The following is the entire 1st chapter from from David Garrison’s book A Wind in the House of Islam and is posted with
permission from the author. For more information about the book please go to www.WindintheHouse.org.
A wind is blowing through the House of Islam. The House of Islam, Dar al-Islam in Arabic, is the name Muslims give to an invisible religious empire that stretches from West Africa to the Indonesian archipelago encompassing 49 nations and 1.6 billion Muslims. Dwarfing the size of any previous earthly kingdom, Islam directs the spiritual affairs of nearly a quarter of the world’s population. But something is happening today that is challenging the hold that Islam exercises over its adherents.
Today, in more than 60 separate locations in at least 17 of the 49 countries where Islam holds sway, new communities of Muslim-background followers of Christ are emerging. Each of these movements has seen at least 1,000 baptized believers and at least 100 new worshipping fellowships, all of whom have come to Christ over the past two decades. In some countries the communities have grown to number tens of thousands of new Muslim-background followers of Christ.
Though the total number of new Christ followers, perhaps as many as one to five million, may be a statistically small drop in the vast sea of Islam, they are not insignificant. Not limited to a remote corner of the Muslim world, these new communities of believers are widespread, from West Africa’s Sahel to the teeming islands of Indonesia — and everywhere in between.
The price these converts pay for their conversion has not diminished with the arrival of modern times. Qur’anic prescriptions remain unflinching: “…if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them” (Qur’an An-Nisa 4:89b). And these religious renegades are paying an incalculable price for their spiritual migration to Christ. Yet they continue to come. What began as a few scattered expressions of dissent is now emerging as substantial, and historically unprecedented numbers of Muslim men and women wading against the current of their societies to follow Jesus Christ. And it is only beginning.
To grasp the weight of this phenomenon, one must view it in light of the nearly 14-century backdrop of Islamic expansion and interaction with Christian populations. Within a century of the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, his Arab warriors had defeated both Byzantine and Persian superpowers that had dominated the world, directly and through their predecessors, for more than a thousand years. Along the way, they subjected millions of Christians to Islamic governance.
Islam’s advance did not stop until it had reached the Pacific Ocean in the 13th century and breached the walls of Constantinople in 1453. In many respects the advance of Islam, though more subtle, continues to this day. But, following the example of its founder, the Christian faith does not die easily. Though conquered by Islamic armies, Christian populations lingered for centuries before persistent pressures and incentives to conversion eventually took their toll, relegating Christian ancestry for millions to a distant memory.
The purpose of this review, though, is not the well-documented advance of Islam, but rather Christianity’s re-emergence within the Muslim world. The Christian resurrection has been a long time coming.
Muslim Movements to Christ Through History
Though there were doubtless individual conversions among Muslims here and there over the years, the first three and a half centuries of Muslim-Christian interaction saw no popular movements of Muslims toward the gospel. It was not until the 10th century, nearly 350 years after the death of Muhammad, that we find the first historical evidence of any communities of Muslims converting to Christianity.
In the waning years of the Abbasid Caliphate, centered in modern-day Iraq, growing numbers of Arab and Seljuk emirs wrested themselves from Baghdad’s control and forged their own lesser dynasties. In the years 972 and again in 975, the Byzantine emperor John Tzimisces seized the opportunity to capture territory on his southern border along with several cities in Syria and Palestine. It was purportedly in response to “the financial exactions of their Moslem rulers” that, in the year 980, an Arab tribe comprised of 12,000 men, plus women and children near the ancient city of Nisibis, on what is today the Turkish border with Syria, cast their lot with the Byzantines and were baptized into the Christian religion. In the turbulent centuries that followed, however, these dubious gains and much more were lost.1
Twenty-first century researchers may rightly challenge whether these 10th century tax converts were true believers or not. They do merit mention in this historical review, though, if only to illustrate how rare it was to find any sizable conversions from Islam. Apart from this incident, no additional movements to Christ appeared in the first 500 years of Islamic advance.
