But They Really Do Resemble Their Mother

“You know,” said my host, “in Islam, it’s approved for a Christian girl to marry a Muslim man.”

“Yes,” I responded, “but it’s forbidden to happen the other way around, isn’t it?”

With a sheepish grin, my host admitted that it was true. Muslim men can marry women from other religions, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry men from other religions. My village host had been jesting (mostly) about having our single teammate marry one of his sons.

“For us true believers in Jesus,” I continued, “we won’t do it in either direction. Both men and women won’t marry someone who doesn’t share their same faith. Our faith is that central to us. It’s the same for our single friend here.”

Our gracious new teammate was already being jokingly called the family’s “bride” and she was enduring it admirably. But it was important for them to know that jesting aside, this was out of the question.

The seemingly inconsistent Islamic position on marrying nonbelievers is not inconsistent at all when you understand the cultural belief that it sprung out of – something called patrogenesis. This Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief holds that children biologically generate only from the father. Mothers are merely carriers, vessels, but they do not contribute meaningfully to the biological or spiritual makeup of the child. Strange as it may seem, this was the dominant view in this part of the world until quite recently. It now exists in an uneasy tension with the growing knowledge of genetics and modern medicine.

Because of this belief in patrogenesis, traditional locals do not believe that a child can be half one ethnicity and half another. They are considered one hundred percent the ethnicity of the father. This also holds true for religion. It simply doesn’t matter if the mother is another religion. If the father is a Muslim, the children will be born biologically Muslims. Therefore it’s no threat to the faith to have a Muslim man marry a Christian woman. Rather, it means the tribe has gained a “carrier” from a rival tribe. However, in this understanding any Muslim woman who marries a man from another religion has been lost to an enemy tribe, and is no longer able to contribute to the continuity of her own community. Hence why it was outlawed from the beginning of the faith.

But that’s not fair! No, it’s not, but it is awfully convenient, and one of the many aspects of Islam that allowed it to slowly squeeze the life out of the religious minorities in its domains over the last 1,400 years. This belief also has Islamic legal ramifications. Children legally belong only to the father, and not to the mother, since they are considered the fruit of his loins alone. You can imagine the terrible position this puts local mothers when dealing with an abusive man.

Even when it comes to small talk, it’s traditionally a shameful thing for children to be said to resemble their mother’s features. In the West, it’s a celebrated thing that all of my children look more like my wife – she is by far the prettier one in this relationship! But here in Central Asia, it’s kind of awkward for more traditional locals (who still point it out for some reason) and I find myself having to attempt to rescue them from the shameful situation their comment just created, “Look! They really did get my ears, Eh?!” While thinking to myself, Why are you publicly questioning my virility? How is that not weird?

Worse still, the presence of patrogenesis presents the possibility of heresy for the new believing community here. “Congratulations, a new believer has been born!” was how one believing friend greeted the birth of our third-born, much to our horror. The cultural logic makes sense. Dad is a believer, so newborn is a believer. The problem is this cultural belief is radically anti-gospel, the kind of dangerous assumption that means the gospel can be lost in one generation as the parents come to faith and the children are merely assumed to be believers by nature of their father’s blood. It has already happened to communities of Christians present in the Middle East from ancient times as well as those converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 1800s. Most of them have become new ethnic people groups, and the gospel emphasis on the new birth has been lost. This is where the tragic term, CBB (Christian background believer), came from.

Some cultural beliefs are not wrong, just different (as every culture-shocking new missionary constantly repeats to himself). Patrogenesis is not one of them. It’s not only scientifically wrong, it’s also morally wrong, denying women their equal dignity as co-contributors to the biology of their offspring. Patrogenesis relegates them to the status of a mere carrier and denies them equal parental rights. It’s an affront to the image of God that equally resides in every woman and to the wonder of the created female body. Frankly, it is an idea that requires the oft-overlooked contextualization category called rejection. Good contextualization means recognizing that part of the culture is downright evil, and needs to be discarded as soon as possible. Discarded – yet replaced with a better theology of the image of God and the wonder of two people conceiving spiritual-physical beings that have a real beginning in time, but who also live forever.

It’s these kinds of landmines that propel us ever onward in our attempt to learn the cultures of our lost friends. These sorts of underlying assumptions can go unknown and unchallenged for years, even when Muslims have believing friends who are sharing the gospel faithfully with them. Though it takes time, getting into these areas of worldview and belief is essential because they touch core issues of identity, how a certain enculturated person answers the crucial “Who am I?” question. And last I checked, a biblical understanding of identity has something to do with genuine faith.

These are the kinds of issues that run through my mind when believing Western friends genuinely ask if focusing on learning culture is really that biblical and necessary. “Can’t we just preach the gospel?” Yes, technically you can just preach the gospel. But surely you will be a more skillful and effective preacher if you dig deep into what your audience actually believes about life, birth, and death – rather than assuming they share your assumptions about these things. As those called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that also means attacking those worldview beliefs that radically disagree with the word of God. And that means tearing down anti-gospel strongholds like the belief in patrogenesis.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

An Unexpected Calling

I never wanted to work among Muslims. Having grown up in Melanesia, I had always assumed that if God called me to be a missionary, I would work with tribal animists. That would seem to make the most sense. Then, when I was an eighth grader on furlough in the US, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 took place. Living in the Northeast at the time, my school was directly affected by the attacks as a few students’ parents commuted to Manhattan for work every day. This and the ensuing War on Terror were my only real exposure to Islam. I knew that there were many Melanesian tribes asking for missionaries to come and live among them. And I knew that most Muslim countries were busy kicking missionaries out. Deep down, I think I didn’t want to work with Muslims because of these negative impressions. Why would anyone want to work with those who don’t want them to come? I wondered.

