Christ in the Muslim World

A Q&A with missions expert David Garrison on Muslim movements to Christ

Bombed churches, beheadings, the call for “holy war”—these are the images that often come to mind when the Muslim world is mentioned. Without a doubt, reports of terrorism and warfare are a reality in the Middle East and elsewhere. But contrary to the common assumption among many Westerners, not all Muslims live by a militant ideology. Also contrary to popular belief, many of them live far away from the Middle East.

For almost 30 years, David Garrison has been a missionary pioneer with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Having studied 12 languages and traveled through 100 countries, Garrison has become an expert on Islam and the church’s efforts to spread the gospel among Muslims. He was recently tasked with a three-year-long research project throughout the Muslim world, examining movements to Christ. Considering one movement to be at least 1,000 verified baptisms, Garrison has discovered there have been nearly 70 of these in the past 13 years alone. By contrast, there had been zero known cases in the preceding 1,200 years, going back to the seventh-century founding of Islam.

As a result of his findings, Garrison wrote A Wind in the House of Islam: How God Is Drawing Muslims Around the World to Faith in Jesus Christ. In it, he presents a defense of what he calls the largest movement in history of Muslims to Christianity. Garrison spoke with In Touch magazine’s Joseph Miller about his experiences.

What inspired you to do this research project?

When I was working on my doctorate at the University of Chicago, I met a world-class researcher named David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia. He introduced me to several things, like what we call the “unreached world,” the 10/40 Window, and those who would have no opportunity unless something changed in the way we did missions. It was with Barrett that I learned research methodology as well, and I got my life’s direction from that point on.

We’ve been working with the IMB now for 29 years. It’s taken us throughout the Muslim world. So when a foundation came to me and said, “We want to know what’s going on; we’re hearing these reports and rumors [of conversions]. Would you be willing to take the next few years and go find out?” I said yes.

I’m a curious guy by nature. I didn’t realize how big it was going to get. I initially had a list of about 25 movements that I was aware of. I told myself, If I can get interviews from 12 movements, from 12 people in each movement, then that’s a big job. At the end of 2 and a half years, I had 45 movements and over 1,000 interviews. It was almost too big to manage. But out of that, I was able to see patterns of how God was at work. I was just marveling at it all.

What was the most surprising, to have that amount of data on Muslims coming to Christ?

Yes, because these are such restricted places. You know, anytime a Muslim comes to Christ, he says, “I’m willing to die.” Because [in many places] it is a capital offense. And so to have tens of thousands now who have converted, it says that something is happening.

I looked through history to see when have there ever been Muslim movements to Christ. I went back to the year 622, when Islam was founded, and I dug through sources . . . trying to find any hint of a movement. But what was stunning was that in the first 12 and a half centuries, there were tens of millions of Christians who became Muslim, but we couldn’t find a single movement of Muslims to Christ. The exceptions occurred during the Crusades, when conversions were forced by the point of a sword. As a Baptist, I wouldn’t say those were movements; those were coercions. Not until 1870 do you get the first movement. And then in just in the latter half of the 20th century, you get an additional 11 movements.Then in the first 13 years of the 21st century, we get 69 movements. So 84 percent of the movements in history are happening right now.

What do you think this increase is pointing toward?

That’s the answer I’m looking for: Why wasn’t it happening before; why is it happening now?  It’s a tangled story, but there are some clear patterns and threads. When Christianity—particularly Christendom—behaved like Islam, we didn’t do very well. At the time Islam was born, Christianity wasn’t just a faith; it was really an empire. And when Mohammed faced Christianity, he didn’t face missionaries and preachers; he faced Byzantine armies. That blend of military might and Christian kingdom is like oil and water. The message of Jesus flies in the face of that. Today, we’re living in a post-colonial world.

Part of what we’re seeing across the world is that Islam is realizing it’s not the answer for its own people. In fact, the violence we see so much in the Islamic world is oftentimes a prelude to great turnings of Muslims to Christ.

Many Westerners, when they hear the word “Muslim,” may immediately think of the Middle East. But in your book, you mention this concept of “nine rooms” of the Muslim world. Can you explain that?

