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Let’s Leave Shahada to Real Muslims

by Fred Farrokh

write as a follow up to Gene Daniel’s important contribution on shahada confession, which appeared in the July 2014 issue of EMQ. The author notes that among Christian missionaries “there is disagreement about whether a believer in Christ can, with a clear conscience, say the second half, that Muhammad is his [God’s] messenger.”

 src=I write as a follow up to Gene Daniel’s important contribution on shahada confession, which appeared in the July 2014 issue of EMQ. The author notes that among Christian missionaries “there is disagreement about whether a believer in Christ can, with a clear conscience, say the second half, that Muhammad is his [God’s] messenger.”

Daniels contends that missionaries who encourage Christ-worshippers to confess shahada are “reinterpreting Muhammad” (p. 306) by presenting him in the mold of an Old Testament prophet or perhaps even a contemporary Charismatic Christian prophet. 

Daniels does well to conclude that if believers in the biblical Jesus declare the Islamic shahada, then it “miscommunicates” to Muslims, since Muslims view Muhammad as the greatest and final prophet, and an exemplar for all humanity. 

Much of Daniels’ piece is balanced and sensible, yet certain key information is left out on this all-important subject. In this article, I seek to provide those missing links and come out much more strongly against shahada confession by those who worship Christ. 

First, I will provide actual examples of this reinterpretation of Muhammad by Christian missionaries. Second, I will show how this reinterpretation of Muhammad is part of the Insider Movement paradigm which affirms perpetual shahada confession. Third, I will present Muhammad’s view of Jesus, which should be the primary criterion used in assessing the prophet of Islam. Fourth, I will conclude that Muhammad rejected and sought to destroy the biblical narrative regarding the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore, those who seek to worship and serve Christ should refrain from affirming Muhammad by confessing shahada

I write as a Muslim-background Christian myself. Much of the comparative Christological material in this article appears in my recently published PhD dissertation on Muslim identity. I refer interested readers to that document. I should clarify at the outset that I am only addressing the issue of shahada confession by those who believe in the biblical Jesus. I expect, of course, that Muslims will continue with shahada confession until and unless their beliefs about Muhammad and Jesus change from an Islamic paradigm to the biblical one.

The Christian Reinterpretation of Muhammad

Gene Daniels mentions the reinterpretation of Muhammad by Christian missionaries. While a full treatment of this subject is beyond the scope of this article, a number of highlights will allow the reader to connect the dots. Geoffrey Parrinder, a Methodist missionary to West Africa, broke new ground in 1965 with his attempt to reconcile the Bible and the Qur’an: 

It has often been thought that the Qur’an denies the Christian teaching of the Trinity, and commentators have taken its words to be a rejection of orthodox Christian doctrine. However, it seems more likely that heretical doctrines that are denied in the Qur’an, and orthodox Christians should agree with most of its statements. (1965, 133)

Charles Kraft, who would become the spiritual father of what has become known as Insider Movements, pushed hard for the rehabilitation of Muhammad in the eyes of Christian missionaries: “I believe that this is what Muhammad himself was trying to do: to combine an allegiance to the Judaeo-Christian God with Arabic cultural structures” (1979, 118). Kevin Higgins carries this torch in the twenty-first century by declaring: 

I do, however, think it is quite possible that there is an ‘original Islam’ in the Qur’an, an Islam that has been lost through the misinterpretation of what became the ‘orthodox’ versions, and that this may well be in closer (if not complete) harmony with biblical truth. (2007, 40) 

All of these missiologists reinterpret Muhammad’s mission to bring it into line with the Bible. 

How Perpetual Shahada Confession Undergirds Insider Movements

The shahada comprises the singular entry point into Islam. A non-Muslim who wants to become a Muslim must declare with sincere intent that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger (Arabic: La illaha illallah, Muhammadan rasool Allah). A coerced shahada confession (for example, through torture) is considered invalid under Islamic Law. 

Georges Houssney observes: “The Shahada has a powerful impact on Muslims throughout their lives” (2010, 53). Mark Durie, a long-term missionary to Aceh, Indonesia, explains: “Reciting the shahada is a covenant declaration that Muhammad will be your guide for life” (2010, 1). Every time Muslims gather for prayer, the mu’adhin (the one who calls the people to prayer) calls out the words of the shahada, “I bear witness there is no God but Allah. I bear witness that Muhammad is his messenger.” Moreover, when Muslims gather inside the mosque, a shorter form of the call to prayer, called iqama, is corporately uttered. This also affirms that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. 

