Communicating the Gospel to Muslims


1. Islam's Rejection of the Christian Gospel.

An eager young Christian, full of joy and the Spirit of God, sets out to make his first contact with a Muslim. He knocks at the door of a Muslim home and when the owner opens the door and enquires about the purpose of his visit, the young man replies: "I have come to tell you the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified for you and died for your sins. Now if you will repent and accept him a your Lord and Saviour, you will be saved and go to heaven". What does the eager young evangelist expect? That the Muslim will immediately respond, "This is the most wonderful thing have ever heard in my life. Where can I be baptised?" If he does, he is in for a surprise.

The Muslim will probably say to him, "How can you ask to believe that God let his Son die on a cross? If you have a son and see someone trying to kill him, will you stand by idly and let it happen?" When the young man feels obliged to concede that he would, of course, step in to save his son, the Muslim replies: "Then you must not ask us to believe that God just stood aloof watching his Son die. We Muslims believe Jesus was only a prophet, albeit a very great one, and because God loved his prophet so much he raised him to heaven and saved him from crucifixion. But you want us to believe he was even closer to God, that he was the Son of God, and yet God did nothing to save him? Sorry, I think you should go and talk to someone else". The young man leaves the home deflated somewhat stunned, and very much perplexed. Where did the young man go wrong?

His error was to use a direct line of approach that might work with some people but one that can only fail with Muslims. The Qur'an distances itself from Christianity by denying two things about Jesus Christ. Firstly, it denies that he is the Son of God in emphatic language:

In Muhammad's time the Arabs worshipped idols and these were often female deities whom the Arabs considered to be intercessors with Allah. (Three are mentioned by name in Surah 53.19, namely Al-Lat, Al-Ulla, and Manat). When Muhammad denounced the polytheism of his countrymen and called on them to believe in Allah alone, they responded that they did indeed consider Allah to be the Supreme Being, but that these deities were the daughters of Allah" whose intercession with Allah was to be invoked. Muhammad rightly rejected this as idolatry and from the start called on his people to worship Allah alone. His message, as recorded in his exhortation to his nephew Ali at the time he was contemplating converting to Muhammad's cause, was simply:

This became the theme of his whole mission (though it is recorded that he at one time made a concession to the pagan Arabs and honoured their deities - see pp. 117-129 in the companion volume to this book), and it is summed up in one of the most well-known Surahs of the Qur'an:

When Muhammad met Christians who claimed that they, too, believed in God as the Supreme Being but that they believed that Jesus was the Son of God and that he was the "one mediator between God and men" (1 Timothy 2.5), Muhammad was unable to distinguish between their beliefs and those of the pagan Arabs and concluded that Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God was as much shirk ("associating" partners with God) as the Arab belief that Al-Lat and others were daughters of God. To this day this misunderstanding causes Muslims to vehemently reject belief in Jesus as the Son of God.

The other great truth that the Qur'an denies about Jesus s his crucifixion. It is equally emphatically rejected, through in only one verse in the whole book which reads:

There is no hint at any point in the Qur'an that Muhammad ever knew that the crucifixion of Jesus was relative to Christian beliefs and it is denied simply as an unfounded calumny of the Jews. Certainly there is nothing to suggest that he had any knowledge of the whole atoning purpose of the event. Nevertheless, for reasons best-known to Muhammad, he denied the crucifixion as a fact of history.

As a result of these two denials Islam and Christianity are, in a sense, as far from one another as the east is from the west. Muhammad denied the two pillars on which the whole of Christianity is founded - the deity and crucifixion of Jesus. The New Testament well defines him as "our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 2.20), and although Muhammad spoke highly of Jesus in other ways, his attitude at this point was quite dogmatic - neither Lord nor Saviour.

It is probably for this reason more than any other that Muslims are the hardest people on earth to reach with the Gospel. Islam is the only religion which, by definition in its own Scriptures, denies the deity and crucifixion of Jesus This explains why the young man, who approached the first Muslim he met with a typically traditional evangelical approach, was so thoroughly rebuffed.

Ever since mission work among Muslims began in earnest in the last century Christian missionaries have sought effective methods of evangelising Muslims. All over the world Muslims are deliberately programmed against the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and no direct method of evangelism is ever likely to prove successful among them. A number of alternative methods have been suggested, many of which seem to create more problems than they purport to solve. Our attitude is that the Bible, being God's complete and final code of conduct for life and authority for all things secular and religious, must assuredly set out a methodology for reaching people in a cross- cultural and, especially as here, a cross-religious context. We will be on safe ground, surely, if we can find such a model in the Scriptures and be careful to apply the Biblical method of evangelising people from another religious background. I have no doubt that the Bible does indeed set forth clearly the method we should use and will therefore proceed to analyse what the Biblical approach to Muslims should be.

