Why are there more converts from Islam to Christianity than at any time in history?
Last March, deep in the bush of northern Chad, a team of Chadian students and missionary Larry Gray explained salvation through faith in Christ to the people of a mostly Muslim village. As the students sang the words of invitation, “Today is the day of grace,” a villager shouted to his compatriots, “Today is the day! We have prayed that this message would come to us. God has heard us. Now is the time for our decision!”
“Without hesitation,” reports Gray, a missionary with the Evangelical Alliance Mission and the Evangelical Church in Chad, 56 Muslims stood and came forward to commit themselves to Christ. Included were the chief of the village and his three wives.
It is a response being repeated in many parts of the world. Christians working among Muslims in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia report unprecedented openness, overturning conventional wisdom that Muslims are impenetrably resistant to the gospel. This religion of one billion adherents is like the crescent moon that symbolizes Islam in many parts of the world: As the moon never remains long in the crescent phase, so the Islamic world is changing. That change is explained not only by Islam’s interaction with modern cultural forces, but by the work of Christian missions.
“There are probably more people engaged in Muslim outreach in the world today than at any time in history,” says Howard Brant, international coordinator for evangelism and church growth for SIM International, Charlotte, North Carolina. “And there are more converts from Islam to Christianity than at any time in history.”
Dudley Woodberry, dean of the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, is also optimistic. The noted scholar of Islam observes, “We’re seeing breakthroughs today we have never seen before.”
A holy war?
The missionary picture has not always been so encouraging. Islamic expansion from present-day Saudi Arabia across North Africa and into Asia has been powered over the centuries by the Qur’anic command to spread Muslim rule through jihad, the Arabic word meaning “striving” in the way of God. In a military context, jihad is often interpreted to mean “holy war.” This has sometimes led to cruelty and bloody battles.
While history indicates that the Islamic world generally has understood jihad to mandate physical warfare against non-Muslims, not all Muslims or Islamic scholars today would agree. Some Muslims through the centuries have defined jihad as the individual’s inner struggle to live a disciplined, submissive lifestyle. Others emphasize more the intellectual clash of worldviews in which Islam will ultimately prevail.
Despite the one-sided picture of blind Islamic fanaticism that the news media often present today, an educated, tolerant elite has existed, even flourished, within Islam for centuries. In many ways, the Muslim world was more cultured than the Christian West at the turn of the millennium. The world owes a debt to Muslim scholars and philosophers such as Avicenna, al-Farabi, and others for their contributions to the arts and sciences.
Today, however, their descendents—authors, poets, academics, and journalists—are under pressure from extremists in their societies who want to turn back the clock to the seventh century. Today many in Islam’s cultural elite are speaking out bravely for human rights and religious freedom, often at great personal risk. Militants have murdered Islamic liberals this year in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey. But the intellectuals are not alone. Many Muslims, from simple villagers to schoolteachers, abhor violence and deplore the actions of militant Islamists.
History, however, shows that the traditional, militant interpretation of jihad has often carried the day. Muhammad (570–632), the founder of Islam, and his successors spread Islamic rule primarily through conquest. Shortly after Muhammad’s death, his successors conducted a series of blitzkriegs against Christendom from which the church has yet to fully recover. Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 638, followed in rapid succession by Caesarea, Alexandria, Carthage, and most of Spain. Although the Muslim advance into Europe was halted at Tours in 732, suspicion of Islam in the West continued for centuries. The 1453 capture by the Turks of Constantinople (today, Istanbul) confirmed the worst fears of many.
Militant in some places but not in others, Islam today is nonetheless agressively expansionist worldwide. Many of its followers look with disdain upon the decadence of the secularized, post-Christian West and the seeming impotence of a rich but marginalized church. While the Muslim world has many fault lines—Sunni and Shi’ite, Arab and Persian, pro-Saddam and anti-Saddam—its missions movement is surprisingly unified. And fueled with abundant oil money, this movement is making up ground lost by the graying and still-splintered Protestant missionary establishment in places such as Central Asia.
According to Patrick Sookhdeo, head of the International Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, London, Muslims are highly advanced “in terms of their infrastructure, the materials they are producing, the amount they spend on global Islam, and their mosque-building program. They can replicate virtually every aspect of Christian mission—from research and development to ‘pioneer’ evangelism.”
Brant says, “Muslims have used petrodollars to expand in incredible ways. Along the coastal nations of East Africa, a mosque has been built every 25 kilometers [15 miles] along major routes.”
