Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Part XXI: Islam, Conversion, and Identity

Part XXI: Islam, Conversion, and Identity
by Abu Daoud

In part X of this series I talked about reasons why Muslims are attracted to the Christian faith. This topic of conversion is very interesting, and I want to discuss it a little more.

The nature of the Gospel, and of Christian mission in general, is not to replace any given culture with ‘a Christian culture’. For a while this was indeed the strategy, to become Christian meant getting a Western name and wearing European clothing and so on. Those days are long gone though. Today we understand that every culture will have elements that need to be confronted by the Gospel, but that does not mean that the Gospel itself becomes the new culture. It is like the salt, which makes the food good, but which you don’t eat on its own. Cultures are evangelized, not just individual persons.

And here is where Islam comes into the equation: shall we understand Islam as a cluster of cultures which need to be evangelized, but not replaced? Or shall we understand Islam as rival religion, which must be replaced by the Christian religion? There are multiple heated arguments on this topic going on all over the place today among missionaries and converts as well. Let me unpack the results of each theory:

If we say that, yes, Islam is indeed a culture, then, just like we have Jewish followers of Jesus (who don’t call themselves Christians), we can also have Muslim followers of Jesus. They worship God through Jesus Christ, read the Bible and believe in it, and will tend to have a positive view of the Qur’an and Muhammad. They do not call their gatherings ‘churches’ usually, and they tend to use the Islamic vocabulary and names (like ‘issa for Jesus), rather than Christian terms (yasuu’ for Jesus). This group will focus on using concepts that overlap with the Qur’an like ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘straight path.’

But what if, when we look at Islam, we see a rival religion? Then there is no way to reconcile Muhammad and Jesus, the Bible and the Qur’an, nor should we try to do so. This approach would generally focus on the new identity a person has in Christ, with an emphasis on being part of the Church—a different community than the Islamic umma. It would be normal for a person to take a new (non-Islamic) name, though not required. Their view of Muhammad and the Qur’an will tend to focus on short-comings and deficiencies.

Clearly, I am painting with broad strokes here. But that should not obscure the very real issue at hand here—it is not just a matter of semantics. If Islam is more of a culture to be evangelized, but we preach as if Islam were a rival religion, we may fail to communicate the Gospel in an understandable manner relating to that culture’s context. On the other hand, if we emphasize how the Gospel and Islam as a culture go together, and thus create a community of Muslim followers of Jesus, we risk compromising central beliefs (the Trinity, the incarnation) and practices (baptism) that have always defined Christian orthodoxy. These are, broadly speaking, the two paths before the churches today as they seek to relate the message of new life in Messiah to the Muslims of the world.


akhter said...

They also converted for Identity!


Abu Daoud said...

Akhter, thank you for showing up! Yes, I think that is correct. The changes in this world over the last decades like globalization have exercised a great deal of pressure on peoples' identities, including Muslims. And some Muslims have not found answers in Islam, so they turn to something else.

Anglican Student US said...

Thanks for this little thought-provoking piece.

A comment on this:

I don't know what your own feeling is, but I have a hard time imagining a 'common grace' that allows the Qur'an to stand as is or respect Muhammed as a prophet (even if not THE prophet).

I'm more inclined to see Islam as a religion which has commandeered many cultures existing within it. I imagine these cultures and people groups needing similar missiological approaches to other cultures which suffer from indigenuous religions.

The gospel has to pierce through the religion to get to the culture where God subjects and purifies the culture so that it can bring forth the 'wealth of the nations' on the last day. Since Islam is such a powerful enculturating force, such a re-discovery of ethnic strata beneath it will require years of discernment and a gentle touch, I imagine.

No agenda here from my end, just thought i'd share what first popped in my head after I read what you wrote.

Salome Bintullah said...

I'm not sure if the Qur'an and Muhammad could remain in high regard (that would be up to the converts in question, I guess). But I do think that the Qur'an and Muhammad can be used as a starting point for mission. Muhammad was not a relentlessly evil man, and the Qur'an does have some genuinely good things in it. This makes sense if we consider the fact that Muhammad almost certainly drew on local Christian and Jewish teachings and traditions (some heretical, some not).

I think that jettisoning everything Islamic upon conversion would be a lot like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are Jews who follow Jesus but don't consider themselves to be Christian; there are also Jews who consider themselves to be both Jewish and Christian (Hebrew Catholics would be a good example). Perhaps somewhere in-between (like the Hebrew Catholics are) would be a good place for many converts to be? They could retain many Islamic practices (headscarves, fasting, etc.) while still being Christian.

It's very true that Islam is deeply rooted in these cultures. However, in many instances, Christianity has even older roots in that culture. We could show them that Christianity does not automatically equal West. After all, Christianity is a Middle Eastern religion. There is a book called "Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes" that I'd really like to get my hands on. It might give some good ideas on how to present the gospel and Jesus to Middle Easterners.

Tim Herald said...

Anglican Student,

One of the things I have noticed in this identity discussion is that we are often defining such terms as culture and religion in different ways... especially in the West where we want to see definite lines drawn between everything ;^)

How would you define (1) culture and (2) religion?