July-August 1999

Islamic Fundamentalism
An Arab Evangelical Offers a Surprising Perspective

by Dr. Nabeel T. Jabbour

On June 6, 1967, on my way to the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, I heard people in the street shouting that war with Israel had broken out. For days we had been anticipating it, since our political leaders had inspired tremendous hope within us that the

Arabs could beat Israel and help the Palestinian people gain back their legitimate rights.

As I entered the cafeteria, there were about forty students huddled over a little radio. As I joined the group, I sensed that I was a part of a solidarity, a member of a strong Arab nation. It was of no relevance whether a person was a Christian or a Muslim. What really mattered was that all of us around that radio were Arabs.

In the midst of that euphoria, a student climbed on a table and started shouting "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar," which means "God is great" in Arabic. Soon other students were joining in.

A Christian would never use that expression to praise God. This was an Islamic expression. There I stood, silent, stunned, cheated and confused. Am I one of them? Is this my war, my cause, or is this the cause of Islam? That experience of mixed feelings was repeated several times over the years. On the one side, an excitement and a sense of belonging to Arab nationalism and the just cause we have, and on the other side, the feeling of being cheated by the Muslims who consciously or unconsciously excluded me.

In 1975, a major turning point took place in my life. My family and I moved to Egypt to work with the Church. Here I was an Arab and yet a foreigner, having come with years of experience in Christian ministry, yet finding out that very little of what I knew applied to the new situation. I thought that I knew Islam. Because I had studied it, I had "succeeded" in putting it into compartments under labels, and in my mind I had refuted it. Later I discovered that I had been dogmatic, projecting into Islam what I thought it should be.

In the 1980s, I and the men on my ministry team in Egypt started reading the Qur'an with a new perspective, reading books written by Muslims about Islam. Having meaningful dialogues with Muslims, a new love and understanding of Islam started to develop. I pray that this article will help you begin to see Islam and the Muslims, not with the eyes of a westerner whose ignorance of them often leads to suspicion and fear, but with those of an insider who has compassion, because he understands what is at the basic core of what motivates the Muslim Fundamentalists.

Islamic Fundamentalists. Muslim Extremists. Arab Muslim Terrorists. The western media reports on them regularly, but only through its limited and distorted lens. Who are they? What are their motives, their fears and their hopes? Why do they hate the West so much? And why has "Christian Zionism" -- the unquestioning support of Israel by some American Evangelicals based on a specific interpretation of the Old Testament -- become a hindrance for missionaries trying to reach Arab Muslims for Christ?

Before we understand Islamic fundamentalism, we need to first grasp the "basics" of Islam. In A.D. 622, Muhammad, the Prophet who founded Islam, brought the Muslim ummah or nation into existence. It is a theocracy where God reigns over his people through a messenger or a prophet. Just as Samuel reigned over Israel and brought them the word of God, so Muslims believe that Muhammad delivered God's final revelation to his people. Islam means submission to God, and at the core of its theology is an attempt to return to the monotheistic religion of Abraham, before the existence of Judaism and Christianity.

Fundamentalism started within the first 20 years after the death of Muhammad with a group of dedicated Muslims called the Kharijites. Through the centuries, this phenomenon continued and took different manifestations. In this century, it was revived by several figures, including Hasan El Banna of Egypt who founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Fundamentalism is the term chosen by deeply committed Muslims to describe themselves. They believe that Muslims all over the world should return to the "fundamentals of the faith" and establish God's law on earth as it is taught in the Qur'an, their holy book, and through their traditions.

Three Views of Jihad

The diversity with which a few doctrines are interpreted by Muslims determines to a great extent what kind of Muslims they will be. One of the critical doctrines to Fundamentalism is the doctrine of jihad, which means to strive for God or to exercise discipline and holiness.

There are three main interpretations of the word jihad. The first interpretation renders jihad to mean striving against sin in one's own life.

The second goes a step further, where it is not only striving against sin in one's own life, but also encouraging other Muslims to live a life of jihad and advising them to avoid sin.

The third interpretation of jihad goes even a step further. When people do not respond positively to the encouragement and advice, it is justifiable to use violence to enforce obedience to God's laws.

