by Ken Peters
Some ideas that will help us to be more effective in communicating the gospel to Muslims.
I was talking with an orthodox Muslim, one of the mosque leaders in the northern Sudan village where I was doing development work. He was friendly and spoke English well. I had gone to his home to find out more about Islamic mysticism that I had seen in Sudan. When I mentioned Sufism, he knew exactly what I was talking about.
Deadly serious, he described what he called the "errors" of Sufism and how widely it was practiced. During our conversation, a huge truck packed with excited, festive school children rumbled out of the village toward the desert.
"Do you know where those children are going?" he asked.
I didn’t know, so he told me. "They’re going to a shrine where they will pray to a Sufi leader buried there, so they will do well on their exams. Is that Islam? Is that Islam?"
"No," I said, and he emphatically agreed.
What I meant was that it wasn’t textbook Islam, orthodox according to a strict interpretation of the Quran and the traditions of Muhammad. Rather, it was the popular Islam of those school children, and their parents, and of the people in this village, and the next, and the next.
As we continued to talk, I wondered how much Christian missionary work among Muslims corresponds to popular Islam, what I call Islamic mysticism. It occurred to me that most of what I’ve heard and read about reaching Muslims applies only to the minority in Islam who are literate and well-schooled in Islamic orthodoxy. Very little is said about what methods or approaches are best suited for Muslims who practice a simple Islam of the heart, which is based as much on their tribal traditions as upon the Quran. Consequently, I’ve developed some ideas that I think will help us to be more effective in communicating the gospel to Muslims.
THE HUNGER OF THE HEART
Since the founding of Islam, many Muslims have reflected a strong desire to know God personally and to find acceptance with him. The traditional view of God in Islam, together with oppressive rules, leaves little room for a mystical experience with God. But that has not thwarted the attempts of those who down through the centuries have sought a deeper, more emotional expression of their faith. That fact, it seems to me, opens the door to our witness about Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ must become the great Sheikh of all Muslims, their spiritual guide, their intercessor, and the bestower of God’s blessings. This is the redemptive analogy in Islam that could be used to invite Muslims to Christ. Having found it, we must learn appropriate ways to use it. For me, that means through power encounters with the sheikhs of Islamic mysticism.
By Islamic mysticism, I mean the subjective rather than the objective side of Islam. It stresses an intimate relationship with Allah rather than doctrine and worship based on tradition. Mystical Muslims emphasize the immanence of Allah rather than his transcendence. Mysticism is the longing for God, the love one feels for God.
Today, over 1,300 years after the birth of Islamic mysticism, about 70 percent of all Muslims are being influenced by it in one form or another. That means there are more than 600 million Muslims who teach and practice forms of Islam place unorthodox experience over orthodox theology. How can such a tension exist in Islam without serious outbursts against the movement’s leaders?
In Islam, where men are judged by their actions, mere heterodoxy cannot as a rule be effectively penalized, and however sharply the truth of mysticism may clash with the law of religion, nothing very serious is likely to occur so long as the mystic continues to worship with his fellow Muslims.
Beneath the surface of what often appears to the West as a solid phalanx of truth there is a seething ferment among millions of people whose deepest spiritual aspirations orthodox Islam cannot meet. That not only explains the appeal of mysticism, it also points the way for our evangelistic approaches to Muslims.
BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
The basic beliefs and practices of Islamic mysticism arise from common human psychological and spiritual needs; among them: fear of evil, the future, the unknown, and a hope for better things. Popular among Muslims are such animistic beliefs and practices as witchcraft, sorcery, spells, amulets, and fetishes.
Muslim mystics do not abandon Islam’s theological foundations. Most of them cling to Islam’s five pillars, but apply them through the sieve of mystical experiences.
While fear of evil and the unknown is a powerful motivator, a stronger influence among Muslim mystics seems to be their love and longing for God. To be nearer to Allah, and, ideally, to be united with him casts out all fear and brings bliss and ecstasy. Therefore, in their practices we see some designed to cast out fear and evil on the one hand, but, on the other, they do things designed to bring them closer to Allah. Although these practices carry significance for missionaries, the one that intrigues me the most is veneration of Islamic mysticism’s spiritual leaders.
The mystics’ spiritual leaders are commonly called sheikhs. Highly esteemed in their villages, they are the only ones who know how to make mystical contact with Allah. Mystics assume that the sheikhs are friends of Allah who intercede with him on their behalf. Sheikhs reveal the path to blessing and bestow Allah’s blessings.
The sheikh has traveled the road to Allah and has found the highly desired mystical union with him. The sheikh is the logos of Islamic mysticism, because he has reached the point of being perfectly one with Allah. In fact, the sheikh is often described as actually being Allah himself.
