Response to Warrick Farah's questions on conversion and being a 'Christian'

Warrick Farah at Circumpolar, a blog on the topic of mission to Muslims, asks someinteresting questions about converts from Islam to Christianity. In a nutshell, he is wondering if avoiding words like ‘Christian’ and ‘conversion’ in Islamic countries (like Somalia, if you can even call that a country anymore), would not lessen persecution. He poses three questions. Here they are, with my answers.
  1. People can be persecuted for Christ, or they can be persecuted for Western Christianity by calling themselves “Christians.”  Of course the difference between the two is really difficult to discern, and I don’t pretend to know in Musa’s case here.  But some persecution is unnecessary and more a result of association with the immoral West than with the glorious Jesus.  I do wonder about Sayed Musa and this Somali MBB- what if they chose not to call themselves “Christians”?

Abu Daoud’s answer: I think it is a bit unfair to ask Muslims who decide to follow Christ to not call themselves Christians. They know the language of Christian and Christianity, and they find it in their history and in their book, the Qur’an. The concept of following Christ from within Islam is a Western, modernist construct—it represents an attempt to renegotiate boundaries traditionally considered as immutable and objective. Not to be confrontational, but it is akin to same-sex marriage in this respect. All of this to say, these are not 21st Century Americans who can deconstruct and reconstruct terms in order to fir their picture of how reality should be, and we should not expect them to act in such a way. (Anyone interested in further exploring this critique of modernity should read Peter Berger’s important book The Heretical Imperative.)

  1. The language of “conversion” is politically loaded, and whenever persecution hits international headlines there are always other factors involved, as the article clearly shows.  The NT language is really rich and diverse in describing the concept of conversion.  Is there a better English word?

Abu Daoud’s answer: This is an interesting question, and I think there is more room for discussion here than with the word ‘Christian’, which, I think, need not and can not be tossed out (with the possible exception of Jews). The key word used in the NT to talk about people deciding to be disciples of Christ is repentance. But that is a technical word that will not make sense to people who do not know the NT well (including most Christians I think). How would we say that? He repented and decided to follow Christ? It lacks the concise nature of the word ‘convert’ that people in all fields understand to mean a significant turning away from something and to another thing, in this case away from Islam and to Christianity. So is there a better English word? For internet material meant for a wide audience of non-specialists? I don’t think so. Is there a better word in Somalian? I have no idea.

  1. Public advocacy for the persecuted usually puts governments in very awkward situations with the end result usually ending in deportation.  How should we stand for religious freedom without shaming Muslim governments into overreacting?

Abu Daoud’s answer: I think this is the most complex question, and all I can say is that it needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately the West needs to wake up and realize that Human Rights and Islam are, I am sad to say, irreconcilable. I mean, the Prophet very clearly said, ‘whosoever changes his religion, slay him.’ That does not leave a lot of room for creativity, does it? This problem has been around for a while, and it led Kenneth Cragg to the conclusion that Christian mission to the Muslim world must contain a strong element of advocacy for religious freedom.
 Please chime in, either here or over at Circumpolar. I enjoy this sort of conversation, just keep it civil ;-)
--Abu Daoud


Rosa said…
Regarding #3 - I am currently reading an excellent book recommended by Open Doors, called Faith That Endures. The author presents several ways and help and highlights times when advocacy is helpful and when it is not. I highly recommend this resource.
Jonathan said…
Re no. 2: I wonder if there's some way of referring to conversion with some sort of descriptive phrase, such as Jews "accepting Jesus as the Messiah", or in the Catholic Church, we will sometimes refer to a protestant as "entering the Church" or "coming into full communion". I am not familiar enough with Islam to suggest anything, however.
Warrick Farah said…
Re: #1: (I am not talking about following Christ within Islam- that would be a separate issue.)