I have now been doing Muslim ministry for about thirteen years. So what changed? In brief, Muslims became real people to me, I became passionate about the overwhelming need, and God told me to go.

My first Muslim friend was a Somali refugee in Minneapolis named Uncle Abdi. I had volunteered for an English tutoring program where students would come a few times a week and help Somali refugees with basic English. It was in this context, sipping clove-heavy Somali chai and celebrating with students the fact that the English word finger is actually pronounced fingar in Somali (An easy one! Fingarrr!), that I came to really care about these dear people. They were very devout in their Islam, probably the most devout group of Muslims I’ve ever encountered. They were fiercely defensive of Islam and critical of Christianity. They had seen some terrible things happen in their homeland. They had interesting habits like dyeing their hair red with henna to show they had gone on hajj, or pilgrimage. They struggled, as I did, to adjust to the realities of the Minneapolis winter. We were a long way from the Somali desert and the warm Melanesian valleys. So we shivered together and became friends. And for the first time, Muslims were not some intimidating category. They were real people.

Around this time I began to also learn about the dire need for Christians to share the gospel with Muslims and to plant churches among them. I remember hearing that in 2006 there was only one missionary for every one million Muslims in the world, that the majority of those living in poverty worldwide were Muslims, and that the Muslim world had historically been one of the hardest and most neglected places for church planting. I heard of one Bedouin group who had only received two missionaries. One had died and the other had converted to Islam. I wrestled with a Somali camel herder’s quote, “If you can put your church on the back of my camel, then I will believe Christianity is for us.” I scrolled through the Joshua Project’s list of least-reached people groups. The vast majority? Muslim. What was to be done so that Jesus would get the glory he is due among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims? I sat under John Piper’s preaching, coming alive to the glory of God and the joy of the nations. A passion in my soul was growing.

Finally, while listening to a presentation about about the state of the church in a certain Middle Eastern country, I felt an unmistakable “Go” from the Holy Spirit. Not sure what that meant since I was only part-way through my freshman year, I reached out to the speaker’s organization and was surprisingly accepted for a gap year in the Middle East.

The ways that God calls his people to serve as cross-cultural missionaries are as diverse and varied as the missionaries themselves are. For some, it’s simple biblical logic that compels them. “Jesus commanded us to go, did he not?” For others, a particular moment of spiritual clarity, hearing the leading of the Spirit. For others, they join in their spouse’s calling, as my dad did. In church history, many were called through dreams. I find it strange that many of us tend to assume most others were initially called to missions in the same way we were.

For me, God called me to work with Muslims through Muslim friends like uncle Abdi the Somali, through a growing passion for the great need, and through a moment of unusual spiritual force and clarity. Go to the Muslims. That call continues to be confirmed every time I’m sitting down with a Muslim friend, drinking chai, and sharing about Jesus. There is a particular joy, freedom, and empowering that I experience in that kind of setting that has come to be my personal definition of calling. Eric Liddell said, “When I run, I feel his pleasure.” Well, I keenly feel his pleasure walking through passages of the Word with Muslims for the very first time, watching as the Spirit gives them spiritual eyes to see the beauty of Christ and how it is so much better than works-based religion. What is the kind of ministry or service in which you feel the greatest freedom, joy, and empowering of the Spirit? It may be that that’s where you’re supposed to focus in serving the Church.

It’s good for me to recall these things in this season of plodding ministry. The call to prayer is blaring outside my windows. My heart is tired from friends leaving and the good but heavy costs of team leadership. We have not seen all that we had hoped to in these thirteen years. And yet it’s good to be reminded again of how this all came about. An unexpected calling, yes. But a good one, the one the Lord knew that I needed. I would never have thought that the coffee gardens and mountains of Melanesia (plus the arctic winter of Minneapolis) would have prepared me to be working in Central Asia. But here I am. And here I hope to be for a good many decades.

Photo by K15 Photos on Unsplash

The Scale Versus the Sacrifice

Today a painter friend is doing some touch up work in our house. Leaking water and life with three kids has left their mark on our white on plaster walls. I found out that he hadn’t eaten breakfast before he came, so my wonderfully hospitable wife set us up in the courtyard with some fresh chai, hot bread, walnuts, honey, tahini, cream cheese, and fried eggs. “Your wife is just like a local!” my painter friend proclaimed. Moments like this this missionary husband’s heart glows warm with pride. She has also surpassed me in her knowledge of the local language. Not bad for a homeschooling mom of three! A wife of noble character I have found.

Over breakfast my painter friend asked me if I have read the Qur’an. I shared with him that I have read most of it and am working through a good English translation to finally finish it (I highly recommend The Qur’an by A.J. Droge – so much more readable with lots of helpful footnotes). I was able to share with him the importance of reading the primary sources for ourselves and not just trusting what experts say. Most locals will not even read a translation of the Qur’an for themselves, cannot read the Arabic original, and simply trust that what they’re hearing from their local teachers and the internet apologists is accurate.

“Sometime I will introduce you to my mullah friend,” the painter said. “He is brilliant and can explain everything to you. I’m not a smart book person, just a practicing Muslim.”

I responded, “But every religion and religion and philosophy has brilliant scholars. And they don’t agree with one another! We can’t trust only in what the smart people say. We need to humbly read these books for ourselves and search for the truth.”

Walking inside, my friend stopped at our bookcase to take a look at my Bibles and my Qur’an. He has read some verses from the Bible in his language in the past, thanks to the faithful witness my colleagues. But I also hope to later have the chance to help him download the new audio bible that has been made available in his language on the YouVersion Bible app. So many of our local friends struggle to read books, being functionally but not truly literate in their preferences and ability. Audio can be a real help for the functionally literate like my Central Asia painter friend or my working class relatives in the US. I love audio learning as well, perhaps a side effect of growing up in primarily oral cultures.

