Middle East Resources

Chapter 6 -- Proclaiming the Gospel to the Muslims

How shall we proclaim the Gospel to the Muslims of today? Part of the answer must be an acquaintance with Islamics. But this is an exceptionally complex theological-philosophical discipline. One could spend a lifetime in its study. And no Christian should embark on this task simply for the study of Islamics in isolation from the larger context of the Christian missions to Muslims.

The important thing for the Christian is that the study of Islamics will enable him to proclaim the gospel relevantly to the Muslims of today. Therefore, the Christian rejects a purely theoretical study of Islam. He knows that the time is short and that we cannot live in the hope that some future generation will do the job. We must work while it is still today and do our utmost to bring the whole gospel to the Muslims of the world in our generation. This is especially so as we witness the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and its impact all over the globe.

These preliminary thoughts are necessary in order to emphasize:

First, that no one can be effective in mission work among Muslims without an adequate knowledge of Islamics.

Second, that the study of Islamics may become dangerous if one forgets the main task: the relevant proclamation of the gospel to the Muslims of today. We must avoid the two extremes that have manifested themselves during the twentieth century. On the one hand, many went to Muslim lands with the hope of evangelizing Muslims without any proper knowledge of Islam. On the other hand, many who had manifested a great interest in Muslims became so fascinated with Islamics that they forgot the main goal of Christian missions. Both a basic knowledge of Islamics and a great zeal for reaching Muslims with the Christian message are a prerequisite for a proper work of missions among Muslims.

This is a very ambitious goal. I would begin by setting some limitations. Muslims today number around one billion. While they have many things in common, yet they live in various countries in Africa and Asia and belong to various cultures. Since I have first-hand knowledge of the Arab segment of the Muslim world, my remarks deal specifically with the situation in the Arab world. This part of the Muslim world is preoccupied with the emergence of the State of Israel. This fact imposes certain limitations on the work of missions throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Thus what may or may not be done there does not necessarily apply to the Muslim countries in Southeast Asia or in sub-Saharan Africa.

Having emphasized the special conditions that exist in the Arab world, I must hasten to add that the Muslim mind tends to be the same everywhere. Furthermore, thanks to the modern means of mass communications such as radio, satellite TV, and the Internet, our world today is bringing all nations together and placing them face to face with a very dominant and aggressive culture. I am referring to the Western secular worldview. It threatens Islam as well as Christianity.

As Islam is a post-Christian religion and since the Qur’an refers to several Biblical personalities of the Old and New Testament times, one cannot ignore theology or doctrine. As soon as we begin our mission work among Muslims, we are involved in apologetics and polemics. We believe that the Bible is the word of God; they believe the Qur’an to be the eternal and uncreated Word of God. We believe in one God who is triune; their doctrine of God is Unitarian. The Qur’anic Messiah is not the Biblical Messiah. According to the Muslim holy book, Christ was not crucified. Man’s sin consists mainly in his ignorance of the divine will. This is the teaching of the Qur’an about sin. It is very important to remember that Muslim doctrine refers to individual sins rather than to sin in the singular. In other words, sin in the sense of sinfulness (i.e. that propensity to disobey the will or law of God) is unknown in Islamic theology. There is no original or inherited sin in Islam. This faith does not recognize a general or radical corruption of the human nature.

One could go on enumerating the differences between Christianity and Islam in the areas of doctrine. These differences are very important. We should have an adequate knowledge of the basic points of disagreement between the two faiths. The question that faces the missionary is: what is my approach going to be? How am I going to relate the Gospel to a people who have been formed by a thoroughly anti-Christian theology?

There are several possibilities that are available to us. Since we are not pioneering the Christian mission to Islam, we can simply go back to the past, and especially to the last two hundred years, and seek to re-use and up-date the approaches and the methods of the pioneers.

