Why is it Difficult for a Muslim to Become a Christian?
Originally Published in His Magazine, February 1981
The article that follows is meant to be a general introduction to the Muslim world—not a comprehensive statement. Not everything here is true of every Islamic country or every Muslim individual. The article is presented to give insight into some of the hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world—and the tens of thousands right on our North American campuses.
A Look at Islam
Thirteen hundred years ago Islam charged across the continental bridge of the Near East to Asia, Africa and Europe. Today it is the second largest religion in the world. Over the centuries it has withstood Christian missionary efforts and is actually spreading rapidly throughout the world with an evangelistic vision of its own.
So what stands between Muslims and Christianity? We urgently need to consider the barriers, both doctrinal and personal, that Muslims encounter when they consider Christianity if we hope to bring the good news to the followers of Allah.
This article is a general introduction to those barriers. It is not, however, a comprehensive statement. Not everything here is true of every Islamic country or every Muslim, but most Muslims have problems with Christianity in three areas: the person of Jesus Christ, His death on the cross, and the reliability of the Bible (as compared with the Quran, the Islamic scriptures, also spelled Koran).
Accepting the Prophet While Rejecting the Son
The person of Jesus Christ represents the first and possibly the biggest barrier to belief. Muslims acknowledge Christ as a prophet, but find it unthinkable that God has a son who is equal to Him in power and glory. Allah (the Islamic god) stands alone and unequaled.
Early in his childhood, a Muslim is taught that Christians worship three gods. Whoever tries to explain to a Muslim that these three persons of the Trinity equal One will strike against a misunderstanding, which can work into outright hatred. Our occidental dialectical thinking can hardly be tolerated by an Islamic mind: either God is one or He is three, but He is never simultaneously three in one; three persons cannot be one, and to suggest that He is three is blasphemy.
Yet at the same time the Quran includes clear references to the uniqueness of Christ. For instance, Muslims believe Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, worked miracles, healed the sick, and raised the dead. But while Christianity testifies that Jesus is the eternal Word of God through whom all things were created, one with the Father in essence (not created), Muhammad declares that Jesus was created in Mary at a point in time out of nothing, through the creative Word of God.
Christians testify that Christ existed in eternity before all time; for Muslims, Christ is unique, but He is only a man—a prophet, without divine Sonship and without the cross.
Such references, which are remains of the pre-Islamic quarrels in the early churches of the Near East, also appear in other places in the Quran. In it Christ is called “the Word of God” and “a spirit of Him” (though Muslims generally would understand “Word of God” to be a phrase referring to the written Quran). Many a fight took place in the history of Islamic theology on the question of whether God’s Word is eternal or finite, so that it would not have to admit that Christ, “the incarnate Word of God,” even from His birth stood higher than Muhammad.
Thus Islam is a spirit that refuses the divinity of Christ, a stance rejected by the New Testament (1 John 4:3-5).
Denying the Cross
The second basic offense to a Muslim is the testimony that Christ was crucified. Here we have to note that Islamic criticism is not directed toward the meaning and fruits of the crucifixion, but that Islam completely denies this historical fact itself.
Muslims believe that they are in fact honoring Jesus since Allah would never allow His prophet to suffer such humiliation and suffering. Muslims reject the cross because they do not understand the concept of a loving God sacrificing Himself for His people. In their eyes, the crucifixion demeans Jesus.
Many Muslims believe that Christ did not die on the cross, but was taken up alive to heaven. Such a belief undermines such basic concepts as justification, the resurrection of Jesus, and the regeneration of believers by the Holy Spirit.
Muslims view the cross as unnecessary, because separation from God is not entirely a matter of personal responsibility or the result of sin. Sin is regarded as a slip or a mistake, which takes place because Allah created man weak and temptable. One could view Allah as one who arbitrarily promotes someone to paradise or throws someone into hell, like a big dictator whom everyone fears and from whom there is no escape. Thus the cross is unnecessary and represents an attack on Allah’s sovereignty. Allah needs no sacrifice and no mediator to reconcile the world to himself, for he forgives whomever he chooses whenever he chooses. The true character of Islam is revealed in its consistent rejection of the cross. While we see the incarnation of Christ as the prerequisite for His substitution on the cross, Muslims deny both.
