My oldest female friend (I’ll call her “Natali”) has lived in the Muslim world for 25 years. Her Arabic is fluent and her network of relationships incredibly broad, so listening to her has given me a glimpse of a world few Catholics know exist.
Natali has often talked about “Muslim background believers” (MBBs) who are now emerging within the Muslim world. These are men and women who were born and raised Muslim and intentionally converted to Christianity as adults. They were popping up everywhere — as individuals, in families and within small fellowship groups.
Because the cost of following Christ can be so high in the Muslim world, information was strictly on a need-to-know basis; and even then, it was always vague, so even my friend Natali had no idea how many MBBs there were. All she could tell me was that when she first went to the Middle East, there weren’t any — and now she is meeting them pretty regularly.
Natali loves Muslims and lives in the Muslim world intentionally, as a witness to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. I know that this will startle many Register readers, but she has told me many times that she doesn’t feel endangered or afraid living in a Muslim setting.
Muslims are people she knows and individuals she loves. When she returned home for a visit after 9/11, I had to explain to her why the conversation in the United States had changed so much. Natali had not experienced what the average American had experienced because she was living in the Muslim world during the whole horrific event. She watched those terrible pictures from afar on the BBC, while being showered with apologies, sympathy and support from her local Muslim friends who had been close friends for years.
In her world, ecclesial divides that loom so large for us — like Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox — mean little. What matters is “Are you a ‘believer’?” — a follower of Isah (Jesus) — or are you, perhaps, a true seeker like one wise Muslim friend of Natali’s.
Recently, Catholics have begun seeing mainstream media coverage of mass baptisms of Muslims in Europe. Some of my friends who work in Catholic parishes have helped Muslims enter the Church through RCIA. This is a foretaste of something that has never happened before in history and the implications of which are just starting to dawn upon us.
Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone published the first serious global estimate of the size of the Muslim-background Christian community in their 2015 article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, “Believers in Christ From a Muslim Background: A Global Census.” Miller estimates that there were between 5 million and 16 million MBBs in the world in 2010. The author believes the best estimate falls just short of 10 million.
The U.S. is a magnet for MBBs, which is why about 477,000 lived here in 2010. Roughly 60,000 were Catholic, 40,000 were Orthodox, and the rest are almost all evangelical Protestants. There were approximately 180,000 Arab-Muslim background Christians and about 130,000 Iranian MBBs in the U.S. six years ago. What is especially stunning is to realize that the pace of MBB growth has dramatically accelerated since 2000. Dudley Woodbury, a Fulbright scholar of Islam, estimates that 20,000 Muslims in the U.S. become Christians every year.
What draws people raised within Islam to Christianity? Woodbury published the results of interviews with 750 MBBs from around the world in 2008. Here were his top five reasons:
n The lifestyle of Christians. Former Muslims cited the love that Christians exhibited in their relationships with non-Christians and their treatment of women as equals.
n The power of God in answered prayers and healing. The Jesus portrayed in the Quran is a prophet who heals lepers and the blind and raises the dead. Often, dreams or visions about Jesus or a man of light were reported. (Some also have dreams of the Bible or of the Virgin Mary, who is revered within Islam.)
n Dissatisfaction with the type of Islam they had experienced. In his article “How ISIS Is Spreading the Gospel,” David Cashin of the Zwemer Center observes, “I have often referred to Islamic radicals as ‘proto-evangelists’ for the Christian faith.”
n The spiritual truth in the Bible. Muslims are generally taught that the Torah, Psalms and the Gospels are from God, but that they became corrupted. These Christian converts said, however, that the truth of God found in Scripture became compelling for them and key to their understanding of God’s character.
n Biblical teachings about the love of God. In the Quran, God’s love is conditional, but God’s love for all people in the Bible was especially eye-opening for Muslims. These converts were moved by the love expressed through the life and teachings of Jesus.
In 2010, I received a thought-provoking letter addressed to Pope Benedict from a Protestant resident of the Muslim world. He described three ways that Catholics could help Muslims who are seeking spiritual alternatives:
n “That Catholic parishes in the West with significant immigrant Muslim populations be ready and willing to give out Bibles in the languages of local Muslims: Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Turkish, etc. ‘Even in the most fundamentalist Islamic countries, if a person asks for a Bible, it is not considered to be antagonistic to Islam to give him one.’”
n “A key reason listed in the conversion narratives of Muslims is a dream or vision. Often, this is of [the] Messiah himself, but other times, it’s of an angel or saint like John the Baptist or the Blessed Virgin. What if each diocese were instructed to discern among their clergy (or laity?) an individual (or several) with the charism of interpreting dreams and visions? A small publicity campaign — small ads in local publications read by immigrants, notices at the church doors — letting people know that, if they have had dreams or visions which they cannot explain, that someone with experience in that field is ready and willing to talk with them.”
(I have not come across a charism of “interpreting dreams” as such. But I do think that persons of considerable spiritual maturity, trained in listening and Ignatian discernment, with some background in Islam, and with a charism of wisdom or prophecy or encouragement, could be exceedingly helpful here.)
n “That each bishop have a plan for how to respond when Muslims ask to be baptized. ‘... I know well a new disciple of Christ who has been seeking baptism for some time. He has suffered for his faith more than most Christians ever will, and he knows the Scripture[s] better, too. ... Yet the local Latin priest in his home city eventually chased him away. Why? He was from a prominent Muslim family. What if there had been a quietly-communicated policy in place? What if the believer had been discreetly told to visit a certain person? All of this, to be sure, after his devotion to and comprehension of the Good News, had been certified. As it stands right now, this young man was recently baptized by an evangelical pastor/elder. He was turned away from the church where he first sought fellowship. With a sensitive policy in place, this young man could have been a new, vibrant Catholic Christian.’”
God is doing something new in our generation. Significant numbers of Muslims are quietly looking for spiritual alternatives.
If you and I understand our mission as evangelizers and apostles, build relationships of trust, rouse spiritual curiosity through our lives, pray for and share our faith in Christ and his Church with the Muslims about us, we can play an important part in this unprecedented movement of the Holy Spirit.
Sherry Weddell earned a bachelor’s degree in modern Near-Eastern history and studied Islamics
and cross-cultural missions at the graduate level before entering the Catholic Church. She is the
and the author of Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.