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Facing Islam: Viktor Attallah’s Counsels

Category Articles
Date December 27, 2002

"We need to also avoid using technical terms such as justification by faith because it doesn’t mean anything to them," said Attallah. "The message of the gospel is powerful, but sometimes we are an obstacle in proclaiming it to others."

by John Van Dyk

The quiet construction of mosques in various urban locations throughout North America over the last 15-20 years was a strong indicator that the followers of Mohammed had begun to settle into this continent. Osama Bin Laden’s explosive impact on September 11, 2001 left no doubt that the social/political/religious climate in North America had changed catastrophically, and that "forever," as some commentators ominously stated.

The question for Christians was, how does one respond to what has happened? For some, fear became the ruling emotion. Suspicion of Middle Eastern people living in our neighbourhoods, working in local variety stores and walking the streets was met with some discomfort, and perhaps underlying ill will. The enemy, or so it seemed, was among us.

To help Reformed Christians gain some much needed perspective on the changing climate in the land, the Burlington Study Center in Southern Ontario, Canada, organized this year’s annual conference around the subject of "Islam: Our New Neighbour."

The conference, which involved two evening sessions, was led by Rev. Viktor Attallah, an Egyptian-born, Coptic-raised Christian who became a Reformed believer. Educated at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia he is now the executive director of the Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF) working out of Cyprus. MERF receives funding and support from various Reformed and Presbyterian churches.

The message Rev. Attallah shared with his audience of close to 500 listeners, on both Thursday and Friday evenings was a simple one: do not fear; the Lord has His purpose in all that has happened; and we have a great opportunity to share the Gospel message with our Muslim neighbours.

Attallah, who studied while in seminary under the tutelage of Dr. Cornelius Van Til, said that, as his well-known professor used to say, "it is important that we be able to read God’s thoughts after Him." What this means, said Attallah, is that we need to see that God is in control, that He has a purpose for all that happens in history, and that we have to understand the opportunities provided to God’s people for the sake of the Kingdom.

Tracing the roots of Islam back to the birth of Ishmael, son of Abraham via Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant Hagar, Attallah reminded his audience that God’s plan included the making of Ishmael’s seed into "a great nation" (Genesis 21:18). "We need for someone younger than I to write the history of Islam," said Attallah, "to show how Islam is an instrument in God’s hands."

Offering some needed perspective, Attallah cautioned his audience to not think of Muslims as a "formidable enemy" or "as monsters that even God can not convert. They are children of Abraham. They are God’s children who need to be converted."

Attallah said that the movement of Muslims to North America should be seen in positive terms, not negative. "Never in the history of Islam has there been an opportunity for you to reach Muslims, both for them to have freedom, and for them to be free to convert," a condition clearly not open to them in many of the Muslim-dominated countries of their origin.

Yet Attallah cautioned his audience to avoid the mistakes that he said have been made by evangelicals in their approach to Muslims over the last 100 years.

One mistake to avoid is to take a "polemical approach" to Muslims, one that counters Muslim attacks on our beliefs and faith by attacking their leader Mohammed, and by attacking the Koran – "do that and they will not listen to you," he warned.

"We need to also avoid using technical terms such as justification by faith because it doesn’t mean anything to them," said Attallah. "The message of the gospel is powerful, but sometimes we are an obstacle in proclaiming it to others."

The other error is to use a contextual approach as a means to converting Muslims. "Contextualization," which evolved in the 1979s and 1980s, "was seen as the formula to convert Muslims." In practice it meant avoiding subjects that might be offensive to Muslims, such as talking about baptism, the Trinity, the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper – "anything that might offend them" was off limits.

Muslims, however, prefer a direct approach, said Attallah. "Muslims want you to be honest and straightforward with them. If you are being phoney they will figure it out. You cannot soft-pedal the gospel."

The key to reaching out to Muslims, Attallah said, is a simple formula. "You know how you are going to get the Muslim to follow you? It is love. And that means you are going to have to get close to them," he said.

"It takes time to make friends with them. But most times when Muslims become friendly with you a lot of their questions go away."

A hindrance to developing relationships and reaching out to Muslims, said Attallah, is the attitude of fear. "If we think the Muslims are out there to get us then we won’t do it. We won’t develop friendships." We need to look at it a different way, said Attallah. "The Muslims aren’t out there to get us. The Muslims are out there for us to get them."

And the way to "get them" is by means of friendship evangelism. "Just befriend them as regular people. Include them in your regular circle of friends. Let them see how you live; your life style, your values. Show them that you are serious about your relationship with God, and that you are not fanatical about it."

Attallah also urged patience. "Lead them a little close at a time. Don’t be in a hurry. In the West everyone is in a hurry. But we have to develop patience. Long term relationships take time."

Contrary to what we might believe, Attallah said that the vast majority of Muslims don’t know a great deal about their religion. He also described Muslims in the practice of their religion as equivalent to the Pharisees. "They view the commands of Allah as the Pharisees do. You can learn a lot about dealing with Muslims in the way Jesus deals with the Pharisees," he said, adding the caution, "But don’t assume that you are Jesus. View yourself instead as one of His disciples."

Attallah also cautioned about the use of terms Christians and Muslims share, but which have different meanings.

"Faith to Muslims means accepting the teaching that there is only one God and Mohammed is his prophet. To us, faith is a result of the working of God’s Spirit, of the grace of God in our lives."

Prayers to Muslims mean calling on God. "It is a ceremony. They use prescribed words which follow prescribed actions – kneeling, facing towards Mecca – it’s equivalent to the Catholic practice of formalism and ritual," Attallah explained. "Muslims need to know that our relationship to God is not ritualistic."

Heaven is another term that is different in the Muslim faith. "It is a man’s world," Attallah said, where beautiful women are in service to men, and a magical place where fruit is in abundance and while eaten, is never consumed.

Attallah said the greatest threats to the Islamic religion come from the Reformed faith whole world and life view is similar to that of Islam (all aspects of life are governed by our faith), and from the spread of information technology makes choices available to Muslims in lands where freedom to choose one’s religion is severely limited.

Another threat is internal. Muslims who speak out against the contradictions in the Koran. Attallah said that if the Koran was exposed to even half of the higher criticism that the Bible has been exposed to, it would not stand.

Following the lecture on Friday evening, questions were fielded from the audience, during which time Attallah made a number of points:

In response to a final question from moderator Dr Cornelis Van Dam who asked what should President George Bush do in regard to Iraq, Attallah suggested that Christians and leaders of nations should look to see what God is doing in history. Though reluctant to enter the debate for or against war, Attallah questioned the U.S’s geopolitical agenda, and suggested that just war conditions were not being met so far in this case. He also suggested that the "cure" might be worse than the "disease," a destabilized Iraq which could result in mass murder by the various factions vying for control in a country without Saddam Hussein. Attallah also stated that Saddam has "been kind" to the Christian community in Iraq, allowing more freedom of religion in the country than Saudi Arabia.

Asking his audience, "Is God in control? Can God overturn Saudi Arabia overnight?" to which a loud voice shouted, "Yes!" Attallah said that God can do it, but that He "operates by His gentle sovereign power working in the lives of His people."

"Governments do not see beyond their noses. See what God is doing in history," said Attallah. "God is calling us to the harvest. We shouldn’t be distracted by the agenda of this world."


Christian Renewal, November 25, 2002

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