Muslims are typically born into, grow up in, and are embraced their entire lives by community. Including their immediate and wider family, their community extends to the entire body of Muslims across the globe. And Muslims derive a key part of their identity from membership in that (growing) worldwide religious community. It’s their security, but as we shall see, it can also serve as their prison.
This concept of ummah—religious communal identity—has key implications for anyone wanting to see Muslims become disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ—and that applies to everyone seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. For apart from the need to persuade a Muslim of the truth of Jesus’s person and message, one must consider the reaction of that person’s community.
As a group, the Muslim ummah rejects the very heart of the gospel: the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. And this rejection intensifies when it comes to baptism. Harry K. Wilson III suggests “that the Islamic collective consciousness, nahniyah [‘we-ness’], is one of the main sources, if not the main source, of the stigma of baptism in Islamic culture. . . . [Christian] baptism represents a public breakdown in the ‘we.’ . . . What was tantamount to suicide in tribal Arabia, the forsaking of the tribe, has been transferred to the forsaking of the Islamic dar (house).” Consequently, a Muslim who converts to Jesus and is baptized “is cast outside of the Islamic ‘we,’ into the Christian ‘they.’”
Unfortunately, while a new believer may have no intention of abandoning his or her secure social network, rejection (or worse) by the ummah is a common phenomenon. This experience of expulsion from the ummah can include instances like the sad case of Yusuf Wahid, detailed in the book Longing for Community. Threatened with death if he did not return, and lacking “concrete support from his Christian community—Yusuf returned to the ummah.” Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon outcome. And this is where fellow believers have a role to play.
In a nutshell, a new disciple from a Muslim background must feel that joining a Christian fellowship is far more valuable than leaving the ummah.
What does this mean? A Christian’s friendly words about the new believer’s wonderful conversion story, a promise to pray for that person, and a stated intention to see him or her at church next week aren’t enough. The fallback “self-reliance” of American culture simply doesn’t satisfy a Muslim who is grasping for community with his or her new Christian family. Belonging requires far more.
“A new disciple from a Muslim background must feel that joining a Christian fellowship is far more valuable than leaving the ummah.”
We must commit to what I like to call “biblical friendship.” This is difficult to grasp because biblical friendship is so easily confused with friendliness. A smiling, friendly face and the interchange of a few lighthearted, even sincere, comments are certainly pleasant enough, but that’s not the same as true friendship. Being someone’s friend goes way beyond initial friendliness. There has to be a commitment, proven over time.
Great Commission friendship—in other words, truly making disciples—means being a vulnerable, understanding, sacrificial friend, like Jesus, for the long haul to others.
Ultimately, this enduring demand is always higher than anything we can attain. But we can take a stab at it in the following ways.
- Focus on a few.
Jesus did. His closest relationships were with just three disciples. I think this is a good guideline. You can’t have deep friendships with everybody.
- Be deliberate in establishing friendships.
My wife and I did this with another couple. It started with a few shared meals—in our homes—involving an in-depth sharing of values and ideas. And so, eight years later, we are still spending quality time with each other, pretty much on a monthly basis.
- Be on the lookout—and pray—for folks to befriend.
This should certainly include Muslims who’ve been forced out of the ummah. However, the Lord may have specifics for you that don’t fit a neat, predetermined pattern. Whatever you do, send a clear message that the friendship you offer enhances long-term belonging, whether the folks concerned are believers or not in the beginning.
- Show respect.
In particular, don’t violate your friends’ freedom. It’s all too easy to adopt a “we know better” (or worse, “we have the money”) attitude, and insist on giving folks things they neither want nor need. Listen to and learn from your friends, allowing them an equal voice as the relationship unfolds.
It’s probable that Muslims in North America tend to rely more on the familial security provided by the ummah in our intensely individualistic culture than they would in communal Muslim societies. Separating from that community presents a frightening new world that isolates them from those who once provided security and support and in whom they once found meaning and significance.
“Great Commission friendship—in other words, truly making disciples—means being a vulnerable, understanding, sacrificial friend, like Jesus, for the long haul to others.”
Christians, then, should encourage the formation of small groups, open to others, that Muslim background believers can join, but those groups should be led by a culturally sensitive individual. I’d emphasize that such groups must meet in homes. I say this because homes typically provide a sense of security and intimacy lacking in other contexts. This will engender the new family-belonging that former members of the ummah crave.
The bottom line, quite simply, is that we must do community well ourselves if we’re to offer something meaningful to folks expelled from the ummah.
All this takes planning and effort, of course. But if we’re serious about fulfilling the Great Commission, I don’t believe there is any other way.
Ant Greenham is associate professor of missions and Islamic studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a contributor to Islam and North America: Loving our Muslim Neighbors (B&H, 2018), from which this article is adapted.