How Flexible is the Term “Muslim”? Can a Christ-worshipper be a Muslim?
The following article is the second in a seven-part series on Identity Development and Transformation. This series is geared for Muslims who are leaving Islam and embracing Jesus Christ as Lord, as well as those ministering to them.
Identity Development and Transformation in Christ Series:
- Muslim Identity – To be or not to be Muslim? [Available Oct 9, 2017]
- Flexibility of the term “Muslim” [Available Oct 16, 2017]
- Shahada and Muslim Identity [Available Oct 23, 2017]
- Transitional Identity [Available Oct 30, 2017]
- Christo-centric Identity [Available Nov 6, 2017]
- Christo-centric Identity for Former Muslims [Available Nov 13, 2017]
- Identity Applications [Available Nov 20, 2017]
Introduction to this Article
The first article in this series on Identity Transformation addressed how flexible Muslims hold the term “Muslim.” This has come into the contemporary news as hard-line Takfiri Muslims are now quick to excommunicate their fellow Muslims by deeming them infidels, or kafirs. The takfiri initiative seeks to narrow the authentic population of Muslims by disqualifying those who do not agree with the takfiris themselves.
This article considers an inverse proposition—broadening who may be considered a Muslim. This initiative is being undertaken by Christian missiologists who suggest that Muslim identity may be compatible with biblical salvation. The first controversy is an internal discussion within the Muslim community; the second extends to those within the Christian missions community. The article concludes that there is no indigenous precedent or rationale for a “saved person,” or group who has received biblical salvation, to be identified as “Muslim.” Thus, the term “Muslim” may not be as flexible as some Christian missiologists have hoped.
The Missiological Question: Can a Christ-worshipper be a Muslim?
Stated afresh, a new question has emerged regarding the intersection of Muslim identity and Christian missions: Do indigenous persons understand the term “Muslim” flexibly enough to include one who worships Christ as Lord? If so, the possibility exists for considerable continuity of spiritual identity for Muslims turning to Christ. If not, significant discontinuity awaits these new disciples of Christ.
Christian Missiologists’ pursuit of a flexible definition of “Muslim”
The prospect of expanding the concept of Muslim identity has tantalized Christian missiologists. The term “Muslim” carries the connotation of “one who has submitted” or “who has surrendered.” The question begs as to whether those who have submitted to Christ can be considered Muslims in the present tense?
Kevin Higgins, a leading “Insider Movement” theorist, provides the following identity statement as a legitimate alternative for a Muslim who has turned to Christ:
“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.” 1
Higgins concedes that his initiative requires a re-definition of the term “Muslim:”
“I do, however, believe that authentic Jesus movements within Islam will bring transformation (and indeed reform) in the light of God’s Word and Spirit as applied from the inside. Views concerning Muhammad, the place of the Qur’an, the value of the salat, the meaning of the word “Muslim,” the nature of Jesus, the character of Allah, and many other elements of Islamic faith and life will change within and through such movements to Jesus.” 2
Joshua Massey contends that Muslims may retain Muslim identity in the “C5” (essentially the “Insider Movement” position on identity): “C5 is much like C4, with the primary difference being self-identity. Whereas C4 believers identify themselves as “followers of Isa,” C5 believers identify themselves as “Muslim followers of Jesus”—much like Messianic Jews, who call themselves ‘Jewish followers of Jesus.” 3 Rick Brown of Wycliffe Bible Translators advocates for “Biblical Muslims” in his own IJFM article of 2007. 4 These are Muslims who have embraced the biblical faith and who retain Muslim identity. Brown differentiates these believers from “sub-Biblical Muslims” in the same article.
These missiologists recommend that Muslims remain inside Islam. Rebecca Lewis defines an “insider” believer as one who permanently retains his or her socio-religious identity. 5 John Travis concurs by defining an “insider” as “a person from a non-Christian background who has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior but retained the socioreligious identity of his or her birth.” 6
To be clear, these “insider movement” advocates are not simply talking about retaining one’s language or ethnicity, or remaining resident inside the community of one’s birth. The new believers must also retain the religious component of this socio-religious identity on a permanent basis. Kevin Higgins explains:
“In the second half of the 20th century, thinkers such as McGavran and Tippett began to popularize the idea of ‘people movements.’ One assumption of the people movement concept was that people in many parts of the world made decisions together rather than as individuals and that such ‘togetherness’ included tribal, caste, and other types of unity. As I use it, the phrase ‘Insider Movements’ encompasses not only these earlier descriptions of people movements but adds ‘religion’ to the above list of aspects of ‘togetherness’ or unity. 7
None of these missiologists come from a Muslim background. Therefore, it is imperative to consider what Muslim-background individuals think about this flexible interpretation of the term Muslim.