Imagine, for example, a Muslim who lives next door to another Muslim who has opened a video store in his neighborhood. That store happens to contain some pornographic videos. According to the first interpretation of jihad, that Muslim will refuse to rent those videos. According to the second interpretation, he will go to his neighbor and persuade him to get rid of the adult videos. If he follows the third interpretation of jihad, he will have the freedom and the responsibility to use militant means to rid his neighborhood of this evil influence. A very small percentage of the Arab world would follow that third interpretation, yet their impact far exceeds their numbers.

It is important to note here that in many ways we face similar choices in the West. We can see this in the volatile issue of abortion. As American Evangelicals, we will exercise character and discipline and refuse to have an abortion. Some of us will go a step further and actually take part in a demonstration outside an abortion clinic. Finally, a very small group who also call themselves committed Christians, will believe it is justifiable to bomb an abortion clinic.

Common Denominators

As western Christians begin to understand Islamic Fundamentalists, they will discover many common denominators. They too are a moral people who are committed to God's word and to a life of faith and obedience. They too practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. They too are concerned about promiscuity, about the breakdown of the family and of the materialism of the age.

An Arab Muslim will join Fundamentalism for a variety of reasons, including his own personal circumstances, the political situation in the Arab country he lives in, that country's history with Israel and the West and his perceptions of western culture as a threat to his own.

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Arab Muslim is the young Palestinian who has grown up in the squalor of a refugee camp. He is told by his family that grandfather was once a wealthy merchant who owned much land in Bethlehem. But he lost that land in 1967 to Israel, which built its own settlements there and occupied the land. He learns that his family's misfortune was caused by Israel, and by the U.S. which supports Israel with money and weapons.

In Iraq, he is the young boy who lost his father or older brother in the Gulf War. He has watched the footage over and over again on Iraqi television which shows thousands of Iraqi soldiers retreating to Baghdad as the armies of the western alliance fire on them (an actual event that was shown on CNN). His family and his nation continue to suffer as America and the United Nations impose an embargo that lasts for years. He makes the decision to join the Fundamentalist movement and fight America, the "Great Satan."

In Egypt, he is the college student, living in a country whose poor economy and social problems will limit his own life. Although a college graduate, he has no prospects of finding a job or even a wife, since it is impossible to afford an apartment in a city with 18 million people. He reasons that Egypt's problems have not been solved since it made peace with Israel or received billions of dollars in aid from the U.S. What's more, his own government has become corrupt and oppressive with a secret police apparatus. In short, he feels cornered or treated unjustly, and he turns to Islamic Fundamentalism and to terrorism as a last resort to "right the wrong" and to cry out to the "unjust world around him."

His thoughts, as described by an Egyptian psychologist, run something like this: "I will resort to that which is already certain and proven, which is the inspired Qur'an. Since my place of belonging is with those who believe in absolute purity and divine idealism, I am going to force this purity upon my countrymen in order to protect myself from you and your secret police. You, the establishment, are idol worshipers and liars. You preach and do not practice what you preach, and you govern without honest adherence to God's precepts. I might become a martyr and a model to be followed. After all, what is ahead for me is paradise, but as for you, the fires of hell are waiting to receive you."

Whatever Arab country they are from, Islamic Fundamentalists are united in their suspicion and condemnation of the West. As was mentioned before, they see the West's moral decline, the promiscuity and the breakdown of the family. And they fear the spread of that influence to their own societies through the western media and through the political and financial influence that western powers try to exert over third world countries.

The Church's Role

Unfortunately, another factor that contributes to Islamic Fundamentalism is the Church. Muslim Fundamentalists expect the Christian Church to be the voice of moral authority, justice and truth. Instead, they see some American Evangelical leaders give unquestioning support for Israel. For example, a group of Evangelical leaders purchased a full page ad in The New York Times, calling on the U.S. government to stop pressuring Israel to give up land to the Arabs and to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. But what about the Arabs who have owned land in Jerusalem for generations? What about the United Nations' position on this issue?

Politicizing the gospel is dangerous. The gospel is Christ -- no more, no less. The more the gospel is perceived by Muslims as being Zionistic, the more they will resist the gospel, because it is Zionism and the State of Israel that has been the cause of much of their suffering.

