Lecture 23: The Christian Community in an Islamic Context
Course: Introduction to Islam
In order to make it easier for Muslims to understand and accept the message of the Gospel, Christians can approach them with the assumption that they probably misunderstand the Gospel, that the number one stumbling block for Muslims is Christianity and that the most effective approach is Jesus plus nothing.
I. Case Study: Rafique in Bangladesh
This is a case study that is kind of inserted into these last lectures on apologetics. We do have one more major lecture on apologetics that we will try to complete. I want to insert a case study in Islamic church planting from the life of a man named Rafique who works in Bangladesh and try to basically explore what he has done. I’m not so much interested in Rafique per se, as all that he represents. He represents a way of how people have tried to approach the Muslim world.
One of the things we have to admit upfront is that we have not done a very good job of proclaiming the Gospel among Muslims. We don’t see very many examples of movement to Christ from former Muslims. We see a lot of examples historically of Christians who have come to Islam, all across North Africa and everywhere else, but we have not seen as much the other direction. So we have to ask ourselves if we need to rethink all of the basic assumptions of how missions to Islam happens.
What I have done in this case study is highlight somebody at pretty much the extreme end of the whole argument. I am going to try to present it as positively as I can without a lot of second-guessing his predisposition, because it is not fair. I had the privilege of spending a good bit of time with Rafique and I know his heart is in the right place and he wants to do the right things. I have some of my own criticisms of Rafique, but you have to hear where he is coming from. I think it is helpful to see his perspective and you can modify - and certainly many people have modified - his practices to make it a little more moderate position. Rafique is from a Christian group in Bangladesh known as the Sylhets. It is a people group in Bangladesh that until recently have never had any response to the Gospel. There are about five million of the Sylhets in Bangladesh. When Rafique came to Christ there were only three known Sylhet Christians in the world. He was one of the three. He represented 33% of the entire Christian movement.
He wanted to reach his people for Christ. He came to Christ and he asked himself, “Why is it that basically out of five million Sylhet people, that 4,999,997 of them have never responded to the Gospel?” He began to pray about this and work on this and asked the question as a Muslim convert himself, “Why do my colleagues, why do my friends, my neighbors, people I work with in my businesses, why do people in Bangladesh not accept the Gospel?” He came up with what he calls “three basic assumptions.” This are his three positions. Once you accept his three positions, then everything he does flows directly from that.
II. Three Basic Assumptions of Rafique.
I want to give you his three assumptions that he works with, then we can look and see how this works out in practice.
A. Islam has a misunderstanding of the Gospel
His first assumption is the one we just made. He says that Islam has a longstanding, historically rooted misunderstanding regarding the true nature of the Christian Gospel. That is his first assumption in a nutshell. In other words, when Muslims refuse to come to Christ, they are actually refusing to come to a caricature of the Gospel. They are not rejecting the Gospel, they are rejecting all kinds of misinformation about the Gospel. This is something that we have talked about a lot in this class.
Muslims are not in a vacuum. They already have a mountain of historical and cultural baggage which we simply cannot ignore. It is foolish for us to ignore it. You cannot approach a Muslim with the Gospel the way you would approach somebody who lives next door to you here, who presumably is not a Muslim. It is simply far more complex, unfortunately, than taking the four spiritual laws and translating them into Arabic. If that was all there was to this thing, we would be well ahead of the game. Nothing against the four spiritual laws. They have been a great, wonderful tool. But even the four spiritual laws has now been re-tooled. They have a wonderful thing now, Campus Crusade, called “Life at Large.” It is now a long thing that folds out, twelve panels or something. It goes through the whole Gospel as a story, rather than the four laws. It ends by you inserting your life into this unfolding story. It goes from creation all of the way to Christ. It doesn’t assume you know anything. The four spiritual laws is, “God loves you. He has a wonderful plan for your life.” That assumes that you have all kinds of context to hear that. Even Campus Crusade is saying that in America we are finding that the four spiritual laws is less effective in reaching people on college campuses today. It is no criticism to say that it is ineffective to simply translate the four spiritual laws or any other apologetic tool or device into Arabic and that is all that is required, because there is so much baggage that is brought to the text.
Rafique is first and foremost acknowledging that there is this longstanding misunderstanding regarding the Gospel where they have not actually heard the
Gospel. There is major predisposition and misunderstanding regarding what Christianity is, which is why I said for example, whenever a Muslim says, “Do you believe in a trinity?” What is your response? “What do you mean by a trinity?” Because chances are you don’t believe what they think is a trinity, either. So have the appropriate gasp when they articulate the trinity. How could anybody believe that? No wonder you people reject the Gospel. Let me tell you what the Gospel actually is.
