This is an article from the March-April 1990 issue: It’s Happening Worldwide!

A New Approach to 950 Million Muslims

One Translator Points the Way in Contextualization

A New Approach to 950 Million Muslims

"A Church for Every People by the Year 2000" is an unrealistic goal if present methods of reaching Muslim populations constitute our only alternative. But praise the Lord, new thoughts are being considered by highly qualified people who are right out in the thick of the "battle" between Muslims and Christians. Amazingly, the gist of it all is that we must stop thinking of Muslims as an enemy "army." The implications of this article are phenomenal.

This article is excerpted from "Pointing the Way: The Translator's Role in Contextualization" in Interconnect, a periodical on Muslim missions which offers subscriptions by invitation only. The Introduction and Conclusion have not been altered here; key paragraphs from the main body outline were selected which hopefully embody the thrust of each point. The entire article (more than twice as long) will appear in the July 1990 issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missions.


When we landed at Citex (City X) airport in 1983 something also landed with us. As we descended from the night sky into that new world, a world dominated by the religion of Islam, our notions concerning Identification and Contextualization also descended from the realm of theory to practice, from the realm of speculation to application.

Our preparation for that moment had included the standard introductions to Cultural Anthropology at Bible college and linguistics school. There we were taught to view 'culture' in its broadest sense as 'the integrated system of learned behavior patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not the result of biological inheritance.'

Our teachers also challenged us to develop a Biblical perspective on the subject. What is God's attitude toward culture and what, therefore, should our attitude be? All cultures, like all individuals, reflect both the image of God and the depravity of man. Nevertheless, God, the originator of human culture, views it 'primarily as a vehicle to be used by Him and His people for Christian purposes, rather than
as an enemy to be combated or shunned.' God is 'above' or outside of culture but chooses 'to work through and in terms of the cultural matrix on which human beings are immersed.'

Traditionally, missionaries have demanded that Muslims accept both Christ and our culture.

In preparation for our future role as cross-cultural communicators of the Good News we were also taught to draw a distinction between the 'essence' of Christianity and its cultural 'expression.' Christianity is not linguistically or culturally monolithic (as, for example, Islam would like to be) but is kaleidoscopic. God, the God of infinite variety, is delighted when people from around the world worship Him in their own culture. Just as God does not want to destroy sinful individuals but to transform them, He also does not want to destroy or negate culture but to transform it into something beautiful for Himself. The 'essence' of Christianity, a personal, faith allegiance relationship with God through Christ, should be expressed in ways which are appropriate within its cultural context. In other words, it should be 'contextualized.'

We came to view Contextualization as the cultural correlate of our organization's approach to translation. We were taught that the goal of translation is not to find equivalent forms but to express equivalent meaning. A great diversity of linguistic forms can express the meaning of a passage of Scripture. In the same way, a great diversity of cultural forms can express Christianity's 'meaning' or 'essence.' Contextualization is to culture what idiomatic translation is to language.

During this period of training the Lord also gave us a keen interest in Muslim people. Friendships with Lebanese neighbors in our home city prompted us to peruse much of the literature which is currently available on witnessing to Muslims and Christian missions to Islam. As we studied this material we were reminded of and disturbed by the fact that the vast majority of Muslims remain indifferent, resistant and antagonistic to the Gospel. "Why is this so?" we asked. From our theological perspective it is no more difficult for God to save a Muslim that it is for Him to save, for example, a North American hedonist. The human heart, all human hearts, are equally in bondage to sin and equally in need of God's Spirit to set them free. Why, then, has the Gospel made such little impact on the world of Islam?

As we pondered this question and particularly as we read Phil Parshall's book New Paths in Muslim Evangelism, we came to the conclusion that, from a human perspective at least, un-Christian Christian attitudes are a major problem. Traditionally, missionaries have demanded that Muslims accept both Christ and our culture (and, of course, reject and be rejected by their own culture in turn). Their spiritual conversion and their cultural conversion are inseparably and necessarily linked in our minds. We will not accept the one without the other.

