While Western Christians Theorize, Arabic-Speaking Christians & Muslims Dialogue
Middle East Resources Ministry
The Internet has ushered in a new phase in the history of the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. Communications between ordinary people take place on a daily basis at a much deeper level, as may be observed from the comments of the readers of online Arabic media.
One of the liveliest Arabic sites on the Internet is www.elaph.com As the first Arabic online daily, it began in London, England, on 21 May 2001. It has correspondents throughout the Arab world, as well as in Europe and the Americas. It publishes news and op-ed articles by Arab writers and intellectuals, and welcomes listeners’ comments.
The major difference between this new medium and the print press of the Arab world is the freedom enjoyed by all participants, both writers and respondents. No censorship inhibits the expression of various and conflicting opinions, as is the case in the print media.
On 11 June 2007, an article was posted which dealt with an ethical problem known in Arabic as Khulwa. This word describes a situation when a man and a woman, working at a government or business office, find themselves alone in a room or a cubicle. It is not my intention to comment on the specific fatwa that was issued by a professor at Al-Azhar Universityin Cairo, in which he offered a solution to the problem. My main interest lies in the comments that came almost instantly from 34 readers. Some referred to the topic of Khulwa, but the majority seized the occasion to begin a dialogue on an important religious subject prompted by the last sentence of the article in Elaph. It called for a new hermeneutic of the Islamic religious and cultural heritage.
The first response came from a Christian in Alexandria, Egypt. He began, “One thing is needed, as the Messiah told Martha, who was burdened by too many concerns.” He concluded, “We don’t need a new prophet. What we need is the one who said: ‘I am the truth, the resurrection, and the life.’”
About an hour later, another response was posted. “The Lord Jesus is the only one who gives rest. He said: ‘Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Then he pleaded with the readers; ‘Come to the king and savior and you will find rest; you don’t need a nabi, or a mufti to help you. Cry out to God and ask him: ‘save me from my bewilderments and confusions, and help me to know your person.’”
I salute the Christian reader who initiated this dialogue that was totally unrelated to the Khulwa problem. He gave a sincere and Biblical marturia (testimony) about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Two hours after these comments appeared, a Muslim responded, manifesting his indignation at the contents of the Christian testimonies: “The Glorious Qur’an honors the Messiah as a human being and as an apostle; but it contradicts the claims of divinity and sonship attributed to him, and warns those who do so, with terrible sufferings in this life, and at the End.” He then proceeded to criticize the Christian doctrine of forgiveness of sins, based on the person and work of the Messiah.
A Christian responded by elucidating the role of Christ in granting forgiveness to those who trust in Him:
“Some people imagine that forgiveness happens simply with a word uttered by God, but such forgiveness would be cheap and encourages sinning. However, the forgiveness that cost much more than silver and gold, was purchased with the precious blood of a sinless lamb, is the basis for true forgiveness (I Peter 1:18-19). The Messiah came so that, anyone who believes in him may not perish, according to John 3:16.
Showing his genuine interest in the salvation of the Muslim respondent, the Christian witness went on saying:
“Have you ever met a sick person who says, ‘I won’t go to see a doctor unless I’m healed first?!’ God always takes the initiative by searching for man. God loves the sinners. ‘For while we were yet sinners, the Messiah died for us.’ (Romans 6:23) Forgiveness, in Christianity, is full and free, (References followed from John 5:24, Romans 8:1-2, and John 1:12.) No one should judge the veracity of these words, as long as he remains outside the faith.”
“I have given these Biblical testimonies to show you that a man receives forgiveness as a free gift. However, it cost God the precious blood of his beloved Son to bring about our forgiveness. No one should belittle the value of the Messiah’s sacrifice on the cross.”
“Also the Messiah, pbuh (peace be upon him), said: ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ (Matthew 4:10) At this point it must be pointed out that the Muslim misinterpreted or misunderstood our Lord’s answer to the devil. The Muslim continued looking for Scriptural proofs of the Qur’anic view of the Messiah. So he quoted Matt. 10:40: ‘He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.’ The point he was trying to make, can only be understood if I refer to the Arabic text of the passage:‘man yaqbalukom yaqbaluni, wa’man yaqbaluni, yaqbalu al-ladhi arsalani.’ He interpreted the verb arsalani, i.e. He sent me, to mean that Jesus was simply a rasool, i.e. one who was sent.A clever argument, indeed; however he failed to realize that Christ was referring to the redemptive mission that God had sent him to accomplish.
A Christian respondent tried to convince the Muslim that according to the New Testament, Jesus never refused worship. He said: “The word ‘worship’ occurs sixty times in the New Testament; all of them have to do with worshipping Jesus, the Messiah. He accepted this worship. At other instances in the NT, when worship was directed at humans, it was always rejected, such as in Acts 10:25, in reference to Cornelius; and to the Angel in Revelation 19:10, and 22: 8-9 Other references to Jesus accepting worship are found in Luke 17:12-17 and John 20:29”
A Muslim responded by saying that the Messiah is merely “bashar” i.e. human. He then proceeded to quote from the word of Allah, who has no partners (i.e., the Qur’an) Surat al-Maida (Table) 73, and Women: 156 and al-Tawba 30 (Repentance) and ended by saying the ‘Qur’an has settled the matter. To quote from Biblical texts, is like hanging on to a spider’s web!’
