"You’re an American?"
The Syrian was astonished. He had not expected to encounter an American inside the mosque. I was visiting the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, the oldest surviving mosque in the Islamic world.
We walked out into the mosque’s vast courtyard.
"You are a Muslim?" he asked.
"No, a Christian," I replied.
He paused for a moment. "Then why do you come here?"
"Historical interest," I answered. "And to see the tomb of John the Baptist." In the prayer hall of the mosque is a small domed shrine, reputedly the burial place of the severed head of the cousin and forerunner of Jesus. Then, curious to observe the man’s reaction, I added, "As a Christian, I also wanted to see the famous minaret of Jesus."
I paused to note the effect of my statement. At the southeast corner of the Great Mosque rises the Tower of Jesus. Muslim tradition holds that Jesus will alight on its summit at his second coming. Many Muslims believe that Jesus will return to earth before the final judgment and help the Mahdi—an expected Islamic messiah—subdue the forces of evil.
"Yes, Isa [Jesus] will surely appear there," the Syrian replied, looking up thoughtfully at the tower. Then, after hesitating for a moment, he ventured: "You are a Christian. You believe Jesus is God?"
Islam at a Glance
Islam is generally viewed as the youngest world religion and the world’s second largest, next to Christianity. It was founded by Muhammad (also spelled Mohammed), a seventh-century A.D. Arabian merchant of Mecca.
Islam in Arabic means "submission (to God)." An adherent to Islam is called a Muslim (or Moslem), meaning "one who submits." It is incorrect to refer to Muslims as "Mohammedans," as Muslims feel this term gives the incorrect impression that they worship Muhammad.
Islam’s creed (called the shahadah) states: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is God’s messenger." It is whispered into the ear of a newborn child, continually repeated throughout life, and is traditionally the last utterance of the dying.
Islam’s sacred book is the Koran (or Qur’an), comprised of messages said to have been given to Muhammad from God by the angel Jibril (Gabriel). In length it is about the size of the Christian New Testament. It consists of 114 chapters (suras).
Islam makes five demands on its adherents, called the "five pillars of Islam." They are recitation of the creed (shahadah); prayer (salat) five times a day in the direction of Mecca, and especially on Friday, the special day of congregational prayer in the mosque; almsgiving (zakat); fasting (sawm) from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan; and pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, which should be undertaken by every Muslim at least once.
Islam is divided into two main branches—the Sunnites (90 percent of all Muslims) and the Shiites (who are especially strong in Iran and Iraq). Like other religions, Islam has become fragmented by theological feuds and disagreements, resulting in a wide variety of sects and offshoots. Islam has as many denominations, sects and cults as Christianity does.
Fascinated by Jesus
The question came not as a challenge, but as a query of genuine interest. Having visited numerous Muslim countries, I can say without exaggeration that Muslims are intensely curious about—even fascinated by—Jesus Christ. My Syrian acquaintance was no exception.
He had referred to Jesus as Isa, his name in Arabic. In the Koran, Islam’s holy book, Jesus is often referred to as Isa ibn Maryam—Jesus, the son of Mary. Few Christians realize that Muslims revere Jesus as a genuine prophet and messenger of God, and many expect his return at the Last Day. Muslims even accept his virgin birth and his miracles.
Jesus is spoken of nearly 100 times in the Koran under numerous names and titles, including Al-Masih (the Messiah), Kalimatu’llah (the Word of God), Rasulu’llah (the Messenger of God) and Nabiyu’llah (the Prophet of God). These titles sound very Christian when translated. A brief glance at these surface-level similarities might suggest that Muslims and Christians are not far separated in belief —until we notice that "Son of God" is not among the titles.
Muslims are fiercely monotheistic. The central dogma of Islam is the absolute unity of God (Allah). To Muslims, the biblical teaching of the deity of Jesus Christ is thus polytheistic and blasphemous. It is the major problem confronting Christians who endeavor to reach Muslims with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"Allah is One and indivisible," Muslims assert. Allah has no "son" nor any other "partner," as implied by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. "One plus one plus one cannot equal one," they argue. The Koran declares: "They surely disbelieve who say: ‘Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary’… [and] ‘Lo! Allah is the third of three’; when there is no God save the One God…. The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger" (Sura 5:72-75).
