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I Understand
Volume 4.1 / Contextualization and "Encroachment" in Muslim Evangelism


Contextualization and "Encroachment" in Muslim Evangelism

Fred Farrokh
This essay seeks to assist Christian messengers by describing the encroachment that is occurring in missional experimentation when Christian messengers utilize Qur’anic textual bridging, the reinterpretation of Muhammad by Christians, and the misuse of the term Muslim. Encroachment occurs in ministry to Muslims when Christian messengers enlist and redefine sacred Islamic texts, persons, and identifiers in a way that usurps from the indigenous communities those texts, persons, and identifiers. Informed Muslims rightly consider these methods deceptive, since these methods seek to create common ground between the biblical and Islamic faiths that does not exist. The essay concludes by recommending alternative contextualized-evangelism strategies that foster more fruitful cross-cultural communication among Muslims and which will not cause unnecessary offense among them.

Boundaries have importance in many settings, including theological and missiological ones. Al-Ghazali was a luminary Islamic theologian and philosopher who authored over seventy works.  Among these notable works of al-Ghazali, who died in AD 1111, was Faysal al-Tafriqa Bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa[1] [The Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing Islam from Heresy]. Faysal al-Tafriqa drew the classical Islamic boundary for marking who was a Muslim and who was not. Ghazali ruled that anyone who believes in Allah as the sole deity and Muhammad as the final prophet must be afforded protected status as a Muslim. He further ruled that anyone who deems such a believer as a kafir (infidel, non-Muslim) is himself a kafir.

Christians, likewise, have long-contemplated boundaries, even in the area of Christian ministry to Muslims. The main boundary or “fine line” which has provoked controversy in the past several decades is the distinction between contextualization and syncretism. The tension between these two concepts occurs from the point of view of the messengers, or missionaries.

This essay introduces the concept of encroachment as another important fine-line tension which has emerged in ministry to Muslims. Encroachment occurs when Christian messengers enlist and redefine sacred Islamic texts, persons, and identifiers in a way that usurps from the indigenous communities those texts, persons, and identifiers.

This essay begins by reviewing the contextualization-syncretism tension that is apparent from the perspective of the messengers. Second, it describes a similar, yet inverse, tension—encroachment—that becomes apparent from the perspective of the intended audience: Muslims themselves. Third, examples are provided of commonly-used ministry paradigms which fall into the category of encroachment. These include Qur’anic textual bridging, the reinterpretation of Muhammad, and the usurpation of the term “Muslim.” Fourth, to aid Christians in understanding encroachment, examples are given of Muslim encroachment in their efforts to propagate Islam. This essay concludes with recommendations that promote a more wholesome, effective, and ethical communication of the gospel to Muslims.

1.     The Tension between Contextualization and Syncretism: From the Perspective of the Messengers

Contextualization, as used it in this article, is defined generically as the communication process by which a given messenger makes a given message understandable to a given people in a given place during a given timeframe. To apply this generic definition, one can consider the term given as a variable, thus the use of blanks above. In cross-cultural missions, the given message is always the gospel. The following is an example of specific missional contextualization: Jose and Maria make the gospel understandable to Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq beginning in 2017. This view of contextualization should not be mistaken as unilateral communication from the messengers to the recipients. Indeed, healthy contextualization must include a dialogue in which the messengers learn from and about those to whom they seek to present the gospel.

Contextualization of the gospel is crucial as it helps people who do not yet know or believe the gospel to understand it. Examples of legitimate contextualization include preaching the gospel in the heart language of a specific audience and rendering a Bible for the same audience in that heart language. This type of contextualization helps to fulfill the ambassadorial function assigned by God to Christians (2 Corinthians 5:20).

When Christian messengers lovingly and prayerfully communicate the gospel in a contextualized fashion, it provides the best prospect for the message to be persuasive. The Holy Spirit undertakes the key role in this process by convincing through conviction. The Lord Jesus, speaking of the Spirit, states: “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:8-9, NASB throughout).

Syncretism, within a Christian framework, is the amalgamation of Christian belief and/or practice with incompatible elements such that the “Christianity” is no longer biblical (i. e., destroyed). David Hesselgrave comments, “Syncretism is sometimes induced by underestimating the uniqueness of the Christian faith while overestimating the validity of competing faiths.”[2] The loss of the distinctiveness, or uniqueness, of the message of Christ, or better yet Christ as the Message, comprises a major challenge and concern, particularly in cross-cultural witness. If messengers are unable to bring a clear picture of Christ to their intended audience, then that audience will not be able to respond positively to the gospel.

Christ’s cross-cultural witnesses have traditionally sought to avoid syncretism in gospel proclamation, discipleship, and church planting. Anyone involved in cross-cultural ministry has likely contemplated the boundary which separates appropriate contextualization from inappropriate syncretism. Indeed, a primary question in contemporary missions is, “At what point do contextualized initiatives jeopardize, through syncretism, the original, biblical source message?”

The tension between contextualization and syncretism, as described above, views the communication process from the point of view of the messengers. This tension is felt and grappled with from the messengers’ perspective, while the audience remains unaware whether or not biblical foundations are undermined.

2.     The Tension between Contextualization and Encroachment: From the Perspective of the Receptors

Effective communication requires dialogue and awareness. The perspective of the receptors[3] is as important to the communication process as is the perspective of the messengers. Christ’s messengers must demonstrate multi-dimensional awareness in ministry to Muslims, in much the same way as a motorist must look both ways when approaching a traffic light.