In less than 30 minutes, the response came from a Copt. He began by pointing to the Qur’anic account of the miraculous birth of the Messiah referring to Surat Mariam: 21 and Surat Women: 171, as well as to other passages that relate the unique qualifications of the Messiah. He then proceeded to give a Biblical testimony about the Messiah: ‘Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God and the only mediator between God and man. He ended his words by saying: ‘I invite you to receive the Messiah.’
Another Christian joined the dialogue, and responded to the Muslim who had asserted that Jesus was merely a human being:
“We don’t deny that Jesus is human; our Christian faith teaches us that the Messiah is both God and man, and he is without sin. He is the Son of Man, as well as the Son of God. We believe that God was incarnate and came to our level as human beings, for our salvation. All the prophets from Adam to John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Incarnate God. He came to save his people from their bondage to sin, and to help them regain the state they enjoyed prior to the fall. To understand the very essence of the Christian faith, you need to read the Holy Bible.”
“The Messiah is the beginning and the end, the way, the truth, and the life. He is the Son of God. God did call him, ‘this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ This is a mystery that is above the human mind. God sent his Son to redeem us on the cross and to save us from our sins. I plead with you dear reader, do try and understand the Christian faith. The Messiah said, ‘he who hears me has heard the Father and he who receives me, the Father will receive.’ Blessed are those who are saved; but the sinner who does not repent will be tormented in the fires of hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Four minutes after the above message appeared, an irate Muslim reader wrote:
“Enough your babblings!” He then quoted from Surat Al-Umran, ayah 61.It addresses a Muslim by warning him against listening to any argument that is brought forth by non-Muslims and that contradicts what had already descended, i.e. the Qur’an. He ended by a quotation from the verse that brings God’s curse upon all liars, meaning those who do not accept the teachings of the Qur’an!”
Responses followed quickly, one after another. Here is one, referring to Christ on the cross:
“He who could not save himself from the cross, how can he save others? What a person does not have, or possess, he cannot give to others. You Christians are simply dreaming; the Messiah is but a slave of Allah, and His messenger; he also needs Allah’s forgiveness. A Christian imagines he can commit the seven sins, and then go on to Paradise?!”
Another Muslim drew attention to what he called ‘minds that had stopped functioning’ by referring to the Biblical doctrine of original sin, which he considered as an absurdity.
“Earthly laws say that a person is innocent until proven guilty; however in Christianity, man is born sinful?! How could that be, when he is still like a clean page, with nothing written upon it?”
“The Messiah taught us saying, ‘bless and don’t curse.’ So, we pray that you will be blessed and pray that the true God will open your heart to understand the truth.”
“What’s going on? I feel as if I were sitting in a church! Why are we dealing with religious details, whether Christian or Islamic? You must understand that religion has to do with one’s relation with God. No need to advertise faith on the Internet; it’s sufficient to see religion reflected in one’s behavior, and with respect for the values of civilizations.”
Around 45 minutes later, a Muslim added his comments, using Biblical references to prove that the Messiah was no more than ‘abdullah, i.e. a slave of Allah:
“John said that Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven and said, this is life eternal (John 17:6) How can the Sender and the Sent-one be one, while the text refers to God and to Jesus, as the sent- one?”
A little before midnight, the final comment appeared:
“O people, all the apostles and prophets were sent by God to make Him known, in order that He may be worshipped. What are you talking about when you mention that God has three images (persons?) These are nothing but fabrications of human minds. As for the Injeel, it has been altered and changed, and many of its sections have been erased, to suit the whims of the priests who wanted to magnify their positions, and to lord it over simple people. Some of the contributors to this site aimed at convincing others of their positions, and cause them to depart from the true worship of God.”
Thus far, I have been quoting from the dialogue that began on 11 June, 2007, between Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims. I am very thankful to the Lord that several Christians seized a golden opportunity, and gave a wonderful testimony about their faith.
As we reflect on the above quotations, we may classify them under three headings:
Scripture, the Person of Christ, and the Redemptive work of Christ.
All the Christians who participated in the dialogue manifested a strong belief in the final authority of the Bible, the Deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the work of salvation He accomplished by His death on the cross, and His resurrection. On the other hand, Muslim respondents, denied vehemently the above mentioned doctrines, and affirmed the final authority of the Qur’an, their belief that the Messiah was one of many rasools (apostles) sent by Allah to enlighten mankind; and they denied the historicity of the crucifixion.
