Dear Friends of ScholarLeaders,
For Westerners like me, conversion to Christianity was from nothing-in-particular to a faith that occupies significant cultural space in American society. The initial move was not so difficult. (Transformation is another matter, but this note is not a confession!)
Conversion from Islam to Christianity is entirely different. Islam gives its followers a holistic worldview. And in most Muslim-majority settings, Christians and Muslims do not often mingle. Entire families follow the same religious sect for generations.
Sara Afshari works in Europe, where Christian and Muslim contexts can overlap. In this piece, she invites us to share her concern for how the Church receives Muslims, some as converts, some as inquirers, many as refugees.
With appreciation for your concern,
Larry Smith, President
Is There Life After Conversion?
April 2019 | Sara Afshari
Political pressure has not stopped many Muslims from coming to Christ. In Europe, media reports downplay conversions among Muslim refugees, yet they continue to happen.
How do those who convert from Islam to Christianity – either in their home countries or as refugees in the West – interpret their conversions? How can they guide the Church to become more welcoming?
As new, Muslim-background believers trust Christ, they often struggle to integrate into Church life and to persevere in faith. In turn, these converts challenge how the Church equips newcomers.
Often, outreach programs focus on the moment of conversion to Christianity. This approach overlooks the converts’ need to understand life changes that follow conversion. New converts need practical guidance in addition to theology. In fact, for some, disconnection between belief and lifestyle can lead to disaffiliation from the Church – though not necessarily from Christ.
To address these issues, we need to reflect on how we understand conversion, both from Christian and from Muslim points of view – and the consequences of those different understandings.
Muslim Definitions of ConversionConversion is controversial, especially in cultures that view religion as hereditary and prohibit change of religion. Neither Farsi nor Arabic has a word for what Christians call “conversion.” Various translations might be used, each with unique connotations. Statements such as “I became a Christian,” “I accepted Jesus,” and “I gave my heart to Christ” can indicate different types of religious change. To a Muslim-background listener, these statements might suggest, respectively, switching to Christian culture, adding Christianity to one’s existing religious system, or embracing mystical Christianity.
For Muslims, religion is inherited. A Farsi saying puts it this way: “You are born Muslim, you die Muslim.”
This mentality influences Muslims who convert to Christianity. For example, Ebrahim from Khorramabad Lorestan (western Iran) told me that he converted two years ago. After discovering Christian TV, Ebrahim asked Christ to give him “a sincere heart” so that he could follow Him. The next day, when he turned on the TV, the program was about honesty and walking with Christ. He felt that God was answering his prayers. In that moment, he decided “to follow Christ.”
However, Ebrahim continued Islamic prayers, the namaz, for more than a year and a half. He only stopped saying the namaz because it was in Arabic and, as a Farsi speaker, he didn’t understand it.
When I asked Ebrahim whether he knew that following Christ meant leaving Islam, he was bewildered. He thought he could stay Muslim and still follow Christ. He did not know that religious change was even possible. Like Ebrahim, many Muslim-background converts simply adopt Christianity into their existing worldviews.
Varied understandings of conversion need not cause alarm. Even if a new believer’s conversion appears to be driven by mixed motives, it often transforms into a sincere journey toward becoming a child of God. It is often here – after baptism – that the Western Church’s challenge begins.
A New Creation in Christ
Christian teaching for converts often focuses on distinguishing between Christian and Islamic doctrines. New converts can easily learn about Christianity through classes, Bible reading, and radio or TV programs. Yet all this teaching does not help converts learn how to live within their multi-layered cultures. If religion permeates everything, then conversion means much more than adopting new doctrines.
Listening to converts’ testimonies, I have recognized how deeply they struggle with becoming new creations in Christ. I have heard, over and over, questions such as “Who am I now?”, “How should I define my new self?”, and “What is expected of me?”
I particularly remember an Iranian lady disappointed by lack of Church support. Frustrated, she asked, “Is there life after conversion?” Her question was a cry for a new life for which she had not been equipped. She longed for the Church’s help.
I also remember Asif, an Afghan raised in Iran as a Shia Muslim. After his conversion, he deeply loved Christ – but he also felt as though he didn’t know himself anymore. He expressed his concern: “We are used to being told how and when to do things. Now I don’t know. I am confused.”
To support Muslim-background converts, first, we need to reconsider our assumptions about conversion. Often, Christians think that conversion is a spiritual experience that immediately and totally changes someone’s life. Instead, Christians need to consider Islamic attitudes, as my first section mentioned.
Christians also need to think about other purposes for conversion. We must recognize that some Muslims use conversion as social capital to smooth their migration into Europe. Others, especially Iranians, use conversion to demonstrate resistance to Islamic political regimes.
Third, we need to consider converts’ multi-layered worldviews, remembering that no single Islamic culture exists. Religion is expressed in many ways, and converts must work through possibilities at a very personal level as they seek to follow Christ.
Finally, we need to listen to converts’ life stories, paying attention to the traditions they might miss – such as certain festivals or kinds of prayer. Theirs is a story of loss as well as of great gain in Christ.
In a workshop in Denmark, I asked converts, “If you wanted to teach a course to new converts, what would it be?” One woman answered, “Christian living,” because, “How can I say I am a Christian when I don’t know how to live as a Christian?”
By paying closer attention to converts, the Church can progress in its own journey of becoming a body that welcomes outsiders into vibrant, lifelong relationships with Christ and His people.
An Iranian scholar and a recipient of the LeaderStudies and Persevere Scholarships, Sara Afshari holds a PhD and an MTh in Media, Religion, and Culture from the University of Edinburgh. Her work focuses on conversion from Islam to Christianity and the impact of Christian media in the process of conversion. She is co-founder and former Executive Director of SAT-7 PARS, a Christian satellite television channel in Farsi. Currently, she is working on a number of writing projects, including publishing her thesis as a book.