Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Journey to Jesus: Storying the Bible

Roland Clarke

I met M__ recently at a banquet for international students served at a fellowship hall in a church, attended by 60 college students. At the end we exchanged phone numbers and I gave him a small card containing a gem of wisdom from Ecclesiastes 3:11. Three weeks later we met at a coffee shop and had a wonderful time getting to know each other. He told me he liked the proverbial saying about God planting eternity in our hearts, so we took a closer look at it, in fact, we have revisited it several times. This helped us to focus on the most important thing – seeking to know God. However, before I share details of how this verse kindled a spiritual discussion, let me tell you what happened when I dropped him back to his home after our first visit.

Amazingly, he invited me to come in for a special Turkish coffee. Of course, this meant meeting his family. Over the next hour and a quarter, I had a wonderful time getting acquainted with his family including 2 cousins. I taught his 7 year old brother, a new design for making paper planes and then we had fun flying them in the living room with his 8 year old cousin.

As we concluded this delightful hour-long visit I gave him another wise saying from Psalm 49 as food for thought which is similar to Ecclesiastes 3:11 but even more thought provoking. The next day I texted M__ asking if he'd like to read a meditation, titled, Homeward Bound, that sheds further light on Ecclesiastes 3:11. He immediately replied, “Yes.”

Taking the cue from the phrase “beginning to end” this article recalls the tragic story of how our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and were banished from the Garden. (NB: the Bible and Quran agree on this.)

The following week M__ and I met again over another cup of coffee to continue our conversation. I asked what he thought of the analogy in Homeward Bound, comparing the homing instinct in pigeons with the yearning for immortality which God has implanted in our hearts. This resonated with him so I read a prayer by King David that expresses his heart longing for God, “The one thing I ask of the Lord – the thing I seek most – is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, delighting in the Lord's perfections and meditating in his Temple.” (Psalm 27:4) I also showed M__ a similar verse in the Qur'an, “And remembrance of God is the greatest (thing in life) without doubt.” (Surah 29:45, Yusuf Ali's translation) M__ explained that this is called, 'Dhikr' – seeking God's face by reciting the 99 beautiful names of Allah.

So I asked him, “Which of God's character qualities means the most to you?” to which he replied, “the forgiving One.” It seems that M__ has a sensitive conscience because he admitted that he sins every day. I briefly explained that under the Mosaic law God required repentant sinners to sacrifice an animal as a sin offering.

This led M__ to talk about the sacrifice which Muslims perform each year in remembrance of Abraham. I recognized God was opening a door for me to read the story of Abraham's sacrificial test as recorded in Genesis 22:1-14. Interestingly, M__ didn't raise any serious objections. This opened the way for me to explain a somewhat similar story in the time of Moses when the Lord commanded his people to slaughter a lamb in place of their eldest sons. As with Abraham, God ransomed them and rescued their first born sons from certain death. The tenth plague which killed all the first born sons of the Egyptians was so crushing and painful that it forced Pharaoh's hand to let the Israelites go free.

I told M__, “God is the one who redeems but we cannot redeem or ransom ourselves.” It helped that he had just read Psalm 49:7-9 which underscores this. Not only so, the Qur'an emphatically states, “We ransomed him [Abraham's son] with a momentous sacrifice.” (Surah 37:107, Yusuf Ali's translation) We can also see a glimpse of this ransom principle going back as far as Adam and Eve.

I reminded M__ of something that most Muslims know, almost intuitively – the first time Adam and Eve felt naked and ashamed was when they disobeyed God. Their natural defensive reaction was to cover themselves with leaves and hide from God. However, their leaves were not an adequate or proper covering so God made animal skins for them. We concluded this long discussion with two questions, “Why do you think animal skins were a more appropriate covering than leaves?” “Do you think there is any significance, considering that animal skins would have required the slaughter of an animal?”