Talking about the written sources led to the opportunity to clarify a crucial difference between the Qur’an and the Bible – the way of salvation. I tried to use a sentence that I learned from the Qur’an to summarize its philosophy, “Good deeds take away bad deeds” (Sura 11:114 Hūd). But for some reason my friend wasn’t quite understanding my meaning. So I switched to the image of the scale. Here he nodded with understanding. “That’s right, Islam teaches that there is a scale that weighs your good deeds and your bad deeds.” If the bad outweigh the good, most likely you’ll go to paradise (after a possible time in purgatory). With this image of the scale in mind, we then shifted to talking about how the way of salvation in the Bible is through faith in God’s sacrifice. This was foreshadowed by all of the Old Testament animal sacrifices and fulfilled through Jesus’ death as a substitute on the cross. Instead of being saved by our deeds, we are saved by faith alone in the sacrifice of Jesus. All our sins can be forgiven, pardoned by God if we will trust alone in the blood of his provided sacrifice.

“You can see this difference and understand this, right?” I asked.

“Yes, I can see that they are very different,” my friend responded.

This alone is a small victory. So many of my local friends stubbornly insist that the Bible and the Qur’an have the same message, even after we’ve spent an hour explaining their contradictory messages. My friend ended our conversation by encouraging me to read the Qur’an several more times. He told me that he knows the day of judgment is coming and he’s concerned about me and my family being safe on that day. So he’s not exactly ready to give his life to Jesus. But I do hope that another chance to hear the gospel contrasted with what he is currently trusting in will eventually have its effect. Put another pebble in his shoe, I told myself.

Once again I’m grateful for the contrasting images of the scale and the sacrifice. They consistently help to paint the contrast between true Christianity and Islam (and all works-based religion) in a vibrant yet simple way. My local friends currently treat the scale as a simple, matter-of-fact way that God runs the universe. My hope is that someday they will come to view the scales of God’s justice as a terrifying thing, something that only offers condemnation and death – and that they will on that day remember Jesus and flee to the sacrifice.

Photo by Flavio Gasperini on Unsplash

An Analogy for Sin that Hits Home

Our Muslim friends do not feel the weight of the word sin when we use it. There’s a reason for this. Islam has a different definition for sin, one more akin to mistake, flaw, or excusable offense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had local friends shrug off the concept of sin. “Of course we sin, we’re all humans after all. God understands! He made us like this and he’s full of mercy.” Missing is the deeper understanding of depravity. We are not just good beings that make mistakes. We actually have evil natures and without Jesus we commit evil continually from those natures. Sin has mercilessly infected every part of our lives. And this sinfulness has rendered us eternally incompatible with a holy God. Whereas the Bible presents sin as a disaster of eternal proportions, my local friends talk like it is something that can be remedied by a quick trip to the pharmacy.

We have found that while the concept of sin is shrugged off, the concepts of shame and uncleanness are felt keenly. Thus, these are good avenues to start with when explaining the biblical idea of sin. Sin not only makes us guilty, but it also makes us ashamed (Gen 3:10) and unclean (Is 6:5) before a just, honorable, and pure God. Leveraging these categories that already exist for fallenness can help us as we work to build new biblical categories that are absent or undeveloped in the local worldview. Someday our local friends will feel the sinfulness of sin after their minds and affections have been renewed by biblical truth. But it might take years. But they already feel the concept of shame deeply. And they feel uncleanness.

We should chew on how we can take this into account, how we can take a multi-faceted approach when explaining the biblical concept of sin to our Muslim friends. At the very least, we can use the biblical words for fallenness in clusters. We can regularly speak of sin and shame or of sin, shame, and uncleanness. By clustering these words like this, not only are we presenting a more holistic understanding of fallenness, we’re also sharing in a way that is more likely to pierce the heart. “What’s that? Jesus also cares about my secret shame? My constant uncleanness? That’s what separates me from God? This is not as easy to brush off as I thought it would be.”

I once did a home-stay with a Muslim immigrant family in the US. They were pretty moderate in their faith overall. But one day the teenage daughter brought home some takeout given to her by a friend. She didn’t know what the meat was and innocently put it in the fridge. Her mom later discovered the leftovers and was raving about how good they were. Then she looked at the receipt. It was pork. Immediately, the color drained from her face, she started muttering prayers of contrition, and she started trying to make herself throw up. She had become unwittingly unclean and that prospect left her terrified. She pleaded again and again for God to forgive her. This immigrant mother would debate for hours that humans are basically good, and yet she was very much alive to the concept of spiritual uncleanness.

Because of these things, I’ve come to start using an analogy on sin and uncleanness that I learned from a coworker. I like it in particular because it illustrates biblical truth in categories my local friends can understand. It meets them where they are at. The analogy is a simple one designed to help in conversations where Muslims are struggling to understand why sin is such a big deal. It goes like this: Imagine a delicious pot of rice, rich, steaming, seasoned, and ready to eat. Now imagine that one tiny piece of pork is mixed into that pot. What has happened to that rice? By nature of the tiny piece of pork, all the rice has become utterly unclean, or haram in Arabic. (Good Muslims should vehemently agree on this point. Islam abominates pork as the filthiest of foods). In an analogous way, one small sin pollutes and corrupts our entire nature, making us totally unclean and unworthy to be in the presence of a pure and holy God.

