01 September 2011
Bravery, Believing and Belonging: The reality of Muslim conversion
While an increasing number of Christians are aware of the issues surrounding Islam, how many of us know someone who has converted to Christianity? Do we truly understand the journeys they have undertaken to reach their Christian faith, what they have given up and what they may have been through since making their decision?
Claire Musters writes...
It is difficult to gather statistics in this field, but a moderate estimate is that there are 3-5,000 Muslim-background believers (MBBs) in the UK today. The Church needs to know how to support them because by choosing Christ they are turning their backs on their way of life, often their network of family and friends and opening up themselves, and sometimes their families, to persecution.
Islam pervades every part of a family's life. It is not just a religion, but a whole value system. So for one member of a Muslim family to turn their back on Islam is a monumental decision. For some it means the end of their relationships with their family members - for others it spells definite danger.
Muslim families see conversion as a real betrayal. As Aisha explains: "Looking back, I understand how afraid they were that they would lose me. To them it meant I now wanted to be 'western' and enjoy the so-called freedoms that 'westerners' have. Most Muslims equate Christianity to the West, in their view a race of loose-moralled people lacking any self-discipline."
An obvious point, but each person who converts is an individual. And, while 9/11 and the London bombings have alerted us to the extremists, we mustn't allow this minority to scare us away. That is why it is so vital to spend time getting to know individuals and learn their stories.
For example, Haleema has chosen to stay living with her Muslim family, being the main carer of her elderly disabled mother. This means she has to attend mosque, which she says is "very stressful, especially as I feel it affects my spiritual growth". Haleema's is a unique situation that needs a lot of support.
Roads to conversion
Thomas J Walsh undertook extensive research in 2005 for his MA dissertation, Voices from Christians in Britain with a Muslim Background: Stories for the British Church on Evangelism, Conversion, Integration and Discipleship. His findings, based on interviews with 16 MBBs, are eyeopening. Of the 16, 13 said they were already searching while 13 said the lifestyle of Christian friends attracted them. Ten believed engaging with the Bible was important, while nine said seeing Christians assembled together influenced them. Books and education pointed seven to Jesus, six experienced miraculous events while another six found Christian prayer vital. Five were enthralled by the person of Christ.
For Aisha it was a sense of God calling her through the Bible, even though she first picked it up to prove a Christian friend wrong. "All I remember was an immense feeling of fear when I read the Qur'an, and a complete peace when I read the gospels. Right there I was drawn to the love of Christ…it felt like coming home."
It wasn't until five years later that Aisha told her parents. Their response was the same as many other MBBs' parents, "at first simply disbelief and shock which gradually gave way to anger. They pleaded with me not to commit myself to anything like baptism - many Muslims realise that there is no going back from there". In Walsh's research, the majority eventually told their families; all but one experienced difficulties. Over the years some have been able to rebuild relationships; others have lost their families forever.
For Muslim communities outside Islamic countries, great effort is made to maintain their identity. So the backlash against someone who chooses to change religion can be huge. Nissar Hussein's experiences made headlines in both the Christian and secular press in 2005.
Born and raised in the UK, when Nissar and his family became Christians their whole neighbourhood shunned them. When things became dangerous - he was threatened, his car set on fire. Nissar reported incidents to the police only to be told such threats were rarely carried out and he should "stop being a crusader and move to another place".
The Church as family
- Listen to the stories of Muslims you have befriended. Don't enter into such a relationship feeling like you are the superior one.
- Be encouraged that it is possible for Muslims to become Christians!
- Do not be afraid of Islam - rather try to understand it better so that you can be confident and informed.
- Be prepared to experiment with formats to enable the transition to worshipping in a Christian church easier for MBBs - and indeed anyone else from a different culture.
- Remember we are not just seeking converts - MBBs need to be discipled and this takes time and effort - it is a process.
MBBs come out of a religion that affects every area of their lives and can be shocked to find Christians often only get together once or twice a week. We have to realise that for a lot of MBBs they have lost contact with their loved ones, so we have to be their family - a huge responsibility.
Some converts do turn back to Islam - perhaps because they don't feel part of things within a western Christian setting. We say Church is a place where all are welcomed, but we unconsciously have our own cultural bias and need to be more aware of issues of other religions and cultures.
We also need to be able to offer help to MBBs wanting to tell their families. In Walsh's research 12 indicated they were left without any advice. It can be a source of huge disappointment to MBBs when they discover the Church doesn't know how to help them.
Aisha says that she was quite suspicious of her church. "Having been part of a domineering religion beforehand, I simply saw 'The Church' as the next institution that would do that." She believes her reaction was partly due to the fact that the church "simply didn't know what to do with me. I couldn't identify with them. Though I loved the worship and teaching, there was little else that made me feel at home". Many converts say a similar thing, that it is close Christian friends that make the difference. MBBs do realise that often their response doesn't help, "to be fair, I never gave them much of a chance I was put off by a few bad, early experiences and so closeted myself".
From converts to disciples
Jesus called us to make not just converts, but disciples. When working with new MBBs be prepared to give them a lot of one-on-one time. Muslims have a strong sense of family, each member knows what is expected of them, so, over time, MBBs need to be taught to take responsibility for their spiritual life. Walsh asked his interviewees how well the Church discipled them. They all indicated the need for mentors and felt Christians needed to understand their background more, and realise that initially MBBs need space, understanding and a gentle guiding hand. Don't become impatient if they don't 'conform' to the way you 'do' church straight away - and be open to them suggesting new ways of doing things too.
Some names have been changed to protect the people's identities.