On his mystical journey to Allah, the sheikh grows more virtuous and takes on the character of Allah. His goal is to find perfect goodness, liberality, knowledge, and other such qualities.
The sheikh who achieves this goal is called at times Guide, Beacon, Mirror of the World, Mighty Elixer, Isa (Jesus) and Raiser of the Dead. He is believed to have perfect knowledge of Allah and to have supernatural powers himself.
In fact, one of the things that leads people to believe in the sheikh is his power to work miracles. Healing the sick, flying in the air, traversing long distances in a moment, walking on water, talking with inanimate objects, and predicting future events have been attributed to sheikhs. Though scattered within Islam, they are a powerful, influential group.
The sheikhs are at the same time a barrier against and an opening toward Christ. That’s why missionaries must work with them and not behind their backs. If a sheikh were to turn to Christ, he would exercise powerful influence on his followers to do the same. The greater his influence in the community, the better for our witness. In effect, the sheikhs could become the pastors of newly formed clusters of Christian believers, thus preserving their status in the community.
THE GREAT SHEIKH, JESUS CHRIST
Of course, the key to my vision is the approach to the sheikhs and their followers. To me, it’s the redemptive analogy of Jesus Christ being the greatest of all sheikhs.
For example, David Shenk describes the time he was speaking to Muslim mystics who told him that they venerated their sheikh because he achieved answers to their prayers. Then he told them about the sheikh Jesus, who also answers prayers.
There are many parallels between the sheikhs and Jesus. Sheikhs are said to answer prayers by interceding before Allah on behalf of people, not just while they are alive, but even after they die. They work miracles and are gentle, kind, humble, submissive, and generous. They are given many titles that Jesus has earned. They are to be intimately joined with their devotees, even to the point of sharing pain vicariously.
No man could be all that a sheikh is thought to be by Muslim mystics, but Jesus can be and is, plus a lot more. Missionaries must go to Muslim mystics with the message that Jesus Christ is the greatest of all sheikhs, doing so with unusual care and sensitivity.
Don Richardson explains that when using a redemptive analogy, one needs the Holy Spirit’s wisdom to discern the analogy’s validity in a given context. The Holy Spirit’s love is needed to unveil Christ as the analogy’s fulfillment and to drive out all anti-redemptive aspects that may surface.
SIGNS AND WONDERS
My second key is the supernatural enabling of the Holy Spirit. Missionaries must not be reluctant to join the spiritual battle on the deepest levels. Because Muslim mystics believe in signs and wonders, we must confront them with the power of the true and living God.
For example, if the sheikhs can prophesy, we must challenge their wisdom through prophecies from the wisest of all sheikhs, the Lord Jesus. If they can heal, we must enter power encounters and ask Jesus to heal as well, showing his power compassion. If we wish to convert sheikhs operating with demonic powers, we must cast out the demons who control them. By exercising the power and authority of Jesus, missionaries will gain credibility and success with people who have been exposed to the powers of darkness.
ON THE FIELD TODAY
While I was in the Sudan, it was amazing to see how much of what I learned about mysticism from the local mosque leader confirmed what I had read about beforehand. Because I spent a relatively short time in development work, I was not able to try out my evangelistic theories. However, I have since consulted with veteran missionaries to Muslims, such as Phil Parshall and David Shenk, to get their reactions. I wanted to find out if any missionaries are doing what I propose here.
In a nutshell, the answer is yes, especially in West Africa and Asia. Shenk told me that in Indonesia "power encounter is the normal manner in which the church is growing. Several significant Muslim leaders have been converted and this has dramatically influenced the profile of the Christian-Muslim encounter. Divine healings and exorcism are part of the normal Christian witness in Indonesia."
Those who responded agreed that there is a need in many Muslim countries — although not all of them — for missionaries to emphasize power encounter in Muslim evangelism. They also affirmed the effectiveness of targeting the leaders first. For example, to cite one story among many I’ve been told, one entire West African Muslim village turned to Christ in the footsteps of several leader’s conversions.
Certainly, we must be wise and sensitive to the Holy Spirit in deciding the appropriate and most effective approach to Muslim mystics. Our strategies must be tailor-made to fit the local cultural context. The steps I’m proposing here could be thought of as one of many suits missionaries should be prepared to wear to reach Muslims. To follow that analogy, at times our "suits" must be taken in or let out in various places, so as to achieve the best possible fit for a given village.
I believe we could achieve positive results if we placed more emphasis on reaching the large number of Muslims influenced both by animism and mystical Islam. It is time for our meetings with Muslims to take on a mystical as well as an apostolic flavor. What we have seen happen in Indonesia and in West Africa can be duplicated elsewhere. Through signs and wonders and victorious power encounters with the forces of darkness, great numbers of Muslims who follow their sheikhs can be turned to the Great Sheikh, our Lord Jesus Christ.
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