Well, since you mention same-sex marriage in this discussion… I might add that feeling “gay” doesn’t mean the same thing as it did 50 years ago, does it? (touché? :) )

In the same sense, the word “Christian” is almost without meaning today, despite and EVEN BECAUSE OF how it has been traditionally used. I am not deconstructing the word “Christian.” Many unbelievers, both in American and in traditional eastern churches, refer to themselves as “Christian.” And “Christianity” has an undeniable historical association with abuse, especially towards Muslims.

In my experience with Muslims, the “Christian” word only muddies my identity with the biblical gospel. Sometimes we need to be willing to lay aside our traditions in order to be faithful to the word of God (cf. Mark 7:13). “Christianity” is neither immutable nor objective (Walls 1996). We have a lot of reconstructing to do if we’re going to link “Christianity” with biblical faith.

Therefore, it seems, at least to me, unfair to ask MBBs to identify with western immorality and historical abuse of Muslims. (It also seems inappropriate to ask MBBs to remain in Islam or as a Muslim, because we as outsiders don’t seem to understand what this means.) The point is: MBBs should be the ones to determine their socio-religious identity themselves. Outsiders like us assume too much if we think we have authority/power over MBBs in regards to this issue. We need to move past our traditional, paternalistic paradigms in Muslim ministry.
Abu Daoud said…
Hi Warrick, thanks for conversing with me on this topic.

I think I have not made my position clear on this issue. I am NOT talking about how words change in meaning over time. (Like gay, so not touche.)

I am saying that people in different worldviews are capable of asking different sorts of questions. An American man a hundred of years ago was just not capable of asking, can I marry my best friend, whom I find attractive and would like to spend my life with? Today, an American can ask such a question, because our worldview permits it.

The worldview of a late-modern American (you, me) allows us to ask the question, can I follow Jesus but not, in doing so, become a Christian?

Most Muslims simply do not live in the worldview that permits them to ask your late-modern American question. Their worldview has Muslims, Jews, Christians, and unbelievers (and maybe the mysterious hanafis, if they know the Qur'an well). That's all.

If you really believe that we should allow them to choose their own identity, it means you need to suppress whatever negative connotations YOU have connected to the word 'Christian' and realize that THEY have attached a positive, life-giving connotation to that word (as does the Bible).

I must admit that, on the whole, I feel the late-modern American worldview is very much impoverished compare to the traditional Islamic worldview (which insists that someone is either a Christian or a Muslim, and does not permit a person to create his own religion, thanks be to God).

As to what you or I have found to be productive in witness to Muslims, I am happy to entirely ignore.
seanb said…
"I think it is a bit unfair to ask Muslims who decide to follow Christ to not call themselves Christians." (Abu Daoud) & "I do wonder about Sayed Musa and this Somali MBB- what if they chose not to call themselves “Christians”?" (Warrick Farah).

What if we could provide a Biblical model (rather than a cultural model - whether that culture is modern or old) of what people who accepted Jesus as their Lord & Saviour became?
I must admit that my leanings are more towards those of Warrick, perhaps because I don't see the word 'Christian' in scripture. Feel free to refute me about this word, for it is something I wonder about every now and then in my pondering moments.

I also see God having over 70 names in Scripture (to name a few: Immanuel, Father, Son of God, El Shaddai, Elohim...) used to describe His many facets. None are exclusive or inclusive of the other, and each is unique but perfectly true: perhaps this is where we could begin in finding name(s) for people. I'm no expert in this, but it resounds with me I think.
seanb said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
seanb said…
PS As I re-read my post, I am quite aware that terms like 'accepted Jesus as their Lord & Saviour' are also culturally bound (infact they're not terms I commonly use myself - struggling to find a term/word that is neutral).
I'm also aware that it sounds very paternalistic to 'find names for people' (who accept Jesus) - it is not my intention to force upon anyone else what my view is, for that would be a mistake that's been made too many times. Apologies if either of these statements come across the wrong way.
Jonathan said…