I’ve been able to try out this analogy with some of my local friends and so far have found it readily understood. Then from there, it’s just one step to telling the story of Jesus healing the unclean leper from Matthew chapter 8. Jesus touches the unclean and instead of himself becoming unclean, he makes the leper clean! Each of us needs him to do that for us also, to touch us and to purify us as only he can. This paints a stark contrast with the teaching of Islam. It means we are cursed with uncleanness and in need of a miracle to become spiritually pure. No more weak attempts to do ritual washings five times a day. We need something infinitely more powerful and permanent than that. Something that only Jesus can accomplish. If we will come to him in faith and repentance, he will kindly reach his hand and touch us. He will once again say, “I am willing. Be clean.”

p.s. We would of course later deal with the fact that pork is no longer actually unclean. Bacon is now back on the menu, if a believer so desires. But to temporarily use pork as a step toward understanding spiritual uncleanness is not necessarily to give credence to Islam. It is rather to do exactly what the food laws in the Old Testament did.

Photo by Pixzolo Photography on Unsplash

But Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed?

“But the Bible has been changed.”

It doesn’t take very long for someone sharing their Christian faith with Muslims to hear this response. And if you continue sharing your faith with Muslims, you never stop hearing it. The concept that the Bible has been corrupted and changed is so deeply ingrained in the Islamic mind that it seems like common sense to the 1.2 billion Muslims of the world. For those who have grown up in a Muslim family, they have likely never heard anyone challenge this claim, so it is simply accepted as established truth. It is one of the most common and earliest objections to the gospel. Even if someone has never thought deeply about this question, it will certainly come out when they are in conversation with a Christian friend.

We’ve noticed among our friends a curious pattern with these kinds of common objections, such as the corruption of the Bible and Jesus not being the Son of God. Early on, these same objections always come out, almost on autopilot. It’s what they’ve been trained to say by their upbringing. Then later, if someone is close to coming to faith in Jesus, the same objections come out again, but this time with a different tone. In the beginning it was someone simply parroting an objection they thought would be unanswerable. Later on, they’re looking for deeper answers, looking for reassurance, and looking to see if they themselves will be able to have an answer when their friends and family hit them with the same responses. It’s therefore helpful to have a solid initial response and deeper answers that can be dealt with later on. I’d recommend avoiding getting bogged down arguing about this topic in the beginning.

My go-to initial response is to appeal to the character of God and the character of his word. In response to my friend’s statement that the Bible has been changed, I will assert that the Bible is the word of God. Instead of Bible I’ll use the terms Tawrat (Torah-Writings), Zabur (Psalms), and Injil (New Testament) – these are the parts of the Bible that Muslims have heard of. There is usually a statement of agreement from my friend when I make this point that these three “books” are the word of God. Islam does not contest this (and good Muslims shouldn’t either). But then I will share that the Tawrat, Zabur, and Injil all contain promises that God’s word will remain fixed forever. These are promises like Psalm 119:89, Isaiah 40:8, 1st Peter 1:24-25. I will often share Isaiah 40:8 in the local language, The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever. Then I simply appeal to God’s character.

“God has made promises that his word remains forever. He keeps his promises. God is strong enough to protect his word from being lost through man’s tampering. Do you really believe that man is stronger than God? That some puny group of Christians or Jews were stronger than God and able to change his eternal word? We should not believe that about our great God. Do you actually believe that or do you believe like me that God was strong enough to protect his word in history?”

This response, of course, is no silver bullet. Some squirm and make up hypotheticals about the real Bible being hidden in Yemen or somewhere, claiming that the Bible that we have is corrupted. But it’s the rare Muslim who is eager to admit that man was stronger than God and therefore able to change his word. Many will say that the quality of the inspiration of the Bible was less than the Qur’an, therefore God had to send a final revelation that could not be changed. But because the original Bible is affirmed as the word of God by Islam it’s a logical mess any way you look at it. There’s often power in just letting the question sit: You really think that man was stronger than God? Wow.

Some, never having faced this information and question before, will accept it as a good response and move on to other questions and objections. When this happens, it’s a win. The rabbit-hole of tit-for-tat arguments has been avoided on this difficult topic. And how? By an appeal to the character of God and to his word. If the argument can be sidestepped so that someone is willing to study the Bible with you and thereby let it defend itself, then that is ideal. The word of God is its own best defense. We should be ready with solid arguments, but we should leverage them cautiously as it’s not usually the intellectual and logical disagreements that are the main barriers for Muslims coming to faith. There will be a minority for whom a more detailed apologetics conversation needs to take place. An even smaller minority of those will actually hear the detailed arguments presented and consider them. These people do exist – and sometimes they go on to become a Nabeel Qureshi, the late author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. But most of my friends need help to simply get past these objections so that we can focus on the gospel message in the text of scripture and displayed in the lives of believers.

There are many other possible answers to this topic. Some of my colleagues like to put forward a series of questions. “Who, What, Where, Why, How was the Bible changed?” Challenging locals to find answers to these questions can lead them to the awkward place of realizing their teachers don’t have any. There is also the fact that the Qur’an itself commends the Bible as a book to be believed and followed. And the Qur’an never says that the Bible has been changed. All that’s there is an obscure reference to Jews twisting some spoken words. Earliest Islam simply did not teach that the Bible has been changed, but that the message of the Bible was in agreement with the Qur’an, albeit misunderstood by its followers. It was only later, when the differences were understood to be as stark as they actually are, that the whole doctrine of the corruption of the Bible came into play. The Jews and Christians twisted the meaning of the words evolved into the Jews and Christians changed the actual words. Today the latter is the almost-universal belief of Muslims.

