Contextualization in the Islamic Context

Cultural, theological and social barriers need to be
considered when sharing the gospel with Muslims.

Contextualization in ministry to Muslims is highly contested and has caused great confusion. Some see contextualization as a universal remedy to the obstacles in Muslim ministry. Others feel that contextualization is deceptive manipulation to get converts.

The task of Muslim evangelism is difficult because there are cultural, theological and social barriers that are believed to be the reason why Muslims historically are resistant to the message of the good news of Jesus Christ. Western missionaries make claims that the single greatest hindrance to seeing Muslims come to faith in Christ is not a theological one (i.e., accepting Jesus as Lord), but rather one of culture and religious identity (i.e., having to leave the community of Islam). They argue that for the sake of God’s kingdom much of our missiological energy should be devoted to seeking a path whereby Muslims can remain Muslims, yet live as true followers of the Lord Jesus. Therefore, Western missionaries believe that if the barriers are removed, there will be more conversions.

Western Christians are looking for ways to minimize the isolation and persecution former Muslims (MBBs, Muslim Background Believers) face from their community and family so they can be effective witnesses within their context. It is believed that contextualization will minimize the isolation and persecution so MBBs can remain in the community and be effective witnesses. Contextualization is also applied to the Western missionaries who are often misunderstood. They seek to minimize the cultural, theological and social distance between Western Christians and the host culture through contextualization.

Definition of “Contextualization”
There is much confusion over the word “contextualization.” Contextualization is “taking the unchanging truth of the gospel and making it understandable in a given context.” The goal is not to make scripture as Islamic as possible; rather, it is to communicate the unchanging truth in the particular Islamic context so it makes sense. We must allow for a biblical theology to develop from the culture rooted in scripture without Western forms constricting the worldview of the target group. Contextualization is to assist in the process of transformation (Hebrews 5:11-14) of the individual, community and society, while avoiding syncretism (an overlay of Christianity on a non-Christian core).

Historically, missionaries went to Islamic countries and built churches that replicated the form and content of the church the missionary was familiar with. Therefore, the church was foreign in structure, worship songs, style of worship and even language. Moves such as simple structures, using language of the people and respecting cultural taboos were made to make the church more contextual. The process of contextualization has also pushed the boundaries.

Controversy comes when contextualization takes on uniquely Islamic forms and gives them new meaning. Some of the controversies are:

  • Are believers to be called just “Muslims” or “Muslims, Followers of Isa”?
  • Is mosque attendance to be allowed as a transition or to be encouraged as a strategy of permanence?
  • Does the convert pray his salat in exactly the same way as Muslims?
  • Do the converts verbally or by implication recite the shahadah affirming Muhammad as the prophet of God?
  • Is mosque participation encouraged only for MBBs or is it to be advocated for Christians as well?
  • Do Christians legally become Muslims?
  • Should Christians go on the Hajj

The goal of contextualization is to communicate the
truth of scripture in the particular
Islamic context so it makes sense.

Theological Considerations
The motivation for contextualization is often driven by pragmatics. Various passages are used to support different views of contextualization. The most common one is 1 Corinthians 9:19-23: “I become all things to all men to save some.” To avoid proof-texting, the Christian worker needs to search the scriptures to see if there are other passages that might contradict the basic assumptions or particular applications applied to a particular passage. For instance, 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is a call to separate from the world: “Therefore, come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul did not urge an idolater to remain in heathen temples. Theories for contextualization should not rest on the interpretation of one passage.