Crusades, Inquisitions and Other Failures
Though the Crusades (1096-1272) can be seen as Christian Europe’s imitative response to centuries of Islamic jihad, these military forays proved counterproductive to the advance of the gospel. Christian minorities in lands dominated by Muslim governments actually showed a marked increase in conversion to Islam during these centuries, as their patriotic loyalties came into question in the face of European armies invading under the banner of the cross.2
One political exception to the crusading spirit of the times took place in the Sicilian kingdom of Roger II. Roger was a French Norman conqueror who, by 1130, had consolidated control over Sicily and southern Italy. Roger forged a Norman-Arab civilization at the multi-ethnic crossroads of Byzantine, Arab, Greek, and his own Norman cultures that developed into the most prosperous in the entire Mediterranean. Resisting the anti-Islamic conventions of the day, Roger’s inclusive social experiment flourished for nearly a century as ideas, language and trade flowed between Muslims and Christians. There is no report of how many Muslims may have converted to the Christian faith during this century, but it deserves mention here as one of the few interludes in an otherwise catastrophic interchange between the two great religions. The experiment ended in 1224 when Roger’s grandson, Frederic II, expelled all Muslims from the realm.
The 13th century saw a new impulse of Christian outreach to Muslims, particularly in Spain where Islamic control was in retreat after half a millennium of domination. Well before the completion of the Catholic Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula in 1492, European Christians were pressing their faith among the Muslim populace.
In 1219, the transcendent character Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) walked across the entrenched battle lines separating Crusader and Muslim armies near Damietta, Egypt to convert or attain martyrdom from the Fatimid ruler and nephew of Saladin, Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. Though Francis achieved neither, his concern for Muslim souls was transmitted to the fraternal order that bore his name.
Among his early Franciscan imitators was Englishman Roger Bacon (1214-1294) who bucked the political passions of his contemporaries to advocate the evangelization rather than subjugation of the Muslims. All that was required, he insisted, was that they be “taught the Catholic doctrine in their mother tongue.”3 Flemish Franciscan William of Rubruck (1220-1293) set out in 1254 to do just that. Commissioned as a missionary to the Muslim Tatars of Constantinople, William overshot his target, eventually journeying 5,000 miles to the palace of Mongke Khan in Karakorum, Mongolia. Like their founder, Francis of Assisi, despite their noble intent, neither Roger Bacon nor William of Rubruck saw much in the way of harvest among Muslims.
A similar zeal for Muslim souls was found in Francis of Assisi’s contemporary, the Spaniard, Dominic de Guzman, whose Dominican Order, despite dedicating itself to preaching the gospel to the Saracens (as Muslims were anachronistically called) saw little fruit. Neither founding saint could claim a single Muslim movement of at least a thousand converts to Christ (or to Catholicism for that matter), though, they did stimulate a more spiritual and less violent approach to Islam.
In 1240, one of Dominic’s successors, Raymond of Peñafort, resigned his post as the third master general of the Dominican Order to spend his final three decades in Spain mobilizing the Church for missions to Muslims. Raymond inaugurated a school of Arabic in Barcelona and Tunis, and persuaded his friend and fellow Dominican, Thomas Aquinas, to write the Summa Contra Gentiles as an apologetic response against both Muslims and Jews.4 These resources for communicating the Catholic faith, coupled with the breaking of Islamic governance in Spain would contribute to the re-Christianization of Iberia in the subsequent centuries. Unfortunately, Raymond also employed the brutal Inquisition as a tool to force conversions and ferret out heresies among the Spanish Muslim and Jewish populations,” throwing into question the depth and integrity of these conversions.5
It was on the eastern side of the Mediterranean that another Dominican, William of Tripoli (ca. 1220−1275), born and raised in the last Crusader outpost of what is modern-day Lebanon, purported to have seen “many Muslim converts come to faith.”6
William is a curious fellow perhaps best known to posterity as one of the two missionaries sent by Pope Gregory X in 1271 on an ill-fated journey with Marco and Matteo Polo to the Mongol courts of Kublai Khan. Illness curtailed William’s trip after going only as far as Armenia in eastern Turkey.
