Adventists and Muslims: Five Convictions
How to build on what we have in common
By William G. Johnsson
Three years ago General Conference president Jan Paulsen asked me to work on developing interfaith relations with leaders of the world’s religions. With Adventists numbering some 17 million in more than 200 countries, it makes sense—indeed, our mission demands—that we make efforts to understand people of other faiths, so that we may share with them our values and hope in the return of Jesus.
During these three years I have focused on making contacts with leaders of Islam. Slowly, steadily, several convictions have taken deep root in my psyche.
First, the Lord is preparing the Muslim world for His second coming.
Several months ago I received a message totally outside my previous frame of reference: a spiritual leader of many thousands of Muslims in several countries, a sheikh, stated that God had given him a vision about Adventists. He had made contact with lay Adventists; now he was asking to meet with leaders from the General Conference. What to make of such a request?
After consultation with Pastor Paulsen and others it was decided that a few of us from headquarters should follow up, with a view to entering into serious discussions if they should seem warranted. In preparation for this meeting, I made an advance trip to get acquainted with the sheikh. The nine hours I spent with him, spread over two days, were, to say the least, memorable.
For our initial time together the sheikh invited me to his home. From the first moments we established an easy, friendly relationship. With just the two of us sitting together in his sitting room, almost immediately he put a question to me point-blank:
Muslims quickly size up a person. If they find that he or she is honest and genuine, the respond in kind.
“Do you believe in the second coming of Jesus?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“When do you think Jesus will come?”
“Yes, but how soon?”
“Soon. We Adventists do not try to set a date for the Second Coming, but we think it will be soon.”
“Do you think Jesus will come during this century?”
“I don’t know. Jesus may come much sooner than many people, Adventists included, expect.”
“I believe that Jesus will come during this century,” he said. “In the holy writings I find a series of signs that indicate when He is to come, and almost all the signs have been fulfilled already.”
Then for a couple hours we sat and talked about the return of Jesus. Here was someone who not only believes in the Second Coming, but believes with a passion. The sheikh views the world today to be in a terrible mess and getting worse; only the return of Jesus can make matters right.
The following day the sheikh and I met to consider what topic should form the basis for the discussions with the larger group. Almost immediately we settled on the Second Coming. We decided to ask each side to prepare short papers on the general topic of Jesus’ return, on the signs of the Second Coming, and on the antichrist. Then came the moment I had been waiting for. “Sir,” I asked, “is it true that you received a vision about Seventh-day Adventists?”
“Not one, but three,” he replied. “All three had the same message: Seventh-day Adventists are the true People of the Book [a term from the Koran, designating followers of Allah who are not Muslims]. Adventists already are God’s people, so do not try to convert them. Instead, work with them.”
Several weeks later the larger meeting convened. Once again the sheikh opened his home for our initial time together. The hospitality and friendliness were unsurpassed as we partook of a lavish banquet. When we turned to the papers that had been prepared, the level of interest was intense, the Muslims hanging on every word from their Adventist guests. The eagerness and sense of expectancy were palpable through that evening and again the following day.
Several months have passed since we met with the Muslims. I am still processing the event, trying to figure out what it means, what the Lord may have in mind for His church. It was an extraordinary happening. The eagerness to learn more, the fervent belief that Jesus is coming again soon—I could only wish to find such a spirit among my Adventist brothers and sisters.
Yes, there are major differences in understanding concerning the return of Jesus. But the basic, essential fact remains: large numbers of Muslims are looking for Jesus to come—and soon.
What We Have in Common
I turn now to a second conviction: Seventh-day Adventists are uniquely positioned to bring the gospel to Muslims.
Adventists have the following advantages over other Christians in taking the good news to Muslims:
The place of the Scriptures. We base our practices and beliefs on the Bible and the Bible alone. This devotion and loyalty to the revealed Word impresses Muslims, who look to the Koran as God’s revelation.
Lifestyle. Our abstinence from pork and alcohol comes as a welcome surprise to Muslims, who are not used to associating Christians with these practices. This means that Adventists and Muslims can enjoy table fellowship without apprehension—an important factor in establishing basic relationships. Beyond these practices, the Adventist emphasis on simplicity and modesty resonates with sincere Muslims, whose religion is a 24/7 matter.
Concern with the last days. The ideas of the last judgment, the second coming of Jesus, and the resurrection play a prominent role in Islamic thought. For serious Muslims all of life is lived with a view to one’s standing in the final judgment. Their teachings differ from ours in important respects, but the key ideas in common present an opportunity for Adventists to present instruction that will enlighten their understanding.
The Sabbath. The Koran mentions the Sabbath, and in a positive light; it makes no mention of the first day of the week as a day of worship. Our observance of the Sabbath, enshrined in our very name, sets us apart as a people obedient to divine revelation.
Cosmic conflict. Muslims understand events on this earth against the backdrop of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, in which Iblis—Satan—and evil beings play a major role. This broad framework has obvious parallels—along with significant differences—with the Adventist understanding of the great controversy between Christ and Satan.
Creation. Both Muslims and Adventists believe in the doctrine of creation and reject the theory of evolution.
Health. Muslims have a keen interest in health and healthful living. Adventists and Muslims enter into easy partnerships to improve the quality of life. In the Middle East, Adventists operated a series of hospitals and clinics in Muslim countries, while Loma Linda University and Medical Center has an ongoing relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
Relation to Israel. The fact that as a church Adventists refuse to be identified with any geopolitical lobby is a huge plus in the Muslim world. We are not part of a pro-Israel lobby: we believe in justice for all peoples, Israelis and Palestinians alike.