B. The number one stumbling block for Muslims is Christianity
The second assumption that he makes is going to be a little more difficult to swallow. The first one, I think we have acknowledged at the core.
He argues that from his point of view, the number one stumbling block that keeps Muslims from Christ is Christianity. That is his number two assumption. He actually purposefully playfully uses this expression, “rock of offense.” We will come back to that. He says, “The rock of offense for Muslims is Christianity.” As you know, this is a subtle thing that he is playing on because the Gospel says that Christ is the rock of offense. What Rafique is going to argue is – and I think I would agree with him on this point entirely – that contextualization of the Gospel message is never about removing the rock of offense, Christ. If you hear that, then you misunderstood what contextualization is. Contextualization is not about making it easy for someone to say, “You don’t really have to believe in the deity of Christ, you can become a Christian by just joining the choir or something.” That is not contextualization, that is syncretism.
On other hand, there are all kinds of things that can be stumbling blocks unnecessarily. That is the issue that Rafique is trying to say. When you read
“Christianity” here, what he really means I think, as he describes it, what we would call “Christendom” is really what he means. Obviously as a Christian, he is not against Christianity, nor are any Muslims if they ever hear what Christianity is. When he says “Christianity,” he means Christendom. Let me define that more clearly, so you know what we are talking about.
Christendom refers to the historical movement of Christianity which links Western history, Western territorial assumptions, with the Christian Gospel.
Christendom is clearly territorial and its mentality is often linked to the state, where the state has responsibility to protect the church, like the King or Queen of England is the defender of the faith and all of that. What he is talking about actually is this Western megalith of Christian countries which form a major stumbling block to Muslims.
The problem that Rafique comes back to over and over again is what we might call the “us and them” dichotomy. If Christians are viewed as “them” and Muslims as “us,” from a fixed point of view a Muslim will never become a “them.” He will never say, “I’m going to become a member of Western culture or Western society.” There are a few Muslims that will do that; but by and large, most Muslims will not do that. It is “them.” They don’t know any “uses” that belong to Christ, fellow people that grew up in Bangladesh; and there are no Sylhets that belong to Christ. So the idea of somebody that is one of “them” who belongs to Christ is such an inconceivable thought. So the whole Gospel is about “other people” out there somewhere, who don’t speak our language, who don’t know our culture, who don’t dress like us, who don’t look like us, they are Christians. It is like people in America, if you ask them, Why are you not a Buddhist? If you go to Boston and you stop a thousand people and ask them why they are not a Buddhist, you would be very hard pressed to find somebody who has actually examined the claims of Buddhism. Some of them would say, “Actually, I thought their ontology was just unfounded and their doctrine of bodhisatva just did not appeal to me. I just didn’t find it very helpful to me, therefore I decided the wheel of samsara did not match up to the grace of Christ, and so I became a Christian.” I would be flabbergasted if I heard that. What you would more likely hear is, “Me, a Buddhist? I was born in Boston. I’m a Catholic” or whatever. That is how people think all over the world.
There are certain cultural assumptions that if you are in Bangladesh, of course you’re a Muslim. They had a huge battle in 1947 that severed the whole Indian Continent into shreds, based on whether you were a Muslim or a Hindu. All of the Muslims had to go over to what is now Pakistan and what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. That became a very important cultural identity. When the British in August 1905 partitioned Bengal into half: West Bengal which is Hindu; East Bengal which is Muslim, today Bangladesh, those are cultural and historical forces which everybody who goes to Bangladesh is aware of. For them, Christianity is always a “them.” It is somebody out there, it is a group out there, it is not somebody that they can become. That is an issue that Rafique comes back to over and over again. He says, “We have to make them realize the Gospel is something for us, that it is good news for the Sylhet people and you can be a great Sylhet and be a Christian. I am in contact with Indians all the time. Hindus just cannot believe that if you are Christian, how can you be an Indian? How can you be a Hindu? How can you be a good Indian if you are a Christian? They assume a good Indian is a Hindu. These are issues that go across that helps them.
C. The most effective church planting method must adopt a Jesus Christ plus nothing approach
The third and final one, then we will ask questions about the assumptions and we will look at his practice. In light of the first two, the third assumption is, the most effective church planting among Muslims method must adopt a Jesus Christ plus nothing approach. This is what he calls it, Jesus Christ plus nothing approach. We will see more about what that means.
