Relating to Muslims: An Adventist view

Essential attitudes, outlooks, and ways of approaching Muslim people.

Robert K. McIver is a senior lecturer in Biblical Studies at Avondale College, Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.

Recent studies of Adventist Muslim Relations have led to the development of a new paradigm or approach in the effort to reach Muslim people. This becomes clear when we contrast two ways Seventh-day Adventists have used as they have related to the Muslim world: the traditional "evangelistic" method and what I would describe as "faith development in context."

The traditional approach to evangelism may present the truth "as it is in Jesus." It may proclaim doctrines in proper perspective. But it carries some baggage that gets in the way of effectively relating to Muslims.

First, traditional approaches begin with the objective of adding to our group. Too much effort is placed on the agenda of numbers rather than showing true love and under standing of the needs of people. Second, while not intentionally stating it, the Muslim is considered as a "heathen" target. While "a target" is necessary and appropriate in project planning, the word carries connotations that are contrary to the spirit of ministry and faith development and are particularly offensive if one is considered a number to reach rather than a person to whom we relate and whom we love. Just as offensive is the word "heathen," which is a hang-over from the time of the Crusades. This is a word that should not be used at all in our proclamation. Our philosophy of mission would do well to eliminate such descriptives as "target," "penetrate," "evangelistic thrust," "spearhead sermons," and "crusade." These carry significantly negative connotations. For example, the term "crusade" to describe our initiatives among Muslims as we preach the good news is as incongruous as titling a sermon, "the good news of ethnic cleansing."

Third, traditional evangelism tries to teach truth cognitively from biblical sources. The Muslim is bound to vigorously defend Islam, and any theological argument on our part can only lead to debate and argument. It is impossible to reach the heart of the Muslim when such a climate persists. Also, teaching only from the Bible carries no weight with Muslims because they regard the Qur'an as the only religious authority and the Bible a corrupted source. Therefore, the traditional "key text" approach from Scripture only invites further debate, rather than conviction of truth.

In addition to these concerns, traditional evangelism carries with it other historic and contemporary baggage: the horrors of the Crusades, colonial domination, and at present, the offensiveness of loose western lifestyles. Muslims cannot justify these as belonging to any true religious tradition. Further, our western way of thinking simply doesn't fit directly into the Muslim setting, particularly when it comes to spiritual matters.

Of course, we still can approach Muslims with confidence because we have clear theological arguments to prove our truth. These arguments are logical, cognitive, and are clear to us and are convincing to people like us with similar background. However, abstract statements of truth or lines of reasoning do not necessarily remain convincing or even understandable in markedly different cultures and religious systems. Also, the battle is never won by the might of theological logic or by the power of human influence. Inevitably, the crucial reality is the work of the Holy Spirit through us as we seek to meet the heart needs of the Muslim.

Even if we succeed in "reaching" Muslims despite the obstacles noted, there is yet another major stumbling block. The traditional evangelistic method asks Muslims to reject their past. It asks them to jettison their heritage, culture, name, and identity and become members of a western-oriented religious system. This is the ultimate insult and shame to the Muslim family, to the community of Islam. Therefore, our attempted integration of the Muslim "convert" into the SDA subculture has, with few exceptions, not gone well. After all, why should all aspects of the Muslim heritage and culture be rejected?

Insistence on carrying these unwanted items of baggage as part of our traditional evangelistic method, has resulted in the few adherents we have won. Often these faithful people are put out of the family and community and in some cases even face the risk of death. Those who survive depend on the church for sustenance. All this often precipitates an end to any further witness to that family or community.

No wonder traditional evangelism is often ineffective.

However, there is another way.

Faith development in context

Notice the sequence in this method of evangelism.

