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ss nucleus - spring 1997,  Evangelism among Muslims

Evangelism among Muslims

It's hard to win a tennis match with your arms tied behind your back. The trouble is, we tend to find ourselves sharing the gospel with Muslims with our arms tied behind our backs and then wonder why we don't serve many aces or even get the ball back over the net.

This is partly due to history. Christians have been working in countries where the political situation has been acutely sensitive, where putting a foot wrong has meant being kicked out. Now that we find ourselves sharing the gospel at home we can easily forget that the rules have changed. We need to get rid of three inhibitions, three 'rules of engagement' that we often accept without thinking. We need to untie our hands.

Three rules to avoid 

Rule one: Be nice

Our first rule is an obligation to be `nice' whatever the situation. We often confuse being 'nice' with being 'good' or 'spiritual'. We think that 'being nice' is part of our Christian witness; moreover we usually enjoy getting on well with people rather than quarrelling! But is it really right to respond in this way when Muslims tell us that 'Jesus was never crucified' or 'You Christians have changed the Bible' ? Often Muslims misinterpret our mild response to such remarks and the message that actually gets across is 'Christians don't react strongly because they don`t really care'. No, these are serious allegations and at the very least they are major mistakes. In saying such things Islam takes away the very heart of the gospel. A much more natural response, and one that is far better understood by Muslims, is to show our feelings. Of course we shouldn't be rude or aggressive, but we do need to stand up boldly for the truth.

To say that Jesus was not crucified flies in the face of history, and is actually an attempt to take away all that Jesus won for us. Saying that we have changed the gospel is an accusation of forgery. We should ask for evidence, perhaps pressing a Bible into the hands of the speaker with an invitation to indicate the parts that have been corrupted. If this is not forthcoming then the speaker should be asked to withdraw his remarks.

In reality this accusation is only made because the Qur'an and the Bible are found to be incompatible. Islam depends on the Bible being untrue. If it is true the basis of Islam is destroyed.

After a long day into which all the frustrations of general practice seemed to have been packed I visited Yusuf, a Muslim friend. Ayaz, his father, attacked me straight away. 'Of course you Christians have changed the Bible' , he said. Instead of bringing out my carefully reasoned and rehearsed reply I nearly blew my top.'How dare you say that?' I said, pulling out my rather worn New Testament, 'show me one place it has been changed!' He could not, and I pressed him further. He backed down and apologised profusely. His attitude to me changed completely and after that we developed a friendly mutual respect. It is not always right to be confrontational or for that matter to get too heated but the point is that my strong feelings affected Ayaz far more than any arguments.

Rule two: Don't attack their religion

Our second rule is 'Just preach the gospel, don't attack a person's religion'. On the face of it this sounds good sense and good manners. The trouble is, we do not find this attitude in the Scriptures. Belief in a god that is not the 'God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ' is idolatry. Idolatry is not overlooked in the Bible; the prophets denounced it and took great trouble to explain that it was hateful to God. They did this before bringing promises of comfort and redemption and explained that these were conditional on heartfelt repentance.

The Lord Jesus was no less emphatic.'No-one comes to the Father but by me' (Jn 14:6) leaves room for no other prophet or mediator. Jesus shows us the character of God; there is simply no room for the God of Islam, whose character is so fundamentally different and who is so clearly lacking in those qualities that as Christians we rely on and glory in.

The bedrock of Islamic belief is that Mohammed was the true Prophet and that the Qur'an is the word of God. Fundamentally different in type to Christian belief, which one hopes is reasoned and based on evidence, this credo is beyond questioning. It is sinful to doubt it for a moment, and both the Qur'an and the prophet himself are protected by a kind of doctrinal embargo. 'The greatest sin that I could ever commit' said Jalal, as we talked of the Gospel, 'is that I should doubt for one moment that Mohammed is the true prophet of God, and the seal of the prophets'.

