Sharing Jesus with Muslim friends

Maryam is a Muslim student who was born in the UK. She lives with her family – parents, siblings and grandparents in the one home. Maryam wears a head scarf, she is active in the University Muslim Students Association, and you notice that she’s fasting during Ramadan.

Aziz is an international student from the Middle East. He’s always been a Muslim, it’s who he is, what his family is, but he never goes to the mosque. Although close to his family who are back in his home country, he enjoys the freedom of being in a foreign city and is curious about western society and culture.

Across the globe, almost one person in every four (24%) identifies in some way as a Muslim.[1] There are around 3.4 million Muslims in the UK,[2] and there are likely to be many Muslims on your university campus.

Origins of Islam

Islam emerged in Arabia in the seventh century AD. Muslims believe that God (Allah in Arabic) called Muhammad to be a prophet and gave him a message for his people. The following is an historical outline according to Islamic traditions:[3]

570 Muhammad was born in Makkah into the Quraysh tribe. His father died before he was born. His mother died when he was six. At that time, the Arabs worshipped a moon god, a sun goddess, some female deities, and one high god, ‘Allah’.

610 Muhammad received the first of his revelations. He had gone to meditate in cave on Mount Hira near Makkah. The angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him ‘recite’ (Qur’an 96:1. Arabic iqra from which comes qur’an). Over the following years, Muhammad received more revelations and also gained followers who believed that his messages came from God. These followers were called Muslims – those who submit (to Allah). Islam means submission.

622 Following opposition and persecution from the people of Makkah, the Muslims migrated from there to Yathrib, later called Madinah. The migration, or hijra in Arabic, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Muhammad became the leader of Madinah as a theocratic state. In the succeeding years, many battles were fought, and gradually, the Muslims took control of most of Arabia.

632 Muhammad died aged 62 and was buried in Madinah.

Following Muhammad’s death, the Muslims (or ‘Arabs’ as they were referred to in contemporary records) expanded their rule into the Middle East and North Africa. In the ensuing centuries, Muslims ruled from Spain in the west to India in the east. A number of powerful empires emerged, and in the middle ages, Muslim civilisations led the world in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and other sciences, arts, architecture, medicine, philosophy and the preservation of ancient sources of knowledge.

Today many countries have Muslim majorities, from Indonesia in the east to Morocco in the west. In addition, many other nations contain significant Muslim minorities, including many European nations. In British universities, many Muslim students are UK citizens who have spent all or most of their lives here. Others are international students who have come to the UK to pursue their education.

Violence committed in the name of Islam often features in the media, and some Muslims do resort to violence. The vast majority of Muslims are not violent and feel both outrage and embarrassment at atrocities carried out in the name of their community. Most of the victims of violence committed in the name of Islam are themselves Muslims.

Your Muslim fellow student may be very devout, or she may not practice her faith at all

Muslims vary hugely across the globe, and something of that diversity will be reflected among Muslim students in the UK. This makes it important to get to know Muslims as individuals and not assume that they conform to some stereotypical pattern or idea of what we think a Muslim should be and do. Your Muslim fellow student may be very devout, or she may not practice her faith at all. (Last week, I was talking to an ’agnostic Muslim’). He may adhere to a particular sect or movement, which may have quite different emphases and beliefs from other groups within Islam. You will only find out by getting to know and talking with them.

Having said that, there are some basic beliefs and practices that the vast majority of Muslims would view as normative, whether or not they adhere to these closely.

Beliefs

Commonly, there are six articles of faith that Muslims are meant to believe. These are:

The oneness of Allah

The one God created and rules over all things, he is almighty, all seeing and knowing, is merciful, and is judge. Many Muslims would regard Christian teaching about the trinity as compromising this fundamental doctrine, although it is fair to say that few have a really clear understanding of the orthodox Christian doctrine.

Angels

Angels are created from light (as opposed to humans being created from earth). Among other activities, they are involved in transmitting revelation to prophets, and they record the good and evil deeds of every human being.

Prophets

Prophets are individuals entrusted with a message from God to bring to their people. The message of all the prophets was essentially the same – that people should abandon idols and worship the one God alone. The prophet plays no part in the formulation of the message; they simply receive it in completed form from God. Prophets are regarded by many Muslims as sinless, or at least innocent of major sins.

The Qur’an stresses Muhammad’s continuity with earlier prophets, the most prominent of whom we would recognise as biblical characters such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Zechariah, and John (the Baptist). Muslims believe Muhammad was the final prophet, ‘the seal of the prophets’.

Jesus is also believed to be a prophet. The Qur’an affirms that he is the Messiah but does not explain what that means. The Qur’an denies that Jesus is the Son of God, but this is usually thought of in biological terms – that God had sexual relations with Mary, and they had a son, Jesus – which most Christians would also find horrifying. Jesus is not believed to be divine, and Muslims commonly deny the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, although many believe he was taken up alive into heaven.