It seems M__'s appetite has been whetted and he wants to read Genesis 1-3. Pray with us that he will then continue exploring a series of OT stories which serve as clues pointing to the seed of the woman who will eventually crush the Serpent's head. I pray with that M__'s family will also be drawn into this journey from creation to the cross, perhaps using Al Massira a course that uses 8 DVD presentations as a springboard for helping Muslims, in a small group discussion context, to unfold God's plan to bring his salvation through the Messiah. Ponder the highlighted words by carefully reading Isaiah 49:6 and Psalm 119:130. (Note Jesus Christ is referred to 11 times in the Qur'an as Al Masih.)

Further steps

I was surprised that M__ agreed to continue meeting to discuss the Bible during the month of Ramadan. This is very unusual because most Muslims “close ranks” during this period. They comply with expectations of fellow Muslims and succumb to peer pressure.

He came to my home and I suggested reading one of my favourite stories, telling how Jesus met the Samaritans of Sychar. This would give him an opportunity to practice reading and understanding English. Another reason why I chose this particular story is that it touches on the heart-for-eternity theme which we had previously looked at.

It was amazing to see how M__ continues to absorb Bible truths without being distracted by peripheral issues or raising objections! After we read Christ's statement that “salvation comes from the Jews”, M__ showed a blank, almost confused look, and asked, “What's that?” After a brief discussion we concluded that the Arabic term is mukhalis. I pointed him to Isaiah 49:6 which foretells that God's servant, the Messiah, “will bring his salvation to the ends of the earth.”

I raised a question about racism – an issue we often see highlighted in the news, “Do you think Christ's criticism of this woman's religion was insensitive or perhaps even racist?” After allowing the question to sink in, I explained how Isaiah's prophecy resolves this dilemma. Jesus was not racist, he was simply stating a fact – salvation comes through the Jews because the Messiah is Jewish.

M__'s lack of understanding on this point, is similar to the Samaritans. They did not have the key to knowing God, i.e. salvation. (Interestingly, the title Saviour is not listed among the 99 beautiful names of Allah.) Jesus further explained that in order to really know God one needs to worship him in spirit and in truth. The truth is: followers of Islam and Samaritanism do not emphasize how God purifies our heart. Instead, they focus on imposing regulations that control behaviour, coupled with performing so-called “good” deeds as a way of attaining merit with God.

M__ acknowledged that his holy book, the Qur'an refers to Isa (Jesus) as Al Masih (the Messiah). May I ask you to join me in praying that M__ will want to tell his family what he's learning about Al Masih, like the Samaritan woman who unashamedly spread the news about Jesus, saying; He "told me everything I ever did! Can this be the Messiah?"

M__ has agreed to meet again next week. I trust he will agree to start reading through key stories of the prophets starting with Genesis 1-3. (God willing with his family.)

All Bible quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated.

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Endnote: Another strategic insight to arouse a Muslim's curiosity to read Genesis 1-3

It is amazing to see how M__'s story opens the door to unfolding the Gospel using a sequential storying approach beginning with Genesis. Let me tell you another detail that helped arouse M__'s curiosity to know more about Adam and Eve. You recall when I first met M__ at the coffee shop, that we explored the heart-for-eternity theme. One aspect of this discussion involved noting significant similarities between Surah 64:3 and Eccl. 3:11. Both of these are quoted below highlighting key similarities.

Surah 64: 3 God “created the heavens and the earth in truth and formed you, then made beautiful your forms, and unto Him is the journey's end.” (The Study Qur'an, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, editor)

Ecclesiastes 3:11 “God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”

Building on these similarities, we noted something else perhaps even more significant. I showed M__ a footnote to Surah 95:4 in The Study Qur'an related to Allah making humans beautiful. The team of scholars who compiled this Qur'an noted that God made mankind “the best” of his creation, also describing man as made in “the image of God.” These statements were supported by three Islamic sources along with Genesis 1:27!

You may ask, “Why have you added these remarks as an appendix, rather than including them in the main body of the article?” Most of the Muslims who we encounter in the daily routine of life are not devout and they have minimal understanding of their beliefs. I don't recommend using the insights in this appendix with nominal Muslims. They are more fitting to use when witnessing to devout Muslims.