Traditionally, Islam has firmly resisted the claims of the Christian Gospel. Apart from Indonesia, converts throughout the Muslim world are found only in small numbers. The church and the missionary community have been programmed to accept the “inevitability” of meager results from an investment of time and money in Muslim evangelism.

All too frequently the following scenario is typical of a convert’s pilgrimage. Halim Ali is a young man of nineteen dissatisfied with life on the farm. He lives in a small bamboo hut with an extended family of parents, five brothers and sisters, two grandparents, one uncle, and two widowed aunts. Halim’s assigned task is to stand on a wooden plow behind a sickly ox and work the family plot throughout the long hot summer days.

One evening a tall, white-faced man briefly stops by Halim’s home and leaves a packet of Christian tracts. The local teacher is brought in to read this literature to the illiterate Ali family. Interest is sparked in Halim’s impressionable young mind, so he walks five miles to the town where the mission compound is located. There he is overawed by the sight of a large clinic, industrial training center, experimental farm, elementary school, and two beautiful homes (by relative standards) in which the missionaries reside.

Halim shares his desire to become a Christian with local believers. Food and shelter are provided while he undertakes a thorough catechism, which leads him to accept Christ as his Saviour. Soon thereafter he returns to his home and family where he proudly announces to all that he has become a Christian. Reaction is immediate and severe. Halim is regarded as a traitor to family, friends, country, and religion. The options are recant—or flee.

Soon thereafter Halim reappears at the doorstep of the missionary with his tale of persecution and rejection. Within six months he is baptized and given a new name. One year later Halim marries a Christian girl and completes his mission-sponsored teacher’s training course. Consider perspectives:

The missionary rejoices that a brand has been plucked from the flaming fire; the home church in the U.S.A. enthusiastically adopts the support of this courageous young man who has “forsaken all” for his faith; the villagers symbolically bury an old pair of Halim’s sandals in retribution against a despicable outcaste who dared to reject all societal norms and accepted a foreigner’s religion where adherents eat filthy pig meat and worship three gods. Alienation is total.

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A New Postulate

International Christian Fellowship entered Bangladesh in 1959. Following conventional methods, its missionaries were unsuccessful in winning Muslims to Christ. In 1973, they established fraternal links with “Simon,” a converted Muslim who had become a zealot for Christ. During the past four years he has won over fifty of his former coreligionists to the Lord. Many of the working principles that have evolved have initially been suggested by Simon. However, the twenty-seven-strong missionary team has unitedly spent hundreds of hours hammering out theory and then plodding on through to implementation. The outcome: Some thirty-seven Muslims have accepted Christ in the past two years. Most of these men are heads of families. All have remained in their respective villages where they are ongoing, witnessing Christians. The work is, of course, in its initial stages and only time will prove its validity and endurability.

Paul’s familiar words in First Corinthians 9:16–23 provide a theological basis for the radical departure from traditional methodology. The flexible and mature apostle felt free to assume diverse roles in order to communicate Christ more effectively. The great intellectual became a slave, a Jew, and even a heathen so that he might “by all means save some.” The ICF approach has likewise experimented with forms and other types of identification, all the while maintaining total fidelity to inspired Scripture. All forms of syncretism or compromise with the integrity of the Word of God are rejected. A summary statement of purpose could be construed thus: “As far as possible, all peripheral barriers to Muslims becoming Christians are to be removed. If there are obstacles to faith, let it be in the area of theological confrontation.” Now to the crucial and somewhat controversial question as to what we have defined as “peripheral.”

The Missionary Role

Regrettably, in many such countries the national church is a small minority of believers engulfed by a sea of Muslims. This condition creates a ghetto complex that allows little motivation for sharing one’s faith. Suspicion is frequently the first response communicated to the inquirer by the national Christian. Thus the imperative of initial evangelism falls heavily on the foreign missionary.

In seeking to relate to the Muslim we think the following adaptations have been appreciated:

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• A humble attitude divested of Western superiority and ethnocentrism.

• Usage of the dress styles of the target group, which in Bangladesh is the peasant farmer. This means loose flowing pants or a skirt-like garment called a lungi. The wives wear saris and on occasion have worn the veil covering on trips to the villages.

• Rented homes are as simple as is conducive to physical and emotional health. No property is owned by ICF in Bangladesh. This allows for mobility as well as a lower profile.

• Participation in as many of the following forms as possible.

Form Adaptations

A Muslim has a very high regard for the familiar. His quest for God is pregnant with varied expressions of worship. To be deprived of all such meaningful forms at conversion seems to be an extraneous demand. Some practices will need to be reinterpreted, but this may be preferable to exclusion. The following list is not absolute or exhaustive, but it reflects areas of experimentation with some measure of success.

• Muslim linguistic forms have been used in place of the more traditional Hindu-Christian vocabulary of the church.

• A facility for washing prior to prayer is provided just outside the worship center.

• Believers remove their shoes and sit on the floor during prayer times.

• Wooden stands are used as Bible holders similar to the ones used for the Koran in the mosque.

• Prayer is offered with uplifted hands and often with eyes open in Islamic fashion.

• Chanting of the attributes of God, the Lord’s Prayer, and personal testimony are performed with great zeal and appreciation.

• Embracing is done in brotherly Muslim style.

• No particular emphasis is placed on Sunday, for the Muslim considers Friday the holiest day of the week.

• Fasting is encouraged, but it is clearly explained that the thirty-day fast as practiced in Islam does not lead to merit or acceptance with God.

• In the early stage the missionary takes the role of teacher, but within a short time a convert begins to assume this responsibility.

• The name “Christian” is avoided. It is replaced by “Followers of Isa” (Jesus), which has less negative connotation to Muslim society.

• Organization of churches is proposed along autonomous lines much like the loose-knit administrative structures of the mosque.

• Total financial responsibility for church expenses, workers, and buildings is that of the community of believers. From the beginning, no foreign assistance is allowed.

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• Development of a homogeneous Muslim convert church. A Hindu, Animist, or “traditional Christian” would be most welcome to worship in the church, but they would be expected to adopt the practices of the convert believers.

• There is no option of flight for the converts. They are expected to remain in their society and maintain a discreet witness to their family and neighbors, which will add to the body of Christ. In the area under consideration not one believer has fled from his home. Most of the “reproduction” has been done by the converts themselves.

• Spiritual dynamics are emphasized. Fasting, prayer, and study of the Word of God are absolute prerequisites of a healthy church.

In the past four years, over seventy-five Muslims in Bangladesh have become believers. This is almost insignificant when measured against a population of 70 million Muslims. It is important, however, to realize that this probably exceeds the total number of Muslims converted in Bangladesh during the past fifty years.

We are in the early stages of forging a new path in Muslim evangelism. Perhaps a model will evolve that will apply to the larger community of 700 million “Sons of Ishmael” scattered throughout the world.

Phil Parshall has served in Bangladesh with the International Christian Fellowship for the past sixteen years. He received his M.A. degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1974 and has written “The Fortress and the Fire.”

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