For our purposes, though, William may be more significant for his success in reaching Muslims of the Levant “without benefit of arms or philosophical argument.” William credited his studies of Islamic culture and language with making his success possible.7 Given that William’s very presence in the Levant was only made possible by century-long military crusades into the region, history may rightly dismiss his claims of being “without benefit of arms.” We have no record of how many Muslims actually responded to Williams’ appeal, yet with the collapse of this last Latin outpost in the Middle East in 1291, less than two decades after William’s death, it is doubtful that any of his fruit survived.
Certainly one of the most heroic missionaries to the Muslim world was the Catalonian mystic, Ramon Llull. A master of Arabic and student of Islam, Llull rejected the crusader paradigm to make three missionary journeys to Algeria and Tunisia before finally gaining the martyrdom he desired in the Algerian coastal town of Bougeia around 1315. Lull, like his Franciscan and Dominican contemporaries, was exceptional for eschewing violence and pursuing a reasoned Arabic-language witness to Muslims. Nonetheless, like his Franciscan and Dominican contemporaries, Llull could report very few converts to the Christian faith.8
Though it did not take place right away, the renewed zeal for reaching Muslims was not entirely without consequence. After the reconquest of Grenada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, in 1492 the Catholic Archbishop, Hernando de Talavera, compelled the clergy under his authority to learn Arabic and use tact and persuasion to convert the Muslims in their parishes, respecting the rights of Muslims to retain their religion, property and laws. Partly as a result, during the decade between 1490 and 1500, “thousands of Moslems were baptized.”9 It is difficult to assess the voluntary motivation for these baptisms, though, in light of the impending Inquisition that always loomed as an incentive to conversion. By 1610 all remaining Muslims, including the Moriscos or crypto-Muslims of Spain, were expelled from the Iberian peninsula.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, the Protestant and Catholic Counter Reformations were churning through Western Europe distracting attention from the collapse of Greek and Middle Eastern Christianity in the East in the face of a swelling Ottoman empire. Western Christians turned their attention overseas to colonial adventures in the Americas, Africa and Asia, trading conflict with Muslims for easier gains among non-Muslim populations. As the first millennium of Christian Muslim interaction drew to a close, millions of Christians had been assimilated into the House of Islam, while not a single uncoerced Muslim movement to Christ had taken place.
The Colonial Era
The 16th and 17th centuries launched the age of Western colonial expansion with Spanish and Portuguese trade and conquests in Africa, Asia and the Americas, with Dutch, French and English traders racing to catch up in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though European colonization went hand-in-hand with the missionary enterprise in most of the non-Western world, the same could not be said of the colonizers’ encounters with Islam. European traders typically took one of two approaches in relation to the Muslim populations they encountered. If the ports were controlled by Muslim sultans, the Europeans conspired with local non-Muslim factions to divide and conquer to gain an advantage. If the foreign lands contained insurmountable Muslim populations, the Europeans took a more accommodating approach, suppressing missionary efforts so as not to enrage local sensibilities.
By the close of the colonial era, Catholic mission historian Joseph Schmidlin had to admit: “Taken as a whole, the Moslem world with its two hundred million worshippers of Allah, has up to the present hour held aloof from both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, despite valiant efforts of individual missionaries.”10
Schmidlin went on to lament,
…the Crescent in Asia and Africa has even pressed forward to such an extent as to have become the most powerful rival of the Christian missions. Nevertheless, one must not for this reason declare that the Moslem is absolutely unsusceptible to conversion or incapable of receiving the Gospel, since Christian communities were actually formed from among them, even during the nineteenth century — at least by the Protestants in the Dutch East Indies, and in isolated cases as the result of Catholic efforts in Kabylia (Algeria) — and have continued ever since.11
The two exceptions that Schmidlin highlights, “the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia)” and “Kabylia (a Berber region of Algeria)” bear closer scrutiny, as rare examples of Muslim movements to Christ in the great age of Western colonial and missionary expansion.
