By MARLIN JESCHKE
---- — Death for apostasy has been one of the laws of Islam ever since its early centuries. The basis for this law was a comment made by Muhammad during the conflict between Mecca and Medina. In the seesaw of this conflict some Meccans professed Islamic faith when it seemed Medina was winning, but then renounced that faith when it seemed Mecca was winning. It was about these hypocrites that Muhammad said, “Kill them.”
The word of Muhammad in this special context was the source of the law prescribing death for any Muslim who converted in an altogether different context, and however sincerely, to another faith. It has been a powerful deterrent to many Muslims over the centuries who have been tempted to convert to Christianity.
Even apart from this law Muslims are generally not inclined to convert to Christianity because of Islam’s basic teaching that God’s revelation to and through Muhammad supersedes God’s revelation in and through Jesus the Messiah, because Christians allegedly corrupted that revelation. For this reason just about all Muslims see conversion to Christianity as a return to an earlier and inferior religion, somewhat similar to the way most Christians would see conversion to Judaism as a return to an earlier and inferior faith.
In past centuries few Muslims have therefore converted to Christianity. Much of this may be ascribed to Islam’s imperial power at the time Christian Europe was in the Dark Ages. But since the modern rise of the predominantly Christian West, Christians have engaged in missions to Islam, and many Muslims have been exposed to a new look at Christianity. A few have converted to Christianity but not been killed. Still, for most Muslims, Islamic law still stands as authoritative in the back of their minds, much like the teaching of Jesus stands in the back of the minds of Christians, even where they have not followed this teaching in actual life.
A new phenomenon has now appeared in this encounter between Christianity and Islam. According to a Jan. 14 Christianity Today email, some Muslims are converting and yet not converting to Christianity. They are “worshiping Jesus in the mosque.”
What is happening is that they may see Jesus in a dream, in one case connected with the miracle of a mysterious multiplication of food, and this moves them to become a believer in Issa (Jesus). But these believers in Jesus do not feel constrained to leave Islam. They call themselves “People of the Gospel.”
One Muslim convert to Christianity has done theological education in the United States and undertakes an assessment of this phenomenon. He sees a problem in the usual Christian approach to Muslims. Too many Christians, he says, have demonized Islam and hindered Muslim appreciation of Jesus. In one case, for example, an African convert was told he should not use the word Allah for God anymore, but the word for God used in the local tribal language.
What is needed, says this theologian-convert from Islam to Christianity, is for Christians to recognize that their outreach to Muslims is not different from Christianity’s mission work in other cultures, where Christians have allowed the Christian message to be adapted to local culture, even at the risk of some syncretism. Christianity needs to recognize, he says further, that Islam is also a culture or subculture in different parts of the world, and the Christian mission should accept things in that culture compatible with faith in Jesus Christ.
“We need a Muslim-focused church-planting strategy,” he says, “because it will produce a church that uses the terms and forms from their Muslim community.”
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.