After traveling 250,000 miles through Dar al-Islam ("House of Islam") as Muslims call their world, career missiologist David Garrison came to a startling conclusion:
Muslim background believers are leading Muslims to Christ in staggering numbers, but not in the West. They are doing this primarily in Muslim-majority nations almost completely under the radar—of everyone. In the new book, A Wind in the House of Islam: How God is Drawing Muslims Around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ, Garrison takes the reader on his journey through what he describes as the nine rooms in the Muslim-majority world: Indo-Malaysia, East Africa, North Africa, Eastern South Asia, Western South Asia, Persia, Turkestan, West Africa, and the Arab world. Muslims in each of those regions have created indigenous, voluntary movements to Christ.
"What did God use to bring you to faith in Jesus Christ? Tell me your story." This was the core question Garrison asked as he traveled and conducted more than 1,000 face-to-face interviews. In his background research, he documented 82 historic Muslim movements to Christ, consisting of either at least 1,000 baptisms or 100 new church starts over a two-decade period. The first sizable movement of Muslims toward Christianity did not occur until the mid-19th century, nearly 1,300 years after Mohammad established Islam. Garrison said 69 of these movements today are still in process:
- In Algeria, after 100,000 died in Muslim-on-Muslim violence, 10,000 Muslims turned their backs on Islam and were baptized as followers of Christ. This movement has tripled since the late 1990s.
- At the time of the 1979 revolution in Iran, about 500 individual Muslims were following Christ. Garrison projects that today there may be several hundred thousand Christ-followers, mostly worshipping in Iranian house churches.
- In an unnamed Arab nation, an Islamic book publisher Nasr came to Christ through satellite broadcast evangelist Father Zakaria. Sensing a call to evangelize, Nasr started a local ministry that in less than one year baptized 2,800 individuals.
In total, Garrison estimates that 2 to 7 million people from a Muslim background worldwide now follow Christ. (This is a projection since a comprehensive count is not possible.) Timothy C. Morgan, CT senior editor, global journalism, interviewed Garrison recently.
You've spent your professional life in missions. Why undertake 30 months of grueling travel to remote parts of the Muslim world that you already visited?
This really marks an unprecedented turning to Christ. I don't think it's ever been captured in a global sweep as it has been here.
I've been involved in missions for 29 years. When my wife and I were working with Libyan Arabs in North Africa, we learned a lot of ways not to effectively win Muslims to Christ. But then we started seeing these movements. The numbers began to grow over the years. We found ourselves living in India for six years. I was director of Southern Baptist work in South Asia. We were able to see many of these Muslims who had come to Christ, to know them personally, and partner with them. We knew two men, one named Islam and the other named Mohammed, doing mosque-to-mosque evangelism. They were distributing Jesus films and New Testaments in the mosques. They saw a lot of Muslims come to Christ.
My colleagues approached me and said, "We're hearing more and more anecdotes of Muslim movements to Christ, and some of them we feel are legitimate. We need someone to go and find out."
They said, "We want Christians to see the potential that every Muslim has to be a Christ follower and a brother or sister in Christ." That began the process.
Your book is filled with insights about how Muslims view Jesus, Christianity, and the church. But how did your encounters with Muslims change you personally?
I've traveled to 100 countries over the years. The thing that changed me, as I look back on it, was finding that the living Christ has already been in these places.
I was hearing from Muslim-background believers that they had met Jesus. Sometimes we as Christians feel we take Jesus to people. What we forget sometimes is that we're attesting to a living Christ who continues to break into people's lives, into their dreams, into their visions, and into their prayers.
Jesus answers those prayers, and he meets with them, and it shakes them up. From West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Indonesia, I met people whose lives had been shaken and rattled by their encounter with Christ. They were not persuaded by logical doctrine or a better civilization, but by that encounter with the living Son of God who changed their life and world. They can't go back to life as usual.
That changed me. I had my own faith renewed. We serve a living God, a living Christ, and a living Lord.
If the gospel has already taken root in these mostly Muslim nations, how should we reshape our mission?
These things didn't happen by magic. Even Saul of Tarsus heard the testimony of Stephen before he was struck down by a vision. People have flickers and glimmers of Christ—through a radio broadcast, Scripture distribution, or overhearing some Christian.
