Communicating the Gospel to Muslims


1. The Importance of Sound Apologetics.

We have, in recent sections, canvassed methods and maxims of Muslim evangelism and in this section I wish to give some emphasis to points that have already been stated in principle. The need to be willing to engage in argument and controversy in a charitable manner has been noted as well as the need to show respect towards Muhammad and Islam. The purpose of saying a few further things on these two themes is to establish the need of a genuinely comprehensive ministry to Muslims, an all-round approach which I believe alone will lead to a truly effective witness.

Let us begin with the importance of sound apologetics. Many books have been written in the Muslim world challenging the whole authenticity of Christianity. No stone has been left unturned. The Bible, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, the state of the Christian Church, have all been called into question in Muslim writings. Many Muslims are well-trained in arguments against Christianity and, with the breaking-down of language, geographical, cultural and other barriers together with a perceived threat to their identity in what is assumed to be a Christian environment, Muslims in the West are particularly well-schooled in objections and arguments against the doctrines of our faith. Christians who , intend to evangelise Muslims will not be able to avoid the introduction by Muslims of questions calculated to put the Christian on the defensive and undermine his message. Can these simply be tactfully avoided by the Christian who would prefer to speak only of the grace of God in the Gospel without becoming embroiled in controversy? George Harris, a missionary with many years experience among Muslims in China, says of such attempts to avoid or evade argument on the validity of the Christian faith:

Alternatively, can the Christian not pre-empt such opposition by avoiding discussing subjects that are likely to create antagonism? Can he not rather seek only to befriend the Muslim and witness by his life and love alone without challenging him directly with the claims of the Gospel upon his soul? George Harris once again completely discounts any approach which seeks to dilute the essence of the Gospel in the interests of avoiding debate on its validity:

We are called to be peace-makers, not peace-lovers. We have been commissioned to bring people back to God and to make their peace with him. This is, paradoxically, a violent process as Jesus himself testified:

No man peacefully submits himself to God's rule in his life and it is only those who are prepared to violate their love of this world, their own devices, and all the things that appeal to them, that will ever enter the kingdom of God It is thus only too true that the process is a "violent" one and we cannot expect the Gospel to be cheerfully received wherever we preach it.

Christians can never adopt a "live and let live" attitude with the world for the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (1 John 5.19, Revelation 13.3), and no one will enter the kingdom unless he is prepared to violate the fashions of the present order, both secular and religious, and cross over against the tide of the world. The Christian Gospel comes as an affront to the whole world, not least of all to the adherents of Islam. We must be prepared for our witness to be challenged, opposed, undermined and at times simply reviled. There is, then, a deep need to be prepared to make "a defence and confirmation of the Gospel" (Philippians 1.7) and, to do this, Christians must be willing to learn and become fully instructed, both in the teachings of the Scriptures and in the knowledge of means to overcome obstructive arguments.

Martin Goldsmith speaks of this very need when speaking of students in university Christian unions who express their sense of inadequacy in witnessing to Muslims:

The Christian, if he is ever to witness effectively, must make a deliberate effort to know the Bible and the basic teachings of Christianity well so that he can speak with authority and justify his message when called upon to do so.

Muslims have been trained to think positively about Islam and to believe that Christianity is founded on very fragile pillars. The doctrine of the Trinity seems to them to be, by its very nature, illogical and obscure; the belief that Jesus is the Son of God a self-evident falsehood; and the atonement, at best, a licence for free-living and, at worst, a grossly crude form of redemption. The Bible, likewise, appears to the Muslim to be so obviously the word of man rather than the Word of God, and he has been furnished with a number of arguments against it which he cheerfully believes prove it has been altered. It helps not that he is suffering under all sorts of illusions and misunderstandings about Christianity. It is the Christian's duty to overcome these obstacles and, the Muslim attitude being what it is, any timidity, uncertainty or shallow reasoning on the part of the Christian will soon persuade him that Christianity is indeed an indefensible religion.

Muslims are confident about Islam and have a sense of assurance about their religion, whether we believe it is well- founded or not. Christians, therefore, must be able to present the Gospel and make a defence of it confidently and convincingly if they are to command the respect of Muslims for the message they proclaim. Any attempt to evade the issues will soon be read as a proof that the Christian does not really believe what he professes but simply goes along with it because he has been brought up as a Christian and has too much to lose by going against his heritage.

This makes it essential for Christians to be well-instructed in the Word of God, to be soundly taught in basic apologetics' and to be assured of the truth of their faith. I would go so far as to say you should never attempt to witness to a Muslim unless you believe unflinchingly in the authenticity of the Bible and the divine authority of its teachings. We need a comprehensive witness to Muslims and one of the essential ingredients of this is a sound knowledge of the doctrines and teachings of the Scriptures and an ability to graciously, but nevertheless convincingly, defend them. Muslims in the West are becoming well-educated and live in our own environment. We are able, in consequence, to approach them both boldly and in depth with the Gospel. Let us press on to another similar depth of instruction we need in pursuit of our goal of an all-round ministry.