What that simply means is, finding a way to effectively separate the Gospel from the historical expressions of Christianity as we know it in the West. Unfortunately, this class has not read my book on dis-coherence. Essentially this is reproducing this historical dis-coherence. What you do is, you say, “We live in the twenty-first century.” We admit that, of course. We are all in the twenty-first century. The whole world is in the twenty-first century. But, for the sake of this, we are going to pretend like we are in the first century. We are going to approach these Sylhet with the Gospel as if we are all going back in time. We are going to forget the entire development of Christianity in the West and all of that. We are going to present the Gospel in their context as if Jesus died yesterday, almost. He argues this principle on two grounds. His first ground is that the early church effectively communicated the Gospel of Jesus Christ apart from Jewish fulfillment of it and apart from historic connections with Judaism. He said that early on, when the Gospel was in the Jewish context, they took great pains to show the connectedness of Judaism, that Christ was fulfilling prophetic expectations in Judaism. When the Gospel really broke out into the Hellenistic world, they abandoned this whole thing. As you know from the New Testament, once Paul got into the Christian world, the word “Messiah” never comes out of his mouth. He suddenly switches from the word “Messiah” to the word “kurios,” Lord, he uses the word kurios, not Jesus Christ. He is the Messiah, but rather “Lord Jesus,” kurios.
He says that this is what happened in the first century. Again, he wants to reproduce the whole first century in the Sylhet context. He claims that the Greco-
Hellenistic experience of the Gospel was a complete retooling of the Gospel in terms of how it was presented; and yet it retained the heart of the Gospel
message, which was Jesus Christ Himself, crucified. He argues that they adopted radically different cultural and linguistic forms to communicate the Gospel. He says, “Why can’t we do the same thing that the early church did?”
The first ground he argues – these are historical grounds – he is saying this is actually the experience of the early church. They did not communicate with
Gentiles the way they communicated with Jews. So why should we communicate with Muslims the same way we communicate with Americans?
His second point is also historical in a way, but a different kind of historical point. That is, he talks about the Reformation, but he does it in a theological way, so essentially this is a theological point he is making, but it is out of the Reformation. He says the Reformation was based on the principle of sola fide, sola scriptura, sola Christus: Christ alone, scripture alone, faith alone. He says, that is exactly what we are doing. We are trying to argue that the Gospel is about Christ alone, faith alone, scripture alone. Nowhere in there does it say we have to incorporate all kinds of church history and creedal definitions and history, arguing about theological formulations. The Reformation, argues Rafique, does not require that we promote Christianity. It requires we promote Christ and faith and scriptures, what he calls “Christ plus nothing.” He says the Reformation experience was that the historical church had become so corrupted by various influences, that the reformers had to separate the Gospel proclamation from the historical problems and associations people had with Catholicism and abuses and indulgences and all of that, and saint worship/idol worship. Therefore, he argues that this is the same basic situation in Bangladesh. There are so many associations with Protestant Christianity that have clouded Muslims’ view of the Gospel that we have to have another Reformation, as it were; and we have to be able to present the Gospel apart from all of that. He wants to make sure that it is only Christ which separates an Islamic inquirer from the Lord Jesus, not any other kind of outward external thing.
III. Strategic Practice which Flows from These Three Assumptions
Let’s look at how this works out in Rafique’s practice.
A. All Western Terminology Jettisoned.
Because of these assumptions, he jettisons all Western terms and terminology. He will not use a term such as “Christianity” or “church” or “Christian.” These terms he believes are identified with Western terminology. Even the westernized name of Jesus, using that expression of it, is not retained. Instead, they use the Arabic, Isa, which of course you know is the Arabic word for Jesus. So you find a rejection of all kinds of terminology issues.
A few years ago now I was speaking at a very prominent church that prided themselves nationwide in being seeker-sensitive. Nothing against seeker-sensitive churches until my experience. They scheduled me for this particular Sunday; and several months in advance they said to me, “Now you must submit your sermon in advance” which is fine, I don’t mind doing that. So I gave them my sermon in advance. When I got it back, they had redlined all through it. “You can’t use this word, you can’t use that word, you can’t use this word.” I stumbled off and I happened to use the word “sanctification” in that sermon. I’m so sorry. They said, “You can’t use that word.” I had used in that sermon words like “justification, sanctification.” I didn’t get into things like “prelapsarianism” or anything. It was all red-lined. They wanted me to go in there with a “good news for modern man” kind of approach or “good news for the modern person” approach. Which I did, by the way, I did it. It was the whole realization that they are trying to say, “language really makes a big difference; therefore, certain kinds of words have meaning to people, even a word like ‘sin.’ You have to explain what that means, everything.”