Christians and Muslims are still locked in a Crusade mentality. The armies are assembled. The battle lines are drawn. And, to make sure that there is no confusion on the field, each army requires that its soldiers wear distinctive uniforms. Muslims must look like Muslims and Christians must look like Christians. Each man must wear his community's emblems prominently and proudly (e.g. names, salutations, dress, grooming, manner of prayer, fasting practices, architecture, day of worship). These distinctions must be maintained so that friends and foes can be clearly identified and so that defections and betrayals can be cheered and jeered appropriately. And, of course, when cross-overs do occur, the convert is required to divest himself of his old garb and put on the uniform of his new comrades-in-arms. We may be willing to practice the principles of Identification and Contextualization among those (animists, for example) who are no threat to us, but when it comes to Islam, our great arch-rival, we are prepared to concede nothing. No quarter is asked, no quarter is given.

Convinced that this state of confrontation and cultural competition is sinful we determined that, during our stay in Islamex (Islamic Country X), we would do nothing to perpetuate it. In fact, we felt that we should try to identify as closely as possible with the Muslim community; to participate in their culture and to adopt and adapt for our own use those elements of their culture which are not in conflict with Biblical principles. We felt that it was our responsibility to demonstrate by our lives that it is possible for a person to be loyal to Jesus Christ and to express that faith in ways which are appropriate in a Muslim context. We felt that it was our responsibility to model (albeit imperfectly) a new way whereby a Muslim can love and follow the Lord without divorcing himself from his community and cultural heritage.

But when the rubber hit the runway in 1983 these perceptions and plans had to be applied and tested in real-life situations. And the landing, as might be expected, was not entirely smooth. The following is a brief report on our attempts to identify with the Muslim community in Islamex and, in particular, with the Ethnex (Ethnic Group X) among whom we worked.


1. Muslim Names

We received many positive comments about the fact that we had adopted Muslim names. Of course, some people assumed that we had become Muslim because, as one friend put it, a change in name usually indicates a change in ideology. But our explanation that we had chosen the names
to make things easier for our friends was accepted.

2. Religious Affiliation

At first we were reluctant to be pigeon-holed as either Muslim or Christian. When we were asked about our religious affiliation we would reply evasively using the Qur'anic expression, 'Ahle Kitab' (People of the Book). After a moment of hesitation the person would often reply,
"Ah, so then you are Christian."

We finally adopted the term 'Isayi' which is how our Ethnic friends commonly refer to Christians. It translated roughly as 'the Jesus one' or 'the one who follows Jesus.' And since we wanted everyone to be aware of our loyalty to Jesus it seemed like an appropriate title.

3. Salutations and Other Standard Expressions

We always used the standard Muslim greeting 'Assalamu alaikum' and the response 'Alaikum salam.' We also occasionally used the expression 'Bismillah-ur-Rahman-ur -Rahim' ('In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful') when beginning a meal or a journey or a task.

4. Dress

While in Islamex we wore the national dress, an outfit consisting of wide, baggy pants and a long-tailed shirt. We frequently received positive comments from people who were pleased that we found their national dress both comfortable and attractive. (Many Westerners do not wear it.)

5. Grooming

Conservative Muslim women wear their hair long (down to the lower back). Short hair is considered unfeminine and un-Islamic. Jane wore her hair long--- but not quite as long as her Muslim friends who apparently were not concerned about split-ends.

When I arrived in Islamex I was sporting a big, bushy beard. I was occasionally asked if I was a Muslim simply because of my beard and clothing. Prior to our first visit to Ethnex District I asked an Ethnex friend if I should shave it off (thinking, perhaps, that the Ethnex people might not approve of a beard). The friend responded, "Oh no, they will respect you!"

6. Purdah

Purdah, the system whereby sexually mature females are kept hidden ('curtained off' or 'veiled') from the view of men who are not related to them and the standards of modesty which are inherent in that system place many more demands on women than on men.

So, within a few weeks Jane purchased her first burqah and wore it whenever she left the house. The response of Muslim men to Jane's burqah was quite positive. Conservative Muslims are concerned by the erosion of traditional values that has taken place under Western
influence and they were happy that a Western woman was upholding the old standards of modesty.

7. Dietary Restrictions

While in Islamex we did not eat pork or drink wine (with the exception of two occasions when we were offered a glass by Christian friends in their homes). We did not keep any forbidden (ha'ram) substances in our house.