2. Developing a Right Attitude Towards Islam.

Having already said that every aspiring witness to Muslims should acquire a sound knowledge of the Bible and the tenets of the Christian faith and be able to give a good defence "of the hope that is in him", let me go on to say that the Christian also needs to know the Qur'an and the basic teachings of Islam. Without this knowledge the Christian will soon find it hard to communicate effectively with Muslims. Many Christian writers with experience among Muslims have commented on this aspect of Muslim evangelism as well. One begins his whole discourse on the Christian approach to Islam by saying:

It is futile to attempt to witness to Muslims on a purely Christian level by confining yourself to traditional Christian approaches to religion, the Bible, and the major doctrines of our faith. Muslims do not think as Christians do. hey have their whole world-view fashioned from childhood by the Qur'an, the Hadith, and the tenets of Islam. The Gospel has to be set against the background of Muslim beliefs and convictions, as we have seen, and no one can do this effectively without a sound knowledge of the faith of Islam. Another Christian writer experienced in evangelism among Muslims makes the same point:

No Christian should ever venture into discussion with a Muslim or set out to evangelise Muslims if he intends to ignore Islam and adopt an exclusively Christian approach alone. A recent review of Christian witness to Muslims suggested that Muslims are to be viewed purely as sinners like all others in need of the grace of God and that the proper Christian approach should be to treat them purely as lost sinners rather than as Muslims. I believe such an approach is not only shortsighted but considerably un-Biblical, particularly in the light of Paul's varying approach to Jews and Gentiles which we have already analysed.

On the contrary, Muslims must be approached for what they are - sons of Islam conditioned by the doctrines and tenets of a religion that embraces almost every aspect of their lives. To use a popular and very appropriate expression, we need to earn the right to be heard. We shall only be able to converse meaningfully with Muslims if we first acquaint ourselves with their beliefs, hopes, misgivings, fears and cherished convictions. In other words, we must know where the Muslim is coming from and meet him where he is. No religion ' in the world is more capable of adapting itself to the cultures of the nations and of setting itself against the backgrounds of the faiths of other men than Christianity. The Biblical Christian faith is almost exclusively free of rites and prescribed forms of worship. Being God's universal way of salvation it is remarkably capable of expressing itself in any environment, and the Christian who goes out of his way to become reasonably acquainted with the whole background of Islam will find himself far better equipped to relate the Gospel to the Muslim's faith and heritage.

It is for this reason that I first wrote the companion volume to this book, entitled Muhammad and the Religion of Islam. I believe this present work would be incomplete without its sister-volume. It was my intention, on the one hand, to inform Christians about Islam so that they could talk intelligently to Muslims. The more I learn about Islam, the more I find Muslims willing to converse with me and show a greater respect for Christianity. It was also my aim to enable Christians to witness sensitively to Muslims and to be aware of attitudes and methods of approach that would have a reactionary effect and cause unnecessary offence. Many Christians have also commented on the value of knowing Islam in this context as well. One says:

Another comments in a similar vein on the need to know Islam to anticipate Muslim reactions and possible problem areas in our approach:

We have to "earn the right to be heard", and for this reason I believe no Christian should rely on a book of this nature alone without its companion volume. There is, paradoxically and on the other hand, another reason for writing the first book (which might superficially appear to be contrary to the intention first expressed) and that is the need to not only know Islam but also be able to refute it. Just as the Christian must not only know what he believes but also be able to say why he believes it, so he must be able to state what he disbelieves in Islam and why he does so. Knowledge of Islam to a Christian is like a two-sided coin. On the one side it will enable him to avoid unnecessary offence and rash statements, on the other it will equip him to make really effective critical analyses of Islam and its origins which are far better calculated to challenge the Muslim to reflect on from the validity of what he has been brought up and trained childhood to believe.

When I wrote the first volume I realised it contained wealth of factual information thoroughly undermining Islam's claim to be the true and final religion and to this day I fear lest some insensitive folk might simply make use of the facts there presented as barbs with which to strike at Islam. If so, then that facet of the first volume would indeed appear to negate my professed intention to lead Christians to a more sensitive and better-informed approach, but I do believe the book has more than enough information together with positive comments and perspectives to withstand the charge that it has been written purely as a critique of Islam.

