By Donna Howell, SkyWatch editor and author of Radicals
As many of you SkyWatch readers already know, I recently released a book called Radicals. The purpose of this work was to expose to the world what I believed would be the next wave of Holy-Spirit-filled, spiritually sold-out, on-fire Christians that will usher in the next Great Awakening. This new generation of “Jesus People,” I postulated, would proceed toward the goal of soul-winning like a brushfire, spreading the Gospel message with such momentum and success that hasn’t been observed since the hippies’ countercultural and unprecedentedly passionate Christianity developed in the 1960s–’70s. Through a verse-by-verse analysis of the epistle of James (with in-depth, exegetical reflection), I shared what I believe to be the steps the Church must take in letting those archaic walls of expectation regarding the lost finally fall down. The result of this could potentially be not just another revival, and perhaps not even another Great Awakening, but a positive and ground-shaking Reformation like the Church hasn’t experienced in five hundred years since the time of Martin Luther.
Since the publication of that book—which hit the number-one sales spot at Amazon in two Christian categories before its release and has almost perfectly maintained that position—the response has been unanimously positive (praise the Lord!). As I have appeared on television, radio interviews, and behind the pulpit to speak about this Radicals project, my words always mysteriously (or perhaps not so mysteriously) come back to one key point: We must be willing to love—and deeply so—the “whosoever will” that Christ came for according to John 3:16, regardless of what preconceived ideas we have about them. I remind my listeners that Jonah didn’t get to choose whether or not the Ninevites could be saved, and even after he was vomited up by the great fish, God’s directive remained the same as it always had, despite Jonah’s resistance: “Go preach to Nineveh.”
We don’t get to choose who God decides is redeemable. And when we continue to sit on our own little hills complaining about the worms that ate our shade trees as Jonah did, God’s response will be the same to us as it was to Jonah (Jonah 4:10–11), which can be reworded contemporarily as: “You didn’t create the Ninevites, and you didn’t create the shade tree. I did. I created these people in their mothers’ wombs before they were ever conceived, and you don’t get to choose whether or not these people can be saved. You sit there with more love in your heart toward the shade tree than you do for these people who have souls I care about.”
Whereas this concept has been accepted with emphatic “amen” responses, applause, and even once a standing ovation, the application of such Christ-honoring love gets a little confusing, especially when it comes to certain people groups that our Western world has already developed preconceived ideas about. The two top categories of people that I see the Church flinching about today is: 1) homosexuals, and 2) Muslims. As I already spent a great deal of time in my book addressing the first of these, I would like to briefly address the second.
They Are Loved as Much as the Rest of Us
It’s understandable, but extremely tragic, that our Western mindset about some people groups would be as resistant as it has become. After all, the average Christian doesn’t understand even the most fundamental beliefs of Islam, nor the daily life they lead, so when we see another headline about ISIS over the news, we automatically assume that every Muslim is associated with violence, aggression, or political takeover. This is partly due to the fact that Islam at the time of its celebrated prophet Muhammed participated in the Crusades that made the religion such a strong force in the first place. But if we are to be the radical group of Christians who stand by the notion of loving the “whosoever will,” we can’t assume that everything we hear in the West is an accurate depiction of every Muslim.
By no means will this article make any opinionated statements about whether or not Islam is a peaceful religion at its core or not. That is an ongoing theological debate that I don’t feel qualified to join. However, as a Christian who believes that John 3:16 is a God-breathed and Holy-Spirit-led Truth that no man has the power to refute or tear down, I am qualified to state that every Muslim is just as loved as any of the rest of us…and they should be treated as such, especially by Christians who by default have been called to love others the way Christ did.
Remember what Christ accomplished in Sychar, regarding the woman at the well (John 4). He, as a Jew, had every reason to steer His travels around Samaria to avoid those who His culture saw as unclean blasphemers—and many Jews of His day did that very thing, walking in a huge circle around Samaria via the Jordan River just to keep distance from the Samaritans (another religious group that made people flinch). Instead, He specifically set His course into the thick of them, landing at the social-gathering spot of the city. Then, instead of fearing association to ceremonial uncleanness, He actually asked the woman at the well for a drink. This was a seriously controversial move. But after sharing a love with her that she hadn’t experienced from any other of the six men in her life, she became the first evangelist and revivalist of the New Testament, converting an entire city to belief in the Messiah.
Imagine the Muslim at the well today. Are you willing to show them love as well, despite the preconceived ideas that Christians hold about them? If not, they may be lost forever. If so, we can see cities saved.
