by Phil Parshall
Taking on a Muslim identity and praying in the mosque is not a new strategy. But legally becoming a Muslim definitely moves the missionary enterprise into uncharted territory.
Recently I was speaking to a group of young people who are highly motivated about Muslim evangelism. They excitedly told me of a missionary who had shared a “new“ modus operandi for winning the Sons of Ishamael to Christ. This strategy centers around the Christian evangelist declaring himself to be a Muslim. He then participates in the salat or official Islamic prayers within the mosque. The missionary illustrated the concept by mentioning two Asian Christians who have recently undergone legal procedures to officially become Muslims. This was done to become a Muslim to Muslims in order to win Muslims to Christ.
Actually taking on a Muslim identity and praying in the mosque is not a new strategy. But legally becoming a Muslim definitely moves the missionary enterprise into uncharted territory. I address this issue with a sense of deep concern.
C1 to C6
John Travis,* a long-term missionary among Muslims in Asia, has put us in his debt by formulating a simple categorization for stages of contextualization within Islamic outreach. He defines his six Cs as “Cross-Cultural Church-Planting Spectrums.” (See article in this issue.)
Some years ago, a well-known professor of Islam alluded to my belief that Muslim converts could and should remain in the mosque following conversion. Quickly I corrected him, stating that I have never held that position, either in my speaking or writing. My book Beyond the Mosque deals extensively with the issue of why, when, and how a convert must disassociate himself or herself from the mosque (though not from Muslim community per se).
I do, however, make room for a transitional period wherein the new believer, while maturing in his adopted faith, slowly pulls back from mosque attendance. Too sudden of a departure may spark intense antagonism and subsequent alienation. See 2 Kings 5 for an interesting insight on how Elisha responded to the new convert, Naaman, who brought up the subject of his ongoing presence in the heathen temple of Rimmon.
I submit that C1 starts at low contextualization and works up incrementally to C4 at the high end. All within this sector is legitimate, provided it is constantly cross-referenced and subordinated to biblical truth.
C5 can be placed anywhere along the syncretism spectrum, depending on how each issue is presented to and understood by the Muslim community. Personally, I can only put conversion (or reconversion) to official Islam as high syncretism . . . regardless of motivation.
When, in 1975, our team of missionaries commenced a C4 strategy in an Asian Muslim country, we faced considerable opposition. One long-term Christian worker in an Islamic land told me basically, “You are on a dangerous slide. Next you will be denying the cross.” Well, 23 years later, we are still at C4 and still preaching the cross. And the Lord has greatly honored our efforts in that country.
But now I am the one to protest the “slide,” not by our team, but by others who are ministering in various parts of the Muslim world. This slide is incremental and can be insidiously deceptive, especially when led by people of highest motivation. Now, it seems to me, we need to bring these issues before our theologians, missiologists, and administrators. Let us critique them before we suddenly find that we have arrived at a point which is indisputably sub-Christian.
A CASE STUDY
We do have help. In a very limited and remote geographical area in Asia, a C5 experiment has been ongoing since 1983. This ministry provides us with a pretty solid baseline for evaluation, even though it has experienced significant personnel changes over the years.
Twenty-five national couples went to Islampur* to do development ministry. One of the team’s goals was to see a C5 type of outreach evolve. In 1995, 72 key people of influence within this movement were interviewed. Researchers suggested that these nationals were representative of possibly 4,500 Muslim converts, as they came from 68 congregations in 66 villages. Researchers also stated that the entire believing community might actually have 45,000 converts.
Below are the responses of these key people. One has to hypothesize about how the lay people would respond to the same queries.
The good news
- 76 percent meet once a week in Christian worship.
- 16 percent meet more than once a week in worship.
- 66 percent read or listen to the Gospels daily.
- 21 percent read or listen to the Gospels once a week.
- None do so to the Qur’an. (It is in Arabic and not understood.)
- 55 percent say God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- 97 percent say Jesus is the only Savior.
- 93 percent say, “Allah loves and forgives because Jesus gave His life for me.”
- 100 percent say, “People can be saved from evil spirits by faith in Jesus.”
- 100 percent pray to Jesus for forgiveness of sin.
- 97 percent say they are not saved because of Muhammad’s prayers.
- 100 percent feel peace and close to God when reading the New Testament.
The down side
- 50 percent go to the traditional mosque on Friday.
- 31 percent go to the mosque more than once a day. They do standard Arabic prayers which affirm Muhammad as a prophet of God.
- 96 percent say there are four heavenly books, i.e., Torah, Zabur, Injil, and Qur’an (This is standard Muslim belief, i.e., Law, Prophets, Gospels, and Qur’an).
- 66 percent say the Qur’an is the greatest of the four books.
- 45 percent do not affirm God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- 45 percent feel peace or close to Allah when listening to the reading of the Qur’an.
WHAT DO WE HAVE HERE?
