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Contextualization of Theology

These are the transcriptions of a few of the lectures from the course taught by John A. Gration, Ph.D., at Wheaton Graduate School, 1991. Used by permission of Wheaton College.

Gration Chapter 5

The Gospels Encounter with Islam


Gration: Im delighted to have with me Dr. J. Dudley Woodberry, a professor [later Dean] in the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Woodberry is a specialist in Islamics and holds a Ph.D. in Islamics from Harvard. Hes also on the board of the Zwemer Institute of Muslim Studies and is heavily involved in the Muslim track of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. Islam is increasingly in the news today, not only in the secular press, but Christians also are beginning to develop a consciousness of this vast bloc of humanity. Can you share with us a few indications of this growing interest and involvement of believers in outreach to Muslims? Dudley Woodberry: I certainly can. I oversee about nine courses on Islam, and in the summers we have about a hundred in the classes. Right now Im teaching in five institutions and have requests from all over the world. And thats just one person. If we then look at work being done by the Zwemer Institute, they are giving Muslim Awareness seminars by request all over the country and in various parts of the world. The church seems to be very interested right now. Gration: Thats encouraging! Im sure theres a flip side to all of that; namely, what is the outreach of Islam these days, both in terms of the world and right here in the U.S.A.? Woodberry: They have what they call dawa, or, literally, the call, which might be interpreted as missions. Its a plan for the entire world. Theyre using England as a stepping-off place for much of the English-speaking world. Here in the United States they are building Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam, in New Mexico. They have a large outreach, particularly among Black Americans, and especially in prisons and in inner city areas. Gration: So the Black Muslim movement in the States is growing also? Woodberry: It is growing. Some estimates go as high as a million African-American Muslims. For converts among Anglos, I have seen estimates as high as 40,000 to 75,000 converts in the U.S. Gration: Im sure that Islam, like all religious systems, comes in a variety of sizes and shapes. Could you spell out for us the two main divisions of Islam? Woodberry: Basically, there are the Sunni Muslims and the Shiites. The divisions started very early in Islam over the leadership of the community. The Sunnis use the traditional Arab way of having the leaders of a community choose the most competent person. But the Shiites felt that it should be the nearest male relative to Muhammad, and that he would receive a divine light from God that would allow him to speak with authority on behalf of God. This Imam went into hiding when they ran out of pious men who could conceivably be the Imam. But the chief Ayatollah is supposed to be in spiritual contact with the hidden Imam, who will someday return. This is one reason why somebody like Khomeini can speak with far more authority to his followers than any Sunni leader can today. Gration: We think a great deal about syncretism these days and how this is affecting Christianity in various parts of the world, including our own country. I gather that Islam has not escaped this problem. In other words, in many parts of the world we dont really find a pure Islam. Woodberry: Thats right. There is what we call folk Islam or popular Islam. Let me compare the two. In high Islam I might take the names of God and meditate on their meaning: Whats the meaning to me that God is the Creator, or the Judge, or the Loving One? In folk Islam I would take those as power words, and I would seek to find out how many times I should repeat a certain name in order to be healed from sickness or not to be bothered by demons. Gration: So it has a magic element? Woodberry: Very much a magical element. As for the place of prayer, in high Islam you would go to the mosque and follow prescribed prayers. In what we might call low Islam, or folk Islam, you would go to the shrine of either a living or a dead holy man, or to a sacred tree.

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the fifth is pilgrimage to Mecca once in your lifetime if you can. If we are talking about presenting the gospel to them or how it could be contextualized in a way that would be relevant to them, its quite obvious that most of the pillars were borrowed from Judaism and/or Christianity at that time, so it would be quite possible for Muslim converts to design a worship that would be along the line of those five pillars. For the first pillar, for example, the confession of faith, we could confess the oneness of God, as it is a biblical and Jewish and Christian teaching, although we would obviously want to substitute something for Muhammad being the apostle of God. We might want to substitute Jesus is Lord, or maybe even some of the teachings of the Bible about Jesus that the Quran affirms, such as that hes the Messiah. Even though it doesnt define what it means by Messiah, it at least uses the term. The Quran also says that Jesus is the Word of God. Again, it doesnt define the term, but it at least uses it. Prayers could be much like Muslim prayers, if the convert church should choose to do them that way. For example, they take off their shoes because it is holy ground, much as Moses was to take off his shoes. They do ablutions at the beginning. Ablutions certainly arent necessary for purity of heart; but in the same way they were used by the Jews to symbolize the cleansing of ones life and the necessity of it, the same could be done, as long as it was not thought of as a source of merit. Fasting, of course, is enjoined upon us and could be done. Again, we would want to make sure that they didnt think they were earning merit by it. Finally, although we wouldnt want to encourage the pilgrimage to Mecca, some of the things that are accomplished in a pilgrimage are very worthwhile. For example, the Old Testament had the three pilgrimages a year to Jerusalem. This brought all of the people together where they could celebrate and have a sense of their oneness, of the community, that we often lack if were in isolated groups. In some way we would want to provide for this in the convert church and in the church more broadly. Gration: There are, then, some significant bridges and meaningful points of contact between the Christian faith and Islam that we can very properly employ. I understand that you feel that theres a very significant form of Islam, which youve already

