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, 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.