Dr. Linda Hayner, BJU Faculty
The world into which Muhammad was born was far from peaceful. Raiders attacked caravans for the goods they carried, while pirates threatened trade on the Red Sea. The people of the Arabian Peninsula were organized into tribes and clans or families. No central government existed. Each tribe was governed by a council of men who chose one of their number to be a shaykh, or leader. Tribes and clans often settled disagreements by war. They also fought over who would govern cities such as Mecca.
Mecca, located in the Hejaz Mountains, was an important city on the west side of the Arabian Peninsula. Caravans brought goods from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to its markets making Mecca a place of wealth. Mecca also was home to the Ka’aba, a small cube-shaped building. This ancient shrine housed more than 350 idols of the gods worshipped by the Arabs. Each year during the month of Ramadan Arabs visited this shrine to worship. The powerful Quraysh Tribe ruled Mecca.
Muhammad was born in Mecca about AD 570 into the Hashemite clan, a poor family of the Quraysh tribe. Muhammad’s father died before his son’s birth. Muhammad’s mother died when he was six. When Muhammad’s grandfather died, a merchant uncle, Abu Talib, took Muhammad in. Abu Talib was a leader of the Hashemite clan and a merchant. Muhammad learned to be a merchant and may have travelled with caravans from Syria in the north to Yemen in the south.
As a young adult, Muhammad entered the employ of Khadijah, a widow who had inherited the businesses of two previous merchant husbands. The arrangement worked well and Khadijah, then 40 years old, proposed to Muhammad who was in his mid-20s. He accepted. Muhammad was a good merchant and had married well.
In spite of his success, Muhammad was concerned for his people. Meccans were less interested in the gods than in getting rich. They did not believe in a judgment day, and they feared that holy laws might interfere with their pursuit of money. The Persians talked of their prophet Zoroaster and their holy book the Avesta. The Jews had Moses and the Torah. The Christians had Jesus and the Gospel. These prophets and their books told their followers how to live. Muhammad wondered why there was no prophet or book for the Arabs.
Muhammad spent many hours thinking about the difficulties and turbulence of Arab life. While meditating one night, he heard a voice that sounded like the reverberating of bells. The angel Gabriel appeared and told Muhammad that he was to be the prophet to his people.
"In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created man from clots of blood! Recite! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One, who by the pen taught man what he did not know" (Koran, Sura 96:1-4).
This was his first message from Allah. Khadijah immediately believed that her husband was the new prophet to his people. Abu Bakr, a young man living with them, was his second convert. All of this occurred around the year 608.
Gabriel visited Muhammad again and gave him his first message outline: there is one god Allah, Muhammad was Allah’s prophet, and there was judgment for those who did not believe his message. Muhammad waited three years before he began preaching publicly in 610. He taught that Islam, submission to Allah (The God), was a continuation of the teachings of Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad’s preaching was necessary because the teachings of the Jews and Christians had become obscured by a lack of understanding and error. Islam reformed, purified, and completed those divine teachings. The number of Muhammad’s followers grew slowly, but it was enough to concern Mecca’s rulers.
They were not pleased with the message of only one god. What would happen to the yearly pilgrimage if people believed in only one god? After all, many came each year to worship the hundreds of gods at the Ka’aba. Pilgrims spent money for food, housing, and to purchase their needs for worship. Would they come if there was only one god?
When Muhammad condemned idol worship, Meccan persecution of Muhammad’s followers became great. In 615, he sent 85 of his followers to Ethiopia for safety. He had heard that Ethiopia was a Christian land. Perhaps there was a place of peace there for his people. The travelers didn’t stay long; the king of Ethiopia, Aṣḥama ibn Abjar, decided that Christianity and Islam were not much alike.
The year 619 was both a happy and a sad one for Muhammad. One night, he made a journey on a black, winged horse. The horse took him from his home in Mecca to Jerusalem. Muhammad stood on the Temple Mount before visiting the Seventh Heaven where he received from Allah the fundamental teachings of Islam. He also saw the heavenly Ka’aba and spoke with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus before returning to Mecca. This marvelous night is called the Night of Qadr (glory). This trip made Jerusalem a holy city for all Muslims. Shortly after the Night of Qadr, Muhammad’s wife Khadijah and his uncle Abu Talib died. With the death of his uncle, Muhammad lost his protector. He needed to find his followers a place of refuge; they had to leave Mecca.