In the century following their 1806 arrival on the island of Java, Dutch armies rolled over most of the independent Muslim sultanates of what would become Indonesia. As had occurred in other European conquests, the Dutch pattern of colonization avoided conflict with the Muslim populations. Of the 245 missionaries that soon arrived in Indonesia, most were sent to evangelize the outer islands where Islam had not yet become established; only a few were sent to Java and their task was to minister to anyone except Muslims.”12
For their part, Indonesians generally found the austere Dutch Calvinism unappealing, while Muslim nationalists pointed to its foreignness as a reason to embrace Islam and resist the West. By 1914, Abraham Kuyper, the most influential Dutch Reformed Church leader in Holland, suggested that with only 1,614 converts including women and children, perhaps it was time for the mission to exit Java due to its lack of response.13
Even as European churchmen were mired in frustration, Eurasian and Indonesian lay evangelists began espousing a more indigenous gospel witness and making progress. A local Javanese evangelist named Radin Abas Sadrach Surapranata (1835-1924) built on the approach of these early Indonesian indigenizers to greatly expand the response to the gospel. For this he is remembered by Indonesian Christians as “Sadrach: The Apostle of Java.” Sadrach used the newly published Javanese Bible translation and aggressive apologetics to engage Muslim leaders in debate, then gathered converts into contextualized, indigenous mesjids of Javanese Christian communities called Kristen Jawa, rather than extracting them into the local Dutch Christian churches.
At the time of Sadrach’s death in 1924, between 10 and 20 thousand Javanese Christians could be traced to the Apostle of Java’s ministry.14 Though they represented only a fraction of the world’s most populous Islamic country, these Kristen Jawa marked a historic breakthrough, as the first uncoerced Muslim movement to Christ in nearly 13 centuries of Christian witness to the Muslim world.
On the other side of the Dar al-Islam another experiment in ministry to Muslims was counting some success. In 1830 Algeria came under French control and was ruled as an integral part of France until its independence in 1962. Yet it was not until 1868, following a devastating famine that left many Arab and Berber orphans, that the Catholic church began actively witnessing to its Algerian Muslim citizens.
Charles Martial Lavigerie (1825-1892) arrived as the archbishop of the See of Algiers in 1868 and soon began gathering famine orphans into villages for ministry. Fearing popular unrest, the governor-general of Algeria, Marshal McMahon, forbade proselytizing Muslims. Lavigerie complied, ordering his priests to refrain from baptizing any of the non-Christians among whom they ministered.
In 1874, Lavigerie took an important step in removing barriers to Muslim reception of the gospel when he founded theSociété des missionnaires d’Afrique (Society of missionaries of Africa), popularly known as the Pères Blancs or White Fathers, after the white Arab cassock and woolen scarf they adopted. The White Fathers learned Arabic and embraced many of the customs of the Muslim peoples among whom they served in hopes of easing the way for gospel transmission.
Nonetheless, the first baptisms did not take place until 1887, when three Kabyli Berber boys who were visiting Rome for the jubilee of Pope Leo XIII “tearfully implored baptism and received it….”15 That same year, Lavigerie allowed, for the first time, religious instruction, and then only if the local community was in agreement.
The Kabyle Berbers proved to be the most responsive of North Africa’s Muslim peoples, but they hardly exhibited what could be called a movement to Christ. Many Islamic and Catholic obstacles stood in their path, not the least being the burden of Algerian subjection to the foreign, culturally Christian, French occupation force. As a result, as late as 1930 one could count no more than 700 baptized Catholic converts among the Kabyle.16
The latter decades of the 19th century saw the arrival of numerous Protestant missionaries into North Africa. Despite the heroism of the many who labored there, history records accurately and succinctly: “not many converts were won.” 17
In addition to these two movements, identified by Father Joseph Schmidlin, there was one other movement of which both he and historian Latourette were likely unaware. At the turn of the 20th century, in the northwestern highlands of Ethiopia, near the city of Gondor on the Blue Nile, some 7,000 – 10,000 Muslims came to faith in Jesus Christ and were baptized. Far removed from most missionary activity, this movement traced itself to a single Muslim sheikh named Zakaryas who had a vision in 1892 that prompted him to seek out an Arabic Bible, which he obtained from Swedish missionaries. In 1910 Sheikh Zakaryas was baptized in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Debra Tabor. By 1915 his movement was estimated as high as 10,000, a figure reduced to 7,000 by the time of his death in 1920. We have limited knowledge of Zakaryas’ message, but it is clear that he had “an unusual grasp of the Qur’an and possessed dialectical skills in presenting the superiority of Jesus.”18
Though the 19th century was heralded as “The Great Century” of Christian expansion around the world, the century closed with only two Muslim movement to Christ, comprised of at least 1,000 baptized converts, in nearly 13 centuries since the death of the Prophet Muhammad. It would be 65 years into the 20th century before the next Muslim movement to Christ would appear, and this one occurred under great duress.