He takes the same kind of approach. These words like “church, Christian, heaven, hell,” all of these words have associations that Muslims have that are so different from the Christian position, that you would be very, very careful what words you use.
B. Wholesale Adaptation of Islamic Forms
The second thing he does is that anything that is Islam that does not explicitly reject Christ he allows to continue if it does not reject Christ or contradict scripture or impede faith. Again, the whole thing, solo scriptures, solo faith, solo Christ. He says that if it does not reject Christ, does not contradict scripture in any way and does not impede true faith, then it can and should be adapted and retained. He says that is what we should do.
This goes back to the whole Reformation argument. It is amazing how the whole sixteenth century is being revisited in the twenty-first century. He is saying that the Reformation discussed about, do the scriptures say we should only do what scripture says must be done? Or are we free to do whatever as long as scripture does not prohibit it? Are you familiar with that whole debate in scripture? This is all revisited. For example, he says take something like the word “Islam.” The word “Islam” means to submit. We submit to God, we are the ultimate submitters of God, therefore he sees there is no reason why we should reject the work “Islam.”
The word “Muslim” he argues means “one who submits to Allah.” The same basic point, this whole submission idea. He says, “Christians are those who submit to God, so we do not need to distance ourselves s from words like ‘Muslim.’” So you ask Rafique, “Are you a Muslim?” “Yes, I’m a Muslim” he’ll say. “I’m a Muslim who worships Isa.”
This is a pretty dramatic point he is making on this side. Hear me, I’m not giving you an in-between position. I’m giving you straight out, he is at the far end of this whole argument. The word “mosque.” What does the word “mosque” mean? You know this by now, place of prostration. He says, “What is wrong with that? That is what Christians do. We prostrate before God.” He accepts the word “mosque.” You have Muslims going into a mosque even though they are Christians from the Islam point of view.
He accepts the whole five pillars obviously because of all the reasons we have discussed earlier in the class. The five pillars are all borrowed from Jewish practice anyway. He just re-orients them back to their original orientation. For example, the Shahada. The Shahada says “There is no God but Allah and Isa is the Word of Allah.” It is a very clever Shahada he does, because on one hand it cleverly omits Muhammed; and there are Muslims by the way in the Muslim world who agree with that; and there are some Muslims who are not in favor of Muhammed’s name being in the Shahada anyway. So especially in this part of the world, we are not in the Middle East, granted, we are outside of that. That is not a big problem in Bangladesh. “There is no God but Allah and Isa is the Word of Allah.” Why is that important? Why is that a problem when he uses that expression? Because that is a title from the Qur’an. He is trying to say that the Qur’an does not contradict the Christian conviction at this point, so we will accept that.
So the basic confession of faith, even something a Muslim would automatically say up front, “This is a dumb thing, this is against us,” but “this is what the Qur’an teaches about Isa is the Word of Allah.” If you ask a Muslim, quite apart from this whole discussion, “Does the Qur’an teach that there is no God but Allah?” They would say, “Yes.” “Does the Qur’an teach that Isa is the Word of Allah?” They would also say, “Yes.” Actually, the entire Shahada, even though it is thoroughly Christocentric, is in fact all from the Qur’an. The Salat is identical except they do not face Mecca, they face Jerusalem, which was the original direction of the Muslims anyway, before the famous change that Muhammed underwent. In that text, once again, Muhammed says, “The East and the West both belong to Allah.” You can argue it is a matter of indifference, if you can get away with that. The Sawm, there is no change in that. Zakat, no change. The Hajj, no change except for destination; rather than Mecca, you go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We will come back to these interesting questions.
Basically, he is a strong advocate of essentially retaining the mosque. He wants to create a form which will allow Muslims to enter in as if it is us, this is us. These are other fellow Muslims worshiping Allah. He argues that if you look at Paul’s attitude toward the synagogue, he basically argues that Paul did not have an a-priori rejection of the synagogue. Paul was quite happy to preach the Gospel in a synagogue. Therefore, he says, the development of the church came as an historically subsequent movement because the non-Jews began to form the core, the kernel of the church; and the initial proclamation of the Gospel in that first breakthrough in the Mediterranean world always started in the synagogue, which you have to admit is true. The proclamation outside the synagogue happened later. So he says the proclamation of the Gospel in the Bangladeshian context must begin in the mosque, just the way Paul began in the synagogue.
