Reversion: Why Do ‘Christian Converts’ From Islam Return to Their Old Religion?

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There is much to celebrate worldwide in terms of unprecedented numbers of Muslims coming to know the Lord Jesus as their Savior. The global church also has to deal with discipling these new worshippers of the Biblical Jesus and to integrate them into the life of the church. These are wonderful challenges to face.

At the same time, as there are encouraging statistics of growing numbers of ex-Muslims now in Christ (xMnCs), there is a statistic that few missionaries want to talk about. It is the worrisome number of so-called converts who return to Islam. In this study, I will look at this phenomenon from Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, some New Testament examples of people who seemed to “fall away,” how this has happened in the history of missions to Muslims, as well as asking whether unintentionally, some missionaries are creating a milieu of reversion by the methods they employ.

Introduction

In 1991, a veteran missionary, Ken Wycherley, who had planted churches in several Muslim-majority cities, reported that between 80 to 90% of the so-called converts from Islam returned to Islam in a short time. His observation was that the cause of this phenomenon was “incomplete conversion” and what he called “premature births.”

In 2005, Thomas Walsh conducted a study of British ex-Muslims and their integration into the church. He interviewed people from varied backgrounds and among them were ‘Paul’ and ‘Deborah’ with the first being of Punjabi background and the latter of Iranian background. Both had been Christians for over 20 years, and they suggested that reversion to Islam often occurs when the church does not address “the totality of life” among these converts. Paul cited a statistic of 70 to 90% who return to Islam when the “social, cultural, political and also spiritual raison d‘être” of Islam are not addressed by the church.

These two studies, albeit with somewhat limited data, suggest that reversions are occurring, and perhaps at a much high rate than has been admitted by the Christian mission enterprise before. First, we will examine this phenomenon in the history of Christian-Muslim relations with four examples, then examine Jesus’ own perspectives on falling away from the Parable of the Sower and look for some of the causes of this problem, before putting forward some recommendations as to how to avoid these reversions. 

In the history of Christian-Muslim relations           

Strictly speaking, this history shows conversions of Christians to Islam [C->I], Muslims to Christianity [M->C] and reversions of each type of convert back to their original religion, i.e [M->C->M] and [C->M->C] History shows all of these in the Middle East. In this study, we will only examine reversions back to Islam [M->C->M]. That is to say, it will not detail those Christians who converted to Islam, and then reverted back to Christianity. The Byzantine official Niketas Choniates (d. ca. 1215) who relates an ecclesiastical procedure (as early as ca. 880) which deals with those “of the Saracens [Muslims] who return to the pure and true faith of us Christians recognized this movement. It details a 4-step process whereby those Christians who had turned to Islam and are now returning to Christianity would renounce Islam.

The Qurʾān anticipates movement from Islam, described as “those who believe” to other religions, as those who “disbelieve” and then return to Islam in a cyclical manner. Q4:137, (cf 2:109; 3:86; 16:106–109) states that those who engage in this cycle will not be under the favor of Allah: “Indeed those who believed, and then disbelieved, and then believe again, and then disbelieved, and then increase in unbelief—Allah will not [or never] forgive them, neither to guide them on the (right) way.” The famous Islamic commentator Ibn Kathir notes, “Allah states that whoever embraces the faith, reverts from it, embraces it again, reverts from it and remains on disbelief and increases in it until death, then he will never have a chance to gain accepted repentance after death. Nor will Allah forgive him, or deliver him from his plight to the path of correct guidance.” Other commentators refer to these people as hypocrites and apostates. The  Qur’an uses the Arabic word yartadd (Q 5:54) to describe reversion and it contains the idea of turning back/returning. It is related to the verb irtidād from which the terms murtadd, (apostate) and ridda (apostasy) are derived.