How the church is reaching Muslims
The response of the church to Islam’s sometimes bloody conquest has fallen short of her Lord’s injunction to turn the other cheek. The crusades to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control (1095–1291) left Muslims with a bad taste. States historian Ruth Tucker in her book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, “So bitter was the animosity of Muslims toward Christians, as a result of the savage cruelty of the Crusades, that even today the memory has not been erased.”
Ron Peck, a missionary of 32 years to the Muslim world with the Assemblies of God, has been organizing a prayer fellowship in which thousands of Christians in over 30 countries fast and pray for Muslims at noon on Fridays, one of the chief times of prayer in Islam. Peck urges Christians to get beyond the media stereotypes of radical Islam.
“We have looked at Muslims almost as if they were nonhumans at times,” Peck said. “Muslim people are some of the most wonderful, warm-hearted, hospitable, family-centered, and, in many cases—particularly with those who are devout—God-conscious people. You can’t win people to Christ if you don’t respect them.”
Among the most notable Christians in history to reach Muslims were thirteenth-century reformer Francis of Assisi and missionary Raymond Lull. According to Tucker, while the number of converts was vanishingly small, these two “paved the way for others to view Muslims as potential brothers and sisters in Christ.” Another was Samuel Zwemer, the American “apostle to Islam” of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Zwemer worked in the Persian Gulf and Egypt. Although his contributions in apologetics and public speaking laid the foundation for Muslim missions in this century, he, too, saw a small harvest, as have most since him.
If the aphorism “out of sight, out of mind” is true, so is its reverse. Media coverage of the various hostage crises, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Persian Gulf War has sparked new interest among Christians in missions to Muslims. Says Ray Tallman, formerly chairman of the Department of World Missions at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, and now international director of Arab World Ministries, London, “There’s a new spirit among the youth who are committed to reaching the world for Christ. They recognize that the most unevangelized areas of the world are Muslim areas, that the last wall to fall before the Great Commission is anywhere near completion is primarily the Muslim world.”
Woodberry also notes the emergence of agencies devoted exclusively to reaching Muslims, such as Frontiers, and an increase in so-called Christian tentmakers, who work in the marketplace in countries closed to missionaries. Rick Love, U.S. director of Frontiers, in Mesa, Arizona, says the agency has seen “hundreds” of converts throughout the Muslim world in the last ten years.
However, Woodberry Some estimate that roughly only 2 percent of the Protestant missionary force is focused on Muslims, who make up almost 20 percent of the world’s population. According to the fifteenth edition of the Mission Handbook, the number of fully supported U.S. personnel overseas has declined from 50,500 in 1988 to 41,142 in 1992. The conviction has grown in the West that Christians in the so-called Third World, where the missions force is growing as much as five times faster, will have to do most of the work. With and without Western help, believers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are beginning to do just that.
In Latin America, where the number of evangelicals was a mere 50,000 at the turn of the century but is surging to a predicted 100 million by 2000, Christians feel a strong burden for Muslims. William Taylor, executive director of the Missions Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), says, “Physically, they blend in easier. Second, they’re willing to suffer economic hardships and go on a very low budget. They don’t have all the middle-class expectations or all the benefit packages and financial obligations of the North Americans. Third, they’re willing to suffer.”
The SIM-related Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA) in Nigeria is actively evangelizing Muslims despite heavy persecution. ECWA has about 3,200 churches and more than 900 cross-cultural missionaries. Nominally Muslim animists in the country’s midsection, disgusted by the atrocities of radical Muslims and attracted by the generally nonviolent Christian response, have been turning to Christ in large numbers, according to Dean Gilliland, Fuller’s professor of contextualized theology and African studies.
Groups of converted Muslims, although small, now exist in areas closed to the gospel for centuries. Abe Ghaffari of Iranian Christians International, Colorado Springs, Colorado, estimates that the evangelical church in Iran, not including secret believers, numbers about 14,000—half of whom are converts from Islam. Phil Parshall, a long-term missionary to Muslims and author of five books on Islam, counts 10,000 baptized believers in Bangladesh, compared to a “handful” before 1975; some estimates are much higher. Steve Hagerman, director of the Grand Junction, Colorado-based Friends of Turkey ministry, says there are “well over 1,000 Bible-believing Turks from Turkish Muslim background” in Turkey.