He is not saying that a generation from now we won’t all have our own churches. Now the time has passed, that is exactly what has happened. They had their own churches and they are not part of the mosque per se. He argues that the initial proclamation should happen within the mosque. These are Muslims saying, “We have discovered Jesus Christ as the Lord and we still feel like we are good Muslims, that is, those who submit to God; and we feel like we want to retain that sense.” This goes back to a point made earlier, that the mosque is retained not only because of its meaning in terms of “the place of prostration,” but therefore all of the cultural problems with churches are removed. When you go to a mosque, you remove your shoes, everybody knows that; so people still remove their shoes. There is no portrait of Christ there, etc. All of those issues are taken away.
Also, one of the criticisms that Muslims have often about the church is – I think it is ill-founded actually, but I think we have to always hear objections – they have a perception that churches are only open on Sunday morning because especially in the Middle East, from where Muslims draw their information, this happens. They literally lock and chain the doors of the church. In fact, with any of these churches, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and famous churches like that, it is a big issue about who holds the key to the church. I think now there is actually a Muslim guide who holds the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is a big historic debate about who actually can lock the church up, and all of these issues that Muslims are aware of. It is a discussion that is not part of our circle; but it is a part of their conversation.
They have the belief that Christians go to worship on Sunday and then they go home and that is the end of it. So the church is viewed as basically a place where nothing happens during the week. You certainly would not go there to discuss political issues. You would not go there to discuss family issues. It is kind of a separated thing. It is part of their perception. Whenever you talk to Muslims, they often say, “For us, Islam is a way of life.” Have you ever heard Muslims say that? They love to say that. Hindus do that, too, by the way. “For us, Hinduism is a way of life.” By implication they mean that for you, it is not. ”For you, you believe, this, this, this; but for us, it is a way of life.” That is a perception that we have to address, even if it is ill-founded. If you have been in the Muslim world, you know this, if you walk down the street any day, I don’t care what time, especially during the day, any day – Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday or Sunday – and you go to the courtyard of a mosque, is it empty? No, it is full of people. They are sitting around, talking. These guys have their suphas there, counting beads. They are talking about politics. They are discussing America, the great Satan, whatever. It is all being discussed. The mosque is like the heart of the whole culture. Rafique says that in Bangladesh, anyway, there is no way, even from a sociological point of view, quite apart from everything else, you cannot get around the mosque. It is where everything is discussed and happens. It is a place where any change occurs. If the Gospel is going to be inserted into Bangladesh society, it must happen within the mosque in some way. It is a difficult issue, but that is what he argues. That is where they gather to discuss ideas. That is where they debate about whether or not Isa could be the Messiah, etc.
Another issue along this line is the area of Friday vs. Sunday. Some Christians are very concerned about the particular day of worship. For some of us, it is a matter of irrelevance perhaps. The Bible says, as you know in the scriptures, Col 2:16,17: “Some regard one day more important than others. Let each man be convinced in his own mind.” From one point of view, you could say, How important is it that Christians worship on Sunday? To those to whom it is irrelevant, they are quite happy to say that since Muslims have Friday off, that is their day of congregation anyway, then we will worship on Friday, it is not a big deal. That takes care of a huge group of Christians who are not even interested in the discussion. But there is another group of Christians for whom the Sunday issue really is a theologically important issue. So Rafique wants to address that. He asks the question, “Why do Christians worship on Sunday?” Of course, as you know, they worship on Sunday rather than the Jewish Sabbath because the sixth day, Sabbath, looks back to the initial creation, so it is a reflective kind of day; whereas Sunday is the first day of the week, the day that Christ was resurrected, it looks forward to new creation. It is a theological shift that some Christians argue is very, very important. Therefore, the Sunday worship is something which you can’t just blow off and worship on another day of the week. Christ rose on Sunday.
Rafique points out that Friday is not just the cultural equivalent to Sunday, which everyone acknowledges, but it is the theological equivalent of Sunday because in the Hadith, the Hadith teaches, that Friday is the day when the resurrection of the dead will take place at the future time. Therefore, even for a Muslim, Friday is the resurrection day. Therefore, he argues that Friday can actually serve as a theological equivalent and there is no reason why Christians could not or should not change their day of worship and worship on the same day the Muslims worship, which is Friday noon, as the Qur’an calls it, the day of congregation. He made that switch and he worships on Friday.
