Why More Muslims Are Turning to Jesus | Opinion

In the 8th century, the Great Imam, Abu Hanifa (699-767), coined the term "House of Islam" (Dar al-Islam) as those places where Muslims enjoyed peace and security under the rule of an Islamic government. The rest of the world Hanifa designated Dar al-Harb or "the House of War."

Hanifa's triumphalist worldview had been earned by Islamic armies that had already defeated both the Byzantine and Persian superpowers in their first century of existence. In Hanifa's own lifetime, these Prophet-inspired warriors rolled unabated across Buddhist Central Asia and South Asian Hindustan. By the time of Abu Hanifa's writing, Islamic kingdoms stretched from the borders of France to the Indonesian archipelago.

Islam's expansion continues to the present. As the fastest-growing major religion in the world today, Islam is on track to challenge Christianity as the world's largest religion by 2050.

My wife and I have spent some 30 years as evangelical missionaries engaging the Muslim world, living among Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia. God has given us a love for Muslims, and we have found them to be overwhelmingly hospitable, reasonable, peace-loving people—yet staunchly opposed to the Christian gospel. A major reason for this was found in the roots of Islam.

While many religions rejected the doctrine of Jesus as Messiah or the concept of the Trinity, Islam was the only major world religion born with Christianity already in full bloom that consciously defined itself in direct opposition to the core Christian doctrines of the incarnation, atoning crucifixion, and resurrection. This, in part, explained why Muslims seemed so resistant to what Christians saw as the good news of the gospel message; it was in their religion's DNA.

And then things began to change.

It was almost imperceptible at first. In the mid-1990s, I had a few Berber colleagues who were "former Muslims," but such co-workers were rare. Then, in the early 2000s, I found myself working alongside scores of South Asian evangelists with names like Muhammad and Islam—all testifying to a change from their former religious affections.

Colleagues working in other corners of the Muslim world echoed similar experiences, with former Muslims now joining their missionary efforts in West Africa, Iran, several Central Asian Republics, Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia. Something was happening - even as Christianity was on the wane in many Western countries and vanishing from its roots in much of the Middle East, a wind was blowing through the House of Islam.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, reports of large-scale conversions of Muslims to the Christian faith were surfacing in many corners of the "House of Islam." Given the fact that conversion from Islam is a capital offense in many traditional Muslim communities, these reports of substantial movements merited attention.

I determined to investigate these reported phenomena on two fronts. First, I wanted to personally visit as many of these Muslim movements to the Christian faith as possible, guided by a questionnaire that would ferret out the secrets of why these individuals would risk their lives to change their religious allegiance. Second, as a Church historian with University of Chicago training, I knew I would need to explore the historical context of Muslim movements to Christ to see if what was occurring today was truly unique, or merely an oscillation of faith that had occurred from time to time in the 14-century ebb and flow of Islam.

Before I could do either, though, I needed to define my terms and clarify the scope of the project. I decided to focus not on random, individual Muslim conversions to Christianity, but rather on larger social units: movements. I defined a movement as at least 1,000 Muslims from a particular ethnolinguistic community who had not only professed faith in Jesus as Christ and Lord, but had voluntarily demonstrated that faith through the act of baptism, something that could cost them ostracism from their community or even physical death. I emphasize the voluntary nature of these movements in contrast to some historical occurrences of Muslims coerced into baptism during the Catholic Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula during the late Middle Ages. Furthermore, I limited the timeframe for this phenomenon to occur to two decades, i.e. at least 1,000 baptisms in two decades or less.

Finally, in addition to accurately describing the movements, I wanted to know why they were happening. So, the core of my 21 questions was one that was written in the language of faith shared by both myself and my subjects: "What did God use to bring you to faith in Jesus Christ? Tell me your story."

Over the next three years I set out to answer these questions, traveling a quarter million miles, visiting 44 movements in 29 countries from West Africa to Indonesia, and collecting more than a thousand interviews.

