Wednesday, 15 October 2014

CHRISTIAN MISSION TO ISLAM (2)

In Part I we looked at the challenge faced by the Church due to the growing influence of Islam in the UK.

In Part II we consider the opportunities that are presented to us for the propagation of the Gospel.



Dawah & the Opportunity for Engagement
As we have said, Islam is a missionary religion. The Qur’an exhorts Muslims to call people to God “with wisdom and good exhortation” (Surah 16:125).  This call to Islam, termed dawah, is a mixture of what we would call witnessing and apologetics and every Muslim is commanded to perform it.[i]  Because of the Quranic injunction we will discover that most Muslims are open to religious discussion and will engage very respectfully with Christian beliefs. 


 We are further aided by the fact that Jews and Christians already enjoy a status within Islamic theology (albeit a subordinate one), as Ahl-al-Kitab or “People of the Book.” Many Muslims are therefore genuinely interested in speaking with Christians on matters of religion.

 Contrast this with a secular society which continues to demonstrate invincible disinterest to our evangelistic efforts! In the UK today the general population is now so thoroughly infected with the malaise of post-modernist thought that entire generations have now been disciplined to reject, not only Christian truth, but also the very concept that there even is such a thing as truth. In contrast orthodox, conservative Islam is impervious to post-modernism & Muslims believe passionately in revealed truth.   

 Given these factors it is not beyond the bounds of reason to envisage a situation in the future when evangelism to Muslims actually constitutes one of the more fruitful areas of UK mission.  It really ought to be a huge incentive to us that there are nearly three million people in our society who actually believe in something and want to talk about God and religion!

  There are large areas of commonality between Christianity and Islam to assist us in beginning that conversation e.g. our mutual monotheism, belief in sin, eternal rewards, & punishments etc. How many believers have ever considered that the average Muslim –even if an immigrant­­- is far closer to us theologically than the typical indigenous UK citizen who these days is increasingly likely to be functionally pagan in his outlook?

 When it comes to witnessing, the advantages therefore ought to be obvious. The  initial (and often insurmountable) hurdles of getting someone to accept that there even are such things as absolute truth and divine revelation simply do not apply. Thus it is possible to move quickly to the central issues of the nature of God as revealed in Christ and the truths of the Gospel.  
 
  These areas of commonality are thus helpful and need to be exploited. But they ought not to be overstated. It need hardly be said that massive cultural differences remain between the two religions. Few Christians have read the Qur’an, and few Muslims have read the Bible and neither understands even the conceptual framework of the other’s holy book. Thus it has been observed that on the rare occasions that we are talking at all, we are often simply talking past each other.

 This is where it is important as a movement that we begin training ourselves up to engage with the Muslim communities in our towns and cities. As a minimum requirement I would suggest that every pastor ought to have read the Qur’an and to have a basic understanding of the main issues involved between the two belief-systems. This is especially vital in those fellowships which are called to witness in areas of high Muslim population density. For if a member of our congregation is anticipating a witnessing opportunity and needs advice on how to proceed; who in our churches can be turned to for help if not the pastor?

 It is important to stress that what we are aiming for with this understanding of Islam is not an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of a fourteen hundred year old religion. Respect is gained in Muslim eyes when someone has taken the time to gain knowledge of even the basics of his faith. How impressed are we when Christianity is debunked by someone whose “knowledge” of our faith was gained from a Youtube video that they once saw? Similarly we have no right to expect a Muslim to listen to our propagation of our beliefs when we show a lamentable ignorance of his.  
 
                                                
Principal Areas of Disagreement
Whilst there is a wide area of theological agreement with Muslims there are nevertheless critically important areas of disagreement.

 This is vital to acknowledge as our increasingly isolated position in society can lead Christian churches to form unwise alliances and to seek to engage in ecumenical dialogue with causes that are antithetical to the Gospel. There is a danger that we attempt to build bridges with Muslims by allowing a blurring of the distinctions between the two faiths.  

  In 2009 Emergent Church pioneer Brian Mclaren courted controversy by observing sawm, the Ramadan fast. He did so, he said, “…to share, as Christians, in a Muslim practice - not as a betrayal of our faith, but as an expression of it, in solidarity with Muslim friends.”[ii] Of still greater concern was the approach taken by Tony Campolo when he stated that, “a theology of mysticism provides some hope for common ground between Christianity and Islam.”[iii]

 These are siren voices which must be resisted. Whilst Christians and Muslims may cooperate in areas of mutual interest like protecting religious freedom or in defending marriage, a clear distinction must always be maintained in relation to our unique view of spiritual truth. We must affirm that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God[iv] and that Islamic theology is irreconcilably opposed to Christian belief in critical areas. 

