Can Muslims Be Converted?

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When I graduated from college, I volunteered to work with the Lay Mission Helpers of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. After training, I was sent to southern Nigeria and assigned to Holy Family College in Abak, where I taught – along with priests from the Irish Kiltegan Fathers and native lay instructors – Latin, English, and Scripture to high-school and junior-college age boys.

The region was Largely populated by varieties of Christians, as well as pagans with their shrines to various gods. I asked the priests about conversions and was told that things were going very well, except it was impossible to convert a Muslim.

A major factor in the difficulty of Muslim conversions is that Islam is not just a religion but a worldwide cult – with strong pressures in Islam for avoiding the infection of contact with “unbelievers,” and imminent threat of ostracism and/or death for leaving the “fold.”

These cultic aspects have grown so strong in recent decades that it is almost impossible for Catholic or Protestant missionaries to preach and establish churches in majority Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, or in growing areas of the Middle East where Islamist persecution of Christians is rife.

But in the absence of missionaries, the clandestine availability of Bibles may be one of the most important tools for spreading the Christian message. In my recent book, The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct, I discuss the phenomenon of the growth of “house churches” in China, largely as a result of access of individuals to forbidden copies of the New Testament, and the subsequent spontaneous spread of the Good News, accompanied with miraculous events reminiscent of accounts from the Acts of the Apostles.

According to David Garrison, in A Wind in the House of Islam, something similar is now happening in nine geo-political clusters of the “House of Islam” – the Arab World, the Persian World, various regions of Africa and Asia, and Indo-Malaysia.

Garrison, a much-traveled Southern Baptist missionary and student of Islam and Arabic, was commissioned to carry out a statistical study of movements to Christianity among Muslims. Such movements, stagnant for centuries, have begun to mushroom in the past century. Garrison and his research team interviewed 33 Muslim groups in 14 countries, and identified 45 movements.

He defines a “movement to Christianity” as “at least 100 new church starts or 1,000 baptisms (Protestant or Catholic) that occur over a two-decade period.” Such movements have resulted in “between two and seven million” new followers of Christ – “a statistically small drop in the vast sea of Islam,” but not insignificant, since voluntary conversions to Christianity were almost non-existent in the first twelve centuries of Islam.

Pope Benedict XVI receives a Muslim convert, Magdi Allam, into the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI receives a Muslim convert, Magdi Allam, into the Church.

Garrison’s Protestant concept of “conversion” does not consist in acceptance of the various tenets of the Nicene Creed, but rather in a “reorientation of life around a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” And the “churches” that are established are not necessarily buildings, but sometimes just congregations. But the mere infusion of the Gospel may be relatively powerful, given prevailing societal and governmental restrictions on explicit Christian observance.

Garrison presents five categories of Christian movements:

  • C1, or traditional Western-type churches;
  • C2, the same, but worshiping in indigenous languages;
  • C3, like C2, but disengaging from Islamic cultural forms;
  • C4, believers assuming “a more open Christian identity but still retaining ties to their Muslim communities” (perhaps analogous to “Jews for Jesus”);
  • C5, Christian “insiders” whose conversion is often not even known to their wives.

Not surprisingly, the last two categories are the most common, and community leaders estimate that the C5 insiders may number hundreds of thousands. The C4 and C5 believers are “Isai Muslims,” i.e. Muslims committed to the Jesus (“Isa”) depicted in the Qur’an.

If such conversions have really taken place, what was the motivation? A common motive was rejection of militant Islam – the feeling that violent jihad could not be a divine command or religious duty.

But there are numerous accounts of miracles and visions – individuals suddenly cured of diseases after prayers to “Isa,” appearances of Isa to Muslims seeking the truth. In many cultural Islamic communities, a belief in revelations through dreams is common; and transformative dreams have been mentioned.

But the most significant incentives seem to have come from the Qur’an itself (not recited in an unintelligible foreign language, Arabic, but studied for the first time in the vernacular). Some respondents cited shocking references to the sins and shortcomings of Muhammad, his marriage to his daughter-in-law, Allah refers to Muhammad’s sins, etc. As one convert explained:

I found no titles of honor for Muhammad, but twenty-three honorable titles that Allah gave to Isa. I saw that Muhammad is not with Allah now, but Isa is in heaven with Allah now. Muhammad is not coming again, but Isa is coming again. Muhammad will not be at the Last Judgment, but Isa will be at the Last Judgment Day. Muhammad is dead, but Isa is alive. Only four times does the Qur’an speak of Muhammad, and yet 97 times it talks about Isa. Muhammad is not a savior, according to the Qur’an, but Isa’s very name means “Savior.” Muhammad is only a messenger, but Isa is called Ruhullah, the Spirit of Allah.