Contextualization or syncretism? A few points to emphasize. These are leaders; the work has been ongoing for 15 years; the believers have had access to the New Testament; there have been short-term Bible schools for leadership; and, lastly, mosque attendance has been encouraged by the “outside” Bible teachers.
Is this a model to follow or avoid? Certainly there is an openness and potential here that is expansive and exciting. But whereas a C5 advocate is happy to keep it all within an Islamic religious environment, I am not.
The mosque is pregnant with Islamic theology. There, Muhammad is affirmed as a prophet of God and the divinity of Christ is consistently denied. Uniquely Muslim prayers (salat) are ritually performed as in no other religion. These prayers are as sacramental to Muslims as is partaking of the Lord’s supper for Christians. How would we feel if a Muslim attended (or even joined) our evangelical church and partook of communion . . . all with a view to becoming an “insider”? This accomplished, he then begins to promote Islam and actually win our parishioners over to his religious persuasion.
Even C4 is open to a Muslim charge of deceit. But I disagree and see it as a proper level of indigenization. We have not become a “fifth column” within the mosque, seeking to undermine its precepts and practices. C5, to me, seems to do just that and open us to the charge of unethical and sub-Christian activity.
In my former country of ministry, our team had an agreement that none of us would go into a mosque and engage in the Islamic prayers. One of our group, however, wanted to secretly “experiment” with saying the salat. One Friday he traveled to a remote village and became friendly with the Muslims there. Harry* expressed his desire to learn how to perform the rituals and forms of the prayers.
The Muslim leaders were quite excited to see that a foreigner wanted to learn about Islam. They gave Harry the necessary instruction. At 1 p.m. our missionary was found in the front row of the mosque going through all the bowing and prostrations of the salat. No matter that he was silently praying to Jesus. No one knew.
After worship, the Muslim villagers all came up to Harry and congratulated him on becoming a Muslim. Embarrassed, Harry explained that he was a follower of Isa (Jesus) and that he just wanted to learn about Islam. Immediately, upon hearing these words, the crowd became very angry.
Harry was accused of destroying the sanctity of the mosque. Someone yelled that he should be killed. A riot was about to break out.
The local imam sought to pacify the crowd by admitting that he had mistakenly taught the foreigner how to do the prayers. He asked forgiveness from his fellow Muslims. It was then decided that Harry should leave that village immediately and never return.
Another experience relates to Bob,* a very intelligent, productive, and spiritually oriented missionary to Muslims. We met together at a conference and exchanged letters and at least one cassette tape over several years. My great concern was that he openly and dogmatically affirmed Muhammad as a prophet of God. To me, Bob had crossed the line into syncretism. Perhaps his motives were pure, but this progression of identification with Muslims had gone much too far. Today Bob is out of the ministry and is divorced from his wife.
In 1979, I wrote the following guidelines to help us avoid syncretism while engaged in Muslim evangelism. Nineteen years later, I reaffirm (and reemphasize) these principles.
1. We must be acquainted with biblical teaching on the subject of syncretism. New Testament passages on the uniqueness of Christ should be carefully observed.
2. Islam as a religion and culture must be studied in depth.
3. An open approach is desired. Careful experimentation in context-ualization need not lead to syncretism as long as one is aware of all the dangers.
4. Contextualization needs constant monitoring and analysis. What are the people really thinking? What does the contextualized communication convey? What do specific forms trigger in the mind of the new convert? Is there progress in the grasp of biblical truth? Are the people becoming demonstrably more spiritual?
5. Cross-cultural communicators must beware of presenting a gospel which has been syncretized with Western culture. The accretions to Christianity that have built up over the centuries as a result of the West’s being the hub of Christianity should be avoided as far as possible.
No, I am not maligning the motivation of godly missionaries who are practicing and promoting C5 as an appropriate strategy to win Muslims to Christ. Several of these Christian workers are my friends. They long to see a breakthrough in Muslim evangelism. Their personal integrity is unquestioned.
But, yes, I am apprehensive. Where does all this lead us? In that earlier mentioned conference, one young Muslim convert came up to me and said he had followed the lead of the missionary speaker. He went in the local mosque and told the imam that he is a Muslim and wanted to learn more of Islam. His secret goal was to build a relationship with the imam. I asked Abdul* how he felt about what he did. With a look of pain and sadness, he replied that he felt very badly about it and would not do it again.
Before C5 people broadly propagate this strategy to young, impressionable minds who are excited about the “new” and “untried,” I urge them to more fully consider both the Islamic charge of deception as well as the long-term consequences of their actions. I am convinced that C5 missionaries are on very shaky theological and missiological ground.
Let’s bring the subject out in the open and dialogue together.
* A pseudonym.
Phil Parshall has served among Muslims in Asia for 36 years and is the author of six books on Islam. He has a D.Miss from Fuller Seminary and fellowships from Harvard and Yale Universities.
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FOR TWO RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE SEE:
Must All Muslims Leave "Islam" to Follow Jesus? by John Travis
Context is Critical in "Islampur" Case by Dean S. Gilliland