A Changing World
“We can speak of a Muslim people,” said P. J., a Jewish believer, mother of two and missionary to the Muslims of North Africa. What she meant was that the religion of Islam encompasses many peoples who all feel caught up in a common destiny and metanarrative which they themselves struggle to understand. The more she delved into the Arabic-speaking world and culture, the more similarities she saw with her own Jewish people. The crossover between culture and religion was not the least of those.
Today there is not only a Jewish diaspora but a Muslim one. The Western world—primarily Europe but also North America—is undergoing a sea change in demographics. Jewish people from these areas increasingly find that many of their friends, neighbors, fellow students and coworkers are Muslim. A 2011 report from the Pew Foundation estimated 4.7 million Muslims in France as of 2010, or 7.4 percent of the population. In the UK, Muslims form 4.6 percent of the population, estimated to rise to 8.2 percent by 2030. Germany stands at 5.0 percent, with 7.1 percent as the 2030 estimate. While these changes are not as great in the United States, there are still 2.6 million Muslims in the US, or 0.8 percent of the population, with that number also due to double over the next two decades. Dearborn, Michigan, outside Detroit, is home to the largest American Muslim community.
The increase in the number and influence of Muslim citizens has its ramifications on public policy both in the US and internationally. In 2003 in France, there was the well-publicized case of the Lévy girls who wanted to wear the burqa to school and were prohibited by the school authorities from doing so—but their Jewish father and lawyer pursued the matter with the school’s disciplinary committee! Today in France, it continues to be a large part of the political picture, with debates swirling over immigration issues and a recent ban on facial and full-body coverings such as the burqa. Even in normally tranquil Switzerland, an evangelical group initiated a 2009 ballot to ban mosques from constructing minarets, dividing public opinion in two.
In the United States, New Yorkers recall the debate over having a mosque built near the site of 9/11. Nationally, the US has become the only western country with a president whose father is from a Muslim background. Even that was not without controversy, as some voters ominously insisted that though he said he was a Christian, Barack Obama was “in secret” a Muslim by faith!
Phrases such as “Radical Islam” and “Arab Spring” have by now become familiar parts of our Western vocabulary. Yet media images often characterize those of the Muslim faith as terrorists. This is hardly representative of the entire Muslim world. There are many streams of the religion of Islam, while the Muslim population profiled by the Pew Foundation includes those who may be secular or what we would call “nominal.”
That’s why we produced this edition of Havurah. We want to raise some questions in the midst of these demographic shifts: “What role do Jewish believers in Jesus have in all this? How can we relate to our Muslim neighbors—both those who are often called Muslim Background Believers (MBBs), who share our faith in Jesus, and also those who do not? And how can we speak the gospel into their lives?”
The Bridge of Commonality
While these are large questions deserving of an entire book (or two), we want to introduce the subject with a focus on the surprising commonalities that Jews and Muslims often share. And these commonalities are indeed found at many junctures. For example, there is often a shared journey of faith on the part of Jews who have come to faith in Yeshua and Muslims who have done so. Some MBBs have reported coming to faith through visions of Jesus or through messianic prophecy. Many have cultural difficulties integrating into a church or overcoming prejudices within the body of Christ concerning Muslims or Arabs. Similarly to Messianic congregations, there are groups of Arab MBBs who celebrate their Arab identity, language and culture.
And as is common among Jewish believers, there are internal debates on the relationship between faith and culture. Syrian believer and Messianic congregational elder Amin Ibrahim told me (Joshua), “The question of identity is often tied to pride, and I believe that when the Holy Spirit does his work in your life your principal identity is with Christ and all the rest is of carnal value.” In contrast, Said Oujibou’s comic gospel presentation (called in English translation, “Liberty, Equality, Couscous”) celebrates his cultural distinctives as an MBB living among non-Muslims.
One of the largest obstacles to faith for Muslims is the anticipated family and community reaction. Whether believers in Yeshua or not, mixed Jewish and Arab/Muslim/MBB couples may find that they are without family during holiday celebrations, forced to forge their own traditions within the nucleus of their immediate family while forsaking the involvement of their parents and in-laws.
The journey to faith, joining a believing community, the place of culture, the questions of identity—these are issues which also resonate with our community of Jewish believers.
Areas of commonality extend also to Muslims who have not come to faith in Yeshua. There are several common cultural bridges that help not only in building personal relationships, but in sharing the gospel. For example, hospitality is a foundational core value among Muslim families. Even one’s worst enemy must be treated with the same respect that would be due the greatest guest. In fact, if you want to experience a great meal, make some Muslim friends! The old Yiddish adage comes to mind: “Love is a good thing … but love with noodles is even better!”
While there are certainly disparate things about our two communities, especially in the context of the Arab-Muslim Middle East, the power of the gospel is for unity. Jews and Arabs loving each other in the name of Christ can achieve something that other efforts have been unable to.
There is much that is positive to discover about Muslims, and we hope that this edition of Havurah will encourage you to open up to Muslim neighbors and friends—and to care for their salvation.
Read on to hear the voices of Jews and Muslims who have found their paths converging in unusual ways …
Joshua Turnil directs the Paris branch of Jews for Jesus. Rich Robinson is editor of Havurah.
On the Koran
One cannot speak of Muslim identity without taking into account the religion of Islam and its holy book, the Koran. The Koran helps us understand the unique perspectives of the Muslim worldview. For example, in one surah [chapter] we read, “And they [Jews, Christians and pagans] say: Allah has begotten a son [children or offspring]. Glory be to Him [Exalted be He above all that they associate with Him]. Nay, to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth, and all surrender with obedience [in worship] to Him” (Surah Al-Baqarah 116). In other words, God does not have a son! Such a statement helps explain why Muslims have a hard time understanding how Yeshua could be the Son of God.
Yet the Koran also says, “And mix not truth with falsehood, nor conceal the truth [i.e. Muhammad, Peace be upon him, is Allah’s Messenger and his qualities are written in your Scriptures, the Taurat (Torah) and the Injeel (Gospel)] while you know (the truth)” (Surah Al-Baqarah 42). In several places, the Koran makes mention of Bible characters from both Old and New Testaments and encourages the Muslim faithful to read the writings of the “peoples of the book.”
And so the Koran itself, even while emphasizing theological differences between Muslims and followers of Jesus, can also offer an entrée for the gospel.
Did you know…?
Jews and Arabs/Muslims share much history in common; one of the greatest periods of Jewish history is known as the “Golden Age” of Jewish culture, when Jewish philosophy, medicine, and poetry flourished in medieval Muslim Spain.
 At her request, only her initials are used.
 In fact, only 12 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arab. See to.pbs.org/arabus22
 A better term than “former Muslim,” according to with Martin Goldsmith.(personal correspondence).
 Compare the story of Fred Wertheim, I Escaped From Hitler Twice: The Fred Wertheim Story
 See footnote 5.
 Personal phone conversation with Joshua Turnil, Fall 2011.
 From the translation at bitly.com/transquran
 Ibid. The material in brackets appears to be annotations by the translator.