In the book The Critique of Christian Origins, written in a.d. 995, Iranian theologian Abd al-Jabbar tells the story of a Muslim prisoner of war who converted to Christianity in Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor rewarded the convert by offering him a post in the army and marrying him to a “beautiful and wealthy” Christian woman. On returning from a military campaign, however, the convert found that his new wife had taken a lover. Disillusioned with Christian society, he left her, his new home, and his new religion and returned to Iran.
This story shares a feature common to most classical accounts of conversion from Islam to Christianity: It takes place outside the Islamic world. Muhammad’s biography includes an account of one of the Prophet’s own followers, a man named Ubaydallah, who converted to Christianity after he left Mecca with a group of Muslims for the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. Ibn Jubayr, a Spanish Muslim who traveled through Palestine in 1184, writes of the conversion of an anonymous Muslim who settled in the Crusader city of Acre: “The devil increasingly seduced and incited him until he renounced the faith of Islam, turned unbeliever, and became Christian.”
In the modern period, too, most well-known converts from Islam to Christianity either converted outside the Islamic world or soon left it. Carlos Menem, the Argentinean president from 1989 to 1999, was raised a Muslim by parents of Syrian origin but became a Catholic, perhaps with a political career in mind. Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, announced his conversion to Catholicism while serving his prison sentence in Italy. Ramzi Yousef, the main protagonist of the 1993 al-Qaeda terrorist attack at the World Trade Center, claims to have converted to Christianity in prison in the United States.
In Rome, at the Easter Vigil in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI baptized Magdi Allam, an Egyptian journalist. More recently, Masab Yousef, the son of Hamas leader Hasan Yousef, converted to Christianity and left the West Bank for California. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz from an undisclosed location he reflected, “Maybe one day I’ll be able to return to Palestine and to Ramallah with Jesus, in the Kingdom of God.”
Mohammed Hegazy became a Christian in his native Egypt and remained. Yet his petition to change his religious identity was rejected in February 2008 by the Egyptian government (which routinely recognizes conversions from Christianity to Islam). Through this process Hegazy’s conversion became public news in Egypt. He has since received numerous death threats and now lives in hiding.
Things could be worse for Hegazy, of course. Edward Lane, in his 1860 work An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, describes the killing of an Egyptian Muslim woman who converted to Christianity in his day. After becoming a Christian, the woman had a blue cross tattooed on her arm. This gave away her conversion to some women who saw her in the public baths. When her father demanded that the punishment for apostasy—death—be applied, she was mounted on a donkey and paraded around the city. Finally, “She was taken in a boat in the midst of the [Nile] river, stripped nearly naked, strangled, and then thrown into the stream.”
From the perspective of Islamic jurisprudence, converts to Christianity are not Christians of Muslim background. They are Muslim apostates, and all the major traditional Islamic schools of law agree that the punishment for apostasy is death. But the Qur’an itself, which is the first source of Islamic jurisprudence, provides no justification for this punishment. Two of the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which constitute the second source of Islamic jurisprudence, recommend execution. Yet this is hardly a compelling amount of evidence, and in the modern period many Muslim scholars have argued that Islam does not demand death for someone who leaves the faith. The chief mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, argued in response to the case of Mohammed Hegazy that the punishment for apostates be left to God.
Nevertheless, in the Islamic world Muslim converts to Christianity regularly face both legal and social difficulties. The family law of most Arab countries is still based on religious law, which makes no provision at all for conversion from Islam. This legal principle is sometimes justified with reference to the account of the Arab tribes who considered their obligation to Islam terminated at the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, in a campaign known as the War of Apostasy, fought against them until they all returned to Islam.
Even if not threatened with death, converts usually cannot change their religious identity. This holds even if they stop praying in a mosque and start praying in a church. They cannot register their children as Christians in school (a designation that would allow them to receive Christian, rather than Islamic, religious education), and their daughters cannot marry Christian men (under Islamic law a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man).
On the other hand, and despite the conviction of many Muslims that apostasy from Islam must be punishable by death, converts are almost never brought to court in the Islamic world. Abdul Rahman, a man brought to trial for apostasy in Afghanistan in 2006, was one of the few exceptions. Ultimately released under heavy pressure from Western governments (President Bush commented that “it is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another”), he fled from Afghanistan for asylum in Italy.
