Abou Hamza (not his real name) is a friend of mine. He is a Sunni Muslim who lives in an extremely conservative Arab country. Most would say he lives in an Islamic fundamentalist context, maybe in its heartland.
I met Abou Hamza in Beirut, around 1998, at a gathering of mutual friends. He was fun, smart, articulate, and very wealthy. We talked now and then over the next year when he came to Beirut, but our friendship didn't grow much.
In 1999, though, I helped point his son to Jesus. That changed things. His son immediately and dramatically changed in all ways good. Abou Hamza was forever indebted.
Patience and Friendship
It's actually a long story of patience and friendship (on both our parts). He saw me as a fairly typical Christian preacher, despite my best efforts to wear neither label. I saw him as a rough-and-tough rich businessman, politically connected and entrenched in everything Sunni. He was nearly twenty years my elder. I was in over my head. He was not really someone I felt qualified to mentor or disciple. But God is clever.
Soon we were spending time together all over the world. In his country. In Lebanon. In the U.S. and England. In other Arab countries. In his word, he "started loving the teachings of Jesus" and soon found himself "loving Jesus."
My Christian friends were all excited for me. I'd done it. I had led a prominent Arab Muslim to Jesus. My first convert of notoriety.
In fact, Abou Hamza himself has a funny story related to this. I was with him when he gave a lecture (in English) at a renowned Arab university about business ethics. I was so proud of him as he talked about following the way of Jesus Christ in all dealings. The audience of thirty or so young professionals seemed surprised but encouraged by the talk.
Two newspapers wrote stories about his lecture the following day. The one with a Christian staff used the "Christian" word in Arabic for Jesus (Yesua), saying that Mr. Abou Hamza taught from the life of Yesua. The other paper, with the Muslim staff, used the Qur'anic word for Jesus (Isa).
You can almost guess what happened. He was quickly inundated with phone calls from his friends. His Christian friends, who had read that version of the talk, called and said, "Ya Abou Hamza. Welcome to the club. You've finally seen the light and become a Christian." His Muslim friends, who read their newspaper, congratulated my friend that he had finally let those Christians know and understand a few things about who Jesus really is.
How funny is that. Everyone thinking they own Jesus.
Abou Hamza continued to grow in his love for Jesus—first in his teachings, and then it seemed to take on new life as Abou Hamza began to want to live and act and talk like Jesus. His words and actions changed. He softened. Business dealings were even more different. He was a changed man from the inside out.
Non-Christian Christ Follower
When we were in the West together, he would talk about Jesus so passionately and personally with my friends that they couldn't help but ask, "So when did you become a Christian?"
He would smile and try to explain. "I'm a Muslim, but I follow Jesus. I believe in Jesus. I live for Jesus. He is everything to me."
They would push and ask questions like, "Yes, but when did you pray the prayer of salvation and ask Jesus into your heart?"
At first such inquiries would confuse him, as he had never heard that language before, but he soon caught on to cultural nuances and would reply with something like, "Jesus has captured me in stages. But I'm still a work in progress. Are you finished yet?" Then he'd flash a disarming smile and my friends would melt, knowing they had possibly asked the wrong question—or the right one in the wrong way.
The real issue for Abou Hamza was in trying to figure out how to live out this new life in Christ within his context. It seems that one of two things happens when a Muslim in a conservative country comes to Christ. He either moves to the West, where he can live out his faith within Christian surroundings, or he stays and lives with his faith undercover, in fear that he will be ostracized or even killed.
But is there a third way? Can they stay in their own country, not have to live in hiding, and still talk openly about Jesus? It is possible! Abou Hamza has done it well.
The key that he and others have found is to live and speak in a way that allows their countrymen to embrace what they have experienced without their feeling like he has changed cultures or rejected his heritage. It's often not an issue of faith but of culture. When Muslims become "Christian," they're seen as traitors. This would be like a Navajo deciding to become a Hopi, says my friend from Arizona; it's impossible for a Navajo father to comprehend such a thing! Muslims who become "Christian" are not persecuted (usually) because of their deepened commitment to God, but because they've joined "the other side."
What Abou Hamza has done so well is to make every attempt to live out his life in a way that feels culturally Muslim to his friends while still being bold about his commitment to Jesus Christ. He lets everything go that would seem to be Christian in culture. Some of those things would be (according to him, at least): praying with head bowed and eyes closed, singing worship songs, quoting the chapter and verse when saying a Scripture, going to a church building on Sunday, etc.
When people hear Abou Hamza's story, they often ask if he still goes to mosque on Fridays and reads the Qurán. Good questions. He does attend the mosque infrequently because it's the center for all things cultural. Weddings and funerals, as well as general community gatherings, happen at the mosque. To not go there would mean that he no longer values his friends and family. There's no reason not to go.
He feels that reading the Quran is tantamount to other Christians reading some other good book. It's not bad, but it doesn't bring the life that the Bible brings. Frankly, I think he reads the Qur'an less and less as he finds more and more fulfillment in the sixty-six books we call the Holy Scriptures.
Abou Hamza has become a bridge by his very life. He stands between two worlds. It's a precarious place to live. But it's the "new citizenship" of the people like Cornelius in the Bible. They join with Jews and people of every culture to become what the book of Acts calls the people of "the Way" (9:2; 19:23; 24:14; 24:22). He is from a culture and of a religion that has little tolerance for someone changing their way and joining another religion and culture. He is Muslim with his Muslim friends and can look and feel Christian with his Christian friends. But in the end he is a follower of Jesus. He translates Jesus into his culture and translates a new vision of Jesus into ours.
Thank you, Abou Hamza. All of us owe you a great debt. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians two thousand years ago, 'I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).
Taken from Muslims, Christians, and Jesus. Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships by Carl Medearis, copyright 2008 BethanyHouse (a division of Baker Publishing Group), 2008, pp 144-149. All rights reserved. www.bakerpublishinggroup.com. Used by permission.
This excerpt does not represent the views of InterVarsity or Urbana.
Carl Medearis has extensive experience working and living with Muslims. A highly sought-after expert on Islam, he works with international government and business leaders and speaks at conferences and universities worldwide.