As we already have here, he addresses the whole issue of the word “Christian.” I heard him asked this when he was in California. I spent a couple of weeks with him. He was there discussing some of his ideas and I said to Rafique, “Do you have any plans for breakfast?” He said, “No.” I said, “How long will you be here?” “Two weeks.” “Let’s have breakfast for the next two weeks.” So we had breakfast every morning for two weeks in Los Angeles. One of the questions that I asked him, that later on whenever he spoke it was asked repeatedly, was “What do you have against the word ‘Christian’? What is you beef? After all, we are all Christians.” We will come back to this later on in my critique. He came back kind of like I have done with the whole thing of Trinity. He said, “Whenever I talk to my people, the Sylhet and I ask them, ‘What is a Christian’? I don’t hear back something like, ‘A Christian is just someone who believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died upon the cross for their sins.’” He didn’t even hear that. He said, “When I use the word ‘Christian,’ what they actually hear in their ear is, ‘Somebody who is from the West, who smokes cigarettes, who wears pants, who drinks alcohol and eats pork.’” Those are all difficult issues for Muslims to accept. That is what a Christian is to a Muslim in Bangladesh. He said, “I’m speaking of my own people. I know, I grew up a Sylhet I’ve been a Muslim my whole life. I know that is what we think of when we hear the word ‘Christian.’ When that word hits our minds, we think
about from the West, they smoke cigarettes, they eat pork, they drink alcohol, etc.”
He argues therefore, jettison the term. In the New Testament they were called “people of the way.” It wasn’t until they went to Antioch that they were called
“Christians” as you know from the Biblical text. They were only called that because they were distancing themselves from the term “Jew.” If it is okay to
distance yourself from words that are misunderstood, then why is the word “Christian” so important? No-one is denying that these people who called
themselves “people of the way” are not lost because they didn’t use the word “Christian.” I am trying to argue his point as best as I can.
Clergy vs lay. I don’t think is a major issue for us, but for some people it may be. In the Muslim world, they are very proud of the fact – I think it is a myth – that Islam has no clergy. They love to say that. “We have no clergy. We are a lay movement.” I think basically Christianity also is basically at its root a lay
movement. So that is not a major issue, but for some people that is maybe a bigger issue for them. What he argues is that the only way you can really promote the Gospel among the Sylhet is through lay people, through ordinary Muslims who enter into a mosque as what he calls “change agents.”
This is where we get into more specifics as to what he actually does. What he does is, when someone comes to Christ among the Sylhet, rather than go out and start a new building called a church and everybody comes to it and it’s separate, it’s “us and them,” he says, “Don’t leave your mosque. Stay in your mosque. Stay there, don’t leave because that mosque belongs to Jesus Christ, it belongs to Isa. That mosque belongs to Isa, it is a place of worship. Jesus has said, ‘Everyone should worship me.’ Don’t give it up to the devil. So you stay in your mosque.” He calls this person a change agent. You have essentially a person who is in the mosque, worships on Friday, who removes his shoes, who goes through ablution. This also could be “she” by the way, he or she. The women are behind a curtain in the mosque. They go through the whole process. They go into main floor of the mosque. They fall down and bow down with everybody else, in complete tandem with the rest of the Muslims; but they are going through their own rak’ah and they are professing their faith in Isa as the word of Allah.
This person is a change agent. This person begins to share with their friends as a Muslim within the mosque, who still calls himself a Muslim and says “I have discovered that we have not really given proper attention to Isa.” They begin to explore this. So in a sense this person is actually hearing the Gospel, not from somebody out there, but from one of us. “This is a guy who worships with me. He is saying that he has discovered Jesus Christ.” It blows their minds. “And he is still coming to the mosque.” This is how he does it. He says, “We present Isa as the only true mediator between Allah and man.” So he accepts the whole enthronement thing in one way. He says that this is the whole point. There is this great gulf that can’t be crossed. But God has provided a way across the gulf that we haven’t talked about, haven’t discovered in Isa. Isa has bridged this gulf. He will even say in his discussions with the Muslims, he says they have this emphasis on the Ihram, the cleansing. Isa is the true Ihram, the true cleansed one, the only one without sin, perfect reflection, exact representation of Allah. This is kind of the way it is done.
Allah vs. God. I will very quickly make the comment that when you talk about using the word “Allah” as opposed to God, it operates on several levels.