Therefore, it is impossible to participate in Islamic corporate worship without affirming the prophethood of Muhammad, or at least giving the impression to all present that one does. In mosques, one will see the name “Allah” written in Arabic on the front wall, top-right, and the name “Muhammad” written in the same size and font, on the front-wall, top-left.

Christian missionaries who have positively re-interpreted Muhammad’s message and mission likewise promote that Muslims who come to believe in the biblical Jesus should continue declaring shahada and attending the mosque. Since shahada declaration is the indispensible Muslim identity marker, disciples of these missionaries are free to, and even encouraged to, publicly identify themselves as Muslims. Thus, these new believers are known as Muslim Insiders, even as they remain inside traditional mosques.

Rick Brown of Wycliffe Bible Translators supports shahada confession among Christ-followers. He impugns those who disagree with him as indifferent to the eternal fate of Muslims:

If I had the choice (as only God does) between seeing a growing movement to Christ in which biblical Muslims were willing to say the shahada under duress with a biblical interpretation or seeing no movement at all, I would prefer to see the movement to Christ … It is hard for me to understand those who abhor the shahada so much that they would rather see no movement to Christ at all among Muslims than see biblical Muslims following Christ without refusing to say the shahada. (2007, 73)

Brown exhibits two faulty foundations in his thinking. First, his unit of analysis in ministry to Muslims is the “movement,” not the individual soul. He so strongly wants to create a movement among Muslims that he is seemingly willing to take a short-cut from that indispensible process of a Muslim leaving Islam behind and becoming a true follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Second, he excuses ongoing shahada confession by “biblical Muslims” who are under “duress” (and Daniels takes the same position in his article: “I am more than willing to extend grace to those who recite Shahada under coercion or threats…” [2014, 311]). When Muslims enter the mosque with the words of the shahada echoing above them, or when they declare the shahada during the iqama in the masjid (mosque), they are not under duress or coercion. No one is pressuring them. What Daniels and Brown really allude to is the internal duress of conscience a true believer in Christ will feel when he or she knows he or she is denying Christ by declaring shahada

Obviously, a Muslim who is seeking Christ may continue to attend mosque and declare shahada in an interim or transitional period. I am not judging such a person; he or she needs our prayers to be birthed through into the Kingdom of God. However, when this individual really wants to come to living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he or she must put away the affirmation of Muhammad, who declared that Christ was neither Lord nor Savior. 

There are times when Muslims will put to the test a Muslim whom they suspect of apostasy. In these cases, the Muslims or their imam will ask the suspect to recite the shahada as an affirmation of his or her Islamic faith. This constitutes a tremendous test, since in many Muslim contexts apostasy can be punishable by death. Individuals in this situation need prayer that their love of Christ would shine through courageously during this ordeal. This type of ordeal repeats itself throughout Church history. Early Christians were tested on whether they would burn incense to Caesar, thus denying Christ as Lord. 

In the Muslim context, this test comes about because of the intolerant and expulsive nature of Islam. The responsibility of the Muslim-background convert to Christ is to faithfully testify of Christ, as difficult as this may seem. It is beyond the power of the convert to determine how the Muslim community will respond when he or she replaces shahada confession with a confession of Christ as Lord. 

In 2008, I traveled to Bangladesh to train Muslim-background pastors. Some shared that Western Christian missionaries previously came in and shared the Bible with them. Because these were Insider Movement missionaries, they told the Bangladeshis to continue to identify themselves as Muslims and to attend the Islamic mosque, even after they had come to believe the biblical narrative regarding Jesus. 

While they continued with these Islamic practices, they lived in perfect peace with their communities. When they decided to discontinue identifying as Muslims and attending mosque, the wrath of the Muslim community came down on them. Specifically, they and their families were forbidden to draw water from community wells, which could be a life-threatening punishment as there was no running water. In our first question and answer session, these Muslim-background pastors asked for our help in preparing them to answer questions from their communities about their position on Muhammad, who is the subject of the shahada confession.

Assessing Muhammad’s Christology

In assessing whether those who believe in the biblical Jesus should simultaneously affirm Muhammad as a divinely-appointed messenger, it is critical to examine what Muhammad taught about Jesus. This content remains conspicuous by its absence in Daniels’ treatment of shahada. My summary statement is that Muhammad had as one of his primary objectives the destruction of the biblical narrative regarding Jesus Christ. Muhammad sought to divest Jesus of his Lordship, his Sonship, his Divinity, and his redemptive mission. In the Qur’an and Islamic literature, Jesus plays the role of a supporting actor to
Muhammad. Muhammad even superimposes a prophecy into the mouth of Jesus that Muhammad will come after the Nazarene rabbi (Sura 61:6). 

