How Should MBBs Relate to Islam and Culture?

A mosque in the Hinmalayan mountains of South Asia. In South Asia, mosques often look different in different cultures.

When Muslims come to Christ, their relationship to their former religion and culture is a crucial question. In many areas, there are no mature Muslim-Background Believers (MBBs) for new MBBs to learn from regarding what it means to follow Jesus. Therefore, they are left to their own devices to determine their relationship with Islam and their culture. In short, I desire MBBs to continue loving their culture while decisively leaving Islam.

MBBs usually find themselves on one of three paths.

Path #1 – Cultural and Theological Insider. MBB Insiders remain in the mosque and generally follow Islamic religious rituals. They continue regularly at the mosque, including ritual prayers (salaat/namaaz). These believers are often secret in their faith, although some are evangelistic. For example, they might respect both Muhammad and Jesus, the Qur’an, and the Bible. Since there is no separation from Islam, it is difficult to determine where the allegiance of an MBB lies.

The problem is that darkness and light cannot exist together. This approach invariably leads to confusion and syncretism. I have often met supposed MBBs who explained that they have not left the mosque. They tell me they love Jesus and the Injeel Shareef (an Urdu/Arabic word for New Testament). However, on further questioning, they also claim loyalty to Muhammad. I remember being told by one “secret believer,” “We love Jesus, but our faith is in Muhammad.” 

Unfortunately, this approach is being touted by many Westerners. It is often called the Insider Movement (IM) in those circles. Among IM practitioners, there are wide varieties. For example, some call themselves IM practitioners when they believe that new MBBs naturally pass through a period of having one foot in Islam and one foot in Christ. I also think that it is expected that many Muslims, as they come to Jesus, will struggle with their identity and community. For a period, they will read both the Qur’an and the Bible. Even after they follow Jesus, they often will not immediately leave the mosque out of fear of their community. This perspective believes that it is normal and good that MBBs will decisively leave the mosque, Muhammad, and the Qur’an as they begin to follow Jesus. Their faith will go from being secret to being public. I have written on the process of the faith of MBBs going public. 

However, others within the IM community follow more radical perspectives. They believe that the ideal is that MBBs remain in the mosque even after they follow Jesus. Some Western leaders have even sought to redefine Muhammad as something like an Old Testament prophet who can be used to point Muslims to Jesus. In their ministries, they train MBBs to retain Islam while also following Jesus. The result is generally vast confusion in their disciples. In my experience, most of the disciples in these networks are not sure who they follow. Because of the dynamics in their communities, they are inundated with Islam and do not receive much biblical teaching. The result is that their faith is compromised. These radical IM practices should be rejected. Many churches in the West support ministry to Muslims without realizing that those they support follow these methods. I encourage every church that works with Muslim-focused missionaries to ask them about their perspectives on MBBs and their relationship to Islam and their culture.

Path #2 – Cultural and Theological Outsider. The second path is the polar opposite of the first path. When there is no plan for MBBs to retain their culture as they follow Jesus, many leave their culture by default. They come to faith and are excited to learn about Jesus and the Bible. In their pursuit of Jesus, they join churches far removed from their culture. Sometimes they move from their homes, villages, and families since those things are seen as a hindrance to their new faith. Indeed, persecution is often the spark that causes them to transition. Many change their names to Christian names. In essence, they reject their culture and become cultural Christians. The issue is that once they leave their culture and family, they usually have difficulty ministering to other Muslims. Their family often rejects them. This stops the flow of the gospel into their own community. Over time, the gap between themselves and their community grows. While these believers have a chance to grow strong in their faith, evangelism stops.

In many missiological circles, it is assumed that Paths #1 and #2 are the only possibilities. Therefore, in Muslim ministry, the assumption is that we have to choose between biblical fidelity (Path #2) and evangelistic effectiveness (Path #1). IM practitioners have advanced a dialogue that argues that these are the only two options. Indeed, IM practitioners attack approaches that require Muslims to leave Islam by saying that those approaches do not care about the lost. Their reasoning is that if we care about the lost, we will be ready to compromise on the relationship of MBBs to Islam to win more Muslims to Christ. Many field workers become IM practitioners simply because they think it is the only real option. Honestly, this reasoning sounds a bit crazy to me, but many are persuaded by it.

