Understanding Social Pressure in Islam

Religious devotion in Islam is, in large part, public and communal, so many Muslims experience much cultural pressure to “stay in line.” Much of this external and social pressure in Islamic relationships is based in the belief that assurance of salvation is not granted to any Muslim during this life, which causes Muslims to seek religious conformity with Muslims around them. This pressure is expressed both in the Islamic heartland and in Islamic minority settings like America.

Our Muslim friends’ religious identity and behavior, their interest and occupations, as well as their personal relationships and search for personal meaning are under constant scrutiny by fellow Muslims. Social pressure promotes individual conformity to proper Islamic behaviors. This is especially true as Muslims interact with a Christian gospel presentation and show any consideration of leaving Islam. In many Muslim communities, conversion to Christianity is punishable by death. The Christian witness who is aware of this complex reality prayerfully seeks God’s guidance and wisdom in sharing God’s love.

“Our Muslim friends’ religious identity and behavior, their interest and occupations, as well as their personal relationships and search for personal meaning are under constant scrutiny by fellow Muslims.”

Historic Context

Changes in the last half of the twentieth century affected how social pressure is applied in Islamic life. Gospel witness occurs in this context.

First, geopolitical realities changed. In the eyes of most Muslims, the six-day war with Israel in 1967 ushered in the rise of political Islam in the Arab world—including terrorist extremism. This has resulted in increased public pressure for public and communal compliance with Islamic ideals. For example, Muslim men are expected to attend the local mosque during Friday noon prayers.

A second reality of today is the development of indigenous schools of higher education. In the 150 years prior to 1967, Western voices dominated Islamic institutions of higher learning. This is no longer true.

Finally, the birth of the information age with the internet gives Muslims unfettered access to several channels of thought unavailable to most people previously. Muslim leaders use social pressure in attempts to control any interaction with Christian ideas within their networks.

All these factors have dramatically changed the public interaction of Muslims with Christians and Christian thought. The reality is there are now greater efforts to control individual interaction and prevent individuals from departing Islam to follow Christ.

Who Is under Pressure?

The pressure on the individual Muslim to conform begins at puberty for both boys and girls. Because a woman will bear the extended family’s honor in the community’s eyes, she is closely watched by her mother and grandmother starting in her preteen years. She must constantly be on guard against bringing shame upon Islam and her family.

Boys who have passed through puberty are considered “men of Islam” and must live as practicing Muslims. The public pressure men face can be contrasted with the private and cloistered role of women, but social pressure for both is palpable and broad-based.

It should be noted that male members of an extended family are of special interest to that family’s women. This is based in part on their understanding that a woman’s place in Islamic Paradise is dependent on their men being devout Muslims.

To illustrate, I began a Bible study with a Muslim single adult man. After two or three weekly discussions in which he asked many spiritual questions, he dropped out of my life. I called his home several times. Each time his sister answered. In my last call, she told me that their mom did not want me to call again and her brother would not see me. He had gone to a Muslim retraining school in Saudi Arabia.

Who Applies Pressure?

Social pressure comes primarily from a Muslim’s extended family. Heads of family desire for the behavior of their family to be viewed as “more” Muslim or at least comparable with other Muslim families in the community. Pressure may also be applied by religious leaders, older community members, and peers.

However, two disruptive forces limit the effectiveness of social pressure today. The current unprecedented plight of millions of internally or internationally displaced Muslims has disrupted the influence of all of these sources of social pressure.

The second disruptive force is the internet’s open door to various thought patterns and worldviews.

Areas of Observation

Personal relationships with outsiders are a beginning point for Islamic social pressures. Muslims are inherently relational and hospitable, even to Christians. Frequently gospel witness moves forward on a two-track relationship. There is the spiritual track but also another track, be it economic, business, education, etc. This second track allows the Muslim community to see the practical benefits of a personal relationship, so this allows witness to go forward.

These mutual personal interests or occupations provide a safer context for the Muslim to receive a Christian relationship and for the gospel to be shared. Within these relationships questions of ultimate importance can be explored.

Such was the case for a young professional Muslim in a conversational English class with a Brazilian Christian teacher. For half of his life, he had been curious about Jesus. In the safe context of a Friday game day in class, he heard the stories of the Bible from creation to the resurrection and became a disciple of Jesus Christ. For thirteen years prior, his family, religious teachers, professors and anyone he asked, told him not to ask about Jesus. This English lesson gave his teacher a context to answer his heart’s yearning.

“The very social links which are employed to pressure the seeker to remain in Islam are also the channels on which the new disciple will share Christ’s transforming life with the extended family.”

Islamic Identity and Behavior

While many forms of diversity are permitted in Islamic life, the staunchest social barriers are thrown up to prevent fellow Muslims from leaving Islam and following Jesus. As noted, social pressure seeks to ensure mosque attendance, participation in Ramadan, and avoiding “unnecessary” relational entanglement with Christians. However, in this environment, the Christian witness has resources which can breach social barriers.


  • As witnesses, we are joining God who, as the Holy Spirit, is working internally to draw our Muslim friend to himself.
  • All human beings are image-bearers of their Creator and desire relationships.
  • Those who apply social pressure to prevent conversion have a bit of cultural conflict. Islamic social norms require hospitality. Therefore, if the Christian witness can establish a credible reason for the relationship, Muslims are inclined to give relational space.

The very social links which are employed to pressure the seeker to remain in Islam are also the channels on which the new disciple will share Christ’s transforming life with the extended family. We are joining God in making reproducing disciples.

Mike and his wife, Madelyn, served as IMB missionaries for twenty-seven years. In 2007, Mike joined the faculty of New Orleans Baptist Seminary as associate dean of graduate studies, teaching missions, theology, and apologetics. In August 2018, Mike became Distinguished Professor of theology and missions. His primary focus today is mentoring students in urban ministry and fulfilling the Great Commission.