Finally, there is the amazing manuscript evidence for the New Testament that can be appealed to. The evidence for the reliability of the Bible is stunning – over 5,600 Greek NT manuscripts with 99.5% copying accuracy between them. And yet in my experience I have found digging into these details, as encouraging as they are for me, seem to have very mixed results among my Muslims friends. Many of my local friends don’t use logic in the same way I do. They rely instead on trusted authority, even when it goes against logic and evidence. They also have the honor of their heritage to defend and will shift arguments as needed. Be prepared to hear strange claims about The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Barnabas and maybe the Illuminati.

It’s a subtle trap, getting stuck arguing about the history of the Bible such that you never get to the message of the gospel itself. My counsel would be to simply appeal to the character of God, to ask good questions that your Muslim friends have never heard before, and then to get them in the actual Bible as soon as possible. Studying the Bible with a believer is the best way for Muslims to overcome the inherited belief that the scriptures have been corrupted.

Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89 ESV)

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103 ESV)

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A Snapshot of the Identity Crisis Within Islam

Can Islam be true Islam without a Caliphate? That is the question that has been simmering within the Islamic mind for one hundred years. The final Ottoman caliph was deposed during secular reforms after World War I. Ever since then there has been no caliphate, Islam’s equivalent of theocratic empire.

For a parallel Christians might be more familiar with, consider the similar question that Judaism faced after the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem temples. How can the faith live on when so much of it assumed the existence of a particular structure? With that structure gone, can the faith reinvent itself and reinterpret commands that seem impossible without that sacred structure?

After the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC, Judaism was able to eventually return from exile and rebuild. Yet it changed nonetheless, developing the synagogue system and coming to a deeper understanding of the kingdom of God as a universal one. God’s throne is revealed in the exile prophets as being a wheeled chariot. It is not limited to one locale. These changes laid the groundwork for much of Jesus’ and the apostles teaching about the true nature of the kingdom of God in this age.

But the Jews were unable to rebuild the second temple after its destruction in AD 70. This destruction at the hands of the Romans forced massive changes in Judaism leading to the disappearance of the Sadducees and the survival of Judaism through the Pharisees at the Jamnia school. Blood sacrifices were reinterpreted so that good works were now counted as equivalent. Rabbinic Judaism developed in new directions. Judaism survived, but even to this day Jews and Christians who study the Torah can feel the tensions introduced by the fact that the temple system is no more.

For traditional Islam, the caliphate is a divinely-ordained structure, a cornerstone of the world as it should be. The Islamic community is supposed to be led by a political and spiritual leader like Muhammad, Abu Bakr, or Uthman. Even though the history of the caliphate is a very mixed bag, its abolition is viewed by some as one of the greatest tragedies to ever happen to the Islamic community, a fall/curse motif of sorts. While the vast majority of Muslims have embarked on a process of making Islam compatible with the modern world system – nation-states, dictatorships, democracy, human rights, etc. – a minority of Muslims seeks to reestablish the caliphate system. This minority interprets Islam’s primary sources such that spiritual Islam goes hand-in-hand with a political system. They believe you can’t have true Islam without a caliph and a caliphate. They point out, rightly, that this is assumed by the original sources. The Qur’an and Hadith do not advocate for a City of Man vs. City of God intertwined worldview, but rather for the here and now to become the City of God, by the sword if necessary. The borders are supposed to be physical and clear. There is the house and Islam where the caliph rules, then there is the house of war. That’s it.

This minority seeks to implement what ISIS called the “prophetic methodology.” This means moving away from the majority view that advocates for a personal faith in Islam, expressed in the community of the mosque and in nation-states which have blended Western law codes with Shari’a. The minority views this kind of blending as an adulteration of true Islam. How do groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS get their philosophical attraction? They appeal to this tension within the Islamic mind. Can Islam be true Islam without a caliphate? Can jihad really be redefined to only mean spiritual war with oneself and good deeds toward others? Can Shari’a really be faithfully blended with law codes developed by those (like the English and the French) whose traditional religion ascribes partners to Allah?

You can see how the divisions come about. It’s as if a group of disgruntled Jamnia rabbinic students begin to meet secretly, disagreeing with their teachers’ positions that blood sacrifices can all of the sudden be reinterpreted as good works, now that the gentiles have destroyed the temple. That’s not what the text says! they might say, shaking their heads. From there it’s not very long until an armed group is formed and ready to attempt an attack against the Romans. They will spill their blood in hopes that the temple can be rebuilt. They believe faithfulness depends on it.

It’s important to note very clearly that the vast majority of Muslims are compatibilists, that is, they live and believe in the blending of Islam with the modern world. These Muslims are not working for a restoration of the caliphate. And yet we should not be surprised when secret or militant groups form around the ideology of restoring the caliphate. It is a tension not yet resolved within the mind of Islam, despite what a liberal mullah in a Western city might tell you. The tension is real and it’s presence makes sense given the sources and history.

Our contemporary age is witnessing this identity crisis within Islam play out, especially from the 1970’s to the present. Most of our Muslim friends will be far too practical to go down this road, but those ISIS propaganda videos still may strike a chord in their hearts. Practically, we need to support the moderates. A rigid return to the “prophetic ideology” is bad news for all, as the world saw in Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. If Islamic interpretation can cement the compatabilist view as the dominant one, that is overall good for the world. Though I don’t myself know if its foundation is solid enough to be victorious. It’s main problem is a serious one – a straightforward reading of the primary sources.

But as Christians we should also learn to speak the gospel into this tension, calling our Muslim friends to a better kingdom, one which exists parallel to the kingdoms of this world and does not call for a theocratic empire run by a fallen mortal. Here instead is a spiritual kingdom that adopts its rebels, gives them new hearts and new names, and outlasts all of the temporary and flawed kingdoms of this world. All the while it seeds these transient systems with communities of eternal life and eternal truth – cities within cities as others have described it. Some Muslims longing for a caliphate will find themselves drawn by the Spirit to a surprising answer.