We shall turn to the Book of Acts and the very beginning of Christian mission in the world to see how the Gospel was first preached in alien environments.

2. Paul's Approach to the Jews at Thessalonica.

The Apostle Paul was the early church's great missionary to the world and he came into contact with men of many nations and different cultural and religious backgrounds. I believe we can learn much from the following passage which briefly describes the method of approach he used among the Jews of Thessalonica:

There are three points that are mentioned in this passage that are of considerable relevance to our subject and we shall examine them briefly in order. Firstly, we read that for three weeks he argued with them. He entered freely into debate and discussion with them on the whole subject of his message, being quite willing to put its veracity to the test of scrutiny and critical analysis. This was nothing exceptional, in fact it was the rule in his contacts with the Jews, and there is clear evidence that he took the initiative in creating debate and dialogue with them. At Ephesus he entered the synagogue "and for three months spoke boldly, arguing and pleading about the kingdom of God" (Acts 19.8) and, when the Jews opposed him, he went to the Gentiles and "argued daily in the hall of Tyrannus" (Acts 19.9).

There is, therefore, obviously nothing wrong with argument and debate and, in fact, we have a clear Biblical sanction for it. Unfortunately there are many today who are strongly against any form of argument in the preaching of the Gospel. We are constantly being told that the spirit of debate and argument among Muslims belonged to the "confrontation-method" of men like Pfander and St. Clair-Tisdall of a past generation and that we need, in this age, a "constructive" and a more "loving" approach. A good example of this attitude is to be found in the following exhortation to missionaries among Muslims:

It has become fashionable to label any form of argument with Muslims as uncharitable and to suggest that a genuinely Christlike approach must disdain debate on theological matters. No allowance is made for a form of argument that can be highly spiritual and profitable.

A healthy argument to establish the validity of the Gospel message has sound Biblical authority and it is my personal experience that many Muslims will consider the message of the Gospel more seriously when they hear a sound argument to vindicate the foundation on which it is laid. In fact, when Christians deliberately avoid any discussion on the credibility of their message and on the justification they might have for their convictions, Muslims invariably conclude that they cannot vindicate their faith. The message is gently disregarded as the product of Christian fervour and emotion. "The weak and flabby attitude towards Islam taken up by some today in the name of Christian love and sympathy can only breed contempt from the Moslem's standpoint" (Logan, "Our Approach to Moslems", The Muslim World, Vol. 13, p. 391). Christians must not only know what they believe, they must also be able to explain why they believe it.

Arguments that become quarrels and wrangles are obviously to be avoided, but so much can be gained for the glory of God by a Christian who can patiently, charitably and steadfastly give a thorough justification for the message he proclaims. The following passage states this whole principle very finely:

The Apostle Paul likewise declared that no man should be admitted as an elder unless he could not only 'give instruction in sound doctrine" but also be able "to confute those who contradict it" (Titus 1.9). God is glorified when Christian men effectively defend the truth of the Gospel, unbelieving Muslims are often persuaded by such proofs (viz. the well-known Maulana Imad-ud-Din who became a Christian after hearing Pfander's messages), and Muslim converts yearn for such proofs and are greatly strengthened in the faith when they are supplied.

The second thing we learn from Paul's approach to the Jews at Thessalonica is that he argued with them from the Scriptures. He did not rely on smooth talk, empty cliches, theological dogmas, doctrinal assertions or sparkling new methods. He reasoned at all times from the Word of God and it is my own experience that a defence of the Gospel is never more powerfully based than when it is founded on the Scriptures. Muslims may not accept the Bible as the Word of God but that is no reason to avoid using it in preference for rational doctrinal arguments calculated to persuade his intellect. The Bible is the Word of God, "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4.12), and when a Christian, who is well-read in it, can use it with confidence and conviction, Muslims will always be brought face-to-face with its truths. The well-known Christian scholar of Islam, Dr. Kraemer, once declared that "especially in the world of Islam to present Christianity as a set of doctrines is the most awkward way conceivable . . . Islam itself is creedal and doctrinal to the core. To present Christianity as a set of doctrines is to arouse the militantly intellectualist spirit of Islam" (Addison, The Christian Approach to the Moslem, p. 294). Christians must endeavour to be Biblical in their witness rather than doctrinal or rational in their approach.

