Contextualizing the Message for Muslims

Importance of culture in evangelizing to Muslims

Our ministries and attitudes must echo the words of James: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them… it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…” (Acts 15:19, 20, 28).

In “The Gospel and Culture”, Paul Hiebert distinguished between the gospel and culture, showed how culture is the vehicle that carries the message of the gospel.

Harvie M. Conn in “The Muslim Convert and His Culture” argues that the sociological barriers to conversion by Muslims are greater than the theological and then deals with barriers to their conversion.  He sees these as misunderstanding conversion …as a purely “spiritual” decision rather than involving all of life.

Charles Kraft in his “Dynamic Equivalence Churches in Muslim Society”  argues that our goal should be to foster groups of God’s people in “Muslim” cultures that function in their own culture in ways equivalent in their dynamics to biblically recommended examples.

Areas of contextualization
Mutual greetings

Muslims great each other with the greeting “Assalaam Alikum”, which means, “May God’s peace be on you.”.

The quran tells Muhammed to greet others by saying “Peace be upon you.”  This is also the greeting given to the blessed in paradise.

This greeting became part of the ritual of prayer because Muslims believe that it had been taught by the angel Gabriel. Martin Lings, the biographer of Muhammad writes, ‘Gabriel came to him one day on the high ground above Mecca, and struck with his heel the turf of the hillside, whereupon a spring gushed forth from it. Then he performed the ritual ablution to show the Prophet how to purify himself for worship, and the Prophet followed his example. Then he showed him the postures and movements of the prayer, the standing, the inclining, the prostrating and the sitting, with the repeated magnification, that is, the words Allahu Akbar, God is Most Great, and the final greeting as-Salamu alaykum, Peace be on you, and again the Prophet followed his example. Then the Angel left him, and the Prophet returned to his house, and taught Khadijah all that he had learnt, and they prayed together’

This greeting is now practiced during community prayers. Muslims conclude their ritual by looking to the persons on the left and the right, greeting these fellow members of Islamic community with the words Salam alaikum (Peace be upon you).

I believe that there is nothing wrong with the practice of greeting each other with the statement  “Peace be with you” as this had been used by Jesus on many occasions.

(John 20:19-26 NIV)  On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” {20} After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. {21} Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” …{26} A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Honoring the prophets

Muhammad is honoured and respected as the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ (33:40). His name is not spoken or written without the words ‘peace be upon him’ being added. Not only Muhammad but Muslims also often add the term “peace be upon him” after the name of other prophets.

Christians should not practice this as this is tantamount to praying for the dead (for peace to be upon them), which is prohibited in the Bible.

Honoring the dead

The death prayer concludes like every traditional prayer, with the peace greeting, As-salamu alaykum wa rahmatu-Llah (“Peace be with you and God’s mercy!”). Spoken by the imam, it is quietly repeated by all, turning first to the right and then to the left.

This should also not be practiced by Christians as it amounts to prayer for the dead.


Present formulations of Christian worship that utilize forms that are familiar to Muslims have arisen as Muslim converts have felt uncomfortable in existing churches and as evangelists have increasingly seen the variety of forms in which allegiance to Christ can be expressed.

An article in 1977 by John Wilder of Pakistan entitled “Some Reflections on Possibilities for People Movements among Muslims,” advocated that the model of Messianic Judaism be used in Muslim evangelism.  Followers of Jesus from Islam could use their traditional forms of worship even as “completed Jews” used theirs.

One of the questions that arise for converts is the extent to which they may continue in the Muslim community.  Phil Parshall addressed this in Beyond the Mosque:  Christians in Muslim Community. He concludes that converts should remain in their society but, following a transitional period, will ultimately need to leave mosque worship because of theological incompatibility.

Denis Green in “Guidelines from Hebrews for Contextualization” did raise some cautions.  The recipients of the Epistle appear to have been a group of Christians who retained their old Hebrew worship forms like a sect of Judaism.  They were in danger of remaining in an ossified contextualization without moving on to maturity.  The parallel dangers are obvious for Muslim converts who continue to use Muslim forms in Muslim society.