The term encroachment has several definitions and applications. In this essay, encroachment will be used as the noun form of Merriam-Webster’s definition of encroach: “To enter by gradual steps or by stealth into the possessions or rights of another; to advance beyond the usual or proper limits.”[4] As stated above, Christian messengers commit encroachment in Muslim contexts when they enlist and redefine sacred Islamic texts, persons, and identifiers in a way that usurps from indigenous communities those texts, persons, and identifiers.

Christian messengers will be familiar with the biblical faith they seek to impart. From their vantage point, they should be able to tell if they are moving away from that faith as they seek to present it to a given audience through cross-cultural communication. On the other hand, the indigenous receptors, from their vantage point, are much better situated to determine if this cross-cultural messaging encroaches upon, and eventually usurps, their cherished beliefs.

Encroachment constitutes an ethical violation. To capture the emotional displeasure Muslims feel when encroachment occurs, Christians should ask themselves if they have an ethical problem with a Muslim offering the following hypothetical prayer in the presence of Christians:

Our God, who art in heaven;

Hallowed be Thy name.

Thy kingdom come

Thy will be done to help all people submit to Islam



as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into the temptation of thinking God should have a son.

Deliver from the evil of associating partners with the Almighty.

Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever.


Christians would rightly protest if Muslims “re-purposed” the sacred biblical text and liturgical form of The Lord’s Prayer to promote Islam. Such a utilization would constitute an encroachment that is easily felt by Christian readers. Such a presentation would deceive under-informed Christian listeners into thinking Islam is a valid expression of Jesus’ message. This article seeks to help Christians understand how informed Muslims feel when well-meaning Christian missionaries encroach on the holy texts, figures, and identifiers of Muslims.

3.     Encroachment in Ministry to Muslims

Muslim contexts have historically provided challenging soil for the gospel to take root in. For centuries, this contextual challenge resulted in little gospel seed being sown in Muslim communities. Modern-day missionaries are to be commended for their intention to remedy this deficiency. Missionary endeavor is similar to other human endeavors in which trial-and-error, experimentation, and creativity are harnessed to accomplish a prescribed goal; however, missions is different from many other human endeavors in that it has specifically been commissioned by the Lord Jesus Himself and is guided and governed by His Word, the Bible.

The past century has witnessed significant missional experimentation in ministry to Muslims. These experiments have precipitated significant controversies within the missionary community, primarily as to whether contextualized efforts[5] have crossed the line into syncretism. New approaches and paradigms present intriguing possibilities in ministry to Muslims. As early as 1938, Henry Riggs asked, “Shall we try unbeaten paths in working for Moslems?” Riggs’ proposal encouraged “the development of groups of followers of Jesus who are active in making Him known to others while remaining loyally a part of the social and political groups to which they belong in Islam.[6] Riggs has been cited here not only because his recommendation is a prototype of the methodologies which will be evaluated below, but also because of his seemingly irresistible recommendation of the new and the innovative.

Little missiological attention has yet been paid as to whether these newer missional initiatives may have crossed the line into encroachment. To a degree, this should be expected, since indigenous persons assess these initiatives from the unique perspective required to evaluate encroachment. Fortunately, the number of indigenous persons is growing who are able to provide this feedback. Discerning encroachment requires contextual familiarity. Indigenous persons who have been born and raised Muslims possess this familiarity and can provide helpful feedback regarding instances of encroachment. Hopefully, this feedback can enhance gospel proclamation to Muslims, and mitigate unnecessary offense and confusion on the part of indigenous persons who have or would have interacted with these experimental missional initiatives.

Muslims appear to be increasingly aware of encroachment by Christian messengers. In July 1987, the Islamic World Review warned Muslims that Christian missionaries were using an “underhanded style” called the “Contextualized Approach”: “It means they now speak in the context of the people and the culture of the country where they are operating, and are less honest in their dealings with simple, often illiterate, peasants. They no longer call themselves openly Christians in a Muslim area, but ‘Followers of Isa.’”[7] This quote indicates that Muslims are not simply concerned about losing adherents, but with deceptive and unethical methods.

3.1. Methodologies Where Encroachment Has Occurred

This section provides major examples of experimentation among Muslims where encroachment has occurred. This essay considers one example of encroachment in each of the following categories cherished by Muslims: sacred texts, sacred personalities, and sacred identifiers.

3.1.1.     Qur’anic Textual Bridging as Encroachment

Anyone in ministry to Muslims will need to be prepared to answer questions and claims Muslims bring forth from their holy book, the Qur’an. This is an inevitable component of talking to Muslims about spiritual matters. A sensitive and skilled witness for Christ may be able to turn these conversations into opportunities to share biblical truths; doing so does not necessarily constitute encroachment.

Qur’anic textual bridging constitutes encroachment when a Christian messenger initiates spiritual conversation with a Muslim by using the Qur’an as the starting point of the discussion, and then reinterprets these texts in a way that undermines the overall message of the Qur’an. The consequence of such Qur’anic bridging is therefore deceptive, regardless of the good intentions of the messenger.