If you tell a Muslim that the account of Jesus’ death on the cross is the best documented part of the gospel, you will quickly strike upon the third basic offense that separates Islam from Christianity: Islam’s understanding of revelation.
Muhammad explained that all differences between the Bible and the Quran are proofs of the corruption that Jews and Christians have introduced into the original Old and New Testament revelation. Islamic textural criticism is not concerned with which verses are genuine words of Jesus or which literary sources make up the gospel. Instead, the Quran is vigorously promoted as the only valid measure for divine truth. Thus whatever is not in accord with the book of the Muslims is regarded as corrupt and untrue. It is on this basis that Christ’s bodily ascension to heaven is proven.
For Muslims, Christ is the only man who is in proximity to God, but only as a prophet—without the cross and without divine Sonship.
Who is Allah?
The three basic offenses between Islam and Christianity represent only the tip of the iceberg. The main cause of the incompatibility lies deeper: it is in the Islamic understanding of the sublimity and uniqueness of Allah. Allah is the entirely different one, the incomprehensible and unapproachable one. He is incredibly great and stands beyond the scope of our intellect. He was not begotten and does not beget. No one is equal to him. Jesus’ birth as the son of Mary and of God is abhorred by the Muslims as an unthinkable, sensual degradation of Allah.
The Islamic understanding of the sublimity and uniqueness of God is the primary cause of the separation between Muslims and Christians.
Allah is so big that he alone determines the destiny of all people. Luck, accident, death, mishap and failure are often credited to Allah. As a result, fatalism is deeply entrenched in Islam and hinders both human activity and responsibility. Intellect and incentives can be restrained by this conception of God. All thoughts and decisions of a Muslim are utterly predestined. According to Islam, human beings were not created in the image of God but more as His slaves.
Consequently, the Islamic idea of worship means surrender, submission and devotion to Allah. When most Muslims think of prayer, they do not imagine a free conversation with God, but an incorporation into a liturgy which throws them into prostrate submission before Allah several times a day.
It is that spirit which binds all Muslims and hinders them from becoming Christians. The understanding of Christian prayer is completely different. Here we find one of the widest gaps between the two religions.
This rigid conception of God has influenced all areas of Islamic culture. For many centuries a man reigned over his wives and children like a patriarch. A teacher ruled over his pupils. An employer often resembled a slave owner, just as many caliphs and sultans frequently exercised an unlimited and bloody power. Whoever was sick, weak or poor was reckoned as being punished by God. The strong, rich and victorious, however, were confirmed by Allah.
The Christian’s path of lowliness, Jesus’ cross, and the “boasting” of Paul over his weakness are diametrically opposed to the spirit of Islam, and make Christianity appear as an inferior religion of degenerates.
The thought that God is a Father, and that out of love for the corrupted world he offered His only Son, is not only strange for a Muslim, but ridiculous, if not blasphemous! Every assertion of the nearness of God and His fatherly care is regarded as self-deception. Instead, the distant, mighty and great dictator-god is worshiped and feared. In the future Islamic paradise, Allah will not personally be present, for he always remains far from his creatures, great and invisible.
He who says that God revealed Himself in the man Jesus is regarded as a liar and seducer.
Reading the Scriptures
Our Christian concept of inspiration involves hearing, being anointed with the Holy Spirit, and enlightenment. These are, in spite of human weakness, united with responsibility toward the revealed Word. The Quranic understanding of Allah also influences the Muslim understanding of inspiration and hence their attitude toward their Holy Scriptures.
The Islamic concept of inspiration is radical. Allah dictated his revelations to Muhammad word by word, so that the nearly unconscious prophet sputtered forth his Suras as a passive tool. His prophecy is regarded as the conclusion of all revelation in which the highest wisdom and the deepest knowledge are presented to humanity.
A Muslim does not think he belongs to a deficient religion but, on the contrary, thinks that he must bless all men with his veneration of God.