The ablutions also reflect the earlier faiths.  The minor ritual ablution (wudu’) is used to get rid of “minor” ritual impurity (hadath).  The Jewish influence here is evident by the latter part of Muhammad’s life:  “You, who believe, when you prepare for the prayer, wash your faces and your hands up to the elbows and rub your heads and your feet up to the ankles” (5:6/8; cf. 4:43/46).  The Old Testament Tabernacle had a basin for washing the hands and feet of the priests before they entered the presence of the Lord (Ex. 30:17-21; 40:30-32), and others too were to consecrate themselves when coming into His presence (1 Sa. 16:5).  Muslims follow the same order in their ablutions as the Jews do–the face, then the hands, then the feet.  The name of God is pronounced, and the right side is done before the left.  Each part is washed three times. 67

“Major” ritual impurity (janaba or major hadath) requires washing of the total body (ghusl) before prayer.  This is necessitated by such occurrences as seminal discharge or menstruation. 68  It is also common practice before Friday noon prayers and the two major annual feast days of Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha.  The quranic distinction is based on sura 5:6/8-9 which adds to a prior description of the minor ablutions (wudu’) “if you are in a state of pollution, purify yourself.”

Again similar details are found in Judaism where occurrences such as seminal discharge and menstruation require bathing the body (Lev. 12:1-5; 14:8; 15; 17:15; Num. 19:19). 

The Friday bath in Islam corresponds with the Sabbath bath in Judaism.  Likewise, the bathing of the convert to Islam corresponds with proselyte baptism in Judaism, which, of course, was the precursor of Christian baptism. In the light of the fact that both Christian baptism and Muslim proselyte ghusl are reinterpretations of Jewish proselyte baptism, it might be possible to perform Christian baptism as proselyte ghusl without causing the furor that arose earlier from the suggestion of a possible alternate initiation rite for baptism.

Posture of prayer

The removal of sandals in places of prayer (sura 20:12) follows the Hebrew pattern (Ex. 3:5) also practiced by many Eastern churches.

The Muslim postures of prayers also replicate those of Jews and Christians.  First there is the posture of standing (qiyam; sura 22:26/27).  In the Old and New Testaments, worshippers stood to pray (1 Kgs. 8:14,22; Neh. 9:2; Mk. 11:25).  The Jewish tefilla prayers were called amida ‘amida (standing), indicating the posture when they were performed. The second posture is bowing (ruku; sura 22:26/27. 77/76), which is the equivalent of the Jewish keria and communicates the sense of humble servitude that the genuflection does in the Roman Catholic mass.

The third posture is prostration with the forehead on the ground (sujud; sura 22:26/27. 77/76).  Again this form is found in both the Old and New Testaments (Gen. 22:5; Num. 16:22; 1 Sa. 24:9; Neh. 8:6; Mt. 26:39).  The sujud is the equivalent of the Jewish hishtahawaya and a similar Eastern Christian form. On Yom Kippur rabbis and cantors still prostrate themselves in this way, and I have observed Coptic Orthodox monks and worshippers do this in worship.  Prostration with the body fully extended is practiced in Roman Catholic ordination and consecration and on Good Friday and Saturday.

The fourth posture is half kneeling and half sitting (julus).  Kneeling is a biblical form (2 Chr. 6:13; 1 Kgs. 8:54; Ps. 95:6; Acts 20:36; 21:5).  Sometimes the hands are lifted up as in biblical times (Ps. 28:2; 134:2; 1 Tim. 2:8).

Corporate praying is very much a part of a Muslim’s worship. How can the pastor lead in prayer in a way comfortable to Muslims? You can have the congregation stand, then facing the same way as the congregation, pray.

Direction of prayer

In John 4, Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman, that she no longer needs look to Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim to worship. But, we are to worship in Spirit and in truth, because God is Spirit.

(John 4:19-24)  “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. {20} Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” {21} Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. {22} You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. {23} Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. {24} God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

Therefore it is not necessary for us to face any direction when we pray and definitely not to face Mecca. However, some Muslims converts may feel better if they are facing Jerusalem. This should be allowed as even Old Testament believers followed this practice.

(Dan 6:10 NIV)  Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.

Facing has a special significance for some people.

(1 Ki 8:28-29 NIV)  Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. {29} May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.

Content of prayer

Recited prayers are not against Scripture. We Christians recite or read prayers every Sunday and often through the week, for we sing written hymns, and many of them are prayers.