Again, discerning where encroachment has taken place requires contextual familiarity. As such, it is helpful to illustrate encroachment through illicit textual bridging when done by Muslims. Christians, who are familiar with the Bible, naturally cringed when the Islamic apologist Ahmed Deedat interpreted Jesus’ Upper Room prophecy regarding another “Comforter” as referring to Muhammad rather than the Holy Spirit.[8] First, Jesus was speaking to his own disciples when he stated that this Comforter “may be with you forever” (John 14:16). Obviously, Muhammad was never with Jesus’ disciples, so he cannot have fulfilled this prophecy. Second, and even more egregious, is the prospect that Jesus would herald and laud a prophet coming after him to launch a new religion. Deedat’s misinterpretation of the Bible is a clear example of the type of deceptive encroachment Christians should avoid in witnessing to Muslims.    

Indeed, the prospect of Qur’anic textual bridging entices Christian messengers since Muslims have been taught from childhood that the Bible has been corrupted and is therefore unreliable. This is the Islamic doctrine of Tahrif. Since the Qur’an contains multiple verses about Jesus, Christian witnesses have sometimes used Qur’anic texts that appear similar to biblical texts to begin a spiritual conversation with Muslims. The Qur’an indeed lauds Jesus in a way that it does not typically laud other prophets, attributing to him a miraculous birth and testifying that Allah allowed him to raise the dead (3:49). Given Muslims’ predisposition against the Bible, perhaps this Qur’anic material could provide the textual bridge to the gospel.

Perhaps the most popular method of Qur’anic textual bridging is the “Camel Method.” The premise of the Camel Method is to bridge a gospel presentation from Sura 3:42-55 of the Qur’an. Sura 3 indeed contains some material about Jesus that appears prima facie to be true. This includes mention of the annunciation (3:42-46), Jesus’ virgin birth (3:47) and miracles (3:49).

Kevin Greeson, author of the “The Camel Method” and “Camel Tracts”[9] evangelistic tract for Muslims, actually provides thirteen pages of verse-by-verse commentary on Sura 3:42-55 in this tract.

Unfortunately, Greeson’s interpretation of this Qur’anic passage fails for two main reasons. First, Greeson reinterprets the verses and enlists them in a way that contradicts the non-incarnational component of Tawhid, which is the underlying message of the Qur’an. Tawhid declares that Allah is an absolute and indivisible Unity, who neither gives birth nor is born into the world (see, for example, Sura 112:1-3). Second, Greeson cuts off his commentary at verse 3:55, after which the passage turns to a polemic against the sonship and divinity of Jesus (3:59) and Muhammad’s cursing of those who hold those beliefs (3:61). Thus, the Camel Method takes a Qur’anic passage out of context and employs a hermeneutic method that would leave Protestants protesting if such a method were applied to the Bible.

The Camel Method co-opts and reinterprets a text sacred to Muslims. The violation is particularly grievous from the point of view of indigenous Muslims, since the Camel Method reinterprets that text in a way that undercuts the foundational doctrine of the Qur’an itself.

Learned Muslims will find the Camel Method quickly progressing into encroachment. Greeson states puzzlingly[10]: “I am grateful to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Islamic Foundation, and others who are translating the Arabic Koran into all languages of the world. I feel blessed as I read the Koran in my mother tongue.”[11] He then exhorts Muslims: “Do not miss out on Allah’s blessings. Do not rely on someone else to tell you the message of Allah. Please find a Koran translated into your language and together let’s find a treasure that will change your life.”[12] Actually, Muslims would find it hard to believe that a Christian could have sincerely authored these sentences.

The Camel Method has been lauded and advertised with statements like this one from the foreword of Greeson’s instructional book: “There may not be a magic bullet for Muslim evangelism, but the Camel is as close as it gets.”[13] Yet one Christian missionary, Mike Moore, recorded the responses of an imam whom he led through the Camel Method. This imam found the line of reasoning of Camel unconvincing, and even objected to Greeson’s interpretations at many points. The Camel Method instructs its practitioners to ask Muslims:  “Out of all the prophets, which one do you think is most capable of helping me get to heaven?”[14] The imam rejected the idea that ‘Isa (Jesus) was uniquely qualified to show Muslims the way to heaven: “Actually every single prophet was given the knowledge and the wisdom to show people the way to heaven—every single prophet.”[15]

The overall methodology of Qur’anic textual bridging ultimately leads to a dead-end. The ultimate goal of evangelism among Muslims is to help them embrace the God who visited the earth in the person of Jesus. The Qur’an rejects this narrative. A leading US-based Palestinian imam whom I interviewed in 2013 for a doctoral project responded somewhat tensely to my inquiry about whether the Qur’an could allow for a divine Jesus: “There is absolutely no verse like this. You will never find a Muslim scholar who believes there is anything in the Qur’an that supports the divinity of Jesus.”[16] This Islamic scholar sensed such a proposition constituted encroachment.

In conclusion, any potential that may be seen in using Qur’anic textual bridging for Muslim evangelism will be outweighed by the liabilities thereof. This practice constitutes encroachment by in essence taking Islamic scriptures and forcing upon them interpretations that undercut the Qur’an’s overall message. Furthermore, Muslims will inevitably think that the one doing the bridging ascribes an authority to the Qur’an which it simply does not have.

