You cannot get very far into ministry with Muslims before you run face-first into the question of Muhammad. He is one of the most revered figures of human history, he is honored, at times even idolized, by one-fifth of the world’s population. Sooner or later you are likely to hear one of your friends ask, “What do you think of our prophet Muhammad, pbuh?”*
So, what should a committed Christian think about Muhammad? Well, I will not even try to answer that question, although I do think we should be as generous as possible since John 3:16 probably applies to him too.
I think the better and more pressing question to ask might be, “What should a committed Christian say about Muhammad to their Muslim friends?”
I realize wadding into this argument is akin to diving into tepid, muddy water, but I think it worthwhile to at least splash around its edges a bit.
This reminds me, just a little bit, about an incident in the life of another extremely influential figure of world history. If I remember correctly he was being questioned by the national religious authorities about his stand on taxation, and he replied something like, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
There are two points in this we should not miss:
1. Jesus did not directly answer their question, and there are times that neither should we.
But most importantly,
2. Jesus talked about God, not Caesar.
Have you ever noticed that if you meet a physician in some social setting they often end up talking the practice of medicine. Same thing with politicians, they tend to talk politics. In other words we talk about what we are about. Jesus spent his time talking about God because that is who he came to reveal.
So, if Jesus is what I am about, then I should be talking about him – not Oprah – in my social engagements. While I do agree that Christians should be well-rounded, knowledgeable people, I still assert that our conversations expose what is in our hearts. But now I digress, back to Muhammad.
Certainly there are times when we need to have something to say about a major world figure such as Muhammad. But for the most part our Muslim friends will feel quite honored if we know anything about their prophet other than the caricatures presented in the nightly news. Some of us may even know quite a bit about his life, but I don’t think we need to say very much.
Or I love the way the I heard another missionary put it. When describing a conversation with some Muslim scholars he said, “I am not an expert on Mohammad. If you want to learn about him go talk to the Imam. But I am an expert on the person of Jesus, I can tell you about him.”
And that sounds about right to me.
*PBUH means “peace be upon him,” spoken by many devout Muslims in reverence whenever mentioning Muhammad’s name.
I want to briefly point out a couple new things you will find on the left-hand sidebar:
- Toward the bottom of the page you will find a place to sign-up for email notices whenever there is a new post.
- At the top of the sidebar you will see a link to “Circumpolar,” this is a blog with various writers who are all dedicated to ministry in the Muslim world. There is a great deal of insightful and thought provoking information on Circumpolar. (the owners of that site have graciously asked me to join their team of bloggers, I hope I don’t ruin their reputation
I hope you take the time to sign-up and also for a quick trip over to Circumpolar. I think you will be glad you did.
Being someone who tries very deliberately to be both a Christian and a scholar, I find that am often caught in a tension. The “Christian” side of me is supposed to just believe (or so I am told), while the “scholar” side of me wants to understand, to know, to apply reason. Can we as Christians do both, or are the people at Beryl Baptist right?
I have a very unusual academic career. I started my serious scholarly work in my 30s and while actively engaged in ministry in Central Asia. It took well over 10 years for me to complete my MA and Doctorate. But the advantage of this was that I had more time to integrate my scholarly self into the man of faith I already was. Thus over time I realized that the faith-verses-reason construct is not only a false dichotomy, but is an example of what happens when Christians allow secularist to control the language of our conversation. Let me briefly explain, and then apply this to mission.
A false dichotomy is an error of reason which says there are only two options, something is either A or it is B, when in fact there are other ways to think about the issue. The conflict between “faith and reason” is at least partly rooted in the way the language of the issue has been hijacked.
Usually the conflict between faith and reason is framed as being between using our heart (faith) or our head (reason). Since we all want to be thought of as intelligent people, it seems that the head is better of the two.
But the Bible tells me that it is with my heart that I both think and believe:
- The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge… (Prov. 18:15).
- If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:9)
Therefore the idea that faith and reason originate in different locations within a person is a purely secular view of man, not the biblical one. And with that misnomer corrected, the false dichotomy loses its power.
While this is philosophically interesting and all that, you may be asking “How does this relate to mission in the Muslim world?” I’m glad you asked.