The third thing we learn from the passage under consideration is that Paul argued from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that Jesus was the Christ. We are once again back at the question of debate and discussion. Paul was so sure of his message that he had more than sufficient courage to put it to the acid test of critical analysis. Indeed, as we have seen' he keenly entered into debate with the Jews, persuaded that his message would have far more impact if he could ground it firmly on sound evidences. Not only, therefore, should we not avoid debate and controversy, but in the spirit of 1 Peter 3.15-16 should willingly engage in it. As one Christian with experience among Muslims has put it, Too many people jump to the conclusion that controversy in every sense is harmful" (Christensen, The Practical Approach to Muslims, p. 39). He goes on to say:

The writer concludes by saying that from Christ's own "method of approach you can see that controversy is unavoidable if you want to get your message across" (op. cit., p. 42). Both Jesus and Paul regularly engaged in debate, proving the truth of their message and reproving those who opposed it. I doubt whether the one was crucified and the other beheaded for "lovingly" abstaining from all forms of controversy with their opponents - and there cannot be two finer examples for correct methods of evangelical witness than Jesus and Paul.

The writer adds that "he will be a unique missionary to Moslems in the twentieth century who can escape discussion with them on the doctrines and practices which they have inherited from the Jew" (op. cit., p. 116). Continuing his study he comes to a very different conclusion from that of Essetstyn quoted earlier, and speaking of Pfander's classical work Mizan ul Haqq: The Balance of Truth, he says:

I have never ceased to be somewhat amazed and bemused at the suggestion that Christians should never indulge in argument with Muslims, for the Muslims themselves love argument and many of them are only too willing to enter into a charitable and friendly debate on the whole foundations of Christianity and Islam. The Christian who shirks the challenge not only misses a golden opportunity to give a thorough vindication of his beliefs but is also likely to appear to the Muslims to be evading the issues, an impression that can only have severe implications for the ultimate effect of his witness among them.

3. Paul's Preaching at Athens and Corinth.

We have analysed the first basic principle of Biblical witness to Muslims, namely a willingness to make a good defence to those who, let it be said, rightly call us to account for the hope that is in us. As we follow Paul from Thessalonica to Athens and Corinth we shall discover the second great principle of witnessing across cultural and religious barriers and it is here, I believe, that we will find the one great method that Paul adopted in these circumstances and that applies so appropriately to Muslim evangelism.

When Paul came to Athens he was met by a number of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who brought him to the Areopagus and called on him to declare his message. Paul began:

After speaking briefly of God's universal rule over all the earth and his desire that all men should seek after him with all their hearts, Paul added:

This brief record of Paul's address gives vital clues as to how to properly approach people from another background. Paul was speaking to Gentiles, in particular to Greeks who, on the one hand, worshipped a host of deities and, on the other, were nonetheless highly philosophical about life.

Two things, I believe, should particularly be noted. Firstly, Paul found common ground with his hearers. He sought a point of contact through which he could communicate his message and found it in the inscription "to an unknown God". He did not hesitate to relate his message directly to this inscription. "What you worship as unknown", said Paul, "this I declare to you". In so doing he very effectively set his Gospel against the background of their beliefs. Paul was not seeking to call the Athenians to a "foreign divinity" as they supposed (Acts 17.18), but rather to come to the full knowledge of the one true God who, by their own admission, was unknown to them. As Kenneth Cragg has put it (in his paper at the North American Conference referred to earlier in this book):

Secondly, Paul did not disdain to quote their own poets to validate his message. The quotations in Acts 17.28 are both from Greek sources. The first ("In him we live and move and have our being") comes from a poem attributed to Epimenides the Cretan, and the second ("For we are indeed his offspring") is part of the fifth line of the Phainomena of Aratus the Cilician. It is very significant that the only texts quoted by Paul to establish his message come, not from the Old Testament, but from the writings of Greek poets, and we shall have more to say about this shortly. At this point however, it is important to note the principle that the Gospel can be vindicated from non-Biblical sources.

When Paul came down to Corinth after his sojourn at Athens, he was 'occupied with preaching, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus" (Acts 18.5). He was now among his own people, fellow-Jews, and we mark a very obvious difference in his theme, though not in his approach. Once again he finds common ground, though this time it is in the hope of the Israelites in the coming Messiah. On this occasion any documentary evidence to attest his message would almost certainly have come from the Old Testament predictions of the coming Messiah.