For example, we may begin with an attempt to prove the authenticity, veracity, and reliability of the Christian Scriptures. We believe, of course, that history is on our side and that a Muslim will have a very hard time proving that we no longer possess the authentic Bible. Nevertheless, this approach has serious shortcomings, for while the Christian holds to the above-mentioned qualities of the Bible, he cannot “prove” them to a Muslim. The latter has been conditioned to think differently about the subject. No amount of historical evidence will convince him. Furthermore, if he has received a Western education, he has most likely become aware of the devastating types of Biblical criticism that have emerged among liberal Western Christians. The educated Muslim does not hesitate to make full use of higher criticism in his own critique of the Bible.

Today there are very few opportunities for a Christian missionary to engage in polemics with a Muslim. We are no longer living in the old colonial era. Indonesia has replaced the Dutch East Indies. Pakistan and Bangladesh were carved out of India before the British left the vast sub-continent. The Arab world has shaken off foreign rule.

How are we to proclaim the gospel to the Muslim of today? If we cannot successfully engage in apologetics and in polemics with respect to the Bible, should we shift the ground to the doctrine of God? Or, should we rather concentrate on the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ? Here again, we go back to the Bible and we read it according to the authentic Christian tradition: the tradition of the early ecumenical creeds and the Reformation confessions of faith and catechisms. We proclaim a Trinitarian God and we preach a Divine-human Messiah. The Muslims’ retort is immediate. They tell us that we have committed the worst sin: the sin of “shirk.” We have become polytheists. Unless we adopt Islam, we are on the way to hell.

By asking these questions, I am not trying to say that we have to reduce the gospel to some bare minimum of bland theism in order to make it acceptable to the Muslims today. The gospel is not negotiable. There is only one gospel: the gospel of God, the gospel of Christ, the gospel of the Bible. "Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” Galatians 1:8 (NIV)

The whole Gospel must be proclaimed to the Muslims otherwise we have not brought it to them. We cannot keep anything back. Everything that is part and parcel of the Christian faith must be brought to the followers of Islam.

The reason behind these questions is that we must come to understand not so much the content of the preaching of the Christian message to Muslims, (for we have already concluded that the whole Gospel must be presented) but the method of proclamation. By method, I do not mean the actual technique, be it conventional missionary ways or in radio and literature missions. My questions do not relate to techniques but to the approach that must underlie any technique or method.

The right answer resides in the word “today.” I have been emphasizing “today” throughout this chapter because Muslims no longer live in an isolated or insulated world. Slowly but steadily, they are coming under the impact of Western secularism. As this anti-theistic worldview works within the Muslim world, individuals find themselves challenged to the very root of their existence. How do they react to the propagandists of neo-paganism?

This is not a theoretical question. For instance, there was a big debate in Lebanon about an Arabic book written by a Muslim from Damascus, Syria. It was printed in Beirut under the title: A Critique of Religious Thought. It appeared in 1969 and was the first open critique of Islam written in Arabic. Though I refer to the author as a Muslim; this simply means that he comes from a Muslim background. However, due to his studies at Western institutions of higher education both in the Middle East and in the United States, he became thoroughly secularized. The appearance of a book in Arabic that criticized Islam from a Marxist point of view was an indication of the degree of secularization that has been reached in the Arab section of the Muslim world.

The believing Muslim is very offended by any work that challenges the basis of his faith. He responds by re-stating the case for Islam along traditional lines. However, he fails to realize that the process of Westernization, through the educational systems that had been left by the colonial powers, has exposed a certain section of the population to the anti-Islamic teachings. Then, about a quarter of a century later, Salman Rushdie, a secularized Muslim from Bombay, India, wrote “The Satanic Verses.” His implied criticisms of the family of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, earned him a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini that shocked people all over the world. That legal decision of the father of the Islamic Republic of Iran authorized any Muslim to kill a renegade author who dared to write such a negative book about a subject considered as very sacred in Islam.

So, when we come to consider our present-day opportunities to bring the Gospel to Muslims, we must be fully aware of what is going on in their lands. How should we address them with a message that is utterly important for them in this life, and for the hereafter?

