Ministering to Muslims
Charles D. Egal
Charles Egal has been serving as a missionary in a Muslim country. He has attempted to apply the principles in this article and has found them to be helpful. He is presently completing doctoral studies in North America but is anxious to return and continue his ministry to Muslims overseas.
Evangelizing the Muslim peoples of the world has presented a formidable task for missionaries throughout the centuries. Often the reaction was simply to move on to work with other non-Muslim groups who demonstrated greater receptivity to the message of Christ. However, Jesus died for Muslims too and He desires that they are given a chance to know Him (Matt. 24:14). Thankfully, a renewed interest in ministering to Muslims is influencing many believers in these last days.
In order to best reach the Muslims of our world, a thorough understanding of their Holy Book is imperative. In addition, an understanding of the best ministry approach to use with Muslims is also important. Thus, a survey of the Koran's teaching and its relationship to Muslim ministry will be followed by the discussion of a proposed ministry approach for working with Muslims.
II. THE KORAN AND MINISTERING TO MUSLIMS
The Koran is equivalent to the Bible for Christians and Jews. A presentation of its teaching about its own authority, the Bible, Jesus, theology, Jews and Christians and women is required in order to understand Muslims and how to best communicate Christianity. This overview presentation is followed by a discussion on using the Koran in ministering to Muslims.
The Teaching of the Koran
Koran's View of Itself
The Koran presents itself as being the inspired, infallible word of Allah (36:5). It claims to be without error (39:28) and claims to confirm the Scriptures given before to the People of the Book (2:101). It is seen as being the full revelation of God as it fully explains the Law and Gospel (10:37-38). The goal of the Koran is to bring a unity of belief to all peoples (42:15).
The Koran defends its inspiration by appealing to the beauty of its poetry (10:37-38; 11:13-14). Numerous times, the emotional reaction created in the heart of the listener as the Koran is being recited, is given as proof of inspiration (5:83; 19:58ff.; 39:23). The Koran declares that it was given in Arabic so that it might be understood by its initial audience (12:1). Numerous times the Koran defends itself of the charge that Mohammed was a possessed poet (21:5; 37:36).
Relation of the Koran to the Old and New Testament
The Koran declares that both Moses and Jesus predicted the coming of Mohammed. In the case of Moses, the prophecy in Deuteronomy 18 concerning the great Prophet is presented in the New Testament as being fulfilled in Jesus (3:81; 7:157; also Isa. 42:11 is thought to predict Mohammed; Ali 1989, n. 416). The alleged prophecy of Jesus about Mohammed involves the identification of the promised "comforter" as Mohammed instead of the Spirit of God which came to indwell permanently in believers on Pentecost (61:6; Ali n 5438; cf. Jn. 14:16; 15:26; 16:7).
The Koran generally presents a positive view towards the Law and the gospel. The revelations received by the "People of the Book" (i.e. Jews and Christians) are considered the Book of Allah (2:101; cf. Ali n 102). However, there is some question in the Koran as to the reliability of the Law as available at the time of Mohammed (41:45). In addition, the "gospel" is considered that which was revealed by God to Jesus only (57:27ff.). Thus only the portions of the New Testament which contain the words of Christ would be considered inspired provided that they were truly the words of Christ and not later insertions by his followers.
There are also numerous contradictions and additions to the Old Testament which do not directly deal with Christ. Examples include Noah's sons drowning (11:43ff.) Haman being mixed up with Pharoah (28:6ff.; 40:37ff.), Pharaoh's magicians repenting (20:70ff.), Abraham's denouncing of his pagan father (19:46ff.), Saul being confused with Gideon (2:249), and Aaron being considered innocent of the Golden calf event (20:89ff.). Other fantastic ideas presented in the Koran are the tenet that Alexander the Great was a great man of God (18) and that a group of Jews was turned into Monkeys (2:65; a Jewish tradition; cf. Ali, n. 34).