The word "Christian" does indeed occur in Scripture: Acts 11:26 "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." While I do not believe that specific word itself has any inherent sacred meaning, Scripture does often refer to God's people being "called by His name" or otherwise have an explicit relationship with Him. The book of Revelation goes so far as to speak of having His name written on their foreheads. Whatever we call ourselves, it should not be something that hides our identity in Christ, lest He justly condemn us for being ashamed of Him and the Gospel.
Abu Daoud said…
Seanb, thanks for chiming in. You asked about a biblical model rather than a cultural one. There is a crucial problem here though, because all biblical models are cultural models.

What I mean is that there is no biblical message that stands outside of the various cultures--13 C. BC Egyptian, 1st C. Palestinian, and so on--wherein the bible is narrated/revealed. In others words, all biblical interpretation is, essentially, cultural interpretation. Also, since the bible is revealed in the context of various cultures, it is more appropriate to speak of biblical models rather than one biblical model.

All of that having been said, it seems like whatever biblical model you come up with, it would be YOU (the American, I presume) importing that to ________ (Somalia, Iraq, Algeria, etc.) On the other hand, if you allow the new believers to construct their own local theology, they will use the term Christian.

It is not that important that it is mentioned only once in the Bible. It is important that Christians are a distinct and fairly well-defined community according to the Qur'an. And that is what they know.
Warrick Farah said…
Abu Daoud, I agree with you somewhat that the postmodern epistemology allows people to reinvent their own identity. That is definitely an important observation in this debate.

However, many C5 insider movements have been initiated by modernistic and pre-modern MBBs themselves, and NOT by postmodern Western outsiders. Those of us who insinuate that all MBBs who choose not to take a “Western Christian” identity only do so at the initiative of Western workers are either dishonest or uninformed (and can be accused of slander). But still, I’m not talking about insider/C5.

The crux of this issue is the testimony that new believers give to the Lord Jesus Christ by the identity they take. Genuine movements to Christ that are not politically motivated and in places where there is no ekklesia yet always take time to solidify. There is no Biblical reason to call oneself a “Christian,” (I don’t buy the arguments based upon 1 Pet 4 or Acts 11 or 26) especially when that word only serves to distance oneself from Jesus- that would actually violate Scripture and a biblically informed worldview.

This is especially instructive for those MBBs who know the Qur’an and the unhealthy “Christian” sects that existed in Arabia at the time of the prophet. (The Arabic word مسيحي isn't the Qur’an.) I can’t blame a genuine MBB for not wanting to identify with the نصارى of 7th century Arabia! :)
Abu Daoud said…
Warrick, I have enjoyed this discussion!

Can you give me some examples of believers who, uninfluenced by Western missionaries, have decided not to call themselves Christians? I have been working in this field for years and among a few different ethnicities and I have never met any.

If, as I suspect, this reinvention of religion is, at its roots, a manifestation of American cultural neo-imperialism, then you can see why I don't see it as very healthy. On the other hand, if you can provide some evidence that there are significant examples of communities (the church makes the Christian, not the other way around) that follow Christ but have devised their own self-identity, I am happy to have my suspicions disproved.
Pointing to individual authors will not cut it (Mallouhi, and even he does not fit your description), we need to discuss communities here.

I think that in the end we agree that the prerogative of identity formation should be organic and favor the hermeneutic of the indigenous community, insofar as is possible. I have yet to read anything convincing about (much less actually observe) any group of followers who, from a Muslim background, have formed their own identity but do not call themselves Christians.

(Cases of avoiding persecution are very real, but that is more a survival strategy than a case of identity formation, so we should not allow them to enter this discussion.)
You are so right. We should not dictate to the convert what to say or what not to say but we should let him or her go in slow stages. For me, in the beginning, I tried to placate myself by telling myself that I was not out to convert to Christian but I simply wanted to know who Christ is and that was all there was. Gradually one gets little by little into the mystery of Christ and all these terms come to fall in their own natural place very easily but this all happens slowly but surely.

