Islam, Muhammad, Muslims, and Christianity...

The Christian Approach to Muslims

J. Christy Wilson: In the early days of the modern spiritual crusade for the world of Islam the feeling seems to have been that the missionary must by logical proof compel the intellectual acceptance of Christianity. The simple fact is that in the vast majority of cases this method did not succeed.

In response to this article, the following email was received:

First of all, our name is the Muslims, followers of God. Second, our saviour is our deeds, neither Jesus nor anybody. Third, there is no comparison between the wrong Christian religion and the God's religion (Islam). That's why no Muslim will follow your darkness. (They didn't even when you tortured them in Spain and Palestine.) So just save your time, breath and money ...

Ineffectiveness of Evangelism by Argument

We have historical examples of Christian protagonists confounding the learned men of Islam, but this did not usually result in the latter's accepting Christ. The Christians may have won the argument, but they failed to win their man. We picture Henry Martyn standing alone and withstanding the ecclesiastics of Shiraz, or Dr. Pfander in his great public disputations, and we marvel at their courage and ability. On the other hand, there were also countless cases where the Christians did not show such mental acumen or such leading of the Holy Spirit, and they were worsted in the arena of intellectual strife.

The whole approach to Islam in times past came to be known as "The Great Muslim Controversy." The attitude of that age has produced such monumental works as the Balance of Truth of Pfander (Mizan ul Haqq, by Carl Gottlieb Pfander [1803-1865]. English translation, The Balance of Truth, by W. St. Clair Tisdall. R.T.S., London, 1911), and the Sources of Islam of Tisdall (Yanabi'ul Islam. Cp. The Original Sources of the Quran, by W. St. Clair Tisdall, SPCK, London, 1905), with many like volumes of stern apologetic import. These are monuments of a system that is past; they may still be of use today, after a man has come far along the Christian path and has the love of Christ in his heart. They may serve to drive out the vestiges of Islam, but they are no longer examples of the line of approach we should follow in presenting Christ to the Muslim heart. "The Great Muslim Controversy" has gone into the limbo of things that are past.

The New Approach

Whatever may have been the virtue of the strictly apologetic and argumentative method in its day, the fact confronts us that other ways of approach are proving more effective at present. There is no doubt that bringing a Muslim to faith in Christ remains one of the most difficult tasks in the world-wide enterprise of the Kingdom of God. We are, however, passing into the phase where converts in some areas may be reckoned in larger groups and even congregations, instead of single individuals.

It is patent to say that we confront a changed viewpoint and mentality everywhere in the world of Islam. The great obstacles before us are not the same as they were a generation ago. Other great forces than the arguments of Christians have served to break down and undermine the stern religious sanctions of Islam. All of these changes dictate to us a new method of approach to meet in the best possible way the strikingly altered situation which now confronts us.

I. Avoid Argument

Today he who would present Christ to the Muslim heart should be an expert in avoiding argument. This is a more difficult science than at first appears. Intellectual disputation still remains a favorite indoor sport in the lands of the East. Not only the clergy and the intellectuals, but also the ordinary Muslims in almost any land would almost as soon argue as eat. The favorite subject for such debate is religion. Even though a person may not be very devout or firm in his faith, he is glad to stand on the side of his traditional religion in a discussion. The woman whom Christ met at the well in Samaria was an example of this attitude (John 4:7). Though so far as we may ascertain she was not noted for her piety, she was ready to take up a religious discussion at a moment's notice. To people who do not have much to read, and even to those who are illiterate, discussion is an oft-repeated form of social and intellectual contact.

From the Christian standpoint little good is liable to result from argument. The proponent of Islam will either feel that he has won the discussion and his pride will make him still more difficult to reach, or feel that he has lost the argument and will leave, not to return, or to devise new methods of attack. In either case the desired result is not obtained. Even though our arguments should prove most convincing, yet

A man convinced against his will
Is of the same opinion still.

Our task involves not only the winning of the intellectual consent to the truth of Christianity, but also the far more difficult problem of winning the heart and will also for Christ.

Even though we are supporting the truth, we should admit freely that in many cases the Muslim will get the best of us if we argue.

In the first place, he has a better grasp of the [local] language and the mode of thought and expression. He is also practiced in the form of dialectic along which the discussion will proceed. He has a stock of apt stories and quotations from the literature of the country that is probably greater than we may hope to attain. If there are Muslim hearers present they will naturally be prejudiced in favor of the proponent of their own faith. The fear that we should lose the argument is not, however, our reason for avoiding such discussion. The reason that we study to avoid debate is that, judged by the acid test of results, it fails to lead men to Christ.

