Ali, an Indian Muslim, woke in a panic.
“Earthquake!” he shouted to his roommates, waking them and urging them outside. They grumbled and told him to go back to sleep.
There was no earthquake.
A few minutes later, it happened again, but this time Ali caught himself before yelling at his friends.
As he waited and wondered, a figure walked into his bedroom. The figure had Ali’s face, but somehow Ali knew it was Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “I need you.”
Ali leapt up and ran to the house of friends who’d been talking to him about Jesus. Though it was midnight, the lights were on. When they came to the door, Ali asked, “What are you doing up so late?”
“We’re praying,” they responded. “What are you doing here?”
Breathlessly, Ali exclaimed, “Your Jesus just came to my house!”
Ali was soon radically converted and has gone on to plant churches and minister to Muslim-background-believer (MBB) church planters in India for decades.
(Thanks to Shane Bennett for offering Ali’s story for this article. Ali—not his real name—is Shane’s longtime friend and ministry partner.)
Dreams and visions, miracles, narrow escapes, disguises, beheadings, government surveillance, and bold witness: all of these characterize the real lives of thousands of followers of Christ in extreme Islamic countries.
Devout Muslims find themselves ostracized, and sometimes beaten or killed, if they turn to follow Jesus. Yet, in recent years, hundreds of thousands do so anyway.
Why? How is Jesus drawing them to him? And how can we as Christians join in that work?
In this article, we will answer these questions:
- How is God moving in the Muslim world?
- Who is Isa?
- How are dreams and visions leading to Muslim conversions?
- How are missions ministries reaching Muslims?
- How dangerous is it to be a Muslim-background believer?
- Why are Muslims turning to Christ?
- Do I have to visit the Middle East to reach Muslims?
- How can I share the gospel with Muslims?
How is God moving in the Muslim world?
Dr. David Garrison, a missionary and researcher, compiled over one thousand interviews from Muslim-background believers. Those interviews have been collected from forty-five movements of Christianity in Islam in fourteen countries. He published his findings in A Wind in the House of Islam.
From 2000 until 2012, there have been sixty-nine large movements of Christianity within Islam, some of which continue to grow today. Garrison defines a movement as “at least 100 new church starts or 1,000 baptisms that occur over a two-decade period.”
Garrison’s book is a wake-up call more than a triumphal account of Christianity’s victory over Islam, for these awakenings, or “movements,” at most still only accounted for less than 0.5 percent of Muslims across the world. However, these numbers do show that God is moving in Islam, through both faithful witnesses and miraculous appearances in dreams. In previous centuries, there had been essentially no Christian evangelism to Islam.
Iran possesses its own unique awakening of Christianity as the Islamic government’s religious control slips. Hormoz Shariat outlines this in Iran’s Great Awakening, speculating that between one and five million have started following Jesus in the past decade.
While Iran’s “official census” states that 99.6 percent of Iranians identify as Muslim, that number actually hovers around 40 percent. Accurate, third-party surveying reveals a disenfranchised population who abandon Islam for secularism and other religions, even while the government uses violence to enforce strict Islamic adherence. According to that same study, 1.5 percent of Iranians now identify as Christians.
What is clear is that God is turning the tide in Islam through true peace and love.
But how is God doing so?
One of the most stunning pieces of this puzzle is the unprecedented number of dreams and visions of Jesus that Muslims are experiencing.
Who is Isa?
Dr. Garrison writes, “A common phrase found in many testimonies gathered from West Africa to East Asia began with the words, ‘I had a dream . . . .’ Like the wind itself, these dreams came as invisible harbingers of change.”
All three global ministries I spoke with for this article, as well as missionaries to Muslims, books written by leaders in missions, and personal stories testify to this fact: God is stirring thousands of Muslims through visions and dreams.
