In 2012, Biblical Missiology released a report about Bible translation practices among Muslim people groups that stirred controversy in the evangelical world. This report identified several agencies (including Wycliffe, SIL, and Frontiers) engaged in Muslim Idiom Translation (MIT) projects for use throughout the Muslim world.1 This report included a petition against such projects, largely based upon the fact that several MITs remove “God the Father” and “Son of God” language in favor of less offensive terms.2
Many who were first hearing about MITs in 2012 were puzzled. How could Bible translators—particularly those as well-known and respected as Wycliffe—make such egregious errors in translation? How could such a theologically unwise decision become a best-practice among translators working among Muslims? Those following the developments surrounding Insider Movement (IM) contextualization strategies, however, might have been less shocked.
Building upon the first two installments in this series, this article will inspect the fruits of IM strategy that are fueled by the historical roots that support it. The key issues for discussion revolve around Muslim identity, reverence for Muhammad, and the use of the Qur’an. Though the fourth and final article in this series will assess IM strategies more directly, this essay argues that the fruit of IM strategies is theologically inadmissible and missiologically shortsighted.
The Mosque: An Identity
The first fruit of IM strategies to investigate is the role of the mosque and the Muslim identity. According to most IM advocates, when Muslims come to faith in Jesus, they should continue their previous socio-religious activities and habits so as to maintain the related networks and connections. They argue that a person’s observable “socio-religious identity” might remain Muslim while the Islamic forms they continue practicing can be reinvested with new meaning.
In many Muslim-majority contexts the local mosque functions both as a place of religious devotion and the center of community life. The mosque can provide a space that functions like a town hall, playing host to everything from political rallies to community meetings. Thus, IM proponents argue, maintaining connection to the mosque is not necessarily syncretistic.
Some IM advocates, such as Gavriel Gefen, attempt to draw biblical parallels between Muslims remaining in the mosque and early followers of Jesus. Gefen compares these Muslim Insiders to early Jewish followers of Jesus who, “began meeting in small groups for fellowship, study, and prayer centered on Jesus while remaining part of the synagogues they were already in.”3 If Jews who receive Christ can retain their Jewish culture, why should Muslims not also be allowed to do likewise?
One glaring observation that those making this argument fail to include, however, is that the book of Acts is full of accounts of Paul and his companions entering synagogues, preaching Jesus as the Messiah, and being thrown out. Rather than remaining within the synagogue structure as a clandestine community of Christ-following-Jews, the Bible shows religious Jews recognizing the difference between themselves and Christ’s followers—and rejecting them.
More troubling, however, is the encouragement from IM proponents that Muslims continue to self-identify as Muslims. They are to continue offering prayers in the mosque in the Islamic style, while yet praying in their heart to Jesus. Likewise, they are to observe the fast of Ramadan—a fast that is connected to the Qur’an’s claim to have supplanted Christianity and Judaism.4 IM advocates argue that a person’s Muslim identity is to remain unquestioned, being viewed as part of God’s providence to them through the circumstances of their birth.
In order to make this move more palatable to those who are used to viewing Islam as an idolatrous religion that denies Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord, IM practitioners refer to Islam as a “socio-religious” phenomenon. In so doing, outspoken advocate for IM strategies Rebecca Lewis, writes,
Changing one’s identity from “Muslim” or “Hindu” to “Christian” is usually seen as a great betrayal of one’s family and friends… insider movements affirm that people do not have to go through the religion of Christianity. Instead, they only need to go through Jesus Christ to enter God’s family.5
It is certainly true that being a Christian culturally does not equate with knowing and following Jesus. However, intentionally identifying as a Muslim while following Jesus is a commitment of a different sort. This commitment to be a Muslim includes retaining two other aspects of Islam that must be investigated before reaching a verdict.
The Shahada: Muhammad the Prophet
While it is generally improper to speak of Islam as if it were a singular and monolithic phenomenon, the confession of faith known as the Shahada is a nearly universal component of Islam. Translated into English, the Shahada declares, “I testify that there is no God but the God [Allah], and Muhammad is the messenger [rasul] of God.” Many Christians would argue that a Christian can, in good conscience, testify to the first half of the Shahada. However, the second half that recognizes Muhammad as an authentic prophet from God is unacceptable.