3.1.2.     Reinterpretation of Muhammad as Encroachment

Muslims consider Muhammad to be their infallible prophet and Allah’s final messenger. This section focuses solely on the reinterpretation of Muhammad’s life and mission by Christian messengers. The most notable foray in this area from the Christian side has been led by Harley Talman. Talman’s recent work, “Is Muhammad Also among the Prophets?”[17] breaks new ground over this age-old question. Specifically, Talman seeks to create a continuum upon which he can place Muhammad as some type of biblical prophet: “As Christians, we do not regard the Qur’an to be utterly infallible and authoritative, but need not rule out the possibility of God’s calling and using Muhammad as a prophet (like Saul in the OT or a charismatic prophet in the present era).”[18]

The problem with Talman’s assertions arises due to the contextual implausibility of his proposal. The affirmation of the Muhammad’s prophethood serves as the foundation of Islam. To become a Muslim, one must declare the shahada, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”[19] It would not suffice to declare, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is a prophet who was right 75% of the time.” Neither would an imam accept the confession: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is a prophet after the order of Saul.”

Talman’s foray amounts to encroachment as he tries to reinterpret Muhammad in a way not possible in Muslim contexts. Muslims offer Muhammad as a true prophet only. This is a contextually-specific binary choice. People who want to accept Muhammad as God’s final and infallible prophet come under the umbrella of the Islamic umma (community), with specified rights and privileges thereof.

Al-Ghazali describes how Islamic Law confers infidel status on anyone who believes Muhammad brought forth error:

“Unbelief (kufr)” is to deem anything the Prophet [Muhammad] brought to be a lie. And “faith (iman)” is to deem everything he brought to be true. Thus, the Jew and the Christian are Unbelievers because they deny the truthfulness of the Prophet…Now all of this is based on the fact that “Unbelief” is a legal designation (hukm shar’i), like slavery and freedom, its implication being the licitness of shedding the blood of one (so designated) and passing a judgment upon him to the effect that he will dwell in Hellfire forever. And since this is a legal designation, it can only be known on the basis of an explicit text from scripture (nass) or an analogy (qiyas) drawn from an explicit text.[20]

Due to the life-and-death implications of considering Muhammad a false prophet, one can see how Talman could hope to maintain the possibility of Muhammad being a true prophet. However, Talman seems to overlook Muhammad’s renunciation of the biblical Jesus through his polemics against the Trinity (Sura 4:171), the divinity of Christ (Sura 5:72; 5:116), and the crucifixion (Sura 4:157-158).

Kevin Higgins joins Talman in stating that Muhammad could be some type of biblical prophet:

Relative to the reinterpretation of Muhammad, two examples are noted: Muhammad as similar to an Old Testament prophet, or similar to a “charismatic” prophetic gift. While it is true that some advocates of IM [Insider Movements] suggest that one or both of these approaches may be possible, the more common argument has been to look to examples in the Old Testament, such as Balaam, of men who were given true things to say by God but who also got things wrong.[21]

Talman and Higgins may feel they are opening a gospel door to Muslims by conferring upon Muhammad the status of a lower-level biblical prophet. However, they have encroached into the Islamic equivalent of holy ground by reinterpreting Muhammad in a way never before allowed by the umma. Muslims, throughout their history, have invited non-Muslims to accept Muhammad as an infallible prophet. Anything less than this constitutes kufr (the domain of unbelief). This category would include many who might nonetheless affirm Muhammad’s qualities as an outstanding orphan, a persevering overcomer, a skilled diplomat, a victorious military leader, and one of the most influential figures in history. Yet, since Muhammad rejected the biblical narrative regarding Jesus, he cannot be considered a true prophet by those who believe in the Bible. Muslims have never allowed for a middle-ground-prophet position for Muhammad, yet Talman and Higgins have sought to create such ground. This constitutes encroachment.

3.1.3.     Usurpation of the Term “Muslim” as Encroachment

The term Muslim is sacred to Muslims because it the primary identifier of people belonging to their faith community. Notably, Muslims do not translate this term into the local equivalents of “People submitted to God” when they immigrate to non-Muslim lands. By retaining the term Muslim, Muslims signal that this term belongs to them.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to follow the conceptual rationale of Christian missionaries in usurping this term. They do so based on the idea that the term “Muslim” literally means one who is submitted to, or has surrendered to, God. Who could make a better “Muslim,” according to this wider definition, than one who has accepted the salvation God has offered through Christ? Furthermore, according to Islamic law, if a Muslim becomes a kafir through unbelief, he must die. Fortunately, the implementation of capital punishment is more often the exception than the rule in many Muslim contexts. Nevertheless, the murtadd (apostate) will likely suffer a great deal of harassment and a ruination of his future in that community.

From this starting point, missionaries have widely promoted the idea of indigenous persons embracing the biblical plan of salvation, and simultaneously retaining “Muslim” status. They have crossed the line into encroachment through promoting identities such as “Muslim Followers of Jesus,”[22] “Messianic Muslim Followers of Jesus,”[23] “Biblical Muslims”[24] and “‘In-Christ’ Muslims.”[25] All of these descriptors use the term Muslim in the present tense, as opposed to some form of the alternate, “Muslim-background believer in Christ.” Kevin Higgins provides his justification for retention of the term Muslim by a Christ-worshipper as he recommends one of several identity statements for Muslim “insiders”:

I can say I am a Muslim because the word Islam means submission and a Muslim is one who submits. So, I can tell others in the Muslim community that I have submitted to God ultimately in His Word, Isa, and the Word of God in the Taurat, Zabur, and Injil which the Quran confirms.[26]

Encroachment has occurred in this case because the umma confers “Muslim” status on those who hold to the inerrancy of Muhammad’s prophetic output. Since Muhammad rejected the divinity, sonship, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, it constitutes encroachment if people who have come to embrace these beliefs insist on describing themselves as “Muslims.” The mounting threat, from the indigenous point of view, is that if the term Muslim could be redefined to include Christ-worshippers, then the term no longer has any value as an identifier, since the term’s original usage was meant to exclude Christ-worshippers. This should not be confounded with “God doing something new”; it is an ethical violation that constitutes encroachment.