Dr. Darren Carlson, in writing for the Gospel Coalition, talks about his fieldwork helping Muslim migrants into Europe. He interviewed many migrant Muslim background believers (MBBs) and asked about their conversion. Those who experienced a dream or vision before following Jesus shared these common threads:
- “Jesus speaking Scripture to them, even Scripture they had never heard before.”
- “Jesus telling people to do something.”
- “A dream or vision that led to a feeling of being clean or at peace.”
- “A man in white physically appearing.”
The stories he relates are the stuff of movies, but you won’t likely hear about these conversions in the daily news cycle.
In his ministry to the Middle East, Tom Doyle finds that around one in three MBBs had a dream or vision prior to their salvation experience. Another survey conducted by Fuller Theological Seminary found that a little over 25 percent received a dream prior to their faith.
Global Media Outreach uses online missionaries to reach unreached peoples across the world. In an email interview for this article, a member of their Middle East / North Africa outreach team related:
Visions and dreams are very common and similar. I’ve personally heard such testimonies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia. Someone is searching for answers to life. Jesus appears in a dream announcing that He is “Issa’” who you are looking for.” They wake up and start their search until they come across a website, church, or Christian. The mission to reach Muslims is on God’s heart. Where the Church failed to make an impact, we find God working in amazing ways. The key for us is to discern where God is at work and join Him.
In the Qur’an, Jesus (Isa in Arabic) is mentioned as a prophet of God. Muslims believe he performed miracles, healed, and was born of the virgin Mary. They do not, however, believe that he died on the cross or was God incarnate (that latter statement is blasphemous to them).
So, it comes as a surprise to Muslims when Isa appears to them in a dream, but they take it seriously. Isa’s appearing to them, along with a feeling of peace, awe, and love in his presence, opens the door to the gospel. Many missionaries find that explaining who Isa really is provides the best way to evangelize.
How are dreams and visions leading to Muslim conversions?
Dr. Carlson, himself testifying to numerous MBBs’ dreams, writes a word of caution.
While in Greece, he noticed that a few Muslims were mimicking other dream stories, pretending to be Christians in order to seek asylum more easily. One Afghan Christian told him that many Christians were lazy in waiting for dreams to evangelize. Dr. Carlson notes: “Where the Spirit moves, Satan distorts and distracts. But we can rejoice in the powerful work of God in the world and trust the sufficiency of the preached gospel to save sinners.”
The Holy Spirit clearly moves through dreams. For any doubting the validity of these MBB testimonies, Dr. Carlson asks this question, “Would Satan cast out Satan? Would he give dreams filled with Scripture, pointing to Jesus, that ultimately lead to conversion and purity?” Obviously not.
Dr. George H. Martin, from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes on the subject and reminds us that the Bible, teaching, and preaching must remain central, even while the Spirit moves Muslims through powerful dreams and visions. Dreams and visions open the door to people’s hearts, giving them the chance to hear and accept the gospel. In these stories, God always provides a Bible or connects them to another Christian.
To illustrate this, let’s examine another story related by Tom Doyle in Dreams and Visions, from the chapter titled “The Imam and the Gun.” It sounds like a spy movie.
A missionary in Cairo was kidnapped at gunpoint in the middle of the night. He was forced to navigate Cairo’s twisting streets and told to jump between two roofs over a five-story drop. After a harrowing journey, he arrived at an abandoned building. He naturally believed he was being taken to his own execution.
Instead, he found a group of young Imams (Muslim teachers and leaders of local mosques, like pastors) who had studied at Al-Azhar University. As students, they had all separately received dreams from Jesus and committed to following him. Eventually, the Holy Spirit brought all ten of these secret Christians together.
They had been meeting in secret to pray and encourage each other three times a week but had no one to teach them the Bible. When they found out this missionary was a believer, they desperately wanted to hear him teach the Word. The safest way to bring him to their secret meeting was to kidnap him.
The relieved missionary laughed for a long time at his situation.
Even though it took a great deal of time, such dreams led these Muslims to unite with each other and eventually find someone to teach them the Word of God.
