Muslims tell… “Why I Chose Jesus”
A survey of Muslim-background believers gives the Christian community an opportunity to hear what fellow Christ-followers found attractive in Christ-centered faith.
THE SCOPE OF ISLAMIC INFLUENCE on the world seems to be growing. Images of Islam are increasingly prevalent. Nine states in NigeriaAfrica's most populous statehave just adopted Shariaor Islamic law. Public demonstrations of devotion in Islam can be seen throughout the world. Given the dedication evidenced by faithful public prayer, one may not be unwarranted in presuming that both satisfaction and allegiance run high.
Yet, in nearly every corner of the world, even in nations that have an overwhelming Muslim dominance, people from Muslim backgrounds are coming to faith in Christ. Exact figures are elusive. In some areas a shift of allegiance to Christ is happening on a fairly grand scale, with bold, public professions of faith. In many other places, believers in Christ live very low-key lives, using great discretion as to whom they disclose their faith commitment. Increasingly prevalent are the small, secret groups of a few faithful followers that meet on a regular basis, sometimes not disclosing their new-found faitheven to their family. Between these two extremes, followers of Isa (the Qur'anic name for Jesus) meet and worship in a variety of other contexts and worship in a number of different forms. These quiet practitioners, as well as the prevalence of governments predisposed against any shift in religious affiliation, make it difficult to state definitively how many have proclaimed new-found faith in Christ.
The centerpiece of their faith, however, is the same. They havewhether one by one or family by familybeen drawn to the God-man Jesus Christ. And for their spiritual direction, they have found one book that stands out above all others: the Bible. And more than any other portion of scripture, these believers are attracted to the Sermon on the Mount. One Javanese man who read the whole Bible echoes the thoughts of many about the Sermon on the Mount, saying, "If the life of a Christian is like that, I wanted to become a Christian."
The fastest growing religion
In a number of respects, Islam actually is growing faster than Christianity. Islam's growth rate of 2.15 percent annually does exceed Christianity's rate of 1.45 percent. It is worth pointing out, however, that 96 percent of the growth of Islam is attributable to biological growthchildren born into Muslim families. Islam is flourishing in parts of the world where population growth is high. Christianity, increasingly decentralized, has its traditional base in parts of the world where population growth is quite slow or has come to a standstill. Thus, the overall trends do show Islam growing faster than Christianity.
Conversion growth is where you find quite a contrast. According to figures presented in the 2000 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, each year some 950,000 people convert to Islam from some other persuasion. Christianity, by contrast, sees some 2.7 million each year shift their affiliation to Christianityand presumably their allegiance to Christ from some other religion.
But a broad pattern is obvious: people that live in Muslim-dominated lands pay a heavy price for placing their faith in Christ. Family members, in particular, can exert tremendous pressure on a new believer. The place of persecution is considered at more length later. Suffice it to say that the believer from Jordan who was permanently cut off from his family is not really an extreme example. His father had recently died. He was informed that he, too, was considered dead.
When we consider the price that is frequently paid by those who have come to faith in Christ, a natural question comes to mind: What was it about Jesus or the Christian faith that they found to be sufficiently compelling, making them willing to pay such a heavy price? What has God's Spirit used to reveal to them that He is worthy of following, regardless of the price?
The question is really quite simple, but relevant for the missionary and the common devotee of Jesus alike.
During the past ten years, an extensive questionnaire compiled at Fuller Theological Seminary's School of World Mission has been filled out by some 600 Muslim-background believers (or those who knew them well). The results provided here are drawn from a representative sample of 120 of those surveys. The respondents are drawn from 39 countries and over 50 ethnic groups. They provide a broad window into the hearts and minds of those who have turned from Islam to Christ. In a number of cases, the responses surveys substantiate what missionaries have often thought. In other cases, what these new believers have found compelling is somewhat unexpected and eye-opening. Most frequently, there is a healthy sense of awe as one gains first-hand appreciation of the tools the Spirit has used to draw people to faith in the crucified and risen Savior.
What follows is essentially a summary reportan opportunity to let the heart of the convert be heard. An effort has been made for it not to be why they should or ought to have been drawn, but rather why they say they were drawn. Most of the prominent factors for conversion are interrelated. At times, people would express a great number of these subjects as factors in their conversion. In the end, they serve as complementary components that contribute to making a relationship with Christ irresistible.