Instead of reciting the formal prayers, you would pray for healing, for reconciliation in the family, or something of that nature. In high Islam your authority would be the Quran or the practice and teaching of Muhammad. In low Islam your authority would be books on magic, or the Quran used not for its reading matter but as a power object or fetish in itself. As for the leaders, in high Islam it would be the imam, the leader of the mosque, or the ulama, the scholars, usually males. In low Islam its the pir in the Persian world, the wali in the Arab world, and it could be a female. Your training in high Islam would be formal, on the law, some on theology. In low Islam you would become the disciple of a holy man, and you might sit for forty days and forty nights fasting to prepare yourself. The authority of the leader in high Islam is his learning, whereas the authority of the person in folk Islam is his baraka, or power, his ability to bless and help people. This quite obviously has tremendous implications for the felt needs of the people when you seek to reach them with the gospel. Gration: So our approach needs to be quite different if were dealing with those who are coming out of a context of high Islam in contrast to those who are living with a folk Islam. Do you have any particular word concerning how we might think of relating the gospel to those who are, first of all, in this high Islam, those that are really following it? We havent talked about the five pillars, if you want to refer to that, and how they might be used as a basis for relating the gospel. That would be in the area of high Islam, more likely. Woodberry: Right. In high Islam we tend to think of the five pillars. There are probably five pillars because the preachers had five fingers. If we had six fingers, its possible that jihad, or striving in the way of God, which includes striving with the pen or the sword, might have been a sixth pillar. But generally we talk of five, the first being the confession of faith: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the apostle of God. The second pillar is prayer, which is a formalized prayer, most of which a Christian or Jew would feel comfortable with because of the content; there are only a few references to Muhammad at the very end of the prayer. The third is almsgiving. The fourth is fasting during the month of Ramadan, which is a fasting from food and drink during the daylight hours. Then,

John A. Gration
mentioned, folk Islam, that is far more prevalent and widespread than many of us realize. How would we relate the gospel differently to people in that context of Islam? Woodberry: In quite a number of ways. For example, in high Islam the emphasis is often more on concepts and beliefs, whereas in low Islam the emphasis is more on power. If we are to reach the felt need of the folk Muslim, we need to remember that theyre going to be far more concerned with whether the power of Christ is greater than the power theyre afraid of in the spirit worldwhether the power of Christ is available for healing the total person, emotionally, spiritually, and at times, if God should so choose, physically. It would also be possible to present Christ as the perfect holy man. In the Gospels Christ is presented as the perfect king, the perfect man, as different audiences had different ideals, and Christ was shown to be the best of those ideals. And so in folk Islam the Arab goes to the wali (the Persianized people talk about a pir), somebody known for his or her power. Well, Christ is certainly the one who is above all principalities and powers. Hes certainly the healer. This person is also a person of piety, and Christ was certainly righteous. This person is a teacher who dispenses knowledge to his disciples, and Christ could be presented as the perfect Holy Man. Then there is the role of the evangelist. So often we approach as and are viewed as more the American businessman/administrator type, whereas if we could increasingly assume the role of a holy man who exhibits the power of the Holy Spirit, who exhibits the righteousness of Christ, who can be a source of wisdom and knowledge to disciples, we would fit into their culture much better. Finally, we might talk about the form of the church. So often our churches are patterned after the polity of the sending denomination, whereas the mazaar, or zihurrat as it is called in some places, is a place where a leader of the community has disciples. Its a place where power is evidenced. Although there is not singing in the mosque, frequently there is singing in a mazaar or zihurrat. Its a place where fellowship is exhibited, often through eating communal meals. The church could take this form and fit into the culture much better than it often does. Gration: Some of those things, to some, might seem a bit radical, which means that we may almost need a new kind of missionary for this kind of ministry. Are there any particular aspects