Anyone reading this obviously has some interest in missions research. Yet for many in the church these two words don’t really go together because “mission” is about faith, whereas “research” is about logic and the rational mind. However, as men and women of God we can use our hearts to both embrace the knowledge generated by research and the new faith we see springing-up in the Muslim world.
With a whole and fully integrated heart we can approach the world, both learning and believing, not being forced to do one or the other. Or to sharpen the point to the Muslim world. We can both study what God is doing and embrace the vision given to John the Revelator:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9)
With the one and self-same heart we can both believe this vision will come true and understand how that is happening.
Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matt 22:37-38).
In the church world we do a pretty good job of at least trying to love God with our heart and soul, but what about with our mind? Well, for starters we should note what Strong’s tells us about this Greek word, it is dianoia, and it refers to the exercise of “deep thought,” or “understanding.”
Now, lets bring it close to the purpose of this blog and ask, “What does loving God with “all our mind” look like in mission?”
To me it means that we reach beyond overused, cherry-picked Bible verses and really think about what we do in mission. In order to love God with all our minds as a part of mission we must slow down enough to think, reflect, and carefully consider what we do. Sometimes this may take the form of studying Scripture concerning some aspect of mission. Other times this might be thinking long and carefully about our behaviors and practices as we go about mission.
This seems simple enough–except that our society values action over though. We esteem “doers” instead of “thinkers. ” My mentor in mission research often talks about becoming a “reflective practitioner,” i.e. a missionary who takes time to reflect deeply on what they are doing.
I could have avoided many of the mistakes I have made in mission over the years (and in aspects of my life) if I would have slowed down enough to reflect on the situation. But it is a learned behavior, something I am still trying to learn.
One of the reasons I love the academic discipline we call missiology is because it require rigorous thinking of those who would practice it well. A good example of this comes from something we call contextualized theology. Perhaps the best way to explain is to first look at the two words separately.
At its core, contextualization is nothing more than “taking the context seriously.” We do contextualization when we take into account the various aspects of the setting in question—historic, social, cultural, religious, geopolitical—to name a few. As for theology, it comes from two Greek words theos, meaning “god” and –logia, meaning “utterances, sayings or discourse.” Therefore my simple definition of theology is “man asking questions about God.” Of course biblical theology is “man asking questions about God and finding answers in the biblical text.”
This means that contextualized theology is helping people find answers to their questions about life in the Bible. The reason I emphasize their questions is that too often Christians offer Muslims answers to questions they are not asking. So it follows that it is critical for new communities of Christ-followers in the Muslim world to develop their own theology which addresses the realities of their context—or develop contextualized theology.
Of course this must also be “biblical theology,” but that does not mean they should parrot versions of the various theologies we brought with us from the West, which were themselves developed in our particular contexts. Unless these new churches do this, they will be weak and subject to creeping nominalism because our imported answers will not speak to the questions they are asking.
One example will suffice. Which Western theological system—Reformed, Arminianism, Systematic, etc.—addresses a believer’s relationship to their ancestors? I can’t think of a single one that does. At the same time, in many parts of the world a person’s relationship to those who have gone before is one of the fundamental building blocks of worldview.
So what does this tell us? When such people come to Christ do we tell them our God has nothing to say about a matter that is of such great importance to them? We need to ask ourselves, “Does the Bible in fact say anything about ancestors?” And of course the answer is a resounding “yes.” From the numerous genealogies in Scripture to the “great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12, the Bible has quite a bit to say about ancestors, we in the West have simply not asked that question, therefore it is not a part of our theological systems.
It may seem a bit scary to think about new churches developing their own theology, but the only reason it scares us is we don’t have enough trust in either the power of the Word of God or the Holy Spirit sent to guide them into all truth.
One of the thrills of doing mission research is when you come across a sparkling gem from far afield; below is one of these. It is the Masai creed. If you even recognize the name of the tribe, it is because they were the most feared warriors of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.
We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptised in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.”
Although this does not directly concern ministry in the Muslim world, it makes me long for the day when Muslim background believers start writing creeds of their own, expressing the deep truths of Scripture through their own cultural eyes.
Speed the day Lord! Speed that day.
Sometimes the thrill of mission research is in finding something new—like a redemptive analogy that makes the gospel clear to a previously unreached people or tribe. Other times adventure of discovering something very, very old. Some years ago Linda and I had the pleasure of visiting an ancient city, well-known as a trading port for Muslim empires. However, long before the first minaret called to prayer over that Silk Road era fortress, there was a large Christian community living in that area. You can imagine the thrill we felt when we discovered, hidden behind a stone rampart, the ancient gravestone below.