It must be observed that neither side had a difficulty in understanding the belief of the other side. The Internet dialogue proved that both Muslims and Christians, using the same language, and living within Daru’l Islam, differed in their faith commitments, due to their different premises, or presuppositions. Thus we may conclude that real communication did take place between Christians and Muslims, regardless of the fact that the dialogue did not end in changing the minds of either side.
At this point, I would like to place the above dialogue within the broader historical context of Christian-Muslim encounters and “dialogues,” going back several centuries, to demonstrate that serious Christian-Muslim discussions have been going on for a long time, and have revolved around three crucial points, namely, the Bible, the Trinity, and the person and work of Jesus Christ.
So, as we look for a scholarly study of the historical context of Christian-Muslim discussions, I find the work of J. W. Sweetman, a British missionary who labored among the Muslims of India before the Partition of 1947, singularly helpful. I refer to his nearly encyclopedic book, ISLAM AND CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: A Study of the Interpretation of Theological Ideas in the Two Religions, Part II, Volume I; by J. Windrow Sweetman, D.D. Professor of Islamic Studies at the Selly Oak Colleges. It was published in 1955 by the Lutterworth Press, London.
Unfortunately, Professor Sweetman passed away before the completion of his project; only four of the six volumes of his work were published. Still, what we find in them, is indeed a treasure of great value.
I quote from several relevant passages of Volume One, Part Two, in order to show that the Christian message was made known to the Muslims of both the East and the West (Spain), for quite a long time. This will highlight my radical difference with some modern Western Christians who have claimed that missions to Islam have failed because we have not contextualized our message.
Sweetman refers to our indebtedness to the Eastern Church and its apologia for the Christian faith, a subject that is hardly known or acknowledged by many Western Christians. Under the heading of, The Eastern Church and Islam, he wrote:
“Though compelled outside the Byzantine Empire to come to terms with a Muslim government, the Eastern church could not escape the consequences of the confrontation of rival political powers so that common citizenship with Muslims was not easy to achieve. But Christendom owes a debt to Christians in the East for a fidelity to their faith which has survived through the long centuries, and for the valuable contacts which were maintained with Islam at a time when there was a possibility that the primary conditions of reconciliation, namely understanding and knowledge of each other, might have been denied by frontier barriers to the lands of Christendom and Islam. Perforce, the Eastern Church remained in the closest contact with Islam down through the years. P. 6 [Emphasis mine]
Dr. Sweetman goes on to deal with the subject of “The Christian Through Muslim Eyes.”
“Ibn Hazm’s account in his Fisal deserves to be recorded in full. He was writing c. A.D. 1049, probably in Spain: ‘Though Christians are People of the Book (Ahlu’l Kitab) and also accept some of the prophets, the majority of them and their sects does not accept the Unity in its purity (mujarradan), but profess the Trinity (tathlith) and so here is the place for them to be discussed.’ P. 18, 19 [Emphasis mine]
It is important to know that Ibn Hazm was a second-generation Muslim, as his grandfather was a Christian. He became one of the bitterest enemies of the Christian faith in Europe, and embarked on a detailed critique of the Christian Scriptures.
“If we include the knowledge that Ibn Hazm had of Scripture, its various versions and other matters at this early period, we find him possessed of a body of information about Christianity (and Judaism) which, however perverse in some particulars, compares most favourably with the meager and often faulty acquaintance with Islam possessed by Latin Europe. However much the Christians of the East knew about Islam, Western Christendom had suffered from the schism of the Church and was cut of from potential sources of information about Islam. It is also quite clear that the chief knowledge of Christianity even in European Islam had an Eastern origin. The reason for this is that the barrier of language was there non-existent, whereas in the West much linguistic study had to be undertaken before there could be an easy familiarity with Islamic beliefs and practice. Ibn Hazm’s Western additions are, however, not without interest and it is possible that Ibn Hazm may have had Western sources of information about Christianity through family associations, since his grandfather had been a Christian.” P. 22
After several quotations from both Christian and Muslim sources showing the degree of knowledge that Christians possessed of the Muslim faith, and vice versa, J. W. Sweetman concluded this chapter with this observation:
“This should be sufficient to show the kind of mutual acquaintances there was between Islam and Christianity in the East, and it will be seen that there was no such parallel acquaintance in the West until the proximity of Muslims and Christians in Spain and Sicily helped to dispel the ignorance of the Latin world. Naturally, since the Muslims of Spain were less cut off from the East than the greater part of Western Europe, it was more likely that the Muslims in Spain would have sounder knowledge of Christianity there than the Christians of Latin lands had of Islam. But that was a temporary phase.”
The above quotations indicate that quite early in the history of Islam, Muslims did become acquainted with the major beliefs of the Christian faith, especially in the area of Christology. Their rejection of the Christian message was due to the tenacity of their belief that Muhammad was Allah’s last rasool, and the Book that descended on him, was the very Word of Allah!