 The engagement we envisage therefore is not with a view to ecumenicalism, but rather to a theological and apologetical exploration of the issues. Such an exploration will ultimately highlight differences rather than blur them.  

 The most essential differences between the two belief-systems can be encapsulated under three headings: Trinitarian, Christological, and soteriological.

Trinitarian
Fellowship with the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the very heart of the Christian faith (2 Cor 13:14; 1 Jn 1:3). The Qur’an however emphatically denies the Trinity,

So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not "Three" - Cease! (it is) better for you! - Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son” (4:171)

How can He have a son when He has no consort?” (6:101)

 The writer of the Qur’an evidences huge misunderstanding over the nature of the Trinity, not least seeming to suggest that Mary the mother of Jesus is one of the “gods” worshipped by Christians (5:116)! The doctrine of divine oneness tawhid, and its idolatrous counterpart shirk are the core components of Islamic theology. Shirk, the practice of “associating partners” with Allah is the only unforgiveable sin in Islam.
  
A Muslim has been trained from birth to believe that becoming a Christian guarantees your being sent straight to hellfire. It need hardly be said that this represents a huge barrier to our witnessing. Hence one of the primary tasks of evangelism to Muslims is to demonstrate that our faith is unequivocally monotheistic.


Christological
Although Muslims acknowledge Jesus (Isa) as a great prophet of Allah, the Isa of the Qur’an is a very different figure from the Jesus of the New Testament.  Contrary to their own claims, we must insist that Muslims do not truly respect Christ since they refuse to grant Him the status or the worship that is His due.[v]

 Most Muslims really struggle on a conceptual level with the notion of the God-Man & so believers need to be confident concerning the practical implications of incarnational theology in order to be able to give an answer at this point.

Soteriological
“Salvation is …not in the vocabulary of Islam.”[vi] Similarly the concept of Original Sin is alien to Islamic theology. Islam asserts that whilst Man is morally weak & therefore prone to sin, he also has the innate capacity to please God by his actions. This is something the Scriptures clearly deny (Rom 8:7-8; Heb 11:6). The Qur’an states that good deeds outweigh bad deeds (11:114) in the life of a true Muslim.  

 The notion of someone atoning for another person’s sins is actually offensive to most Muslims,  

And We have fastened every man's deeds to his neck, and on the Day of Resurrection, We shall bring out for him a book which he will find wide open. (It will be said to him): “Read your book. You yourself are sufficient as a reckoner against you this Day.” Whoever goes right, then he goes right only for the benefit of his own self. And whoever goes astray, then he goes astray to his own loss. No one laden with burdens can bear another's burden. (17:13-15).

Therefore Muslims deny that Jesus died on the Cross, thus repudiating the bedrock of the Christian faith and one of the central facts of human history,

And for their saying: We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of Allah, and they killed him not, nor did they cause his death on the cross, but he was made to appear to them as such. (4:157)


The Textual Issue
In addition to these three major doctrinal issues, and flowing naturally from them, is the textual issue. Even many Muslims would concede that the Bible we have today points Christians to a Trinitarian conception of God. This represents a huge problem for Islam since the Qur’an exhorts Christians to read their own scriptures in search of “guidance & light” (5:46). The problem, of course, is that the very scriptures they encourage us to study lead to faith in Christ as the Son of God!

 The Muslim is therefore forced to the conclusion that the original Gospel or Injil must have suffered corruption at the hands of later Christian scribes, and great effort is exerted by Islamic apologists to try and prove that the New Testament we have today is not the Injil handed down by Allah.

 Here the Christian believer is on rock-solid ground. We have complete bibles which predate Muhammad by centuries so we know what the scriptures said in his day and for centuries before that. The manuscript evidence for our New Testament is wholly unprecedented in ancient history and is unanimous in its testimony to Trinitarian doctrine. Therefore at least a passing acquaintance with the discipline of New Testament textual criticism is indispensable in refuting the claims of biblical corruption.

Conclusion: Meeting the Challenge
We live in days when determined resistance to the Church’s operations in the UK is growing. Secularism continues to threaten, whether it takes the form of propaganda in the popular media; or, increasingly, through action in law courts and employment tribunals. Christians are losing ground both legally and politically at an alarming rate.