It is of huge importance that Muslims are invited to bring this belief within the range of their own critical faculties. This is done by the skilful use of questions, designed not to win points but to disturb beliefs set in granite, and to encourage people to think the unthinkable.

The trouble is, we are often not equipped to ask serious and penetrating questions because we do not apply our brains and intellects to evangelism with the same intensity that we apply them to medicine. We really need to read and study the Qur'an seriously. How many of us are prepared to do what we ask a Muslim to do when we ask him or her to read the Bible? We need to be able to open the Qur'an with a Muslim and say 'Take a look at this, what do you think?' Much of our early evangelism will thus be unsettling and may provoke rather a violent reaction, however gentle we are.

Rule three: Build bridges

The third rule seems to be the need to build bridges, to make the chasm between Islam and Christianity seem less wide than it actually is. This results from a very natural desire to draw as close to people as we can, to avoid conflict; yet I believe that we need to emphasise the absolute contrast between Christianity and Islam. Most Muslims have hazy and wildly inaccurate ideas as to what 'Christianity' is and it is worthwhile asking your Muslim friends what they think you believe! Most have a rather vague idea that it is some kind of religion with a set of rules and 'things you have to believe' (like Islam itself), and that you just want them to 'change their religion'.

In fact Christianity is more about what God himself has done rather than a series of correct beliefs, more about God's rescue service than doing things to earn his favour. Christianity is not really a 'religion' at all. Following Christ is incredibly exciting and liberating; let your Muslim friends see that it is vastly different from anything they have ever dreamed of.

Before we can build any bridges in fact, a good deal of rubble and earth needs to be cleared, we cannot build on soft ground. Once some kind of understanding has developed there is basis for a more honest relationship.

So these are the three 'rules of engagement' which we need to avoid. 'Be nice' , 'Don't attack their religion' and 'Build bridges'.

What should we do instead? Two approaches are extremely effective: 'Ask questions' and 'Relate to the person'.

Two approaches to follow

Approach one: Ask questions

We must encourage Muslims to ask questions they may never have asked about themselves and where they stand with God. What is God like? What do you know of his character? What does God think of you? What is God's attitude to you? What does he feel about you? What is your experience of God today? How has he made his presence known to you? These are matters of great seriousness that the searching heart needs an answer for. The heart that is satisfied with a religion is not ready for the good news, only restless souls touched by the Holy Spirit will let themselves be troubled by such questions.

Once someone starts exposing themselves to such questions as these we can begin to introduce them to the Christian Scriptures. Before we can share ' the gospel' there has to be some understanding of the character of God, and his son, Jesus Christ. The gospel in the context of the God of Islam is quite meaningless. Similarly we must introduce Muslims to the real Jesus, as he is set forth in the Bible and how we know him in our own experience.

At all times our witness must be completely honest. There is no such thing as a 'good witness', only an honest witness.

Approach Two: Relate to the person

Islam gives a very powerful solidarity and identity to Muslims and this often allows people to develop the kind of external character that is so familiar to us. Nevertheless I have been constantly surprised that people who can be so fierce and aggressive in a group can become sweet and approachable when they are on their own and when a little mutual trust has been allowed to develop. Young people who demonstrated on the streets and burned copies of Salman Rushdie's book impressed the world with their passionate and aggressive commitment. In the quiet of the surgery they would shed this and become more what they really were; teenagers concerned with girls (or boys!), GCSEs, relationships with their parents, their own identity and all the preoccupations of people of their age.

It needs patience, a little skill and often a great deal of time to get through to this person underneath. However, as a medical student, time is on your side! We must never relate to the Muslim persona; to do this is to affirm and reinforce it. We must find the soft centre; the person as they actually are rather than the one they are trying to be. Here is where we can build bridges, based on love, kindness and ordinary friendliness. Jesus not only spoke truth and completed the work of his Father, he did it all in a way that allows us to see who he really is and what he is like. The interior walls of Islam will sometimes - often - give way to love and affection allowing a natural opening for the gospel. It will not often happen the other way round.

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