For many Muslims, despair and despondency at what they see as the utter failure of Islamic governments and societies to improve their lives and give them peace, security, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life are causing them to leave Islam in search of truth. Some have lost their way entirely and become agnostics and atheists. Others, as we have seen, have sadly turned to alcohol and drug abuse. But millions are finding that only Jesus Christ heals the ache in their hearts and the deep wounds in their souls.
For other Muslims, it is not depression but rage that is driving them away from the Qur’an and the mosque. They are seeing far too many Muslim leaders and governments and preachers both advocating and acting out cruelty toward women and children and violence even against fellow Muslims. Not all of these find Jesus in their journey away from Islam, but millions do, especially since the 9/11 attacks against the United States. In fact, while this backlash against the theology and practice of Radicalism has been building since 1979, I first began to detect it during my travels in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East soon after 9/11. Again and again, I would meet people who had long been devout and traditional Muslims who told me that they had watched with horror as Arabic television networks constantly replayed the images of commercial airliners hijacked by radical Islamic jihadists flying into the World Trade Center.
First they found themselves weeping. But then they saw other Muslims cheering, and their sadness turned to anger as they asked themselves, “Is this who we really are? Is this what it really means to be a Muslim? To fly planes into buildings and kill thousands of innocent civilians? Because if it is, then count me out. How could I possibly be part of a religion or a political movement that glorifies and celebrates death?”
That said, what intrigues me is not simply that the Revivalists say the greatest spiritual awakening in the history of the Middle East is under way. What intrigues me is that Islamic leaders are worrying in public that a Christian surge is taking place in the region.
In 1993, a Saudi sheikh by the name of Salman Al-Odeh delivered a sermon entitled “Christian Missionaries Sweeping the Islamic World.” He argued that “in Spain [Christians] have the biggest center of missionaries to Africa. They are trained really well, and their efforts lead many Moroccans to convert.” He then cited the World Christian Encyclopedia—which he described as a “dangerous survey”—and warned his fellow Muslims that “the number of Christians in Africa was 9 million only in 1900 AD, or . . . 9 percent of the whole population. In the year 1980 they became 200 million! . . . They jumped from 9 to 200 million in 80 years [and the survey’s authors] expected them to reach 390 million in the year 2000, or 48 percent of the whole population of Africa.”
Eight years later, in December 2001, Sheikh Ahmad Al Qataani, another significant Saudi cleric, appeared in a live interview on Aljazeera satellite television to confirm that, sure enough, Muslims were turning to Jesus in alarming numbers. “In every hour, 667 Muslims convert to Christianity,” Al Qataani warned. “Every day, 16,000 Muslims convert to Christianity. Every year, 6 million Muslims convert to Christianity.”
Let me give you an example.
I met “Shakir” during my first trip to Iraq in February of 2008. Another fearless and effective evangelist, church planter, and pastor in his war-torn country, Shakir (pronounced “Shah-keer”) has a tremendous passion to care for the poor and needy, preach the gospel—especially in villages and rural areas—and help young converts from Islam study the Bible and become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. But this was not always the case. Indeed, how Shakir became a Christian and entered full-time ministry is one of the most fascinating testimonies I have personally had the privilege of hearing firsthand. What’s more, spending time with him helped me understand more fully the theology of the Revivalists.
Our journey to a humanitarian relief project we were doing together was long and dusty and required our little team, traveling in an old Chevy Impala, to pass through numerous military checkpoints, each manned by heavily armed Iraqi soldiers and policemen checking passports and asking questions, all on high alert for members of al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army. Along the way, I found myself staring out at a landscape that was often as barren as the surface of the moon, covered with rocks, nearly devoid of vegetation, and only scarcely populated. During a lull in the conversation with an Iraqi in the car whom I had known for several years, I asked the meek-looking and mild-mannered Pastor Shakir how he had become a Christ follower and a pastor.
“Were you raised in a Christian home?” I asked through our translator.
“No,” he replied quietly. “I was raised a Muslim.”
“Really!” I said, a bit startled. “What did you do before becoming a pastor?”
“I was a jihad cell commander.”
I gulped. You don’t say, I thought. He certainly had my full attention now. “Please, tell me your story,” I said eagerly, pulling out my notebook. Shakir graciously agreed.
He explained that he was born in 1975 to a devout Sunni Muslim family and that as he grew up he became deeply religious. Even at an early age, he loved going to the mosque regularly, and by the age of seventeen, he had joined a secret Radical Islamic movement. He studied hard and learned quickly, and before long he was teaching the Qur’an in various mosques.
“My leaders then sent me to a military training camp where I was trained to use light weapons—pistols, machine guns, and RPGs [rocket propelled grenades]—against the infidels,” he told me. “I was so excited because I wanted to do jihad for God. I was fully convinced that the Shias and the Christians were blasphemers and that if I killed them I would be blessed.”
After successfully completing “Terrorism 101,” Shakir was made a jihad cell commander and was ordered to quietly recruit other jihadists. “I soon had a group of my own followers,” he explained. “I would put them through this military training and then help them get jobs in different government offices and other shops and businesses so they could spy for me and be in position to do great damage when we launched the overthrow of Saddam and his regime.”
One day, one of Shakir’s Radical Muslim disciples came to him and said that someone was distributing Bibles to everyone in the machine shop where he worked. The disciple was very angry and told Shakir that he had cursed out everyone in the shop, collected all the Bibles, and promptly destroyed them. All but one.