In conclusion to this section, it becomes apparent that the methodologies evaluated above are not solo, independent initiatives. Rather, they are interconnected as manifestations of a wider missiology known as “insider movements.” This missiology, when applied to Muslim contexts, encroaches on the sacred texts, personalities, and identifiers of Muslims.

4. Encroachment by Muslims in Propagating Islam

This section helps Christian readers understand encroachment by “putting the shoe on the other foot.” Christians benefit from considering, “How would we feel if Muslims did the same thing to us?” By no means is this a hypothetical exercise.

Students of the Qur’an and Islamic history will realize that Islam is largely an encroachment on the biblical faith. Muhammad co-opted many biblical figures into the Islamic theological edifice. Most notably, Muhammad usurped Jesus, the Divine Savior, and reduced him to his own personal herald (Sura 61:6). This sad reality constitutes a clear case of encroachment by usurping the personality most cherished by Christians—the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

Muslim apologists today continue to practice encroachment in their faith propagation strategies. The inverse of Higgins’ radical reinterpretation is seen in efforts by Muslim scholars to find “Muhammad in the Bible” by superimposing Qur’anic meanings onto biblical names and terms. Abdul Ahad Dawud claims that many Old Testament prophecies refer not to Christ but to Muhammad.[27] He stretches to link Muhammad to the Shiloh prophecy of Genesis 49.[28] He also claims that the Arabic sufi is somehow related to the Greek “Sophia” (wisdom) without any linguistic justification.[29] Jamal Badawi, of the Islamic Information Institute in Canada, claims in his “Muhammad in the Bible” teaching that the Baca of Ps 84:6 is an alternate rendering of “Mecca” and therefore predictive of Muhammad.[30] As mentioned above, Ahmed Deedat long claimed that Muhammad was the Comforter of John’s Gospel by morphing the Greek word Paraklete.[31] These interpretations, however, are individually faulty, and go against the entire flow of the Old and New Testaments.

Islamic expansion allows for encroachment since it is not governed by biblical ethics. Islam promotes its own advancement using almost any means: persuasion, education, evangelism, invitation, deception, dissimulation, and outright force. Thankfully, many Muslims do not utilize the latter categories, but they nonetheless were sanctioned by Muhammad and are utilized by some Muslims. Christian missionaries should refrain from adopting an ends-justify-the-means mindset in sharing the gospel with Muslims. Even though Islam may allow Muslims to use these types of methods in promoting Islam, Christians are ethically required to hold to a biblical standard of honesty.

5. Is “Reusing Common Pillars” Encroachment?

This section provides a response to Dudley Woodberry’s inquiry into the viability of “reusing common pillars”[32] in ministry to Muslims. Woodberry rightly notes that many of the forms, and even some of the associated terminology, used in Islam’s five pillars come from Jewish and Christian sources. Mark Harlan has sought to springboard specifically from Woodberry’s “re-using common pillars” concept: “All that is necessary for our purposes, however, is to show that the pillars of faith, along with their vocabulary, were largely the previous possession of Jews and Christians. Any reusing of them then is but the repossession of what originally belonged to these communities.”[33]

Harlan’s “repossession” argument constitutes encroachment for several reasons. First, the five pillars of Islam—confessional creed, ritual prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage—are common not only to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but indeed to almost any religion. No religion has a permanent monopoly or right to use them, or to exclude others from using them. Second, Harlan’s recommended repossession overlooks that specific “pillar” practices have been cultivated, cherished, and guarded by Muslims for over 1,400 years. The timeframe must also count for something. Indigenous Muslims will tend to see Harlan’s repossession in the same way they would view the attempts of medieval Crusaders to repossess the Holy Land. The final problem for Harlan is that Muslims clearly associate some of these practices and terms with anti-biblical meanings; in fact, they all play a part in the Islamic system of salvation by works. Woodberry himself correctly warns that re-appropriating these Islamic forms with alternate meanings can create its own problem: “A third problem is how to reuse Muslim forms without retaining Muslim meanings such as merit.”[34]

In summary, Christian messengers to Muslims cannot help but reference generic common pillars but should refrain from usurping specific Islamic texts, personalities, and identifiers. A faith community cannot be developed without also developing its confession of faith, its prayer life, fasting, and charitable giving. Some overlap will be inevitable herein. Indigenous Muslims will expect deen (religion, faith) to address these issues and will not likely see it as encroachment. Christ’s messengers would do well to stop short of the encroachments listed above—Qur’anic textual bridging, the reinterpretation of Muhammad, and the usurpation of the term “Muslim”—none of which are specifically endorsed in Woodberry’s original article.