10. The Muslim believer seeking assurance of salvation.

9. Local dress, way of thinking, speaking.

8. Tea fellowship, use local social networks.

7. Praying and caring, through a godly person (the Muslim perception of the who or what is godly).

6. Growth in spiritual trust for protection from evil forces, power for living and forgiveness.

5. Move from Qur'an to Torah, Zaboor, Injil.

4. Atonement explained in contextual shame-honor terms.

3. Local prayer house fellowship, "faith of Abraham," "Hanif."

2. Self-reliance—remain in context, continue to witness.

1. Salvation by faith—last day remnant in context.

In this scenario the first focus is not on us, but on the Muslim as a believer in the Creator God, as one who is seeking salvation; the heart cry of the sincere Muslim. Rather than using western references, we encourage local identity and relationship building approaches. Use local social net works as in point 3. Emphasize building solid relationships around personal interests and spiritual heart concerns. Faith development begins where people are and moves them to an understanding and experience based on a personal relationship with God and the Bible (Torah, Zaboor, Injil). In this we include local, culturally, and Qur'anically familiar ways of explaining biblical truths.

In order for the resultant fellow ship group to remain as a continuing witness, we use an identity that is acceptable to the local situation, and that embodies the idea of being God's remnant. This may vary from "SDAs following the faith of Abraham" to "Followers of the faith of Abraham," to "Hanif."

This way of relating to Muslims follows the advice of Paul: "Everyone should remain as he was when he accepted God's call" (1 Cor. 7:20, TEV). Paul's argument is that the gospel, while transforming one's life by infusing a new spirit and purpose, does not disturb cultural identities or relations which are not contradictory to biblical principle. This way of relating to spiritual matters focuses on faith development within the context of the person's life, the theology of the last days, Adventism as God's remnant, and the proclamation of present truth.

This second contextual method of witness presents an alternative way of looking at Adventist-Muslim relations that has far-reaching implications. It also raises many questions. Thus we need to look at the primary assumptions underlying this method.

God's footprints in every culture

God's footprints are to be found in every culture. God is the God who is ever revealing Himself rather than hiding Himself or selectively favoring some people over others. Jesus is the "light that comes into the world and shines on all mankind" (John 1:9, TEV, emphasis supplied).

We do not bring God to a people. As the Lord of mission He has already prepared the way for a greater under standing of His truth among that people. Therefore, one of the first activities of mission to any people group is to search for evidence of God's activity in the history and current life of a people. This can be found in legends, dreams, supernatural events, people honored as spokespersons for the Divine, link ages to biblical stories, people, or events.

One needs also to look for redemptive analogies that God has preserved in the culture—unique practices, rituals, and concepts, which serve as windows into the spiritual heart of the people. These will serve as culturally central concepts that can be used to communicate biblical truth. One may also find "holy writings," which contain some moral and spiritual truth, and these can be used as beginning points to encourage faith development.

Don Richardson illustrates this principle from a tradition found among the Sawi people in New Guinea. Once he observed a peace making ceremony between two warring groups which involved the transferring of a "peace child," an infant from the arms of its mother to a receiving family in the other tribe. Richardson suddenly realized that here was a powerful redemptive anal ogy through which he could explain Jesus to the people as the child who had been offered to bring peace.1

Similar cultural or religious "windows" exist in Islam. Although use of "holy writings" from other cultures has been a controversial issue in Adventism, experience has substantiated that the use of the Qur'an initially, and subsequently to the effective use of the Bible has resulted in a significant increase in effectiveness in both establishing relationships and continuing with faith development. This technique is illustrated by the following examples:

* Documenting the "line of truth" in the "Eastern people" in Scripture; descendants of the other sons of Abraham, whom God used at various times to either teach the descendants of Isaac or to serve some spiritual function in relation to the line of Isaac, the line of the Messiah. These people were the forefathers of the Arab-Muslim peoples.2

* The concept of the Hanif. An Islamic concept of God's most faithful followers, honors worshipers of the one true God. This honor is applied to Abraham in the Qur'an3 and to certain respected Christians and Muslims in Islamic histories and reference works.4

* Use of the "shame-honor" cultural paradigm to explain God's activity in restoring honor in His universal family after the shame of the rebel lion led by the evil one. This makes much more sense to the Muslim in understanding God's way of solving the sin problem from the great controversy perspective than other traditional "Christian" explanations.

A new look at Islam

Considering these windows leads us to take a new look at Islam. To simply accept the traditional Christian understanding that Islam is the "religion of the sword" and that it is essentially satanic is shoddy scholar ship and needless to say it is not helpful in establishing genuinely helpful relationships. In this arena, secular sources are often more helpful in getting a more accurate picture. For example, Islam was consistently more tolerant in victory than were the Christian forces.5 Despite injustices on both sides, overall, there were more Christians martyred at the hands of the Byzantine and Roman church than at the hands of Islam.6 It is no wonder that in much of the Middle East, the local Christian inhabitants welcomed Islamic rule.

