Ten years ago, my wife, Roberta, and I were in Peshawar, Pakistan, two blocks from the Taliban hospital. We were in the home of our son and his family, joining in a farewell party for a Christian pilot. Another pilot approached us and said, "I don't know whether I should tell you the news now or after the party." Of course we said, "Now." He said the BBC had just reported that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
A quick check on the Internet showed a little picture of a building with a quarter inch of a flame—one that radiated heat and light through the following decade to where we stand today. That heat and light have generated conflicting responses: increased resistance and receptivity to the gospel among Muslims, and increased hostility and peacemaking among Christians. It has been the best of times and the worst of times for relations between Christians and Muslims.
Of course, the roots of Muslim resistance to Christianity go back to some of the earliest encounters with Christians, but tensions have increased significantly during the past century. Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood reacted to the secular and Christian culture introduced by European colonizers and missionaries. I met with leaders of the outlawed Brotherhood in Egypt during the late 1970s, and it was evident that while some were peaceful and some were militant, all felt that secular Islam was their primary enemy. By 9/11, some offshoots began focusing on the "distant enemy": economic, military, and political centers in New York and Washington. The subsequent televised pictures of non-Muslim bombs dropping on Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan elicited further Muslim hostility toward the "crusading West."
Opposition to Christian witness intensified in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2010, when Muslim converts to Christ were imprisoned and threatened with the death penalty. In Pakistan, Muslim converts to Christ were imprisoned for apostasy; they were later released—and then killed on the street. This past year in Pakistan, both the Muslim governor of the Punjab region and the Christian minister of minority affairs were murdered just for opposing the law against apostasy.
On the other hand, more rigid or militant forms of Islam often increase receptivity to the gospel. This happened during the Khomeini Shiite revolution in Iran in 1979 (22 years before 9/11) and the Sunni Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that facilitated 9/11. In fact, Iran and Afghanistan reveal a broader pattern: Whenever Muslim governments have adopted a militant type of Islam or have tried to impose a form of Shari'ah law—and where there has been a local example of an alternate, friendly Christian presence—Muslims are attracted to the gospel. But persecution often follows.
The receptivity has also been particularly noticeable when Muslim factions are at odds—such as the Mujahideen militias after they had driven the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989, the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and the herdsmen and villagers in Darfur. Such hostilities and their resultant migrations, natural disasters in Bangladesh and Aceh, and ethnic resurgence among the Kabyle Berbers in North Africa have all led to an increased receptivity to the gospel.
Also, in spite of growing suspicion and hostility, a large percentage of Muslims have remained peaceful. My wife and I witnessed this on our return trip to Peshawar on September 11, 2002. Before sunrise, we flew down the western edge of Iran, the very place that birthed not only the Khomeini revolution but also some of the most beautiful poetry about Jesus (e.g., "Seek healing from the Christ, for he from … every fault can set you free"; Jami, 15th century). The predawn prayers for God's glory and mercy recited by the Muslim passengers on our flight echoed the prayers the hijackers had uttered to steel their nerves, but for violent ends.
During a layover in Dubai, we visited the reception room in the former mud house of the ruling family, where thousands of cups of Arabic coffee had been served with traditional Muslim hospitality. At the madrasah next door, students had been taught rabbinic-like values such as obedience, justice, and honor, not the hate of the Taliban. On the final leg of the flight, the old man beside me, with his bare feet under him, rocked back and forth in his seat, chanting prayers for protection. Finally, as we landed in Peshawar, the call to prayer floated from many mosques, representing the variety of Muslims present in the nation—some militant, some peaceful.
New Christian Debates
We have seen a comparable polarity among Christians, which in turn has affected missionaries and their supporting churches.
Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham made statements that suggested Islam was an evil religion incapable of reform or genuine dialogue. This continues to be one stream of thought on Islam among some Christians.