8. Standard of Living

We tried to maintain a modest standard of living so as not to distance ourselves from our friends, most of whom were not wealthy. We lived in a small rented quarter with three rooms, a closet-sized kitchen, a bathroom and a courtyard. We did not have servants. Our friends seemed to feel comfortable in our home and often commented how nice it was and how adequate it was for the four of us (even though we often felt cramped for space).

9. Worship

Within the first few months of our arrival I asked a friend to teach me how to pray in Muslim fashion and how to do the preliminary ablutions. With this information and the assistance of a booklet on the subject entitled Elementary Teachings of Islam, we proceeded to write a Christian version of the prayer routine (which is more accurately thought of as a liturgy or worship service).

10. Going to the Mosque

On two occasions I went to a mosque to participate in congregational worship. However, I did not make a practice of attending the mosque during the stated prayer times. I do not believe that it is wrong to do so but chose not to make a habit of it for several reasons.

11. Fasting

We participated in the month-long Fast of Ramazan every year while in Islamex. Our Muslim friends were amazed that we would participate in the Fast voluntarily. (They participate under compulsion from their community.) We explained that, for Christians, fasting is not a requirement but is recommended for certain special purposes. We said,
therefore, that we were very happy to participate with them in their fast. They were very pleased by this. In fact, this shared suffering did more to establish empathy and friendship with them than anything else.

12. Festivals

There are two major religious festivals ('Eids') in the Muslim year. We always participated in these festivals.

13. Day of Worship

In Islamex we observed Friday as our day of rest and worship in keeping with Muslim practice. The other six days of the week were working days.

14. Death Customs

When a death occurs, it is expected that friends and relatives will visit the house of the deceased to console the bereaved, to pay their respects and to offer prayers for the departed soul. We do not believe it is a Christian practice to pray for the dead but we did go to pay our respects if we knew the family fairly well and on one occasion I offered a 'Prayer for the Bereaved' in English.

15. Handling the Holy Books

Muslims handle the Qur'an with great respect and care. They keep it wrapped in a thick, clean cloth and place it on a high shelf above all other literature. Before and after reading the Qur'an they may kiss it.

The onus is on the outsider to move culturally toward the insider just as God took the initiative to identify with man.

We had to leave behind our North American sloppiness in this area when we went to Islamex. When reading the Bible in the presence of a Muslim, we would kiss it.


The decision to follow the course of action described above was not taken lightly. In fact, we approached the subject of identification with Muslims with considerable trepidation, recognizing the controversial nature of it. However, we read as much as we could, prayed about it, talked about it and attacked the issue from every conceivable angle. We raised as many objections as we could think of and tried to deal with them one by one. The following is a brief list:

1. "Total Identification Is Impossible"

"No matter how hard you try to dress like them, eat like them, live like them, talk like them, act like them, etc., you will never be accepted as an insider because you can never divorce yourself from your own identity and culture."

This objection states an obvious truth, but the goal of Identification is not to achieve the impossible or to deceive anyone, nor is it to deny or reject one's own culture and identity (which would be psychologically unhealthy).

The goal of identification with people of another culture is to
acquire a second identity, to move towards biculturalism in the same way that language learning moves one towards bilingualism. The onus is on the outside to move culturally toward the insider just as God took the initiative to identify with man.

Another important goal of Identification is to develop empathy for people of another culture, to begin to see and experience life as they do. This can only be done by participating in their culture just as the Lord participated in our joys and sufferings here on earth.

2. "Total Identification Is Unnecessary"

"The essential element in Identification is love. If you love people and accept them and respect them, they will know it. Identifying with them physically (i.e. dressing and eating and living like them) is unnecessary."

True. At least partially true. Physical identification without love is mimicry at best or mockery at worst. But if one of the goals of Identification is to demonstrate love and respect for, and acceptance, of, a people and their culture (the two cannot be separated), then how will this love, respect, and acceptance be demonstrated?

3. "Islam Must be Totally Rejected"

"The religion of Islam is inspired by the devil, and Satan is using it as a powerful weapon to wage war against the Lord Jesus Christ. Islam is also a total way of life. In it there is no distinction between religion and culture. The good (if there is any) and the bad are inextricably linked. Therefore, Islam must be rejected in toto and the convert from Islam must completely divorce himself from it."

