ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–In a mosque in Southern California, a young man makes a vow that will profoundly change his life: “I declare that there is no God except Allah, and the prophet Muhammad is the messenger of God.” It is an authentic conversion to Islam, a ceremony similar in some respects to the Christian ordinance of baptism.
For the 6 million Muslims who now live in the United States and Canada, it is not a particularly unusual event. But for Christian audiences who witness the experience on a new video produced by the North American Mission Board, it is a sobering reminder of the growing influence of Islam in a nation once considered a bastion of Christianity.
That personal perspective is a common theme of “The Cross or the Crescent: Understanding Islam,” a video-based study of the world’s second-largest religion. By examining Islam and its current practice in North America through the eyes of its followers, the agency hopes to create understanding and address popular misconceptions about Islam among Christians. But they also hope to equip Christians to relate more effectively with their Muslim neighbors when discussing their own deeply held beliefs.
“There is a realization that many Muslims have become our neighbors, and that only a few especially in our Baptist churches really know about Muslims,” said Wolf Schumacher, producer, director and writer of the video. “We don’t really know what they believe. And that hinders us in communicating the gospel to them.”
The video is accompanied by a 53-page leader’s manual with further resources on understanding Islam written by Samuel Shahid, a professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Unlike many such efforts produced by Christians for Christians, “The Cross or the Crescent” hopes to ensure credibility by allowing the story of Islam to be told by those who know it best — prominent Islamic scholars and lay adherents to the faith. The video then allows Christian scholars to clearly illustrate the critical theological points of divergence.
It is a method that NAMB pioneered in the 1997 video, “The Mormon Puzzle,” which drew acclaim for its ability to reveal seldom-taught Mormon doctrines as explained by their own scholars.
“We felt like we had to look in-depth at Islam, and that led us to go to the eminent Islamic scholars in this country,” said N.S.R.K. Ravi, an interfaith evangelism associate for NAMB and content director for the video. “We wanted them to explain their theological basis for God, man, sin and salvation as taught in the Koran.”
One popular misconception addressed throughout the video is the notion that the fundamentalist extremes associated with terrorism are in any way characteristic of the majority of Muslims.
“There is a terrorist element in their history, but that is not the overriding characteristic of these people,” said Schumacher. “In fact, all the Muslims I’ve talked with have strongly condemned that kind of behavior.” To the contrary, Schumacher said he was struck by the “fantastic hospitality” and open doors that he received wherever he went.
“The idea is they would really love to keep corridors of communication open. They want people to see who they really are,” he said. “I think they have a strong desire that we understand them, that we don’t see them as terrorists but as Americans and human beings who have very much in common with us.”
But while the video illustrates the history, practice and basic theology of Islam in a manner that would not be disputed by most Muslims, the comparison of doctrines with Christianity does illustrate the sharp divisions.
Muslims do accept and revere Jesus Christ as a key prophet along with other prophets of the Old Testament, believing only that the later revelation purportedly given to Muhammad was considered the final and only fully accurate revelation of God. But they do not believe Jesus was, or even claimed to be, the Son of God. They vehemently reject the concept of the Trinity, original sin and the need for the Atonement.
“The common misconception of Islam is that Jews, Christians and Muslims have a common heritage, that we are in common in our agreements,” said Ravi, a specialist in world religions and the New Age movement. “But it’s not true, and that’s what we wanted to point out. And in order to do that you have to go to the source and let them explain it.”
A key issue stressed throughout the video is that even the most devout followers of Islam and all of its tenets ultimately will be judged by a God who makes no promises in regard to the afterlife.
“Hearing from these eminent scholars mouths that they are not absolutely sure of salvation at the end of their lives, that presents some very good questions,” Ravi said. “For Islamic people, salvation is dependent on the mercy of God. Whereas in Christianity a person is assured of salvation by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”
The video also examines a key aspect of both Islam and Christianity that has drawn fire particularly toward evangelical Christianity in recent years — the mandate to communicate beliefs to others in hopes that they will accept them as their own. In Christianity, it’s known as evangelism. In Islam, the concept is known as Da’wah, and the video illustrates particularly how Islamic groups are actively gaining converts on college campuses and prisons.
One of the Muslims interviewed, for instance, shares how she converted to Islam through her exposure to an Islamic group while attending college.
But it is precisely because of the intense nature of their rejection of key Christian doctrine that conversion to Christianity is so difficult, according to the video. In fact, many Muslims simply cannot accept that genuine conversion is even possible — and if it does happen it results in the strongest possible condemnation from God for eternity. It is a belief that means converts to Christianity are generally ostracized from their entire community and culture.
One Muslim woman interviewed expressed the deep conviction by stating it simply would not be possible for any of her children to accept Christianity.
“Muslim child will never, never, never, never become Christian!” the woman exclaims. “I must tell you hundred time, never mind what happen, [even if] you will give them million dollars or something.”
Other evidence indicates conversion is possible, however, including testimonies in the video and the conversion of 250 former Muslims witnessed by Bay Area Persian Church, a congregation in San Jose, Calif. But members of that congregation concede that traditional methods of directly sharing the gospel are rarely successful and often succeed only in creating offense. The video illustrates the point with a scene in which members of the church attempt to witness directly to Muslims in a public park.
“No, no, no. We don’t believe Jesus giving life,” one man says. “We don’t believe it.”
The better approach, according to pastor Donald Fareed, is to establish relationships with them, “to really show the love of Christ, the unconditional love of Christ. Not that ‘I love you [so you will become a] Christian,’ but, ‘I love you because the Lord loves me, and this is the love that has changed me.'”
Fareed, after viewing the completed video, said it could be an effective tool on its own for helping Christians share their faith with Muslims — although he suggested watching it with Muslim friends to help explain some of the Christian terminology.
“It is an excellent work, not offending at all,” he said.
For information on how to purchase The Cross or The Crescent: Understanding Islam,” visit LifeWay Christian Stores or contact LifeWay Christian Resources at 1-800-448-8032. An excerpt from the video’s introduction is viewable on the Internet by visiting http://www.namb.net/evangelism/iev/video_islam.asp.
(BP) graphic posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Graphic title: THE CROSS OR THE CRESCENT: UNDERSTANDING ISLAM. (BP) photo to be posted.
Facts About Islam:
— Worldwide population estimated at 800 million to 1 billion. U.S. population estimated at 6.5 to 8 million.
— Based on teachings of the Koran, a book claimed to have been given verbatim to the prophet Muhammad about 600 A.D.
— World’s second largest religion, surpassed in adherents only by Christianity.
— The name “Islam” means “submission to the will of God.”