Those in dangerous Islamic countries must operate in absolute secrecy for fear of death. Many MBBs feel the passion to share the gospel with friends and family despite the danger.
How are missions ministries reaching Muslims?
In another vein, ministries are seeing thousands more come to Christ while meeting their basic needs. Muslims are people, and many Muslim-majority countries are impoverished. Such ministries go into impoverished countries and provide education, healthcare, and financial assistance. Missionaries bringing compassion and following up with spiritual discipleship have been used for centuries as a strategy for bringing people to Christ.
One ministry in particular I spoke to does this with a well-defined vision. (To keep a low profile, we were asked to keep the ministry anonymous.) This ministry works to be entirely self-sustained from a business perspective, providing jobs and long-term aid through microloans.
Microloans are a small investment into a hard-working, impoverished individual to start or help their business. With this particular ministry, the person receives two months of finance and skills training. Then, with sometimes less than a hundred dollars, they start a poultry farm, textile, grocery store, crop farm, or handcrafted products business. This allows them to sustainably make a living for their family. Eventually, they will repay the microloan, and that money will be used to invest in yet another microloan to combat poverty.
This realizes the lasting change in whole villages that learn to live sustainably. Many families, if they aren’t able to put food on the table, will sell their daughters as a “bride” when they are fourteen or fifteen years old. Of these microloans, 98 percent go to women, affording them dignity and combatting the sex-trading industry. Once women earn money, they can secure relative independence.
This ministry provides eternal truths alongside generosity and compassion. This is not a case of buying converts, but a matter of fighting back darkness and poverty, preaching the gospel in the midst of it.
This ministry’s internal missional strategy consists of a self-sustaining loop:
Compassion → relationships → evangelism → discipleship → compassion→ repeat.
A representative from this ministry wrote to me in an email,
“Those areas are how we focus holistic and sustainable ministry to unreached people. We go in with compassion – microloans, schools, healthcare + humanitarian aid – which opens the door for relationships with unreached people groups for the long-term.
In the quadrant, compassion and relationship encompass the natural or physical side of holistic ministry. The next side of the coin, for the spiritual needs of unreached people, is evangelism and discipleship.
Both have to run concurrently where we serve, but we see this functionality in all missional or in kingdom work. No matter where we are serving Muslims, we seek to do it sustainably and holistically through these four lenses” (italics added).
This mission allows them to fly under the radar of local officials and gain the trust of communities. They secretly but boldly present the gospel and disciple converts through long-term growth.
We are reminded by James about the importance of compassion: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16).
Lest anyone would think this kind of ministry does not rest on faith or the Spirit, the representative I spoke to estimates that as many as 80 percent of MBBs he works with receive some kind of dream that connects them to the gospel. The Spirit is alive and working through dreams and miracles, as well as well-structured microloans and business planning. Over two hundred thousand individuals are actively involved in discipleship through their ministry.
Bangladesh is one particularly ideal country for this missional approach. The government legally supports religious freedom of speech, though the population of Bangladesh is ninety percent Muslim and hostile toward Christianity. Islam’s ideals can be cold and heartless there, e.g., a lack of familial affection and callousness to poverty. So, when Christians contrast that coldness with Jesus’ compassion, people want to know more.
We consistently see the gospel spreading through real-world compassion, providing eternal restoration as missionaries bring healing and physical restoration.
Jesus speaks strongly about those who don’t feed the hungry, give the thirsty a drink, visit people in prison, welcome strangers in, or clothe the naked. This powerful teaching in Matthew 25 is a wake-up call for everyone, reminding us that the physical needs of people are close to Jesus’ heart: “Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41–46).
How dangerous is it to be a Muslim-background believer?
Hundreds of thousands of Christians are under threat of death every day for meeting with other believers. Under intense persecution, it becomes nearly impossible to operate churches, and, without connection to solid teaching, there are dangers of heresy, dictatorial pastors, and a lack of discipleship.