Sweetman tells us that “Ibn Hazm was of Spanish origins and was born at Cordoba towards the end of the tenth century and he was living till about A.D. 1064. In his book entitled Al Fisal fi’l Milal wa’l Afwa’ wa’n Nihal, a work of four volumes, incorporates a devastating attack on the integrity of the Bible. … It may be said that Ibn Hazm seems to have had considerable equipment for the task in which he employed himself. He had knowledge of various translations of the Old Testament and New. He knew the divergences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew. There were some fragments of the Old Testament translated into Arabic as early as the eighth century, most of which were perhaps unknown to Ibn Hazm, with the exception of the translation of the Scripture from the Latin version into Arabic which is attributed to John of Seville in that century, and which has been known in Spain in Ibn Hazm’s days.
“Ibn Hazm has now to answer the question which must have trembled on the lips of his interlocutor for some time. Supposing that his case for the untrustworthy character of the Jewish Scriptures is made out, what then becomes of the Qur’anic confirmation of these books, and what about the Muslim argument that the former Scriptures bear witness to Muhammad? P. 223 [Emphasis is mine]
“It is quite right for us to accept the Torah and the Injil. We have never denied it, but we call him an unbeliever who rejects these two books. But we merely hold that the sending down of the Torah on Moses by Allah is true, that the sending down of the Psalms on David by Allah is true, that the sending down of the Injil on Christ is true and the sending down of Scriptures on Abraham is true… We believe in all of these. … But we have already said and say again now, that the unbelieving children of Israel changed the Torah and the Injil. They increased it and decreased it, but Allah left surviving some parts as he pleased, in order to set up an argument against them.” P. 224
At this point, I would like to point out that Muslims in general, whether learned scholars such as Ibn Hazm, or present-day ordinary Muslims, subscribe to a specific view of the origin and nature of the Scriptures or Books of Allah. They claim that prophets or rasools received books from Allah containing specific messages or laws for their particular people. Literally, those Kutob, (plural of Kitab,) descended upon the prophets, containing divine speech. Muslims then proceed to project backwards their own concept of revelation, by imposing it on all the previous scriptures, such as the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, and the Injil of the Messiah. Now, should a different view of the origin or nature of a Kitab (that preceded the Qur’an) be held, it is judged as invalid; and its contents are then considered as having undergone alterations and falsifications. All that must have happened prior to the descent of the Qur’an on Muhammad!
Back to Dr. Sweetman’s reference to the polemics of Ibn Hazm:
“Having satisfied himself with this attack on the Jews and Judaism and the Scriptures which are now in the hands of the Jews, Ibn Hazm turns his attention to the books of the New Testament and in particular to the Gospels. He anticipates no difficulty in showing the untruth of Christianity, which, says he, must be apparent to the meanest intelligence. He starts by saying that in the case of the New Testament he has no need to establish that it is not from God, as he has done in the case of the Torah. Christians themselves have relieved him from this necessity, because they do not claim that the Gospels were ‘sent down upon’ Christ by Allah, and neither do they claim that Christ brought these to them, but all without exception, … do not dispute that the four Gospels were compilations by the four whose names they bear.” Pp. 331, 332.
“Ibn Hazm in these criticisms overreaches himself and proves too much. He leaves no conceivable motive to any of the writers except a desire to deceive. What this deception was supposed to achieve is left in complete obscurity and why these people should endure the persecutions, which Ibn Hazm himself relates in another place, in defence of such a deception is not explained. Ibn Hazm’s position is not of a man who considers the whole story to be a fable. He is by his own faith committed to belief in the historical character of Christ and of much that is recorded in the Gospel. He has to explain why an imposture such as this could succeed unless there were absolutely no people to protest. He cannot bring the testimony of any one of the true hawariyun, [disciples of Christ] to whom he admits the Qur’an gives a witness. He thinks Allah preserved the corrupt scriptures as a testimony against Christians, having as much of the original true Gospel to support the alleged prophecies about Muhammad, and yet is committed to the view that Allah did not preserve any protest from the true followers of Christ. All He did was to preserve the productions of Matthew and the rest, upon whom Ibn Hazm pours out his scorn. The account which Ibn Hazm gives is therefore incredible to the Christian.” Pp. 253, 254
“[Ibn Hazm] shows a remarkable erudition but a peculiarly literalist mind, and he makes no attempt to question whether the material he has gathered is not capable of an entirely different interpretation which has eluded him. Considering the date in the eleventh century when he wrote, his work must be regarded as a great achievement even when one feels that much of it is beating the air. It serves here to illustrate the most uncompromising attack on the Christian position at any rate as far as the Scriptures are concerned. It is not to be regarded as an excursion into a bygone age which might well have been left in oblivion… It is, therefore, important because it reveals what is being taught to Muslims even to-day, and its arguments may well be one of the forces to be reckoned with by those who seek an understanding between Islam and Christianity. That it does not increase the understanding but rather accentuates the misunderstanding will be obvious to the Christian who reads this account of its theses.[Emphasis mine] Pp. 259, 260
Dr. Sweetman turned to the great Eastern Muslim scholar, Al Ghazzali. He commented thatin contrast with the radical polemics of Ibn Hazm, Al Ghazzali’s work (Ar Raddul’l Jamil) may be considered as an irenical criticism of Christianity.