Further, the Qur'an itself is essentially friendly towards "people of the book" (Christians and Jews) who follow carefully the revelation sent to them.7 The primary message of Muhammad is (1) worship the one Creator God and Him alone, no others; and (2) there is a day of accountability, a day of judgment.8 He did not establish Islam as an anti- Christian religion but sought to restore these key truths and to improve the civil order. Muslims were instructed to discern a difference between Christians, respecting those who actually believe in Allah, in the last day, and in the prophets.9

Recapturing the Advent movement motif

This approach to Adventist-Muslim relations requires that we take another look at our mission and ourselves. The Advent movement arose as a fulfillment of prophecy, and has seen itself to be, in the best sense, a movement following the Book. Sabbatarian Adventists look back through history and identify with those groups who have held the truths of Scripture including the seventh-day Sabbath. Initially their vision did not include "regions beyond." But God's providence widened that vision and they began to see themselves as a world wide movement with a specific role in the end of time to call a people to be ready for the coming of Jesus and the day of judgment.

The unique truths of the Sabbath, sanctuary, great controversy, the special emphasis of the three angels of Revelation 14, and of the calling-out message of Revelation 18, defined them and their mission. It is only right that Seventh-day Adventists should focus our ongoing search for truth around these truths so that we can continue to have a consistent identity and basic unity in an increasingly diverse movement. A religious movement, if it stays in one cultural context, develops traditions around which it produces a sense of identity and unity. However, as it moves out into new cultures under the mandate of its very mission, the unifying factors must shift away from too constricting a devotion to policies, organizational structures, and worship forms while it affirms its core beliefs and concepts of truth and the original mission through which it came into being.

The early church of the New Testament faced a choice: to remain only as a Jewish sect or to become a wider movement, encompassing a diversity of expression among all people. Seventh-day Adventists face a similar challenge today: To consider ourselves only a Protestant denomination truncates our worldwide Advent movement role. Such a view of ourselves may work well enough in a culture which is steeped in Christian influences, but it is not helpful as we face the major world religions, and particularly as we address the "10/40 window."

Historically, Islam had no quarrel with those "people of the Book" who held onto a true faith. In fact some Islamic scholars refer to such Christian people as Hanif; those who, along with faithful Muslims were defenders of a pure monotheistic faith from Abraham.10 Thus our appeal to faith development with Muslims today should recapture an emphasis on our role as God's last day people, calling persons from all persuasions to join with us around the central truths that make us unique, yet allowing for a breadth of diversity in how those truths are manifested in the specific cultural contexts of the world.

God's remnant in context

How do we define God's remnant in such cultural contexts? The issue can be summarized as follows:

  • God's truth meets people where they are.
  • The new heart experience requires a soul transformation but not an abandoning of one's culture.
  • Christ's disciples build on local traditional beliefs, practices, and val ues consistent with biblical truth. Such an approach utilizes cultural redemptive analogies to make the gospel understandable.
  • The expression of faith is most meaningful when it utilizes local forms and ways of demonstrating faith.11 A group formed on such a basis is sustainable and will self prop agate as they take ownership of their faith and share it with others.

God's remnant in context will require new thinking. It will also require a reformulation of fundamental beliefs in a manner that does not compromise biblical truth, but in fact ensures that the understanding of truth in the host culture is more clearly and accurately understood as the principles of truth are framed in culturally meaningful ways.

Practical implications

What does all this mean in practical terms? In the past ten years, we have gone from only one or two initiatives focused on Muslim relations, to thirty or more such ministries. All of them utilize to a greater or lesser degree the principles we have dis cussed in this article. Recently fourteen of these ministries presented detailed reports of their strategies. A few general impressions can be mentioned here:

* There was no "crusade" mentality, but a focused intention to identify truth as it was manifested within Islam. This became a base upon which to build. This approach signals an increasingly widespread change of attitude within the church at large.

