One of nine children, the son of a village baker was born on 3 November 1803 at Württemberg, Germany—Württemberg, his birthplace was one of the few places notorious for Pietistic form of Evangelism, influenced by Pietists like J.A. Bengel and F.C. Oetinger. Pfander attended a local Latin school, and then grammar school in Stuttgart. At the age of sixteen, he had already decided to become a Protestant Christian missionary; accordingly, he got his missionary training in Germany between 1819 and 1821. In due course, he was accepted for training at the newly established Evangelical Institute at Basel in Switzerland between 1821 and 1825, and became fluent in Persian, Turkish, and Arabic languages. During his first appointment with the Basel Mission(BM)[German: Evangelische Missions Gasellschaft] at Shusha in Karabakh Khanate, Azerbaijan, he quickly learned Armenian and Azerbaijani languages, and fine-tuned his Persian language skills; he served for twelve years at BM society between 1825 and 1837, studying the Arabic language and Quran. He married Sophia Reuss, first wife; a German, in Moscow on 11 July 1834; however, she died in childbed in Shusha on 12 May 12, 1835. In 1837, he joined the Church Missionary Society(CMS) when BM was closed by Russia in Central Asia; consequently, he was sent to India for sixteen years between 1837 and 1857. He married Emily Swinburne, second wife; an English woman, in Calcutta on 19 January 1841, who bore him three boys and three girls. In 1858, he was sent to Constantinople by CMS following an uprising against the British rule in India. Pfander returned to Britain when CMS activity in the city was suspended as Ottomon opposed his controversialist approach. He died on 1 December 1865 at Richmond, London.
He is buried in the cemetery of St Andrew's Church, Ham.
In 1825, after Pfander was Ordained, he was stationed at Shusha, provincial-capital of Karabakh, Transcaucasus—also called South Caucasus - north of Russia, west of Turkey, and south of Iran - All of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Pfander did missionary work in Karabakh and neighbouring lands. Out of several Basel Mission missionaries, some missionaries concentrated on reforming Armenian Orthodox Church, which they believed to be corrupt and bankrupt—one-third of the local population were Armenian Christians—This newly established province had migration of Armenian people before and after 1828 from Persia (present Iran).
Pfander, on behalf of Basel Mission concentrated in evangelizing and communicating Gospel to local Moslems—about two-third of local population were Muslims. Pfander believed that if Muslims read New Testament translated into Persian language, their preferred language, they would automatically abandon Islam and acknowledge it's superiority and truth. For this, Pfander made several excursions to Iran and also spent a year at Baghdad, Iraq, to master Persian language. From 1825 to 1829, he worked in Shusha and neighbouring lands.
In 1835, Russia forbade all missionary operations in Shusha except those of the Greek church; consequently, he was forced to leave Shusha. He returned to Shusha in 1836 after he went to Constantinople in 1835, but left to Calcutta, India, in 1837.
Between 1829 and 1831, he worked with Anthony Norris Groves, Baghdad, and for a year assisted Groves' efforts to establish a mission base and school there. From March 1831, he worked in Persia, and returned to Shusha. While working in Trans-Caucasus, he made several visits to Central Asia -- Iran—to master Persian language.
With British parliament opening up for Protestant missionary activities in 1813 in India, several missionaries started operating in India that were under control of the East India Company. In 1814, the first Anglican Bishop was secretly consecrated in Calcutta. From 1832, non-British missionaries were also allowed to operate in the Indian subcontinent. Agra, famous for Islamic learning and culture, had been transformed into an administrative centre for India's North-West province by the British government. Both Agra and Lucknow became home to missionaries who engaged in interfaith dialogue with the local Muslim ulema and published polemical books against the Islamic creed. Stationed here at the time included former Muslim convert to Christianity Abdul Masih and Joseph Wolff.
After a disastrous famine in 1837, a large orphanage was opened by the authorities in Agra and several orphaned children were taken in and subsequently baptized as Christians. With the financial success of the orphanage, the East India Company launched Orphan Press, employing the orphans at Agra. The success of Serampore Baptist Press for the East India Company in lower Bengal by Serampore Trio was soon replicated at Sikandra in the 1840s for printing Urdu and Persian tracts in criticism of Islam. This further escalated with the transfer of "Sadr courts" from Allahabad to Agra.
At the heart of this new publishing activity, CMS recruited Pfander, a German pietist missionary with Swiss missionary training and considerable linguistic skills combined with experience in preaching on the Persian frontier (Central Asia). Pfander had been posted to Agra to evangelize Muslims and also to assist the already working German missionary colleagues, who like Pfander had been exiled from Central Asia by the Tsar's prohibition on any further Pietist missionary activity.
Pfander started to India in 1837 and arrived at Calcutta (present Kolkata) on 1 October 1838, due to closure of his previous mission station in the Russian Caucasus—South Caucasus. On his arrival, he had an impression that Muslims in India were on the verge of turning to Christianity; accordingly, he translated some of the books on Islam and Christianity which he had already written during the previous years into Urdu. Mizan al-Haqq was one such book that was used as starting point at Agra, and it was translated into several other languages of the Muslim world as well. With consent from the Basel Mission, he joined CMS on 12 February 1840.