The Empire of God is coming in all its fullness, therefore, now is not the time for jihad. Now is the time for giving ourselves sacrificially to our enemies. It is the age of mercy and free pardon for all who will repent and align with the embassies of this coming kingdom. Our Muslim friends are right to long for a better ruler and they are right that Jesus is returning, yet they need to know that he is returning not as a mere prophet and warner, but as the true and divine king. The answer to the deep longings for a perfect leader ruling a perfect government will not be found in a new caliph. It can only be found in Jesus Christ.

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

The Core of the Qur’anic Worldview

At the center of the Qur’an’s view of reality are three concepts: The oneness of God, the day of judgement, and prophethood. I had this pointed out to me at a training about five years ago (my thanks, Scott, if you ever read this) and have since tested this framework with the Qur’an itself and with my Muslim friends. It is definitely built into the logic of the Qur’an and also functions as a self-evident truth in the minds of many Muslims that I have known.

The oneness of God (tawhid) means that there is only one God who is supreme over all others beings. Islam emerged at a time when most Arabs were polytheistic and worshiped many gods. The holiest shrine of the Arabs, the Kaaba, is said to have contained over three hundred idols. Muhammad focused on attacking polytheism with this doctrine of the oneness of God. In the process he also used it to attack the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, though there is much evidence that the Qur’an itself is ignorant of what most Christians actually believed (and believe) about the Trinity, since it focuses its rhetoric against the idea that Christians worship three gods: God, Jesus, and Mary. The Qur’an teaches an absolute and simple unity of God. There is one God and any attempt to ascribe partners or distinctions of personhood within God are the worst kind of blasphemy, known as shirk.

The second element of the Qur’anic worldview is the day of judgement. While the Qur’an doesn’t teach that humanity is fallen in the Christian understanding of having a sinful nature, nevertheless, most of humanity is understood to be ignorant and unbelieving. Because humanity has so often turned to idolatry and away from the worship of the one God, they are in danger of being condemned at the final day of judgment. The day of judgment is understood to be a straightforward day of reckoning where God weighs a person’s good deeds and their bad deeds. If the scale is heavier on the side of the good, then that person will go to gardens of paradise. If the bad is the heavier side, then that person will begin suffering right away in fiery torment. The day of judgment is taught to be inevitable, bearing down upon humanity and previewed in history by many destroyed cities and civilizations that were left in ruins because they refused to turn from their idolatry.

However, because the Qur’an teaches that humanity is morally free and able to do righteous deeds which merit eternal life, God sends prophets to call societies back to belief in the oneness of God and the day of judgment. This is where prophethood, the third aspect of the Qur’anic worldview, fits in. The Qur’an teaches that prophethood is a pattern of history that plays itself out repeatedly. A society turns away from God to idolatry and scoffs at the day of judgment. God sends that society a prophet from among them, often with his own book of God’s revelation. That society either repents and returns to the worship of one God and the proper fear of the day of judgment (with accompanying good deeds) or they continue to scoff and God utterly destroys them. This pattern is said to have repeated itself countless times before the emergence of Muhammad among the Arabs.

As the creation, fall, redemption, restoration pattern sets the big plot line for the Bible and shows itself in many smaller, foreshadowing narratives, so the cyclical pattern of Tawhid, judgment, and prophethood play a similar role in the Qur’an. Muhammad is cast as the seal of the prophets, meaning that he is the final messenger who brings this pattern to its final global manifestation. Muhammad is calling the Arabs, and through them the whole world, away from idolatry and to faith in one God and the day of judgment. The regional prophets of earlier times are understood to have been superseded by the global prophet with the final book of God’s revelation.

To tell a Muslim the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration is to tell them a new kind of story foreign to Islam, even though they themselves end up echoing this story in other ways. The primary narrative of salvation history painted by the Qur’an is much simpler than the Bible’s. According to the Qur’an, humanity’s need is not salvation, but teaching and warning – teaching about the oneness of God, warning about the coming judgment. As long as someone submits themselves to that basic theology as mediated by Muhammad and the Qur’an, Islam gives them a pretty good chance of being able to earn eternal life.

Many of my Central Asian friends believe that Islam and Christianity basically teach the same thing. It’s all we can do to eventually convince them of the mutually exclusive narratives at the heart of both religions. They believe that all the Abrahamic religions hold to this same simple narrative – because the Qur’an teaches that this agreement exists. So using Tawhid, judgment, and prophethood and explicitly pointing out the differences between that metanarrative and the Bible’s can be a helpful path to take when laboring to demonstrate how the message of the Bible is actually very different from that of the Qur’an.

It also helps to explain the shocking differences Muslims find if they actually read the Old Testament. Many prophets who are held up as simple yet exemplary warners in the Qur’an, men like Lot, Noah, and Abraham, prove to be quite complicated, flawed, and sinful in the book of Genesis. Prophets are understood in the Qur’an to be the holiest of humans, essentially sinless in their mission of proclaiming repentance and submission. In the Scriptures, Muslims find out that prophets deserve hell, just like everyone else, and must be saved by God’s sacrifice alone.

Initially that lands as very bad news. But when Muslims have a good Christian friend who can explain and model the grace of God for them, then it can become the very best news of all.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Religions of Men As a Three-Legged Stool

Last week I wrote about learning culture in order to illustrate the truth of God’s word. When it comes to the risky area of illustrating with, or building bridges with, Islam, we should affirm that some bridges do exist in Islamic theology, history, and culture that can help Muslims understand Christian concepts that Islam itself rejects. J. Nelson Jennings proposes that Christians should view other religions as being like a three-legged stool:

“the three legs represent sin, Satan, and searching… one must not view Islam as simply sinful and Satanic. Similarly, one must not view Islam simply as Muslims searching for (and perhaps adhering to) the truth. Islam, like all religious traditions, evidences morally sinful, deceptively Satanic, and genuinely searching (and true) aspects.”