According to the collector of Hadiths or traditions about the life of Muhammad, al-Bukhari, it was reported that a certain Jew had embraced Islam and then reverted to Judaism. When Muadz asked Abu Musa about this man, his reply was that “He accepted Islam, but then reverted to Judaism.” Muadz replied, “It is the verdict of Allah and Muhammad that he be put to death and I am not going to sit down unless you kill him.”

In the Islamic legal tradition, Siti Zubaidah Ismail of the shariah and law department of the University of Malaysia states,

…the Qur’an has made it clear that Islam allows changing of religion so long as it is from any religion to Islam and not from Islam to another religion. Apostatizing from Islam is one of the gravest enormities cautioned with eternal punishment…

Although there is considerable debate on whether this reversion is a crime meriting capital punishment (as per Bukhari) or a sin with eternal punishment, Islam has certainly anticipated the reality of reversions.            

Pressures to return to Islam

These accounts are of men who left Islam to follow Christ and who encountered various pressures to return to Islam. These accounts are from India, Canada, Bangladesh, and one from the Middle East.

The story of Nathaniel Sabat

Henry Martyn, the missionary who went to India had a translation helper with the Christian name Nathaniel Sabat. Sabat, whose given name was Jabal, upon his arrival in India, with a profession of faith due to witnessing the martyrdom of one of his friends, and reading the Bible, was quickly baptized by local missionaries. They sent him with a salary to Martyn, and in 1807, he began to help with the translation of portions of the Bible into Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. In 1814  Sabat formally renounced Christianity and wrote a defense of Islam with the title, The Sabatian Proofs which support the pillars of Muhammadan religion, and subvert the columns of the abrogated Christian faith. He printed 600 copies at his own expense and distributed them widely. Sabat stated that he had become a so-called Christian “only to comprehend and expose the doctrines of Christianity.” Later it was suggested that he had turned back to Christianity, but Islamic accounts of his life call this into question.   

The story of ‘YO4’

A poignant story is related in the comprehensive study of converts to Christianity in Bangladesh by Peter Kwang-Hee Yun. This narrative by a Bangladeshi (with the pseudonym ‘YO4’) details responses to persecution of a former Muslim who became a Christian, the advice of the person who introduced this man to Christ, and the self-preservation technique of this person.

My friends were calling me a guru [leader or teacher]. But, after several days of the news being spread of my family’s religious change, our village religious leaders called a social judgment meeting. They asked my family, “Did you become Christians?” I replied honestly “Yes.” After listening to my answer, they decided to make us ek ghore [family which is banned]. They forbade us to get water for drinking and washing, communication with other
neighbors, shopping at the local markets for foods. After that, during the nights, they threw stones to my house and sometimes put excrement in my house. The son of a religious leader spit on my body. After suffering for one month, my father had had brain stroke. And, my body became very skinny. People said that Allah gave his punishment to the betrayer, meaning me. I called my gospel introducer, a pastor of my Jama’at. He said to me, “You have to endure these kinds of persecutions.” With help of one Hindu family, we could survive for one year. Next year, our village religious leaders called for another bigger meeting where they forced my family members to come back to Islam. They warned us, “Leave this village tonight if you want to keep Christians. Or you can touba [repent] your false and go back to being a Muslim.” I thought that we don’t have any land out of this house. We can’t live outside of this place. That time, I called my pastor and he advised me to maintain Islam outside, but continue to have fellowship with our Jama’at and keep faith as followers of ‘Isa. They brought me to a field at night without my family and beat me. By persuasion of my father, we came back to Muslim family publicly. But, I do not attend any Muslim religious meetings. They had another idea to keep me a Muslim by marrying a Muslim woman. Being forced by community pressure, I married a Muslim woman without willing agreement of my parents and me. But, I still continued to present at my Jama’at from time to time without informing my family members and kept my faith in ‘Isa.