At the same time, 9/11 prompted both Christians and Muslims to work on peace-building. When anti-Muslim feelings ran high after the tragedy, Christians in Seattle sat by the entrances of Islamic centers to dissuade irate people from doing harm. My wife offered to go shopping with our Muslim Pakistani neighbors. Fuller Theological Seminary began regular meetings with local Muslims and joined with the Salam Institute at the American University in Washington, D.C., to foster peace-building without denying the need for mutual respectful witness. Yale Divinity School helped facilitate a series of consultations with Muslims on "A Common Word," centered on passages in Muslim and Christian sacred texts about loving God and neighbor. North Park University and Seminary likewise helped organize a series of evangelical and Muslim dialogues. Evangelical missionaries such as the Southern Baptists have, in general, opposed the negative stereotyping of Muslims in favor of a more cordial attitude.
In theology, Christian literature on Islam runs the gamut from apologetics (Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb's Answering Islam) to bridge-building (Kenneth Cragg's A Certain Sympathy of Scriptures).
In prophetic writings, we've seen conflicting interpretations of the roles of Israel and Islam in the end times (Colin Chapman's Whose Promised Land? vs. Mark Hitchcock's The Coming Islamic Invasion of Israel).
In spiritual encounter, the approaches range from confrontational (Grant Jeffrey's War on Terror) to reconciling (Christine Mallouhi's Waging Peace on Islam).
In terms of evangelism and church planting, some Christians argue that converts from Islam can retain their Muslim social identity, while others argue that a complete break with Islam is required.
Dealing with Terror
The tragedy of 9/11 has raised a number of new issues, and the ever-present possibility of terrorism has forced missionaries to Muslims to consider anew the role of suffering in discipleship. Ten workers in Afghanistan, two of them personal friends, paid with their lives last year. Security training for missions personnel—what to do when personnel are kidnapped, for example—is now part of missionary preparation. To avoid attracting unnecessary attention (and thus hostility) to missionaries to Muslims, names of specific people, places, countries, and organizations are now largely left out of articles like this one. Many mission organizations are reluctant to send missionaries with children to such dangerous areas.
At the same time, for the sake of integrity in the communications age, Christian workers are striving to make their ministries and identities more transparent. Following the example of Paul, who combined being a genuine tentmaker with being a witness, they seek to have an integrated identity.
Terrorism raises questions not only about missionary safety and transparency, but also about the appropriateness of certain forms of witness in some Muslim contexts. Two young women in Afghanistan, going against the missions consensus at a time of tense government relations, went ahead and entered homes with Bibles and the Jesus film in hand. This led to their imprisonment and to the expulsion of all known Christian workers in the nation the week before 9/11. But it seems that God, in his providence, used this situation to get those expelled out of harm's way from the subsequent bombing and fighting there.
The most significant missions development since 9/11 has been the increased number of students who want to be missionaries to Muslims. The first class I taught on Islam after 9/11 had 100 more students than usual. This interest built on the emphasis of the "AD2000 and Beyond" and Lausanne movements on the "10/40 window," the section of the world that includes major non-Christian religions. Increases in student numbers were also the result of interest in Muslims raised by the 1979 Khomeini Revolution in Iran. Todd Johnson, an editor of the Atlas of Global Christianity, has calculated a 26 percent increase between 2005 and 2010 in the number of missionaries working in Muslim-majority countries.
Corresponding to broader trends in globalization, many missions to Muslims have formed global networks to identify Muslim people groups who have yet to hear or respond to the gospel. These networks have started sharing personnel and resources. A book and companion CD I edited, From Seed to Fruit, is the product of such a network.
Overall, we are seeing Muslims following Jesus as never before in history. They are choosing a spectrum of identities that embrace the gospel without abandoning their origins. Some are identifying with churches that use the language and worship styles of foreign missionaries. Others are using indigenous language and worship styles but with a clear Christian identity. Still others are retaining as much of their socio-religious Muslim identity as possible while confessing Jesus as Savior and Lord and the Bible as their supreme authority. There are even imams in places like East Africa who preach from the Bible in their mosques. God appears to be working across the board.