Warrick Farah said…
Hi Abu Daoud,

Even though some insider movements have been initiated by Westerners, they have been rejected by locals (maybe even at the insistence of Western anti-insider workers?). The blog Biblical Missiology posted a video about this a while ago. (But who made the video? Anti-insider Western workers!)

But many inisder movements have been led by locals long after the Westerner is gone. We don't need to think these locals are so naive or gulible and to buy into the "neocolonialist" strategies of postmodern workers.

Ralph Winter notes in MissionSHIFT that "This new appearance of biblical faith is already a phenomenon as large or larger than formal Christianity in those three continents" (p. 177). To imply that ALL these believers from diverse ethnicities are the result of neocolonialism is quite insulting on these believers.

And yes, that Muslims who come to Christ wish to remain "Muslim" at their own initiative is happening, even in the Arab world. We don't need to be in denial. (But we should give it 10 years or so to see if it bears fruit.) Haven't there been many articles in SFM and IJFM that have documented this? (Doesn't is also mean something that we can document cases of Athiest Muslims?)

Of course the reverse side of neo-colonialsm could be true as well, that Westerners who insist that MBBs call themsleves "Christians" could be promoting their own form of neocolonialst Enlightenment Christianity where "religion" (sacred vs secular) was creatd by nation states in order to consolidate political power (Ramachandra has some great stuff about this).

The point again is that MBBs should be able to organically and biblically work through this issue, especially in light of how a "Christian" identity was formed in the first cenutury, among both Jews and pagans.

Ok I think I wrote too much. Excuse my rambling. :)
Abu Daoud said…
Hi Warrick,

Perhaps I have not communicated my position clearly. I don't think it is accurate to classify me as 'anti-IM', rather, I am agnostic about genuine IM, in that I question whether it really exists at all. I know that IM imported from the West (neo-colonialist, as I said) exists, and that is the sort of 'directed contextualization' (Miller) or 'inculturation from outside' (Stanley) of which I am suspicious.

You assert that there is real IM that represents 'organic contextualization' (Miller) or 'inculturation from inside' (Stanley). And I have asked you for information about this alleged reality. I have yet to receive it!

You do point to other authors (Winters, God rest his soul) who also simply assert the fact. Sorry, that is not good enough. It is very easy to inadvertently see something you want to see, and people who like IM and feel it is a good, healthy, biblical path forward may well see it where it does not exist. That is the problem. Pro-IM people say it is there, and that we should just trust them. I have been involved in some pretty intense research in this topic for years now and I have yet to find it.

So where are these mysterious believers? SFM has published Mallouhi, but he is a Muslim who converted to evangelical Christianity, was an evangelical Christian for many years, and then started to redefine himself as a Muslim follower of Jesus, after going to seminary and all that good Western evangelical stuff. Also, he is an individual, not a community.

IJFM has published one sketchy, brief account (everything in IJFM is brief, one reason why it is not a good source of information, imho) which alleges to be an account of an organic IM. It is, however, so devoid of details and so short that it is impossible to disagree with the author. He does not engage in competent scholarship by providing a detailed description of the community he is studying, and only then offering his own interpretation of what is happening there.

All of this to say, if scholars advocating IM, or even asserting that it exists in an organic (Miller), from-the-inside (Stanley) form, they need to engage in good, solid scholarship. I have yet to find such people in my own extensive research, and I have yet to read anything capable of convincing me that such movements really exist. In real scholarship saying, trust me, I know, just doesn't cut it.

PS: Jorgensen's community in Bangladesh does not qualify as IM.

PPS: The Stanley article I am referring to is available here:
Abu Daoud said…
Note on the Stanley article, it could not be uploaded to Scribd, alas, but I can email it to you if you want. It's just a PDF and not a journal article or anything.

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