My point will best be made if I look at Paul's approach from the opposite angle. Let us imagine that, as he stood on the Areopagus, he began "Men of Greece and Athens, I am a Hebrew, born of Hebrews; with respect to the hope of Israel, in the coming Messiah of our people, I stand before you this day. The Messiah of Israel is Jesus of Nazareth and I can prove it by quoting from the writings of the Jewish prophets of old". The Athenians would have been justified in being perplexed and bemused and saying to one another, "he is indeed a preacher of foreign divinities". Disappointed at the lack of relevance in his message, let us imagine him in the synagogue of Corinth, determined to relate his preaching more effectively to the Gentile environment of Greece and Europe. He begins: "O Jews of Corinth, as I passed by and observed the objects of worship in your city, I found an inscription, to an unknown God'. What you inhabitants of Corinth worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. You know, even Greek poets have said some things that I can use to prove my point . I need hardly comment further! Once again he would have been dismissed. The reply would have been: "Our God is the God of Israel, he is anything but unknown to us. And as for Greek poets, who needs their wisdom when we have the Word of God himself in the writings of our prophets"?

Paul adapted his message to the environment he found himself in and always sought to set it against the background of the beliefs and convictions of the people he was addressing, even to the point of quoting their own records and proverbs in support of his proclamation. I believe we have here the Biblical model and method of reaching people of a different culture or religion with the Gospel. Notice how impressively Paul related his Gospel to both Jews and Greeks. At Thessalonica, while he was arguing in the local synagogue, he declared to the Jews present there:

And at Athens, when he was among the Greek philosophers and free-thinkers, he declared:

On both occasions Paul used the words this I proclaim to you. To the Jews this Jesus was proclaimed as their long-awaited Messiah. To the Greeks this God, who raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 17.31), was proclaimed as the one whom they worshipped as unknown, of whom even some of their poets had spoken in their writings.

If this is, therefore, the Biblical method of approaching men of other creeds and cultures with the Gospel, how does it work in practice in Muslim evangelism? I believe the whole foundation of our approach must be to find common ground with Muslims, which is easy enough, because so much of the religious history of the Qur'an synchronises with Biblical history. In my view the very best ways of doing this are by relating the Gospel to the prophetic history preceding Jesus Christ and to the Qur'an's own teaching about Jesus. I will give detailed examples of how this can be done in practice in the coming chapters, but let me here establish the principle. Other Christian writers with experience among Muslims have also advocated this form of approach. One says:

Another who makes the same point is G. M. Grant in his book Religions of the World in Relation to Christianity. An annotated bibliography of sources dealing with the Jesus of Islam sums up Grant's method, saying:

When Christians take a traditional evangelical line of approach, simply setting Jesus forth as the Lord and Saviour of all men, Muslims find security in dismissing the message as simply an exposition of Christian doctrine and belief, and they comfort themselves by resting in the doctrines and tenets of Islam instead. We need to penetrate, we need to challenge the Muslims where they are and stimulate a process of reflection by presenting the Gospel against their own background, against the Muslims' own views of Jesus and the prophetic history leading up to him.

Not only so but, as we have seen in the example of Paul, we have a clear Biblical sanction for quoting their own scriptures to make our message relevant. Paul did this with telling effect in Athens by quoting Greek poets and it is quite amazing to behold how, by quoting passages from the Qur'an as well as the Bible, a Christian can make the Gospel message thoroughly relevant to a Muslim. I intend to give numerous practical examples later in this book, but let it suffice for the moment to say that we have, here, a clear Biblical authority for this method.

We need to meet the Muslim where he is and make our message relevant to his own background and beliefs. By so doing Muslims will be obliged to examine more seriously the claims of the Gospel upon their souls and lives. I am reminded at this point of an incident in Jesus' own ministry which also establishes this point very emphatically. As he sat beside the well at Sychar in Samaria on his way to Galilee, a Samaritan woman came to draw water (John 4.7). No doubt she came every day from the city to draw water from this, the only well in the region, and one of great sanctity in the eyes of the Samaritans because of its association with Jacob and his twelve sons (John 4.12). The journey was a significant reminder, day after day, of the need of water to sustain life on earth and the well itself became a symbol of life in a barren environment. Jesus related his message of life and hope directly to the well when he said to the woman:

How effectively he related the Gospel to the woman's own environment! His message was not a dry theological or doctrinal treatise, it was a living proclamation of the hope of eternal life. What better way to present it than by comparing it with the well that claimed the woman's attention every day, especially as the very need of a daily journey to the well testified to its limited usefulness.

If we are ever to make a real impact on the Muslims we must discover how to relate the message and claims of the Gospel to the beliefs of the Muslims themselves. The Apostle Paul himself shows, in one of his letters, that his method was not an incidental one but one which he had carefully de fined in his mind and deliberately applied. Let us proceed o examine just how he described his approach to people from backgrounds different to his own.