Still, some IM practitioners contend that a person can follow Jesus and still recognize Muhammad as a true prophet from God. Furthermore, some argue that Muhammad’s message—calling people away from polytheism and towards monotheism—was a step in the right direction and could be considered part of God’s revelation.6 In fact, through a series of interviews conducted among IM leaders, one IM leader is reported as endorsing “the Qur’an [as] a revelation of God given to the prophet Muhammad.”7 This sentiment is reflected variously by other IM leaders who see no final conflict between the Qur’an and the Bible.8
This claim is convincing only if one does not attend to actual teachings of Muhammad, the Qur’an, and 1400 years of Islamic theology. For example, it is hard to reconcile the biblical portrait of Jesus with verses such as Qur’an 5:75, which states, “The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger. Messengers have passed away before him. His mother was a truthful woman. They both ate food. See how We make clear the signs to them, then see how deluded they are.” In other words, the Qur’an teaches that Jesus was merely a human messenger like the others before him who had mothers, ate food, and passed away.9 Nearly all Muslim commentators understand these verses to deny Jesus’s divinity. Thus, denial of Jesus as God and savior is a key aspect of Muhammad’s prophetic message.
If, then, the Shahada is a common feature of Muslim identity and it upholds Muhammad as the prophet of God, IM critic Joshua Fletcher concludes that maintaining the dual identity commended by IM strategists is either sociologically impossible or theologically impermissible. By comparing Deuteronomy 6:4 and 1 Corinthians 8:6 with the Islamic confession, Fletcher demonstrates that the Shahada is “not merely a random statement ascribing importance to Muhammad, but in fact functions polemically as an anti-gospel.”10
The Shahada is anti-gospel polemic in so far as it intentionally upholds as a prophet one whose message obscures the biblical Jesus. The message of the messenger of Islam is that Jesus is not the incarnate Son of God who has come to save sinners through his vicarious sacrifice and eternal priesthood. Thus, Fletcher concludes,
“If ‘Insiders’ can so dispense with the Shahada then Islam is clearly not perceived as authoritative to the ‘Insider.’ By denying the authority of Islam they then prove that they are not ‘Insiders’ at all. If they cannot dispense with the Shahada then they may be in danger of ‘preaching another gospel.’”11
In other words, to retain Muhammad as the prophet and messenger commended by the Shahada is either duplicitous, incoherent, or syncretistic.
The Qur’an: Influence on IM
If IM advocates recognize Muhammad as a true messenger from God, then it follows that his message is also from God. Thus, it is unsurprising to read accounts from Jan Prenger’s research indicating that many IM gatherings regularly include reading the Qur’an. Prenger reports, “The use of the Qur’an in jamaats [insider gatherings] is normal and expected. The Qur’an leads to the truth, as it points to Isa and the Tawrat, Zabur, and Injil.”12
When confronted with conflicts between the Bible and the Qur’an, one IM leader opts to synthesize and reinterpret the books, writing,
“I will try to reinterpret the text. Within the Qur’an there are some contradictions. Within the Bible there are also some contradictions. Some Muslims say, ‘The Bible is corrupted because there are many contradictions in it.’ But they forget that there are many contradictions in the Qur’an as well. So, to reconcile the differences between the Bible and the Qur’an, I will reinterpret.”13
While IM strategists grant various levels of authority to the Qur’an, openness to its inclusion in worship and evangelism is pervasive. As seen above, however, the Qur’an presents its Jesus character as one who is in conflict with the biblical portrait.
Ultimately, in order to reconcile the teaching of the Qur’an with the Bible, historic Islamic teaching must be ignored. However, Ayman Ibrahim says this of such interpretations:
“Such an understanding about the Qur’an, when assessed by Scripture, honors neither Christ nor Muslims. It abuses the Qur’an and violates the interpretations offered by Muslim exegetes throughout history. The arguments advocated by the IM proponents demonstrate a case of false teaching and reflect a failing paradigm—biblically, theologically, and missiologically.”14
In other words, insiders must either interpret the Qur’an in an unnatural manner that is unattested amongst Islamic scholars, or they must compromise the biblical understanding of Jesus in order to correspond with Isa, the mere messenger of the Qur’an. If the latter, there are serious objections that must be raised by the Christian community. If the former option is taken, however, one wonders why it remains a part of the worship gathering for believers?
In fact, it appears that the decision to retain the Qur’an influences some of the egregious Bible translation projects mentioned at the beginning of this article. If one views the Qur’an positively, one will inevitably become uncomfortable with “Son of God” language that is so apparently rejected by the Qur’an. If such a central Christological issue is called into question by IM advocates, one wonders whether the Bible or the Qur’an bears more influence on the method.