Books

The revelations of some prophets are contained in books. In Islam there are often said to be four books: the Taurāt (Torah) revealed to Moses, the Zabūr (Psalms) revealed to David, the Injīl (Gospel – note one Gospel, not four!) revealed to Jesus, and the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad. Many Muslims claim that the original Taurāt, Zabūr and Injīl are no longer in existence and that the Bible we have today has been changed by Jews and Christians. It is important to note, however, that the Qur’an speaks in the most positive terms about these earlier books, as light and revelation from Allah (see Qur’an 3:3–4, 84; 4:136; 5:46–47, 68).

Muslims believe the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic and should properly be read or heard in Arabic, even though the majority of Muslims around the world understand little or no Arabic.

The last things

Islam is an eschatological faith. There is a belief in a final resurrection and judgement, and eternal destinies of paradise and hell.

Predestination

The belief that everything that happens is pre-ordained.

Practices

Islamic practice majors on what are known as the five pillars. There is huge variation as to how much and how closely these are adhered to. The five pillars are:

Confession of Faith

This confession is: ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger’. This confession or kalima is whispered into a child’s ear after birth and, when an adult repeats it before two witnesses, it constitutes that person as a Muslim.

Prayer

The word salāh in Arabic refers to ritual prayers, which are said in Arabic and involve a cycle of standing, bowing, kneeling and prostrating. There are five set times a day when prayers should be performed, for men, preferably in a mosque. There is also another Arabic word, du’ā, that is translated as prayer or supplication, which can be in a person’s own language and using their own words to address God.

Almsgiving

Muslims are required to give 2.5% of their income towards charitable activities.

Fasting

Ramadhan is the tenth month in the Islamic calendar, and during this month, many Muslims refrain from food, drink, smoking and sexual relations during the hours of daylight. At the end of the month there is the festival, Eid ul-Fitr, which signifies the end of the fast and is a time of celebration and feasting. ‘This is our Christmas,’ is how Muslim friends have described Eid to me.

Pilgrimage (Haj)

Those Muslims who have the means are required to go on pilgrimage to a number of sites in Arabia, including circumambulating (walking around) the ka’aba, the black cube-shaped building in Makkah. The ka’aba is viewed as the house of God and, wherever Muslims are in the world, this is the direction towards which they pray. Pilgrimage takes place during the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. During the haj period, there is also another festival, Eid ul-Adha, or festival of sacrifice, in which animals are sacrificed all across the Muslim world in commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice of a sheep as a substitute for his son (usually believed to be Ishmael).[4]

Muslim Cultures

We have already stressed the huge variety among Muslims and the importance of getting to know and talk to individuals. Having said that, most Muslim cultures are far less individualistic than western culture is. Family is hugely important for most Muslims, and for many, adherence to Islam and identity as a Muslim are tied up with loyalty to their family. Islam is not regarded as a ‘religion’ compartmentalised from the rest of life; it is a total way of life, and that way of life is very much bound up with family and community – it is who we are.

Islam is not regarded as a ‘religion’ compartmentalised from the rest of life – it is a total way of life

In the West, we tend to be individualistic about sharing our faith with others. With people from Muslim, and indeed, many other cultures, it is important to keep in mind that the individual you know is likely to be part of a very strong family – learn to think family.

If you can, get to know members of your Muslim friend’s family. At the very least, pray for the whole family and take an interest in them. Sometimes, Bible verses or stories I have shared with one person have been passed on by them to other members of their family.

Sharing Your Faith

The good news is that talking about your faith with Muslims is relatively easy. Muslim cultures tend to be ‘non-secular’. Unlike in some Western contexts, talking about God and spiritual matters is not taboo, it is very natural. So you can be very open about your faith – about praying, reading the Bible, being part of a church or Christian Union, trusting God, seeking to honour God with your life.

Here are ten pointers for sharing your faith with your Muslim friend:

Be a good friend

The Gospel is not just words/doctrines, but it affects your whole life. If you are walking with the Lord, that will show in your life. When Muslims come to faith in Christ, usually the friendship of a Christian is a key influence.

‘Be quick to listen, slow to speak’ and ask questions

Muslims share basic common beliefs, but there are vast variations. There is no single ‘typical’ Muslim, and no one way to tell the good news. Therefore, it is vitally important to listen and understand the particular individual/ group you are relating to (that’s true with everyone, not just Muslims). Ask about beliefs and practices. Often, they will be very happy to share – and may ask questions back.

Don’t criticise the Qur’an, Muhammad or Islam

Such criticism will often slam the door shut to further witness. Some may have questions and doubts, but criticism is likely to put people on the defensive. ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).

Don’t focus on a religion, ‘Christianity’

Christianity is frequently viewed as the religion of the West and as being tied up with Western culture. I remember a conversation with a Muslim friend where he said, ‘I was chatting to a couple of Christians in the shop the other day,’ when I knew from the context that the only thing to distinguish them as Christians was that they had white skin. We might have a clear idea of what we mean by ‘becoming a Christian’, but your Muslim friend may understand it very differently. She may understand it in terms of rejecting everything in her background, her whole culture and way of life, and becoming like the majority of Westerners. Our desire and prayer for our friend is not that they abandon everything in their religious-cultural heritage so much as abandoning their idols, whatever those idols may be. And instead of rejecting their background in its entirety, our desire and prayer should be that Muslims bring their background to the Lord Jesus to submit it to him and allow him to transform it.