A sure salvation
It is an issue that touches on a longing concern for much of humanity. The question of one's eternal destiny haunts many who long for the hope of heaven and the sure knowledge that they have been saved from the penalty of their sins. The Qur'an states that salvation belongs to "those that believe and do deeds of righteousness, those are the inhabitants of Paradise, there they shall dwell forever."1 Yet it also states that God forgives whom He wills and chastises whom He wills.2 In practice, then, the sure hope of salvation looms at least a bit elusive for many, even the most devoted Muslims.
One Indonesian woman was taught in her Islamic family that the bridge to heaven was as thin as a piece of hair. This tradition is found in the canonical collection of the activities and sayings of Muhammad (the hadith). Even good deeds, she was taught, would not assure her of crossing safely into Paradise. This hair-thin bridge was difficult and dangerous to cross. For her, a key factor in coming to faith in Christ was the realization that she could not save herselfonly the blood of Christ could redeem her.
A West African woman wanted to know for certain at the point of her conversion that her sins had been forgiven and washed away. When a Persian émigré to the United States was asked if Christ had given him freedom from fear, he said, "Oh yes, I feel more forgiven, more assurance of forgiveness." For these and others, what they have found in Christ is an eternal, secure refuge. An Egyptian man stated more broadly and unequivocally that the main attraction of Christianity for a Muslim is the assurance of salvation. A Javanese man said simply, "After I received Jesus, I had confidence concerning the end of my life."
While Christ is the clear centerpiece of the new-found faith of all Muslim converts, in some respects the person of Jesus can be recognized as the particular cause and most persuasive attraction. Simply put, Christ's character is frequently seen by the Muslim as overwhelmingly attractive.
A Pakistani immigrant to the United States was particularly attracted by Christ's refusal to retaliate when maltreated. This man notes that "he bore it, he never retaliated."
Even though almost all Muslims believe that Christ was not crucified,3 the Qur'an certainly accepts His opponents' intention to kill Him and His willingness to die thus.
So the report of a Persian who says he was attracted to Christ before he was attracted to Christianity is not an anomaly for Muslims. Christ is revered in Islam. There are a number of passages whose meaning is disputed, but Christ is, at minimum, seen as a prophet.4
A West African man was drawn by the humility of Christ and the revelation that Christ was not tainted by sin. Though it often goes unmentioned, Christ is portrayed in the Qur'an as being without fault.5 Muhammad, in contrast, is told to ask forgiveness for his sins.6 When asked what particular teachings of Christianity attracted him, an Egyptian man stated simply, "the crucified Messiah."
A holy book: the power of the Bible
The Torah, the Psalms (Zabur) and the Gospel (commonly understood as the New Testament) are all revered by Muslims as holy books. Though many are unfamiliar with the content of scripture, they find it quite compelling once they begin to read. For one Lebanese Muslim, Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was most instrumental at the point of his conversion.
A North African believer was touched by Christ's love for the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast. Another man was attracted by these qualities in Christ's followers. He saw Christians as the only people who care deeply about justice for the poor and oppressed.
Then you will know the truth. Others have finally found in the Bible a truth that they found to be plausible. In searching the Bible, one Pakistani believer found answers to many questions that had concerned him. After his appreciation for the Bible grew, he felt he had been deceived by those who taught him that the Bible had been corrupted.
A North African found in the Bible teaching that was plausibly the truth, and it satisfied him intellectually. An Egyptian who came to faith in Christ found that the Bible helped him see the true character of God. He had growing doubt about the Qur'an, but the Bible, he said, was "powerful and satisfying."
Similarly, an Iranian says, "The Bible makes sense, it is reasonable and logical; it is relevant and not culture-bound."
I have had a dream
For someone who has not had extended exposure to Muslim-background believers in Christ, probably the most striking surprise is the powerful role that dreams and visions have played in drawing people to Jesus. Though dreams may play an insignificant role in the conversion decisions of most Westerners, over one-fourth of those surveyed state quite emphatically that dreams and visions were key in drawing them to Christ and sustaining them through difficult times. Rick Love, International Director of Frontiers, has recognized the pattern as well. He writes that, "Just as God used a vision to convert Paul, in like manner He reveals Himself to Muslims through dreams and visions. Just as God prepared Cornelius to hear the Gospel through a vision, so God is preparing a multitude of Muslims to respond to His good news."7
One believer from Guinea recounts the dream of a figure whom he later believed to be Christ. The figure was in a white robe, calling the man to come to Him. In a related dream, he recalls that the same figure's arms were extended, beckoning him. Dreams of this type have become recognized as a pattern of work among Muslims. Though there are variations, Christ appearing in a white robe is a recurring image among those who have had dreams and visions. Similarly, a Muslim Malay woman was drawn by a vision she had of her Christian parents who had died. She saw them rejoicing with others in heaven. Jesus, appearing in a white robe, said, "If you want to come to me, just come." Feeling that she had tried her entire life to reach God without success, she now saw God initiating the effort to reach her through Jesus.