The Koran and Jesus
The Koran mentions Jesus 93 times. Although it generally has a positive attitude toward Jesus, it forcefully denies his deity, his crucifixion and his resurrection. The passages espousing the positive view of Jesus may be used to create interest in a Muslim to know more about Christ. The following will survey the passages which are favorable towards Jesus and also delineate the false views which the Koran holds about Jesus.
Favorable View of Jesus of the New Testament: The Koran presents Jesus as a prophet in the line of the other prophets such as Abraham, Moses, etc. (2:137). Unlike some of the prophets, Jesus' ministry was validated by signs (i.e. miracles; 2:253ff.).
The third surah (i.e. chapter) of the Koran spends an extended time reviewing the life of Christ. In this surah, Mohammed affirms the virgin birth (3:47; cf. 66:12, etc.). There is also a debatable passage which apparently identifies Jesus as the Word of God. The passage reads, "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus." (3:45). Perhaps of more significance is the fact that here Allah announces Jesus' name which indicates his task (i.e. Jesus=Jehovah's savior and Christ= Greek term for the "Messiah"). Jesus is also designated in the third surah as being "one nearest to Allah"(3:45) and "a righteous one" (3:46). In addition, the translation of Jesus to heaven and his place in heaven near Allah is noted (3:55). Jesus is also described as one who turned "enemies to friends" (3:103).
The nineteenth surah of the Koran presents another extended commentary on Jesus. The miraculous event of the birth of John the Baptist is affirmed (19:1-14). The virgin birth of Jesus is clearly recounted however the deity of Christ is denied (19:15ff.). There is also a reference which seems to indicate Christ's death and resurrection (19:29ff.). This is doubtful however as the resurrection of Christ is elsewhere denied (4:157) and a parallel passage in the immediate context uses the same "death and resurrection" terminology in reference to John the Baptist (19:75).
Throughout the rest of the Koran, Jesus is described as being a "messenger" and "Spirit" from God although this same context denies the idea of the trinity (4:171). Jesus is identified as being the Christ or the Messiah in Surah 5:72 although His deity is rejected in the same context. Jesus is noted as confirming the Torah (5:46), receiving the Gospel from Allah (57:27ff.) and his disciples as being "helpers of Allah" (61:14). The signs (i.e. miracles) which validated Jesus' ministry are also affirmed (43:63ff.). The second coming of Christ is thought by most Muslims to be predicted in Surah 43:61.
Unfavorable View of Jesus of the New Testament: Throughout the Koran, Mohammed takes a strong stand against numerous issues relating to the New Testament's view of Christ. Firstly, the Koran repeatedly condemns the deity of Christ as blasphemy and idolatry (2:116; 3:58; 4:171ff.; 5:17,73,116; 9:30-31; 10:68; 18:3ff.; 19:26ff.; 21:26; 23:90; 25:2; 39:4; 72:3ff.; 112:1-4). Jesus is presented as being a mere man (3:59; 4:171ff.; 5:75). In addition, Jesus is continuously described as "the son of Mary," a designation carefully chosen to deny that Jesus was the "son of God" as the "misled" Christians claimed (4:171ff.).
Secondly, the Koran denies the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (4:157ff.). Most Muslim's hold that Jesus did not die citing this passage. However, there is another passage where Allah speaks to Jesus saying, "Jesus, I am about to cause you to die and lift you up to Me." (3:55). Thus another view held by some in Islam is that Christ did die but not by crucifixion (Ali n. #664). This view also denies Christ resurrection but instead interprets this verse as referring to Jesus being honored by Allah as one of his messengers as opposed to the dishonor of being crucified.
Thirdly, the Koran denies the possibility of the atonement or vicarious sacrifice of Christ (6:164; 35:18; 53:41; 22:37; 39:7). Numerous times the Koran states, "No soul shall bear another's burden. To God you shall all return and He will declare to you what you have done." (39:7).
Fourthly, the Koran rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. In Surah 5:73, orthodox Christians are termed unbelievers!
