Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Status of ISIS

In the wake of the Brussels attack (and Paris and San Bernardino and Istanbul) people are wondering if ISIS is getting too strong to stop. Actually the opposite is the case. I believe that ISIS as a traditional caliphate is on the ropes. The recent attacks in Europe are a sign of weakness rather than strength. Let me explain.

The core theology of ISIS is an eschatology grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the normative sources of truth in popular Islam. It envisions the end-time re-establishment of the caliphate, a form of government which is ruled directly by God through a designated caliph, the religious and political successor to the prophet Muhammad. In order to establish a caliphate, you need a trans-national entity (ISIS only declared a caliphate after expanding its territory out of Syria and into Iraq, thus evaporating the long-standing border between the two) that fully implements islamic law (Sharia). And the ruler of that entity must be an adult male of Qurayshi decent (the tribe of Muhammad) and a person who exhibits morality and integrity. Followers of ISIS believe that they have a true caliph in the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A crucial element that distinguishes ISIS from al Qaeda is the possession of a trans-national territory, the Islamic State. In the theology of ISIS, as soon as the end-time caliphate is established, all faithful Muslims are to come to it and pledge allegiance to the caliph. Leaving it for nearly any reason thereafter is considered apostasy. So the fact that they are now sending people on terror missions to Europe is an act of desperation that goes against their own theology.

By declaring a state, ISIS in a sense planted the seeds of its own demise. To run a state, one is actually forced to govern; to collect taxes and provide services, including the kind of conventional military defense that is necessary to hold and govern territory. Governing territory has taken the bloom off the Islamic State dream. The citizens of the Islamic State are becoming increasingly restive. At the same time, the bumbling alliance against ISIS in Iraq and Syria the Levant is now beginning to close in on all sides. Many cadres of ISIS are deserting their forces and sharing their knowledge of ISIS with its enemies. This gives Western intelligence the location of top leaders, who are being picked off one by one.

As a trans-national entity that governs and wages traditional warfare, therefore, ISIS’ days seem to be numbered. But as a force capable of spreading terror outside the Islamic State, they will probably continue for the foreseeable future. The question, therefore, arises, how can Muslims themselves combat terror? What type of theology may be persuasive for those considering jihadism as a way of life?

To be concluded. . .

Can Muslims follow Christ as Muslims?

This is the last in a short series of guest blogs from my friend, Gaby Phillips. I find her perspective extremely helpful in wrestling through the issues of how Adventists can and should relate to Islam. It is tempting to buy into morbidly negative views of Islam, on the one hand, and overly positive ones, on the other. Gaby here cuts through the debate by reframing it with a fresh perspective. Her words follow, I have taken the liberty of editing somewhat for clarity:

We need to clarify this question before we attempt to answer it. Before the Enlightenment and the subsequent modernity project, there was no concept of religion as something separate from culture and ethnicity. This is why the ancient gods were attached to people groups: the gods of the Babylonians, the gods of the Assyrians, etc. The idea that one could choose one’s religious affiliation is a rather new idea, particularly outside of traditionally Christian lands.

This means that as a Muslim encounters Jesus, his worldview, beliefs, values and practices will be gradually reoriented to reflect his newfound Kingdom identity. Some will express this transformation by removing themselves from association with anything Islamic. Others may choose to retain their birth identity when they become followers of Christ: culturally they remain Muslims but spiritually they are disciples of Jesus, and are no longer attached to that which conflicts with their allegiance to Christ.

This is a choice that is best left to the new believer, since for those of us outside of their context, it is difficult to assess how much they can keep and how much is a compromise that leads to syncretism. So our role is to nurture the new believer and constantly ask questions of clarification that may help them to think deeply about matters of faith, practice and allegiance to God in Christ. We offer them biblical guidance but allow them to choose the path to which God is leading them.

How are we to understand Islam then? Islam is contested territory where God and Satan are both at work, acting from within. For the past twenty years I have witnessed the manifold wisdom of God among Muslims. I have seen redemptive windows in their most important ceremonies. I have seen cues about Jesus that point to him as the Word of God, the Spirit of God, sinless, born as God’s mercy to mankind. I have been able to piece together the story of the Great Controversy from the Qur’an and have used it as a bridge to the biblical witness in which Jesus is central. In the poetry of Rumi I have rescued lines that invite intimacy with God. I have found questions that have triggered meaningful and relevant conversations with Muslims. Questions such as, “what does it mean that Jesus is known as Messiah?” or “do you know what Jesus is doing in heaven right now?” “Why is the Sabbath so important in the Qur’an?” Or “how can ISIS be defeated in the way of God?” That question can lead to the understanding that God’s government excludes the use of force.