For Christians, Christ’s deity is nonnegotiable. (See box "Jesus Is God.") In response to the Muslim charge of polytheism, Christians assert that they, too, believe that God is one. Here's the question at issue: what kind of oneness?
The Christian understands a more complex kind of oneness than a strictly mathematical kind of unity. God the Father and God the Son are one in essence or nature, but they are not identical persons. Muslims—and many Christians, for that matter—find this biblical teaching difficult to comprehend. That God is One, in three Persons, is a mystery that Christians accept on faith, realizing that God is not limited by our human inability to fathom the mysteries of divine existence beyond time and space. But to Muslims, it is sacrilegious nonsense.
Christianity & Islam: a Comparison
Islamic beliefs and practices differ from Christianity in several significant ways. Here are just a few of the differences:
Islam: God (Allah) is One. He is all-powerful and all-knowing, merciful and compassionate. He has no sons or partners.
Christianity: God is one divine Being in three eternal, co-essential, yet distinct Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Islam: Jesus had no preexistence from eternity. He was created and not begotten. He was completely and totally human. He was not divine, but simply a prophet of God and a great moral teacher. He was neither crucified nor resurrected. He was the "Messiah" only in the sense that he was anointed to preach salvation to the people of Israel.
Christianity: Jesus is the second Person of the Godhead, who became human through the Incarnation. He was God manifest in the flesh for our salvation. He was and is the Son of God and God the Son. He was fully God and fully human. On the cross he took the punishment we deserved, so we could be reconciled with God. He is worthy of worship, honor and reverence. He lives within Christians today through the Holy Spirit.
Islam: The Bible was originally an authentic revelation from Allah, but has become altered and corrupted in the process of transmission from one generation to another. Its greatest "distortion" is to picture the man Jesus as God in the flesh. The Bible must be interpreted by the Koran, the infallible Word of Allah. The Koran was divinely ordained to correct errors of the Christian faith.
Christianity: The Bible is the inspired Word of God, the foundation of truth, and the accurate record of God’s revelation to humanity. It is the ultimate authority in all matters of doctrine and Christian living. Its accuracy is attested by hundreds of manuscripts.
Islam: There is no need of a Savior or an atoning death. Forgiveness is attained by right belief and good works. One who hopes to escape the wrath of Allah must diligently strive to adhere to the Koran and the five pillars of Islam. A Muslim performs his religious obligations as a means of obtaining merit. Sura 35:7 says, "Those who believe and do good works, theirs will be forgiveness and a great reward." When people repent, God forgives. It is simple amnesty, by a word.
Christianity: Salvation is the gift of God, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not earned by personal merit or good works. We are forgiven by accepting the blood of Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross.
The Counselor (Paraclete)
Islam: Muhammad is the Counselor or Comforter promised by Jesus in John 16:7. According to the Koran, Jesus brought good tidings of "a messenger who cometh after me, whose name is the Praised One [Ahmad or Muhammad]" (Sura 61:6).
Christianity: The Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead, is the Comforter (or Counselor) promised by Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit lives within Christians and transforms their lives, making them more Christlike.
Life After Death
Islam: Allah will judge people according to their deeds. A paradise of physical delights and sensuous experiences awaits the righteous who surrender to Allah in this life. Hellfire awaits those whose works are unacceptable.
Christianity: The inheritance of the believer is salvation and eternal life as an immortal child of God. Unrepentant sinners who deliberately reject the saving grace of God will be sent to the lake of fire.
Islam: A mahdi ("rightly guided one"), born of Muhammad’s lineage, will arise in the end time as a messianic deliverer. Aided by Jesus, the mahdi will defeat a false messiah or antichrist named Dajjal and usher in a brief Golden Age, followed by the Day of Judgment.