The story of A. Diallo

A student of West African Muslim descent came to a Canadian Bible college. He came as a Christian and enrolled in the Bachelor’s program. According to a fellow student, his story as the son of a village chief, his ethnic background, and his sport’s ability accorded him a “rock-star” status. At the Bible College, there were two groups of students, those who were serious about discipleship, and those who took alcohol consumption, barhopping, and dancing as something to be flirted with. Diallo associated with the latter group during his stay. As much as Diallo showed healthy signs of respect for the book of the Bible and strongly objected to its use as a doorstop, worldly attractions and ties to his former identity as a Muslim of nobility exerted a strong pull on his life. Eventually, he left the Bible college and returned back to Islam.            

The story of ‘SAM’

This account relates some parts of the story of a man, also from Bangladesh. He too, was of Muslim background. These comments by the interviewer are from the transcript of an 8-hour interview with ‘SAM’ conducted on the February 25, 2012.

[‘SAM’s] first encounter with the gospel was in University when one of his friends bought a literature packet and a group of them each grabbed one piece. He locked onto John 14:6 and then went on a quest to find out who was making this audacious claim.  The quest led him to the ABWE hospital in M***ghat where he started a Bible correspondence course and read the NT. He was converted and became some sort of fundamentalist Baptist.

An Indian evangelist was visiting for rally type meetings and was asked to talk to [SAM]. He told [SAM] to imagine being in heaven with the host of saints and God on the throne. An angel lifts up a Bangladeshi man to honor him and God asks the man how he came to faith. Then God asks him who translated the Scriptures into his language and the man doesn’t know. An angel lifts up [SAM] as God and all the hosts of heaven honor him for his work. This sealed the deal for [SAM] and he tells of working tirelessly, with barely a pause, for 3 years to complete the translation.

[SAM] married a Christian lady from the hill tracts and had two daughters. He also pastored a Baptist (BBF) church for a time. He had a group of MB [i.e. Muslim background] folks meeting in his home while working for ____.

[SAM] has met many of the world missions leaders and corresponded with them.  He specifically mentioned correspondence with Greg Livingstone. He has attended the Washington Prayer Breakfast three times and is close to the leaders of that movement.

[SAM] is completely autonomous. He has no sense of accountability or of ecclesial authority. Ministry is business and not subject to the church. 

Particularly painful is that his daughters have converted to Islam and married Muslim men and the grandchildren are being raised as Muslims. It is so clear to me the direct correlation to the father's schizophrenia.

The story of ‘Adel’

Ziya Meral, Resident Fellow at the UK Army's Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, compiled stories of apostates from Islam, and suggested that their experience placed them in an essentially homeless situation. He recounts the experience of a Christian of Muslim background, named ‘Adel’ from a Middle Eastern country. Although not technically a story of a reversion back to Islam, it tells of the pressures placed on this believer. When his conversion became known to his colleagues and supervisor at the government office where he had served for over ten years,  

His supervisor gave him a lengthy lecture about Islam’s superiority over Christianity and the sin of apostasy. When he refused to return to Islam and enter into such discussions at work, his colleagues began to shun him and he was asked to do many humiliating tasks that were not in his job description. His supervisor threatened him with the loss of his job and with informing the police and state-sponsored militia groups of his conversion. Adel was eventually accused of poor performance and disobedience to his superiors; he lost his job and retirement rights and he had no income to support his wife and children. His dishonourable discharge and conversion severely limit what little employment opportunities he may now have.

Observations about these stories:

1. Conversion to Christianity is very difficult in this context and involves significant persecution at the social, physical, economic and spiritual levels. One could say that the conversions of ‘YO4’ and ‘Adel’ caused what could be described as a virulent auto-immune rejection reaction by local Muslims. Some writers have compared this to transplant rejection. It appears that ‘SAM’ encountered much less overt persecution, but temptation to compromise from other avenues.

2. The first advice of the pastor of the worship gathering (Jama’at) to ‘YO4’ was to endure persecution even in the face of being called a “betrayer” and having invoked the wrath of Allah. The second piece of advice (assuming it was the same pastor) as a response to increased persecution was to become a hybrid or chameleon Muslim-Christian.