On rare occasions it may indeed be necessary to "answer a fool according to his folly." At one time a man interrupted a serious conversation before a room full of interested people to say, "Either the New Testament you have is false or Christ was no prophet, because we read in this New Testament that He destroyed a great amount of other people's property when He caused the herd of swine to rush into the lake and be drowned." The missionary replied, "My dear brother, it was quite as unlawful for the Jews to own swine as it would be for you, and how strange it seems to see you take the side of the pigs and stand before us as their advocate."

At another time a man said to one of my colleagues, "You call Christ the greatest of the prophets because He had no earthly father. I can point you to a greater prophet on that score. Adam had neither father nor mother." My missionary friend replied, "You mistake the point in regard to Christ. As to parents, the first donkey had neither father nor mother either."

The late Dr. S. G. Wilson once called on a Mujtahid in Tabriz [in Iran]. The host, before a room filled with visitors, and quite contrary to the usual forms of Oriental courtesy, asked his guest, "What kind of wine do you say that your prophet Christ made for the people at the wedding feast?" Dr. Wilson explained, "Some think it was fermented wine, others hold that since it was made and served immediately it must have been non-alcoholic; but as for myself, I think it was the same sort of wine that the Koran says flows in rivers in Paradise" (47: Muhammad: 15). We should be careful on such occasions to avoid answers merely to set forth our own wit or wisdom, but an appropriate reply may serve to avoid argument.

While learning to avoid unprofitable discussion with grace, we must not create the feeling that we are changing the point at issue and fleeing from one question to another, as is so often charged against our friends the Bahais. In Iran the latter often endeavor to draw us into discussion by upholding the orthodox Muslim viewpoint. To one who has had experience with them, however, it is usually soon apparent to what sect they belong. In fact, we learn, by practice with inquirers and those whom we meet in conversation, to determine rather quickly whether a man is earnest and really desires light on a certain point, or is merely endeavoring to draw us into an intellectual conflict.

While avoiding argument, we should "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh us concerning the hope that is in us" (1 Peter 3:15). We should also carefully note that the apostle continues with the admonition that we do this with "meekness and fear": meekness, that our love may be apparent, and fear, lest our answer lead to useless argument.

There may be times when it will be impossible to avoid discussion. Then our conversation should always exemplify our love for the opponent of the moment, whom we hope to make our Christian brother. On our part, discussion must certainly never become acrimonious, as a loss of temper would not only disgrace us, but also reflect on the Lord in whose work we are engaged. We may say very frankly to those with whom we enter into conversation that we decline to argue because we feel that little good will result.

II. Love, Tact, Prayer and The Holy Spirit

If we are determined to avoid argument, what should be our method of approach to the Muslim? It may be remarked in the beginning that whatever we say can be answered; but to a holy life, filled with the spirit and love of Christ, there is no answer. We are not, however, holding ourselves up before our friends, but asking them to look with us at Christ. Ours is a divine work; the winning of Muslims to Jesus can never be accomplished by human power. The necessity of our approach being in prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit is obvious. Love and tact are more essential than any particular method, and we must always remember that, whatever we do or say, only God can open the heart to receive the truth.

The foundation of our approach must be the direct presentation of Christ. We should concentrate upon this as the sum and substance of our work. That is why missionaries are in Muslim lands. We may be told that "you can't fill a bowl until you first empty it." This is not a good metaphor. Rather should we liken our presentation of Jesus to the turning on of a light that will drive out the darkness.

In recent years there have been series of evangelistic services in Iran for largely Muslim audiences, and yet throughout the whole group of meetings Islam was never mentioned. Christ was positively preached. So also in private conversation we should make it a rule to let nothing turn us from the point of presenting our Master as Saviour and Lord of life.

The older apologists often used the Koran in their appeal to Muslims. Their explanation that they used it, not because they believed in it, but because it was accepted by the Muslim, was often not clearly understood, and, at best, was not very convincing. The more we know of the Koran, and of Islam in general, the better; but we should rarely quote Koranic passages to induce Muslims to turn to Christ. If we feel that this is the best approach in a particular case, where the person is a sincere and devout Muslim, there are good books in our literature which it would no doubt be better to give the man who is interested than for us to attempt this line of approach.