Focus instead on the Holy Books and, most of all, on a person. The Taurāt, Zabūr and Injīl are, according to the Qur’an, revelation from Allah. And these Scriptures are about a person – the Lord Jesus Christ, who said, ‘These are the very Scriptures that testify about me’ (John 5:40).

Use the Bible (and use it creatively)

Often narrating a story from the Bible can resonate with Muslim friends, and of course, the Lord Jesus frequently told stories. Many Muslim cultures have a strong tradition of storytelling, particularly stories of prophets. The Bible is full of engaging, exciting narrative, much of it about characters recognised as prophets by Muslims – use it. Part of the power of stories is that they are not usually directly confrontational but can communicate effectively in a way that a straightforward propositional statement often cannot. Another way of using the Bible is texting verses or short passages to friends. I’ve been texting parts of Psalms or even whole Psalms to a Muslim friend, who really appreciates them as prayers of the prophet David. You might be able to think of other creative ways of using the Bible.

Take care when speaking about Jesus

Some care is needed in communicating who Jesus is.[5] It may be best initially to avoid using the term ‘Son of God’ and then later to explain what it does and doesn’t mean. Speaking of Jesus as divine is likely to be met with bafflement and/or outright rejection of the idea. Remember though, that Jesus didn’t on day one announce himself to be God. He invited his disciples to follow him and spend time with him, to listen, observe and learn, and to begin a journey of discovery. As they heard his claims and witnessed the things he did, they wrestled with the question, ‘Who is this?’ (Mark 4:41). It is only after three or so years with him and then witnessing his resurrection from the dead that they come to worship him as, in Thomas’ words, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:28). Our desire and prayer for our Muslim friends is that they go on a similar journey of discovery – so we need over time to expose them to Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospel narratives. And be patient; there is much for your Muslim friend to process – it will normally take time.

Be aware of issues around the cross and resurrection

The death and resurrection of Christ is particularly difficult as many Muslims have been told that Jesus wasn’t crucified but was taken up to heaven. The Qur’an is somewhat ambiguous on this, but for many the issue is similar to that of the earliest disciples – how could God let the honourable Messiah die such a disgraceful death? A crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms. Jesus’ own way of dealing with that was to take his disciples to the Old Testament: ‘“Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24:26-27).

Focus on what God is like

Don’t get hung up on whether or not Allah, whom Muslims worship, is the same as the God Christians worship. Muslims who come to faith in Christ usually have a sense of continuity between the God they knew about from their background and the God they now worship through Christ. They have now come to know God personally. The question is not, which God? but, what is God like? The important thing is to communicate biblical content about Allah/God. (‘Allah’ is the only word for God in Arabic, is used by Muslims whatever their mother-tongue is and has been used by Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians since pre-Islamic times).

Pray for, and if appropriate, pray with your Muslim friend

They may ask you to pray for them, or they may share with you some trouble or struggle they are experiencing. I have often found Muslims very appreciative when I have prayed with them. (I don’t usually address God as ‘Father’ when praying with Muslims as that would be a distraction right at the beginning of the prayer. I do, however, finish my prayer ‘in the name of/through Jesus the Messiah’).

Sharing Jesus with Muslim friends is a tremendous privilege. They often have many struggles in their spiritual journey. Take the long view – be patient and pray!

Resources

  • Mahabba. https://www.mahabbanetwork.com. The Mahabba Network’s website has all kinds of helpful material on relating well to Muslims and sharing your faith.
  • Holy Injil, Luke is a beautifully presented translation of Luke’s Gospel into English using religious terminology and names that are familiar to Muslims. It also provides notes to help the Muslim reader navigate their way through Luke. Available at www.holyinjil.com.

References

[1] Conrad Hackett and David McClendon, ‘Christians Remain World’s Largest Religious Group, but They Are Declining in Europe’ (cited 29 March 2021).

[2] Office for National Statistics ‘Muslim Population in the UK’ 2018 (cited 29 March 2021).

[3] The Qur’an has very little by way of biographical material about Muhammad. The earliest extant account of Muhammad’s life, that of Ibn Hisham, dates to almost 200 years after Muhammad’s death. The Hadith literature (previously oral traditions of what Muhammad did and said) was also written down around the same time. This and other factors have led some modern historians to question the traditional account of Muhammad’s life and Islamic origins; see for example, Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword (London: Hachette Digital, 2012).

[4] In Qur’an 37:100–109 there is the story of Abraham’s sacrifice, resembling to some degree the account in Genesis 22:1–19. Qur’an 37:107 says, ‘And We (Allah) ransomed him (Abraham’s son) with a great sacrifice’ – a verse I find very helpful when explaining why Christ died.

[5] The title of this article – being part of a series, ‘Sharing Jesus with…’ – is itself problematic because, in many Muslim cultures, titles are important, and speaking about plain ‘Jesus’ may seem disrespectful to Muslims. I tend to speak to Muslims of ‘the Messiah Jesus.’

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