They get haunted. They look into their Qur'an and they see references to Jesus. In the Hadith, they hear stories about Jesus. Many people I interviewed said, "I loved Jesus from the time I was a little child."
It didn't mean that they got the gospel. What it did mean is that they got a predilection toward Christ. Something prepared their hearts. When they did hear the gospel, they said, "Yes, that's for me."
I talked to an Iranian man—kind of a thug. He had been in the black market. He was a hustler. But he said, "I was drawn to the cross." He said, "I had a cross ring. I had a cross necklace." He had a t-shirt that said, "I did this for you" with a big cross.
He said, "I had no clue what it meant, but I was drawn to the cross." A friend came and started telling him about Jesus. His heart just melted and he invited Christ into his life. He left that illicit business and eventually became a refugee. Because of his faith, he was pushed out of the country.
Christ draws people to himself. The Holy Spirit will convict the world. That's not the same thing as proclaiming the gospel to them. That is our role. But it's nice to know that there's an advance card out there bringing people to conviction. We're not alone.
Forget this idea that it's all up to us.
The truth is we are brave and courageous because we're going into the heart of darkness. But isn't it nice to know that the light penetrated the darkness first. When Jesus sent out the 72, he said, "I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. When you enter a house say, 'Peace to this house.' If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you." (Luke 10:3-6, NIV) Everywhere you go, you're going to find persons who are waiting for you. That's true in the Muslim world as well as other parts of the world.
How important are one-on-one relationships in Muslim outreach?
In East Africa, I talked with Elias, a wonderful cultural guide, who took me into a number of Muslim movements. His own initiation into being a Muslim evangelist came from Abdul-Ahad, a sheik from Mogadishu, Somalia. The sheik had been involved in drug running, prostitution, and extortion. He ended up as a refugee and met Elias.
One night, the sheik showed up at the home of Elias and said, "Yes or no—Jesus' blood can wash away the sins of the world?"
Elias said, "Yes, it can."
The sheik replied, "That's a lie because he could never wash away all my sins. I've done terrible things."
Elias said to him, "If you and I agree tonight, then God will forgive you." He prayed with him and the sheik was saved at that moment. But before he left, the sheik took Alias by the arm and said, "You know when you see people like me with the beard and with the prayer-skull cap, you stay away from us because you're afraid of us."
He said, "The truth is we want you to be afraid of us." He said, "But when you see people like me you need to know that we're empty and we're lost."
Elias told me, "That was my Macedonian call. From then on I never saw Muslims the same way again."
But many American Christians have this fear response about personal interaction with Muslims. What can be done?
I often see anger and hatred. We've had deacons and church leaders say we ought to just bomb them to hell. The sad thing is this fear is grounded in reality. You've got 14 centuries in which tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of Christians have been gobbled up into the world of Islam. It makes communism look like just a cheap parlor trick. Communism came and went in a century.
When we Christians ignore social injustice, we invite Islam to come in. When we imitate Islam (as we did in the Crusades) by making Christian jihad, we strengthen Islam.
In many places, Islam was comatose until the European colonials came in. When we came, they had something to preach against in the mosque. That galvanized the people and expanded Islam in ways that wouldn't have been possible had we not given them a reason to wake up.
One reason Muslims are responding today is [their new situation]. They are in independent nations. They don't have colonial powers occupying them. As a result, they're turned in on themselves. They don't get along very well with one another. Several of the big movements that we've seen across the Muslim world coincide with Muslim-on-Muslim violence, horrible violence like in Algeria, Bangladesh, or Indonesia.
In some cases, self-government in Muslim-majority nations has triggered violence between Muslim factions.
When we Westerners fight, we don't do it as a holy army of God in the name of Jesus. We just don't do that anymore. We've seen that folly. But as a Muslim you can do that. Not only can you do that, but everybody wants to do that. Muslims are fighting Muslims both in the name of Allah.
After a while, people say: "Can this really be Allah's will? Can this really be his ideal for mankind? If this is Islam, I don't want any part of it."
In Afghanistan, one man who had been an imam said, "We were killing everybody in this village because they were a different branch of Islam than us. I took this little girl, one-and-a-half years old, in my arms. We had already killed her parents. She held my finger, looked me in the eye, as I stuck a knife into her and killed her. That was the beginning of my conversion."
