Reaching Muslims with the Gospel of God: An Interview with Abdul Saleeb
by Abdul Saleeb
Abdul Saleeb: My first encounter with the gospel and the Christian faith was through the ministry of a group of American missionaries in Europe. When I discovered that Christians did not believe that Jesus was simply a prophet but God incarnate who had died on the cross for our sins, my first reactions were: 1. Christians are insane. 2. How can anyone believe such blasphemies? Through many months of attending church, reading the Bible and comparing it with the Qur’an, and debating with my Christian friends, the Spirit of God finally opened my eyes to see the truth and beauty of Christ. The two truths that touched me the most to convince me of the truth of the gospel were the Old Testament prophecies about Christ and especially His deity (for example, Isa 9:6), and the emphasis on grace and love in the New Testament.
TT: Many Muslims claim to have seen Jesus in their dreams, and, as a result, some have professed faith in Christ. What are your thoughts on these widespread reports of Muslims seeing Jesus in their dreams?
AS: It is simply a fact that dreams are an important element in the testimonies of many Muslims who have come to faith in Christ. I believe dreams are an important part of many of the cultures around the world, and God is using dreams as a bridge to draw people to Christ. However, the impact of most dreams is to encourage the individual Muslim to become more open to hear about Jesus from Christians, visit a church, or read the Bible for the first time. Usually dreams in themselves do not have a full-fledged gospel presentation, and they do not replace the need for a human witness or the Scriptures.
TT: When witnessing to a Muslim, what are the major points that Christians should seek to engage?
AS: The deity of Christ and the cross of Christ are the two most fundamental truths of the Christian faith that the Qur’an denies. Although the Qur’an gives some lofty titles to Jesus (the “Spirit of God” and a “Word from God”) and acknowledges His virgin birth and miraculous life, Jesus was merely a prophet and not the Son of God or in any sense divine. The Qur’an also denies that Jesus was ever killed or crucified. According to Muslim belief, He was taken up to heaven and someone else was mistakenly put on the cross in His place. Obviously, there is no good news if Jesus never died for our sins and is not Himself God in the flesh, with the authority to forgive our sins.
TT: Islam is seen as a violent religion by many. Is such a perception a misunderstanding?
AS: This is a very difficult and complex question. Islam has been interpreted and practiced in many different ways throughout its fourteen hundred years of history. Some interpretations of Islam (such as those of many Sufi Muslims) have been more peaceful than others. It is simply not true to think that all devout Muslims are, by definition, violent Muslims. At the same time, I believe that violent Muslims can legitimately justify their violence by appealing to the many violent passages in the Qur’an and the many violent sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad against his enemies recorded in the Islamic traditions. There is a contradiction rooted in the very text of the Qur’an, with its many conflicting commands toward non-Muslims, and the behavior of the prophet of Islam between his first thirteen years of ministry in Mecca (where he was a peaceful messenger to the idol-worshiping pagans) and his final ten years of life as the military leader and ruler of the Muslim community (when he picked up the sword for the defense and spread of Islam).
TT: How do Muslims view terrorism?
AS: Like the previous question, this one is also a complex issue. Only a small fraction of Muslims in the world are behind terrorism. Those Muslims are usually labeled today as Jihadists. There are vast numbers of conservative and traditional Muslims who look to Muhammad as their model of piety and religious life, and who oppose terrorism. They might interpret the violent examples in Muhammad’s life (fighting with the pagan Arabs, killing one of the Jewish tribes in Medina, or murdering some of his opponents) as examples of self-defense or actions that were confined to particular situations in the prophet’s life and thus not carrying significance for all times and places. Most Muslims actually focus only on the positive examples of Muhammad’s kindness, generosity, and humility, and completely ignore the darker episodes of his life.
TT: Does Islam have a real desire to see the West converted to its religion, and if so, how?
AS: We have to understand that Muslims do not all believe and act the same way and do not all have the same agendas and goals. For example, many Muslims have come to America not because they want to establish Shari’a Law or see America become a Muslim nation, but because they want to escape from oppressive Islamic countries and experience the freedom and democracy that we enjoy here in America. Those Muslims who might desire to see the West convert to Islam believe, for the most part, that it should be done through da’wa, which literally means “invitation” (that is, propagating Islam through the peaceful means of preaching, writing, social transformation, and so on). Of course, it cannot be denied that there are also Islamic groups in the West that have more sinister approaches to spreading Islam in the West (for example, threats and intimidations on individuals who criticize Islam, asking for special Shari’a-compliant laws for Muslims, and so on).
TT: How should Western European and American Christians respond to Muslim immigration?
AS: Christians must never respond to Muslims out of fear, hatred, or anger. In fact, the church in the West should view the coming of Muslim immigrants as an opportunity for the spread of the gospel in communities that have never been exposed to the gospel before. God is bringing the mission field to our doorsteps. Instead of fearing, we should rejoice that we live in a free country and can present the gospel with love, humility, and respect to our Muslim neighbors without any fear of persecution by an Islamic regime. Inviting our Muslim neighbors, co-workers, or fellow university students to our homes and churches should be a high priority for every Christian family and church. Muslims are often very interested to talk about religion and spiritual issues. It is usually Westerners who view faith as a private affair and shy away from “talking about religion.” I believe that talking to Muslims will also challenge Christians to become better equipped in their own faith. It will require Christians to dig deeper into the Scriptures, theology, apologetics, and church history in order to respond to the questions that Muslims often ask (for example, “How can you make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity?”; “How can a man be God?”; “How can Jesus’ death two thousand years ago forgive my sins today?”; or “How do you know the Bible is not corrupted?”).
TT: What is the single biggest misunderstanding about Islam among Christians?
AS: That Islam is a monolithic religion. Christians are often not aware that there are deep conflicts and tensions among various Muslim communities (not just between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, but even within the Sunni and Shi’ite communities).
TT: What is the single biggest misunderstanding about Christianity among Muslims?
AS: That Christianity has been corrupted (starting from the Apostle Paul and continuing throughout church history) and no longer reflects the teachings of Jesus. Muslims charge that not only has the Bible been tampered with and corrupted but that Christian beliefs in the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, original sin, and the atonement are Christian distortions that were not taught by Jesus.
It is thus very important for Christians to gain an accurate understanding of Islam, to learn how to explain and articulate their faith in a way that makes sense to Muslim inquirers, and to witness to the gospel in a loving and respectful manner.