“He starts his work by saying that what he has seen of the arguments of the Christians for their belief are very feeble, and yet that the most thoughtful of Christians do not hesitate to accept them in spite of the obscurities and ambiguities which they present. In these arguments Christians rely on a blind allegiance to authority (taqlid), holding tenaciously to the literal meaning which their ancients laid down dogmatically.” P. 262
“It will be seen that Al Ghazzali is here proposing that the passages in the Gospels which attribute humanity to Christ should be taken literally and that any other passages which apparently predicate divinity to Him should be interpreted allegorically. This indicates that Al Ghazzali has prejudged the question. His creed is that it is impossible that there should be a union of divinity and humanity in Christ, and the method of interpretation he has adopted must lead to this result. So in spite of the appearance of fairness which we have here, it must be admitted that Al Ghazzali’s argument is to support a foregone conclusion. It is, however, very interesting to find he is prepared to argue the case on the assumption that the Gospels are genuine, and this in marked contrast to what we have seen in the case of Ibn Hazm’s attack.” P. 267 [Emphasis mine]
“After these attempts to reinterpret the sayings of Christ recorded in the Scripture, in which one of the classic texts has been left without some consideration, but which suffers to a certain extent from lack of an ampler consideration of the whole context, Al Ghazzali turns his attention to the use of the word ‘Kalima’ in the Qur’an. He says that Christians think that this term used of Christ in the Qur’an bears the same connotation as in their own technical use of it. He says, ‘This is a great illusion and blindness, which has made the Christians think that this technical meaning (istilah) which they have postulated … must be what is meant by the people of every dispensation (shari’a), and that what is found in the honourable book (the Qur’an) necessarily indicates the divinity of Jesus, which is, ‘O people of the Book, do not exaggerate in your religion and speak of Allah nothing but the truth. The Christ, Jesus son of Maryam, is only the apostle of Allah and His Word which he has cast into Maryam and a spirit from him. So believe in Allah and His messengers and do not say: Three (thaltha --- trinity). Stop! It would be better for you! Allah is only one God!’ (Sura iv. 170) Pp. 304,305
In closing, Dr. Sweetman referred to the time in the life of Al Ghazzali when he was seeking the true meaning of life and its mysteries, and was wandering in many parts of the Eastern Islamic world. The Eastern Christians that this Muslim scholar knew were preoccupied with Christological subjects. They had not benefited from the works of Saint Augustine, the Western Church father. Augustine was a staunch defender of Orthodox doctrine, but did not restrict his concerns for the doctrines of the Trinity, and the Person of Jesus Christ. His own life experiences, as well as his encounter with the British monk Pelagius who was spreading an unbiblical anthropology, led him to emphasize the Pauline doctrines of sin and sovereign grace. It is very sad that the Christian East had too little of Augustine, and too much of metaphysical speculations!
Sweetman concluded his reflections on the career of Al-Ghazzali:
“As one reads these pages one feels how sad it is, that this truly great soul had not deeper and clearer instruction during those days of his wanderings in search of peace of soul, and one may remark on the absence of any evidence in these pages, that the doctrines of grace had been shown to him, in the matter which is all important to the Christian evangel. Apparently Al Ghazzali was looked upon as in intellect to convince, rather than as soul in quest of peace and salvation, as indeed he was.”Pp. 307,308
My quotations from the work of J. W. Sweetman have shown that both Muslims and Christians, when they came in contact with each other, gained a considerable knowledge of the beliefs of the other side. I don’t mean that Muslims, for example, accepted or even understood the Christian concept of revelation. But they did get to know what the Christian belief about this subject was all about; even though they rejected it resolutely. And while Western Christians in the Middle Ages were, at first, slow to learn about Islam, nevertheless, they eventually accomplished an adequate knowledge of their opponents’ faith.
Thus, when we take all that into account, and consider the great missionary work that was accomplished during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among Muslims, one cannot but be extremely perplexed, and even saddened, when voices were raised among some Evangelicals (beginning with the 1970s,) that mission work has been a failure among Muslims, and that the failure was due to their inability or unwillingness to contextualize their message.