Indigenous Understandings of the term “Muslim”
At this point in history, no Muslim religious leader or scholar who has gone on record to state that the term “Muslim” could include a Christ-worshipper. Indeed, the entire thread of Islamic scholarship from the time of Muhammad until the present indicates the term “Muslim” has been intended to exclude Christ-worshippers. Whatever differences Muslims may have, they seem uniformly agreed that a Muslim who has come to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord, God and Savior has left the fold of Islam and is no longer a Muslim. The primary reason for this is that Muslim identity is inextricably linked to the prophethood of Muhammad, and Muhammad forbade the worship of Jesus Christ.
I have addressed this topic extensively in my doctoral field research 8 and also in a recent issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missiology. 9 My findings are that Islamic laypersons and imams, as well as Muslim-background disciples of the Lord Jesus (MBDLJs) feel that a Muslim who comes to believe God visited the earth in the form of Jesus is no longer a Muslim. In fact of 40 such persons whom I interviewed, 20 MBDLJs and 20 Muslims, including 5 imams, only one, a young Palestinian man, felt such a person could be considered a Muslim. This research sample included people from 18 different birth countries.
The term “Muslim” is reserved for those who believe in all prophets, consummated in and indispensably including the “Seal of the Prophets,” Muhammad. A South Asian imam I interviewed stated, “When the word Muslim is used in reference to humans, it means they have made a conscious decision to take the Islamic teachings as a whole, not picking and choosing. If you do not believe in Muhammad as the final prophet, you are not a Muslim.” 10
A West African imam, who had represented his country in the international Qur’anic recitation competition in Medina, provided this exegesis: “When we use the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam,’ we look at how the words are used in the Qur’an. Abraham and other prophets were Muslims. However, from the time of the Qur’an (going forward), a person must believe in all books and all prophets.” 11
Regarding the linguistic elements, a Palestinian imam whom I interviewed stated, “Anybody can say he is a Muslim through Christianity or a Muslim through Judaism. If I am an English speaker, then anyone will have to say that they are submitted to God. However, words like Allah and Muslim are not translatable. The word Muslim is not translatable as a name; it is only translatable as a term, as a description. I think the problem is with translation. In English, you say the word Muslim and then say it means submitted. In Arabic, the word submitted is coming from the same word for Muslim.” 12 Muslims themselves confirm this everywhere and in every language by calling themselves “Muslims,” not a the local-language equivalent of “People who have submitted to Allah.”
These explanations make it clear that indigenous persons have ruled out the option that a “Muslim” could include someone who holds to the biblical narrative regarding the Lord Jesus Christ.
The takfiri discussion mentioned in the first article of this series is an initiative to limit the usage of the term “Muslim,” with its myriad benefits and protections. Christians may look on to this debate as concerned spectators since so much blood is being shed by takfiri advocates.
This second article also dealt with the concept of Muslim identity and is much more salient to Christian missiology. To summarize, there is no historical or contemporary indigenous rationale for the term “Muslim” being used flexibly enough to include someone who worships the Lord Jesus Christ. Muhammad clearly and specifically forbade the worship of Jesus Christ (see Sura 5:72; 5:116, for examples). Indeed the founder of Islam esteemed Jesus merely as a prophet and his personal herald (see Sura 61:6).
To pry the term “Muslim” away from Muslims themselves, and redefine it, as several Christian missiologists have done, constitutes an external imposition that demolishes the marker an indigenous community has set up to define itself. It is unlikely such an imposition can result in either biblical or fruitful missiology. Furthermore, individuals who are encouraged to try to retain Muslim identity after coming to faith in the biblical Jesus will likely live in a tragically confused state which also causes confusion to others.