* The methods that have been used may be diverse, but all have utilized the basic principles outlined in this article.

* There is evidence of God's Spirit empowering people to develop so many ministries in such a variety of geographic areas and to begin developing materials for use in their ministries.

* The increasing number of testimonies coming from Muslim-back ground believers emphasize that their search for truth began in Islam, was informed by the Qur'an and then led to the scriptures and biblical beliefs.

From the collective experience that we have been able to share over the past few years, a suggested frame work for faith development for the Muslim has been developed. It serves as a general guide for those wondering how to proceed in spiritual ministry with Muslims and is avail able on request from the Global Center for Adventist Muslim Relations. There is also available a set of study guides.12 They include both Qur'an and Bible references.

The resulting fellowship of faith

When these new approaches are followed, a fellowship of faith develops. Such a fellowship ideally will continue to develop in context in a way that: (1) provides effective spiritual nurture to believers; (2) allows them to remain within their cultural context and be sustainable, given a relatively undisturbed economic, social, and religious tolerance in the setting; and (3) they will effectively continue to witness to their people. A few will choose to join the existing Adventist Church if they are in a position which allows that.

Most of those who become favor able to Christianity and Adventism will fall into one of three possible configurations: (1) "Muslim Adventist," which provides for Muslim forms of worship and uses some redemptive analogies but maintains a basic Adventist identity in the context of being a follower of the faith of Abraham; (2) "Adventist Muslim," which maintains a basic Muslim cultural and spiritual (vs. "religious") identity such as "Hanif," while espousing Adventist beliefs—truly God's people in context; (3) Remain a secret believer.

Do we see these options as the end point, particularly in reference to options two and three? When will they unite fully with the worldwide Adventist fellowship? Will they need to remain secret? If we focus on faith development in context, the fellow ship of faith will happen in a way appropriate to the context. The form it takes will be shaped by the local context and by the best way to spiritually nurture the members and allow them to be an effective witness back in their communities. Their unity with the Adventist worldwide movement will always be based on shared faith and mission. This is a work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer, and the Holy Spirit will dictate the timing and nature of further unity, perhaps to the point of open unity.

At this time, in many situations it is simply not possible or advisable to be open. The believer must remain secret. I personally feel that as the final movements of God's work take place and as God's Spirit works to pre pare His people for His coming, His people within the Muslim world will find ways of stepping out less secretly and more boldly for God.

1 Don Richardson, Peace Child (Glendale, Calif,: G/L Publications, 1974).

2 Global Center for Adventist Muslim Relations, Heritage of Islam: the two lines from Abraham (Global Center for Adventist Muslim Relations, unpublished material).

3 Abdullah Yusuf AH, The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an (Beltsville, Md.: Amana Publications, 1989), Surah 4:125; 30:30,31; 2:135.

4 See Ismail at Faruqi, Ismail R, and Lois Lamya al Faruqi, The Cultural Atlas of Islam (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 61, 62; A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Isnaq's Sirat Rasul Allah (Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 1955), 98-107.

5 Sigve Tbnstad, Defining Moments in Muslim Christian Relations, a Summary (Oslo: unpublished paper, available from GCAMR, 2000).

6 "Eastern Christianity, Independent churches of, the Coptic church, developments after the Arab conquest," Encyclopedia Britannica (London: William Benton Publisher, 1980), 6:140.

7 See Fouad Elias Accad, Building Bridges, Christianity and Islam (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Navpress, 1997), 12-24, 34-46; Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Ibid, Surah 3:5S; 3:113-115; 5:66; 10:94; 29:46.

8 George Braswell, Jr., Islam, Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics, and Power (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Pub., 1996), 19, 53.

9 Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Surah 9:29.

10 Faruqi & Faruqi, loc cit.

11 Mission Issues Committee, Guidelines on Contextualization (Silver Spring, Md.: unpublished guidelines available from the Global Mission Office, 1998).

12 Abdul Nur, Barakat Allah (Blessings of Allah), Study Guides in the Holy Books (Loma Linda, Calif.: Global Center for Adventist Muslim Relations, 1997). 5 booklets including a teacher's guide.


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Robert K. McIver is a senior lecturer in Biblical Studies at Avondale College, Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.

October 2001

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