Islam, as a religion and a culture, is 'inspired' by the devil and is being used by him to keep hundreds of millions of people in bondage to himself. But Islam is not unique in this. The same can be said about every religion and culture in the world, including 'Christianity' and Western culture.

4. "This Approach Creates Confusion"

"When Muslims observe your behavior they will naturally conclude that you have become a Muslim. This approach is therfore a betrayal of the Lord Jesus Christ. A clear witness must be maintained at all times. There must be no confusion."

Muslims who casually observe our behavior from a distance often do conclude that we have become Muslim. When we are introduced to someone for the first time we are often asked if we are Muslim (because of our names or dress or way of praying, etc.). We simply respond that we are 'Isayi', followers of Christ, and that clears up the matter.

5. "This Approach Condones Error"

"When you condone or accept part of Islam, you are condoning or accepting all of it. Muslims will assume that you also accept the prophethood of Mohammed and the inspiration of the Qur'an. You must not allow such assumptions to be made."

We are not concerned about the premature conclusions of casual observers. We are concerned that our Muslim friends know that we are loyal to Jesus Christ and the Bible. And they do know. Once a good friend of ours was introducing me to a group of men. He mentioned that
we had adopted Muslim names and that Jane was observing purdah and that we were keeping the Fast. One of the men asked if we had become Muslim. Our friend replied, "No, they have accepted our culture but not our ideology. (Turning to me.) Isn't that correct?" I replied,

6. "This Approach Is a Denial of Christian Freedom"

"Islam is a legalistic and ritualistic religion. In essence, a return to Old Testament legalism. But Christ died to save us from all that. Your approach is, therefore, retrogressive. You are steering the Muslim convert back into the slavery from which Christ wants to free him."

Missionaries to Muslims do not have the luxury of neutrality on these issues.

Christianity not only permits but encourages linguistic and cultural diversity. Converts are not required to adopt someone else's culture in order to come to Christ but are allowed to come to Christ in terms of their own culture. This is the issue that was settled at the Council of Jerusalem in the first century (Acts 15). It was acknowledged that Jews were free to come to Christ as Jews and that Gentiles were free to come to Christ as Gentiles (without becoming Jews first). A cultural conversion was not required to validate a
spirtual conversion. We believe that the Lord also wants Muslim people to come to Him and to express their newfound faith in ways which are culturally appropriate to them. If He grants them this freedom, can we do otherwise? No, this approach is not a denial of Christian freedom.
It is an affirmation of it .

7. "This Approach Is Cowardly"

"This approach will encourage timid, cowardly converts (if they are real converts!) to come tiptoeing to Christ through the back door. This is not right. Muslim converts must be encouraged to maintain a strong and vigorous witness for Christ right from the start and to face the inevitable persecution courageously."

Genuine converts will witness for the Lord (their love for Him cannot be contained) and persecution will follow (it cannot be avoided). But it is up to them to decide when and where and how and to whom to witness. When persecution comes (and it will), it should be on an issue that matters and that is clearly understood by all, and the only issue that matters is loyalty to the person of Jesus Christ.

8. "Outsiders Are Not Qualified to Contextualize"

"Culture is a very complex thing. Outsiders, such as yourselves, can never undersand the hidden meanings that are attached to the various elements of Islamic culture or the ways in which those elements interrelate. You are, therefore, not qualified to contextualize."

It is true that we outsiders can never comprehend Islamic culture, or even a particular Islamic culture, the way an insider can. We can't even come close. It is also true that it should be the responsibility of the Muslim converts themselves to decide what elements of their culture must be rejected outright, retained unchanged or reinterpreted
for continued use.

However, this does not mean that translators or missionaries have no role in Contextualization. On the contrary, they have a key role to play as models or signposts pointing to a new way which Muslims have never considered before.

Missionaries to Muslims do not have the luxury of neutrality on these issues of Identification and Contextualization.

9. "Problematic Practices"

Facing Mecca. "Facing Mecca while praying is an open endorsement of Mohammed and his religion. There is no way that practice can be retained in Christian worship."

As a Christian [the Muslim convert] is free to pray in any direction he chooses, including the traditional direction.

Ablutions. "The Muslim practice of doing ablutions before prayer is based on the pagan belief that physical and moral defilement can be washed away with water."