For example, in the Foreword of the book, DOWN TO EARTH: STUDIES IN CHRISTIANITY AND CULTURE: The Papers of the Lausanne Consultation on Gospel and Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980, Edited by Robert T. Coote and John Stott, we find these words:
“What are the reasons for people’s resistance to the Gospel? How are we to explain the pitifully small ‘dent’ which has been made, for instance, on the 600 million Hindus of India or the 700 million Muslims of the Islamic bloc? Although different answers are given to these questions, they are basically cultural. The major challenge to the worldwide Christian missions today is whether we are willing to pay the cost of following in the footsteps of our incarnate Lord in order to contextualize the Gospel. Our failure of communication is a failure of contextualization.” John Stott, London, Christmas 1978. P. viii [Emphasis mine]
What was then the real cause for “the pitifully small ‘dent’ which has been made, for instance, on … the 700 million Muslims of the Islamic bloc?” as the Introduction to the book stated?Was it the Christians’ failure to take Islamic culture seriously, and thus they failed to contextually communicate the Gospel to Muslims? We have already noticed the ability of present-day Christians whose mother tongue is Arabic, to clearly witness to Muslims, about their Christ-centered faith. Earlier, throughout the Christian-Muslim encounter, Christians gave the Muslim conquerors and their descendents, a Biblical reason for not adopting Islam. The road-block that Christians faced both in the early years of Islam and up to the present day, was neither cultural nor linguistic; it was the core Islamic belief-system that offered an entirely different view of the nature and purpose of God’s revelation. I will return to this point later on. But at this point, I would like to enquire about the reason for that facile acceptance of the diagnosis by some Western Christians that claims that missions to Muslims have failed due to our unwillingness to contextualize the Gospel, so as to make it attractive and understood in a Muslim milieu.
Unfortunately, the relatively new discipline of Missiology has concerned itself to great extent with the subject of Culture, while at the same time showing less than proper interest in the theological and confessional aspects of the Christian Tradition. I would like to illustrate my remark by quoting from: Creeds, Councils & Christ, by Gerald Bray, published by the Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, in 1984.
Dr. Bray is a Canadian scholar, and an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. He teaches at Beeson Divinity School in the areas of church history, historical theology and Latin. Before coming to Beeson, he lectured at Oak Hill College in London, England.
Describing some of the changes that have taken place in Biblical Studies, Dr. Bray wrote:
“Anthropological influence has been felt in the work of Structuralist interpreters like Paul Ricoeur, which has highlighted the symbolical richness of biblical language and imagery. At a more prosaic level it has led to the search for ‘dynamic equivalence’ in translating the Scriptures. These are expressions and symbols which can convey the original force of the Greek New Testament in contemporary idiom. Ideas of this kind have been influential among missionary translators attempting to bridge the enormous gap between a primitive culture and the relatively sophisticated world of the New Testament.” P. 24, 25
“The fundamental assertion of the Bible is that God can and does speak to mankind in a way which enables us to make an intelligent response. God and man are not so much cut off from each other by their mutually incompatible natures as united by spiritual characteristics which make communion between them possible. The need for all mankind to find a purpose in existence, to create a metaphysic, is the testimony of nature to this fundamental reality. The Christian revelation is God’s answer to this need, fulfilling and replacing aspirations half-hidden in the mythologies and cosmologies of the world. In this sense it is related to them by a kind of generic affinity, but at the same time it is radically different. The message of the Bible is a message of spiritual truth addressed to the human mind. Dogmatic definitions of its content are not an aberration, but the logical outcome of the process of revelation itself. Salvation for the whole man cannot bypass the mind, but must use it for the powerful weapon which it is. [Emphasis mine]
“Properly understood in this way, Christian dogmatism is the greatest force for freedom which mankind has ever known. By claiming the mind for God, dogmatism shatters the bounds of the natural world which imprison the creative imagination and distort scientific analysis. … The early centuries of the Christian Church were a time of great hardship for those who followed the way of the cross. Christians had little cause to indulge in activities which might sidetrack them in their race for the prize of eternal salvation. Yet it was in those very centuries that the dogmatic foundation of Christian theology was laid, to be built upon later in the great struggle against paganism and Greek philosophy. Today, a dispirited and non-dogmatic Church is in retreat everywhere in the Western world. It is time we looked again at our heritage and re-examined our attitudes toward it, so that we too, like our forefathers in the faith, may bear a true witness to the God who has spoken to mankind and sent his Son into the world to save us from our sins.” Pp. 37, 38 [Emphasis mine]
In Chapter 3, Gerald Bray dealt with the subject of “The Sanctification of the Mind.”