Conclusion: IM Sows Seeds of an Unpromising Harvest
Before closing, it is important to clarify that a Muslim may certainly express saving faith in Jesus without having yet ironed out all of the implications for their context. Such is the nature of discipleship and sanctification. Therefore, my aim is not to question or impugn the salvation of brothers and sisters coming out of Islam to find Jesus.
I do, however, question the wisdom of IM strategists who encourage the retention of Islamic forms in the name of contextual discipleship. Such approaches increase confusion and potential compromise into the process of biblical discipleship. While not all insiders hold to the same principles, it is worth noting that those who were cited above are counted as leaders among Insider Movements in various parts of the world. Thus, their responses are indicative not only of their personal opinions, but of their influence.
Furthermore, neither the Great Commission nor any other Bible passage calls for making converts by passing along the bare-minimum message of salvation. Our assessment of IM strategy, then, cannot be satisfied by mere soteriological questions. We are to make disciples who are baptized into the triune name of God, and to teach them total obedience to Jesus. Thus, we are called to remove all confusion concerning who Jesus is and to reject all compromise regarding what it means to follow him.
As seen above, Islam, the Qur’an, and Muhammad introduce not clarity, but confusion. Likewise, the components of IM strategy included here obscure the biblical testimony that reveals Jesus to be Son of God, substitutionary sacrifice, and savior of sinners. The final installment in this series will consider what is to be done with IM methodology.
Editor’s Note: This article is part 3 in a four-part series.
1. For more recent articles trading the history of IM development and the egregious translation decisions made by Wycliffe, SIL, and Frontiers, see also Georges Houssney, “Watching the Insider Movement Unfold,” pp. 397–408 in Muslim Conversions to Christ, eds. Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018); David Harriman, “Epilogue: Force Majeure: Ethics and Encounters in an Era of Extreme Contextualization,” pp. 455–500 in Muslim Conversions to Christ, eds. Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018); Adam Simnowitz, “Appendix: Do Muslim Idiom Translations Islamicize the Bible? A Glimpse behind the Veil,” pp. 501–523 in Muslim Conversions to Christ, eds. Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018).
2. The argument made by Rick Brown in several IJFM articles for this removal depends upon the indefensible claim that the Arabic word (ibn) is inextricably tied to sexual contact resulting in the birth of a child.
3. Gavriel Gefen, “Jesus Movements: Discovering Biblical Faith in the Most Unexpected Places,” pp. 89–90 in Understanding Insider Movements, eds. Harley Talman and John Travis (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2015), 89.
4. My forthcoming book deals with this: Matthew Bennett, Narratives in Conflict: Atonement in Hebrews and the Qur’an (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019). Consider Qur’an 5:3 which states that God has perfected religion and given Islam to the people along with Qur’an 22:34–38 which notes that each community to receive revelation is given a ritual, and the sacrificial animals slaughtered in commemoration of Ibrahim’s near-sacrifice of his son (See Qur’an 37:99–111) provide Islam with such a distinguishing ritual as the final dispensation of divine revelation.
5. Rebecca Lewis, “Insider Movements: Retaining Identity and Preserving Community,” pp. 673–676 in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, eds. Ralph Winter and Steven Hawthorne 4th ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2009), 674–675.
6. Jan Henrik Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2017), 73. One of the IM leaders is quoted here as saying, “I believe the Qur’an is a book that Allah has revealed.” Another is noted as promoting “the Qur’an as a record from the people in Arabia when they were thinking about Judaism and Christianity.” Prenger states that this IM leader, “supports interpretation of the Qur’an that brings God’s people near to one another for the good of humanity and culture.” He also cites a third IM leader who “sees the Bible and the Qur’an as very similar.”
7. Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 73–74.
8. For a chart of nine IM leaders and their direct quotes regarding the Qur’an as compatible with the Bible, see Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 74–75.
9. See also Qur’an 4:171 addresses the Jews and Christians, saying, “The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and his word, which He cast into Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and his messengers, but do not say, ‘Three!’ Stop! (It will be) better for you. God is only one God. Glory to Him! (Far be it) that He should have a son!”
10. Joshua Fletcher, “Insider Movements: Sociologically and Theologically Incoherent,” pp. 179–208 in Muslim Conversions to Christ, eds. Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), 189.
11. Fletcher, “Insider Movements: Sociologically and Theologically Incoherent,” 187.
12. Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 257.
13. Prenger, Muslim Insider Christ Followers, 73.
14. Ayman Ibrahim, “Who Makes the Qur’an Valid and Valuable for Insiders?” pp. 139–157 in Muslim Conversions to Christ, eds. Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), 142.