I find this metaphor to be very well-balanced (pun intended). We need to acknowledge the reality that so many Muslims are sincere in their error, zealous for the law as it were, alongside the fact that Islam itself is a Satanic system of deception which empowers the sinful nature. This doesn’t open the door at all to Islam being a way of salvation, but still acknowledges that many Muslims are indeed searching for truth – no surprise given that Islam has inherited so much Judeo-Christian content, albeit by co-opting it for its own narrative.

It is with the aspect of Islam which is genuinely searching that bridges can prove to be helpful, rather than harmful. In building bridges, one seeks to illustrate the truthfulness of a doctrine by demonstrating that the hearer already adheres to an analogous or similar belief to that which they are currently rejecting. Put another way, building bridges is an attempt to seek those truth categories that already exist in a religion or a person’s mind and to link those categories with biblical content in order to show that biblical content’s truthfulness, goodness, and beauty. It is category renovation rather than category creation, an attempt at moving from shadow to substance.


Source Material:

Jennings, “The Deity of Christ for Missions, World Religions, and Pluralism,” p. 270.

Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Doesn’t the Title “Son of Man” Emphasize that Jesus is Not Divine?

Sometimes Muslims will seize on Jesus’ favorite title for himself, Son of Man, as evidence that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God or that he didn’t claim to be divine. There is a passage where Jesus uses the title, Son of God, for himself. But here we’ll deal with the claim directly – Does Jesus’ usage of Son of Man mean that he is emphasizing his mere humanity? At first glance, it would indeed seem that this title is emphasizing humanity. Perhaps Jesus knew that people would naturally ascribe divinity to him, given his many miracles, and he wanted to guard against this? However, as with so many other questions, a better answer comes from reading the passage in question in the context of the whole Bible.

Jesus isn’t the only one who is the recipient of the title, Son of Man. Many of you reading this know where I’m going, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world have never heard of the book of Daniel, much less the vision of the Son of Man contained in chapter seven. Here is that vision from Daniel 7:13-14.

     “I saw in the night visions,
             and behold, with the clouds of heaven
                        there came one like a son of man,
            and he came to the Ancient of Days
                        and was presented before him.
            And to him was given dominion
                        and glory and a kingdom,
            that all peoples, nations, and languages
                        should serve him;
            his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
                        which shall not pass away,
            and his kingdom one
                        that shall not be destroyed. (ESV)

In this passage, this Son of Man figure is pictured coming on the clouds of heaven. This is not merely a note about the mode of this person’s arrival. This is theophany language, phraseology used to describe when God reveals himself. Only YHWH is pictured coming on the clouds in the Old Testament. If the clouds in Daniel 7 are not meant to imply divinity, then, according to the scholar Peter Gentry, this would be the only time in about seventy Old Testament occurrences.

This Son of Man comes to the throne of the Ancient of Days, apparently possessing the kind of standing and glory necessary to approach the throne of God himself. Then he is given dominion and universal service (another translation could render this term as worship) and an everlasting kingdom. These two things, universal service/worship, and an everlasting kingdom, belong to God alone, as every faithful Old Testament believer would attest. But in this passage, the Son of Man is given both. Furthermore, he is mysteriously presented as distinct from the Ancient of Days, yet also possessing the unique attributes of the Ancient of Days. Sounds a lot like and the word was with God, and the word was God. Somehow distinct, yet somehow the same. The Son of Man is clearly presented here as mysteriously divine.

But how do we know that Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7 when he uses the title, Son of Man, for himself? Couldn’t he be using it to say he’s not God, as is the usage in Numbers 23:19? Maybe it’s just royal language like is used in Psalm 8:4? Or maybe Jesus has a particular affinity for the prophet Ezekiel, who is called Son of Man more than ninety times in his book? I actually find the linkage to the Psalm 8:4 and and Ezekiel helpful, though they are not usually mentioned in talking about the background to Jesus’ usage of this title. Apparently, the title Son of Man has Davidic-Messianic meaning as well as context informed by Ezekiel, the prophet who suffers in exile on behalf of his people. Very appropriate for the Messiah-King-Prophet who would suffer exile from God for the sake of his people.

But Jesus himself lets us know which passage he has in mind as the primary lens through which we are to view the meaning of Son of Man.

Matthew 26:63–65

[63] But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” [64] Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” [65] Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. (ESV)

Apparently the high priest understood Jesus’ allusion to Daniel 7 all too well. We also are to understand Jesus’ choice of the title, Son of Man, primarily through the figure of Daniel 7. This means that the title Son of Man is Jesus claiming to be divine every single time he uses it. And the gospels are absolutely saturated with his usage of this term.

Far from being a title that proves Jesus didn’t claim divinity, Son of Man is instead a radical self-claim by Jesus that he is with God, and that he is God, that he has received an eternal kingdom and is worthy of universal service and worship. So, if you ever encounter the objection that Son of Man is emphasizing Jesus’ mere humanity, take your friend to Daniel 7 and Matthew 26 and draw the connections. They are mysterious, yes, but they are clear.

Source Material:

Hamilton, Jim, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology

Photo by Michael Weidner on Unsplash

Can the Name of Allah Be Used for the Christian God?

Short answer: It depends.