Theology of Suffering
The desire to eliminate needless suffering MBBs go through is praiseworthy. Western Christians have not had to face persecution on the level that MBBs face. However, the early Christians faced many of the same honor/shame issues and were taken to court on false charges. What is needed is to have a clear theology of suffering which should include the following three points:

  1. Accepting it. Suffering is universal and a part of the Fall (Genesis 3).
  2. Embracing it. Suffering for being a Christian is shared. Jesus said that: the world will hate us without reason (John 15:18-25); living a godly life will bring persecution (2 Timothy 3:12); and Satan seeks to destroy all Christians and our faith (1 Peter 5:8-11).
  3. Enduring it. Suffering is Christ-like (1 Peter 2:21-24). The early Church considered it a privilege to suffer along with Christ (2 Corinthians 4:10-12, Philippians 3:10-11). Suffering produces a mature faith (2 Corinthians 4:17; James 1). We are to fix our eyes on the eternal home (2 Corinthians 4:18; Hebrews 11:1).

Jesus Christ taught his disciples that they would face persecution and because of this, they would be blessed. Persecution is not to be avoided at all costs; we should have a theology of persecution and a plan for persecution. Persecution is normative in the Christian life.

Obstacles Facing MBBs
There are often severe consequences for MBBs who declare their new life in Christ to their family and often must move away for safety. What makes contextualization difficult within the Islamic community is the deep-seated sense of honor and shame associated with the religion of Islam. Muslims have a doctrine for the treatment of non-Muslims called dhimmi which separates non-Muslims communities into a second-class citizen. The law of apostasy within Islam punishes defection from Islam with death. Even if the family or community is not willing to carry out death for apostasy, marriages can be dissolved.

Obstacles Facing Western Workers
Christianity is closely associated with Western culture and is judged to be polytheistic and decadent. Western workers seeking to distance themselves from these stereotypes try to identify as closely with the host culture. This would mean taking on Islamic dress, keeping religious practices of fasting and times of prayer and respecting purdah in how they relate to the sexes. A caution is that form is not neutral. It has meaning. Missionary statesman Phil Parshall reminds us that “meanings lie behind the forms and are often hidden and misunderstood by the outsiders.” 

Principles for Application
Contextualization needs to be done through the following five filters:

  • Scripture. All considerations for contextualization must be subjected to the authority of the scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
  • Holy Spirit. We must rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must encourage the national believers to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit as they consider the contextualized expression of their faith in Christ (John 14:26).
  • Counsel of godly leaders. In all our attempts to contextualize, we should seek out the counsel of godly leaders (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22; Acts 15:6-21).
  • Worldview. We should responsibly communicate the gospel in such a way as to penetrate the worldview of the people in the target culture introducing life-transforming biblical truth, in cooperation with the local believers. A worldview consists of the unquestioned assumptions and perceived truths by which an individual or society interprets what happens around him or her (John 4:7-26; Acts 17:16-34).
  • Long-term effects. We must continue to evaluate our attempts at contextualization in light of its direction and long-term ramifications (2 Peter 1:3-9).

Contextualization should be considered in three areas:

  1. Contextualization of the message. There is nothing about the gospel message that can be compromised. We cannot and will not remove the offense of the cross. However, we must seek creative ways to make the message clear through the lens of understanding of the receiving audience (1 Corinthians 1:18, 2:2).
  2. Contextualization of the messenger. To the best of our abilities, we must communicate in the heart language of the people. Our lifestyle and standard of living should be within scriptural norms and socially acceptable limits for the people to whom we minister. We must make our actions in the host culture compatible with our message in order to have a credible witness. We should not go beyond the limits of conscience in our contextualization forms (1 Corinthians 10:23-30; 1 Timothy 1:5).
  3. Contextualization of the church. The local church, led by their own godly spiritual leaders, should be allowed the freedom to decide on the symbols and the practices of the church. Every effort should be made to evoke heartfelt worship in the particular culture. Style and method of teaching of the Word should facilitate clear understanding of the truth, motivating them to spiritual acts of service (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 2:8-10).

Rev. Roy Oksnevad has been a missionary with the Evangelical Free Church of America working among Muslims since 1985. He is also director of Muslim Ministries at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, USA. He served as a pioneer church planting pastor in Hoboken, New Jersey and worked in Brussels, Belgium.