Dr. Garrison reminds us that most Muslims are not bloodthirsty people. Instead, they are family-oriented with high moral values. Nonetheless, being removed from family and socially outcasted is a frequent experience of Muslim converts everywhere. Muslims pay a high price for following Jesus, even the ones who don’t risk persecution.
In the chapter “The Great Mecca Escape” from Tom and Joann Doyle’s book Women Who Risk, they relate the stories of MBB women from the most dangerous parts of the world. Kady’s story is particularly moving. (“Kady” is not her real name; the pseudonym is in place to protect her identity.)
When Kady followed Jesus, she started going to a house church in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The house church would play a soccer game at full volume, gather in a circle, sign with their hands what Bible verse to look up on their phone, then talk about the passage in low whispers. Afterward, they would use an app that disguised their phone screen to hide their Bible download.
Perhaps most impressively, Kady once went to Hajj disguised in regular Muslim garbs, pretending to pray to Allah, when in fact she and her friends were praying to Jesus for the Muslims around them. Later, she found out that around six thousand Christians pretending to be Muslims on pilgrimage at the Hajj were present and praying that year.
Hearing God call her out of Mecca, Kady made a daring escape with the help of Christian friends, finding out later that her brothers intended to murder her in the name of Islam. Now, Kady is a missionary to Muslims in America.
Iran provides another prime example. People’s phones and the internet are closely monitored by the government. Though Christianity is rapidly growing underground, it may be that only 5 percent of Christians attend house churches. Those who do “risk imprisonment, torture, persecution, and even death.” Iran Alive Ministries, as well as other ministries, reach people through satellite TV, the only communication the government doesn’t monitor.
In 2021, the Taliban had taken control of Afghanistan. In the midst of their merciless reign, Christians are being executed and terrorized. The desperate flight from Afghanistan left many dead in their attempts to escape, and the country is in chaos. Christian leaders are hearing that the Taliban are reportedly killing people if they find a Bible downloaded on their phone.
Why are Muslims turning to Christ?
Amidst all of this, love is winning in people’s lives.
God is miraculously leading Muslims to repentance, one person at a time. In the Mission Frontier article that discussed MBB interviews, they conclude: “By far, the reason found most compelling for the greatest number of Muslims who have turned to Christ is the power of love.”
Take Hakim’s story, for example.
Hakim, an Algerian Muslim of high status, spoke with me on the phone to give his testimony. He spent his life questioning Islam but always received beatings or rebukes for his questions.
One day, he heard the gospel presented and was mostly confused, but he felt a powerful spiritual draw to the idea that Jesus is God. In the subsequent weeks, he experienced several near-death experiences. Each time, a voice told him, “I will protect you.” He didn’t know where this voice came from or who it was.
Then, he received a dream of a white light, where he felt an overwhelming feeling of love and peace. In the dream, God told him that he needed Hakim for himself, for his glory, and that he would protect him.
The next day, Hakim confided this to the missionary. The missionary invited Hakim to his home, ecstatic that God was drawing him. At first, Hakim refused because he knew the Christian was an infidel, but eventually, Hakim accepted the invitation. When Hakim arrived at the Christian’s home, this courageous family hugged him, showed him warm hospitality, and loved him.
To Hakim, who’d grown up in a hard, cold, and strict Muslim family, such words and actions shook him to the core.
After consistent love from the Christian family, Hakim came to church and there decided to follow Jesus. When Hakim’s family found out, he was beaten by his father and brothers with a sword and baseball bat, barely escaping with his life.
After spending some time in Algeria as a Christian, spreading the gospel with great courage, he moved to the United States. Hakim now studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and wants to plant churches around the world. He hosts Zoom meetings with MBBs in North Africa and France.
Though dreams and visions of Jesus have swept across the Muslim world, the most central draw of Christianity is our love for one another and Christ’s all-powerful love for us.