Lastly, the Koran accepts various spectacular stories concerning the early years of Jesus such as Jesus preaching from the cradle and breathing life into a clay bird (5:111ff.). There are also additions and contradictions to the gospel record concerning the early years of Jesus such as Allah sheltering Mary and Jesus and Zachariah loosing speech for only 3 days (19:22ff.; 23:50; 19:10).
Theological Teaching of the Koran:
Areas of Theological Agreement between the Bible and Koran: The affirmation of monotheism and the condemnation of polytheism provides the source of greatest similarity between the teaching of the Koran and the Bible. Throughout the Koran, God is affirmed as being the one and only God, the creator and sustainer of the universe (1:1ff.; 2:163; etc.). God is seen as being sovereign over all, although this emphasis tends towards fatalism (6:137; Parshall 1989, 98). In addition, God has chosen to reveal his will to man through the prophets (2:137ff.).
Similarly, the stress on a universal resurrection and judgment (22:5ff.) is common between Christianity and Islam. The Koran describes the resurrection with the familiar terms like "The trumpet shall be sounded, and from the graves, men will rush forth to their Lord." The holiness and justice of God are also revered with God holding all men accountable for their deeds on the day of judgment (2:202, 281).
As in Christianity, the mercy and forgiveness of God is emphasized. The holy men of God confess their sins (3:147) and God forgives sins, blotting them out (3:193ff.). The Koran affirms that all men sin although it affirms a more optimistic view of human nature. (16:61-63; Woodberry "Different Diagnosis" in Muslims and Christians, p. 156).
The Koran's view of religion as involving worship, prayer and helping the needy finds numerous parallels in the Old and New Testament (98:4ff.). The prophets of the Old Testament often declared that true religion is that which takes care of the widows and orphans (cf. Ezek. 18; etc.). Worship and prayer also played important parts in the life of Israel and the church although they were not considered as being efficacious for salvation as they are in Islam.
Areas of Theological Disagreement between the Bible and the Koran: The major area of theological disagreement between the Bible and the Koran in addition to issues relating to Jesus Christ and the Bible (see above) are significant. Firstly, there are numerous differences concerning salvation. The Koran's view of salvation is one of salvation by good works. The judgment of God is compared to a set of scales where good deeds must outweigh bad deeds in order for an individual to enter heaven (7:9; 21:47; 23:100ff.). Surah 49:14 states, "If you obey Allah and His apostle, He will not deny you the reward of your labors. God is merciful and forgiving." Elsewhere, the Koran describes true Muslims as those who say "God, we have believed. Forgive us then our sins and save us from the agony of the fire." (3:16).
A concept similar to purgatory is also espoused in Islam as some sinful Muslims will go to hell for a limited time in order to pay for their sins before going to heaven (Parshall 1989, 190). The unbeliever or idolater, on the other hand, remains in hell forever.
The Muslim cannot have assurance of salvation because it is strictly up to God whether he wills to forgive or not (2:28). Mohammed has declared, "We ardently hope that our Lord will forgive us our sins because we are the first of the believers . . . and who, I ardently hope, will forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgment." (26:51- 81; cf. Parshall 1989, 139).
Secondly, the Koran presents an optimistic view of human nature. The Koran and Islam deny the teaching of original sin but instead affirm that all men are born sinless (30:30; Parshall 1989, 120). Due to an idealistic view of the prophets, Adam as the first prophet is considered to have forgotten God's command as opposed to actively disobeying God (20:114-115; Woodberry, 150). However, the Koran does affirm that all men were cast out of paradise because of Adam's sin (2:38) and that man is corrupt and subject to Satan's control (2:28-30; 17:16-17; 62-64; etc.). As a result, modern Islamic theologians often admit the fallen condition of man (Woodberry, 158).
Thirdly, the solution to man's problem of sin is likewise in conflict with that of Christianity. The Muslim solution to sin is the guidance of God. Now that man has the law of God given in its final form in the Koran, man has only to obey this law. In Christianity, the recreation of the human heart through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is required for man to overcome sin.