The second part of my study, the historical background, revealed that Muslim movements to Christ were so rare as to be newsworthy whenever they did occur, making my job much easier. In the first twelve centuries of Islam's existence, only three voluntary movements of Muslims to the Christian faith appear in the historical record (during which time, millions of Christians were assimilated into the Islamic religion). The first movement does not occur until 982 near the medieval city of Nsibis (on today's Turkish-Syrian border) where history reports 12,000 Arab Muslim men sought baptism. The next takes place in the Levant under the ministry of William of Tripoli (c. 1220-1273) who notes more than 1,000 Muslims baptized. In that same 13th century, the Franciscan monk, Conrad of Ascoli (1234-1289), is purported to have witnessed 6,400 Libyans (presumably Muslims) baptized through his missionary efforts.

Then there are more than five centuries (from 1300-1850) of Islamic advance through the Ottomans and the Golden Horde in Central Asia, during which time not a single voluntary Muslim movement to Christ is recorded anywhere on earth. Not until the late 19th century with the ministry of Indonesian Sadrach Surapranata (1835-1924) do we see a breakthrough that produces 10,000-20,000 Muslim converts to his distinctly Indonesian expression of Christianity. A second movement takes in Abyssinia where a Shaikh Zakaryas (1845-1920) sees 7,000 of his fellow Muslims come to Christian faith and baptism.

The first half of the 20th century finds the gospel advance among Muslims distracted by two world wars, a Great Depression, and the rise of godless Communism across much of Asia. Then, once again in Indonesia, a movement breaks through with some two million Muslims baptized between 1967-1971. The 20th century would conclude with 10 more movements in places as diverse as Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, and Iran.

This fin de siècle surge of movements set the stage for the 21st century. By the end of my survey, in 2013, nascent movements were emerging across the Muslim world, with 69 full-blown movements flourishing. Reports from other mission researchers indicate that this surge in movements has continued to grow up to the present.

That historically unprecedented Muslim movements to Christ were taking place in our day was no longer in question. What remained was to understand why. In 2014, my book A Wind in the House of Islam, attempted to answer that question. Drawing from hundreds of interviews, the book revealed what might be termed a "fullness of time" for Muslim movements to Christ.

No solitary factor could explain today's unprecedented turnings. Instead, it seemed to be a mélange of factors producing a climate ripe for large-scale and widespread conversions. Some of these factors were tied to the increased focus of evangelical Christians upon the Muslim world: 1) increased prayer for Muslims (yes, I know this may seem unempirical, and yet I could not deny the uncanny coincidence between the 25-year history of a global prayer movement for Muslims called "30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World" and the emergence of 84 percent of all the Muslim movements to Christ recorded in 14 centuries; even skeptics could not ignore this,) 2) intentional evangelism directed toward Muslims, after centuries of Christians either fighting Muslims or avoiding them, and 3) exponential increase in Bible translations in colloquial languages spoken by Muslims. Other related factors were a part of the 21st-century global village that was emerging with: 1) Internet, satellite television, and radio, 2) global diasporas intertwining Muslim and Christian populations around the world, and 3) a post-colonial context that would allow Muslims to consider the gospel apart from its previous European trappings.

And then there were the unexpected and often counterintuitive elements that resounded again and again through the testimonies of Muslim-background Christ followers. I was struck by how many Muslim converts cited elements within Islam itself that compelled them to leave Islam and pursue a relationship with Jesus. Several devout Muslims reported, "It was after reading the Qur'an in my own language that I realized, for the first time, that I was lost." After centuries of only having the Qur'an available in marginally intelligible 7th-century Arabic, Muslims today are finding colloquial translations of the Qur'an that are demystifying their holy book and leaving many of them yearning for something different.

Another common theme garnered from my interviews was the trauma many former Muslims felt from the violence that has so plagued their recent religious history, but that has thankfully subsided, especially in post-war decades, from much of organized Christianity. For many Muslim converts it was the shock of 9/11 (2001) or the Iranian Revolution (1979) or the Algerian Civil War (1990s) or the Bangladeshi War of Liberation (1971) that jolted them from Islam to another path.

Finally, there was the matter of dreams. Though dreams have fallen into disrepute in the West, they retain their currency in the House of Islam. A common phrase found in many testimonies gathered from West Africa to East Asia began with the words, "I had a dream...." Like the wind itself, these dreams came as invisible harbingers of change. For many, they recall the words of Jesus to a nighttime seeker, "The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (John 3:8.)

David Garrison is Executive Director of Global Gates and author of A Wind in the House of Islam. Garrison holds a PhD from the University of Chicago in the History of Christianity.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​