With 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, almost one in every four people on earth is a follower of Islam. And yet, a Muslim who grows up in London or a Muslim who grows up in Casablanca is not the same as one who grows up in Western China. I wanted to learn how God was at work, and I didn’t want to make generalizations about “those Muslims.” So I tried to see the Muslim world the way they see it. For instance, if you’re in West Africa, your border stops in the north with the Sahara, and North Africa becomes a different “room” in the house of Islam, a different culture. West Africa is the first room, North Africa a different room, Eastern Africa—which is very different from West Africa—is yet another one. Then you have the Arab room, which is where it all began. Then the Persian room. Then there’s Turkestan, Western South Asia, Eastern South Asia, and Indo-Malaysia.

So what I’ve tried to do in each one of these is accurately describe the distinctive aspects of each room so I can put them in context. Doing so has allowed me to accurately present what’s going on in that part of the world, so we aren’t comparing apples and oranges.

Were there any problems you ran into when conducting your study?

It was tough—that’s for sure. I traveled a quarter of a million miles over two years. The problems were just the logistics; it was a massive undertaking. Sometimes I would be away from home nine weeks at a time. But it was offset by the incredible experience of hearing these stories. I would come back home to Colorado, and I’d sit out on the deck transcribing and come inside with tears, telling my wife, “You’ve got to hear these stories.” This is the body of Christ. We need to hear this.

How did that feel? It’s as if you’re getting the first view of all of this at once.

It felt like what Jesus says in Luke 10, when the 72 came back. He said, “Kings and prophets yearned to see what you're seeing.” That’s what it felt like—what an incredible, incredible responsibility. I felt a stewardship to those brothers and sisters who were living and dying, struggling in such harsh places; I felt burdened to tell their story. I want to let the world know that God loves Muslims, too, and Muslim-background believers make wonderful followers of Jesus Christ [because] the transformation is just so wonderful.

People from predominantly Muslim countries, what do they want other people to understand about them?

That they are not an ideology or religion but people. And as people, they have the same desires as we do. They want their children to grow up in peace, to have a chance, an education, a life.

With the rise of Islam in America, what are some of your thoughts on how Christians should respond?

Most of the Islamic growth in the United States is either from immigration or demographic growth. There’s not so much conversion growth, except where there has been perceived—or real—social injustice. The only place where Islam is really growing here is where people feel they haven’t been given a fair shake. And Islam tells them, “We can show you how to demand a fair shake.”

So what does that say to us? Wherever we see social injustice, we need to step in. We need to be Christ to these people, to try to close the gap between ideals and reality, to bring the kingdom of God.

What are some practical tips you’d give to someone who meets a follower of Islam?

I tell people that even before you meet followers of Islam, you can pray for them. So many people are afraid to meet [a Muslim]. You can even ask, “How can I pray for you?” Muslims believe in prayer. Sadly, in their religion, they have these rote prayers. But when it comes to actually praying for them for specific things, it’s different than anything they’ve experienced. Prayer is a wonderful connection—it connects us to God, it connects us to them.

And there are many ways we can minister to Muslims as they come into our communities. I have a lot of people who ask me, “Aren’t they coming in, trying to take over our country?” And I say, “Sure, they’d like to take over the country, just like the rest of us.” But no, a lot of them are coming here fleeing difficult situations. For instance, we’re going to see a lot of refugees streaming out of Syria and Iraq.

What are your thoughts about ISIS and the persecution of minority groups in Iraq, including Christians?

Like everyone who is watching this development, I am horrified by the atrocities and deeply grieved for those who have been slaughtered, particularly the ancient Christian community. Most Americans do not realize that Christians accounted for some 8 percent of Iraq’s population prior to the U.S. invasion [in 2003]. One of our first actions there was to disband the army and ban the Baathist Party, not fully appreciating the fact that—for all their misdeeds—the Baathists were a nationalist Arab party that gave equal rights and protection to Christians. With the removal of the Baathists, Iraq fell into a survival-of-the-fittest struggle, onewhich the Christians were fated to lose. Today, Iraq’s population is less than 1 percent Christian, and groups like ISIS are attempting to eradicate what is left of this 2,000-year-old Christian presence in the country.

So I am heartbroken for the Christian community, and deeply concerned at the prospects for much more warfare and killing in the region. But I remain very aware that Muslim-on-Muslim violence—and that is the majority of the killing in the Iraq-Syria arena today—has often been the prelude to great turnings of Muslims away from the way of Islam and jihad, and onto the way of Christ and peace. In the past we have seen this in Indonesia, Algeria, Bangladesh, and Iran; my prayer is that the present sufferings unfolding in Iraq and Syria will lead to a mass turning of Muslims to the Prince of Peace.

Related Topics:  Sovereignty

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