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Accommodations in Converting Muslims

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 12, 2011

The hostility of the Arab Islamic world to Muslims who convert to Christianity is so great that it creates severe tactical problems for missionaries. Even when the governments in power do not take action against a convert, individual citizens may do so as an implementation of the idea that all Muslims have an obligation to help enforce Islamic law. Typically, such laws include prohibitions of apostasy and blasphemy, and wherever Islam has been deeply formative in the political order, there is little distinction between politics and religion. Public laws are often extensions of religious concepts.

This is not so much the case in some regions of Africa, where groups of families and friends may include Muslims and Christians, even those who have converted from one religion to the other. But in Arab lands, national governments frequently must “recognize” a change in religious status, and while a change from Christianity to Islam will be recognized, there may be a prolonged or even permanent refusal to recognize a change from Islam to Christianity. Without this recognition, the convert may be breaking the law by attending Christian religious services, or his children may not be able to avoid Islamic religious instruction in school.

Patterns of Conversion . . .

And again, there is the sheer physical danger. It is so great that Christian missionaries have puzzled over how much to ask of their converts in terms of a visible Christian life. In many cases, a conversion will be ignored if the convert does not make a point of revealing it, or especially if the convert continues to observe Muslim religious laws (such as fasting during Ramadan) or continues to worship in a mosque. Years ago, for example, there was a tendency to have Christians establish architecturally-obvious churches and adopt the patterns of worship characteristic of the Christian West. Now some missionaries actually have their converts worship in churches that outwardly look like mosques, while continuing to observe Muslim patterns of dress and diet.

As you might expect, there are quarrels among different groups about how much dissimulation is too much. A fine line separates prudent accommodation from a failure to fully embrace the Christian life. There is a fascinating article on the pressures at work and the various responses to them in the January 2011 issue of First Things: “Evangelizing Islam” by Gabriel Said Reynolds, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. (At present, you have to be a subscriber to see the article online.) Much of this debate is carried on among Protestant missionaries; the Church has apparently been fairly silent on this subject.

I can understand why. One does not wish to risk elevating a temporary prudent accommodation into a faulty theological principal, especially as this has been frequently done for far less worthy reasons in missions to the Far East (or, for that matter, in missions to students in Western universities). There, while dangers to converts are certainly not unknown, the quest for accommodation with existing cultural patterns has sometimes been motivated by two other pressures, which are not always convergent. The first is the simple desire to reach Eastern peoples more easily through a process of “inculturating” the Faith. The second has been a weakening of Faith, a failure on the part of the missionaries themselves to recognize the distinct and necessary applicability of Christianity to the prevailing culture—in a word, Modernism.

. . . and Patterns of Accommodation

There are, then, at least three different types or motives of accommodation, only two of which are legitimate. The illegitimate one is an accommodation with existing culture and spirituality arising from a failure to live a deeply-committed Christian life. The quickest way to grasp what this can mean is to look in the mirror, or at least to reflect on how Catholicism has been so frequently watered down in our own place and time by those who have no intention of living its counter-cultural demands. For example, a Christian cannot continue the practice of abandoning female children in China any more than he can continue the practice of contracepting in America. These practices are not open to accommodation; they arise from moral principles essential to the Christian life.

The first of the legitimate motives for accommodation is the need to separate, particularly in the Western missionary experience (which is the dominant experience historically), what is essential in the Faith and the Church from what is simply a Western or European way of expressing that Faith. The simplest example of this is a recognition of the legitimacy of translating Scripture and the liturgy into the native languages of those being evangelized and catechized. There is a wonderful richness of Catholic theology and culture enshrined in Latin liturgies, traditional Christian music, art, and literature down through the centuries, but no particular language or artistic achievement is essential to a full and deep conversion. So too with a range of ecclesiastical and familial customs, which may seem strange or even inappropriate compared with the way people in a new culture would naturally express their Faith.

The second of the legitimate motives is the need to protect, as much as sound principles will allow, the lives and livelihoods of converts. It isn’t necessary to worship in a cruciform building with a cross on the top; nor is it generally necessary to change one’s diet or one’s dress as a Christian; and new converts do not have to gather in public to sing Western “Christian-sounding” hymns. At the same time, some forms of dress or diet or even song can have very close links with the worship of a false god (one recalls the proscription of meat sacrificed to idols in the New Testament), so great care is required. Moreover, if a Christian community never develops to the point at which it can express its faith in distinctive forms of art, it will of course be seriously impoverished.

Again, one does not wish to elevate a permissible temporary accommodation into a false theology. When that begins to happen, accommodation has gone too far.