The violence and killing is just outrageous.
Put your researcher hat on for a minute. Experts believe 84,000 Muslims are added to the world every 24 hours. How significant is it that there's this relative handful of Muslims coming to Christ?
This is extremely significant because it's unprecedented historically. But you've got to remember that with 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, this is statistically insignificant. It will only be significant if you happen to have caught the beginning of a change, a tectonic change in Islam around the world. That we can't predict. Hopefully, if we don't do something to screw it up, we might be able to see this wave expand.
How could these movements be nurtured?
I've got four desired outcomes for this book. The first is to capture this moment in history. The second is to encourage these Muslims who are considering Christ or who have come to faith in Christ, but think they're the only ones in the world. God has them on his front burner. He's reaching out to them.
The third one is to do a similar thing for Christians: This is not a time to hate, kill, and fear Muslims. This is a time to love, win, and reach Muslims. The fourth desired outcome is that we would learn the ways that God is at work, and that means in some cases humbling ourselves and saying we don't have all the answers.
In North America (what Muslims call Dar al-Harb, the House of War), where Muslims are getting the most witness, we're seeing the fewest conversions. But in the house of Islam, we're seeing movements breaking out in multiple places. We need to learn how to ride the wave of what God is doing and not find ourselves at cross purposes with it.
We've been hearing reports about Muslim dreams of Jesus for many years. Should those be accepted at face value?
It's part of the reality of their world. Mohammad listened to dreams, and he gave Muslims the impression that God could speak through them. So they do listen to them, and they do talk about them.
An awful lot of them are having dreams of a living being glowing with bright light and drawing persons to him or just exuding love or offering them a book to read. We can't conclude that they're getting the gospel. What we can conclude is that they're under conviction, which the Holy Spirit said they would be.
Kevin Greeson, author of The Camel: How Muslims Are Coming to Christ, heard Muslims talking about this dream. He would open up to Matthew 17 and just hand it to them and say, "Would you read these first two verses?"
He wouldn't read it to them. They would start reading. "After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light" (Matt. 17:1-2 NIV).
Muslims read that and their eyes get big as saucers. "That's the guy. That's the guy in my dreams. Who is this? And how do I know more about him?"
Here's the combination: their worldview, the conviction the Holy Spirit promised they would be under, and a missionary knowing how to respond to it. Not reading to them or preaching to them or trying to tell them. Self-discovery is a big part of these movements. Hand them a New Testament. Let them read it for themselves.
A Muslim's direct encounter with the Bible seems crucial.
We've got to see how Muslims think. We need to orchestrate opportunities for discovery and to be there as a sounding board, but not a hammer, hammering the truth into them.
Muslims are like Baptists. I'm a Baptist. You can always tell a Baptist, but you can't tell him much. It's that way with Muslims. They don't like to be told they're wrong. They don't like to be told what the truth is, because they think they know it. But when they discover it themselves, just like a Baptist, they own it and they will die for it. When Muslims actually discover the truth, when they find Jesus, it just grips them and holds them.
Do Muslims who become Christ-followers in general see Islam as illegitimate?
There is a range. Some Muslims who come to Christ and seem on the surface to be the most Islamic, hate Islam. They hate Mohammad. They would tell me: "We will wipe this virus out from our people. It's just destroyed our people."
And yet if you were an outsider, and you met them, you'd never even know they were a Christian, because they continue to live in the culture. And some of them are even imams and sheiks who stayed in their culture.
For many Muslims, Islam is central to the way their people function. It was their mother. It was their family. It was their community. And they had no beef with Islam. What they want to do is to follow Jesus and to love their parents better and to draw them into faith. I found very few people who wanted to take on Islam. They just felt like that was a secondary battle. The real battle was to follow Jesus and to spread Jesus.
In my experience, very few local churches say, "We're doing outreach to Muslims." Why do you think that is?
What we as the body of Christ have been trying to do for 13 centuries has been remarkably unfruitful. Even people who have given their lives to mission to Muslims they'll tell you this is a tough field.
My sincere desire is that the body of Christ in the West would learn from the body of Christ in other parts of the world that has been effective. Even some of our godliest people have not had results because they don't know how to fish for Muslims, but they can learn.
Timothy C. Morgan is CT senior editor, global journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @tmorgan815