Answer the Heart, not the Argument

In the next place, we should study very deeply the method of Christ in dealing with people who had a spirit such as we must meet in the Muslim world. The Jews were continually endeavoring to draw Him into an intellectual trap, or to test His wit and mentality. The Master always gave them an answer that struck back straight to the heart and conscience. It is true that Christ gave an answer which not only settled the point at issue, but also laid down an eternal truth. We are not divine and cannot hope to imitate the Lord in this, except in so far as we answer in the words of Scripture. We may, however, gradually increase in proficiency in the delicate art of reaching the heart and conscience with the love of Christ. For when He touches the heart He wins men.

Nicodemus came to Christ expecting to engage in a religious argument, and, as Karl Barth says, sit on his side of the stream and Jesus on the other while they discussed the merits of their respective positions. He was dumbfounded when in a moment he discovered himself in the midst of the stream and struggling for breath. Christ had turned the interview into a personal matter and touched the conscience and the heart of the teacher of Israel. We may emulate the method of the Great Teacher.

Some time ago, Dr. Cady H. Allen, of the Iran Mission, gave an opportunity at the close of an evangelistic service for questions on religious matters. A Muslim with obvious intent asked him, "Was the ant with which Solomon talked male or female?" Dr. Allen at once replied, "My dear friend, I do not know, but of one thing I can assure you, if this question is all that separates you from God, you are very near indeed to the Kingdom."

Constant Use of the Bible

The third basic method we should use in presenting Christ to Muslims is the constant use of the Bible. It should be open before us and we should strive to answer every interrogation or statement by reading from the Word. Fortunately, many of the questions that are asked and the objections that are raised follow certain patterns over the whole world of Islam. The same point comes up again and again, and experience will give us facility in turning at once to the Scripture passage we should read.

The points we must meet are so many, however, that a person would need a mind like a concordance to recall all the references on every subject. It is well, therefore, to have a special New Testament and a special Bible that we use as tools in the direct work of evangelism with Muslims. On the fly-leaves and on the pages of these volumes we may make the notes that give us facility in turning to references on the particular question that is before us.

Certainly, in presenting the Gospel message to Muslims we should be ready at all times to use "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6:17), and though we should strive that the things we say may be under the guidance of the Spirit, the use of the inspired Word should be our rule and practice. Even though the one with whom we are speaking theoretically does not accept the Bible that we have in our hand, few will not be ready to listen to its words in point, and many will fall under the spell of its truth who would go on opposing to the end anything we had to say as from ourselves.

One day in Iran we were traveling over a bumpy road as passengers in an old Ford. After looking at a Scripture portion, the Muslim beside us said, "You know we people in this country have little time for Jesus or Muhammad or any other prophet. If you could show me how to make a good living I should be deeply interested in that. I have a wife and little children; when I go off to the bazaar they ask me to return with bread." The answer of Christ to such an attitude is both beautiful and compelling. He points us to the birds and to the flowers of the field. If God feeds and clothes them, are we not of much more value (Matt. 6:25ff.)? Then the Master lays down His positive rule to keep us from the idolatry of physical wants and the worried struggle that puts them in the primary place. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:33). There is an innate quality about the words of Christ that makes a man hesitate to return to them an answer that is flippant or verbose.

To recapitulate in brief, we may say the fundamentals of the plan we suggest to avoid argument are: 1. Present Christ always in the most positive way and do not attack Islam. 2. Seek to become expert in the method of answering that Jesus used to touch the heart and the conscience. 3. Answer, in so far as possible, every point from the Bible.

III. Presenting the Truth

In addition to the above basic principles, there are many devices which may help us to avoid useless controversy and give us an opportunity to present positive truth. Several of these might be mentioned by way of illustration or suggestion.

It may prove useful on some occasions first to ask the inquirer what he desires from his religion. When he has stated his deepest desires we may go on to show him how each of these is perfectly and completely found in Christ. If men are thoughtful they may answer, for example, that they want salvation in this life and assurance of eternal life in the world to come. This gives an excellent opportunity to show that in Christ alone may be found salvation from sin, and in Him, through the Holy Spirit, the power for a holy and victorious life. Moreover, we have not His word alone, but His resurrection to give us absolute assurance of life eternal.

Again, when conversation is drifting toward argument, or several are endeavoring to speak at once, we may suggest that one be appointed to speak for fifteen minutes, or any given time, on the higher life and spiritual experience that he has found in Islam. Then one may speak without interruption for fifteen minutes to give a like personal testimony on what has been found along these lines in Christ. As Stanley Jones and others have found in India, so with our Muslim brothers: they often wander from the point and do not usually make a very strong case for the spiritual side of their faith. Sometimes the replies are interesting and will, of course, vary according to the religious conviction and experience of the individual. In almost every case the result is certain to be better than might be attained by free-for-all argument, and the heat of debate is avoided.

