caste, were prevailed upon to carry the corpse, and secure the grave
 from the jackals.... On account of the four men above mentioned
 digging a grave for my poor child, the Mundal, that is, the
 principal person in the village, who rents immediately under the
 Rajah, and lets lands and houses to the other people in the place,
 forbad every person in the village to eat, drink, or smoke tobacco
 with them and their families, so that they were supposed to have
 lost caste. The poor men came to me full of distress, and told
 their story. (25)

In essence, the Muslims of Bengal considered themselves a separate caste, and so it was particularly grievous for the four Muslims who agreed to help Carey when they were disowned by their village for assisting in Peter's burial. Carey, in his anguished state, sent for the Mundal and threatened to report his contempt to an English judge in Dinadjpur if they would not eat and drink with the four men. The Mundal eventually declared the four to be innocent of offense and then dined with them. This episode, despite showing that four Muslims and Carey aided each other at critical times, demonstrated to Carey that Bengali Muslims thought of participation in Christian rituals virtually as a violation of caste. As Carey described it, "This was not owing to any disrespect in the natives towards us, but only to the cursed caste." (26)

The second episode which strengthened the invisible barrier limiting missionary-Muslim interaction took place in Serampore in 1807. In July of that year, Britain sent Lord Minto to Calcutta to be the new governor over its interests in India. On September 2, Carey was called before Minto's staff to answer for a Persian tract, published by his press, which questioned the wisdom of anyone who followed the "tyrant" Muhammad or subscribed to his religion. (27) The British policy toward Hindus and Muslims was that regardless of how proper it might be to point out the errors of their religion, printed works which called for them to leave their traditions behind could only breed public strife. (28) Carey eventually discovered that the tract about Muhammad was altered by a rare Muslim convert (two were employed at the press) before its publication, and that the comments which offended many Muslim readers were not the words of the Christian missionaries. How ironic it was that a former Muslim injured what little chance had existed for the missionaries to reach more Muslims. Carey, in expressing his regrets to Minto's men, said that the tract on Muhammad was the only one of eleven published by Serampore Press directed toward Muslims anyway, since they were less amenable to dialogue than Hindus.


In a December 2, 1802, letter, Carey referred to a murdered Hindu as a friend. Would he also have considered any Muslims his friends? One can only conclude that he became agreeable to the idea and in fact tried to make it a reality. But did the few Muslims whom Carey might potentially have considered his friends--such as the four who dug his son's grave--change Carey's opinion that Muslims in general were intractable? Two pieces of biographical evidence suggest not. First, when Carey proposed a world missions conference in 1806, he invited no one from the Muslim world except emissaries from the ancient Eastern Churches. (29) Although no Christian missionaries were known to be serving in Muslim lands, Carey still did not indicate that, if such missionaries were discovered, they should be invited. Also, two and a half years before his death, in December 1831, Carey continued to believe that Islam would be one of the world's evils to be removed at the eschaton: "I expect the fulfillment of all the prophecies and promises respecting the universal establishment of the Redeemer's kingdom in the world, including the total abolition of idolatry, Mahomedanism, infidelity, Socinianism, and all the political establishments in the world; the abolition also of war, slavery, and oppression, in all their ramifications." (30)

Some of Carey's perceptions about Islam persist today. For instance, an Internet site, "Answering Islam," argues as Carey did that the Muslim claim that the Koran "confirms" the Bible is self-defeating. (31) While this conclusion may be a legitimate attempt at Christian apologetics, the same can hardly be said of a British site which produces texts from the book of Jeremiah to show why the fall of Muslim Saudi Arabia must take place before the millennial reign of Christ. (32) Both viewpoints have antecedents in the letter of Carey's writings, but any modern evaluation of his Muslim program must also consider those writings' spirit. Despite his initial reservations about ministering to Muslims and despite the small success he had in working with them, Carey's approach nonetheless was a personal one, in which he allowed his preconceptions of Muslims to be tested through actual encounter. If the Muslims he met confirmed certain stereotypes, at least he was willing to find that out through experience.