3. The threats of the larger Islamic community of expulsion from his land were enough to cause ‘YO4’ to make concessions to their demands, including marrying a Muslim woman. In contrast, ‘SAM’ married a Christian woman. ‘YO4’s’ yielding to his father’s urging also caused him to make concessions, going as far as to publicly declare his allegiance to his Muslim family. ‘Adel’ suffered most in his professional career.

4. In the case of ‘SAM’ and Diallo the lure of heavenly and earthly accolades along with earthly pleasures were very strong. This caused ‘SAM’ him to work tirelessly at Bible translation and to forge a strong network with expatriates. Diallo, meanwhile maintained a “rock-star” status.

5. Sabat, ‘YO4’ and ‘SAM’ appear to be leaders, and all appear to have converted to Christianity. Sabat was rushed into baptism and receiving a salary, while ‘SAM’ seems to have received far more extensive exposure to Christian teaching than ‘YO4’ prior to taking on leadership roles.

6. Both ‘YO4’ and ‘SAM’ were encouraged to maintain two identities, namely that of a Muslim and that of a follower of Jesus. This was not the case with ‘Adel’ likely due to different philosophies of ministry in Bangladesh towards the insider movement and that of the Middle East. On the other hand, it is possible that Sabat maintained a dual identity as a type of espionage.

7. It is unknown if ‘YO4’ had children, but in the case of ‘SAM’ his daughters and grandchildren are functionally Islamic. This area of examining the second and third generation of xMnCs is a critical need.  

Summary:

The stories of ‘YO4’ and ‘Adel’ illustrate what Roland Miller described as the Islamic community’s response to the apostasy of this person:

The essence of the blasphemous act [of conversion to Christianity] is the rupture of the fabric of the sacred community that God has chosen and graced. So serious is the sin considered to be that traditional Islam has even pre-empted the eschatological judgment of God by turning it into a case for immediate communal action against the erring person, ranging from social ostracism to death.

The story of ‘SAM’ illustrates how he avoided social ostracism by becoming a hybrid Muslim-Christian and in the case of Sabat and Diallo, it is possible that they never truly converted in the first place, even though they were placed on pedestals by well-meaning Christians.

Jesus' Parable of the Sower helps us to understand what might have been going on in these stories.

The Parable of the Sower (or Soils)

In Matthew 13:1–23, Mark 4:1–20, and Luke 8:4–15 we read a parable that Jesus taught to illustrate the responses that various people have to the “sowing” of the Gospel word. Jesus illustrated their receptivity by means to different categories of soil, ranging from sun-baked hard-panas it wereto rich garden soil able to support a bumper crop. The story reads as such:

“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  Mark 4:3–9 (ESV)

In terms of ministry to Muslims, and any other humanfor that matterthe various responses that Jesus sketched out would be expected. Essentially, he delineates four categories of response in Mark 4:10–20:

  • The seed that “fell along the path” did not have a chance to germinate as no sooner did it land, birds, which Jesus interprets as Satan, whoimmediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.” Perhaps in this category, a person would hear a presentation of the Gospel and immediately they would be told this is a pack of lies. They would not have a chance to respond.
  • The seed that “fell on rocky ground” is interpreted by Jesus as those “when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” Here, there appears to be two dynamics of immediacy at work. The first is the immediate joy the person has, and secondly the immediate falling away. What appears to be happening here is a superficial conversion, which when tested does not last.
  • The third category of the “thorns” is described by Jesus as “those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” In this case the opposition to the Gospel message is not overt in the sense of persecution, as in the rocky ground example, but this is covert opposition, or more of a situation of competition and then attrition.
  • The fourth category of productive soil is described by Jesus as those people who “hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty-fold and sixty-fold and a hundred-fold.” That is to say, there is more than a notional acceptance of the Gospel word; there is a wholehearted embrace of it, which results in productivity.