Like never before, Muslims are searching for partners in faith who are willing to put an arm around them and point them forward. Sadly, such partners are few, since too many are more interested in denouncing than in restoring.

The current crisis of radicalism is waking up the Muslim world, and according to the Qur’an God has a group, the true People of the Book, who can be trusted and will provide answers. God is pouring out dreams and visions in the Muslim world. In addition, missiological research and anecdotal evidence are showing that God is using what Muslims already know about Jesus as a door opener.

Isaiah 60 gives us a window into the future: the descendants of Ishmael are coming to worship God, bringing the gifts from the land. Because of the faithfulness of God, we can joyfully join him in reaching out to Muslims, knowing that the vision is certain, and it will not falter.

I plead with you, dear reader, to change the conversation with regard to Muslims. Make joining God’s mission the burden of your heart and tongue. You will be blessed!

What about the “Muslim God”?

According to the Bible, there is only one God, the One worshiped by Abraham. Other gods do not exist. Satan and his associates are imposters, God’s rivals in name only. Jews, Christians and Muslims agree on this.

This one creator God is known by various names in different languages and those who worship him in all these languages and cultures have very different ideas of who He is. So while we disagree about his nature, the fact remains that there is only one God, whom we all (Muslims, Jews and Christians) worship with greater or lesser insight into his true character and mission.

Are Muslims worshiping a “different god,” meaning a different spiritual entity? No, that is not even possible; because we do not believe a different god exists, unless we are prepared to believe that Muslims worship Satan unknowingly.

Jesus’ example towards the Samaritan woman is instructive here. He did not tell her, “you worship the wrong God.” Instead He told her: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know, we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” And then he led her into a full understanding of who he was in comparison with that which she did not know. This is what I mean when I say that we move from common ground to higher ground.

What about Mohammad and the Qur’an?

This is the fourth in a short series of guest blogs from my friend, Gaby Phillips. I find her perspective extremely helpful in wrestling through the issues of how Adventists can and should relate to Islam. It is tempting to buy into morbidly negative views of Islam, on the one hand, and overly positive ones, on the other. Gaby here cuts through the debate by reframing it with a fresh perspective. Her words follow, I have taken the liberty of editing somewhat for clarity:

As we briefly consider the contested topics of who Mohammad is and the inspiration of the Qur’an, we need to assess their influence from the frame of the Great Controversy. If we do this, we will ask: In what ways has Mohammad’s presence and the message of the Qur’an advanced or obscured God’s self-revelation? Since there are differences of opinion and interpretation regarding both issues even among Muslims, we need to engage each view in its context, rather than trying to offer a blanket answer.

At the very time when Christianity was experiencing its darkest hours (Christological disputes and the politicization of Christendom), Mohammad rose with a message that had two main pillars: God is One, and there is a Day of Judgment in which the actions of everyone will be brought into account. The Qur’an was the voice by which this call was made, and unlike what most Muslims think today, it bears a positive witness towards the Bible. At the time of Mohammad’s death in 632, more than 10,000 pagans had rejected idolatry and embraced the call to follow the God of Abraham. The extent of the reformation that began under Mohammad’s leadership is hard to over-estimate.

When I am asked by Muslims what I think of the Qur’an, I tell them that in every way in which its message echoes the ancient path of the prophets that came before it, I will accept it. Why? Because truth is truth no matter where it is found. I am not interested in being politically correct, nor culturally sensitive (in the postmodern way), but rather truthful to the way in which I understand God’s mission among non-Christian people groups. This is the positive side of the Great Controversy that, once affirmed, gives me a solid platform from which to bring the biblical story of redemption.

For too long, mission has suffered because Christians have invested their energies pursuing questions related to the origins of the Qur’an, the sexual life of Mohammad, and the violent past record of Islamic wars of expansion. These questions may never be settled among us. I am struggling with some of them myself, since the historical sources give different pictures. In the end, however, keeping our focus on God’s mission makes Satan look smaller. And that gives us reason to hope, which translates into mission.