 In such a situation we cannot allow ourselves to also be outflanked within our own local communities by self-confident Muslim populations who these days use the power of the internet to harness arguments against Christianity.  The UK Church is dangerously exposed at the present time. Most of our churches remain ill-equipped theologically-speaking, either to adequately defend the faith from the more sophisticated lines of attack or to go on the offensive by exposing the many faultlines that exist within the Islamic belief-system itself.  We need to realize that the era when the Church could get away with widespread doctrinal ignorance amongst its people is over!

 It is important to anticipate that God will equip His Church for the task of meeting these challenges in the coming years. We must look to Him to raise up a generation of believers able both to defend the Christian faith and to evangelize Muslims in the days to come.

 Therefore individuals within our fellowships need to be prayerfully considering whether God might be calling them into this sphere. Specialised evangelism & apologetics to Muslims is a field that requires years of research and preparation, but beyond this there is a level of interaction which is possible for all believers if they have been trained in the basics.

With these thoughts in mind the following proposals ought to be urgently considered, both in terms of a national training strategy and also at the local level:

1) Our people need to know the Christian faith well enough to be able to defend it to a typical Muslim. A reasonable working knowledge of the Trinitarian and Christological doctrines is essential as these are the areas most problematical to Muslims, and so the points where Christian belief will be most thoroughly questioned.   

This places an onus upon pastors to deliver preaching and teaching in doctrinal areas where they may not have focused in the past.

2) Similarly local church leaders need to acquaint themselves with the basics of New Testament textual criticism & aim to pass on that knowledge. From being seen as a dry subject of relevance to only a few scholars, this area has now become a battleground for the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

 There is raging debate on this subject today in the media and popular -usually highly misleading –books on the subject fill secular bookstores.  The solidity of the New Testament manuscript tradition is one of the most potent weapons in our apologetic armoury but there will be few in our churches who have any useful knowledge of it.    

3) Local churches need to nurture within their congregations a number of members  who have taken the trouble to gain an understanding of the Islamic faith. We have already noted the necessity of the pastor being at the forefront of this endeavour. Just  understanding a Muslim’s use of terms such as tawhid & shirk is very helpful in conversational encounters and can work as “ice-breakers” in any witnessing situation.  

 Encourage the people to listen to the many high-quality debates which can be found on the internet exploring the basic differences between the two religions. They will be heartened at how well knowledgeable Christian apologists defend the faith against the best the other side can offer. These encounters teach us that a Christian has nothing to fear from engaging with a typical Muslim, providing that the believer has a basic grounding in the relevant subjects.

4) When at least some of the members of a congregation feel confident & adequately equipped in the areas mentioned above then churches ought to be looking for ways to reach out to the local Muslim population.  This could take the form of  exchange visits with the local mosque or organising events at which discussion of  mutual beliefs can take place in a respectful way. 

 Whilst overly provocative evangelism is, of course, inadvisable; so also is the covert approach that denies that we are actually seeking to evangelize at all. It is much better to be up-front and state that you are wishing to share your faith and say that you also wish to give local Muslims an opportunity to do likewise. Remember they wish to reach you also!   

5) Our churches need to be delivering a powerful & full-orbed Gospel message.
 The “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” presentation has proved largely useless at penetrating secular society and will flounder completely in the face of a religion which despises sentimentalism and anything it perceives to be weakness.  

 Instead a robust presentation must be given to Muslims of a Christ who, whilst once having been a Suffering Servant; is now King of Kings and Lord of Lords and commands their repentance and obedience. Christian apologists frequently testify to the power of this direct approach in evangelizing Muslims.

6) Finally, and most importantly, we need to lose the fear!




Recommended Resources

Islam: The Challenge To The Church  Patrick Sookhdeo Isaac Publishing

The Challenge of Islam to Christians  David Pawson Hodder & Stoughton

What Every Christian  Needs To Know About The Qur’an
Dr James R White Bethany House

Faith To Faith: Christianity and Islam in Dialogue
Chawkat Moucarry Inter-varsity Press

www.answering-islam.org  Christian Apologetics Website





[i] Dawah “…is a duty enjoined on you by Allah. It is a Divine command and a Divine call”Abul A’la Mawdudi, Witnesses unto Mankind translated by Khurram Murad (Birminham, U.K.I.M, 1986)
[ii] Quoted from Mclaren’s blog at www.brianmclaren.net from 2009
[iii] Speaking My Mind Tony Campolo pp149-150
[iv] This does not mean that Christian Arabs ought to avoid referring to the God of the Bible as Allah as this was the generic term for God used by Arabic-speaking Christians centuries before Islam existed
[v] Jesus is actually referenced in the Qur’an less often than Moses, Abraham or Noah
[vi] I Faruqi, Islam and Other Faiths pp316-317