For a long time it was nearly forbidden, out of reverence for the revealed word, to interpret the Quran or to discuss the content of the Suras critically, for all revelations were held to be clear, understandable and final. No man is able to fathom or judge the words of Allah. They can only be received passively, accepted obediently, and kept faithfully—never criticized or further developed. As a result, the Quran is learned completely or partially by heart without necessarily being understood.
This static way of thinking still influences the learning process in some universities and schools, so that some Arabs carry a volume of knowledge with them which works in their emotions and subconscious but is not unfolded in dynamic planning.
In addition, the Quran was written in a kind of rhyme that is memorable and catchy in the Arabic language. Sometimes for the sake of rhyme, Muhammad inserted words where they do not fit according to the content of changed syllables to secure the rhythm of the intonation. The exact content always remained secondary to the sound. Based on this poetic principle, a feeling originated in the Arabs that was built on catchy sound and style but not on systematic logic.
Our gospel is different. It was not written in the form of a poem but in prose, and demands thinking, delving and understanding.
It is stated that the Quran was written in the most beautiful language of God, while the Bible is available only in a rugged translated Arabic. The gospel sounds strange and profane in the ear of the Muslim while the Quran stands as a shining poem unsurpassed by anything that has been written.
For these reasons a Muslim cannot understand the Bible easily and does not accept it as a foundation for his worldview. He does not hear the rhythm in it, and the reading process itself seldom creates in him a willful decision or reflection.
Therefore, in evangelism we must learn to rethink and offer selected texts of the Bible to be memorized so that the true words of God can fill the subconscious of a Muslim and slowly develop Christian thinking and consciousness. Happy are the preachers who do not present cold, dogmatically clear sermons, but who bring the good news with verve and emotion, for the understanding of the Arabs does not come first through the head, but through the heart.
The Power of the Clan
Another hindrance that prevents a Muslim from becoming a Christian is his ties to his extended family. Most Arabs are still not conscious of an independent “I” but live rooted in the “we” of their clan. This is one of the biggest differences between the East and the West.
Westerners have slid down the ladder of decay from the spirit of fellowship in the extended family (we) into the isolation of the individual (I), who is at the moment sinking into the nameless masses where one does something only because everyone else is doing it.
Arab countries too are now in transition from the clan to the individual. The “I”-consciousness is slowly being born in individuals through the infiltration of East-Western materialism. In this painful process, the family is led into a crisis. So far only a few have stepped out of their clan, for the majority still think in terms of a fellowship with father, uncle and brothers. In some areas, it may happen that a young Arab man does not marry the girl whom he loves because his family advises him and decides who fits him best.
Thus also faith is a matter of the clan and not the decision of the individual alone.
So when a Muslim leaves his old faith, not only does it bring great disgrace to his family but, above all, it means his severance from the “we” in which he was rooted and anchored. This process is deeper and broader than we can imagine. It causes many converts to become lonely and often leads to despair and thoughts of suicide.
Half of all Arabs are less than 20 years old. It is especially the modern schools and universities, but also movies, technology and wars, which are creating the irresistible upheaval in Islamic culture. In the larger cities, skyscrapers are shooting up from the sand. Whole clans can no longer find enough space to live together since the apartments are only planned for families with two to four children. Social security is becoming necessary everywhere because the supporting capacity of the clan system is disintegrating. Many people become lonely and search for a new spiritual home and an inner security; therefore, the call of the gospel of Christ may be understood more easily than before.
The Bad Conscience of a Convert
Whenever a Muslim, in spite of all the hindrances, begins to come close to Christ (most converts are between 18 and 25 years old), he is confronted with the basic sin in Islam, which for him corresponds to the Christian’s sin against the Holy Spirit.
Whoever places a partner or another god beside Allah will never receive forgiveness, and whoever leaves Islam is condemned and is regarded as eternally lost.
Thus in addition to all the pressures of dogma, logic and family comes the voice of conscience restraining a Muslim from stepping over to Christianity.