Twentieth Century Breakthroughs
In 1965, Indonesia had the largest Communist Party in the world. In October of that year, an aborted Communist coup triggered a bloodletting that would not stop until half a million Indonesians were dead. Anyone with Communist or atheist leanings was imprisoned, executed, or massacred.19 Indonesia’s New Order government that rose to power in the wake of the violence, abolished Communism and atheism in one fell swoop, demanding that every Indonesian citizen adhere to one of the nation’s five historic religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism or Buddhism. In the scramble that followed, two million Indonesians, some of whom had come from at least a nominally Muslim background, entered the nation’s Protestant and Catholic churches.20 Though it would be difficult to see this as a volitional turning of Muslims to Christ, it did result in many individuals later receiving Christian instruction and coming to faith who might otherwise have not.
Additional Muslim movements to Christ in various corners of the Muslim world did not begin appearing until the 1980s. Young Christians in the West invigorated by the Jesus Movement embraced the call to frontier missions to the world’s remaining unreached people groups. Near the top of every list was the world’s nearly one billion unreached Muslims.
The next movement emerged in the most unlikely of places. After the shock of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, many Iranians discovered that an Islamic state was not the panacea they had imagined. By the mid-1980s, Armenian Pentecostals in Iran were seeing growing numbers of Shi’ite Muslims turning to them to hear the gospel. By the end of the 1980s, in the face of severe government persecution, there was an indigenous growing swell of Muslims into the Christian faith.
The late 1980s and 1990s also witnessed the resurgence of Christianity among the Kabyle Berbers of Algeria. As a bloody struggle between the military government and Islamists raged, eventually claiming more than 100,000 civilian lives, Berbers in Kabylia renewed their search for alternatives, and found them in late-night shortwave gospel radio broadcast and illicitly distributed Jesus Films, with the result that thousands of Berbers quietly turned to the gospel while the rest of the country descended into civil war.21
The early 1990s saw the fall of the Iron Curtain and the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Millions of Turkic Muslims in Central Asia who had grown up under Soviet atheism were suddenly faced with a new horizon of possibilities. American, European and Korean evangelicals seized the window of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) to bring the gospel to the descendants of the Golden Horde. By the end of the 20th century, evangelical Christianity could claim indigenous movements among Azerbaijani, Kyrgyz and Kazakh populations with beachheads of believers among most of the other Turkic Central Asian people groups.
South Asia’s Bangladeshi population also proved to be fertile ground for the gospel in the 1990s. Widely viewed as a cyclone-addled, failed nation state, Bangladesh was, in fact, a churning mass of hard-working and intellectually vibrant humanity who were transitioning from their ancient animistic Hinduism to a growing Islamic identity conflicted by the still-raw wounds of atrocities committed by their Pakistani co-religionists in the 1971 War of Independence.22 In the midst of this percolating Bengali cauldron, the gospel was spreading virally, prompting tens of thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims to seek out baptism as evidence of their newfound faith in Isa al-Masih, Jesus the Christ.
To recap our review of the history of Muslim movements to Christ, in Islam’s first 13 centuries we found a handful of coerced conversions to the Christian religion, but only two voluntary movement of at least 1,000 Muslim conversions to faith in Christ: the Sadrach Movement in late 19th and early 20th century Indonesia and the simultaneous Sheikh Zakaryas movement in Ethiopia. This was followed by the fear-induced influx of two million Indonesians into Christian churches in 1965. Then, in the final two decades of the 20th century, there was a surge of eight additional movements. These occurred in Iran (2), Algeria, Bangladesh (2), and Central Asia (3). By the close of the 20th century then, 1,368 years after the death of Mohammad, there had been only eleven movements of Muslim communities to faith in Jesus Christ.
