Can followers of Jesus from a Muslim background continue to call themselves Muslims? This post will explore whether one’s Muslim identity as a Christ follower is an ongoing permanent identity or is simply a transitional phase as the believer matures. Many Insider Movement advocates see the retention of one’s socio-religious identity as permanent (see Rebecca Lewis’s article, “Insider Movements: Honoring God-given Identity and Community,” in Understanding Insider Movements). In fact, retention of one’s socio-religious identity is one of the distinctive elements of Insider Movements. I question whether this is possible without redefining Islam or Christianity or both.
Who defines whether one is a Muslim?
Fred Farrokh is “a Muslim-background Christian who has been involved in ministry to Muslims for over 30 years” (see his article, “Indigenous Perspectives on Muslim Identity and Insider Movements.”) In the last month, Farrokh has written a very helpful seven-part series on “Identity Development and Transformation in Christ” and it can be found on BiblicalMissiology.org.
In the first article, he defines “identity as “how someone is viewed by self and others, and how the group(s) to which one belongs are viewed by self and others.” He focuses on a person’s spiritual identity, and not on their ethnic identity. Based on this definition, he looks at identity in the following four quadrants.
|Perception from within||Perception from without|
|Individual||1. Individual Self-perception
(“Who am I?”)
|3. Perception of individual by others (“Who is he/she?”)|
|Group||2. Collective self-perception
(“Who are we?”)
|4. Perception of group by outsiders
(“Who are they?”)
In this series of articles, Farrokh emphasizes that the Muslim community defines Muslim identity. In an earlier article, in which he summarizes his doctoral research, he quotes Al-Ghazali (an Islamic scholar who died in 1111), who answered the question of who is a Muslim in the following way:
“‘Unbelief (kufr)’ is to deem anything the Prophet [Muhammad] brought to be a lie. And ‘faith (iman)’ is to deem everything he brought to be true. Thus, the Jews and the Christians are Unbelievers because they deny the truthfulness of the Prophet.”
Al-Ghazali ruled that Christians are non-Muslims simply because they are mushrikeen (people who commit “shirk”, the sin of worship of anything besides the singular Allah) because they associate Jesus with Allah.
Based on his research, Farrokh believes that permanent retention of Muslim identity is not possible for someone who has accepted the biblical Jesus. Using the four quadrants in Farrokh’s chart, the “perception from within” may assert one’s Muslim identity, but the “perception from without” will deny Muslim identity for that Christ-worshipper.
How flexible is the term “Muslim”?
The term “Muslim” within Islam is not as flexible as Insider Movement proponents imagine. Farrokh’s doctoral research confirms this. In the second article in the Biblical Missiology series he writes:
To summarize, there is no historical or contemporary indigenous rationale for the term “Muslim” being used flexibly enough to include someone who worships the Lord Jesus Christ. Muhammad clearly and specifically forbade the worship of Jesus Christ (see Sura 5:72; 5:116, for examples). Indeed the founder of Islam esteemed Jesus merely as a prophet and his personal herald (see Sura 61:6).
To pry the term “Muslim” away from Muslims themselves, and redefine it, as several Christian missiologists have done, constitutes an external imposition that demolishes the marker an indigenous community has set up to define itself. It is unlikely such an imposition can result in either biblical or fruitful missiology. Furthermore, individuals who are encouraged to try to retain Muslim identity after coming to faith in the biblical Jesus will likely live in a tragically confused state which also causes confusion to others.
The Jesus of the Qur’an and the Jesus of the Bible are fundamentally different. Farrokh in his sixth article identifies the following challenge for those who follow Jesus but want to retain their Muslim identity:
The identity challenge is that Jesus in Islam does have an identity, but it is not his true identity. The Jesus of Islam, who is merely a mortal prophet, is a fictitious Jesus who never existed.
C-4 or C-5?
The C-Spectrum is often used to describe different types of groups of Christ followers that are found in the Muslim world. (To better understand the C-Spectrum see John Jay Travis’ article in EMQ, “The C1-C6 Spectrum after Fifteen Years“.) The C-4 and C-5 types do not refer to themselves as “Christians”. But the defining difference between C-4 and C-5 is that C-5 insists on a permanent Muslim socio-religious identity.
Yet unfortunately in Insider Movements literature, C-4 and C-5 are often conflated. I have observed what Timothy Tennent describes:
… when one closely examines the extensive arguments in favor of C-5, it becomes clear that the vast majority of them are actually brilliant defenses of C-4 ministries and do not really get to the heart of what is required if one is to properly defend C-5 practice. For example, all of the evidence regarding the problems with using the term Christian or the effective use of Islamic cultural and religious forms has already, by definition, been accepted by C-4 practitioners. Sometimes, even the case studies provided as empirical evidence to support C-5 are actually case studies of C-4 ministries.
Timothy Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, p. 201.
The label “Christian” has negative connotations in the Islamic world due to its association with western culture. I will be exploring that in a future post. But those who argue against permanent Muslim identity do not insist that Christ followers need to adopt the label “Christian.” But whatever label is adopted must be centered on the biblical Jesus Christ, and not on the Jesus presented in Islam.
A transitional bridge
It is quite possible that a new believer in Christ coming from a Muslim background may still see themselves as Muslim. But permanent retention of this identity is highly problematic as explained above. There will need to be a transition to a new identity in Jesus Christ. Tennent notes:
In short, one’s religious identity with Jesus Christ should create a necessary rupture with one’s Islamic identity, or else our identity in Jesus Christ would mean nothing.
Tennent, p. 217
I also agree with Tennent’s conclusion regarding C-5:
I think the best approach is to see C- 5 as a temporary, transitional bridge by which some Muslims are crossing over into explicit Christian faith, hopefully to one of a C-3 or C-4 character. On the one hand, a wide number of C-3 and C-4 church movements have long and distinguished track records showing that they are sustaining faith in the lives of MBB [Muslim Background Believers] without major cultural disruption and yet maintaining historic Christian orthodoxy. C-5, on the other hand, does not have a long track record and there is, as yet, no empirical evidence to confirm or to deny that it will emerge as an independent movement in its own right, or if it will serve as a temporary, transitional bridge to explicit Christian faith and identity.
Tennent, p. 217,218.
A recent study by Jan Prenger in the book, Muslim Insider Christ Follower: Their Theological and Missional Frames) does not give me much hope that Insider Movements will be able to achieve or maintain this commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy.
I encourage you to read the seven-part series by Fred Farrokh at BiblicalMissiology.org. In the final article, he describes the series in this way:
In this series we have traced the spiritual journey now being taken by millions of Muslims. This pilgrimage begins with Muslim identity and transitions to a new identity in Christ, in which Islam and Muhammad are left behind. For new believers, individual identity centers on Christ, and collective identity likewise finds its locus in the body of Christ. The fact that so many Muslims are courageously making this journey is a testament to the prayers and outreach of many Christians!