Prophets in the Old Testament cried out against injustice and oppression. When American Evangelicals continue to ignore the injustice that Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and Jordanians have suffered at the hands of Israel and support Israel based on a specific interpretation of the Bible, this in itself is an injustice.

But, of course, we cannot ignore the dangers on all sides. Are there dangers to the West from Muslim Fundamentalists? One danger is that one day chemical or biological weapons could be used on innocent people, primarily in the United States and in Britain, if the Fundamentalists despair of using conventional weapons. Muslim Fundamentalists do not have short memories. They could wait years or generations to "bring about justice" as they see it.

A major danger that Evangelicals in the West might face is an increased resistance to the gospel all over the Muslim world, not only in the Middle East. Evangelicals in the U.S. give generously to missions, yet the task of evangelizing the Muslim world is getting harder by the year.

May God give us the grace to understand Muslim Fundamentalism and to be on the side of what contributes to the expansion and mobility of the gospel among Muslims. 

Dr. Nabeel T. Jabbour is the author of a book on Islamic Fundamentalism titled, The Rumbling Volcano, published by Mandate Press.


Sharing Your Faith ...
With a Muslim

By reflecting God's love in our lives and urging Muslim friends to listen to their longing after God, we can accomplish something that theological arguments never will.

by Keith Stump

You're an American?"

The Syrian was astonished. He had not expected to encounter an American inside the mosque. I was visiting the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, the earliest surviving mosque in the Islamic world.

We walked out into the mosque's vast courtyard.

"You are a Muslim?" he asked.

"No, a Christian," I replied.

He paused for a moment. "Then why do you come here?"

"Historical interest," I answered. "And to see the tomb of John the Baptist." In the prayer hall of the mosque is a small domed shrine, reputedly the burial place of the severed head of the cousin and forerunner of Jesus.

Then, curious to observe the man's reaction, I added, "As a Christian, I also wanted to see the famous minaret of Jesus."

I paused to note the effect of my statement. At the southeast corner of the Great Mosque rises the Tower of Jesus. Muslim tradition holds that Jesus will alight on its summit at his second coming. Many Muslims believe that Jesus will return to earth before the final judgment and help the Mahdi -- an expected Islamic messiah -- subdue the forces of evil.

"Yes, Isa [Jesus] will surely appear there," the Syrian replied, looking up thoughtfully at the tower. Then, after hesitating for a moment, he ventured: "You are a Christian. You believe Jesus is God?"

Fascinated by Jesus

The question came not as a challenge, but as a query of genuine interest. Having visited numerous Muslim countries, I can say without exaggeration that Muslims are intensely curious about -- even fascinated by -- Jesus Christ. My Syrian acquaintance was no exception.

He had referred to Jesus as Isa, his name in Arabic. In the Koran, Islam's holy book, Jesus is often referred to as Isa ibn Maryam -- Jesus, the son of Mary.

Few Christians realize that Muslims revere Jesus as a genuine prophet and messenger of God, and many expect his return at the Last Day. Muslims even accept his virgin birth and his miracles.

Jesus is spoken of nearly 100 times in the Koran under numerous names and titles, including Al-Masih (the Messiah), Kalimatu'llah (the Word of God), Rasulu'llah (the Messenger of God) and Nabiyu'llah (the Prophet of God).

These titles sound very Christian when translated. A cursory glance at these surface-level similarities might suggest that Muslims and Christians are not far separated in belief.

Until we notice that "Son of God" is not among the titles.

Central Dogma

Muslims are fiercely monotheistic. The central dogma of Islam is the absolute unity of God (Allah). To Muslims, the biblical teaching of the deity of Jesus Christ is thus polytheistic and blasphemous.

It is the major problem confronting Christians who endeavor to reach Muslims with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

"Allah is One and indivisible," Muslims assert. Allah has no "son" nor any other "partner," as implied by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. "One plus one plus one cannot equal one," they argue.

The Koran declares:

"They surely disbelieve who say: 'Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary' [and] 'Lo! Allah is the third of three'; when there is no God save the One God. The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger." (Sura 5:72-75).