“The first principle which had to be established was that the human mind (nous) was corrupted by the fall of man, and that human reason (logos) could not function properly in its fallen state. Here it was necessary to maintain a delicate balance between two opposing tendencies in pagan thought. On the one hand, it was essential to reject the idea that a man could know God by a process of deductive reasoning (1 Corinthians 1:21). The gospel was folly to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23; Acts 17:32) precisely because it could not be explained by a process relying on logical argument. The intellect of man had to be crucified on the cross and born again.” P. 73 [Emphasis mine]
Islamic Anthropology, a Clue to a Proper Missionary Approach
It is indeed very sad, if not tragic, at this moment in world history when Christians and Muslims are coming in close contact with each other in many parts of the world, that cultural considerations have taken center stage in several missionary circles, in lieu of those important theological considerations that are necessary for a proper missiological approach to Islam. I can best explain this point by quoting from a comment on an article that appeared in the January 1959 issue of the quarterly journal, The Muslim World. Its title was “MAN AND HIS PERFECTION IN MUSLIM THEOLOGY,” by Uthman Yahya. The then editor of the journal prefaced the article with these timely words:
“The following article is translated by permission from the first number of Toumliline I,
Principes d'Education, Rabat, 1958, pp. 41- 56, the journal of the Monastery at
Toumliline, Azrou, Morocco. This small Berber town, situated some 70 kilometers south
of Meknes, has in recent years become a symbol of Muslim-Christian theological
meeting... The paper that follows was contributed in French during the second session of
1957 by Dr. ‘Uthman Yahya, an ‘Alim [theologian-jurist] of Al-Azhar, Cairo. The general subject of the Conference was education. Dr. Yahya’s exposition of Muslim theology and its concepts of man and his salvation raises 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.” [Emphasis mine]
I consider these words as the best commentary on the Islamic doctrine of man, and his salvation. It is at this very point, that we may locate the radical difference between Islam and Christianity. According to Muslim theologians, the disobedience of the first man, and his fall, had no lasting consequences for him, and the entire human race. In other words, there is no such thing in Islam as a doctrine of original sin.
This fact was impressed upon me in a special way some twenty years ago when a Tunisian listener to my radio broadcasts of the Word of God, put it very cogently when he wrote: “When you speak about sins in the plural, I understand you say; but when you speak about sin in the singular, I don’t.” Sin (in the singular,) in the sense of sinfulness or a propensity to break the law of God, is foreign to the mind of a Muslim and has never been a part of his doctrinal tradition.
This unwillingness to reckon with the consequences of the fall has predisposed Muslims to welcome all theories that advocate the native goodness of man. In reading Arabic literature of the modern period (since 1800), one is reminded of the affinity between the Muslim doctrine of man and that advocated by such men of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Not that Muslims share the French writers' hostility to religion, but they find in them allies who had dissented from the Christian understanding of man.
In Islam, man does not need redemption from without, since “Man's salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices.” Man is weak and prone to forget the demands of God’s Law (Shari’a); therefore, it becomes necessary to remind him, time and again, of the contents and demands of this Law. God accomplishes this by sending messengers (rasools) with specific revelations to deliver to mankind. These revelations “descend” upon them in the form of a Book. As to the content of these divine books, they are purely and simply laws that enable mankind to walk on the Right Path, (Al-Sirat al-Mustaqeem.)
When we take into consideration the above description of the Islamic doctrine of man’s salvation, it becomes evident that the main obstacle in reaching Muslims is not cultural, but doctrinal. Thus, Islamic anthropology does not differ that much from the Christian heresy of Pelagianism, or its modern type known as modernism.
At the beginning of my paper, I referred to the initiation of a dialogue between Arab Christians and Muslims that was launched on the Internet in connection with the ethical problem of Khulwa. We cannot but marvel at the boldness and love exhibited by the Christians who engaged in that web-dialogue. There was no polemical motif in their testimonies; their goal was to tell Muslims that the Gospel had a real message of liberation from the bondage of legalism. They exhibited a spirit of love and genuine concern for the eternal welfare of their (virtual) Muslim neighbors. This agape love for one’s neighbor cannot but melt the hearts of some of those who read the Christians’ marturia. This love is a reflection of God’s prior love for lost sinners, and is the powerful reason for the conversion of Muslims to Jesus Christ.
What I have just stated is illustrated in a paper that was delivered at a Conference that was held at Zurich, Switzerland, on The Plight of Women and Minorities in the Middle East and North Africa, (24-26 March, 2007.) The title of the paper was: The Christians of the Maghreb Under the Rule of Islamists. For those who are conversant with classical Arabic, you may like to read the entire text by going to this URL: http://www.elaph.com/ElaphWeb/ElaphWriter/2007/4/225336.htm
Here are some quotations from the paper:
“The New Christians’ phenomenon throughout the Arab Maghreb has come to the attention of the media. For example, the weekly journal, Jeune Afrique, devoted three reports on this subject with respect to Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. In March 2005, the French daily Le Monde, devoted a complete report about this topic. And Al-‘Arabiyya TV channel telecast two reports on the subject that had been recorded in the Kabyle district of Algeria.
“Jeune Afrique estimates that the number of people who have embraced Christianity in Tunisia is around 500, belonging to three churches. A report on the website of “Al-Islam al-Yawm” prepared by Lidriss el-Kenbouri, and dated 23 April 2005, estimated the number of European evangelists in Morocco to be around 800, and that quite often, their evangelistic efforts are successful. The report further adds that around 1,000 Moroccans have left Islam during 2004. The magazine “Al-Majalla” in its No. 1394 issue, claimed that the number of New Christians in Morocco is around 7,000; perhaps the exact number may be as high as 30,000.