Islam cannot be compared with religions in countries where the gospel was completely unknown before Christians arrived. Islam is a post-Christian religion, which has consciously dealt with Christ and has developed into an anti-Christian power. Muslims have become immune to the Spirit of Christ; they have been vaccinated at an early age against the teachings of the gospel.
When a Muslim approaches Christ, he must decide between revelation and Revelation, between the Quran and the Bible. No more dialog is possible here, because the Quran asserts that Allah dictated the whole truth to Muhammad. He who consciously turns toward the gospel and begins to believe in Jesus Christ, uniting himself with Him, must also decide to put away the old revelation as a lie.
There is no bridge between the Quran and the gospel in any essential dogmatic question unless the representatives of both sides twist the facts of their writings or tolerate opposing teachings.
This step of refusing the Quran is a difficult and bitter one in each convert and cannot be forced. The power of the Holy Spirit is crucial, leading the follower of Christ with growing faith into an ever-clearer discernment of spirits. Often Muslims who believe in Christ try to uphold both sources of revelation as truth. The result of this position is either a theological schizophrenia or a superficial faith that soon disintegrates.
Stepping Over to Jesus Christ
When a Muslim seriously occupies himself with investigating the gospel, it will not remain hidden for long. At first most of his friends will discuss the matter with him; then they will warn him, then leave and despise him. His wife has the right to be divorced from him. His children then no longer belong to him. Above all, his clan will begin to observe him critically. Then they may kindly ask him not to bring on their name the shame of apostasy (which could have economic consequences). If the investigator ignores the warnings and decides to become a Christian, they may threaten to end his schooling. They may take his pocket money and beat him. If this has no effect, the convert’s own family may cast suspicion on him and accuse him of stealing or committing an indecent assault. He may be imprisoned. The respectable family separates itself from this corrupted member who has denied Allah and has become godless.
The Quran literally demands the killing of converts out of Islam. Even today, every one who is converted must reckon with this danger. In the Central Arabic countries, this threat exists undiminished. This is why no open conversions are known there. In Arab countries with Western contact, however, a kind of tolerance has developed in accordance with the extent of Western education, which, though not affirming the conversion, does not carry out the killing demanded by the Quran. The parents of the convert regard their child as dead, or see that he emigrates and thus disappears from view.
Deep and Bitter Separation
In all cases, the inward and outward separation from parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends is bitter and deep. The new Christian rarely severs himself from his family on peaceful terms, but rather is ridiculed, cursed and despised. This severing not only takes place dogmatically and logically in the mind, but irreplaceably breaks the “we” of his deepest roots. Now he stands shocked, bare and alone in a world that knows no compassion.
In Muslim-ruled countries, religious freedom means that the Christian minority is allowed to remain Christian or become Muslim, but not the reverse.
The possibility of the conversion of a Muslim to Christianity is not even provided for in the law. So far there is no way for an Arab Muslim to legally change his religious affiliation unless he emigrates and accepts a new nationality. This rigid situation becomes tragic when a convert wants to marry a Christian. In most Arab countries, only religious sheiks or priests can issue marriage licenses. The result is that for a Christian man or woman to marry a convert, they are forced to appear together as Muslims before the sheik, and the children from this marriage automatically become Muslims.
In several countries, the authorities have already intervened to break up and forbid gatherings of converts, to imprison the leaders, and in some instances to torment them. Death sentences have not been known in recent years, but uneducated parents again and again have tried to kill their children in anger and hatred if they came to believe in Christ.
One must realize that as of 1972, about 70 percent of all Arabs could not read or write. Since then, great gains have been made in literacy and education. Still, it is understandable that uneducated parents fanatically hold to their memorized Quranic texts and traditions and, in obedience to the spirit of Muhammad, hate their own flesh and blood. They do this in order not to drop out of Allah’s blessings and their cultural community.
With this, the clan as an implementer and guardian of the Quran is the biggest hindrance for a Muslim to become a Christian.
The Convert in the Arab Church
Not all Arabs are Muslims. In several Arab countries, churches have existed since the time of the Byzantine Empire.