Muhammad also rejected the divinity of Jesus. He has Jesus rebuke Christians in Sura 5:72 for considering him a god: 

They do blaspheme who say: “God is Christ the son of Mary.” But said Christ: “O Children of Israel! Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” Whoever joins other gods with God, – God will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrong-doers be no one to help. (5:72, A. Yusuf Ali translation throughout). 

In the same sura, Jesus appears crestfallen that some humans have erred by worshipping him, insisting that he is not complicit in their idolatry: 

And behold! God will say: “O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God?” He will say: “Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart; I know not what is in Thine.”

The unpardonable sin in Islam is shirk, associating partners with Allah. Sura 4:116 clearly expresses this doctrine: “God forgiveth not (The sin of) joining other gods with Him; but He forgiveth whom He pleaseth other sins than this: one who joins other gods with God, Hath strayed far, far away (from the right).” This verse strongly condemns any deviation from tawhid (Divine Unity) as the singular unpardonable sin in Islam. As such, the Qur’an rebukes the Christian concepts of divine Incarnation and plurality within the godhead. Sura 17:111 targets Christians by associating belief in the Son of God as shirk: “Say: ‘Praise be to God, who begets no son, and has no partner [Arabic, shareek] in (His) dominion; Nor (needs) He any to protect Him from humiliation.’”

Muslim scholar Tarif Khalidi makes an astute observation regarding the differing roles of Jesus in the Bible and in Islam: 

Clearly there is something about Jesus which makes his Qur’anic image so utterly different from the Jesus of the Gospels…He is the only prophet in the Qur’an who is deliberately made to distance himself from the doctrines that his community is said to hold about him. (2003, 11-12)

Muhammad, according to his authoritative statement recorded in Sahih Bukhari (Volume 4, Book 55, Number 657), has the Islamic Jesus rebuking Christians upon his return to earth because they wrongly promoted him to a status above that of a mortal man.

Another Muslim scholar, Smail Baliç, properly assesses the mistake Christian missionaries have made by re-interpreting Muhammad’s Christology in a more biblical light:

It is primarily Christian missionaries, or certain Orientalists who are either themselves theologians, or who are well disposed to Christian theology, who overestimate the role of Jesus in the Koran. They are misled by the way of understanding Jesus which they retain from their Christian Tradition. It is no surprise that, under such circumstances, they arrive at false conclusions and evaluations. (1979, 3)

In conclusion, the biblical Jesus and the Islamic Jesus are two different and mutually exclusive identities. If Muhammad was confronted with any aberrant teachings about Jesus in his lifetime, he had ample opportunity to refresh the biblical portrait of Jesus. Instead, Muhammad left Jesus shorn of his divinity by denying the Crucifixion (Sura 4:157-158), and reduced Jesus to the role of his personal forerunner. 

We are obviously unable to travel back in time to listen in to the deliberations Muhammad and the early Muslim community may have had regarding Jesus Christ. Muhammad could have rejected Jesus outright as an imposter who claimed to be God. Instead, Muhammad reduces Jesus to the role of a mere mortal prophet, and co-opts him to serve the Islamic theological agenda. Tarif Khalidi explains: “Jesus is always identified as a Muslim prophet—and this must be constantly borne in mind, for he is, after all, a figure molded in an Islamic environment” (2003, 44). 

The Perils of Shahada Confession for Christ-worshippers

Based on the previous section, confessing Muhammad as God’s prophet constitutes a repudiation of the divinity of Christ, his Lordship, and his atoning work on the cross. Thus shahada confession is never compatible with the Bible, nor can it be uttered with a clear conscience by those who believe in the veracity of the Bible. Brown concedes that he is unsure of the true implications of shahada confession: 

Personally I think the second half of the shahada should be avoided whenever possible and said only under duress with an interpretation that is compatible with the Bible. But as an outsider I am not immersed enough in these situations to judge accurately what the impact of saying it would be. (2007, 73) 

Hopefully, this section provides the material from which Brown and others like him can clarify their judgments about shahada confession.

Gene Daniels does well to discourage Muslims who have come to faith in the biblical Jesus from confessing shahada. He has, however, largely failed to explain his decision other than expressing it in communication theory. The simple reason Christ-worshippers should not declare shahada is that shahada affirms the prophethood of a man who forbade the worship of Christ. 