However, there is a better way. Path #3 provides an opportunity for biblical fidelity and evangelistic effectiveness. We should pray for those IM practitioners who radically argue that an MBB can retain Islam while following Jesus. It is evident that they are deceived. However, we should be gentle and friendly with those of this persuasion. Their love of Muslims and desire to see the kingdom of God advance led them down a path to this deception. Most of them believed that there was no other way.

Path #3 – Cultural Insider Theological Outsider.[1] As cultural insiders, MBBs retain as much of their culture as possible while definitively rejecting Islam as theological outsiders. For example, MBBs are taught that their language, dress, food, and culture are good and should be retained. Indeed, I believe we give great honor to Jesus as each different culture learns to worship Him in its own cultural style. After all, around the throne of God, we will worship Him together in every language (Rev 5:9; 7:9)! 

As cultural insiders, MBBs remain in their families while taking a stand for Christ. They keep their jobs, their families, and their homes. They retain their cultural preferences. However, as theological outsiders, they definitely leave Islam. Muslims must make three transitions as they follow Jesus:

1. They must leave the Qur’an and cleave to the Bible.

2. They must leave Muhammad and cleave to Jesus.

3. They must leave the mosque (especially the ritual prayer) and join a local church. It is preferable if this local church is composed of Muslim background believers who worship in a manner that corresponds to the local culture. 

Practical Steps

In my experience, there are usually three things that we must do for MBBs and Muslim seekers who are struggling with these issues. First, we need to help them see the majesty of Jesus. We should help MBBs realize that Jesus is God. When MBBs recognize that Jesus is God, then it is easy for them to see that there is no value in following Muhammad. And if there is no value in following Muhammad, then studying the Qur’an and going to the mosque also have no benefit. I hope to publish another blog post soon about how I help MBBs discover the deity of Jesus. 

Second, many seekers and MBBs go through a process of comparing Muhammad and Jesus. They often need coaching and teaching as they go through this process. Comparing the lives of Muhammad and Jesus is especially stark when we compare them regarding violence, sex, and marriage. We must have these conversations with seekers and MBBs very sensitively. The reason that these conversations are vital is that most Muslims learn their whole lives that Muhammad is the perfect man (Arabic Al-Insan al-Kamil). They have learned their entire lives to look to his example. As they transition their allegiance to Jesus, seekers and MBBs require coaching to help them let go of the old. I hope to publish another blog post soon about how I help seekers and MBBs compare Jesus and Muhammad.

Third, MBBs require coaching about how to live their lives as followers of Jesus while retaining their culture. Often, there are no reliable guides for MBBs at this point. The ideal situation is that mature MBBs who follow Jesus with their whole hearts but love their culture guide them. If there are no such MBBs, then training and coaching is required. I have written a few blog posts on this subject:

  1. Helping MBBs go Public as Followers of Jesus (this is the most helpful of the three posts here!)
  2. Discipling MBBs through Persecution
  3. The Cross through the Eyes of a Secret Believer: A Message on John 19

Click on the links above to go to those blog posts. I also intend to write another blog post shortly about what we call the Three Transitions in our work. The Three Transitions again are:

  1. MBBs must leave the Qur’an and cleave to the Bible.
  2. MBBs must leave Muhammad and cleave to Jesus.
  3. MBBs must leave the mosque (especially the ritual prayer) and cleave to a local church.

The most relevant passages of Scripture on this subject are in 1 Corinthians 7-10. Here, let me share in brief three key passages. In a future blog post on the three transitions, I will go into more detail.

Biblical Passages on the Three Transitions:

First, 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 is clear that believers must separate from their former religious practices. In that passage, Paul told the Corinthians that they could eat meat sacrificed to idols as long as it did not impede the faith of others (1 Cor 8:1-13). He taught that believers should give up their freedoms to advance the gospel (1 Cor 9:1-27). In that context, Paul wanted to ensure that the Corinthians did not misunderstand and continue their former religious practices. Read 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and note the following key verses.