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of training that we should be thinking of or emphasizing if were going to prepare people who will be able to make this kind of transition and contextualize not only the gospel, but in a sense themselves and their mentality and their outlook into this kind of context? Woodberry: Very much so. Its what were trying to do in a course at Wheaton now with about forty students. First of all we try to understand the phenomena of folk Islam; and then beyond that, the felt needs they express; and beyond that, how the gospel can be shown to meet those felt needs, so that it is seen as relevant to them. For example, the people wear amulets. The felt need obviously is protection, and Christ is the one who can protect. They go to holy men. In high Islam they are taught that theres no mediator between God and humankind; but because they have the need for a mediator, they go to a holy man or a holy woman. So theres somebody closer to them than God is, and somebody closer to God than they feel they are. This indicates the desire for a mediator, which, of course, we have in Christ. There are sacrifices, another phenomenon of folk Islam. They can see here that God can accept a substitute for the life of another, which is one of the foundations of the gospel. Theres the desire for healing, and so we can emphasize the care of God and the ministry of God in healing through his messengers. Another area of the phenomena of folk Islam would be the whole area of the spirit world and the fear that they feel from spirits. So we can emphasize the protection and care that Christ mediates and that he is above all principalities and powers. The training really needs to go on into what we might call power encounter or spiritual warfare. Often we in evangelical circles have very little training along this line. Gration: It sounds as though this is an area that weve got to become increasingly familiar with, not just academically or intellectually, but also experientially. As I hear you talk, Dudley, it seems as though this is a variety of Islam thats quite different from what some of us have traditionally associated with Islam, and consequently requires an approach thats quite different. I want to ask at this point, thinking of this rather new approach to what is to some of us a different kind of Islam, namely this folk Islam: What remains the value of the traditional approach to Islam that some of us have been brought up on? You know, the more apologetic type, defending the deity of Christ, and so on.

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they absorbed enough Islamic un-Christian or unbiblical meaning that they are no longer usable? We are always in a tension here. We will need to raise questions such as we find in the epistle to the Hebrews, where apparently a group of people in the Jewish community had become followers of Christ, and they were in danger of slipping back into the old Judaism. Will a lot of this contextualization allow for more syncretism? Or might it cause people to slip back into the community and lose out on what they have acquired thus far? These, of course, are dangers, but I dont think they should negate the very positive values of, wherever possible, being culturally appropriate. Another area is the use of the Quran . I would say that for certain purposes it has a validity. I would certainly not use it if the person himself or herself is not familiar with the Quran and thats not a problem for them. You certainly dont try to make someone a better Muslim so he or she will become a Christian. On the other hand, if people have certain barriers from the Quran, it can be used. For example, many think that the Quran says that our Bible has been corrupted. A very careful looking at that would indicate that it does not teach that the written text of our Scriptures is corrupted. Furthermore, many Muslims will not even consider the possibility of the crucifixion, because they believe that chapter 4 of the Quran, verses 157-159, denies the crucifixion. When you look very carefully at that, other interpretations can fit just as well the quranic materialsin some cases, you might say, better. I feel free to use the Quran in that way so that they do not use it as a barrier. Also, in the same way that our Lord said, As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, using part of their understanding as a bridge to lead them beyond that, I feel comfortable doing the same type of thing with Muslims, particularly when I note that Islam is very much an alternate form of Judaism, we might say: very Jewish in its structure and its teaching. So although its not the divinely chosen vehicle for being a schoolhouse to lead us to Christ, it is close enough to the divinely chosen one that it can still serve in that capacity. Gration: What about the term for God? How do you feel about the use of the term Allah? Ive heard that debated. Woodberry: Its not a problem for Arabs, because Arab Christians and Arab Muslims use the same term, Allah, which in its root mean-

Woodberry: That can have some value. I dont feel it always should have the centrality that it has had in the past, because although it is part of the gospel, its not at the area of felt need for at least the folk Muslim. But it certainly is for some others. Just two weeks ago today I was talking with a Pakistani Muslim in Cyprus. He had seen the love of God, he was seeing the power of God, but he still had some intellectual problems. So we talked for two to three days together, whenever I was free. Once he had had some of his intellectual problems removed, the barriers to his understanding, he became a Christian, accepted Christ. So it was valuable in that case. Also, it has value for the convert, which I feel is the value of apologetics; more than winning converts, its giving a certain stability to the convert so that he or she realizes there are answers for many of these questions. It also gives a little more sense of confidence as Christians grow to know that there are answers to many of the problems out there. Gration: Would you say also that this whole area of apologetics assists in the process of what could be seen as the gradual transformation of a worldview, coming to see the total context in which theyre now living in terms of their worldview? A number of key issues are arising today, and youre doubtless in contact with them in the Muslim track of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. What are some of the key issues that evangelicals are grappling with today? We want to relate the gospel to Islam and remove as many barriers as we can from a cultural perspective, and yet we want to be faithful to the biblical revelation. Obviously there must be some tension points. What are some that youre grappling with today in the context of Muslim evangelism? Woodberry: One is the whole area of what we might call the Jesus mosque, where people in the Muslim community become followers of Jesus. Often the Christian church has been identified too much with the Westwith its colonialism, before that with the Crusadesand with forms that are culturally quite different. So some are experimenting now with what might be called the Jesus mosque; that is, a place of worship and a style of worship that is much more like the Islamic way. This raises certain problems. What are the meanings of these forms? Most of them were borrowed from Jews and Christians originally, but we need to ask ourselves the question, have