Fourthly, the Koran's view of heaven also differs from that of Christianity. Heaven is described as a place of wine and beautiful women (44:50ff.; 78:33; Parshall 1989, 199). One Muslim author writes, "If I get there (i.e. heaven) and find no cool rivers, no date trees and no beautiful girls . . . to keep me company, I shall feel badly defrauded." (Ibid., 199).
Koran's View of Christians and Jews
Generally the Jews and Christians are considered as being unfaithful to God and enemies of Islam. However, some of the People of the Book are considered as believers if they live a good life obeying the Word of God (3:76,110). In some cases, Muslims are called to respect the piety and humility of Christians (5:46-48). Jews are generally criticized for rejecting Jesus and Mohammed while the Christians are generally criticized for idolatry (i.e. the Trinity), monasticism and praying to saints (39:4; 57:27ff.; 45:19).
The Koran's instruction regarding relationships with the People of the Book is varied. In one place the Koran will declare that Muslims should live peacefully with the People of the Book, with the hope that they will see the error of their rejection of Mohammed (43:89). However, in other places the Koran clearly states that anyone who rejects Mohammed and the Koran are unbelievers and that unbelievers are enemies to be conquered (66:9; 48:16,29; 9:29,123). In one place the Koran states that it is okay to marry a wife who is a Christian (5:5) or be friends with an unbeliever provided they do not make war on your religion or take your home (60:8ff.), but in another place it declares that a Muslim should never befriend a non-Muslim (3:118; 5:51). This latter instruction presents a formidable barrier to evangelism if most Muslims followed this guideline to never befriend or believe anyone unless they follow Islam (3:73; 3:118; 5:51).
Koran's View of Women
The Koran declares that women are given rights similar to men with respect to divorce except for the qualification that "men have a status above women" (2:228). Polygamy is permitted in Islam (4:3) and wife beating is permitted as a form of discipline (4:35). However, the real discrepancy between men and women occurs whenever details are given concerning heaven. Heaven is repeatedly described from a male perspective where the reward of heaven includes marriage to many virgins (2:82; 38:50-52; 44:50ff. 52:20; 55:52ff.; 78:33ff.; note women are mentioned as partaking in heaven in 48:3ff.).
Practical Uses of the Koran in Christian Ministry
Suggestions for Using the Koran in Evangelism:
A number of suggestions have been made for using the Koran in evangelism. Many modern missionaries encourage the use of Koranic teaching on Jesus as a starting point in working with Muslims. Since the Koran presents a high view of Jesus, as the Word of God, one nearest to God, one who is alive in heaven, etc., the Muslim inquirer may want to know more about this one who seems to be greater than even Mohammed (McCurry Video). The Bible would provide the source for this additional knowledge as the Koran clearly upholds the teaching of the Old and New Testament and may even declare its inerrancy. Surah 6:115 declares, "The word of the Lord is perfect and none can change His words."
The Koranic passages which refer to Jesus as the Word of God may provide a focus for this investigation. Chapman suggests that Mohammed probably derived this idea from Christian teaching even though modern Islamic scholars interpret this passage as referring to Jesus being conceived by God's Word (Chapman "God Who Reveals" in Christians and Muslims, 133ff.). The idea of Jesus being the Word of God can be explained by looking at the gospels and how Jesus creates, heals, and forgives by his Word. This study of the gospel presentation will hopefully lead to greater interest on the part of the Muslim inquirer.
Another suggestions has been to study the concept of prophethood and how Jesus was a prophet. Christians have tended to ignore this aspect of Jesus' mission to be our prophet, priest and king. However, the concept of prophet is central to Islam. Thus the Koranic teaching on the prophets can be used to transition to the biblical accounts of the prophets and their mission. The life of Jeremiah is particularly helpful because of its vivid presentation in the Bible and his teaching on the new covenant which is fulfilled in Jesus (Ibid., 129ff.).
