The Muslim Next Door

How to better understand and befriend women who follow Allah
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Since the terrorist attacks of September 11 and President Bush's declaration of war on Iraq a year ago this March, curiosity and confusion among Americans about the religion of Islam has reached an all-time high.

Yet for Muslim-turned-Christian brothers Ergun and Emir Caner, this challenging period comes with treasured opportunities. Throughout the past three years, these American-raised Turkish brothers, who teach at separate Baptist seminaries and have coauthored two books on Islam, have spoken at churches, conferences, and universities nationwide about their Muslim upbringing and conversion to Christianity. Their hope is to win Muslims to Christ and to share how Christians can lovingly yet courageously present the gospel to their Muslim coworkers, neighbors, and friends.

"We've seen Muslims reconsider their faith in ways we've never experienced before," Emir says. "They're confused with what the Qur'an says about jihad, and how they're supposed to interpret it. Because of this, I truly believe this is the most open opportunity we've had to share Christ with Muslims in the past century."

According to Emir, more than 34,000 Americans convert to Islam each year. "Because many are marrying Muslim men, 80 percent of these converts are women."

… more than 34,000 Americans convert to Islam each year. "Because many are marrying Muslim men, 80 percent of these converts are women."Yet because traditional Muslim beliefs about the separation of men and women still influence many Muslim families, the Caners believe Christian women hold the exclusive opportunity of reaching Muslim women with the gospel.

TCW recently spoke with Emir and Ergun to find out how we can reach out to the growing number of Muslim women in our communities.

What misconceptions do wehave about Muslim women?

Emir: One is that a Muslim woman isn't approachable. A Christian sees a Muslim woman wearing her traditional attire and thinks, I can't speak to her; she's too different. Some Christians also believe that since Islam traditionally is a male-dominated religion, a woman either won't want to speak about her religion or isn't knowledgeable about Islam. But the reality is, a Muslim may be quite open to sharing what her faith means to her.

Ergun: Muslim women also can have misconceptions about American women. Some feel Americans hate them or believe all Muslims desire war. They're cautious of Christianity because they associate it closely with Western culture. They see women on television wearing revealing clothes or sleeping around, and believe all Christians act this way. It's important for Christian women to establish friendships to break down these stereotypes.

How do American Muslims differ from those in the Middle East?

Emir: Many Muslim women come to America not only to run away from political oppression, but from spiritual oppression. They don't want to follow the traditional ways of Islam. They see America as a place where they can keep the core of their faith and modify what they perceive as unnecessary legalism. That's why many American Muslim women don't wear the burqa, veil, or headscarf, or why some talk to men directly. They're arguing for a feminist interpretation of the Qur'an.

What's the best way to approach someone who seems to have modified her faith?

Emir: Still assume a few basic things—that she doesn't drink alcohol or eat pork—so you won't offend her. And approach her as a devout Muslim. It's better to hear from her later that she doesn't follow a particular practice than to offend her immediately and shut down an opportunity to begin a relationship.

Some American Muslim women still dress traditionally. Why?

Emir: A traditional Muslim woman views the headscarf as a sign she's under the protection of her husband. If she doesn't wear it, she believes she's sinning by creating lust within a man. So she also wears it as a sign of virtue. For an American Muslim woman who wears a veil or headpiece with modern dress, her covering still represents her devotion to Islam.

Ergun: If she's single, it also represents her desire to live in humility before her family.

How can we effectively build relationships with Muslim women?

Ergun: By taking the initiative and extending simple acts of hospitality. Many Muslim women feel isolated in America. They're hungry for fellowship. And Christian women share the same interests and pains Muslim women have—they're both working to raise children, or they both may be far from their families.

Emir: This kind of outreach is key, especially if a Muslim woman recently moved to the U.S. She doesn't know where to get a driver's license or how to apply for a job. A Christian woman can establish a friendship with her by showing her the ropes in a new community.

Ergun: Prayer also is important. Pray that God will give you opportunities to extend acts of kindness and eventually initiate a conversation about your faith.

What's important to remember when the discussion turns to faith?

Emir: Foremost, a Christian needs to be able to explain God's grace and unconditional love. Islam is a works-based religion, as its five pillars (or requirements) of faith demonstrate. As a Muslim, I knew the Qur'an said, "Allah loves those who do righteous deeds." But when I became a Christian, I was stunned to discover the Scripture, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). I didn't have a clue what grace was until I became a believer!

A Christian also needs to know how to defend who Jesus is. The Qur'an says Jesus was only a messenger, that he wasn't crucified, and that he's not divine. There are Bible passages that clearly demonstrate Jesus is God, such as Matthew 9:2, in which Jesus forgives sin, or John 8:23, where Jesus says he is God.

Believe in the sanctifying power of God's Word. Encourage your Muslim neighbor or coworker to read the Bible for herself. We've seen Muslims read through the New Testament, and by the time they got to Revelation, they'd turned their lives over to Christ.

Ergun: I encourage Christians to use the question-and-answer method when talking with a Muslim about her faith. When you feel comfortable enough, ask sensitively, "Why do you wear a veil?" or "Which foods aren't acceptable for you to eat?" By consistently asking questions, you'll find she becomes inquisitive about your faith, too. Then you can begin to share the basis of your beliefs.

Any encouragement for Christians who fear such conversations will be offensive?

Emir: Many Americans don't realize that in Muslim culture, friendly confrontation and debate are enjoyable. Discussing your faith compassionately with a Muslim while remaining friends shows her your faith is reasonable and defendable. It also signifies that you're as passionate about your beliefs as she is about her own. The "politically correct" idea that all religions are equal isn't a message that leads Muslims to Christ. There needs to be open debate and friendly interaction based on unconditional love.

How can we be sensitive to the Muslim woman considering converting to Christianity?

Emir: Recognize how serious this is for a Muslim woman. A decision to follow Christ is often a decision to leave your family, because Islam strictly forbids conversion. I speak weekly to American Muslims who say they realize Islam isn't the way to heaven, but they can't bear to lose their families. Christians need to be prepared to encourage Muslims with some important facts from the Bible: Jesus promises he will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5); he will never let anyone snatch us out of his hand (John 10:28); and he who saved us will keep us and glorify us (Jude 1:24). To a Muslim woman, this beautiful doctrine of eternal security can be comforting.

What if our efforts seem to go nowhere?

Ergun: Just because you aren't seeing the end result doesn't mean nothing's happening. For years we rarely saw Muslims come to Christ. Only recently have we seen a consistent response to the gospel. I recently gave my testimony at a church and saw a 20-year-old Muslim woman become a Christian. It was very difficult for her—she'd been weighing the consequences of her decision for months. But the church she was attending literally loved her all the way to the Cross. I was crying when she made her decision. We've rarely seen that kind of harvest.

Emir: Christ reminds us that some things don't come together except by fasting and prayer. Because Islam is 1,300 years old and its traditions are largely untouched by modernization, reaching someone usually takes a great amount of time. The young man who led Ergun and me to Christ years ago didn't do so through a strategy; he did it through persistence. He knew Jesus died for us, and he was determined not to give up on us.

God may work in a Muslim's life when we least expect it. Often, before a Muslim becomes a Christian, she'll become devout in following the pillars of Islam. That kind of strong resistance and struggle usually means she's on the verge of making a decision. What may seem like a wasted conversation to us may end up being the most precious time we've spent with someone.

Corrie Cutrer is a TCW regular contributor. Ergun and Emir Caner's latest book is Out of the Crescent Shadows: Leading Muslim Women into the Light of Christ (New Hope Publishers).

© 2008 Christianity Today International

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