In this long and frustrating history that has seen tens of millions of Christians absorbed into the Muslim world. The extreme scarcity of Muslim response to the gospel makes the events of the 21st century all the more striking.
In the first 12 years of the 21st century, we have already been able to identify an additional 70 movements of Muslims to Christ. These are 70 movements that have begun in this century alone, 86 percent of all the Muslim movement to Christ in history. These 21st-century movements are not isolated to one or two corners of the world. They are taking place throughout the House of Islam, across the Muslim world. In Africa, in the Persian World, in the Arab World, in Turkestan, in South Asia and in Southeast Asia, something is happening, something historic, something unprecedented.
A wind is blowing through the House of Islam.
- K.S. Latourette, History of the Expansion of Christianity, Vol. 2, pp. 310-311, citing the earlier work of Alfred Von Kremer, Culturgeschichte des Orients, Vol. II, pp. 495-6.
- For a good introduction to motives for conversion to Islam see R. Stephen Humphreys, “The Problem of Conversion,” in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (London: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 273-283. Also, Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia — and How It Died (New York: Harper One, 2008).
- K.S. Latourette, Expansion, Vol. 2, pp. 319-320.
- “St. Raymond of Penafort” in Catholic Encyclopedia. Cited 28 November 2012. Available online at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12671c.htm
- Raymond of Peñafort,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Vol. 11, (Detroit: Gale, 2003), pp. 936-937.
- J.F. Hinnebesch, “William of Tripoli,” in NCE, 2nd edition, Vol. 14 (Detroit: Gale, 2003), p. 754.
- Thomas F. O’Meara, “The Theology and Times of William of Tripoli, O.P.: A Different View of Islam,” in Theological Studies, Vol. 69, No. 1.
- Latourette, Expansion, Vol. 2, pp. 321-323.
- Latourette, Expansion, Vol. 2, pp. 314-315, citing Lea’s The Moriscos in Spain, pp. 12-31.
- Joseph Schmidlin, Catholic Mission History, (Techny, IL: Mission Press, SVD., 1933, p. 584.
- Don Dent, “Sadrach: The Apostle of Java,” pp. 2-3. Unpublished paper cited 28 November 2012.
- Dent, “Sadrach,” p. 27, citing Sumartana, Th., Missions at the Crossroads: Indigenous Churches, European Missionaries, Islamic Associations and the Socio-Religious Change in Java 1812-1936 (Jakarta: Gunung Mulia, 1993), pp. 89-92.
- Dent, “Sadrach,” p. 26, citing Sutarman S. Partonadi, Sadrach’s Community and Its Contextual Roots: A Nineteenth Century Javanese Expression of Christianity (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, 1988), p. 129.
- Schmidlin, Catholic Mission History, p. 591.
- K.S. Latourette, Expansion, Vol. VI (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1947), p. 17, citing Antony Philippe, Missions des Peres Blancs en Tunisie, Algerie, Kabylie, Sahara (Paris: Dillen & Cie, 1931), pp. 143, 145, 146.
- Latourette, Expansion, Vol. VI, p. 19.
- E. Paul Balisky, “Shaikh Zakaryas (1845-1920) Independent Prophet Ethiopia” in Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Cited on the Internet 1 July 2013 at: http://www.dacb.org/stories/ethiopia/zakaryas2.html
- “Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966.” Cited 28 November 2012. Available on the Internet at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indonesian_killings_of_1965–1966
- Avery T. Willis, Indonesian Revival: Why Two Million Muslims Chose Christ (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1977).
- Ahmed Bouzid, “Algerian Crisis, No End in Sight.” Cited 2 Dec. 2012. Online at: http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/algbouz.htm
- Bengalis’ intellectual legacy took a severe blow when the invading Pakistani military summarily executed thousands of academics, social and political leaders at the end of the war. Nonetheless, Bengalis proudly count three Nobel laureates from among their ranks: Rabindranath Tagore (1913), Amartya Sen (1998) and Muhammad Younis (2006).