Churches are sprouting in the barren soil of North Africa, too. William Saal, U.S. director of Arab World Ministries (AWM) and author of Reaching Muslims for Christ, estimates there are thousands of Christians in North Africa. He says the church is growing “by leaps and bounds” in Egypt, where a revival in the historic Assemblies of God churches in the south has swept at least 20,000 nominal Christians into the kingdom. Across Egypt’s denominational spectrum, he said, churches are rejecting their former reticence and winning Muslims to Christ.
“I think almost every Christian church in Egypt has contact with Muslim converts,” he stated. “I think the reality must be dawning on some of these brothers and sisters that no matter what they do, they’re a targeted minority, so they have nothing more to lose,” he said. Minority groups in other Muslim areas, including the Kurds and the southern Sudanese, are showing openness to the gospel.
In Sudan, where a Muslim government has declared holy war against opponents, the church is growing. A Sudanese Christian leader says that as tens of thousands of southern Sudanese have fled their homelands to the relative safety of the Arab-dominated north, Christians among them have begun planting churches and reaching out to their Muslim neighbors. Patrick Johnstone, author of Operation World, says the church in Sudan “is growing fast with a great ingathering of people in the midst of terrible suffering through war, famine, and persecution.”
Even puritanical Saudi Arabia, where there were no known Christians only a few years ago—and where conversion from Islam to Christianity can be met with death—has a growing underground church.
The pain of persecution
Though conversions are coming more frequently, they do not come easily. Often Islam “retains its people by intimidation,” Tallman states. “Anyone who converts is in danger in the context of the Muslim community.” From Nigeria to the Middle East to Asia, examples abound. Here are just a few.
• Last year Saudi Arabia beheaded a convert from Islam who was evangelizing; two imprisoned Filipino Christians were saved from death sentences and released only after the intervention of Philippine President Fidel Ramos.
• Fundamentalist Muslims in Sudan, bankrolled and trained by Iran, are waging genocidal campaigns against Christians that have been ignored in the international media.
• In Bangladesh, two Bengali Christians were falsely charged with kidnapping a young Muslim and imprisoned for two weeks. In October of 1992, Muslim fundamentalists, angered by the conversions of some local Muslims, attacked a Christian village and the Memorial Christian Hospital, run by the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism.
• Last year Coptic Christians in Asyut Province, Egypt, saw 30 of their people killed in a four-month orgy of arson and violence instigated by militants.
Despite the long history of animosity and sometimes outright warfare, Christians in general seem more motivated now to follow Jesus’ words to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Last February and March, Youth With a Mission organized 30 days of prayer for the Muslim world during the Islamic month of Ramadan; thousands participated around the world. Other Christians intercede one Friday each month for the Persian-speaking world.
Woodberry, noting the similarities between Christianity and Islam, says we should be extremely reluctant to call Muslims enemies. He even sees room for joint work against secularism and injustice. “When people suffer injustice,” Woodberry said, “it provides an opportunity for Muslims and Christians and Jews to work together for justice and peace.” Pointing to the different responses Jesus had to the Jewish leaders of his day, Woodberry commented, “Anybody who locks him- or herself into one approach or attitude is certainly not reflecting our Lord.”
To reach Muslims with the gospel, Woodberry counsels Christians to build friendships with Muslims that are not contingent on Muslim conversion, and to try genuinely to understand them in order to present Christianity as a relevant answer to their felt needs.
Signs of discontent
While some Christian observers look almost with despair at Islam’s revived militancy, others see the violence and repression as signs of weakness and the return to fundamentalism as an opportunity for witness.
“Where Muslim fundamentalism comes to the fore and dominates,” says Robert Douglas, executive director of the Zwemer Institute of Muslim Studies in Pasadena, California, “it’s not long until sensitive Muslims come to a point of saying, ‘There has to be something different.’ ”
Tallman speculates that if predominantly Muslim countries were to open their borders, 50 percent of their young people would emigrate to the West. Brant discerns a change in Islamic writings: “Their own literature displays a kind of paranoia about people leaving Islam.” “They appear to be very concerned about their educated youth. They seem to feel that as young people develop a more scientific mentality and scrutinize the claims of Islam, many will defect.”
The influences of modern culture—scientific discovery, pluralism, humanism—have put Islam, the most insulated of all the major religions, next in line for significant change. Western influence, boosted by the Persian Gulf War, is evident not only in the reactionary fall of the “Muslim curtain” in places such as Sudan and Iran, but also in tentative moves toward democracy in Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia. Arab liberals are searching for ways to unite democratic principles with Islamic faith, and ideas of political freedom and religious tolerance are competing with the exclusive call from the minaret.