There is a very definite place for a Christian refutation of Islam, in fact a vital one, provided it is conducted sensitively and with a view to stimulate a healthy and more open re-assessment of the Muslim's faith as a stepping-stone to the light and truth of the Gospel. It is also essential that it be well-informed. The most successful and effective witness among Muslims is likely to come from those who know the Christian faith well and who are also well- instructed in Islam so as to be appreciative of Muslim feelings and sensitivities and yet be able to tactfully cause the Muslim to rethink his standpoint. The spirit of Oliver Cromwell's approach to his opponents, charitable and yet forthright, applies so well here in Christian witness to Muslims: "For God's sake, I pray you, bethink you, you may be mistaken" (quoted in Cragg, Sandals at the Mosque, p. 88). John of Damascus, the Christian Church's first real theologian to assess Islam, was a master of his subject particularly because he was learned in both Christianity and Islam. The following extract describes both his approach and confidence in tackling Islam from a Christian standpoint:

The important thing to remember here is to maintain a balance, not only to be willing to enter into discussion on the validity of our respective religions, but also to heed the apostle's exhortation to do so "with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3.15). Christians who are willing to become grounded in both the Bible and the Qur'an, both in the doctrines and heritages of Christianity and Islam, will be able to conduct an all-round, comprehensive ministry to Muslims. The effort is well worth the reward when the Christian finds himself able to truly penetrate the Muslim's armour and, like Jesus, to leave no man entirely at ease after he has met with him. There is yet a third form of knowledge that the Christian will profit by acquiring and we shall close this section by analysing it briefly.

3. The Value of Obtaining a Knowledge of Arabic.

Although the majority of the Muslims of the world do not speak Arabic as their mother-tongue, Arabic has become the religious language of Islam. Almost all its tenets and practices are universally described in Arabic terms. The chief reason for this is that the original language of the Qur'an is Arabic and, furthermore, the Qur'an itself on more than one occasion describes itself specifically as Qur'aanan-Arabiyyan - "an Arabic Qur'an" (Surah 12.2).

It seems that the original purpose of declaring that the revelation of the Qur'an was in Arabic was so that the Arabs would recognise that it was specifically sent as a message to them. The Jews and the Christians had their Scriptures, but no prophet had come to the Arabs. Muhammad therefore sought to strengthen his claim that he was specifically sent, first and foremost, as a prophet to the hitherto unscriptured Arabs by emphasizing the fact that the Scripture he was receiving, the Qur'an, was in Arabic. This appears to be the thrust behind the following passage where the Arabic character of the book is deliberately set in a local context:

Yusuf Ali comments that this "is undoubtedly a Meccan verse" and that the "Mother of Cities" is obviously Mecca (The Holy Qur'an, p. 1307). The implication appears to be clearly that the wahy, the revelation, has been sent down in Arabic so that Muhammad could warn the Arabs of Mecca and its surrounding cities. In Surah 41.2-3 it is again said that the kitab, the Scripture, has been sent down (tanzil) from the "Most Gracious, Most Merciful" as an Arabic Qur'an "for people who understand". It would not be possible for the Arabs to understand it if it were in a foreign tongue (cf. 1 Corinthians 14.11). The Arabic medium of the Qur'an is therefore advanced purely as an argument that it has come in the language of Muhammad's contemporaries and should therefore be heeded by them and revered as their own Scripture.

The declaration that this Scripture is an Arabic Qur'an, however, has led to the widespread belief today that Arabic must be the language of heaven, where it is believed an original Qur'an has been preserved. At any rate, the Arabic medium of the Qur'an has accordingly obtained great sanctity in the eyes of the Muslims so that no translation of the book is ever regarded as a true Qur'an, some even holding that it should never be translated into another language. As a result all Muslims, no matter what their home language may be, must learn at least to read the Qur'an in its original Arabic tongue, even though they may not understand it. This has led to the anomalous situation where many Muslims (particularly in South Africa) can read the Qur'an freely in Arabic without knowing or understanding what they are reading. I say anomalous because it appears that the real thrust of Muhammad's claim that the Qur'an was especially revealed to him in Arabic was precisely so that his people, the Arabs, might indeed understand its message.

Nevertheless the order of the day must be taken into consideration and any Christian who works among Muslims will soon discover how highly the Arabic language is regarded and how its expressions, titles, and the script of the Qur'an have a major place in Islamic terminology. The Christian, then, who takes the trouble to obtain some knowledge of Arabic will find his ability to communicate with Muslims very much increased.

Another writer makes much the same point to emphasise the need of acquainting ourselves with the Arabic language so that we may relate more meaningfully to Muslims:

Not only does a knowledge of Arabic help a Christian to penetrate even more deeply into Muslim thought and theology but it also causes Muslims to have more respect for him. He is no longer identified as a typical Christian enthusiast but as a scholar who, knowing the background of Islam, is more likely to speak with authority and understanding. The result is that the Christian will probably find it much easier to command a hearing.