John A. Gration
ing just means the God, the Creator God. Etymologically its related to El in the biblical usage such as Beth-el, the house of God. If the writers of Scripture, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, felt free to use a term like El, used by the polytheists around, but now used of the Creator God, I dont have any real problem using Allah for God. It is a problem in some other countriesfor example, Pakistan, where we lived. The Christians use Hruddah, because they say our God is not the Muslim God. However, Hruddah is a Persian word which in its basic meaning doesnt have any more biblical content, perhaps less, than Allah does. My approach would be to use the term that Muslims do so they know we are talking about the one God of the universe, but then to pour biblical meaning into that to complete what is lacking of their understanding or to correct what we feel is wrong in their understanding. Gration: I gather that one of the key issues among Muslim converts is the area of baptism. Now, I dont know how we can eliminate baptism, given its biblical mandate, but maybe youd like to say a word about its timing, or even its form, as it relates to a Muslim convert. Woodberry: The problem has been raised because baptism to the Muslim community often means far more than it doesor shouldto the Christian. For the Christian, it is that initiation rite which symbolizes cleansing and burial with Christ and being raised to new life. To the Muslim community, it often also means giving up your community, your culture. Youre being not only a heretic; youre also being treasonous against the state, if it is a Muslim state. Because of these additional meanings, which it should not have, some Christians have raised the problem of the use of baptism. One thing we might want to remember is that baptism was a sign, or symbola sacrament, some of us might call it. In any event, it grew up in the intertestamental period and indicated an initiation rite into Judaism. Christ took this existing initiation rite and then made it the initiation rite, you might say, for the Christian Church, and for union with himself. Some Christians have wondered, Could something similar be done with Islam? Even though baptism, historically, might have been our Lord taking an existing initiation rite and integrating it into the new faith, because he did do it and it has hence become a universal sign, symbol, or sacrament, we should be very hesitant to substitute something else for it at

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this time. However, many Christians feel that, although it is an outward sign of an inward experience and hence should be done before some people, it can be done before a rather small group of individuals. Their reason is that in some caseslimited cases, but still in some casesit can mean death to the person who is being baptized. Gration: So it is a complex issue and needs to be handled with sensitivity, both with fidelity to the biblical mandate and with sensitivity to the individual in the whole context. Are there a couple of books that youd like to recommend to people who are interested in Muslim evangelism?recognizing that it takes more than a couple of books to prepare for this kind of ministry. Im thinking of something that might at least get people started into thinking intelligently about evangelistic endeavor to Muslims and what it really involves. Woodberry: Were talking about folk Islam here, as opposed to orthodox Islam. There are many books on the market for witnessing with the more traditional, lets say the more orthodox or orthoprax, right practice, Muslims. If were thinking of folk Islam, there is a popular book by Phil Parshall, Bridges to Islam, which was published by Baker Book House in 1983. A couple of dissertations, one by Bill Musk and more recently one by Earl Grant for the Arab world, go into more detail than this, but unfortunately neither of these is available yet to the wider public. There are some older books, and since a lot of folk Islam has not changed much, theyre still quite usable. One is by Samuel Zwemer himself, called The Influence of Animism on Islam, published in 1920 but still quite usable for many parts of the Muslim world today. One by Westermarck is called Pagan Survivals in Islam, which was reprinted in 1978. Again, this is an older book, but it has a lot of value today, at least in presenting the phenomena of folk Islam. There then needs to be the interpretation of this. Gration: Probably most of the people reading this interview wont be going to a Muslim area of the world. Yet, as you brought out earlier, the Lord has brought literally thousands and thousands of Muslims to our shores here. Do you have any brief word to those of us who are living in the States and will continue to be here? What can we do? Im sure we need to pray. Is there an area of friendship evangelism? Can everybody have some kind of outreach to the Muslims who are around us?

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munity; this is an area where we can meet a felt need of love and reconciliation for them. Once they see the love of Christ incarnated in our lives, they will be more open, in most cases, to listening to the message of Christ. Gration: I do want to thank you for this great overview of Islam, the insights that youve given us into Islam, and especially how we can relate the gospel and contextualize the gospel to the various forms of Islam that we find in the world today. I want to assure you that well be praying that Gods richest blessing might remain upon you and upon the crucial ministry that the Lord has given to you.

Woodberry: They certainly can. Estimates go as high as three million Muslims in the United States. There are large concentrations in the Chicago area, northern Ohio, Detroit, Southern California, and many other places. Every major city and even many minor cities have significant concentrations, particularly in academic centers. You referred to friendship evangelism; this still is is very much the best. Muslims feel considerable prejudice against them, with all the media coverage that has been given to terrorism, so in many cases they do feel alienated. They come from much closer family units than most of us are from, and they miss their family and com-