Woodberry has developed a nine-page questionnaire to find out from former Muslims why they became followers of Christ. The single biggest motivation among the 130 replies he has received so far is dissatisfaction with Islam. “In the Qur’an God forgives whom he wills and does not forgive whom he wills, so there’s never the assurance of salvation,” Woodberry writes. “Generally, orthodox Muslims … have not felt close to God.”
Other factors noted in responses to the survey include the breaking of anti-Christian stereotypes through contact with believers; hearing Christian truth through print and radio ministries; and displays of God’s presence through dreams, visions, and miraculous events.
Tallman notes that in Algeria and Egypt, where Muslim fundamentalist movements are mounting strong challenges to authoritarian regimes, record numbers of conversions from Islam occurred during 1992 and 1993.
Where the challenges lie
It still will not be easy for Christians to respond to Muslims’ spiritual discontent. For example, of the 64 million Iranians worldwide, Ghaffari estimates 10 million are open to the gospel—but there are not enough Iranian believers, Bibles, and pieces of literature to meet the need. With an “anything but Islam” attitude, many are turning to other options, such as Zoroastrianism. That mood could be repeated in other areas of the Muslim world.
Phil Parshall also cautions Christians not to underestimate Islam’s staying power. “I regularly read of unqualified assertions that Islam will soon be totally defeated by the gospel,” he said. “We should be wary of unfounded Christian triumphalism, and at the same time realize our Lord is quite capable of intervening in history and bringing to pass a major breakthrough in Muslim evangelism.”
With that in mind, Christians, both nationals and missionaries, are using a variety of methods to respond to the spiritual needs of their potential brothers and sisters in Christ in the Muslim world:
• Bible distribution. Arab Christian leaders report an almost insatiable demand for Bibles and say Scripture distribution has never been higher in the Middle East, making this one of the most effective ways to introduce Muslims to Christ. Jordanian believers and others have sent more than a quarter of a million Scriptures into Iraq since the Gulf War. The evangelical church in Baghdad, where many of the Bibles have gone, had only five members in the 1970s. Today it has 300 to 500 people attending every Sunday.
Several Muslim clerics in West Africa’s Burkina Faso have come to faith in Christ after studying the Scriptures in Arabic, reports Tite Tienou, professor of theology and missiology at Alliance Theological Seminary, Nyack, New York.
• Relief and development. As long as Muslims suffer, Christian humanitarian aid combined with evangelism will continue to open doors to sharing Christ.
When the Communists in Bulgaria lost power in 1989, most of the Bulgarian Turks returned. Last year some Christian organizations brought relief supplies to Burgas, Bulgaria, home to many of these returned Turks. Unasked, the mayor came to the Christians and said, “While you’re helping us physically, don’t forget about our spiritual needs.” The Christians got his permission to use the city stadium for an evangelistic crusade, at which hundreds came forward to receive Christ. In the last four years, between 3,000 and 4,000 Bulgarian Turks have made the same decision.
Relief efforts by national Christians and outside agencies have advanced Christianity in Mali, where the desert is inexorably moving south and displacing Muslim herders and farmers, according to Jim Taylor, vice president in charge of Europe and Africa for Gospel Missionary Union, Kansas City, Missouri. There were just 6,000 believers in 40 churches back in 1980, he said; today there are 22,000 believers in 300 congregations. “Christianity has a very pleasant ring to it in Mali today,” Taylor said.
A similar story is told of the Kurds in northern Iraq. “The Kurds have no friends,” a Kurdish proverb states. When a team from WEC International visited the Kurds of Northern Iraq to explore ministry options after the Gulf War, Kurdish authorities asked them, “Are you missionaries?” When they admitted they were, the officials answered, “You are most welcome. Bring as many of your friends as you can.”
• Media ministries. Islam’s crescent moon may not symbolize a satellite dish, but Muslims are increasingly media conscious. Growing numbers of Muslims across Asia and the Middle East are picking up television and radio programs through an array of international satellite broadcasters, which are sprouting like mushrooms. Christians are capitalizing on it, Brant says.
“Christian media have played a significant role in opening up the Islamic world,” Brant says. “It is no longer possible for Muslim leaders to play mind-control games. There is too much out there on the airwaves and in the media today.”