The Koranic emphasis on God being merciful and forgiving may also provide another bridge to sharing the gospel with Muslims. Numerous times the Koran declares that God is merciful and forgiving (6:147; 39:53; 23:118). The parables of the Prodigal Son and Two Debtors may be used to effectively communicate the gospel to Muslims as they portray both man's responsibility to the law and God's mercy and forgiveness when the law is broken (Chapman, 141).
Suggestions for Using the Koran in the Muslim Convert Church:
The Koran could possibly be used in the context of a Muslim convert church but it would be treated just like any other extra-biblical reference. For example, certain praise sections from the Koran could be used as part of prayer and worship in the same way that Christian hymns and poetry are used (Goble New Creation Book 1989, 84). Of course these praise sections would have to espouse proper theology and it should be clear to all worshippers that just because the Koran is being used for worship does not mean that it is inspired. Phil Goble suggests that the first surah of the Koran be used during prayer times. The first surah reads,
In the name of Allah,
Most Gracious, Most merciful,
Praise be to Allah
and Sustainer of the worlds.
Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee alone do we worship
and Thine aid we look for.
Show us the straight way.
The way of those on whom Thou
has bestowed Thy Grace
those whose portion is not wrath,
and who go not astray.
Since there is nothing theologically wrong with this prayer and much that is theologically right, it seems possible that such Koranic material may be used in the worship of God.
The Koran might also be used in the new covert church setting as illustrative material for sermons and teaching. A biblical precedent for this activity is found in Acts 17 when Paul addresses the Athenians. For example, the teaching in the Koran about the sacrificial meal at the end of the Hajj can be used to illustrate the communion meal prefigured in the Passover and instituted by Christ (Ibid., 103ff.). Again there is the danger of the listeners confusing the Christian preacher's (Imam's) reference to the Koran as implying that the Koran is inspired. Thus care should be exercised when using the Koran in preaching.
III. A PROPOSED MINISTRY APPROACH FOR WORKING WITH MUSLIMS
The traditional missions approach of working with Muslims has often involved little attention to the contextualization of the message and the forms of the church. This lack of contextualization has hindered the ministry of the church as Muslims found the traditional message and forms offensive. For example, the teaching of Christ's suffering servanthood is rejected by the Muslims because they perceive the message of the cross as dishonoring to Christ (Huffard "Culturally Relevant Themes about Christ" in Christians and Muslims, 164ff.). Similarly, the lack of the Muslim form of removing ones shoes in a place of worship is also perceived as being dishonoring to God.
In light of this evidence, it seems clear that a successful approach to Muslim ministry must include contextualization. In addition, the element of genuine spirituality must also be present in order for the church to present not only a relevant but also a credible witness.
A Contextualized Ministry
Contextualization has been defined as "the effort to understand and take seriously the specific context of each human group and person on its own terms and in all its dimensions- cultural, religious, social, political, economic- and to discern what the Gospel says to people in that context." (Parshall 1980, 32). The Bible demonstrates contextualization throughout. Paul's ministry is of particular interest as he holds unswervingly to the truth but takes care that his hearers understand the true meaning by means of careful communication (Ibid., 38).
The danger involved when applying the principles of contextualization is syncretism. Parshall sums up the issue when he states, "syncretism occurs when the critical and basic elements of the Gospel are lost in the process of contextualization." (Ibid. 46).
Contextualization also involves the issue of form and meaning. For example, the pre-Abrahamic form of circumcision acquired new meaning when God made it a sign of the Abrahamic covenant. New meaning may be infused into old forms as long as the form is not prohibited by Scripture. Perhaps the key governing principle is that the missionary enterprise should contextualize to the point that only the core of the Gospel message offends (Ibid., 55ff.).
There are a number of areas which will be effected by contextualization.