The ritual prayer includes many themes that Christians share:

1.         Witness (“I bear witness that there is no god but God” in the call to prayer which, however, also witnesses to Muhammad’s apostleship; cf. Deu 6:4).

  2.       God’s mercy (“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful” in the Fatiha; cf. Ps. 86:5 and pre-Islamic use of these introductory words in south and central Arabia and in early Arabic manuscripts of the Bible after Muhammad). 111

  3.       Praise to God (“Praise be to God” in the Fatiha; cf. Heb. Halelou Yah and Latin Christian Alleluia).

  4.       God’s sovereignty (“Lord of the worlds” in the Fatiha; cf. Talmudic Melek ha ‘olam–king of the universe.)

  5.       Judgment (“King of the Day of Reckoning” in the Fatiha; cf. Rom 2:2-3; Jn 5:22; Mt  25:34;  1 Co 15 :24).

  6.       Worship (“Thee do we worship” in the Fatiha; cf. Ex 24:1.  The Heb. shaha and Greek proskyneo indicate prostration.)

  7.       Refuge (“To Thee we cry for help” in the Fatiha; cf. Ps 46:1).

  8.       Guidance (“Guide us in the right path” in the Fatiha; cf. Ps 31:3; 119:1).

  9.       God’s glory (“Glory to my Lord” in the ruku; the nominal form of sabbaha is used, borrowed from the Hebrew and Aramaic shabeah of Jewish worship).

10.       God’s greatness (“the Great” in the ruku; cf. Ps. 48:1).

11.       God’s exaltation (“the Most High” in the sujud; cf. Ps. 83:18).

12.       Petition and intercession (possible in the dua du’a; cf. 1 Tim. 2:1).

Obviously there is considerable overlapping of the themes of Muslim and Christian prayer. Christian prayer can include most of Muslim prayer except the emphasis on Muhammad and prayer for the dead.

Muslim converts developed a prayer ritual which follows the Muslim pattern but expresses their new allegiance to God through Jesus.  Morning prayer starts with the normal “intention” (niya) to pray but adds “in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” before the traditional exclamation “God is greater” (Allahu akbar).  In the first raka (the basic ritual which is repeated) Psalm 23 or any other biblical passage is recited.  The rest of the raka follows the traditional postures and praises to God, although “All praise to Jesus Christ” may be substituted for the first.

The Lord’s Prayer is recited in the second raka plus another passage if desired.  After two rakas, the worshipper adds to the thanksgiving, “Please give me favor to worship you this way until your [Christ’s] second coming.”  Then the regular greeting and blessing are given to the ones on the right and left of the worshipper.  A time for dua (spontaneous prayer) is suggested for intercession and petition.  The Ikamat is altered to:

God is love.  God is love.

And praises belong to God.

Present.  Present before God.

Present. Present in the name of Jesus Christ.

The remaining four daily prayers plus any additional rakas rak’as at these times follow the same pattern with different scripture passages indicated for each.  After the night prayer a special prayer of three rakas is suggested.  In the first John 1:12 is recited with the prayer:

O Almighty God, the experience that you have given me to be your child through placing my faith in Jesus Christ and accepting him as my personal savior, give the same experience to the lives of the ___________ million Muslims of ____________.

In the second raka John 3:16 is recited with the prayer:

O God, the experience that you have given to me to have eternal life through your gift of grace in the Lord Jesus Christ, I claim the same experience in the name of Jesus Christ for the lives of ___________ million Muslims of ___________.  Please acknowledge this.

Psalm 117:1-2 is recited in the final raka.  At the conclusion, time is spent in intercession for the country, government officials, believers and their leaders, neighbors, relatives, and oneself.

Non-ritualistic prayer

The Christians were called angels because of their service but were still considered “irreligious” because they did not perform ritual prayers (salat).  Even when God answered their prayers miraculously, their neighbors did not follow Christ until the Christians were seen to perform ritual prayers.

Praying in the mosque

Some Muslim followers of Christ stay for at least a time in the mosque as the early Jewish followers of Christ remained in the Temple and synagogue.  Where whole villages have turned to Christ, they have re-utilized the mosque for a church.  Others have continued mosque-like worship. 