Do I have to visit the Middle East to reach Muslims?
For anyone feeling a stirred passion for Muslims, you don’t necessarily need to travel to the Middle East, Africa, or Asia. A study in 2017 showed that there were 3.45 million Muslims in the US, with more migrating here every year. God is bringing Muslims to the doorstep of American Christians, just as he is sending American Christian ambassadors into their darkest strongholds.
Denison Forum is located in Dallas, Texas, and Muslims are moving right to our doorstep. Texas has the fifth-largest Muslim population out of all the states. In 2010, there were half a million Muslims in Texas, and that number continues to grow. One of my professors at Dallas Baptist University, Professor KayLyn Hopper, was previously a missionary in the Middle East. In class, she would always remind us that Muslims are now our neighbors, especially in Dallas.
In 2021, with tens of thousands of Afghan Refugees entering the United States, we have an opportunity now more than ever to share the gospel. We need to be aware of the broader picture as well as the state of our local neighbors. Instead of viewing Muslim migration as an “invasion,” let’s view it as an opportunity to show a desperate, lonely people the love of Jesus. We need to be “glocal,” to think globally and act locally.
Shane Bennett, who has spent decades befriending Muslims in several countries and helping Christians figure out how to relate to them, wrote to me in an email:
“This is no time for Christians to be afraid of Muslims . . . . May the Holy Spirit work in each of us to exchange apathy, angst, and anger for love and engagement . . . . In my experience, few if any Muslims have ever refused when I offered to pray for them. Most believe Jesus healed, cast out demons, and raised the dead . . . .
When a Muslim moves to America, as an immigrant, a refugee, or an asylum seeker, it is a blessing from God. Likely she is moving from one of the most under-evangelized countries in the world to one with one of the highest rates of people who follow Jesus. We should thank God for blessing them that way, then pull up our big kid pants and get to work!”
He also told me, and he is not alone in this belief, that God’s will is to draw Muslims out of these enclosed countries so that they can hear the gospel. Muslims are flocking to the cities we live in, and migration is an opportunity for our witness and to see more Muslims come to faith in Christ.
Kady, the MBB from earlier who escaped from Mecca, writes in Women Who Risk, “From Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where the religion of Islam began fourteen hundred years ago, I truly am privileged to be a missionary for Jesus to Muslims. And the Muslims I’m called to reach in serving Jesus Christ? I’m amazed that my mission field is . . . the USA.
How can I share the gospel with Muslims?
One family in Houston is particularly inspiring. Muslim families who move to the US find themselves isolated and in a strange place, and there is a high Muslim population in Houston. So, showing hospitality and love, this family regularly invites Muslim women over to connect with each other. The family shares food and then the gospel with the women who come.
Any believer who has a home and wants to love like Jesus can open their house to Muslims around them if they are in concentrated areas. There are no excuses. For help having that initial conversation, see Shane Bennett’s article “FORKS Open Lives.” For suggestions on inviting Muslims to meals, see his article, “A Five Step Plan for a Killer International Thanksgiving Dinner.”
Would you join me in praying for believers under persecution across the world and for the Muslim migrants in America and Europe? For videos that help guide prayer for Muslims in different countries, see Prayercast’s page, “Love Muslims.”
Let us meet Muslims with love and gentleness as more and more become our neighbors. Will we slander and speak evil of them, or will we show Christ’s love for them?
Pray for the Muslims in your local community, that they will turn away from Islam and run to Jesus.
Invite them into your homes. Show them love and hospitality. Share your story and listen to theirs. Build a relationship with them, and show them Jesus’ love. Jesus has a heart for Muslim people, and we should as well.
Christians no longer have to travel to places like Afghanistan to share their faith with Muslims, though God will certainly still call brave believers to those places. Muslims are arriving at the shores of open, free countries, ready to hear the gospel.
Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37)
Join in being a laborer for Christ.