Muhammad discussed his need with some pilgrims from the oasis of Yathrib that lay 280 miles north of Mecca. Some of the Yathrib pilgrims became Muslims, and in 622 they promised to protect Muhammad. During the next few weeks, Muhammad’s followers trekked across the desert to the oasis now called Medina. This migration is called the hejrah. This happened on July 16th, 622, which is considered the first day of the Muslim calendar.
During the years of learning to live together, Muhammad received frequent recitations from Allah through Gabriel on how the people of Medina ought to treat each other. However, there were groups in Medina who disagreed with Muhammad’s teachings. Members of the Jewish community declared that the Torah was accurate, and that Muhammad’s teachings were wrong. Eventually, Muhammad declared war on the Jewish community and forced its members to leave Medina.
"Those [Jews] to whom the burden of the Torah was entrusted and yet refused to bear it are like a donkey laden with books. Wretched is the example of those who deny Allah’s revelations. Allah does not guide the wrongdoers" (Koran, Sura 62:5).
In Medina, Muhammad formed a new kind of community (called Ummah) based on loyalty to Islam.
Muhammad needed money to support his new community. Muhammad led and supported attacks on caravans bound for Mecca. When he was asked if it was good for Arabs to fight Arabs, Muhammad replied that the fighting was between followers of Allah from Medina and the pagans living in Mecca.
"Permission to take up arms is hereby given to those who are attacked, because they have been wronged. Allah has power to grant them victory: those who have been unjustly driven from their homes, only because they said: ‘Our Lord is Allah'" (Koran, Sura 22:39).
Meccans retaliated with war, but they were unsuccessful in defeating Muhammad’s army. For the next eight years Muhammad’s followers and Meccans fought several wars, but the religious center of the Arabs slowly shifted away from Mecca to Medina and Muhammad.
Muhammad wanted to convert the Meccans to Islam. He recognized the sanctity of the Ka’aba and made its possession one of his goals. In 628, he led a pilgrimage of 1400 Muslims to the outskirts of Mecca. Instead of war, Muhammad and the Meccans drew up the Treaty of Hudaybiyya. Both groups agreed to maintain the peace for 10 years. Muslims would begin their pilgrimages to Mecca the next year.
In 630, the peace ended. The Meccans had supported an attack made against Medina by another clan. Muhammad marched on Mecca with an army of 10,000. He seized control of the city and warned all the Meccans to stay off the streets as the Muslim army entered. Muhammad went to the Ka’aba and destroyed all the idol in and around it. He was proclaimed the ruler of the city.
After the conquest of Mecca, he defeated Arab tribes that challenged him, and some submitted to him. In the next two years, Muhammad had conquered much of the Arabian Peninsula. He ordered the destruction of all pagan idols.
Muhammad made his first full pilgrimage to Mecca in 632. While he was there, he delivered what is called his Farewell Sermon.
"This day I have perfected your religion for you and completed My favor to you. I have chosen Islam to be your faith" (Koran, Sura 5:3).
A few months after returning to Medina, Muhammad fell ill with a fever and severe headaches. He died on June 8th, 632.
*All quotations from the Koran are taken from The Koran, translated by N. J. Dawood, NY: Penguin Books, 1974.
Savannah McPhail, BJU Student
Savannah is a senior communication major at Bob Jones University. Having lived in Cambodia most of her life as an MK, she has interacted with many Buddhists.
The first time I had to make a stand for Christ against Buddhism was when I was nine years old. I stood with hundreds of students on a dusty Cambodian school yard as orange-robed Buddhist monks took the stage to begin the dedication ceremony for the school year. As the chanting began, students of all ages around me raised their hands to their noses in a gesture of respect, and heat rushed to my face. It came to me in a flash. I was a Christian. I could not honor the monks. I dropped my hands to my sides and clenched my fists, half turning to one side. Someone gasped and said, “raise your hands!” A boy nearby said, “No, she’s a Christian,” and I was left alone.
Buddhism is a religion that dominates entire countries and cultures and is quickly spreading to the West. It can look different depending on where it is found, but its core beliefs are the same—and they are very attractive to a Western mindset. Realize that a Buddhist will understand life in a fundamentally alien way from a Christian. Definitions of words will not even be the same. If you want to have a conversation about Jesus with a Buddhist, you must understand where they are coming from.