6. Healthy Contextualization in Ministry to Muslims

Section 3 illustrated where encroachment has unfortunately been committed by Christians in the evangelism of Muslims. Section 4 demonstrated a similar ethical encroachment on the part of Muslims in their da’wa (invitation) of Christians to Islam. This section seeks to recommend some positive alternatives to those forms of encroachment described in section 3. This list is by no means exhaustive; it merely presents, in a non-dogmatic fashion, suggestions that will likely prove more engaging to Muslim audiences, more fruitful in the long term, and less likely to precipitate the unnecessary offenses triggered by methods which most Muslims would consider encroachment.

6.1. Conceptual Bridging

Section 3.1.1. demonstrated the encroaching nature of “Qur’anic textual bridging” in evangelism among Muslims. This section recommends “conceptual bridging” as an alternative. Conceptual bridging refers to building off of a theological construct with which a Muslim audience is already familiar.

Two immediate objections may be predicted regarding the preference of conceptual bridging over textual bridging. They will be answered here. First, one may simply posit, “Behind every Islamic concept is there not a Qur’anic text?” While that may be largely true, the bridging concepts recommended below are common to many religions, not merely Christianity and Islam.

Second, some may wonder whether Paul’s bridging from pagan sources provides a justification for Qur’anic textual bridging. Though Paul approvingly cites a Cretan “prophet” in Titus 1:12, he does not do so for evangelistic purposes. Rather, he does so to “reprove” (v. 13) the “rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers” (v. 10) who exemplify the propensity of Cretans to be “liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons” (v. 12). To cite this as an example of Pauline contextualized evangelism would be folly.

Furthermore, in his Mars Hill sermon, Paul cites unnamed Greek poets: “For we also are His children” (Acts 17:28). Since Paul appears to be quoting pagan sources, the question begs why it is unfruitful and unethical to initiate an evangelistic exchange with a Muslim by beginning with a Qur’anic text, as is done in the Camel Method. However, Paul’s usage of the pagan poets in Athens in fact is an example of conceptual bridging, not specific textual bridging. First, the overall context of the Mars Hill sermon must be considered. Paul is ultimately seeking to destroy paganism and “his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Paul manifests his inward detestation of paganism by initiating his gospel presentation with a testimony to the true God, proclaiming Jesus and the resurrection. This is interpreted by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers present to be babbling about “strange deities” (v. 18). Thus, Paul initiates his preaching not from pagan sources but from a biblical theme. Since these pagans were having a hard time understanding Paul’s preaching, and since they requested more information from him (v. 20), Paul used conceptual bridging regarding the “Unknown God” and the pagan poets’ mention of people being the children of God.

Second, in Acts 17:28, Paul does not cite a specific poet, but simply an unspecified number of unnamed poets. Apparently, the concept of humans being children of God was not unknown as a concept or motif in the poetry of that time. Third, Paul does not lend his personal credence or allegiance to them when he identifies the poets as “some of your own poets” (emphasis added). Fourth, Paul does not refer to a specific text, whereas in Qur’anic textual bridging, specific surahs and verses are always referred to by name and number. In this case, Paul seems to be making a composite or thematic reference, which falls much more in line with conceptual bridging than with textual bridging.

Neither in Acts nor in the Epistles does Paul elsewhere cite or name these poets. He therefore does not affirm the religion or any wider philosophy from which the 17:28 text is borrowed. Thus, the Scriptures do not support the notion of Paul using textual bridging in his contextualized gospel presentation.

In Qur’anic textual bridging, however, many texts are cited, which cannot but give indigenous receptors the impression that the messenger feels the Qur’an is an authoritative text. Furthermore, the influence and output of poets whom Paul never named, even during that immediate time period, must pale in comparison with that of Muhammad, the author of a revered book and a founder of a religion which presently has over 1.5 billion adherents.

Regarding the recommendation of conceptual bridging, Christianity, Islam, and many other faiths share a number of theological concepts which provide excellent bridging points. These include an affirmation of belief in one deity, the day of judgment, and the descent of the Word of God to the earth.

6.1.1. Theism

Simple conversation starters among Muslims could include, “Please share with me about your belief in God.” This does not affirm that the Christian believes the deity described by the Qur’an is the same being described by the Bible. Since most Muslims like to talk about God and religion, this type of simply question can begin a spiritual conversation and a chance to share the gospel.

6.1.2.     The Day of Judgment

Muslims’ foundational belief in the Day of Judgment provides another conceptual bridging opportunity. A simple evangelistic question a Christian could ask a Muslim would be: “Can you tell me what you believe will happen to you on the Day of Judgment?”[35] This question holds particular relevance since Islam holds to an ultimate sovereignty of Allah which precludes a real assurance of salvation. The messenger then gains a listening opportunity as his or her Muslim friend responds, as well as ample opportunities for further discussion.

6.1.3.     The Descent of the Word of God to Earth

As a final recommended example, a conceptual bridge can be used in response to common Muslim objections against the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus. Many religions believe in the descent of the divine, or the word of the divine, to earth. For example, the Ephesus town clerk, not Paul, makes the statement that Artemis’ image fell down to earth (Acts 19:35). Christians believe in the kenosis of Christ as the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us (Phil 2:7; John 1:14). While Muslims do not believe that God visited the earth in the form of Jesus, they do believe the Word of God descended to the earth in the form of the Qur’an. The Islamic concept is known as Tanzil, the “descent” of the Word of God. The bridging questions could be phrased, “Do you believe the Word of God descended to the earth?” Or, “If you believe in the Tanzil of the Word of God as a book, could God not bring about the Tanzil in the form of Jesus?”