Therefore, the spiritual journey for Muslims must find them moving beyond the permanent retention of Muslim identity. Developing Christ-centered identity depends on this. The third article in this series will build on this discussion by considering the centrality of Muhammad and the Shahadah confession to Muslim identity.
- 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. See also: http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/23_3_PDFs/Higgins.pdf. (Accessed July 24, 2017.) ↩
- Kevin Higgins, “Acts 15 and Insider Movements Among Muslims: Questions, Process, and Conclusions,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24, no. 1 (2007): 38, emphasis added. See also: http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/24_1_PDFs/Higgins.pdf. (Accessed July 24, 2017.) ↩
- Joshua Massey, “God’s Amazing Diversity in Drawing Muslims to Christ,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (2000): 7. See also: http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/17_1_PDFs/Drawing_Muslims.pdf. (Accessed July 24, 2017.) ↩
- Rick Brown, “Biblical Muslims,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24, no. 2 (2007): 65-74. See also: http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/24_2_PDFs/24_2_Brown.pdf. (Accessed July 24, 2017). ↩
- Rebecca Lewis, “Promoting Movements to Christ within Natural Communities,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 24, no. 2 (2007): 75. See also: http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/24_2_PDFs/24_2_Lewis.pdf. (Accessed July 24, 2017.) ↩
- Harley Talman and John Travis, eds. Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities. (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2015): 8 ↩
- Kevin Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 21, no. 4 (2004): 156. See also: http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/21_4_PDFs/Key_Insider_Higgins.pdf. (Accessed July 24, 2017.) ↩
- Fred Farrokh. Perceptions of Muslim Identity: A Case-Study among Muslim-born Persons in Metro New York. (PhD dissertation. Springfield, MO: Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, 2014). ↩
- Fred Farrokh, “Will the Umma Veto CITO? Assessing the Viability of Theological Deviation on Social Acceptability in Muslim Contexts,” vol. 32, no. 2 (2015): 69-80. See also: http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/32_2_PDFs/IJFM_32_2-Farrokh.pdf. (Accessed July 24, 2017.) ↩
- Ibid, 170 ↩
- Ibid, 171 ↩
- Ibid, 171 ↩
Thanks, Adam, for posting this comment. David Owen’s experimentation raises some serious issues. First, we see this insider approach, including the concept of being a “fulfilled Muslim,” is an external imposition. As such, it is a form of Neo-Colonialism. Second, we should evaluate the inverse proposal. Suppose Muslims began promoting the idea that “fulfilled Christians” were those who believed in Muhammad and the Qur’an? How would Christians feel? Would the result be nothing other than confusion? Clearly this is a missional strategy that falls short of the New Testament model of clear preaching.
This is an excellent article! I appreciate you taking the time to write it. Two points that you made really stand out to me: 1. “None of these missiologists come from a Muslim background.” 2. C5/IM proponents are theorists. In fact, this theory can be traced to what was being taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1970s, primarily through Charles Kraft. One Fuller student, David Owen, is the “father” of the C5/IM. His seminal paper, “A Jesus Movement Within Islam” (1991) is the blueprint for it, though often unacknowledged. It seems that many want to distance themselves from Owen who has abandoned his profession of faith in Jesus Christ, said that he was wrong to produce his “Biography of Christ” in Arabic (“Sirat Al-Masih,” the first “Muslim Idiom Translation”), and believes that the Qur’an was sent down to correct the mistaken notion that Jesus is God incarnate!
Here is a partial quote from Owen’s paper: “The basic purpose of God in the Islamic tradition is for all of creation to be ‘surrendered’ or ‘submitted’ to the divine will. Is not this also what is behind the expression in the Lord’s prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’? (Matthew 6: 10). Is not our testimony, as followers of Jesus, that through his life, teachings, death and resurrection, the universal grip of sin over mankind has been broken and that now we can do what we could not formerly do-surrender or submit ourselves to the will of God? Could not this be the testimony of the Muslim who begins to follow Jesus, that he is now becoming a fulfilled or true Muslim? When referring to conversion in our mission reports, could we not speak of ‘Abdul, who is a Muslim follower of Jesus?’ And if such reports fall into the hands of Muslim authorities, will not the language of fulfillment be less antagonizing than the language of changing religions?” [pp. 15-16]