In Buddhism there is no god, no sin, and no forgiveness. The world is redefined as an endless cycle of suffering without beginning or end. The root of suffering is in human desire, and the elimination of desire will result in losing your sense of self—enlightenment—which will result in nirvana, the cessation of existence and escape from the cycle of suffering.
“Sin,” a Buddhist monastic here in Greenville told me, “is not a word.” You cannot break commandments, because there is no one giving commands. There is no responsibility to a higher power or relationship to a creator. There is only good and bad karma, which affects only yourself. How do you know right from wrong? The monastic sat cross-legged on a cushion, wrapped in her orange robes. She bowed her shaved head and told a story about the Buddha. Nobles once asked the Buddha how to tell which religious teachers were right and which were wrong. The Buddha told them to consider whether or not it was right to kill. They said no. This showed that they already knew what was right or wrong in themselves. Though the Buddha did give certain precepts and truths to help guide people, right and wrong are things we know if we search our own hearts.
Can you see why this would be attractive to Westerners?
“Salvation,” or escape from suffering, is attained through self-effort. Good karma will bring good results for you, in this life or the next. If you do exceptionally well, you might make a hiatus in your own personal heaven, but the highest goal is nirvana. Bad karma cannot be forgiven, because there is no one to forgive it. The only way to erase bad karma is by doing a greater amount of good deeds. Hopefully, your good karma will overwhelm your bad. If not, bad things are ahead for you, possibly even a sojourn in a hell. Generally being a good person is the goal, and you are in control of your own karma.
“Tolerance” in Buddhism is a key point of persuasion for many Westerners. “Buddhism is peaceful,” the monastic emphasized. You can be of any religion and be a Buddhist. You can believe anything you desire as long as you follow the precepts of Buddha and try to have good karma. Buddhism is accepting. You can practice it in any nation. Buddhism is just about becoming a beautiful mind. How kind and accepting it sounds!
How do these beliefs affect how you share Jesus with a Buddhist?
Jerry Hickey, Missionary to Brazil
When acceptance before God is based on human merit (i.e. good works), the best efforts to explain otherwise will be filtered through this deeply rooted mindset. What is said and what is actually understood may be completely opposite.
Raised in a practicing Roman Catholic family and having been a missionary to Brazil, my experience since my conversion in 1973 has been that Catholics, as a general rule, find it very difficult to grasp the truth of “being justified freely” by God’s grace. One reason has to do with the Catholic doctrine of salvation. Catholic theologians will argue that they believe in salvation by grace. However, you have to earn this grace by previously practiced good works or behavior, even though that is a direct contradiction of the very definition of grace.
It Takes Time.
Usually, just as the longstanding popular expression in Brazil, “once the token goes into the slot, it takes a while to fall.” Repeated explanations of true grace is required in most cases. Over the years, there have been ex-Catholics who have said to me that they got saved the first time they heard the gospel preached. Upon further inquiry, it became apparent that someone, usually a relative or close acquaintance, planted and watered the seed years before. The concept is too foreign to be assimilated the first time in most instances. Of course, this is added to the universal hindrance of the prideful motivation to justify himself before God through his own self-effort. Cain’s offering and Satan’s blinding come to mind. For this reason, Paul goes to great lengths in his epistles to stress that it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done,” “lest any man should boast,” as man most certainly would!
As a new missionary four decades ago, I was under the illusion that, the most effective evangelistic strategy would be the presentation of the “Romans Road” in polished Portuguese (usually on the first encounter), and then add the personal testimony of being raised in a strict Roman Catholic home. I was almost expecting a response similar to the Philippian jailor after the earthquake. In “going door to door” with a Brazilian pastor on a weekly basis, we saw many “decisions” but no conversions (“new creatures in Christ”)… for the aforementioned reasons. Catholic tendency is to trust in the “sinner’s prayer” rather than the One supposedly being prayed to. In this mindset, prayer is a “good work.” As a child, when I made confession to a priest, I was instructed to go to the altar and “say” a certain number of “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” as penance for my sins, paying for them with these “prayers.”
We also need to understand that in the case of practicing Catholics, their religion is a part of their cultural identity. When Christ and His redemptive work, as presented in the New Testament, are shared, it is viewed as a threat to that identity. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, it becomes a question of which religion is right—not a question of a right relationship with the Water of Life. After my conversion and initial attempts to communicate Christ to my parents, and having left home years before, I was labeled to my face--not a heretic, interestingly enough, but a “traitor”.