But if converts rarely are brought to court, they often are threatened or killed by Muslims acting outside the courts. In 2006, Bashir Tantray was shot and killed in Kashmir after his conversion to Christianity was noted in the local media. In 2007, two Turkish Christians of Muslim origin who attracted attention with their missionary work were brutally tortured and stabbed to death. In January 2010 a Christian church leader of Muslim background was killed by members of the Shabaab movement in Somalia. In 2003, Jamil al-Rifai, a Jordanian Christian convert and a former classmate of mine, was killed by a bomb planted in a missionary’s house in Tripoli, Lebanon.
Such vigilante attacks are sometimes justified by Muslim religious leaders with the Islamic principle of “forbidding evil” (see Qur’an 3:104), which they take to mean that individual Muslims should play a role in enforcing Islamic law. In this way the Saudi author Salih Ibn Abdallah insists that shedding an apostate’s blood is still licit even if the state does not impose the death penalty. With similar logic the well-known Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali defended the assassins of Farag Foda, a human-rights activist killed in 1992 after being accused of apostasy for his irreligious writings.
As a rule, conversions in the Islamic world are tolerated as long as they are kept quiet. “As long as they can pretend it is not there, then it is not,” writes Kathryn Ann Kraft, who has studied the reaction of family and friends to conversions from Islam to Christianity.
In fact, an increasing number of Christian converts from Islam live discreetly in the Arab world, although no one knows exactly how many. Muslims and Christians have both exaggerated the numbers. In December 2001 a Muslim cleric named Ahmad al-Qat’aani reported on Al Jazeera that every year six million Muslims convert to Christianity. Christian missionaries continue to repeat this report on the Internet, although it seems to have no basis other than scaremongering. Similarly, in early 2010 a Moroccan newspaper reported that Christian missionaries had a plan to convert 10 percent of Moroccan Muslims by 2020, although no Christian with this plan has yet been found.
The truth is that there are few Christian converts from Islam in the Arab world but more elsewhere in the Islamic world. The movement led in part by Protestant missionary Phil Parshall in Bangladesh in the 1970s and 1980s built Christian communities with tens of thousands of converts from Islam. In Indonesia the number of Muslim conversions to Christianity has been much higher, probably in the hundreds of thousands, although many of these took place when nonpracticing Muslims were obliged to choose a religion during the anticommunist crackdown of the 1960s.
Indeed, in some marginal areas of the Islamic world where sharia has no place in the legal code and minimal influence on social customs, conversions to Christianity are not especially taboo. One of the first Indonesian prime ministers, Amir Sjarifuddin, was a convert. Although his pious mother killed herself when he converted, his conversion was never an obstacle to his public life. (His communist ties were, and they led to his execution in 1948.) This would hardly be the case in Indonesia today, as public life has become Islamicized in various ways. It is still the case in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, such as central Nigeria, where a dinner table may include Muslim converts from Christianity and Christian converts from Islam.
In the West, meanwhile, conversions are infrequent but not unheard of. There are no reliable statistics of conversions, but a sense of the rarity of conversion can be gathered from a series of surveys of forty Western countries and Japan run by the National Bureau of Economic Research. In a 1991 survey of people raised Muslim, forty-five continued to identify themselves as Muslim, one identified as Protestant, and one reported no religion. In a 1998 survey, 205 identified as Muslim, two as Catholic, five as Orthodox, and one as “other”; ten reported no religion. In a 2001 survey, 180 identified as Muslim, one identified as Catholic, and seven reported no religion.
The difficulties encountered by Christian converts from Islam have in recent years led Christian missionaries, especially evangelical Protestants, to develop radically different strategies of evangelization. Through the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, Western missionaries sought to build churches in the Islamic world as they had in China and sub-Saharan Africa—churches that celebrated baptisms publicly and taught the locals to pray like German Lutherans or American Methodists. In most of the Islamic world, however, these efforts failed miserably.
Samuel Zwemer, a Dutch Reformed missionary from Michigan, is known as the Apostle to Islam for his long career of mission work among Muslims in Yemen (1890–1913) and Egypt (1913–1929), but he is not known for winning many converts. The first chapter of his 1924 work The Law of Apostasy in Islam ponders the question: “Why So Few Converts in Islam?” Zwemer reports that in his day 438 missionaries in Egypt together won no more than 150 converts. These disappointing numbers, he concludes, were due to the menace that potential converts faced from their society.
The struggles of Protestant missions in the Islamic world have led, today, to a trend to contextualize the evangelism of Muslims. The roots of this trend are in the philosophy of mission developed in part by Parshall. “The gospel of Jesus Christ,” Parshall writes in his book Muslim Evangelism (2003), “must be attractively presented into the context of any given group of people. This is a process that involves great sensitivity.” Turning to Jesus, he argues, need not involve turning away from culture, community, and family. He cites as a positive example the British missionary William Carey, who established numerous churches among Hindus in early-nineteenth-century India. Carey used typically Hindu vocabulary to express Christian doctrine and encouraged converts to keep their Hindu dress and diet.