Christianity: Jesus Christ will return to earth to judge and reign over all nations in the kingdom of God. This event inaugurates the resurrection of the dead and the reward of the saints.
Depending on the individual Christian’s theological expertise, he or she can debate the doctrine of the Trinity with varying degrees of sophistication. But this line of argumentation is generally fruitless when it comes to evangelizing Muslims. Muslims believe that Christians worship three gods, and no amount of protestation to the contrary—however inventive or articulate—can convince them otherwise.
Why? Because the Koran itself declares that Christians worship three gods. And since Muslims regard the Koran as infallible, Christians must indeed worship three gods—the clever arguments of Christians notwithstanding! The same goes for any discussion of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Muslims flatly reject those events. Why? Because anything contradicting the Koran is automatically false, and the Koran declares, "They slew him not nor crucified…" (Sura 4:157). Muslims regard it as inconceivable that a prophet of God could have suffered such an ignominious death.
For Christians, to deny the crucifixion and resurrection is to deny the very means of atonement for which Christ came into the world. Humans are forgiven by accepting, believing in, the shed blood of Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Muslims, by contrast, see no need for a Savior. They believe that a right relationship with God can be achieved by their own striving for righteousness. Right belief and good works bring God’s forgiveness, they maintain.
Clearly, an immense doctrinal gulf separates the two religions. The differences between Islam and Christianity are fundamental and profound, and they center around the person of Jesus Christ.
Touched by love
Nevertheless, it is on Jesus that our efforts to win Muslims must focus. Jesus Christ lies inevitably at the heart of the Christian-Muslim encounter. He is the bridge between the two faiths. But it is not by argumentation that Muslims will be won to Christ. Conversions through sheer reasoning are rare.
The key to this seeming paradox is given by Samuel Zwemer (1867-1952), the great Christian missionary to Islam. Based on a lifetime of labor and reflection, Zwemer concluded, "After forty years’ experience, I am convinced that the nearest way to the Muslim heart is the way of God’s love."
The God of the Bible is love personified. Only by touching the hearts of Muslims with that love can the seemingly insurmountable barriers to conversion begin to be overcome. Understand this: Muslim converts to Christianity report that many Muslims have a deep spiritual hunger that has not been satisfied. Many desire to know God more intimately—to be assured of his love, forgiveness and acceptance.
Islam is built heavily on legalistic observances intended to prepare a person for future judgment. Muslims have no definite assurance of salvation until they reach that final day. They can never rest in the certainty of eternal salvation. To many, it is a painfully unsatisfying, unfulfilling and precarious state of existence. It is therefore not surprising that when Muslims learn of Jesus’ life of love and forgiveness, and come to know him as a living, personal Savior, he is irresistible.
The Christian enjoys a certainty of salvation that a Muslim can never have. "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). Faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ is our assurance of salvation. Christians serve God willingly, without compulsion or fear. To Muslims, these are revolutionary concepts—and eminently reassuring ones!
By reflecting God’s love in our personal lives and urging Muslim friends to listen to their longing after God, we can accomplish something that a truckload of theological arguments could never achieve. With God’s love as the core of our witness, we can begin to communicate the gospel to Muslims in a relevant and productive fashion.
The purpose of this article is to suggest approaches to personal evangelism among Muslim friends, neighbors and co-workers in the Western world—not to provide a framework for overseas missionary activity. Evangelism inside the Islamic world is a task too complex—and potentially dangerous—to imply that one article would be adequate instruction. In many Muslim countries, the penalty for apostasy from Islam is severe. In extreme cases, the death penalty may even be imposed on a Muslim who renounces his Islamic faith. This should be constantly borne in mind.
In the Islamic world, separation of church and state is unknown. Islam is tied closely to the national, cultural and family life of its adherents. Conversion to Christianity may thus be taken as a rejection of family, culture and country—with potentially dire consequences.