A reform movement. We understand our message to be not a new one but a return to the teachings of the Bible. We are completing the partially realized reformation begun by Luther, Calvin, and the other stalwarts of yesteryear. Muslims also consider themselves to be part of a work of reformation.
These nine features uniquely position Adventists to establish relations with Muslims at all levels and to advance our divinely appointed mission of taking the gospel to the whole world. But we are not well known in the Islamic world; indeed, we are hardly known at all. When Muslims hear of Christians, they immediately think of pork-eating, alcohol-imbibing, loose-living men and women who side with Israel.
A major task with which we must grapple is to educate Muslims as to who we are and what we stand for. When that is done, attitudes change from disbelief to amazement, to appreciation, to warm acceptance.
In meeting Muslim leaders, I emphasize from the outset that I prefer to be known as an Adventist rather than as a Christian. For Muslims the name “Christian” carries such negative associations—associations that do not belong with Seventh-day Adventists—that I would rather avoid the term. And “Adventist” captures well the driving pulse of who we are—our hope in Jesus’ return and sense of divine calling to tell it to the world.
The Role of Prophecy
The third conviction arises directly out of the second conviction: prophecy can be a valuable approach to arouse the interest of Muslims.
This has been the case with the sheikh and his colleagues. While the first contact with the Muslims came about through a spontaneous act of kindness by an Adventist lay member, the subsequent interest developed as that individual shared Bible prophecies, first in the home of the Muslims he had helped, and later—at the sheikh’s invitation—in the mosque.
In the mosque the first night, the Adventist stressed the importance of prophecy for all the world, including Islam. He explained why we Seventh-day Adventists have an understanding that the rest of the world does not. As he shared prophecies of the Bible that first night, the Muslims responded without reservation. In subsequent presentations he followed the conventional path, starting with Daniel 2 and eventually working through that book and into Revelation.
Prophecy is important in Muslim conversations because it brings credibility to the Bible. Although the Koran points to the Bible, mainstream Islam holds that it is corrupted and largely ignores it.
A fourth conviction concerns changes that need to be made among Adventists: while the Lord has entrusted us with a message and lifestyle that have great appeal to Muslims, we ourselves must undergo significant renewal in our attitudes and spiritual lives if the Lord is to use us as He intends.
Muslims in the West suffer widespread prejudice. Adventists inevitably are affected by the prevailing sentiments and an all-pervasive media. The result is that pastors and members in general feel no burden to work for Muslims; furthermore, Adventist congregations are not ready to welcome Muslims into their midst. Indeed, some Adventists have prepared books and DVDs that paint Islam in strongly negative strokes.
Among the negative stereotypes and myths about Muslims to which our people are subject are the following:
Islam is a violent religion, and most Muslims are therefore prone to violence. Islam has a violent element, just as can be found in other faiths. This element, however, represents only a small percentage of Muslims. The Gallup organization conducted a massive worldwide survey of Muslims, interviewing some 30,000 people. The results showed that 93 percent of Muslims reject violence.
“Allah” is the name of a pagan deity. This myth is quickly disproved by a study of etymology. “Allah” is simply the Arabic term for God, was so used by Arab Christians before Muhammad, and is still so used. Because Islam arose among Arabs and the Koran is written in Arabic, inevitably the name “Allah” was adopted to designate God.
Because of their high birthrates, Muslims soon will outnumber Christians, becoming the majority religion in several countries of Europe. A DVD circulating widely has scared some Adventists, who have accepted its ideas uncritically. In effect, the DVD portrays a nonviolent takeover of the West by Muslims whose large families before long overwhelm the culture. Despite the graphic presentation, the argument is flawed. It cherry-picks the data; it makes unwarranted assumptions; it ignores evidence that runs counter to its thesis.
Ready for Renewal
The final conviction is perhaps the most surprising of all: taking seriously the mission to Islam has the potential to renew and reform the Adventist Church.
I am still haunted by the sheikh’s passion concerning the Second Coming and his sense of its imminence. I wonder: Is God sending a wake-up call to His Adventist people?
Adventist outreach to Muslims will come about only when we humble ourselves, allowing the Lord to soften our hearts and break down prejudices. The Lord must put within us a deep love for Muslims and a burning desire to see them join us on the road to the kingdom. He must make our churches warm, open, and accepting of Muslims. Only He can do that. Such changes will mean an Adventist Church revived and reformed.
My experience with Muslims is short, but already I have witnessed the transforming power of love. The encounter with the sheikh that has progressed at such a surprising pace was rooted in a generous act by an Adventist who transparently reflects love and goodwill. I have observed that Muslims quickly size up a person, and if they find that he or she is honest and genuine, they respond in kind.
In recent months I have become acquainted with an Adventist businesswoman who bears a burden for work with Muslims. This was not always the case; in fact, she grew up disliking Muslims, but the Lord changed her heart. She confided to me that previously she wore expensive jewelry, but as she began to be involved with Muslims, with their emphasis on modesty, she felt she must remove the jewelry, eventually disposing of it.
Here, perhaps, is a parable of what could happen on a large scale as Adventists reach out to Muslims.
William G. Johnsson is assistant to the General Conference president for interfaith relations.