All of these conceptual bridging techniques avoid direct textual reference to the Qur’an. Moreover, they will set at ease the Muslim receptor who will likely consider it encroachment if a Christian messenger begins to act as a mufassir (commentator) on actual texts of the Qur’an without possessing the training and experience expected of one undertaking that role. Lastly, and most importantly, avoidance of using the Qur’an in textual bridging will prevent Muslim receptors from thinking the messenger himself or herself believes the text is authoritative.

6.2. Humor

In cross-cultural communication, the ability to understand and participate in indigenous humor endears the outsider to the indigenous people. Muslims, like all people, appreciate humor and tend to enjoy jokes and humorous stories about the life after death. In many cases, these hereafter jokes are innocently irreverent as they joke about politics, religion, or culture. For example, Iranians tell the following joke:

“Did you hear about the Iranian who went to hell?” (The listener will want to hear the joke.)

So, an Iranian died and the angels came to take his soul from his body. They said, “We have good news and bad news for you. Do you want the good news first or the bad news?”

The deceased said, “Well, I am an Iranian; I’ll take the bad news first.”

The angels said, “The bad news is you are going to hell.”

The deceased replied, “If that’s the bad news, what good news could there be?”

The angels said, “Strangely enough, you are being given the choice of going to American hell or Iranian hell.”

The deceased replied, “Well, I have lived my life in Iran…why not try the American hell?”

So the angels flung his soul over the wall into the American hell. Immediately, two angelic torturers grabbed him. He screamed. Another torturing angel arrived with wood to kindle a fire. Like clockwork, another arrived with a torch to light the wood when it had been arranged. As soon as the fire was blazing, another angel came with a smaller urn-like mixer filled with tar. He placed it over the fire. The second the tar began to boil, one torturing angel grabbed the deceased Iranian’s head; another angel pried his mouth wide open. Right on cue, the angel with the tar lifted the mixer and poured the tar down the man’s throat. The man screamed a mighty scream! No sooner than this process was finished than, like clockwork, it started again. Another angel came with fresh wood…

After several rounds of this torture, and during a very brief lull, the tortured Iranian soul lifted his head, saw the wall opposite him, and heard laughing on the other side of the wall. Through scorched lips, he asked his attending angel, “What is on the other side of that wall?”

“Oh,” said the angel, “that’s the Iranian hell.”

The deceased replied, “Would I be able to go over there and have a look?” Though the torturing angel said that these types of permissions were not usually granted, he did seek a clearance from the higher authorities. Somewhat surprised, he came back and told the deceased he had been granted a rare exception—for a very brief visit to the Iranian hell.

So, the torturing angels flung him over the wall that separates the American hell from the Iranian hell. Having skidded to a landing in the Iranian hell, he found his deceased Iranian fellows sitting on the ground, lounging and laughing. He asked them, “Why aren’t you suffering here in the Iranian hell as I am in the American hell?”

They replied, “Here in the Iranian hell, when the angel comes with the firewood, the angel with the torch shows up about two hours late! If he even arrives to start the fire, the angel with the mixer has invariably called in sick! From eternity past until now, they have not been able to get their act together so as to torture even a single soul!”

These multitudinous humor stories about life after death provide ready bridging opportunities to share the gospel. The indigenous community has even pre-contextualized the conversation for the messenger. Moreover, humor naturally de-escalates the environment for discussing spiritual topics that might otherwise be controversial or conflict-inducing. Cross-cultural messengers may simply ask their Muslim friends, “In your culture, do you have any humorous stories about the afterlife?” And flow with the conversation thereafter.

6.3. Other Possibilities for Holistic Contextualization among Muslims

The available space does not allow for a fuller treatment of other forms of contextualized communication among Muslims that are likely to be fruitful. Instead of cherry-picking a few Qur’anic verses out of context and memorizing a conversation based on these verses, cross-cultural messengers in Muslim contexts could better use their time learning the language of the indigenous people. Language learning is typically a slow process. Finding oneself in a context without knowing the language immediately reduces one to infancy, regardless of academic degrees. Nowadays, the emphasis is on speed. Yet holistic contextualization based on meaningful cross-cultural communication and trusting relationships with Muslims cannot be rushed. In all things, reliance on prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit should remain paramount.

Music is another area where holistic contextualization is not likely to move into encroachment. Though Islamic Law tends to suppress indigenous music styles, Muslim peoples all have their own musical styles and instrumentation. These styles should be celebrated and utilized. Perhaps copying the style of the chanting of the Qur’an might been seen by indigenous Muslims as encroachment. Otherwise, indigenous believers should be encouraged to look to the Lord for creating indigenous styles of worship. 

7. Conclusion

This essay has considered contextualized methods of sharing the gospel among Muslims. Some of the popular current methods, including Qur’anic textual bridging, the reinterpretation of Muhammad, and the usurpation of the term “Muslim” fall into an unwelcome category described as “encroachment.” Encroachment is visible to Muslims themselves, whereas people who were not raised Muslim may be unaware of this tension.  It is hoped that these encroaching methods will be curtailed before they precipitate further unnecessary offense on the part of Muslim audiences. Encroaching methodologies tend to be deceptive by presenting a continuity between the biblical and Islamic faiths which simply does not exist. Contextualization should be employed in cross-cultural ministry to Muslims, yet greater forethought is needed to ensure that contextualized forms are biblical, ethical, holistic, and fruitful.