Today, while the chances of Christian missionary success among Muslims may appear minute, Christians must be willing to meet Muslims on a personal level. Such relational evangelism involves seeing the difference between Islam as a religion and Islam as a political ideology in certain countries, as well as recognizing, in Malise Ruthven's words, that preconceived "notions of each as the hostile 'other'... can all too easily become self-fulfilling." (33) Carey's approach, in the end, proved successful in that Muslims joined Hindus and Europeans along his funeral route on June 9, 1834, demonstrating that gentility can win admirers in any culture.

(1.) William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligation of the Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (London: The Carey Kingsgate Press Limited, 1961), 47.

(2.) S. Pearce Carey, William Carey (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923), 165.

(3.) A. H. Oussoren, William Carey, Especially His Missionary Principles (Leiden: A. W. Sijthoffs Uitgeversmaatschappij N. V., 1945), 45.

(4.) Sunil Kumar Chatterjee, "Serampore Missionaries and Christian Muslim Interaction in Bengal," The Bulletin o[ Christian Institutes of Islamic Studies 3 (Jan.-Dec. 1980): 115-16.

(5.) Carey, An Enquiry, 67.

(6.) Eustace Carey, Memoir of William Carey (Hartford: Robins and Smith, 1844), 69.

(7.) Carey, An Enquiry, 62. For an evaluation of Carey's population estimates, see Roger E. Hedlund, "Carey, A Missiologist Before [His] Time," Indian Church History Review 27 (June 1993): 34.

(8.) Chatterjee, "Serampore Missionaries," 116.

(9.) F. Deaville Walker, William Cagey: Missionary Pioneer and Statesman (Chicago: Moody Press, 1925), 123.

(10.) Ibid., 124.

(11.) Carey, Memoir of William Carey, 118, 124-25.

(12.) Ibid., 124-25.

(13.) Timothy George, Faithful Witness: The Life and Mission of William Carey (Birmingham, AL: New Hope, 1991), 109.

(14.) Chatterjee, "Serampore Missionaries," 117-18. See also Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi, The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999), 28, and Walker, William Carey, 112.

(15.) Carey, Memoir of William Carey, 158. These entries were made on July 5-7, 1794.

(16.) Ibid., 173, 176, 267. These entries were made on January 1-15, 25, 1795 and September 28, 1799. See also Oussoren, William Carey, 70, n. 14.

(17.) Carey, Memoir of William Carey, 267.

(18.) Mary Drewery, William Carey: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 79.

(19.) Carey, Memoir of William Carey, 255, 321. These entries were made on January 6, 1795; January 16, 1798; November 2, 1800. See also Chatterjee, "Serampore Missionaries," 120, 122;

(20.) Aileen Sutherland Collins, "William Carey: The 'Consecrated Cobbler' Who Founded Modern Missions," American Baptist Quarterly 11 (September 1992): 273; Chatterjee, "Serampore Missionaries," 123.

(21.) Chatterjee, "Serampore Missionaries," 129-30. See also Brynmor F. Price, "Carey and Serampore--Then and Now," The Baptist Quarterly 19 (July 1961): 110.

(22.) Walker, William Carey, 215.

(23.) William J. Petersen, 25 Surprising Marriages: Faith Building Stories from the Lives of Famous Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997), 318.

(24.) Zakhirat al-Muluk, in Ainslee T. Embree, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition, Volume One: From the Beginning to 1800 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 442.

(25.) Carey, Memoir of William Carey, 165, 167.

(26.) Ibid., 165.

(27.) Walker, William Carey, 213-14; Chatterjee, "Serampore Missionaries," 124-25.

(28.) Oussoren, William Carey, 99. See also Lyle L. Vander Werff, Christian Mission to Muslims: The Record: Anglican and Reformed Approaches in India and the Near East, 1800-1938 (South Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1977), 28.

(29.) P. G. J. Meiring, "William Carey's Pleasing Dream," Missionalia 21 (November 1993): 222.

(30.) Carey, William Carey, 424.

(31.) "The Claim that the Qur'an Came to Replace the Bible," (accessed 22 April 2000).

(32.) "What will happen to Saudi Arabia according to Yahweh (God) in the Bible?" uk/topics/coolcalm/muslim_claims.html, (accessed 22 April 2000).

(33.) Malise Ruthven, Islam: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 2.

Galen K. Johnson is assistant professor of" theology at John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
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Author:Johnson, Galen K.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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