For Christians, Christ's deity is nonnegotiable. (See box "Jesus Is God.") In response to the Muslim charge of polytheism, Christians assert that they, too, believe that God is one. The question at issue is what kind of oneness?

The Christian understands a more complex kind of oneness than a strictly mathematical kind of unity. God the Father and God the Son are one in essence or nature, but they are not identical persons.

Muslims -- and many Christians, for that matter -- find this biblical teaching difficult to comprehend. That God is One, in three Persons, is a mystery that Christians accept on faith, realizing that God is not limited by our human inability to fathom the mysteries of divine existence beyond time and space.

But to Muslims, it is sacrilegious nonsense.

Fruitless Argument

Depending on the individual Christian's theological expertise, he or she can debate the doctrine of the Trinity with varying degrees of sophistication.

Yet it must be understood that this line of argumentation is generally fruitless when it comes to evangelizing Muslims. Muslims believe that Christians worship three gods, and no amount of protestation to the contrary -- however inventive or articulate -- can convince them otherwise.


Because the Koran itself declares that Christians worship three gods. And since Muslims regard the Koran as infallible, Christians must indeed worship three gods -- the clever semantical arguments of Christians notwithstanding!

The same goes for any discussion of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Muslims flatly reject those events. Why? Because anything contradicting the Koran is automatically false, and the Koran declares, "They slew him not nor crucified..." (Sura 4:157). Muslims regard it as inconceivable that a prophet of God could have suffered such an ignominious death.

For Christians, to deny the crucifixion and resurrection is to deny the very means of atonement for which Christ came into the world. Humans are forgiven by accepting, believing in, the shed blood of Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross.

Muslims, by contrast, see no need for a Savior. They believe that a right relationship with God can be achieved by their own striving for righteousness. Right belief and good works bring God's forgiveness, they maintain.

Clearly, an immense doctrinal gulf separates the two religions. The differences between Islam and Christianity are fundamental and profound, and they center around the person of Jesus Christ.

Touched by Love

Nevertheless, it is on Jesus that our efforts to win Muslims must focus. Jesus Christ lies inevitably at the heart of the Christian-Muslim encounter. He is the bridge between the two faiths.

But it is not by argumentation that Muslims will be won to Christ. Conversions through sheer reasoning are rare.

The key to this seeming paradox is given by Samuel Zwemer (1867-1952), the great Christian missionary to Islam. Based on a lifetime of labor and reflection, Zwemer concluded, "After forty years' experience, I am convinced that the nearest way to the Muslim heart is the way of God's love."

The God of the Bible is love personified. Only by touching the hearts of Muslims with that love can the seemingly insurmountable barriers to conversion begin to be overcome.

Understand this: Muslim converts to Christianity report that many Muslims have a deep spiritual hunger that has not been satisfied. Many desire to know God more intimately -- to be assured of his love, forgiveness and acceptance.

Islam is built heavily on legalistic observances intended to prepare a person for future judgment. Muslims have no definite assurance of salvation until they reach that final day. They can never rest in the certainty of eternal salvation. To many, it is a painfully unsatisfying, unfulfilling and precarious state of existence.

It is therefore not surprising that when Muslims learn of Jesus' life of love and forgiveness, and come to know him as a living, personal Savior, he is irresistible.

The Christian enjoys a certainty of salvation that a Muslim can never have. "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). Faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ is our assurance of salvation. Christians serve God willingly, without compulsion or fear. To Muslims, these are revolutionary concepts -- and eminently reassuring ones!

By reflecting God's love in our personal lives and urging Muslim friends to listen to their longing after God, we can accomplish something that a truckload of theological arguments could never achieve. With God's love as the core of our witness, we can begin to communicate the gospel to Muslims in a relevant and productive fashion.

But first...

A Caution

The purpose of this article is to suggest approaches to personal evangelism among Muslim friends, neighbors and co-workers in the Western world -- not to provide a framework for overseas missionary activity.

Evangelism inside the Islamic world is a task too complex -- and potentially dangerous -- to imply that one article would be adequate instruction. In many Muslim countries, the penalty for apostasy from Islam is severe. In extreme cases, the death penalty may even be imposed on a Muslim who renounces his Islamic faith. This should be constantly borne in mind.