In presenting the claims of the Christian faith to the Muslims of our world, we should sympathetically and irenically point to one of the most glaring short-shortcomings of Islam: the doctrine of man. In Islam, the doctrine of man lacks the realism of the Christian doctrine of man. Generally speaking, missionaries do not adequately recognize this important point, especially if they adhere to traditions that have rejected the radical nature of man's fall into sin. While the Bible clearly teaches us the awful consequences of man’s fall into sin, it is only within the Augustinian and Calvinistic traditions, that this Biblical teaching has been fully recognized and proclaimed.

Islam has an optimistic view of man. This faulty anthropology precludes the necessity of redemption and fortifies the Muslim against the acceptance of the Biblical teaching of redemption through the work of the Messiah on the cross of Golgotha. At this point, I would like to quote the following regarding the Islamic doctrine of man and its failure to come to grips with the real needs of mankind.

In 1957, a group of Muslim and Roman Catholic scholars met in a monastery at Toumliline, a small Berber town near Meknes, in Morocco. One of the main speakers was Dr. Uthman Yahya, a scholar from Al-Azhar University (Seminary) in Cairo, Egypt. The title of his paper was: "Man and His Perfection in Muslim Theology”. These are some excerpts from an English translation published by the quarterly journal, THE MUSLIM WORLD.

The Qur’an confronts us with man in two distinct states: the first in his original constitution, the prototype created in the image of God, the second man in his actual condition. In the primordial state man was created in entire harmony. He was perfectly constituted. The Qur’an gives us this description: "We created man in the most noble form” As contrasted with his ideal prototype man in his actual state is feeble (Surah 4:28), despairing (11:9), unjust (14:34), quarrelsome (16:4), tyrannical (96:6), lost (105:2), etc. It is true that Muslim theology does not speak of original sin and of its transmission from generation to generation. But we see clearly in the light of these quotations that there are two distinct states of man: that of his original nature and that of his actual fall ... The possibility of man's deliverance and the way to follow have been indicated by the Qur’an in its address to sinners, fathers of the human race: "Go forth all of you from hence and if there comes to you guidance from Me then he who follows my guidance shall have nothing to fear, nor shall they know distress” ( 2:38) By this solemn affirmation God Himself takes action (entre en acte) for the salvation of man in the path of right. Islamic tradition then has the means to lead man to final perfection, the effect of which is liberation from the fear and from the sadness that prevent man from attaining that eternal blessedness which is life in God and for God.

In commenting on the paper of Dr. Yahya, the editor of The Muslim World wrote:

Dr. Yahya’s exposition of Muslim theology and its concepts of man and his salvation raise several deep questions. The Christian must always be perplexed about its ready confidence that 'to know is to do,' that man’s salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices and that through the law given in the Divine communication is the path that man will follow once he knows and sees it. The whole mystery of human recalcitrance and ‘hardness of heart’ seems to be overlooked.
THE MUSLIM WORLD,
Volume 49, No. 1, January 1959

In other words, the Muslim view of man and the Muslim understanding of the nature of the fall do not leave any room for a Divine Savior. Such a Savior is not needed, since man needs only to know in order to do the will of Allah.

Islam has never recognized realistically the consequences of man’s rebellion against God. While admitting the fall of Adam as an historical event, Islam lacks that Biblical realism that makes us acknowledge the seriousness of man’s sinfulness as well as the necessity of redemption from without. Islam readily admits the sins and shortcomings of man, but does not admit the sinfulness, i.e., the indwelling nature of sin. This lesson was engraved in my memory in the words of a Tunisian listener who once wrote to me: "I can well understand you when you talk about sins in the plural, but I cannot comprehend you when you speak about sin in the singular."

Today Islam is tremendously vulnerable in its doctrine of man. For the present mood in world literature, philosophy, and the arts, does not lend itself to that shallow optimism of the Islamic doctrine of man. The modern secular prophet tells us that man is dead. He sees no hope for mankind. How can he entertain any optimistic views of man after all that happened in our world during the past century? And if the Muslim’s answer is that these terrible things took place within Christendom, can he really maintain that human nature is any different in Africa and Asia? Such questions are not meant to embarrass any Muslim, nor are they intended to show that the West is less sinful than the East. The point is that modern history does not support any optimistic view of man or of his so-called native goodness. So much has taken place during the last fourteen hundred years within the Household of Islam that points to the fact that man is desperately wicked, and that man’s depravity is general or total. Nevertheless, throughout all of these years, Islam has not yet learned the lesson that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. There is none that does good, no not one!”