Christians number between five and eight million out of about 100 million Arabs. These minorities have developed their own Christian terminology. In such isolated Christian groups, Arabic is spoken, but many words have been filled with meaning that differs from that which Muslims, familiar with the Quran, usually understand. Thus, speech, custom, spirit and experience separate them from the Islamic ocean that surrounds them.
Within the last 150 years, Protestant missions have entered into these Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, Syrian, Nestorian and Catholic churches. They produced fairly large Arab-Protestant churches with about 100,000 members. However, in terms of hymns, clothing and behavior, they represent only a poor copy of their mother churches in America, England and Germany. They have not become Islam-oriented evangelistic churches.
A deep chasm separates the Arab Christians from the Muslims. The persecution and oppression of past centuries, the different ways of thinking and praying, the distrust and hidden fear, have produced hardened hearts.
When a young Muslim leaves Islam, he suffers much inner conflict, tears himself away from his clan, possibly loses his job or is forced to flee, and then turns to a Christian group for fellowship. Here he often suffers another abuse: most Christians will stand off from him, eye him critically and distrust him. They think he is a spy or that he is looking for a cheap education in a mission school. Maybe he even wants to carry off a nice girl or take one of the few jobs available.
Thus he must suffer the double pain of being expelled from the Islamic world and not accepted by the Christian one.
The new Christian is rejected by the very people he imagined to be saints and the children of God, according to the Bible. This sobering fact shocks him deeply. We know Muslims who have said to each other, “It is better to outwardly remain a Muslim and in secret believe in Christ. For if your relatives expel you, then the Christians will also not receive you!”
Adaptation to the Christian Life
A young Christian still has a lot of growing to do in a life that is completely different. It may take years before Muslim thoughts leave his head. He has a thousand changes to make in his lifestyle:
He must take on a new attitude toward work.
His married life must adopt new moral standards and a readiness to serve the other.
Money is no longer allowed to remain as the aspiration of all his thoughts and hopes.
He also needs practice in observing Sundays, in disentangling politics and religion, and in the truthfulness of his speech.
He needs, like all of us, growth in sanctification so that the fruits of the Spirit of Christ ripen in him.
If in these, and other areas of life, a genuine growth and ripening in fellowship with others does not take place, then the danger is great that his faith will remain a superficial and intellectual matter and never take on flesh. The other danger is that the Islamic world will suck the apostate back in because he had never left it with his whole heart.
During this spiritual growth, there is a dangerous stage in which some believers in Christ drop back to Islam. Formerly, the new Christians had idealized their faith and imagined Christian pastors and priests to be perfect. Now they discover the humanity and the flaws of the followers of Christ. They see selfishness, ambition, hard-heartedness, impatience, and many other things over which they shake their heads and say, “They are not any better than we are.” They see denominational splits and strange kinds of “mission work” and experience another shock, and say, “They are not united. They steal members from each other, and everyone thinks that his church is holier and better than that of the other.”
The effect is especially adverse when some super-missionary-minded group takes a new, enthusiastic convert and lets him give his testimony before large audiences, or takes pictures of him to display in their mission periodicals, even though he did not originate in their own evangelistic work. However, when it comes to helping him find work or a spouse, the group has other priorities, and the new believer again finds himself alone and deserted. In this way, the testimony and joyfulness die in those who left their Islamic community under persecution and suffering.
For a Muslim to grow in faith, he needs much time, counseling and teaching, and some living examples. It is not just wise words, but deeds of love and the friendly atmosphere of a Christian home that reveal Christ to a Muslim. The convert needs fellowship with like-minded friends, his spiritual brothers and sisters. He needs again the warm nest of the “we” that he lost. He needs to find among Christians, roots, nourishment and love.
For this reason the question of why so few Muslims become Christians is turned back to us. We are the reason: we cannot help new converts grow with our little faith, our weak prayer power, our deficient love, and our unwillingness for sacrifice. The Reverand Iskandar Jadeed, an Arab and a former Muslim, once said: “If all Christians were Christians, there would be no more Islam today.”
Copyright Information: Reprinted in Inter Varsity's Student Leadership journal, winter 1993, from His Magazine Feb. 1981 issue, with renewed permission of the author in 1993.