Another of the values of having some knowledge of Arabic is that a Christian can often communicate more effectively with Muslims when he is able to relate the Gospel to Islamic tenets and practices which are identified by Muslims in terms of their Arabic titles. Some time ago I saw the immense value of this in practice. A Sufi-minded Muslim was outlining the basic principles of Sufism. Most of the Muslims, he said, only follow the shari'ah, the law of Islam as it is laid down in the Qur'an and the Hadith. They only know how to observe the prescribed rituals of prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc. Only a few, he said, ever really seek out the knowledge of God and he outlined the basic threefold path of Sufism.

"Firstly", he said, "you must attain to the state of tariqah, the 'path', that is, you must follow the way of the prophet and become like him in his personality and character. It is not enough to just conform outwardly to prescribed forms of religion. Secondly, you must progress to the state of haqiqah, the 'reality' or the 'truth'. This means you not only emulate the prophet but come to the actual knowledge and conscious realisation of God's truth. Ultimately", he said, "you must also be absorbed in the life of God. You must not only perceive his truth with your mind but your heart must become united to him in his living reality". I suggested that the Arabic word hayah would be appropriate to describe this form of "life", to which he replied "Yes, you could use hayah, but the usual term we use is ma'rifah, that is, a 'spiritual knowledge' of God". By attaining to the three goals, he said, a man becomes united to God.

I had deliberately chosen the word hayah. As soon as he had finished, I responded that his description of the stages of Sufism in the quest for God were precisely what the Christian already has as an eternal possession in Jesus Christ. To make my point I quoted John 14.6 as it appears in the Arabic Bible - Ana huwat-Tariiqu wal Haqqu waZ Hayyaah. The Muslim was quite stunned! If I had simply said "Oh yes, Jesus said something like this about himself, that is, 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life"', I doubt whether the impact would have been made. But by quoting the verse in Arabic I was able to relate this comprehensive claim to the Muslim's own views of the way to God and the use of the Arabic terminology made a great impression on him. "You are seeking the path, the truth, and the knowledge of God's living reality", I said, "but here we find Jesus saying that he himself is the Tariq, the Haqq, and the Hayah - the Way, the Truth, and the Life". The ability to relate this verse as it is translated into Arabic to the Muslim's own descriptions of his quest for the supreme knowledge of God gave the point of Christ's all-sufficiency as the way to God far more power and impact.

Some time later another Sufi-minded Muslim discussed the same theme with me, only he had the boldness to state that Muhammad had only brought the shari'ah to the Muslims and that the prophets had only been sent to give the basic laws of religion to the masses. He said that it was only in later times that-great Sufi masters like Junayd, al-Bistami and Jalaluddin Rumi, had discovered the threefold path to God. When I quoted John 14.6 to him in Arabic as well, he too was somewhat taken aback. "You regard the prophets purely as messengers sent with the law of God for the masses", I said, "and believe that it is only a few truly spiritually-minded people who can attain to the tariqah, the haqiqah and the ma'rifah, yet it is precisely here that Jesus meets you in all these quests as the supreme object of your goal. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; he, in his own person, symbolises the Sufi quest for the path, the truth, and the living knowledge of God". I continued in much the following vein:

''If you are truly seeking God with all your heart you will not find him by being absorbed (fana) in his essence or by theosophical exercises, you will find him by becoming united to Jesus Christ. All three of the basic Sufi stages find their 'yes' in him".

He responded by saying he could accept that Jesus Christ might have said "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life", but that this did not make him exclusive, as any true worshipper of God, on completing the stages and being united to him, could make the same claim. The well-known Sufi al-Hallaj had once also claimed ana'l Haqq - "I am the Truth". In a letter afterwards I pointed out that the first words of Jesus' saying in Greek are ego eimi, meaning, "I, I am" or, properly interpreted, "I, I myself am the Way, the Truth and the Life". The use of the personal pronoun ego together with the verb in the first person singular (into which the pronoun is incorporated), eimi, is a way of emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus' claim. It makes the whole sentence mean "I, I myself alone am the Way, the Truth, and the Life - no one else is!" This is why he added "no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14.6). This verse, when quoted and explained in its Arabic form, is a very useful means of conveying to mystically- minded Muslims that Jesus is the only, and yet the perfect and complete, way to the supreme knowledge of God.

I believe we need to aspire to an all-round form of ministry to Muslims, a comprehensive approach that takes in the ability to handle Muslim objections to the Bible and to relate the Gospel effectively to Muslims against the background of their own beliefs. I urge all who contemplate Muslim evangelism to make a sincere effort to get to know the Bible and their own religion well, and to likewise strive to obtain a sound knowledge of Islam including a degree of knowledge of the Arabic language. Once these are obtained, the Christian will be surprised to discover how much more effective he can be in his witness to Muslims.

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