A convert from the Middle East who had been afflicted with severe headaches was lying on his bed after having prayed for his sick son. A man with a beautiful, peaceful face appeared. Dressed in white, the figure walked to the head of the man's bed and touched him three times on the head. The next morning his headaches were gone. His son, too, was fully healed. Understandably, he now recounts with confidence, "I believe in prayer in the name of the Christ."
The great majority of dreams seem to fall into one of two broad categories. The first could be considered the preparatory dream. Like Christ appearing in a white robe, the vision confirms thoughts or conversations one has been having about Christ or the Christian faith. The second could be called the empowering dream. Here the dream or vision commonly gives the believer strength in the face of persecution. Short of persecution, it may embolden believers, strengthening the nature of their witness.
Preparatory. One Sunni woman from the Arabian Peninsula had a figure appear to her in a dream, telling her to visit a Christian woman she knew. The figure, who she was later convinced was Christ, told her this woman would teach her.
Prior to his conversion, a Persian man had a vision. In it, he was falling in darkness over a cliff and was saved by a light holding onto his back.
In a fascinating twist on God's use of dreams and sleep, one Algerian recounted how she heard her sleeping Muslim grandmother say, "Jesus is not dead. I want to tell you He is here."
A West African man recounts a succinct, yet powerful vision he had prior to conversion. He saw a devout Muslim in hell and a poor Christianwho couldn't afford to give almsin heaven. A voice explained to him that the difference was belief in Jesus.
Empowering. A North African believer found the needed strength to face his imprisonment from a dream he had while imprisoned for his faith. In it, he saw thousands of believers pouring through the streets of his city, openly proclaiming their faith in his restricted country. While in prison, he was tortured, suspended upside-down naked for hours, beaten with electrified rods and repeatedly threatened with execution. His vision of a day when people of his country would openly proclaim their faith in the streets gave him great strength to persevere through this most difficult time.
Encounter. Though not strictly a dream or a vision, a number of Muslim-background believers have had a significant supernatural encounter that was instrumental in drawing them to Jesus. One Egyptian Muslim was reading the Injil (Gospel), when he came to Luke 3, where the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. God said, "This is my son, in whom I am well pleased." As he read those words, a stormy wind broke into his room. A voice spoke to him saying, "I am Jesus Christ, whom you hate. I am the Lord whom you are looking for." He recalls that he "wept and wept, accepting Jesus from that time."
Whatever personal perspective one has on dreams and visions and the Christian walk of faith, it is difficult to consider engaging in ministry to Muslims without a recognition of and an openness for God to continue drawing people to Himself through what may be viewed as unconventional means.
The greatest of these is love
By far, the reason found most compelling for the greatest number of Muslims who have turned to Christ is the power of love. Like Paul, many a believer from a Muslim background has found that "the greatest of these is love." Nearly half of all Muslims who have made a shift of faith allegiance have affirmed that the love of God was a critical key in their decision.
By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. Love's attraction could be simplified into two subcategories. The first is love by example. One Jordanian believer attributes his conversion to "the unconditional love and the aura of peace and contentment" that he saw in his Christian friend. An Arab émigré to France, describing the friendliness of her Christian acquaintances, says they "radiated the beauty of Christ." These friends, who had emigrated before her and given their lives to Christ prior to her arrival, prayed that God would answer her prayers for a job. She says she has been amazed at how "the Lord has continued to answer prayers."
This young Sunni Muslim woman saw a kindness and experienced an intimacy with her believing friends that made her believe that God, too, could be her friendand give her eternal life. Admittedly, it is difficult to separate the example of love demonstrated by believers and the witness of scripture, testifying of a God of love.
God's love. A second category of love is that which is demonstrated directly by God and evidenced in scripture. One Bengali man says he was "subdued by the revelation of God's great love, his own sinfulness, and Christ's great sacrifice for him." A West African from Gambia explains simply that "God loves me just as I am." He described his experience in Islam as "rigorous submission to God." He sensed an inability to please God. Though he was stoned for his faith in Christ, he remains faithful to his new life in Christ.
The love of God is particularly poignant for Muslims who may have been suppressed by other Muslims. One Shi'a man was attracted by the truth that "God loves all people"and that he was personally loved and protected by God. Similarly, a West African was surprised by God's love "for all people of all races, including enemies." His experience in Islam convinced him that Arab Muslims are racist towards Black Africans. Sadly, he described Islam as a "tool used by Arabs to oppress non-Arabs."