[1] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Faysal al-Tafriqa Bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa, trans. Sherman Jackson (n.d.), accessed October 1, 2016, http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic888446.files/On%20Boundaries%20of%20theological%20tolerance.pdf.

[2] David Hesselgrave, “Syncretism: Mission and Missionary Induced?” in Contextualization and Syncretism: Navigating Cultural Currents, ed. Gailyn VanRheenen (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2006), 72.

[3] This essay utilizes the term “receptors” as used by Charles Kraft, Communication Theory for Christian Witness, rev. ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994), 10: “Communication requires that there be a message, one or more people to whom the message is directed, and a messenger to take the message across whatever gap exists between the source of the message and the intended receptor(s).”

[4] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “encroach (v.),” accessed October 15, 2016, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/encroachment.

[5] Readers familiar with contextualization of the gospel among Muslims may know John Travis’ “C-scale.” The scale is not used in this article as Travis did not intend the C-scale as a contextualization scale. In 2015 he explained this with an article on misunderstandings regarding the C-scale: “The first common misunderstanding has to do with what the letter C represents. It does not stand for ‘contextualization, ‘cross-cultural church-planting spectrums,’ or ‘Christian’—all terms that have been mistakenly used. It stands for ‘Christ-centered communities’; in other words, fellowships or groups of Jesus-followers—biblical ekklesiae,” in John Jay Travis, “The C1-C6 Scale after 15 Years,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly (October 2015).

[6] Henry H. Riggs, Near East Christian Council Inquiry on the Evangelization of Moslems: Report (Beirut: American Mission Building, 1938), II, 6, emphasis added.

[7] J. Dudley Woodberry, “Contextualization among Muslims: Reusing Common Pillars,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 13, no. 4 (1996): 173.

[8] Ahmed Deedat, What the Bible Says about Muhammad (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1991).

[9] Kevin Greeson, “Camel Tracks: Discover the Camel’s Secret” (Bangalore, India: WIGTake Resources, n.d.), accessed October 25, 2016, http://www.harvest-now.org/fileadmin/resources/en/The_Camel_Tracks.pdf.

[10] Kevin Greeson stated in an interview with the Biblical Missiology in 2010 that he does not believe authoritative Scriptures extend beyond the Old and New Testaments. See Biblical Missiology, “Interview: Kevin Greeson of the Camel Method,” April 21, 2010, accessed October 25, 2016, http://bibmiss.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/03-Question3-weightofauth.mp3. This seems to contradict the quotes above, and may indicate a case of one message presented to Christians and a contrary message presented to Muslims.

[11] Greeson, “Camel Tracks,” 1.

[12] Ibid., 2.

[13] Kevin Greeson, The Camel: How Muslims are Coming to Faith in Christ (Bangalore, India: WIGTake Resources, n.d.), 13.

[14] Ibid., 108.

[15]Mike Moore, “My Interview with an Imam,” Baptist Theologue (blog), December 31, 2007, accessed October 25, 2016, http://baptisttheologue.blogspot.ca/2007/12/my-interview-with-imam-i-served-as-imb.html.

[16] Fred Farrokh, “Perceptions of Muslim Identity: A Case Study among Muslim-Born Persons in Metro New York” (PhD diss., Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2014), 93.

[17] Harley Talman, “Is Muhammad Also among the Prophets?” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 31, no. 4 (2014).

[18] Ibid, 177.

[19] The Arabic word rasool is based on the root “to send” and is variously translated into English as “prophet,” “apostle,” or “messenger.”

[20] Al-Ghazali, Faysal al-Tafriqa, 92.

[21] Kevin Higgins, “Let’s Leave Shahada to Real Muslims: A Response by Kevin Higgins,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly (October 2015).

[22] Joshua Massey, “God's Amazing Diversity in Drawing Muslims to Christ,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (2000): 7.

[23] John Travis, “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa: A Closer Look at C5 Believers and Congregations,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (2000): 53-59.

[24] Rick Brown, “Biblical Muslims,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24, no. 2 (2007): 65-74.

[25] Richard Jameson, “God’s Creativity in Drawing Muslims to Jesus,” in Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities, eds. Harley Talman and John Travis (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2015), 611.

[26] Kevin Higgins, “Identity, Integrity and Insider Movements: A Brief Paper Inspired by Timothy Tennent's Critique of C-5 Thinking,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 23, no. 3 (2006): 121.

[27]Abdul Ahad Dawud. Muhammad in the Bible (New Delhi, India: International Islamic Publishers, 1993).

[28] Ibid., 49.

[29] Ibid., 47.

[30] Jamal Badawi, “Muhammad in the Bible,” Islamic Information Foundation (n.d), accessed October 20, 2016, http://www.islamicity.com/mosque/muhammad_bible.htm

[31] Deedat, What the Bible Says about Muhammad.

[32] Woodberry, “Contextualization.”

[33] Mark Harlan, “Recycling Islamic Vocabulary in Bible Translation?” (paper presented at the Evangelical Missiological Society National Conference, Dallas, TX, October 15, 2016).

[34] Woodberry, “ Contextualization,” 183.

[35] Yom ad-Deen, or Yom al-Qayama, in Arabic.


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