People who believe in Muhammad—Muslims—are free to declare shahada. Those who have come to believe the biblical narrative regarding Jesus, on the other hand, deny Christ by declaring shahada. Moreover, their presence at Islamic prayers indicates to all present that they reject the Lordship and divinity of Jesus. In fact, the mosque was established by Muslims specifically to exclude Christ-worshippers. 

Muslims who come to believe in the Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, are no longer Muslims in the eyes of the Muslim community since they have de facto rejected Muhammad as their prophet. While non-observant Muslims may still be considered Muslims by their own communities, Muslims will not continue to accept as Muslims those who believe the biblical narrative that God visited the earth in the person of Jesus, died on the cross, and rose from the dead. Such persons have no business worshipping in the mosque, for Muslims will rightly castigate them as hypocrites if they discover their true beliefs. More importantly, how will God feel if his children whom he saved through the blood of his Son testify simultaneously that they affirm belief in the prophet of Islam who categorically rejected this narrative?

Field Research on Muslim Identity

In my own PhD research, I asked forty Muslim-born persons, hailing from 18 different countries but now currently living in diaspora, to respond to a vignette in their home countries in which a hypothetical Muslim strayed from the Islamic faith and came to believe in the biblical Jesus. Eventually, that straying Muslim began to fellowship with other like-minded believers. The individual was introduced to the gospel through the Internet; no direct missionary involvement was mentioned. 

Half of the interviewees were Muslims and the other half were Muslim-background Christians. Thirty-five of the interviewees were foreign-born; all of the U.S.-born interviewees had lived in or visited their respective ancestral homelands. It is likely therefore that such a sample of Muslims and Muslim-background Christians could respond reasonably accurately to a situation occurring in their home countries. 

Both groups of interviewees overwhelmingly reject the Insider Movement premise that believers in the biblical Jesus retain Muslim identity. Many of those who have come to trust in Christ as Savior have experienced the same excruciating dilemma regarding ongoing affirmation of Muhammad. It is a choice between community affirmation and the presence of Christ. A Turkish believing woman sums it up this way: “You can’t have it both ways.” It is hypocritical to continue affirming Muhammad through shahada on an ongoing and permanent basis, while simultaneously believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior. 

Shahada belongs to real Muslims. Christian missionaries would do best to leave it to them. 

Final Thoughts

Mark Durie provides invaluable insights into the perils of continuing shahada confession for disciples of Christ:

If the status of Muhammad as a Messenger is not explicitly renounced, then the curses and threats of the Qur’an, and Muhammad’s opposition to the death of Christ and the Lordship of Christ can be a cause of spiritual instability, causing someone to be easily intimidated, and breed vulnerability and a lack of confidence as a follower of Jesus. (2010, 76) 

Paul concurs: “Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves” (Rom.14:22).

In conclusion, I thank Daniels for his important contribution on shahada confession among Christ-followers. His ultimate decision that this practice should be avoided is correct. I have sought to build on Daniels’ article by providing contextual factors that may assist those who are serving Muslims with the gospel. 

References

Ali, A. Yusuf. 2003. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Beltsville, Md.: Amana Publications.

Baliç, Smail. 1979. “The Image of Jesus in Contemporary Islamic Theology.” In We Believe in One God. Eds. Abdoldjavad Falaturi, and AnneMarie Schimmel, 1-8. New York: Seabury Press.

Brown, Rick. 2007. “Biblical Muslims.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24(2): 65-74.

Durie, Mark. 2010. Liberty to the Captives: Freedom from Islam and Dhimmitude through the Cross. Australia: Deror Books.

Farrokh, Fred. 2014. Perceptions of Muslim Identity: A Case Study among Muslim-born Persons in Metro New York. PhD dissertation. Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Springfield, Mo.

Higgins, Kevin. 2007. “Acts 15 and Insider Movements among Muslims: Questions, Process, and Conclusions.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24(1): 29-40.

Houssney, Georges. 2010. Engaging Islam. Boulder, Colo.: Treeline Publishing.

Khalidi, Tarif. 2003. The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Kraft, Charles. 1979. “Dynamic Equivalence Churches in Muslim Society,” In The Gospel and Islam: A 1978 Compendium. Ed. Don McCurry, 114-124. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. 1965. Jesus in the Qur’an. New York: Barnes and Noble.

….

Fred Farrokh is an international trainer with “Global Initiative: Reaching Muslim Peoples.” He is an ordained missionary with Elim Fellowship, and holds a PhD in Intercultural Studies from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.


