Can one be a Muslim and a follower of Jesus? Tens of thousands believe so, and in this third installment of the Global Conversation, Yale University scholar Joseph Cumming describes the furious debate their example has fueled. The question of following Jesus while remaining within a practicing community of Muslims has great importance in regions where the two faiths contend. It also serves as an important example of a wider challenge. As the gospel moves across cultural boundaries, those who respond will answer its call in different ways. As missions historian Andrew Walls has written, "Conversion to Christ does not produce a bland universal citizenship; it produces distinctive discipleships, as diverse and variegated as human life itself." The gospel must be contextualized, but how far can contextualization go without violating the gospel? And who sets the boundaries? —The Editors
In 1979 my best friend decided he saw himself not as a "Christian," but as a "Messianic Jew." John had come from a secular Jewish background and was actually a practicing Hindu before he met Jesus. Then, for three years he was active in a Bible-believing Christian church. But now John felt called to reconnect with his Jewish roots, join a Messianic synagogue, keep a kosher home, and raise his children Jewish. He saw no contradiction between following Jesus as Messiah and identifying—ethnically and religiously—as Jewish.
Like most Christians in the 1970s, I initially reacted with skepticism, quoting biblical texts I thought rejected kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) as contrary to our liberty in Christ. I gradually learned that those texts could be understood differently, and came to respect the legitimacy of the fledgling Messianic movement—but not before I hurt my friend by my hostility to his effort to explore his identity as a Jewish follower of Jesus.
The wider Jewish community also reacted negatively. Most saw Messianic Judaism as simply repackaging centuries-old efforts to convert Jews, destroying Jewish identity. To them Messianic Jews were not Jews at all. Recently, however, some Jewish scholars have cautiously suggested that Messianic Jews who faithfully observe Torah and halakha, who participate constructively in the life of the Jewish community, and who pass on Jewish traditions to their children are in error but must be recognized as fellow Jews.
In the 1980s a similar movement began among Muslims who had come to faith in Christ. These were Muslims who trusted Jesus as Lord and divine Savior, believed Jesus died for their sins and rose again, and insisted this did not make them ex-Muslims or converts to the Christian religion. They wanted to remain within their Muslim community, honoring Jesus in that context.
Reactions from both Muslim and Christian communities have varied widely. On the Muslim side, some have persecuted these believers, while others cautiously accept them within their communities. On the Christian side, defenders see them as "Messianic Muslims" whom we should accept—just as we accept Messianic Jews—as authentic disciples of Jesus. Critics argue that Islam and Judaism are different, that Muslim identity cannot be reconciled with biblical faith.
Mixed Faiths, Mixed Reactions
When Nabil had a life-transforming encounter with Jesus, he remained within the Muslim community, participating in Muslim prayers. As his love for Jesus became known to family and friends, some followed his example, but others actually attempted to murder him. After being imprisoned for his beliefs, he decided he no longer considered himself a Muslim. He saw Islam as the system responsible for persecuting him. Today Nabil considers himself a Christian. But some who followed him in faith still see themselves as Muslims.