Alms giving

Zakat is obligatory almsgiving of a prescribed percentage of different kinds of property (2 1/2% for most) and distributed to the needy.  The Quran specifies the recipients of various kinds of alms as parents, relatives, orphans, the poor, the needy, travellers, those who work on [collecting] them, those whose hearts are to be conciliated, slaves, debtors, and for God’s purposes (2:115/211; 9:60).

The relationship between upright actions and caring for the poor is already seen in Daniel 4:24/27. 

‘Ushr is a tithe on produce levied for public assistance.  It was similar to the tithes on the land of the Mosaic Law (Lev. 27:30-33; Num. 18:21-26). 

The Quran makes a clear distinction between believers, who give alms (suras 8:2-4; 23:1-4), and disbelievers, who do not (sura 41:7/6).  There is considerable concern that alms be given to the poor (sura 9:60) as there is in the Old Testament (Dt. 15:11; Pro. 19:17) and the New Testament (Mt. 6:1-4; 25:35-46).

Proverbs 19:17 likewise promises, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deeds.”  Jesus also said, “Give and it will be given you” (Lk. 6:38).  The rich young ruler whose focus on wealth kept him from following Jesus was told, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me” (Mt. 19:21). 

Alms giving is not to atone for our sins

The Quran affirms: whosoever forgoes it [legal retribution] as a freewill offering (sadaqa), that shall be to him an expiation (kaffara) [for his own sins] . . . the expiation [for breaking oaths] is to feed ten poor persons . . . or to clothe them, or to set free a slave . . . expiation [for slaying game during pilgrimage is] food for poor persons (Sura 5:45/49, 89/91, 95/96).

James classified attention to orphans and widows in their affliction to be part of religion that is pure and undefiled before God (1:27).  Yet underlying all Christian giving should be the response of gratitude for God’s “inexpressible gift” (2 Cor. 9:11-15). It has to do with the practice of religion but not to the attainment of salvation through it.


Fasting is listed as a characteristic of those who submit to God–that is, true Muslims (sura 33:35). 

The Quran says, “Eat and drink until the white thread becomes distinct to you from the black thread at dawn” (sura 2:187/183).

Abstaining from eating and drinking in the day but not at night was sometimes practiced in biblical times (Jdg. 20:26; 2 Sam. 1:12;3:35).

Fasting has played a significant role in Judaism and Christianity–including those of extended periods like the month of Ramadan.  Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all fasted 40 days and nights (Dt. 9:9, 18; 1 Kgs. 19:8; Lk. 4:1-2).  Jesus expected people to fast (Mt. 6:16-18), and Paul fasted frequently (Acts 13:2; 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27).

Many Christians, however, believe it is wrong, or at least unwise, to keep the fast of Ramadan.

For the Muslim, fasting is not only an act of obedience for what is prescribed for them (sura 2:183/179), it is also an act of commemoration of the “descent” of the first verses of the Quran on the 27th of Ramadan (sura 44:1-5/4).

In the Traditions it has developed the meaning of contrition and forgiveness.  One says, “All sins are forgiven to one who keeps Ramadan out of sincere faith and hoping for a reward from God.”  Another affirms, “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are open and the gates of hell closed.”  This same sense of pardon is found in the fasts for expiation (suras 2:196/192; 15:89/90, 95/96).

Fasting associated with repentance is also prominent in the biblical examples (Dt. 9:25-29; Ex. 32:30; Neh. 1:4-6; 9:1-2; Mt. 12:41).

(Deu 9:25-26 NIV)  I lay prostrate before the LORD those forty days and forty nights because the LORD had said he would destroy you. {26} I prayed to the LORD and said, “O Sovereign LORD, do not destroy your people, your own inheritance that you redeemed by your great power and brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.


Modest dress of conservative Muslims is not against Scripture, nor is the separation of men and women in worship.


Not only have the worship forms been irrelevant or offensive to the person of Muslim background, but the Bibles used have often shrouded the Gospel in foreign terms.  The traditional Urdu and Bengali Bibles, for example, often used Hindu rather than Muslim vocabulary.

Even the most commonly used Arabic translation of the Bible by Eli Smith and Cornelius Van Dyck (first published in 1865) adopted some Syriac religious and ecclesiastical terms not seen in Muslim Arabic.