Similarly, some evangelical missionaries today design churches that look like mosques—churches where worshippers remove their shoes when entering and where the Bible is displayed on a type of stand typically used for the Qur’an. New believers in such churches may keep their Islamic ( halal) diet, wear traditional Islamic dress, and fast during Ramadan. Some missionaries even encourage new believers to continue to call themselves Muslims and to perform traditional Islamic prayers. In other words, this sort of contextualization involves more than writing praise music in a local style. Instead, it invites comparison with messianic Judaism, whereby Jewish believers in Jesus continue to follow Jewish practices, such as worship on Saturday. Indeed, some Muslim converts choose to call themselves “Messianic Muslims.”
In recent missiological literature the contextualization of the evangelism of Muslims is described with a scale—originally developed by John Travis, a missionary working among Muslims in Asia—that ranges from C1 to C6. The C stands for “Christ-centered community.” C1 believers follow Western religious and cultural practices while calling themselves Christians and identifying with the global Church. C6 believers are (in Travis’ words) “small Christ-centered communities of secret/underground believers” perceived as Muslims by Muslims. They continue to follow Islamic practices and avoid any ties with the global Church.
The most popular—and controversial—recent idea in Muslim evangelism involves building “insider” communities (C5 and C6 on Travis’ scale) that in some way identify as Muslim and form their own communities within Islam through the camel method, a name taken from the title of a book by missionary Kevin Greeson. The name is not a reference to the animal with a hump (or two) but an acronym for the teachings of the Qur’an that are closest to the gospel: Mary was Chosen, Angels spoke to her, Christ performed Miracles, and he is the way to Eternal Life. The basis of the camel method is to preach from the Qur’an, not from the New Testament. Thus missionaries are encouraged to refer to God as Allah and Jesus by his Qur’anic Arabic name, Isa.
This proved to be too much for Ergun Caner, a convert from Islam, of Turkish background and the former dean of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. (He was removed from his position after an inquiry into certain autobiographical statements.) Caner started a controversy in February 2010 when he described the camel method as a deception. Allah, Caner later explained in a New York Times interview, is a God without a son, while the Christian God is the father of Jesus Christ. Yet Jerry Rankin, the president of the Southern Baptist International Missions Board, has defended the camel method, and the Internet is full of testimonies from missionaries who have used it.
For its part, the Catholic Church has barely been heard from on questions of Muslim evangelism. After Pope Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg in September 2006, in which he quoted a fourteenth-century Christian refutation of Muslim claims about Muhammad, some in the media speculated that the Holy Father was keen on proselytizing Muslims. Such speculation died down when the pope himself hosted Catholic and Muslim leaders for a dialogue at the Vatican in November 2008. As a rule, the Catholic Church continues to be quite careful about evangelizing, let alone baptizing, Muslims in the Islamic world, for fear of repercussions against local Christians. But this is evidently a posture taken for pastoral, not dogmatic, reasons. As the baptism of Magdi Allam shows, the Catholic Church is in principle open to welcoming Muslims.
Perhaps the most curious figure in Muslim evangelism today is neither evangelical nor Catholic but a Coptic priest named Zakaria Botros, who lives in the United States. Botros, who has been excommunicated by the Coptic hierarchy in Egypt, hosted a notorious weekly Arabic television program until early in 2010; he has since announced plans to begin his own satellite station. During the program he regularly displayed controversial verses from the Qur’an or peculiar traditions surrounding the Prophet that were meant to embarrass Muslims and shake their faith. (It was Botros who raised the controversy over a fatwa, issued in Egypt, that suggested women could become legal relatives to strangers by breastfeeding them.) Botros is known for his declaration of “Ten Demands of Islam,” the first of which is that Muslims delete those verses of the Qur’an that deny the divinity of Jesus. Presumably he is not with bated breath awaiting a response.
In some ways Botros represents the dramatically different context of Muslim–Christian relations in the contemporary world. Through satellite television or over the Internet, Christians today can preach the gospel—or attack Islam—in ways that never would be permitted in the public square of an Islamic country. Today conversion from Islam to Christianity, both within and without the Islamic world, is a well-known phenomenon as, of course, is conversion from Christianity to Islam. And yet, in most of the Islamic world conversion—or apostasy—is still taboo. Other Christians, no doubt, will wonder whether the gospel should be preached to Muslims at all.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is the Tisch Family Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.