Linguistically Allah and God are equivalent. Allah is the Arabic word for God, just the way God is the English word for God. That is not a problem. Propositionally, revelationally, the word God in English, the Muslim Arabic word, Allah, if you look at the way it is revealed in the Qur’an and the Bible, they are not the same. There are some definite differences between Allah and God. That becomes an issue. Whenever you adopt a word for God, then you have to deal with, at what point are there differences? This is something we will have to come back to in my critique. In what way do you have to redirect people’s use of the word “Allah” when they are speaking revelationally? Positionally a person who says “I worship God” and a Muslim who says, ”I worship Allah” are positionally, apart from Christ now, in a radically different position, because the person who says, “I worship Allah” does not worship Allah as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The person who worships God does. So they are positionally or you might say, soteriologically in two different positions - one is saved, one is lost. So when you talk about the use of the word “Allah” vs. God – this would be true for any indigenous language. One has to reckon with the various levels of this, how it operates on a linguistic level and a revelational level and a positional level.
I think what Rafique is basically arguing is that the person who begins to worship Allah as a young person, grows up, is in this third position. They are positionally separated from God. As they come to hear the Gospel, they begin to re-evaluate revelationally what is meant by “Allah” and it comes into greater confluence with the Christian view of God. The result is that the Muslim can essentially adapt the word “Allah” so when he or she says, “I worship Allah” in fact it is a Christian statement, the way Arabic Christians say, “I worship Allah” to this day. It is not a problem. Therefore, there is no real problem with this linguistic equivalent issue.
Those are some of the major issues that are raised by Rafique and how he deals with it. I want to make a few brief comments on critiquing Rafique and raise some serious questions about his methodology. This is from my point of view only. Many people have different views of Rafique; but I will give you my own.
IV. Critical Analysis of Rafique’s Methodology and Vision
I want to say first of all, before I get into the critique, that I like Rafique and I really believe that Rafique and people like him – not so much to focus on him – that people like Rafique play a very valuable role in forcing Christians to think missiologically about reaching Muslims. To me, that is the biggest plus. He has really forced the church to ask questions we otherwise would not ask. One of the problems I have with theological education in general often is that theological education can sometimes be missiologically irrelevant. I don’t mean that in any way to criticize theological education because obviously you know from this class I take theology very seriously and we spend a lot of time dealing with it. But a lot of times you go through an entire slate of theological reflection, but not really think seriously how it applies to some of these issues. Therefore, you can actually have a 4.0 and have a massive degree in theology, but really not have a clue of how this actually works out and the questions that are asked, the new questions in the Muslim context or the Hindu context.
Part of the value of any religious encounter with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., is that it forces us to go back to the scriptures, ask hard questions, think about theology, and maybe ask new questions that have not been asked in the traditional kind of way that the West has asked them.
A. Form vs. Meaning – Legalism vs. Grace
For us to do that, I think one of the issues that is raised by Rafique is this whole issue of form vs. meaning. Rafique is right, that meaning is more important than form. I concede that point to Rafique. There is no question that Christians should not be overly tied to outward forms. There is nothing really particularly wrong per se with somebody following the five pillars or whatever, in terms of form. In this book, he talks about his own prayer life, etc. He mentions how he gets up every day and he prays five times a day. He worships in a way that makes total sense to the training session he had with Muslims from the Sylhet world who had finally come to Christ. He says, “How can you argue? When I came to Christ there were only three Sylhet Christians in the world and there was no movement to Christ among the Sylhets and now there are hundreds and hundreds coming to Christ and this may be the first major people movement to Christ in the Muslim world.” He is saying that you have to take him seriously.
The Pugh Foundation actually gave some money to look at this and see if his methodology would be applicable in other parts of the Muslim world. This is
training of Muslim Christians for the whole idea of the change agent. He says, “During the training we all prayed five times daily using the forms of the Islamic Salat.” They went through the whole thing, times of prayer and everything. “For the recitation from memory we used different chapters of the Bible, The Psalms, Sermon on the Mount, The Lord’s Prayer and 1 Cor 13.” Just like Muslims have certain chapters they tend to focus on, we talked about that. He did the same with his followers. They recited 1 Cor 13, etc.
The result was revolutionary. These believers, these believing couples, saw that it was possible to re-establish the ruptured relationship with their families and therefore convince them that they were not renouncing God by becoming Christians. Their families thought that if you have become a Christian, you have renounced God. Rather, they had found God through Jesus Christ. They were able to convince their relatives and friends that they stand for everything that is good in Islam, that Salat and fasting practiced with new understanding can help build a personal relationship with God. Of course, these should all be offered only in the name of Christ.