In other cases, if we see that the conversation is turning on points of little actual value, or is becoming antagonistic, we may suggest that we would all receive more benefit if our interview should take the form of a lesson. If this is accepted, and the lesson proves worth while, it may be expanded into a series. The experienced evangelist will, of course, be able to select a lesson from the Scripture that will be apropos to the conversation or to the particular point that is being discussed with the Muslim friends.

We would insist that the above and like devices are not efforts to escape argument by subterfuge, but are ways in which we may lead to a better and clearer presentation of the truth in Christ, which is our business. The writer would be happy indeed to hear of methods that have been successfully used by evangelists in other parts of the world of Islam. We may also, no doubt, learn many things from the technique that has proved useful among workers in other areas of the missionary enterprise.

IV. Christian Literature

Another change of base in our methods of presenting Christ to Muslims and avoiding argument should be the very widely increased use of Christian literature.

In this, the Bible is of course the greatest necessity, the very right hand of the Christian evangelist. Fortunately, we have the Scripture in all the main languages and dialects of Muslim lands. In making a first approach to Muslims who have not before seen or read the Scripture, we have found the Epistle of James useful. If we give or sell a Gospel it should be either that according to Luke or Matthew. Until a Muslim is familiar with the real meaning of the title "Son of God" this phrase in the first verse of the Gospel according to Mark may be a stone of stumbling, and until there is some foundation in Scripture, the Gospel according to John seems beyond the comprehension of many.

The colporteurs [tract sellers] of the Bible Societies have done a great and noble work in distributing so widely the Scripture in the various vernaculars. Christian workers and evangelists sometimes go even beyond the regular agents in the distribution of the Word. In one year Mansur Sang, the Christian dervish of Iran, sold and distributed many more copies of Scripture than any one of the workers who give their entire time to this occupation.

In Arabic, in the language of Iran (Persian), and in many of the other tongues and dialects of the Muslim world we have a wide range of Christian literature aside from the Bible. With a wise selection of books and tracts Christ may be presented to the reader, and knowledge be developed all along the way to complete understanding and acceptance of the Master and His way of life, under the leading of the literature and the prayerful co-operation of the one who directs the course of reading. According to the way it should primarily be used, we should divide our literature into four classes: (1) for the first approach, (2) for follow-up work, (3) to bring, conviction to the reader, (4) to build up in the faith.

At the time when this chapter was being prepared for publication in The Muslim World, by a strange coincidence the rooms of the writer, in the town where he was touring, were raided by the police and all books and tracts were taken into custody. This is one method of distribution over which we do not have complete control in selecting the particular literature best suited to the occasion. The manuscript of this chapter was also for a time in "durance vile" but was kindly returned.

Since it is difficult for many busy workers to read through all the books and tracts on our lists and to keep up to date on the best literature we have for every occasion, we have a "Guide to Christian Literature in Persian," which gives a short precis of the contents of the book or tract and suggestions as to its use. There is also a subject index, so that anyone may readily locate the available material for any particular use. This has not only increased the use of our literature but has also made it possible for those who do not read Persian, and even new workers on the field, to use effectively the printed page in presenting Christ.

In conversation with Muslim friends subjects often arise which cannot be properly covered in a single interview. Both for a fuller understanding of the deeper truth and to avoid argument, it is wise to give the person our best literature on the subject rather than to endeavor to cover it all in conversation. We have received many tracts returned with answers written in the margin, and at times publications are printed in answer to our literature. Nevertheless, a person is not nearly so liable to endeavor to answer a book, and at least the heat of argument is avoided, while the reader has time to consider and absorb the message of the printed page in private.

Let it be the plan of campaign in our great spiritual crusade for the world of Islam to avoid argument while "speaking the truth in love"; to present Christ directly and as completely as possible; to study the methods that are most useful in bearing actual fruit, and to use the Bible and our Christian literature to the fullest extent.

  1. The Christian Approach to Muslims.
  2. The Bible in Missions.
  3. Evangelism among Muslims.

Excerpted from "The Christian Message to Islam" by J. Christy Wilson, Princeton, New Jersey, 1950.

Islam and Christianity: a comparison.

For more comparative information: Answering Islam, A Christian-Muslim Dialog and Apologetic

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