For those interested in a missionary career, training with missionaries who have experience in restricted-access countries and who are sensitive to cultural dynamics is vital. Books such as Planting Churches in Muslim Cities by Greg Livingstone, New Paths in Muslim Evangelism by Phil Parshall and Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road, edited by J. Dudley Woodberry, are strongly recommended. [Other good books have been published since this article was written.]
Your personal witness
Effectively communicating your Christian faith to Muslims requires knowledge, wisdom and a living commitment to Jesus Christ. Here are a few guidelines:
- Be informed. The ignorance we Westerners have concerning the Islamic faith is appalling. It is a near-fatal obstacle to effective Christian witness. Libraries and bookstores can provide helpful introductory volumes. Reading a translation of the Koran in modern English will also be informative.
- Avoid arguments. A Muslim is not an enemy to be conquered, but a friend with whom to share the love of Jesus Christ. Arrogant attempts to refute Muslim doctrine are inflammatory and counterproductive. Move beyond the combative rhetoric that has long characterized Christian-Muslim encounters. Ask and respond to questions in a nonthreatening way. Avoid being judgmental. Also realize that you may encounter some Muslims who simply have no interest in genuine dialogue with anyone who has a non-Islamic viewpoint. If they feel there is nothing they can learn from Christians, it is pointless to press them. Wish them well in their spiritual journey and move on.
- Be ready to answer. Islam is a missionary faith. Do not be surprised if you find yourself being evangelized rather than evangelizing. A firm grasp of the essentials of Christianity is therefore crucial (1 Peter 3:15). Be especially prepared to discuss the question of Jesus’ divinity and the Trinity. Explain that Christians do not believe that Jesus is a separate being from the Father. Acknowledge that the nature of God is beyond the grasp of limited, human understanding. But remember—prolonged debate over this point is usually a fruitless exercise.
- Be respectful. Respect Muslims as sincere seekers after God. Many Muslims take their religion more seriously than some Christians do theirs. Do not attack Islam. Criticism of Muhammad and the Koran is insensitive and counterproductive. Remember that Islam has been instrumental in advancing the progress of civilization. Treat it with the respect it deserves.
- Be an example. To Muslims, religion is much more than mere acceptance of doctrine; it involves a pattern of behavior—a way of life. This is why Muslims puzzle over how to reconcile Christianity with the loose lifestyles and materialistic values of Western society. Explain that Christianity is not responsible for the immorality of the West. Help them to distinguish between "Western" and "Christian." But more than that, remember that the message cannot be divorced from the messenger. Effective witness comes from a Christian who lives a life centered in Christ. By demonstrating the reality of Christ’s presence and power in your own life, you can show others what Christianity is really all about.
- Be a friend. In most cases, sharing one’s faith effectively with a Muslim is best accomplished within the context of personal friendships. Be a good friend, a good co-worker, a good neighbor. Let God’s love flow through you, and offer help when needs arise.
Jesus Is God
- Matthew 1:23—"‘They will call him Immanuel’—which means, ‘God with us.’"
- John 1:1—"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
- John 1:14—"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."
- John 8:58—"‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’"
- John 10:30—"I and the Father are one."
- John 20:28—"Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’"
- Colossians 2:9—"For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form."
- Hebrews 1:3—"The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being."
- Proclaim Jesus Christ. Be open about what Jesus Christ has done in your life. Explain your reasons for belief in him as your personal Savior. Talk openly, honestly and personally about the love God has shown for you. Share insights, answered prayers and your own experiences of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Encourage Muslims to read and reflect on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life.
- Invite to church. Prayer, songs of praise, Bible-based preaching and Christian fellowship may help your Muslim friend discover the joy of God’s love and the riches of his grace in Jesus Christ. Should he or she move toward a genuine commitment to Christ, the support of concerned Christians will be especially needed in coping with inevitable family and social pressures.
- Pray. Remember that it is God who draws people to Jesus (John 6:44). Pray faithfully that the Holy Spirit will touch your Muslim friends and move them to worship and serve Jesus as Lord and Savior. And pray for the Holy Spirit to speak through you to their personal spiritual needs.