In that sense, I think he has a great point to make. But, when you take the five pillars of Islam, which we have acknowledged openly are all borrowed from
Christian/Jewish practice, they are established in Islam as a means of righteousness. It is very, very difficult to separate those forms from that particular
means. I think what Rafique does is that he assumes that once Christians adopt a form and call it “Christian,” that the old meaning all just dissolves overnight, he says that now it is gone. I think that in fact, there are many Muslims – granted it is going to be in their blood and down in their bones more than in their profession – are quietly thinking that the repeating of the five pillars is the way we please God, even as Christians, or followers that he has, and that somehow this is earning our standing before God. I think there is an issue of legalism and grace and that it does raise serious issues about legalism vs. grace.
To me, this does not mean that Rafique’s methodology is therefore dead in the water because of this objection. It just means that Rafique has to be very, very careful that when he instructs his followers to retain the five pillars, that it is on a wholly different foundation. Whether that is successful or possible, or not, I don’t know.
B. Connection with Body of Christ – Missions
The second objection I have is the whole concept of, “What does it mean to be a part of the body of Christ?” In many ways I think that this might be potentially the weakest link in his methodology because when you have someone coming to Christ, it seems to me that you have to relate them in some way to the global Christian community. Right now, a follower of Isa who worships Allah and his son, Isa, still views you and me as “them.” That is the whole thing with this “us” and “them,” it works both directions. On one hand, he wants so much to make these Muslim followers of Jesus keep being part of “us,” part of our group. He doesn’t want to create this “us” and “them” separation. Yet, by doing that, what has actually happened is that these followers of Christ still view you and me as “them.” Therefore, we are somehow not in the same body of Christ. This raises all kinds of historical issues. What about issues like the Trinity, the Chalcedonian formulas of Christology? Those are really important historical landmarks in the Christian faith. I’m sorry, you cannot go around those things, you have to go through them.
I would agree with Rafique that we may not want to retain the Latin terminology. We may want to find different ways of expressing it. I know that in Sanskrit, for example, there is no equivalent to words like “person and substance debate.” That distinction does not occur in Sanskrit. You have to really go around it and discuss it in their language in different kinds of ways and it can be very effectively done. So in that sense I think Rafique has a point. But at the end of the day, when these people come out of this experience, they have to see themselves as part of a global movement. Otherwise, there is no mission, there is nothing. You have kind of a caricature of the body of Christ.
I would challenge Rafique, “What is the missiologic future of a church that does not seem to have a global mission? What is the future of a church that does not see how it is connected historically or theologically with the church as a whole?”
It is one thing to say that new churches in Africa have theological and historical discoherence; but another thing to say is that we are by strategy creating
theological and historical discoherence, which is what he does. He actually creates this discoherence by saying, “We will as a means of strategy not introduce any historical or theological development issues that have come up in the church’s life since the first century.”
C. Christ plus nothing vs. Islam plus Christ
The final point I want to make is that while Christ plus nothing certainly resonates with the Reformation in many ways and essentially how he explains it with sola fide, solo Christus, sola scriptura. In fact, what often happens is that rather than Christ plus nothing, it is Islam plus Christ. There is a big difference between those two. Christ plus nothing is quite fair enough, preaching the Gospel without all kinds of accoutrements. But what he actually does is take people’s current practice and works of Islam and tries to insert Christ into that, Islam plus Christ.
That may not be bad, that may be okay; but let us at least acknowledge that we are still looking at a church one hundred years from now that will look a lot more Islamic than anything else. So in a way, the whole thing kind of presupposes that we are in a country that will always be predominantly Islamic, and we are trying to hide ourselves in some way in this context culturally and religiously.
Again, this is where the change agents are themselves separated because there are some who have said, “No, our position really is Christ plus nothing. We are not really tied to Islam in the long run. This is just the way we talk to Muslims; but in the next generation we are not so concerned about the mosque and all of that, we are just trying to present Christ alone and let the church have its own national development.” Others are much more committed to keeping within the mosque and staying in their whole structure. So that depends on how you perceive it.
Those are at least some of the major issues which need to be raised. In critiquing Rafique, though I think that he, by and large, raises many important issues, it is valuable for us to listen to what he has to say and honestly listen, not only to people like Rafique, but any Muslim convert in the world who truly comes to Christ. It is a great exercise. Sit down with them and say, “Okay, tell us from your background, why did it take you so long to come to Christ? What were your perceptions?” You need to do it very early before they have been a Christian too long. We did this regularly in India. We planted two hundred churches in North India and we had a lot of contact with recent converts to Christianity from total Hindu backgrounds. We very quickly talked to them in depth. “What was it that attracted you to the Gospel? What did you hear differently? What were your misconceptions? It has put a light on how the average Hindu actually sees the Gospel before its entrance into the area. That is the kind of thing that I think is helpful for Rafique’s reflection.