• “So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.” 1 Cor 10:14

• “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot share in the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” 1 Cor 10:21

It is sometimes a slow process for MBBs to transition out of the mosque. An excellent biblical picture of that process is Nicodemus, who first came to Jesus by night, in secret (John 3:2). He later took Jesus’ body and buried him (John 19:39), which was a very public step. Rushing this process often causes significant long-term issues, such as new MBBs being expelled from their community. The best method for helping MBBs to make this transition is to slowly and carefully teach them from Scripture that Jesus is entirely God. When new MBBs believe that Jesus is God, then allegiance to Muhammad, the Qur’an, and the mosque lose their meaning. Additionally, many new MBBs or Muslim seekers must go through a process of comparing Jesus and Muhammad as their allegiance shifts from Muhammad to Jesus.

Second, 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 emphasizes that MBBs should remain in their community and culture. While new MBBs need to separate from Islam, coaching new MBBs to stay in their community by keeping the same jobs and living in their own homes is essential. While we want MBBs to leave Islam, we do not want them to abandon their culture and family. For example, read 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. Here are a few relevant teachings from this passage:

• “Let each one live his life in the situation the Lord assigned when God called him” (1 Cor 7:17).MBBs should maintain their family relationships, jobs, and communities as cultural insiders.

• “Was anyone already circumcised when he was called? He should not undo his circumcision” (1 Cor 7:18). This command was to Jews who followed Jesus. They were called to retain their Jewish identity even as they followed Jesus. The same can be said of Muslims who follow Jesus. However, there is a significant difference between Muslims who follow Jesus and Jews who follow Jesus. Judaism is built on the Old Testament, a true revelation from God. Islam is built on the Qur’an and Muhammad, a false book and a false prophet. Therefore, while Muslims who follow Jesus should retain much of their culture, whatever pertains to Islam theologically should be discarded as they follow Jesus. 

• “Brothers and sisters, each person is to remain with God in the situation in which he was called” (1 Cor 7:24). 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 ends by reinforcing the teaching that each person should remain in their own situation. This teaching should safeguard against extracting new believers from their context. 

Note that Paul commanded the Corinthians to remain in their situation (1 Cor 7:17-24) and separate from their former religious practices (1 Cor 10:14-22). 

Third, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 emphasizes taking on the culture of others to more effectively proclaim the gospel to them. Paul said, “To the Jews I became like a Jew” (9:20). In other words, Paul emphasized taking on his own culture to win his own people. Paul was clear through this passage about the purpose of taking on the culture of others. Multiple times, Paul said he took on the culture of others to win them to Christ. In summary, Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some” (9:22). In the same way, MBBs should be careful to follow the culture of their people. As they reject Islam, their community will begin asking questions about them. However, as they live godly lives before then and continue to adhere to their culture, many of those questions will be reduced or removed.

Let me tell the story of Muhammad. Muhammad was an MBB who was beaten by his fellow villagers because of his faith in Jesus. They broke his arm and refused to help him get medical attention in the nearby city. He had his arm in a sling for seven days without proper medical care. Muhammad’s friends, family, and neighbors told him to ask Jesus to help him because they would not. Every day, he prayed for grace to love his friends, family, and neighbors. Through pain and difficulty, he showed Jesus to his village through his character. Seven days later, the village elders essentially decided that Muhammad was a better Muslim than all of them. They made the men who beat him publicly apologize and pay for his medical care. Muhammad was a beautiful picture of someone who embraced his culture while leaving Islam. 

While this path is not easy, it is a good path. It permits both biblical fidelity and evangelistic effectiveness. However, it is a path that will often lead to persecution and difficulty. Pray for your MBB friends. It seems that persecution is a normal part of the experience of Muslims who choose to follow Jesus. 

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[1] I did not coin this term. Like many things I have learned on the field, I was taught this paradigm by an MBB. I read about this paradigm in Abu Jaz, “Our Believing Community is a Cultural Insider but Theological Outsider,” in Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts, ed. by Ayman S. Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), 423-430.

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