Likewise it utilized some Syriac names of Bible characters that are different from those adopted by the Quran–for example, Yuhanna rather than Yahya for John and Yasu’ rather than Isa for Jesus.

An Omani sheikh lamented:

I have the Gospel, too.  One of your missionaries gave me a copy twenty years ago. I frequently get it down and try to read it but its Arabic is so strange that I understand nothing.


Many Christians make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and we often hear testimonies of the blessing of walking in that sacred land.


The dead person is carried to the grave site by as many bearers as possible. People take turns in order to honor the dead and to give many the opportunity to do a good work. In the grave the dead person must lie on the right side with the face turned toward Mecca. On lowering the body these words are said: “In the name of God and according to the order of community of his followers.” Once the body is positioned correctly, everyone helps to fill the grave with earth. While the first shovels of earth are falling, Sura 20.55 is quoted: “From the (earth) did We create you, and into it shall We return you, and from it shall We bring you out once again.”

There is nothing wrong with honoring the dead and announcing the good that they have done while they were alive. The New Testament records for us the great deeds of man from the Old Testament.

Christians should not follow the practice of facing the body towards Mecca for that place has no religious significance for Christians.

Sura 20:55 is not wrong as it also has its equivalent from the Bible.

(Gen 3:19 NIV)  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

However, direct quotation should not be from the Quran as it has no religious significance for the Christian.

In a Muslim funeral, prayers are made for the dead. During the days following his death, the Quran is also recited for the benefit of his soul. These should not be practiced by Christians.

Food is also distributed to the Muslim priest with the belief that the food will reach the dead person. Christians do not practice offering food to the dead.

Christians also call themselves “Muslims”

Some followers of Jesus claimed to be “Muslims.”  This led to a discussion between “brothers” of what a Muslim was.  According to the Quran it was one “who has completely surrendered himself to the will of Allah.”  One could point to this meaning of the term in the Quran (2:112/106; 3:64/57), where it is also used to describe Jesus’ disciples (5:111,112).  Thus he was technically right in the sense that a Christian had completed his submission to God through Christ.

Opposition to contextualization

Despite the need for contextualization that has been seen, Christian communities in the Muslim world have often opposed it.  The opposition echoes a comparable tension in the early church between the Hebrew Christians who used Jewish forms and the new Gentile Christians who felt free to use other forms.


Christian missionaries are now adopting a new, underhanded style in their outreach to Muslims.  Known as the Contextualized Approach, it means they now speak in the context of the people and the culture of the country where they are operating, and are less honest in their dealings with simple, often illiterate, peasants.  They no longer call themselves openly Christians in a Muslim area, but “Followers of Isa.”  The church is no longer a “church,” but a “Masjid Isa.”  Missionaries avoid calling Jesus the “Son of God” to Muslims, who no matter how ignorant will be alarmed by the term.  He is called to them “Ruhullah” (the Spirit of God).


General principles
Do not follow what is clearly linked to cultic practices

In a questionnaire for Arab Christians in Jordan and Bahrain, Bruce Heckman asked, “How do you feel about Muslim believers using Islamic styles of worship when they meet together?”  The negative answers included, “The use of Islamic styles of worship is wrong.  We cannot accept expressions of worship that relate to idolatry or strange rituals.”  Another affirmed, “I personally believe Islamic worship is devised by the devil. 

All right to follow what has Biblical precedent
Prayer posture
Follow the practice but clarify its differences in significance with the Christian practices
Do not follow what has been clearly abrogated in the Bible

Muslim neighbors would not eat the food prepared by Christians.  It was assumed that the Christians were “unclean” when they prepared it because they did not bathe (ghusl) in the morning when they may have had sexual relations the night before.  When they changed their bathing habits, their Muslim neighbors ate their food. 

Rituals before prayer
Follow the practice if not following causes believers to stumble

(Romans 14:19-21)  Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. {20} Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. {21} It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.

Do not make contextualized practices compulsory for people who are not relevant

If one follows contextualized practices, it is only to identify with the people we are trying to reach and make them comfortable with us.


Woodberry, J. Dudley.  Dimensions of Witness among Muslims.  Seoul:  Chongshin University, [1997]