A Difficulty about Numbers

These considerations can affect something as simple as a head count. Reynolds points out a curious thing about conversions from Islam to Christianity. On the one hand, all the clear evidence we have suggests that conversions are more likely once a person has left an Islamic stronghold, such as among immigrants to Western nations, even when there is no strong social inducement to be Christian. The sheer absence of Islamic pressure makes it much easier for a person both to consider and to act on the claims of Christ. Even so, such conversions are relatively rare.

At the same time, there is apparently a myth of widespread conversion to Christ in Arab lands. Or perhaps it is not wholly a myth? In 2001 a Muslim cleric, Ahmad al-Qat’aani, reported that six million Muslims convert to Christianity each year. This figure has been widely repeated, along with others like it, but it seems to have been a way of fanning local flames against the dangers of Christianity. After all, most missionaries have reported very slow-going. Yet it really does appear that increasing numbers of converts in the Islamic world are making a point of living very quietly, simply because they are far more easily tolerated if they keep their conversion to themselves.

It is one of the great mysteries of God’s Providence that the Faith should spread rapidly in some regions and some periods, and hardly penetrate at all in other times and places. Thus we recall with wonder the rapid spread of Christianity in Europe during the Middle Ages, in the Americas after the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and in Africa today, never forgetting that Northern Africa was quite Catholic over fifteen hundred years ago, before the barbarian and Islamic invasions. Yet over the past five hundred years there has been only a small Christian dent made in the East, and the record in the Middle East is even worse.

Christians are no strangers to Providence. St. Paul himself taught of the Jews that “just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy” (Rom 11:30-31). And again: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32). This passage refers to the Jews on the one hand and everyone else on the other, but we see similar patterns among the Gentiles throughout history to this very day. We are speaking of whole peoples here, of colossal numbers of souls, yet the mystery is, even in its broadest terms, far beyond our grasp.

A Partial Lesson

Still, the intransigence of Islam may throw some light on things, if only through the frequent confusion in the Islamic mind between the behavior of the West and Christianity. To hear almost any Islamic propaganda is to be startled by a profound misunderstanding among Muslims of the relationship between Christianity and the West. Not surprisingly the West is often viewed, for historical and ideological reasons, as a manifestation of Christianity just as the Arab world is supposed to be a direct, theocratic manifestation of Islam.

As we who are locked in our own culture wars know, this is not the case at all. Indeed, as a general rule, the face we Westerners present to the rest of the world is anything but a Christian face. We seem instead to be determined to export the worst possible manifestations of Western secularism and hedonism. When the Islamic world recoils in horror, deeply committed Catholics are not entirely surprised. We recoil in horror as well.

What I am suggesting, then, is that part of the mystery of the lack of conversion of Muslims (and Buddhists, and Confucians, and Hindus) is bound up with the equally-wretched mystery of the catastrophic decline of Christianity in the West, and the now long-standing inability of Christians to present anything like a positive cultural face to the non-Christian peoples of the world. This is not the whole story, of course, or else the faith would spread no faster in Nigeria than it does in Iran. Still, each of us must search his own heart, even as each of us wonders how things have gone so terribly wrong in our own backyards.

Meanwhile, might we find renewed hope in the very hostility of Islam to conversion? Might not this very hostility, directed so often against the West generally rather than against any sort of pure Christianity, force us all to review our values and shore up our principles? Those in Islamic lands who convert or wish to convert are not only a problem in missiology; they are a challenge to each one of us who has ever hidden and therefore weakened his faith in response to cultural opposition. Our own accommodations must be carefully assessed as well, to ensure that they remain truly prudent and truly limited.

Let me close, then, by repeating one final time what ought to be even more obvious to longtime Christians than to the freshest and most enthusiastic of converts. Accommodations are not the stuff of theological principle. They cannot create a Catholic culture, nor can they reach out to influence or convert anyone. They may be temporarily necessary but they are never ideal and never desirable. They ought always to make us uncomfortable. Accommodations are concessions to the world rather than concessions to Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jan. 21, 2011 5:12 PM ET USA

    While I am not a fan of Islam at all, I am sometimes shamed when I see young Muslim women so unashamedly Muslim in public, especially in universities where religion is so maligned. If only Catholics--from the highest level of the Vatican on down to the lowliest parish priest--could be so unashamedly Catholic things might be different. Mulsims that are strong in their faith are not impressed with the lukewarm and frankly neither should we.

  • Posted by: jimtotter - Jan. 13, 2011 8:37 AM ET USA

    Well said, Dr. Mirus! Islam makes no distinction between the religion and the politics; "render unto Caesar" has no corresponding tenet in Muslim lands.