The plane cruised above the deep blue Atlantic, headed from the United States to Kuwait. Zach Mustafa was on his way to see a portion of his family for the first time since he was 4 years old. His father leaned over to tell him some important information over the low rumble of the jet engines.
“I didn’t correct them when they talked about you being Muslim,” he said.
Sophomore pre-physical therapy major Mustafa took the news as well as could be expected.
“I asked him if he cared if I told them I wasn’t Muslim,” he said. “He gave me a look that said ‘Gee Zach, I know how you are, but I really wish you wouldn’t.’’’
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Mustafa’s father is a devout Muslim from Kuwait. His mother is an American Christian. Mustafa himself isn’t so sure.
Both of his parents’ zeal developed after they began a family. When Mustafa was first spending his days at elementary school, his father’s devotion to Allah was rekindled. His mother’s faith is in the Judeo-Christian God. This resurgence didn’t ignite until Mustafa’s senior year in high school. As a family, they supported Mustafa’s own religious decisions.
“They agreed that as long as I believed in one God, they wouldn’t push me,” he said. “But because my dad is religious, I ended up doing a lot of things that Muslims do too. I’ve been to the mosque a lot more than the church. I fasted for Ramadan. I don’t eat pork. My way of thinking was formed a lot more through Islam than Christianity.”
His experience has helped him understand the theological tension between the two religions. He has studied the Quran and the Bible on his own. Part of his motivation for attending Mary Hardin-Baylor was to better understand the Christian religion.
“Christians believe Jesus is God,” Mustafa said. “The biggest sin in Islam is to assign God a form. To say that he is a person is to quantify him. That has to be the biggest difference.”
Dr. Tony Martin, professor of New Testament, Greek, and world religions, agrees that this issue may be the largest divider of the groups.
“Muhammad was convinced of the absolute singularity and unity of the divinity of Allah,” Martin said. “In Arabic, Allah means The God. His concept of Allah was so firm and fixed that it could not abide the complex doctrine of the trinity. It looked like polytheism to Muhammad. I would guess for most contemporary Muslims theologians, that probably remains the case today.”
When attempting to understand any religion, context is extremely important. Martin himself has a great deal of respect for Muhammad, who passionately devoted his life to his convictions.
“Islam originated with a young man’s monotheistic conviction while living in an idolatrous culture,” Martin said.
“Everything Muhammad did in order to advance his religion was directed to suppress idolatry initially.”
Muhammad lived in Mecca around the turn of the seventh century. He spent 20 years attempting to advance his cause for monotheism. Facing so much opposition, he was forced to leave with about 100 of his followed from the city. He continued his work in Medina. He spent years in conflict with Mecca before returning. Islam became the established religion of Mecca in 630. The religion spread quickly to the Arabic tribes around the city.
His five pillars became the doctrinal basis of religion.
“It is the youngest of the world’s great religions but also the simplest, theologically,” Martin said. “All it takes to become a Muslim is to recite the Shahada, “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” with conviction.”
Kevin Greeson is a missionary to Muslims for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is responsible for South Asians who no longer live in South Asia. He currently resides in Delhi, India. As Christian movements spread across the region, he helps Muslim-born Christian leaders minister to the growing movement.
“There are church planting movements taking place right now,” he said. “I know of 24 movements around the world that are taking place. I work very closely with seven of those. I go to leaders and help them get a global vision for their own people,” Greeson said.
“We take these leaders in successful ministries and take them to regions where the movement is just beginning. It’s like taking hot coals out of a fire and putting them right where they are needed.”
Greeson wrote a book called The Camel about reaching Muslims. He found that members of the Islamic faith would shut out Western messages. But by using what the religions had in common, Christians could effectively spread their message. Greeson didn’t invent this practice; he observed it occurring naturally in the church plants.
“We saw that Muslims who had come to faith in Christ were using the Quran just to engage their relatives and quickly bridging from the Quran to the Bible,” he said. “When we saw them doing that effectively, we began to do so as well.”
The cultural differences between the groups is as wide as the Atlantic Mustafa flew over, but Mustafa fit in well in Kuwait.
His athletic shorts and T-shirt didn’t stand out in the well developed country of Kuwait. His limited Arabic was enough for him to pass as a local with quick observation. He even took a family trip to an amusement park. But when it was time for the call to prayer, all the music and rides ceased, as everyone paused their day of fun to face Mecca and take time to pray.
His family still views most Westerners as promiscuous, immoral idolaters.
Kevin Greeson said these views and others are major hurdles that separate the groups.
“Muslims watch American television and have the view that all Americans are Christians. Imams in mosques tell Muslims that Christians have free sex, drink alcohol and disrespect their women. They see Western women as having loose morals,” he said. “They believe that Christians believe in three gods (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and that Christians are misinformed because they do not have the last and final revelation from God.”
Misconceptions are just as common with Americans, especially in the nine years since the Sept. 11 attacks, said Martin.
“Most of our students are young and uneducated religiously. All of what they know about Islam is what they have seen on television in the last 10 years. What has been on television has not been good.
“It is wrong to judge Islam by its worst example. Osama bin Laden is one of Islam’s worst examples. It would be like Judging Christianity by some television evangelist who’s found himself in a lot of trouble.”
Mustafa still struggles with the line between Christianity and Islam. He goes to play with underprivileged children with the Hope for the Hungry ministry.
“I can be a role model and encourage kids about how God is good without getting in depth about the religion,” he said
When asked to pray at events, he found that his prayers sound nearly identical to fellow students. He just uses the name God without mentioning Jesus. He is content in his beliefs and doesn’t feel the need to define his religion. His evangelical mother wishes he would, but for the time being, he is simply researching and learning.
Regardless of his own beliefs, Mustafa has seen the good of both sides of the cultural and religious battle that has spread throughout the world. And he has a great love and respect for members of both.