Thus many Muslims, reading reverential mentions of Jesus, and even a promise of salvation, which they do not encounter in Islam, are led to discover more about this Savior. The Gospels are almost impossible to find in Muslim-dominated areas, but with the Internet and easy reproduction of video and audio, barriers are crumbling. In Iran, a Persian-language film, Jesus, based on Luke’s Gospel, was widely distributed, and the distributor claimed “only two persons refused to take a copy.”

We hear about brave Western soldiers traveling in a crusading spirit to fight against ISIS and other anti-Christian forces. But perhaps the best chance of converting Muslims at the present may be through Bibles, films, and the information about Christianity, which has been denied them.


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    One recalls the words of Erasmus in the preface to his Greek NT: “[An image] represents only the form of the body — if indeed it represents anything of Him — but these holy pages will summon up the living image of His mind. They will give you Christ Himself, talking, healing, dying, rising, the whole Christ in a word; they will give Him to you in an intimacy so close that He would be less visible to you, if He stood before your eyes.” He explains that His “manner of speaking” (sermonis habitus) “lies in his extensive use of tropes and allegories and similes or parables. He uses these figures in order better to move the feelings of his flock toward holiness. He uses familiar things to tell his stories and makes his parables vivid in order to accommodate the human weakness of those he addresses; what Jesus’ style demonstrates is the divine charity which bends down to humanity and tells of the heavenly things in a way that they can understand.”

    It is sobering to recall that it was only in 1516, 60 years after the invention of printing and after 30,000 titles had passed through the press that the original NT was published; It marked Europe’s emergence from the Dark Ages and, through the stimulus it provided for vernacular versions, it went on to rejuvenate the world.

    • Jeannine

      The words of Erasmus are indeed beautiful (though he seems to reflect the iconoclasm that became such a feature of the Reformation), but we hardly need to read Greek to appreciate what he says about the NT. In any era, the number of people who can read the Scriptures in the original languages will be small, so we are fortunate to have translations. I note that this article credits translations of the Koran for opening the eyes of Muslims to the content of their holy book.
      By the way, the idea that the “Dark Ages” ended only in 1516 is a misconception rooted in the Protestant Reformation. See articles on this website by Anthony Esolen and the well-known book “The Stripping of the Altars” by Eamon Duffy to refute the idea that the Christians of the Middle Ages were ignorant pf their faith or uniformly lukewarm in its practice. (Other historians have refuted the idea that they were stupid or anti-science as well.)
      The Greek NT survived by being copied in manuscript before the invention of the printing press. Who was doing that copying, I wonder?

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        One needs a reliable text, before one can translate it. That was Erasmus’s purpose. “I totally disagree with those who are unwilling that the Holy Scriptures, translated into the common tongue, should be read by the unlearned. Christ desires His mysteries to be published abroad as widely as possible…I wish that the farm worker might sing parts of them at the plough, that the weaver might hum them at the shuttle, and that the traveller might beguile the weariness of the way by reciting them…”

        At about the same time, Buchanan records that “James V [of Scotland] made it a capital crime to be punished with the fire to have or read the New Testament in the vulgar language and to make them to all men more odious, as if it had been the detestable name of a pernicious sect, they were named New Testamentars.”

        A provincial synod held at Edinburgh in 1549 pointed out the real source of the advance of the Protestant heresies: “the corruption of morals and the profane lewdness of life in churchmen of all ranks, together with their crass ignorance of literature and of the liberal arts”

        The Greek text was preserved by Byzantine scholars, the Scholiasts (mostly laymen, as it happens).

        • James Stagg

          Such a limited view of European history……………………..

  • RainingAgain

    Very encouraging. Of course, hard facts necessarily must be hard to come by given the extreme dangers involved. What effects will the blood of Christian martyrs have on those who may be open to conversion? Could militant Islam ultimately be a blessed catastrophe for Islam itself?

  • TBill

    Excellent article. Great for our morale as well.

  • kathleen

    Thank you! Wonderful article. Gives us hope. I will share with my friends.

  • Robert A Rowland

    Only when the last Muslim is converted can there be peace. Good to know that there may be even some remote chance for that.

  • James S.

    Professor Kainz,

    Nicely done. I picked out two lacunae in David Garrison’s analysis:

    — The role of Our Lady in converting Muslims, particularly women?

    — C1a: the role of traditional Eastern-type churches?

    • Howard Kainz

      He does discuss in some detail the development of Orthodoxy in the historical segments of the book, and mentions contacts with Ethiopian, Greek, and other Orthodox Christians. Mary is mentioned primarily in his contacts with an African filmaker who worked on a reverential musical on the Life of Jesus.