4. Becoming a Muslim to the Muslims.

The Apostle Paul allows us insight into his mind, insofar as his approach to people of another cultural or religious background is concerned, in the ninth chapter of his ii First Epistle to the Corinthians. He writes:

In these words we find the whole basis of his approach to the Greeks at Athens and the Jews at Corinth and Thessalonica. He would briefly examine his situation, assess the beliefs, heritage and background of his hearers, and connect the Gospel to these features. The Greeks worshipped an "unknown God" - he immediately related his gospel to this worship, even quoting from their own works where he found their teachings relevant to his message. Among Jews, however, he ~ became as one of them, boldly proclaiming that Israel's long-awaited Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth. "To the Jews I became as a Jew" means, simply, that whenever he was among Jews he became like them, setting the whole of his Gospel against the background of the prophetic and ecclesiastical history of Israel, just as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews so effectively does throughout his exposition of the Gospel.

In the same way, as soon as he was among Gentiles, he presented Christ, not as the Messiah of the Jews, but as the fulfilment of all the philosophical strivings of the Greeks and as the revelation of a deity who appeared to be inevitably elusive and unknowable.

What, then, is the Biblical approach to Muslims in the light of this method into which the great apostle allows us to enter? It is simply this - in the same way that he became as a Jew to the Jews, so each of us must become as a Muslim to the Muslims. We must discover the beliefs of the Muslims, their view of prophetic history, their assessment of Jesus Christ, and their overall religious perception of life, and present the Gospel against that background. Samuel Zwemer, one of the most famous missionaries to Muslims, sums this up perfectly in saying:

We should follow Paul's fundamental method of achieving this goal, that is we should seek common ground with Muslims by establishing points of doctrine or belief which we hold in common with them, and then press on to show how the Gospel relates to them. Alternatively, as I intend to show in many practical ways shortly in this book, we must show that such common beliefs lead, of necessity and by implication, to the Gospel of God as it is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Zwemer goes on to emphasize this deep need of beginning with common ground by saying of each Christian who seeks to witness to a Muslim, "He should cultivate sympathy to the highest degree and an appreciation of all the great fundamental truths which we hold in common with Moslems" (Zwemer, The Moslem Christ, p. 183). This makes it so essential to know how Muslims think, what they believe, and to become fully acquainted with their attitudes, convictions and religious perceptions. Another Christian writer gives a similar overview of the proper Christian approach to Muslims in the light of Paul's varying' approach to the Jews and Gentiles he met:

The same writer also does not fail to observe that the foundation on which this whole form of evangelism is based is the establishment of common ground. He says of Paul:

In my view, as stated already, there are two great themes in the Qur'an, where Christians can find such common ground with Muslims, that should be extensively explored in our witness. The first is in the prophetic histories of the Qur'an and the Bible insofar as these coincide, and the second is in the Qur'an's teaching about our Lord Jesus Christ to the extent that the Qur'an agrees with the Bible. The coming chapters, on Abraham in the Qur'an and the Bible and the uniqueness of Jesus in both books, to some extent cover these two themes respectively. The chapter following these two goes on to give even further examples.

When I first read through the Qur'an I was struck by the two great denials the book contains about Jesus Christ, namely his deity and his crucifixion. I have already pointed out that in these denials the whole foundation of Christianity is summarily disregarded, and I was soon led to conclude that the Qur'an stood as an antithesis and stumbling-block to the Gospel. In later years, however, I set out to examine and compare more carefully those teachings in the Bible about Jesus Christ with which the Qur'an agrees and, to my great delight, I realised that, even though the religion of Islam itself is hardly a stepping-stone to Christianity, the Qur'an's positive teaching about Jesus Christ most certainly is. There are numerous places in the book where the Qur'an acknowledges Biblical truths about Jesus Christ and, by analysing these in conversation with Muslims, a Christian well-instructed in both the Qur'an and the Bible can show very comprehensively that Jesus Christ was far more than just a prophet. In my chapter on the uniqueness of Jesus I trust I will leave no stone unturned in showing just how extensive the evidences are for this approach.

This is what it means "to become as a Muslim to the Muslims". By examining the Qur'an's teaching about Jesus, to the extent that it agrees with the Bible and provides common ground between us, a Christian can show quite convincingly that Jesus was far more than a prophet and he can use this as a platform from which to lead to the fulness of the Gospel as the only possible explanation for the unique features of his life and the mission he came to accomplish.

Before launching into a study of practical examples, however, I believe there are still a few things that need to be said about the whole subject of witnessing to Muslims as Well as our handling of Muslim converts and we shall proceed to examine these in the meantime.

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