Examples in the New Testament of these cases

“Hard-pan path” persons

When the Apostle Paul spoke to members of the Areopagus in Acts 17, one of the responses to his presentation of creation, providence,  judgment and especially the “resurrection of the dead” was that some “scoffed” or “mocked” (Acts 17:32). This same jeering, contemptuous laugh was the response of some who witnessed the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:13). It is as if the preaching of the Word or the evidences of the Spirit causes an instantaneous knee-jerk response of rejection.  

A “rocky ground” person

Although his situation changed later in his life, Simon Peter exemplified someone who seemed to receive the word of Christ in a superficial way. The same man who declares that Jesus is the Son of God, is the same person whom Jesus rebukes with the words “get behind me Satan.” The same person who swears that he will never desert Jesus is the same person who emphatically states “I never knew Him” when the pressure was on.

“Thorn-choked” persons

The Apostle Paul, writing his understudy, Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:10 mentions the example of a person named Demas. Paul states, “For Demas, in love with this present world (lit. this present age), has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Demas likely witnessed the power of God through the gospel preached by Paul, witnessed the miraculous and yet the enticements of what the world seemed to offer pulled on Demas’ heart-strings and he left. The words of desertion, likely imply that at some point there had been a connection with Paul, although it might be speculative to be overly dogmatic as to whether he was a true convert.                                                                                                                                                                          

The story of Simon the magician in Acts 8:9–24 illustrates someone described as having “believed,” was baptized and yet held on to his old worldview. His attempts to buy the power of the Holy Spirit and Simon Peter's exhortation to repent of his wickedness, shows that there is a possibility that his conversion may have been a case of window-dressing more than genuine repentance.

A “productive soil” person

Ananias was sent to Saul (Acts 9:10–19), who after his dramatic Damascus road encounter with the Living Jesus was in prison. Ananias received orders as to what he must communicate to this, now-blind, new convert. The Lord stated, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (vv. 15–16). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, this ambassador of Christ wrote a large portion of the New Testament, planted numerous churches, suffered immensely in the process, and bore much fruit in the spread of the gospel. His was a bona fide conversion.

What we observe from these examples in the New Testament is that there is a quantum difference between what might be called an “adherent of Jesus” who has some kind of proximity to Him and His people for a longer and shorter time, (recall the crowds who followed after Jesus, but many were doing so on their own terms) and “true disciples” who had known genuine conversion and were following Jesus on His terms.

What can we learn?

Reversion to Islam is real. This places an onus on missionaries and mission agencies to recognize this phenomenon, and to ask, the hard questions as to what might help to prevent it.

a. Ex-Muslims tell of the difficulties they had when well-meaning Christians accorded them a poster-child or rock-star status, especially when they were new converts. Frequently they are thrust prematurely into leadership roles, and this can be a set-up to fall. This can have the effect of choking by thorns.

b. The story of Sabat illustrates how a rush into baptism likely tells us that the missionaries were more interested in a speedy statistic than deep discipleship. Along with SAM he was given financial and status rewards which might have crippled him in his discipleship. 

c. The story of Diallo shows that association with less than serious Christians did not help in his discipleship progress. Like a Demas, he too exhibits the problem of thorns.      

d. The story of 'Adel has the potential of being a productive soil one, in that he was not predisposed to becoming a chameleon Christian like YO4. 

Some questions for reflection:

  • As much as reversion is a difficult subject to admit for Christian missionaries, is it possible in your agency to discuss this reality? Do you think that Wycherley's statistic of a reversion rate as high as 80-90% is way off the mark? Conversely, does the need for success stories, preclude this discussion?      
  • What systems do your churches and missionaries have in place to prevent, as much as is humanly possible, the phenomenon of reversion, of what Wycherley called "incomplete conversions" or "premature births"? 
  • What systems do your churches and missionaries have in place to address the "totality of life" of those who have left Islam?
  • What are the theological underpinnings of these systems?
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