The following list is in no way exhaustive. There are many guidebooks and courses available today that can assist Christian men and women in reaching out to followers of Islam. (I would like to highly recommend Sobhi Malek’s Islamic Exodus: Into the Freedom of Christ.) However, for those who may feel unequipped in at least the very basics, here are a few pointers to get started. Although we in the United States might be in communication with a Muslim in our own lands, no Muslim is completely removed from the culture of Islam, so the following is relevant anywhere:
Conversion is Not a Quick Decision
In our Western world, many of us turn to Christ as an emergency fix-all salve—a “crisis conversion.” We turn to the Lord because we are addressing a discomfort or emptiness that we feel, and not because it’s the right way of living at the time of conversion. Once a quick sinner’s prayer is said and we are converted, we live by the cultural expectations of the Church Body around us, but there is an ever-present concept that we can essentially live however we please, so long as our lifestyles are not an immediate offense to God. Islam likewise views their initial conversion as a simple, easy process where faith is simply believing in the Qur’an and saying a quick “no true god but Allah” sentence. Once converted, however, it’s nearly impossible to leave the faith lest one be highly persecuted and perhaps martyred (being ostracized and/or banished from their communities and families is almost a guarantee). From that point on, following the Islamic faith remains to be a regulation of daily regiments and rituals, fasting, and pilgrimages. It is a lifestyle that involves a constant process of increase, and we must understand their emphasis on the “felt needs” of daily life.
There are extreme social pressures that a Muslim would face if he or she converted to Christianity:
The group mentality that dominates Muslim communities: A Muslim does not typically think in individualistic terms like we do in the West. He is a part of a family, and that extends to the tight grip that the Islamic society holds over him as an individual. To break away from the community would be seen by most as an intentional shift into the “House of War” (any non-Muslim individual or community).
The persecution that he faces from his family, as well as the Christian community: His family may completely disinherit him for his treasonous decision, or worse (including threats up to execution), and Christians may be skeptic to accept or trust him because of the long-standing rivalry between our two religions since the time of the Crusades.
What takes place on a socioeconomic level: A Muslim convert no longer qualifies for the financial assistance and tax exemptions in life from powerful social and economic leaders awarded to those who obediently remain in the Islamic faith. Likewise, if Christians are not readily responsive to the needs of the Muslim due to eons of past enmity, he will remain without necessary assistance.
Reformation of Folk Islam: The true convert to Christianity, even if he is accepted by his family, will have to deal with the implications of his dramatic new lifestyle. His family will wonder just how far off track he has wandered if he does not participate in the rituals that have been for centuries engrained in Islamic traditions; his new Christian family will potentially look down upon his agreeing to continue them. The process of conversion for a Muslim is a slow on compared to a Western conversion, and he will face resistance from both sides regarding social/religious ritualistic expectations as he struggles in his new identity.
A Muslim who makes the decision to convert faces pressures socially, politically, and economically that we Western minds can’t even conceive. To approach a Muslim and expect an overnight “crisis conversion” will—barring a miracle of God—be unsuccessful.
“High Religion” verses “Low Religion”
When ministering to a Muslim, a Christian needs to understand their concepts of religion as it relates to this temporal, earthly experience. According to Sobhi Malek of Islamic Exodus:
The difficulty the gospel witness faces is that some workers among Muslims have unintentionally emphasized only the cosmic and spiritual questions which Christianity answers—those which have to do with eternity, sin, salvation, and righteousness. Hungry stomachs, sick bodies, destitution, and other human ailments have been inadvertently overlooked. Thus the Christian gospel has been misrepresented. By contrast, Islam appears to Muslims more relevant to the immediate problems of everyday life since its principles seem more centered on answering questions of folk needs and practices.[i]
“High religion” deals with issues of eternal importance. “Low religion” attends our immediate, mortal needs. Whereas Western Christianity focuses largely on “high religion”—which is not surprising given that many Christians in our country have comfortable lives and tend to be blind to the depth of destitution that afflicts those outside our great nation—Islam focuses more upon the treatment of the needs and/or practices of daily life.