In January 1841, the CMS posted Pfander to Agra in Northern India. After he took his new job at Agra, he immediately began engaging local Muslims through written letters, sending copies of the Persian and Arabic Bibles. The East India Company also posted administrators who were sympathetic to evangelicalism, such as James Thomason, the Lieutenant general of North-West Provinces, and William Muir. These new Company recruits provided unofficial support for Protestant missionary preaching, publishing, and educational initiatives. Stephen Wheler, a Colonel notorious for his provocative role in preaching to Sepoys at Barrackpore, meanwhile started a second orphanage at Fatehgarh (near Agra) in 1838 — with his departure, he handed over Orphanage maintenance to American Presbyterian missionaries. In 1854, under these circumstances, Pfander engaged in a famous public debate with leading Islamic scholars in Agra.
Pfander Vs Rahmatullah debate
While in India, he engaged with Muslim religious leaders in a famous public debate at Agra on 10 and 11 April 1854 at the invitation of Islamic scholar Rahmatullah Kairanawi. Several hundred Muslims and Christians gathered in the school room of Agra's Church Missionary Society to listen to a series of public debates between Pfander, a German CMS Protestant missionary, and Al-Kairanawi (other names: Rahmatullah Kairanawi or Sheik Rahmat Kairanawi or Rahamatullah ibn Halil al-Utmani al-Kairanawi or Al-Hindi or Maulana Rahmat Allah), a Sunni theologian. The debate had the following participants -- Pfander supporters: British East Indian Company servants, who represented India's colonial power and its protection of European missionaries; Pfander's co-workers including Thomas Valpy French, who later became the first bishop of Lahore; local Christian converts from Islam, and representatives of the Anglican Church. -- Rahmatullah supporters: Local Shi'ites and Sunni audiences; local Catholic missionaries, who disliked the work of Protestants; Muhammad Wazîr Khân, a physician in British-run medical hospital; and prolific Islamic writer and scholar Imad ud-din Lahiz.
Although the debate had been slated to address the topics of Quran as the word of God, the Trinity and the sending of the Prophet Mohammed, the debate centred around a single point—the authenticity of Christian scriptures. Pfander, well versed in the traditional argument, defended the integrity of the New Testament and Old Testament, while Al-Kairanawi insisted that the Christian scriptures had been abrogated using the apocryphal 16th century Gospel of Barnabas as his main source, which he thought was the only authentic Gospel. After two days of debate, both claimed victory.
The interest the debate aroused led a number of Muslims to read Pfander's literature and consider the questions that had been discussed. Some, such as the leading Sufi scholars and theologians Imad ud-din Lahiz and Safdar Ali, both of whom attended the debate, proclaimed their conversion to Christianity.
Imad ud-din Lahiz, for example, who assisted Kairanawi in representing the Islamic side in the debate, was so impressed with Pfander and his detailed arguments in his Magnum opus Mizan Al Haqq (The Balance of Truth) that he noted upon his conversion to Christianity:
"We can now, I think, say that the controversy has virtually been complete ... [that] the Christians have obtained a complete victory, while our opponents have been signally defeated."
William Muir, Secretary to the Government of the North West Provinces, described these debates between Pfander and Al-Kairanawi in an article published by the "Calcutta Review," along with recent history of Christian mission to Muslims. Having observed the debate by himself, he later labeled these articles as The Mohammedan Controversy in 1897.
In 1837 the CMS relocated Pfander to strategic location Peshawar, doorway to Central Asia and South Asia, on the north-west frontier of India, where he continued his distribution of literature and his controversial discussions. At the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, he "went on preaching in the streets right through the most anxious time, when plots to murder all the Europeans were revealed by intercepted letters." That same year he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Cambridge University in recognition of his scholarship.
He was sent as CMS missionary to Constantinople in 1859. When he arrived at Constantinople, many Turks showed interest in the doctrines of Christianity for the first few years. When in Constantinople, then-Ottoman capital, while he was on Middle Eastern mission, he commented:
However, with ill-advised comments and attacks against the Prophet Muhammad, the Turks soon retaliated violently against Christian missions, confiscating printing presses used by the missionaries, closed rooms and bookstores of the missionaries, including imprisonment of the missionaries, spurring the British government to interfere to free the missionaries. The mission never recovered from that blow, forcing them to forbid Istanbul for good.
Pfander's chief legacy to posterity is undoubtedly his book Mizan ul-Haqq (The Balance of Truth), modelled on the style of Islamic theological works, and attempting to present the Christian gospel in a form understandable to Muslims. He offered reasons to believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, neither corrupted nor superseded, and argued that the Qur'an itself testifies to the reliability of the Christian scriptures and the supremacy of Christ. He attempted to prove from the Qur'an and other Islamic writings some alleged fallibilities in Islam and its prophet, noting a historic contrast between the violence of Islamic expansion and the peaceable spread of the early church. The Mizan ul-Haqq stimulated a number of carefully argued refutations from Islamic scholars, followed by further writings from Pfander himself. It marked an important new phase in Muslim-Christian relations, when profound theological issues were addressed for the first time by recognised scholars.
In his history of the CMS, Eugene Stock described Pfander as "the greatest of all missionaries to Mohammedans." Temple Gairdner remarked that Pfander possessed the three great requisites for public controversy: absolute command of his subject, absolute command of the language, thought and manner of the people, and absolute command of himself. Samuel Zwemer defended his dogmatic and controversial methods, pointing out that Christ and his apostles engaged in similar public debate with individuals and crowds.
William Muir, having arrived India before Pfander, devoted his leisure time during and after his forty years of service at North-West province, to the study of early Islamic history and the writings of evangelical tracts for Muslims. Responding to Pfander's call for reliable account of the life of Muhammed, he began serious and detailed work on a biography The Life of Mohammet and History of Islam, where Muir explained Pfander's role in urging him to make available critical materials on the early sources of Islamic history.