Let’s Leave Shahada to Real Muslims:A Response by Kevin Higgins

I have been asked to respond briefly to Fred Farrokh’s article, “Let’s Leave the Shahada to Real Muslims.”1 I will begin with two aspects of what I think is the author’s main critique of insider movements (IMs): the reinterpretation of Muhammad and Islam by Christian missionaries. 

First, relative to the reinterpretation of Muhammad, two examples are noted: Muhammad as similar to an Old Testament prophet, or similar to a “charismatic” prophetic gift. While it is true that some advocates of IMs suggest that one or both of these approaches may be possible, the more common argument has been to look to examples in the Old Testament, such as Balaam, of men who were given true things to say by God but who also got things wrong. This is an important distinction.

The second type of reinterpretation critiqued by Farrokh is the more general rethinking of Islam in light of the Bible. He takes specific issue with one of my comments speculating that there may have been an original Islam closer to the Bible. But the citation is a footnote which comes at the end of this fuller statement in the body of my article: 

I do, however, believe that authentic Jesus movements within Islam will bring transformation (and indeed reform) in the light of God’s Word and Spirit as applied from the inside….and many other elements of Islamic faith and life will change within and through such movements to Jesus.

While this is my opinion, the fact is that there are Muslims who have come to faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior and in the Bible as the final authority over all other books. They are thinking through how to understand the religion of their birth in light of this new set of faith convictions. I know that Farrokh disagrees with their conclusions, but my point is that they are doing this consciously as part of the Muslim community and in the end it will be the wider Muslim community which will (and does) determine whether their reinterpretations are accepted or not. My own opinion is that in the end acceptance will be very rare and will come at great cost if it does come. The believers I know are well aware of this and prepared to face it.

There is persecution for those who refuse to say the shahada. And there are also insider believers who have faced persecution and death because they remained in their communities as witnesses, and because of their convictions about Jesus and about Muhammad. 

Finally, the 40-person interview results are important. And I know that many more could be found who would support Farrokh’s thesis. But many other believers in Jesus, vibrant in biblical faith, would answer very differently if interviewed. 

It will ultimately be the wider Muslim community that will decide whether the reinterpretations (including their views of shahada) that insiders are making can be accepted or not. Meanwhile, because insider believers are sharing their faith with other Muslims, Muslims are hearing the gospel and also being challenged as to whether to consider this new way of understanding things they were taught as Muslims. So I agree with the title: let’s leave the shahada to real Muslims.

Endnote

1. I do want to make one minor comment on the reference to Charles Kraft as the spiritual father of the Insider Movement. While several of us have made use of Kraft’s thought as one input, I have drawn equally from Paul Hiebert, who could hardly be said to be an IM guru.

Kevin Higgins is international director of Global Teams. He has lived and worked among Muslims in four countries since 1992, and has been part of seeing several movements to Jesus emerge in those contexts.


Fred Farrokh’s Response to Kevin Higgins

I thank Kevin Higgins for his response to my article on shahada confession. I also appreciate the opportunity given me by the EMQ editors to clarify several points. I see from Higgins’ response that two terminological misunderstandings exist which I will address from the lens of a Muslim-background Christian.

The first misunderstanding hinges on the term Muslim. Higgins states, “The fact is that there are Muslims who have come to faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior and in the Bible as the final authority over all other books.” I am unaware of any Muslim scholar whose understanding of the term Muslim includes someone who worships Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. My own research and experience indicates that the Muslim umma views a person who comes to believe the biblical narrative regarding Jesus as an ex-Muslim, since he or she now de facto rejects Muhammad. If Higgins knows of independent, indigenous Muslim scholars who consider a Christ-worshipper to be a Muslim, then he should encourage them to enter this discourse.

The second misunderstand again surrounds ill-advised linguistic flexibility— this time regarding the use of the term prophet. Muslims testify in shahada that Muhammad is their prophet (rasool Allah). This testimony includes affirmation not only of his prophetic utterances on behalf of Allah (the Qur’an), but also Muhammad’s own words (the Hadith), his lifestyle (the Sunna), and his integrity. 

Higgins suggests that Muslims may believe in the Bible and continue to hold to Muhammad as a prophet along the lines of Balaam. Yet I am skeptical that this will be a viable explanation in nearly any Muslim context. The Bible paints a detestable picture of Balaam, who, though, he got the prophetic words right, counseled King Balak of Moab to e

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