Fear & Superstition
Fear is another impediment that enters the conversation. Ever since Emperor Constantine’s legalization of “Christianity” and Theodosius’s declaration of it as the official state religion some 70 years later, the Catholic church began to incorporate some practices of pagan religions which existed in Rome centuries before the arrival of “Christianity.” The strategy has continued to modern times and blurred doctrinal distinctives clearly taught in the Scriptures, especially concerning the person and work of the Way, the Truth, the Life and the only Mediator between God and Man (Jn. 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). In early 1500`s, Jesuit missionaries “converted” the natives of Brazil and the imported slaves by replacing the names of the spirits they feared with the names of saints. For example, Ogun became St. Anthony, Iemanja the Virgin Mary, and Exu Satan and Oxala, Jesus Christ. As a result, at least half of those who call themselves Catholics also practice some form of Spiritism. This is true, not only in Brazil, but also in other countries where Catholicism predominates cultures previously given to animism. This is also evident by the fact that the image of Semiramis, Nimrod`s high priestess wife, is stamped on all Brazilian currency.
What does this have to do with fear? Fear is the force behind superstition which is powerfully at work as you converse with practicing Catholics about Christ. This explains the nightly bedside ritual of being sprinkled with “holy water from Lourdes” (the location of one of Mary`s supposed apparitions) by my mother. It was a protection against evil spirits. Fear is a tool of Satan to blind the mind from seeing the “perfect love that casts out all fear” (1 Jn. 4:18)—the same love expressed in John 3:16.
Common Grounds & Divergences
In communicating Christ, common grounds are usually the best way to lead/open the conversation. Catholicism gives at least lip service to cardinal biblical doctrines such as Creation, the Trinity, Virgin Birth, Heaven and Hell etc. The problem is the additional infusion of pagan religions couched in Christian terminology or so-called Christian traditions, resulting in the adulteration and corruption of the pure gospel. One of these pollutions is the teaching that Mary is a co-redemptress with Christ and that she herself was born without sin. This perversion and others serve as a
vaccine in reverse, almost immunizing the person against the pure gospel of Christ.
I do not advise to initiate the conversation calling attention to these divergences. Rather, ask questions that would reveal what they really believe about the person and work of Christ, eventually aiming for them to discover what they are really trusting in to be accepted by God the Father. When I asked my father if he was trusting in what Christ has done for him or what he himself was doing for salvation, he responded without hesitation: “Of course, I am trusting in those things (i.e., rituals, good works). Why do you think I do them?” I think his answer surprised himself, as his conversion almost 20 years later would tend to support.
Another possible approach would be to ask if your friend considers herself a practicing Roman Apostolic Catholic. Having started our first church in a “bairro” nicknamed “Little Italy” (containing dozens of Italian restaurants, one of which can seat over four thousand at one time), I learned this is a good way, at least, to insert the token. If the answer is yes, as in most cases it was, I would then ask if they had ever read the letter written by Apostle Paul to the very first church in Rome, from which they considered themselves a spiritual descendent. In those early days most Catholics were unaware of the letter`s existence in the Bible. My parents were part of a generation that were actually told there was no use in reading the Bible because laypeople did not have the capacity to understand or interpret it. Their parents were practically forbidden to read it for themselves. But due to the emergence of the prosperity gospel in Brazil, the Catholic church has reversed its course and began to encourage the attendance in “Bible Study” groups. Of course, as with the prosperity movement, the same old doctrinal definitions regarding salvation are only dressed up in texts taken out of context. If you spark a curiosity of your Catholic friend to read the Bible for himself, especially Romans, it will go a long way in helping the token to fall. It almost goes without saying that whatever questions you ask, friendly relationship building moved by kindness must be the bridge you take to get to those questions.
Some think, given my background, that I must have greater success in convincing Catholics for Christ. No, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Holy Spirit does the convincing; not my background or upbringing. What I mentioned above are not intended to make us more “effective” in convincing Catholics for Christ—just more patient. And loving patience pays off. My father came to Christ just a few weeks before he died at the age of 83. Time does not permit, nor is it in the scope of this blog, to share the multiple expressions of his new standing in Christ during those short few weeks. Suffice it to say that it is the gospel of Christ that is “the power of God unto salvation” as Paul wrote to the very first church in Rome.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.