As such, Islam appeals to Muslims as the more useful and logical belief system as it compares to our finite existence and offers more immediate remedy for our human experience. It is a grave mistake to limit our witnessing to merely the eternal powers of God, as that only represents the “faraway” concepts of a true provider that they cannot yet be expected to know on a personal level. Malek shows the difference in application: “Consider Matthew 8:23–27, for example, where the disciples were frightened by the storm and Jesus ordered the wind and the sea to be quiet. As a title for this miracle one can say ‘Jesus, Lord of Nature’ or ‘Jesus Calms the Storm.’ Both are correct. However, the first draws attention to the cosmic issue (high religion), while the second touches on a tangible issue and is close to people’s experiences (low religion).”[ii]
A Western mind might welcome the cosmic aspects of Christianity, but when ministering to a Muslim, it’s important to direct our vocabulary in a way that it communicates the same truth, whilst showing that Christ cares about their time here on earth.
Theological Common Grounds
As very few Christians I’ve met even know the basis of Islam beliefs, it is crucial at this point to show a few commonalities that Islam shares with Christianity, as these could be useful tools a Christian could use in conversation at the beginning of that relationship. Before any Christian approaches these three aspects as a debate, a true, loving friendship must be formed! However, if the relationship between believer and Muslim has matured to the point at which a theological conversation is appropriate, an excellent starting point is what Islam does accept regarding Christ: the virgin birth, sinless living, miracles, and ascension. From there, a conversation can lead to issues of the trinity and the cross, as well as the issue of Christ as the literal Son of God. Here are a few additional helps:
Absolute immutability and oneness: God is unchanging; both Christians and Muslims agree with this theology. Muslims, though, do not understand Christianity’s concepts of the Trinity, and many of them believe (as they have been taught) that Christians have three separate gods. (In many cases, this is not the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; they understand it to be the Father, the Mother, and the Son.)
A Muslim believes in Allah as the only God, and Jesus is a highly venerated prophet. Yet the Sura acknowledges that God “always” sees, hears, and loves (58:1; 2:195; 3:76). So before the creation of humans and angels, God must have seen, heard, and loved someone else who was present with Him. The recipients of such interactions could have only been the other two Persons of the Godhead: Christ and the Holy Spirit. Regarding oneness, just as a man is only one man—yet consisting of all three elements: body, soul, and spirit—God is one God above all, consisting of all three Persons in the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus as the “Word”: Christ is referred to as the “Word” in both the Holy Bible (logos in John 1:1–5, 14) and the Qur’an (Sura 4:171). So far, Christians and Muslims are in agreement. However, Muslims do not believe that Christ was the Son of God. Consider, however: One’s words come from one’s thoughts, which is a part of his/her internal being. As such, Christ was the personified communication of God’s thoughts, will, and love for humankind. Additionally, since the Qur’an acknowledges Christ as the “Word [of Allah],” and likewise recognizes the word/command of God as supremely powerful (Sura 36:81) and that Christ is a kind of “Creator” figure (Sura 5:110), the Christ of Islam also appears to be God personified.
The Holy Spirit as God: The word “Spirit” means “breath” (or “wind”) in Greek and Hebrew. It is a life-giving source inseparable from one who is living. Muslims don’t understand Christianity’s concept of the Holy Spirit, but through some gentle explanation, we can share this, too, as a common ground. The Qur’an openly acknowledges that God has a spirit (Sura 21:91; 66:12). By extension, the Holy Spirit is one with God. Muslims believe that the Paraclete (parakletos, known by Christians as the Holy Spirit as comforter/counselor), mentioned in John 14:16, is a typo, and the real word should have been spelled periklytos. This is a significant change, as the word periklytos—Mahmood in Arabic—means “praised one,” which also happens to be another form of the name Muhammad. As such, Islam teaches that the counselor Christ vowed to send in the book of John would be in the form of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, not the Holy Spirit as we know it.
However, according to even the secular reference book, The Popular Encyclopedia of World Religions by Richard Wolff, “there is not a shred of textual evidence to suggest there was a change from periklytos to paraklete. Perhaps Muhammad had heard something about the promise of the coming paraklete and applied it to himself.… And ever since, Muslim commentators have had no choice but to defend this interpretation of the biblical texts.”[iii]
Additionally, Christ made it perfectly clear in the surrounding verses that the Counselor was “the Holy Spirit” (John 14:26) who would “live in” believers (John 14:17), not mere man or prophet like Muhammad, who is not a spirit and cannot “live in” anyone.