Since the Islamic doctrine of man is the most vulnerable one, what are its implications for the Christian mission to Islam today?

Whether the Christian is explaining the Scriptures to a Muslim audience, or preaching on a certain passage of Scripture, or proclaiming the Word in a topical message, or simply reflecting on the problems and issues of contemporary life, he must bear in mind the Biblical doctrine of the radical nature of sin. By doing this, he is not imposing a non-Biblical scheme on the Christian proclamation. He is simply witnessing to a basic and foundational theme of God’s special revelation. Furthermore, he is preparing the ground for the acceptance of the Biblical doctrine of redemption by the vicarious death of the Lord Jesus Christ.

What we must always remember is this: the Muslim not only rejects the historicity of Good Friday's main event–the crucifixion of Christ– but his theology denies the necessity of redemption. According to Islam’s teachings, man does not need to be redeemed by a Divine act. In Islam, perfection or salvation is achieved by doing what one learns from God's revelation! So, it is only after a Muslim has acknowledged the necessity of Divine redemption due to the radical nature of sin, that he is ready to consider the claims of Jesus Christ, the Savior.

But here we must be very careful in our statement of the case. We must follow Biblical history and Biblical logic, and not some abstract logic. We cannot appeal to a so-called neutral arbiter in order to make our message acceptable to Muslims. The Christian missionary must begin with Biblical history. The finished work of Christ on the cross is a fait accompli. God planned it from all eternity. He executed it in the fullness of time. Thus, our argument is not based on human logic, but on a Divine action that took place in real history. It is preserved for us and explained in Holy Scripture. We should never give the Muslim the idea that our doctrine of salvation has been concocted as a result of our own independent theologizing.

Certainly God’s way of salvation by the blood of Christ shed on our behalf on Calvary’s cross is exactly what we needed. There was no other way of salvation. Man’s case was hopeless. There was no other way of escape except God’s way. And when we speak in such terms, we are not taking our stand on some neutral ground, and then arriving at these truths on the basis of a so-called autonomous human logic. We must impress the Muslim that when we speak of salvation and redemption, we are testifying of what God has planned from eternity and what he has accomplished in the fullness of time. The Christian faith is objectively true, whether people believe it or not.

Furthermore, when the Christian missionary speaks of the Gospel, he speaks as one who has already tasted the salvation of the Lord. We, who are called to go to Muslims with the message of the gospel, have already experienced the Lord’s redemption. We go to Muslims as those who are commissioned to proclaim the Word of God. We go as witnesses to the truth that has liberated us from the power and bondage of sin and evil.

These lines are not the fruit of an abstract reflection on Christian missions to Islam. Rather, they are the result of a pioneering ministry of radio and literature missions in the Arabic-speaking world. It was my privilege to be involved in this work from mid-1958 to mid-1994. I processed around 150,000 letters from Arabs in every part of their vast world, more than half of which were from Muslims. Based on these long years of work, and having kept in touch with a field that stretches from the Gulf to the Atlantic, I testify that the gospel of Jesus Christ is tremendously needed. Now, as we live in the early years of the Third Millennium, (corresponding to the Second Millennium of the Islamic calendar) we must realize that, notwithstanding the rise of radical Islam, the challenge of missions to Muslims remains with us as members of the obedient church. We must preach the Good News of Jesus Christ to the followers of Muhammad, remembering the words of Paul in I Corinthians 1:21

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
(NIV)

Epeiden gar en te sofia tou Theou ouk egno o kosmos dia tes sofias ton Theon, eudokesen o Theos dia tes morias tou kerugmatos sosai tous pisteuontas
(Greek)