“He brought one Bible—a New Testament—to me and said I should read it and see how to react to it and counter it,” Shakir explained. He said he praised his disciple for acting quickly and decisively. Then he sent the disciple away and took the Bible home, and that night he began to read the Gospel according to Matthew.
“I read the book very fervently to find all the blasphemies and corruption,” Shakir said. “But I discovered the words started affecting my mind, and my heart started changing. These were powerful words, not human words. They seemed to me like God’s words. But I thought, ‘How could this be?’”
Shakir became deeply troubled. He kept reading through Matthew but was ashamed of himself because rather than finding fault with these Christian Scriptures, he found himself completely intrigued. He had so many questions. But whom could he ask? He couldn’t very well start discussing the life and teachings of Jesus with the members of the terrorist cell group he was leading. He couldn’t very well ask questions of the terrorist leaders above him. He didn’t dare seek out any Christians. So night after night he kept reading the Gospels, searching for answers. The more he did, the more troubled and anxious he became.
“After reading the Bible in a deep way, I began comparing it with the Qur’an,” he told me. “I was so confused, and in my confusion, I began pleading with God, ‘Please show me Yourself.’ I begged God, ‘Please, show me the right way—is it the Qur’an or the Bible?’”
This went on for several nights.
“One night,” he said, “I was really pleading with God fervently to show me the true, straight path. And that night I had a dream. I found myself standing on the side of a road. There was a large crowd gathered on both sides of the road, and they were cheering and very excited. And I realized that they were awaiting a parade to go by. So I looked down the road to see who was coming, and I saw many prophets riding on horses coming towards us. Suddenly Jonah was riding by. And then David. And Abraham. And Moses—riding on high, strong horses. Everyone was cheering and I was cheering. It was so exciting to see these prophets.”
Shakir kept waiting for Muhammad to come riding by as well, but Muhammad never came. He was not in the parade of prophets. Instead, Shakir said that “at the end of the procession, I saw another person riding, but He was riding on a donkey instead of a horse. He was wearing a white robe, and His face was covered by a white shroud. When this person approached, for some reason I heard myself calling out to Him and asking, ‘Are you Jesus?’ Like I said, His face was covered by a white cloth. So I couldn’t really see His face at that moment. But when He heard my question, the man pulled the cloth away from His face and smiled at me and nodded yes.
“Something came from His face that filled me with a joy I had never felt in my whole life. I started shouting, ‘I saw Jesus! I saw Jesus!’ I was so happy and so joyful and I was laughing. But as soon as I woke up, I realized that my pillowcase and my sheets were all wet around my head. I realized that at some point during my dream I had been crying—sobbing—in shame for all of my sins, for all of my hatred.”
Shakir said he found himself overcome with the realization that he had been so wrong about God, about Islam, about terrorism. He also found himself incredibly grateful and humbled that Jesus would come and rescue him and forgive him of all of his sins and set him on the true path to heaven.
“I felt a strong joy, and I wanted to find my Muslim disciples and tell them that I loved them and that Jesus loved them,” Shakir explained. “After that dream, my life was completely changed. I was eager to evangelize—to tell people about the love of Jesus Christ. I couldn’t hide that joy. The more I read of the Gospels, the more I felt I had to tell people about this love of God, even people that I had hated. This was not easy. I was mocked and persecuted by many. Once I was beaten by eight people. I was nearly assassinated three times. But it is okay. Since I came to know the Lord Jesus as my Savior, I am ready to put my life—and my family—as a sacrifice for Jesus.”
What a remarkable transformation, I thought as Shakir finished his story. He seemed to be thinking the same thing, for when our time was up and the interview was over, Shakir stood up, looked me straight in the eye, and without any expression on his face said, “Joel, you are very lucky.”“Yes, I think that’s true,” I said. “But why do you say it?”
He took a deep breath. “Because if I had met you in 1993, I would have killed you immediately.”
My pulse quickened, and then he added, “But now you are my brother in Jesus, and I love you!”
A huge smile flashed across his face. He threw his arms around me and gave me a bear hug. I breathed a big sigh of relief, and—laughing—gave him a hug as well.
SIDEBAR: In Inside The Revolution, I describe the five core convictions held by all Revivalists. Here is the first — GOD LOVES ALL OF MANKIND.
Each and every one of the Revivalists I interviewed—including Shakir—noted with deep conviction that according to the Bible, God’s defining character trait is love. The Bible teaches that God loves every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth—regardless of race, nationality, tribe, or language.
God loves all of us with an everlasting love. He loved all of us before we loved Him. He loves us so much that He wants to adopt us into His family as His children and let us live with Him in heaven forever. He loves us so much that if we let Him, He will be a Shepherd to us, guiding us, providing for us, protecting us, giving us rest, and taking care of us in every possible way. He loves us so much that if we follow and obey Him, we can actually become friends with Him and develop a personal, intimate relationship with Him.
Here are some of the verses the Revivalists point to in describing the love of this incredible God:
“God is love.” —1 John 4:16
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” —John 3:16
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness.” —Jeremiah 31:3
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting. Give thanks to the God of gods, for his lovingkindness is everlasting. Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his lovingkindess is everlasting.” —Psalm 136:1-3
“We love, because He first loved us.” —1 John 4:19
“See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God.” —1 John 3:1
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” —Psalm 23:1-6