I have called you friends: relationship with God
For some 10 percent of Muslim-background believers, the particular attraction of a relationship with God was the strongest apparent factor in their conversion. The Algerian émigré mentioned earlier was taken by the fact that God could be a friend and a father. Similarly, a North African convert was drawn by the opportunity to have a direct relationship with God. What he felt he lacked in Islam was any proximity or nearness to Godthere was no possibility of walking together with God. In Christ, he stated that a very strong attraction was a direct relationship between the Lord and the people. In a sense, the veil of separation had been lifted.
An Egyptian believer stated two compelling reasons for his attraction to Christianity: being adopted as God's son and the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. This reflects positively what one Indonesian states negatively about Islam: "God is universal and has no family. There was no way of knowing what God was like."
North American evangelicalism has been criticized for its emphasis on the experiential, the personal. In light of the testimony of this cross-section of Muslim-background believers, the opportunity for access and relationship to God is not an appeal unique to North Americans. Instead, one lesson from this cross-section of fellow Christ-followers from a Muslim background may be the universal appeal of what has been called a Divine romance: Christ's love for His Church and His desire to commune with those whom He has called His own.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake
Some refer to it as the eighth beatitude. Others consider it more simply the by-product of living out the preceding beatitudes. However you view it exegetically, in practice it is clear that those who are coming to faith from within the Muslim sphere are much more likely to be intimately acquainted with persecution than those from the Western world.
A West African believer was burned and stabbed by his own family. Though he was not killed, his family now considers him to be dead. Though the physical suffering is great, the psychological wounds that are inflicted on those who have been counted as dead may be underestimated. A North African man found it difficult to overstate how traumatic it was for him as he was rejected and beaten and left homeless. Sadly, the national church did not accept him either.
After his conversion, one Lebanese Muslim lost all of his teaching and professional privilegesand eventually was murdered. Other professionals, who had grown accustomed to some degree of esteem, are set back by the disdain they experience as a result of choosing to follow Christ. "Traumatizing" was how an observer described one Arab North African's experience of being arrested, interrogated and held by police for two days.
For those who have been subject to persecution on the basis of their ethnicity, the persecution for their new-found faith comes as less of a surprise and actually serves to confirm their decision to leave their former faith. The North African who found Christians to be the only non-racist people he knew was intimately acquainted with severe persecution. His brother and several close friends have been murdered.
A West African man had his house burned and he was chased by people who were attempting to kill him and his family.
A fisherman from the Philippines expressed an increase in persecution, with people stealing his boat, cutting his nets and tormenting his children. Yet, an observer notes, "he is not shaken."
This steadfastness in the face of persecution illustrates, at least in part, the role that persecution has played. If it does not actually spur numerical growth, it certainly seems to spur the growth of the soul, creating, so to speak, bigger Christians as a result of difficult, even horrendous treatment by the majority Muslim community. In the face of persecution, the comfort of scripture has provided profound help in time of need. One Javanese brother found courage to face persecution in Matthew 5:11: "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake." The teaching of Christ reoriented his perspective and he began instead to consider it a blessing. He noted that it was the exposition of Matthew 5:11 at a church service that was instrumental in his coming to Christ.
An Egyptian believer received similar comfort from scripture when he was being spit on and suffering death threats. The taunters told his younger brother he was an infidel. Yet, when he read the Gospels, he felt the love of God, sensing the presence of Jesus. A contrast to the Qur'an, he found the Gospels powerful and satisfying.
God is at work
In this relatively brief look at what God is doing in a very large cross-section of humanity, we see His heart being conveyed in dramatic ways. Christ's hand is extended to Muslimsin a way no less sincere than His hand has been extended to you. We don't appreciate being known for our worst manifestations. Muslims, too, ought to be given the benefit of the doubt. Many are seeking to follow God as best they understand Him. Sincerity may not be the measuring rod for truth, but sincerity of heart is a critical foundation for a life of saving faith in Christ.
Dreams and visions may have been used by God in part because there is a dearth of flesh-and-blood witnesses for Christ willing to articulate and demonstrate the power of the Gospel in person. If nothing else, the preceding testimonies of these witnesses for Christ show that God is at work. Apparently, when Muslims do have an opportunity to see the love of Christ revealed in all its fullness, they are finding a life with Christ quite compelling. After all, grace does have an irresistible quality to it.