In the Islamic world, separation of church and state is unknown. Islam is tied closely to the national, cultural and family life of its adherents. Conversion to Christianity may thus be taken as a rejection of family, culture and country -- with potentially dire consequences.

For those interested in a missionary career, training with missionaries who have experience in restricted-access countries and who are sensitive to cultural dynamics is vital. Books such as Planting Churches in Muslim Cities by Greg Livingstone, New Paths in Muslim Evangelism by Phil Parshall and Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road, edited by J. Dudley Woodberry, are strongly recommended.

Your Personal Witness

Effectively communicating your Christian faith to Muslims requires knowledge, wisdom and a living commitment to Jesus Christ. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Be informed. The ignorance we Westerners have concerning the Islamic faith is appalling. It is a near-fatal obstacle to effective Christian witness. Libraries and bookstores can provide helpful introductory volumes. Reading a translation of the Koran in modern English will also be informative.
  • Avoid arguments. A Muslim is not an enemy to be conquered, but a friend with whom to share the love of Jesus Christ. Arrogant attempts to refute Muslim doctrine are inflammatory and counterproductive. Move beyond the combative rhetoric that has long characterized Christian-Muslim encounters. Ask and respond to questions in a nonthreatening way. Avoid being judgmental.
    Also realize that you may encounter some Muslims who simply have no interest in genuine dialogue with anyone who has a non-Islamic viewpoint. If they feel there is nothing they can learn from Christians, it is pointless to press them. Wish them well in their spiritual journey and move on.
  • Be ready to answer. Islam is a missionary faith. Do not be surprised if you find yourself being evangelized rather than evangelizing. A firm grasp of the essentials of Christianity is therefore crucial (1 Peter 3:15).
    Be especially prepared to discuss the question of Jesus' divinity and the Trinity. Explain that Christians do not believe that Jesus is a separate being from the Father. Acknowledge that the nature of God is beyond the grasp of limited, human understanding. But remember -- prolonged debate over this point is usually a fruitless exercise.
  • Be respectful. Respect Muslims as sincere seekers after God. Many Muslims take their religion more seriously than some Christians do theirs. Do not attack Islam. Criticism of Muhammad and the Koran is insensitive and counterproductive. Remember that Islam has been instrumental in advancing the progress of civilization. Treat it with the respect it deserves.
  • Be an example. To Muslims, religion is much more than mere acceptance of doctrine; it involves a pattern of behavior -- a way of life. This is why Muslims puzzle over how to reconcile Christianity with the loose lifestyles and materialistic values of Western society.
    Explain that Christianity is not responsible for the immorality of the West. Help them to distinguish between "Western" and "Christian." But more than that, remember that the message cannot be divorced from the messenger. Effective witness comes from a Christian who lives a life centered in Christ. By demonstrating the reality of Christ's presence and power in your own life, you can show others what Christianity is really all about.
  • Be a friend. In most cases, sharing one's faith effectively with a Muslim is best accomplished within the context of personal friendships. Be a good friend, a good co-worker, a good neighbor. Let God's love flow through you, and offer help when needs arise.
  • Proclaim Jesus Christ. Be open about what Jesus Christ has done in your life. Explain your reasons for belief in him as your personal Savior. Talk openly, honestly and personally about the love God has shown for you. Share insights, answered prayers and your own experiences of God's mercy and forgiveness. Encourage Muslims to read and reflect on the gospel accounts of Jesus' life.
  • Invite to church. Prayer, songs of praise, Bible-based preaching and Christian fellowship may assist your Muslim friend in discovering the joy of God's love and the riches of his grace in Jesus Christ. Should he or she move toward a genuine commitment to Christ, the support of concerned Christians will be especially needed in coping with inevitable family and social pressures.
  • Pray. Remember that it is God who draws people to Jesus (John 6:44). Pray faithfully that the Holy Spirit will touch your Muslim friends and move them to worship and serve Jesus as Lord and Savior. And pray for the Holy Spirit to speak through you to their personal spiritual needs. 


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