Some missions personnel champion an attractional church model in which converts make a clear break from their socio-religious background. Others practice a transformational model where they plant the gospel among people who remain in their socio-religious community and, like yeast in dough, are transformed as they study the Bible under the guidance of the Spirit. Needless to say, there is considerable controversy over these differences in approach (see "Muslim Followers of Jesus?" Christianity Today, December 2009). So a consultation was held in upstate New York in June to correct misunderstandings and misrepresentations, to encourage discussion in grace and truth, and to reach as much of a consensus as possible.
A New Flame
The recent "Arab Spring" offers both hope and concern. Like 9/11, it started with a fire: the attempted self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor after he was shamed by authorities. The flames ignited revolts in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Christians took part in initial demonstrations for democracy, and in Egypt, Muslims and Christians protected each other during prayer. Christians were even able to preach in Tahrir Square. But concern remains that sectarian strife will continue to plague Egypt as police have become less effective.
A recent worldwide Gallup poll indicates that although a majority of Muslims want democracy, they want Shari'ah to have some role. This may just mean the inclusion of Islamic values or, alternatively, more rigid laws that make Christians second-class citizens and conversion from Islam unlawful. The nature of future law will depend on whether more conservative groups like the Muslim Brotherhood take control of Egypt and other nations. Just how many Muslim countries will be changed in the near future is unclear. But certainly the rising, more secular youth are beginning to push aside the bin Ladenism of the past—even though more terrorist attacks may occur.
What led to that bin Ladenism and 9/11—the post-Soviet fighting between Mujahideen, the rise of the Taliban, and terrorist camps—resulted in thousands of Afghans fleeing to Pakistan, where they were put in refugee camps. In one of these camps outside Peshawar, conditions were dismal. Since refugee children ran around barefoot in intense heat and cold, a Christian organization brought in hundreds of sandals. The group decided it would not just distribute the sandals but wash the children's feet first. To do this, they enlisted as many Christians as possible, including our daughter-in-law, who carefully washed the children's filthy feet, put medication on their sores, and prayed silently for them before giving them the sandals.
Some months later, a primary-school teacher in the area asked her children who the best Muslims were. A girl put up her hand and said, "The kafirs" ("disbelievers").
After the teacher recovered from cardiac arrest, she asked, "Why?"
The girl replied, "The Mujahideen killed my father, but the kafirs washed my feet."
Ultimately, the future of missions to Muslims will be affected less by the flames of 9/11, or even the flames that started the Arab Spring, than by the inner flames that are ignited if we so follow our Lord, who modeled the basin and the towel, that our Muslim friends may echo the words of the disciples in Emmaus: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"
J. Dudley Woodberry is dean emeritus and senior professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today also published a sidebar on how a suburban Chicago church ministers to Muslims at home and abroad.
For more on the Atlas of Global Christianity visit AtlasofGlobalChristianity.org.
Previous articles by and about Woodberry from Christianity Today and our sister publication Christian History include:
Can We Dialogue with Islam? | What 38 Muslim scholars said to the pope in a little-known open letter. (January 31, 2007)
Islam's Culture War | Author says Muslims are troubled by our morals more than our politics. (March 8, 2005)
Christians & Muslims: Christian History Interview—Justice and Peace | Because broken promises fueled Islamic militancy, the road to stability must be paved with good faith. (April 1, 2002)
Other CT articles on 9/11 include:
How Leaders Have Changed Since 9/11 | Christian leaders describe how that fateful day shaped how they see the world. (September 7, 2011)
Wake-up Call | If September 11 was a divine warning, it's God's people who are being warned. (November 12, 2001)
Where Was God on 9/11? | Reflections from Ground Zero and beyond. (October 1, 2001)
CT has more on terror, Islam, other religions, and missions.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingCompany that Trademarked ‘Worship Leader’ Makes Others Drop the TermPopular meme accounts lose social media pages after being reported by Authentic Media, which says it coined the phrase.
- From the MagazineWhy Does Creation Groan?Scripture and science suggest that animal suffering fits into a divine artistic story.
- RelatedHillsong Says It Is Moving ForwardNew revelations will require increased accountability, but pastor wants to look to the future.
- Editor's PickShift Your Bible Reading into a New GearJonathan Pennington has written the rare study aid that equips without oversimplifying or overwhelming.