The Incarnated Communicator
To ensure effective communication, the communicator must understand his audience and identify with them. Thus Parshall proposes the "incarnational model" in which the missionary adopts the dress, housing, language, food, customs, etc. of the people whom he is trying to reach (Ibid., 98ff.). The missionaries should probably live near the standard of living of the people to whom they are ministering, living in similar housing, wearing similar clothes and eating local foods. In addition, it is simply fundamental to effective communication that the missionary learn the language of the people and adopt the mindset of the people. Perhaps the most forgotten element of contextualization for the western missionary is to adopt an attitude of empathy and forsake any ethnocentrism (Ibid., 121).
The Incarnated Message
The message of the gospel is also contextualized by using various bridges from Islam to Christianity. Examples include using the Koran's positive view of the Bible and Jesus, the Qurbani Id festival (sacrifice commemorating Abraham's offer of his son), and the Sufi sect's emphasis on wanting to personally experience God as means to communicate the gospel (see above on the Koran).
The Incarnated Church
It is imperative that the church for converted Muslims also be contextualized in order to provide the best environment for nurture and witness. The church for converted Muslims should probably consist of a homogeneous group which meets in a home. In addition, various forms of Islamic worship such as Mosque organization, Friday worship, removing shoes, etc., could be adopted. The leader of a house church could be modeled after an Imam, the leader of the Mosque. In addition, the group should probably bear an inoffensive name such as the followers of Isa (Parshall 1980, 163).
The Christian practice of baptism may need re-evaluation as it is often misunderstood by Muslims to indicate that the convert has become a western traitor. Parshall suggests that a substitute to traditional baptism might be warranted such as delaying baptism indefinitely, baptizing in secret, self baptism, or the use of a functional equivalent (Ibid., 189ff.).
Muslim rituals such as prayer, chanting or fasting and social practices such as festivals, birth customs and funeral customs should also be examined in light of contextualization. As stated earlier, new meaning may be infused into old forms as long as the form is not prohibited by Scripture. For example, the ritual washing which takes place as one enters the Mosque may be infused with the new meaning of the individual confessing sin and praying that God would keep him from sin. Thus the washing would no longer considered as a washing away of sin but becomes a colorful exercise of confession (Goble, 72ff.).
The goal of these activities are to allow the Muslim convert to remain a Muslim culturally. Thus the convert will remain with his own people and be better able to further communicate the gospel. This method will also help remove the misconception that becoming a Christian means becoming a Westerner.
Contextualization without genuine spirituality is destined to fail. Certainly contextualization is important but the missionary must not forget to continually nurture his/her relationship with God. Then and only then will the missionary present a credible witness (Parshall 1980, 241ff.).
In order to succeed in this area, it is best for the missionary to find and individual who will hold him/her accountable. The accountability would include not only the areas of prayer and Bible study but also areas of personal struggle. This focus on genuine spirituality is often critical to the spiritual well-being of those who minister to Muslims since the work is difficult and often involves isolation.
Although the responsibility of evangelizing the Muslim world presents formidable task, believers must press on to fulfill the orders of our Lord (Matt. 28: 18ff.). Fulfilling those orders will no doubt involve great sacrifices. In addition, the process of contextualizing the message and forms of worship will involve much experimentation. Failures will occur. However, the man or woman of God who perseveres will surely experience the success of seeing Muslim people turn from Islam to faith in Jesus Christ. Mohammed once wrote in the Koran, "If the Lord of Mercy had a son, I would be the first to worship him."
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Goble, Phil and Salim Munayer. New Creation Book for Muslims. Pasadena, CA: Mandate Press, 1989.
The Koran trans. N.J. Dawood. London: Penguin Books, 1990.
McCurry, Don. Ministering to Muslims on video.
McDowell, Josh and John Gilchrist The Islam Debate. SanBernardino, California: Here's Life Pub., 1983.
Parshall, Phil. The Cross and the Crescent. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale Pub., 1989.
Parshall, Phil. New Paths in Muslim Evangelism Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980.
Woodberry, J. Dudley, ed. Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989.