“The report that appeared in the French daily Le Monde claimed that during 1992, between 4,000 and 6,000 Algerians embraced Christianity in the Kabyle region of Algeria. By now, their numbers may be in the tens of thousands. However, the authorities are mum about this subject, as an Algerian government official put it; the number of those who embraced Christianity is a state secret.”
The paper went to deal with the Most Important Factors for Conversions to Christianity:
“When we consult those who had come over to the Christian faith to learn about the factors that led to their conversion, they mention the following factors:
“First factor: The violence of the fundamentalist Islamist movements: “This factor played a greater role in Algeria in the aftermath of the terrible massacres that began in 1992. A Christian evangelist working in Algeria reported: “These terrible events shocked people greatly. It proved that Islam was capable of unleashing all that terror, and all those massacres! Even children were not spared during the uprising of the Islamists! Women were being raped! Many people began to ask: Where is Allah? Some Algerians committed suicide! Others lost their minds; others became atheists, and still others chose the Messiah!”
“Second Factor: The failure of the political regimes: The Arab Maghrebi states have tried for the last four decades, various political regimes, such as nationalistic, political Islamists, and dictatorial types. Therefore, the embracing of Christianity among the people of the region would represent another attempt to find the right regime; since the all the previous ones have failed.
“Third Factor: The religious training within the family. The report of “Al-Majalla” included the testimony of a young Moroccan woman who embraced Christianity: “Our father used to order us to pray and read the Qur’an; when we disobeyed that command, he punished us with beatings. He told us that if we refused to wear the hijab, we would suffer in hell.” According to her testimony, this young woman’s relation with Allah was devoid of love. A Christian Moroccan who is involved in spreading his faith declared: “Many of us regard Islam as a social fetter or shackle or handicap.”
“Undoubtedly, the religious education which is given these days in Muslim countries offers a sadistic and fearful view of Allah, whose punishments are severe. He is not to be questioned about what He does; only his followers are questioned about their acts. It is no doubt that the horrific massacres perpetrated by the Islamists in Algeria have contributed to the success of the evangelistic work both in Algeria, and in the surrounding countries. But why are people choosing specifically Christianity?
“Fourth Factor: The geographical and linguistic factors have played an important role in the conversion of Maghrebi people to Christianity. This is especially the case with France which has welcomed many Maghrebi immigrants. We should not forget the existence of Christian churches in some of the big cities of North Africa, nor the impact of five Christian satellite TV stations that telecast their programs in Arabic. The young Moroccan evangelist estimates that personal contacts are responsible for 60% of conversions; while the role of the Internet is around 30%, while those who embraced Christianity through the work of foreign missionaries tends to be around 10%.
“Quite often, the “New Christians” testify to the fact that what they discovered in their new faith is love; it was the major factor in their conversion. These are some of their words: “We found out that in Christianity, God is love.” “God loves all people.” “What attracted us to Christianity is its teaching that God is love.”
The testimonies of these new Maghrebi Christians are heartwarming. The Christian message came to them through various means, but it struck them as a message of a loving God in search for His lost sheep. They embraced the Messiah who died on the cross, and rose again for their justification. Notwithstanding all the difficulties that will face them in the future, they are not ashamed of the Biblical Injil that brought them peace with God, and the gift of eternal life.
It is my fervent hope that we pay more attention to the Biblical directives on missions, especially those of Saint Paul. For notwithstanding the Jewish and Gentile outright rejection of the gospel of the cross, Paul did not hesitate to proclaim “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” As he put it in First Corinthians: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved, it is the power of God. (In Greek, the last words are as follows, dunamis Theou estin.” (1:18) Whereas the basis of our salvation is in the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the instrumental means of our salvation is the kerygma, i.e., the “Word of the Cross,” whether it is formally preached by a minister of the Gospel, or given as a marturia (testimony) by a Christian. Paul expressed this basic missionary doctrine in verse 21: “For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, it pleased God, through the foolishness of the preached message (kerygmatos) to save those who believe.”
In preparing this paper, I did not intend to minimize the importance of culture in the transmission of the Gospel. I was simply protesting the endless abstract theories that keep coming from some Western Christians, telling us to adopt their novel views of missions to Muslims. Some have gone so far as to advocate Insider Movements where the “followers of Jesus” still identify themselves as Muslims., while others promote the production and dissemination of “Muslim-friendly” translations of the Bible. Radical contextualization theories want us to eliminate the use of such Biblical words as “Father” in reference to God, and “Son” in reference to Jesus Christ. Their advocates tell us that these terms are “repugnant to Muslims!” What a shocking departure from the historic Christian faith!
My sincere thanks go to my fellow Arab Christians who initiated on 11 June, 2007, a lively dialogue with Arab Muslims, by pointing lovingly and boldly, to the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Savior, and the only Way, the Truth, and the Life.