Besides being distinctly Christian, if you look closely enough you will see this tombstone is also graced with hints of Celtic Christian art, despite being more than 3,000 miles from Ireland. Of course, without far more time and resources that such a brief visit provided, I cannot answer the many questions such a discovery provokes:
Whose grave did this mark?
Were they from that city or only a trader passing through?
What year was this carved?
Why was it now hidden out of sight? (I do have some good guesses about this one
But the nature of good research is that one discovery unleashes more questions than it answers. Also, as I have said before, mission research also should invoke some of same awe and wonder we experience on Sunday mornings. Or in this case, a poem:
I confess an ancient creed,
Receiving a mercy of eons before time,
My path well-worn by many a sinner and saint.
The One I adore is before any world there was,
This name spoken before the mountains,
His fame from eternity past.
He is the dread of demons,
His face the desire of angelic hosts,
And for his mercy multitudes in darkness wait.
I too will soon join a great cloud of witnesses,
And make my bed in the sleep of death,
Bearing testimony that He is life.
Here is a short video where I give an overview of Perspectives lesson 13.
You can watch it on YouTube at http://youtu.be/ANormANoZ34
In the mind of most Christians, research and worship go together just like peanut butter and mayonnaise—not so much.
The term “research” makes people think of numbers and statistics, whereas “worship” evokes feelings and awe or wonder. Research is obviously connected to our intellect, but aren’t we called to love God with mind as well as our heart, soul, and strength? (Mark 12:30) Therefore, if research is to be properly a part of being on mission with God, then it needs to be spiritual, not just pragmatic and intellectual.
Of course that raises an important question, “how can research be spiritual in the way that worship is?” I’ve wrestled with this one for some years, trying to make sure my heart stays engaged during those times when my mind takes the lead role in my faith. There may be many ways to do this, but for me one has come to the fore, sometimes allowing the images and realities from my research to push me to my knees. An example is in order.
Some years ago I was studying interviews with church planters in various parts of the Muslim world, looking for those key insights into how God was using them. One day during that project, sitting at my desk in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I read about a fundamentalist Muslim soldier who came to Christ when a foreign missionary had the courage to share a New Testament with him. My eyes welled-up with tears. I set my work aside, got on my knees and wept. Here research was painting a picture, showing me a miracle of God that many of my fellow Americans would find hard to believe. Worship was the only proper response.
Along this same line, worship should rise-up in our hearts anytime we encounter the amazing beauty of the gospel crossing new cultural frontiers. We should marvel everything new nations and peoples are woven into the tapestry of God’s kingdom. I guess that is one of the reasons I love to do mission research, it often evokes such wonder and awe that I can’t help but worship.
While there are many ‘practical’ arguments for doing mission research, its ability to push the soul to worship is reason enough for me.
I just read a new book by a friend and fellow mission researcher, “Ben Naja,” its called “And you will be a Blessing; Encountering People of Other Cultures and Religions.” Ben has been working with Muslims, and equipping local Christians to do likewise for many years. This book is a collaborative effort between him and an African friend who have helped thousands of African Christians start to engage in cross-cultural ministry with their Muslim neighbors. While the book was written with an African context in mind, it is completely applicable to Christians anywhere who interact with Muslims.
In the five years since we moved back to the US I have talked to lots of Christians about reaching out to Muslims here. I have only see a very few who actually did not think we should share the gospel with Muslims (or only a few who would come right out and say it). Usually people express a willingness, but they are afraid of either the Muslims themselves or of how to even start sharing with someone from such a very different religious and cultural background.
That is why I am excited about Ben’s book. While the first short chapter is building a case for sharing Christ with Muslims, the rest of the book is dead practical. It deals with issues like understanding the context of Muslim culture, communicating with and without words, and how to disciple a new believer in a home-based fellowship. The book also contains five appendices that talk about very practical matters such as “Jesus in the Quran.”
I really wish this book had been around 20 years ago when I met my first Muslim neighbor in Arkansas, sadly it did not. Now I just wish all my missions minded friends would read it and put its practical wisdom into action.