Posted by: Titus Presler | September 1, 2011

“That is our mission”: A Muslim makes “mission” his own

Yet another instance of Muslim use of the word “mission” came up in Dubai Airport during my recent trip back to Peshawar.

A Pakistani man and I fell into conversation on our way to the security check, and we continued at the gate, for we were both headed to Peshawar.  He was returning from Chicago, where he spends two months each year.  He’s a lawyer, but his chief preoccupation is a personal foundation that he has established.

The man – I’ll leave him nameless, along with the name of the foundation – explained that he works to provide poor women with the handicraft skills to generate textile products and the business skills to generate income from their work.  This is especially important in Pakistan, he said, because the control exercised over women by fathers and husbands severely limits their freedom and opportunity.

“That is our mission,” he declared in English as a summary statement of what he is up to.  Immediately intrigued, I asked him why he chose the word “mission” for that statement.  I’m not sure that the import of my question was understood, but the response was equally interesting: “My mission is helping humanity.”

Two features of this usage stand out, and they echo themes I’ve highlighted in various other uses of the term “mission” across cultures and religions.  One is the emphasis on mission as an activity through which one reaches out to communities not one’s own, that is, crosses boundaries to engage the other who is different.  In this instance, a Pakistani man, with all the privileges of patriarchy in Pakistani society, is reaching out to women.  This is a cross-gender outreach.  Further, as a person of considerable means and cosmopolitan awareness, he is reaching out to the poor of his own society and sharing with them some of the social, educational and financial capital he has accumulated over a successful career.

Another theme is that of “doing good,” that is accomplishing something beneficial for others, or at least something considered beneficial for others (– sometimes there are unintended and regretted consequences, obviously).  “Helping humanity” is an extremely broad and generic aspiration, akin to the cliché of “world peace” as espoused by Sandra Bullock’s character in “Miss Congeniality,” but, as with that slogan, helping humanity is a worthy and, indeed, crucial aspiration.

Underlying both the reaching and the helping is the energy of generosity.  There is no compulsion for this Peshawari to be doing what he is doing for poor women in his country.  Instead, he has felt moved by the need and moved to help as best he can through the schools that his foundation has established.  Our conversation did not proceed to the religious dimension, but my guess is that sooner rather than later God – actually Allah – would have come up in his explanation.

And a sense of call.  And a sense of being sent.  That is, mission.

This encounter  also illustrates how futile, actually wrong-headed, it is for Western Christians to avoid the word “mission” to describe their own generous outreach into the dimension of difference.  The impulse is usually prompted by awareness of past Christian missionary mistakes and an impression that “mission” is some peculiarly Christian fetish that needs to be discarded.  The reality is that the Christian mission enterprise – both from antiquity and in recent centuries – has imprinted on the minds and hearts of untold millions of people – actually billions – a concept that is so durable as to be indelible.  The concept is generous outreach to human need in the dimension of difference, and no word sums it up like the word “mission.”  The concept is portable in that it can be used – and is used – with a common meaning by Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and, indeed, people of virtually all religions.

I am reminded of a sign I saw in the Rajpur area of Uttar Pradesh in north India at the foothills of the Himalayas a number of years ago.  My wife Jane and I were taking an early morning walk near the Christian Retreat and Study Centre and came upon  a compound that had a large semicircular sign over the gate to indicate what was within.  The Hindi sign was in Devanagri script, which I do know, so I began to piece it together.  I can’t remember the swami’s name, so I’ll make that up, but the gist ran something like this: “Swami Govind Das Mission.”  I was startled.  Not “ashram,” for instance, but “mission”!  Here was a Hindu swami calling his establishment a mission.  And not for the sake of an English-speaking audience – no, mission in this rendering had become a Hindi word!

It was early morning, and we had retreatants to get back to, so there was no time to inquire what the swami had in mind in using the word “mission.”  One thing was clear: he had made it his own.  For him, “mission” was not only appropriate in Hindi.  It was central in his Hindu vocation.  He had a mission, and he named it a mission.

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