Long answer:

First, some historical background. There were Arab Christians before the emergence of Islam that used Allah to refer to the Christian God. These were Arab tribes such as the Lakhmids, the Banu Taghlib, and the Ghassanids who lived on the borders of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. In fact, one of the oldest sources of written Arabic is a monastery inscription written by Hind, mother of the Lakhmid king, Amr, which reads “This church was built by Hind, mother of King Amr and servant of Christ… May the God for whom she built this church forgiver her sins and have mercy on her son.” Arabic Christians have continued throughout history to use the name Allah to refer to the God of the Bible to the present day. The name Allah is linguistically related to the Aramaic name for God, Alaha, and more importantly, to the Hebrew name, El. So in terms of history and etymology, Allah has a strong case. It has been conveying the meaning of the God of Bible’s identity for at least 1,500 years among Arabic-speaking Christians. Its sister languages have been similarly using its cognates for even longer than that.

But what about Islam? What happens when a rival religion emerges and hijacks the name for God the Christians have been using, filling it with unbiblical meaning? The god the Qur’an describes is vastly different from the God the Bible describes. The god of the Qur’an is a simple unity who is transcendent, but not imminent. The God of the Bible is a complex unity, a Trinity, who is both transcendent and imminent. The nature of the former means he cannot become a man to die a shameful death on a cross for the atonement of sins. The latter did, as the eternal Son took on flesh and became the man, Jesus Christ. Despite this and many other differences, Arab Christians throughout history, including our evangelical brothers and sisters, have held onto the name Allah for God. They are the linguistic insiders, the ones best qualified to know whether the biblical meaning of God can still be communicated by the form, Allah. English speakers should defer to native Arabic speakers, agreeing that within the Arabic language, Allah can be used to speak of the Christian God.

As English speakers, a little reflection on our own word, God, can be helpful here. In spite of its polytheistic Indo-European and Germanic baggage, the name God has been redeemed and filled for a millennium and a half with biblical meaning. Therefore, our own experience tells us that names of deities with pagan baggage can become faithful linguistic servants of the true revelation. Let’s say Mormonism, with its own unbiblical views of God, overtakes Christianity in the West and becomes the dominant religion. Would we abandon the name, God? Unlikely. We would probably labor for thousands of years to refill the form with its biblical meaning, not unlike what Arab Christians have done.

But…

The name Allah should not be used to refer to the God of the Bible outside of Arabic-speaking communities. There are at least three reasons for this.

The first is that Christian history and missions history have shown that whenever possible, Christians should seek to redeem the indigenous word for the all-powerful creator God that already exists in that language, if one exists. Again, we English speakers live this reality every day when we say God instead of YHWH or El. Why has redeeming the chief divinity’s name been so effective throughout history in hundreds of languages? My theory is that the name for the all-powerful creator god in a given language represents an ancient remnant of early monotheism, diluted sometime after Babel into polytheism, but still there, waiting like a time-bomb for a Christian missionary to come along and connect that name back to its source. He has not left them without a witness to himself (Acts 14:17).

The second reason for not using Allah in other linguistic contexts is that Allah primarily represents/means the god of Islam in those other languages, making it more harmful than not to communicating the biblical God. Languages other than Arabic don’t have the broader range of meanings of Allah that Arabic has, in which Allah continues to be used also as the God of Arabic Christians and Jews. These languages often have another name for the all-powerful creator god in addition to the more narrowly-understood Allah proclaimed among them by Islam. This is true of the Muslim Central Asian people group that we work among and many others. Our focus people group, interestingly enough, has a name for God that is a very distant cousin-cognate to our English term, God. When they use this indigenous name, it carries a broader sense than Allah does, thus giving us more room to build biblical categories. We sense this even in English. When someone speaks of Allah we understand that that person is speaking of the god of Islam in a narrower sense than we use the term God in English. Words really do carry around meaning-baggage with them, and we need to acknowledge it and carefully judge if a name is already so tied to unbiblical meaning as to be not worth the salvage effort. In other languages, Allah is not worth the effort it would take to redeem it, especially when God has preserved an indigenous name for the all-powerful creator god in that language.

That brings me to my third reason to not use Allah to refer to the biblical God in non-Arabic contexts. Islam teaches that in order to please God, you must pray, worship, and live like a 7th century Arab. It teaches that Arabic is the language of heaven and thus holier than all other languages. This means that all those other people groups who are Muslim have been raised to believe that their language is inferior for praying to Allah and that they will only get the spiritual merit they need to gain paradise if they pray in 7th century Arabic. In a real sense, they must become Arabs or they will go to hell. Why have the Persians, the Turks, the Kurds, the Berbers, the Dari, the Pashtun, the Baloch, the Somalis, and so many others blindly accepted this linguistic and cultural colonialism? It is tragic that no one has taught them that gentiles don’t need to become Jews in order to be saved, and therefore, they do not have to become Arabs. Missionaries run the risk of contributing to this Arab-supremacist heresy when we thoughtlessly or “creatively” use Allah among non-Arab people groups. Instead, we should be proclaiming that the true God knows their language and knows their people, that he loves them and desires for them to worship him in their own language as a unique manifestation of his glory – that he will even preserve worship in their language for all eternity (Rev 7:9). These truths are precious and powerful for oppressed people groups in a way that dominant people groups (like English and Arabic speakers) sometimes struggle to understand. Yes, the gospel will call them to transcend their ethno-linguistic identity as members of the race of Christ, but first it will honor their ethno-linguistic identity. In salvation, God will come to them and will speak to them in their mother tongue. So should we.

So, can Christians use the name of Allah to refer to the God of the Bible? It depends. If it’s in Arabic, absolutely. In other languages, let’s avoid it wherever possible.

Arab Christian History Source: Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 92

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