Christian Apologists’ Response to the Authenticity of the Qur’an
I pray that these facts will be handled delicately…
Muslims believe that the Qur’an, written in Arabic in late A.D. 609, is the words of Allah (God), himself, as given to Muhammad the prophet during a trance directly through the angel Gabriel. Much like the Christian Bible, Muslims adhere to the notion that the Qur’an is the first and last word of God, and it’s the final authority on all earthly things. The suras (chapters) of the work were not written down by Muhammad personally; the uttered statements were memorized by his devotees, subsequently recorded, and later gathered together by the first caliphs. In A.D. 644, caliph Othman saw the inconsistencies in the circulating versions of the Qur’an and saw each but one version destroyed (which is the edition remaining today). These discrepancies have caused Christian apologists to compile a list of facts regarding the authenticity of the Qur’an as the infallible Word of God. The following are the most popularly referenced of these facts:
As Muhammad’s life experiences involved much cross-cultural travel, the Qur’an is influenced by several world religions (including Christianity, Judaism, and pagan belief systems). As such, it understandably reflects material existent before the prophet’s revelations, which poses the following question when the parallels are discovered: “Which is divine? The former/original source? Or the secondary/unoriginal source?” (If the secondary source is even in part divine while it reflects the text of the former, it’s natural to feel propelled toward the original. For Christians, this would trace back to the Bible as the palpable authority.) This is perhaps the cause for why so many believe Muhammad simply borrowed stories and wisdom from the originals and cherry-picked his favorite portions for inclusion in the Qur’an.
Another concern arises regarding Muhammad’s acquaintances—some of whom reportedly assisted in adding to or adjusting the “divine” revelations surreptitiously by voicing their opinions in his presence. These opinions oddly found their way into the Qur’an immediately afterward. This is in addition to reports that the prophet’s scribes convinced Muhammad to change the phrasing of the verses.
Satanic inspiration—which is openly attributed in some places of the early Qur’an known as the “Satanic Verses” in Islamic theology (such as the idol worship passages in the original Sura 53, “The Chapter of the Star”)—is a clear and obvious threat to any book that claims to be divinely inspired. Later, when these initially “divinely inspired” verses caused a stir for the prophet’s followers, changes were made to the text with trumping authority from Allah. Apart from the confusion this inconsistency causes, the question arises: “How can a prophet hear from both God and Satan intermittently? Wouldn’t God prevent His words from being tainted in this way?”
Significant inconsistencies are abundant throughout. Sura 5:82 orders the love of non-Muslims, while Sura 9:5 orders their slaughter. Sura 33:50 gives Muhammad endlessly interchangeable wives of limitless number, while Sura 33:52 forbids any further change to his wives. Yet, Sura 4:82 says that Allah is incapable of contradiction.
These issues listed stand apart from the following: The claim is that the Qur’an was penned with pure and unadulterated Arabic language, but a reader discovers numerous instances of foreign words; several stories included are repeated several times with no explanation; historic facts are errant; and between the Mecca and Medina phases of the prophet’s life, which represent the earlier and later recordings of the Qur’an, a drastic shift takes place from religious reformation to militant political movements.
The Holy Spirit, and an Education, MUST Be Equipped
Without the Holy Spirit, a Christian missionary or witness is without the power of the very Spirit given on the Day of Pentecost to equip all believers for the Great Commission of the Gospel. It’s purely common sense that the Holy Spirit is needed for all sharing of God’s message from a believer to a nonbeliever, Muslim or otherwise. The Holy Spirit, during a witness or testimony event, is the Author of the supernatural force that both empowers the speaker and draws in the listener.
As it pertains to Islam: Though Islamic beliefs may be hard for a Christian to fully understand, The Holy Spirit’s role in being a witness of Christ to a Muslim is perhaps the easiest concept to grasp. Islam esteems power. Muslims believe that a person with power is a person who has been blessed by Allah. Thus, a successful Holy-Spirit-led and Christ-filled “power encounter” for a Muslim shows the triumph of Jesus over all other belief systems, religions, gods, or spiritual forces.
What is a “power encounter”?
Though Muslims are often not impressed by a theological debate, a power encounter is frequently a welcome proof of the Gospel’s authority. A power encounter is a “showdown of forces” if you will, wherein the one true Christian God prevails.
Mary Colbert (co-author of the best-selling book, The Trump Prophecies) related an example of this once. She said that a Muslim woman heard the Gospel but rejected it. However, the message kept creeping into her thoughts until she had a supernatural dream weeks later. In it, she approached the angels at the gate of heaven and asked them about Muhammad. The angels spoke to each other in an unknown tongue before answering her, “We know not this Muhammad of whom you speak.” She awoke, accepted Christ, and has been a minister in her native land since.
The Bible is clear that Christ will reveal Himself to all who seek Him, so if the opportunity comes to advise a Muslim to personally seek Christ—and they follow up with that on their end—the supernatural result will speak to them far more powerfully than any theological debates. Thus, sharing a personal testimony of Christ’s revelation or provision will hold more authority as well.