Many Muslims are farmers or laborers or tradesmen. Would we really want to recommend that they stop washing up before prayer when they become Christians? Washing up before prayer is a good practice, as long as it is understood that it is meant as a way of communicating
respect for God.

The Sacrifice. "The sacrifice of an animal during Eid-ul-Azha commemorates the ransom of Ishmael with a ram, which, of course, is historically inaccurate. Muslims also regard it as a way of gaining favor with God. Christians, of course, do not offer blood sacrifices because Christ has offered himself as our sacrifice once and for all.
Christians, therefore, should not participate in this festival."

The Muslim convert will certainly want to evaluate this practice of sacrifice in light of the Scriptures. First, he will want to get the facts straight, that it was Isaac, not Ishmael, who was involved in the incident and why it had to be Isaac. He will also need to be taught the significance of that event--- that it pointed forward to the sacrifice of Christ, and that Christ's sacrifice has taken care of our sin once and for all.

Purdah. "Purdah, the segregation and seclusion of women, is an archaic institution built on male chauvinism and bigotry. It denies women their God-given rights in society and subjects them to many abuses."

We believe that the purdah system is not the ideal way of relating male to female in society or of preventing illicit sexual activity (which is its aim). Ideally, male and female should be governed by an internal commitment to high moral standards. In the absence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, however, Muslims have opted for a system of
external constraints designed to enforce moral behavior.

10. "This Approach Does Not Work"

"You were in Islamex for over three years with no success. You won some friends, but did not win any converts. And your Ethnex friends did not even show much interest in the Gospel. The approach does not work and therefore should be abandoned."

We never expected that this approach alone would bring about a significant turning to Christ among the Ethnex people. For that to happen three things are required:

First, they must have the Word of God readily available in their own language.

Second, there must be a powerful work of the Holy Spirit among them to bring them face to face with the Risen Lord and to give them the desire to follow Him no matter what the cost.

Third, there must be a powerful work of the Holy Spirit in the worldwide and national church to change the missionary's approach to Islam. The old, adversarial, competitve, imperialistic, chauvinistic, extractionist, intolerant approach does not work. That has been proven
beyond a shadow of a doubt. If the status quo is to change, a new way must be found whereby Muslims can come to Christ in the context of their own culture and community. Cross-cultural workers are responsible to point the way by word and deed and must be prepared to do so.


Several years ago an Ethnex friend confided to Jane that he thought I would become a good Muslim eventually.

We had succeeded in communicating that we were not Muslim, although we had accepted many aspects of Islamic culture.

We found his statement encouraging for several reasons. First, we had obviously succeeded in communicating to him our respect for his culture. He could see that we were happy to be with them and were comfortable with many of their customs. Second, we had succeeded in communicating our interest in spiritual things and our commitment to
clean living. He had noted our respect for God and our honesty and our lack of interest in the common vices. And third, we had succeeded in communicating that we were not Muslim, although we had accepted many aspects of Islamic culture.

However, as the years go by and his predictions concerning my conversion to Islam are not fulfilled, we hope that he will begin to ask the question why. "Why do Bill and Jane refuse to become complete Muslims? It would be so easy for them. They obviously respect our culture and are God -fearing people. All they would have to do is accept the Prophethood of Mohammed and the Qur'an and that would be it. Then they would be one with us, fully accepted. And they would receive great honor and respect. And we would do favors for them and provide accommodation for them and even help them arrange suitable marriages for their sons. But they refuse. They stubbornly remain loyal to Jesus Christ and the Bible. What is so special about that Book? What is so special about that Person?"

We hope, of course, to be able to answer our friend's questions by making the Scriptures available to him in his own language. We also pray that, as he reads, the Holy Spirit will open his eyes and help him see Jesus for Who He really is and give him a desire to follow the Lord.

Of course, as he weighs that decision, a flood of other quesions will come into his mind. Will I have to change my name? Will I be cut off from my people? How will I pray? When and where will I pray? Will I no longer be able to go to the mosque? What will happen when the Fast of Ramazan comes? And if my family should follow me in this decision, how will it affect the women in my household? As he contemplates these things, we hope that he will think about us and realize that he can become a loyal disciple of Jesus Christ and remain a respected, functioning member of his community.


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