Middle East Media (MEM)’s Magalla magazine, with a circulation of 460,000 readers in 13 Arab countries, is the largest Christian literature program in the Middle East. Bible-correspondence courses are answering the questions of spiritually hungry Muslims from North Africa to Turkey. In one Muslim area, more than 30 Christian agencies are sharing resources and coordinating media and tentmaking strategies to reach Muslims.
MEM and many other mission groups are working cooperatively to establish a 24-hour Christian Direct Broadcast Satellite station to air culturally sensitive programming. MEM has also produced a series of half-hour children’s video programs that a spokesperson says will be slated for distribution in the 22 countries of the Middle East. The programs, produced in a predominantly Muslim country, are educational and carry Christian themes.
Making the gospel hearer-friendly
In contrast to previous generations, almost all Christians working among Muslims today agree on the need to contextualize the message—that is, to communicate the gospel in culturally appropriate ways. The key question is “To what extent may we incorporate Muslim forms and vocabulary without compromising our message?” There is no universal agreement.
“I think everybody is committed to contextualization to a degree,” says the Zwemer Institute’s Douglas. “The mere translation of the Bible into the host language is an act of contextualization.”
Phil Parshall says 1975 became the “turning point” for Muslim evangelism in Bangladesh when a group of missionaries decided Western approaches were totally ineffective and turned to a more culturally sensitive approach. They adopted a simple lifestyle and wore local clothing; they followed Muslim dietary restrictions; they used Muslim worship forms, including where believers sat and what religious vocabulary was used; new converts kept their Muslim names and were told to remain within their communities; and attractive evangelistic literature with Muslim artwork was produced. Covert messianic mosques, where Muslim converts use Islamic forms to worship Jesus, have sprung up in both Nigeria and Bangladesh since then.
An ever-present danger of contextualization, however, is syncretism. While it would be too much to expect Christians to reach full agreement on how to present the essentials of the Christian faith in ways relevant to Muslims, we must at least agree on what the essentials are.
For example, in Nigeria there is a small group of excommunicated Muslims called Isawa (literally “Jesus-ists”) who have concluded, by reading the Qur’an, that Jesus is superior to Muhammad. However, also following their holy book, they deny his death and resurrection, which are foundational to the Christian faith. Without Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is no sacrifice for sins, no atonement, no trusting in the finished work of Christ—in short, no salvation. Yet a prominent Christian expert on Islam has withheld judgment on whether the Isawa have saving faith, saying, “I would see salvation as being through Christ, even though I might not be able to tell in some cases whether a person’s following of Christ is a saving following.”
In diverse parts of the Muslim world—such as Nigeria and Indonesia—Christians are making progress in evangelism because of what Woodberry has called “evidences of God’s power.” Gilliland says “power encounters” seem to be a significant way that God is drawing folk Muslims to himself.
“Folk Muslims are seeing more power in Christianity than in Islam and seeing much more evidence of God,” Gilliland said. “We don’t do evangelism simply by trying to win the minds of Muslims. We have got a history from the very beginning of the Muslim-Christian theological encounter to prove that that just does not work.”
Woodberry recounts an incident in Nigeria where a Muslim man paid a local shaman to curse a group of evangelizing Christians so that they would die. But instead, the Muslim got sick, and the shaman could not lift the spell. So in desperation, the Muslim asked the Christians he tried to curse to pray for him. They did, and he was delivered. Realizing where the power came from, the Muslim became a follower of Christ.
Jim Reapsome, editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly, notes, “Experienced missionaries among Muslims know that many conversions come not from winning theological debates but from God’s intervention through dreams and healings. But they also know it is cruel and unfair to expect new missionaries to be miracle workers.”
Dreams, visions, and miraculous events are happening, but they, are not everyday occurrences. Many argue we should break down the barriers of Islam both through disciplined study of apologetics and through faith in God’s ability and willingness to intervene miraculously. All agree Christians should prayerfully depend upon God, the source of all wisdom and knowledge and who answered Elijah in the confrontation with the priests of Baal.
Events across the world show that the Islamic crescent is being illuminated by the light of the gospel. Spiritually hungry Muslims are finding a peace and forgiveness unknown in Islam. But making Muslims brothers and sisters in the faith—not the estranged half-brothers and -sisters they are now—will require continued work worldwide. In area after area across northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, unprecedented numbers of Muslims are becoming believers in Jesus Christ through such accelerating efforts.
Stan Guthrie is associate editor of Pulse, an evangelical missions newsletter in Wheaton, Illinois, and a columnist for Evangelical Missions Quarterly.
Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
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