After a power encounter, it is essential that the believer give all glory to Christ, to whom all glory is due.
The genesis of such an encounter begins when the Holy Spirit: a) draws the Muslim recipient into the revelations they are hearing, and b) equips the Christian witness with the boldness to speak, the gentle patience to meet the Muslim right where they stand (in the throes of their resilient cultural and folk-Islam grips), and the genuine love for a person’s soul (as opposed to the interests of winning theological debates).
A power encounter begins within the Muslim as an internal debate—one which the Holy Spirit has His hand upon: He or she weighs what is being said against his or her own theology and spiritual concepts, and finds the message being relayed an interesting one worthy of true rumination. As the Muslim becomes more open-minded, he or she is shown Christ’s true power in a miraculous sign relevant to the Muslim’s personal life and circumstances. As such, Jesus Christ is shown as a conqueror not only over the spiritual realm (“high religion”), but also that He cares for the Muslim’s time here on earth in this temporal reality (“low religion”).
As can be said of any discussion born through witnessing the Gospel or Christian apologetics: The more one understands the core beliefs of the recipient, the more the evangelistic approach steers to nurture the individual’s concepts and relate to them as individuals, instead of becoming a heated battle of proselytizing and disputation—which rarely saves or helps anyone.
In my opinion, Holy-Spirit guidance, love, and education—in that order—are the key elements of reaching the lost, no matter what belief system they belong to. I find it tragic that the first two of these are so highly praised behind the pulpit today, but education is marginal. It is only through preparative studies that a Christian has the complete toolkit necessary to meet a nonbeliever where they are and lead them to Truth.
With that said, these essentials make up the core toolkit as it pertains to Muslims, but I believe these items should only be argued after a friendship has been solidified, and only after the green light has been given by the Holy Spirit to approach them with a Muslim:
1: Even without biblical evidence, the crucifixion can be proved by historical documentation (Tacitus, Josephus, the Talmud, Lucian, Mara Bar Serapion, etc.). If Muslims cannot accept this overwhelming historical evidence, then the question is raised, “What historical evidence can they accept? Do they pick and choose what really happened from what didn’t?” This defies logic and credibility.
2: There was a drastic change within the followers of Christ after His resurrection from hiding (John 20:19) to boldly proclaiming the Gospel message (Acts 17:6). Had Jesus not carried out the miracle of death-defeated and appeared to the disciples afterward, common sense says that they would have continued to hide in fear of persecution. Yet, they continued to commit themselves to the Great Commission to the very end of brutal martyrdom. Such commitment can only be assigned to either sudden, collective insanity (which is preposterous), or because of a legitimate witness of the power of the Risen Christ. Many others since have also faced death as a result of Christ’s revelation.
3: Speaking of insanity, unless the Gospel account is true, it would likewise be insane for Christ’s followers to spread a story about the “accursed” cross if it hadn’t happened. Everything about the death of a person on the cross was associated with the humiliating and shameful execution of a criminal. Both Muslims and the Early Christians at the time of Christ will agree on this point. At the very least, such a claim would be scandalous. Mere invention of such a story is illogical from every angle. As such, the fact that the apostles kept to this story and died for the sake of it argues for the authenticity of the Gospel.
Above All Else Is Love
Well before any “method” of witnessing is considered appropriate, believers must prepare themselves in praying and fasting; constant exhortations for God’s wisdom, guidance, and blessing upon all evangelism opportunities; and be willing to minister first and foremost in love at all times. Additionally, the recipient of the evangelism encounter must be willing to listen, and not just to speak. Education is crucial—both of the recipient’s belief system as well as our own. During speech, the believer should avoid using any terminology that is common only in Christian circles or cultures.
A believer should never approach a Muslim with the intent to begin a theological debate. Muslims are so deeply entrenched in devotion to the culture of Islam (and all the beliefs therein, both of which we need to have understanding of), that even when excellent proof against their belief system is presented, the chances are far too high that it will end in anger and deliver the Muslim into a bitter understanding of Christianity as a cultural or Western issue, as opposed to a true message-of-hope encounter.
Muslims are as loved by our Lord as any other persons, and they need to be assured that the message given is one offered in love and hope.
[i] Sobhi Malek, Islamic Exodus: Into the Freedom of Christ (Kindle edition, Victoria, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2008) locations 4191–4194).
[ii] Ibid., locations 4184–4187.
[iii] Richard Wolff, The Popular Encyclopedia of World Religions (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2007), 25.