In the nineteenth century meeting with the Islamic world, Europe, while sometimes changing its mind, believed it already knew all that was necessary. Thus Western thought frequently engaged, not in a debate with Islam, but in internal debates about Islam.
On the topic of nineteenth-century Africa, these debates focused less on comparative religion that on colonial policy. One of the initiators was Reginald Bosworth Smith, a Harrow schoolmaster who knew no Arabic, had no cross-cultural experience, and was no great theologian.
Nearly all of Smith's writing has a single theme: the responsibilities attached to British imperial power. Patriotism allied to moral earnestness sounds through his work—including his strangely influential Mohammed and Mohammedanism (1874).
His desire is that British power, beneficent in intent, shall be beneficent in reality. To act in the right way is to act in the Christian way, and Britain is a Christian country. Indeed, he declares that Christianity is the birthright of the English.
To this Smith adds a cheerful evolutionism. He arrives at a formulation whereby all religions are moral, rather than theological, in origin. They have come into existence to meet social and national moral needs. They raise humanity gradually toward God.
Following Smith's theory of the origins of religions, one can readily acknowledge that Islam established righteousness at the time of its birth. For instance, while Christians commonly complain of the depressive effect of Islam on women, it can be shown that Muhammad significantly raised the status of women in early Arabia.
But the theory can go further. Islam can still establish righteousness today, whenever it encounters a people at a lower stage of development than itself. ...