Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path Between Two Faiths by Paul-Gordon Chandler

A Review by Adam Simnowitz

If a book is to be judged by faithfulness to its title, let the buyer beware! For those familiar with E. Stanley Jones’ writings it is easy to see the late Methodist minister’s influence reflected in the title of Chandler’s book as well as its theme (pp. 2-3). What is not clear, however, is that this book is about one individual who is presented as a prototype of "insider" movements, that is, someone "who follows Christ within Islam" (p. 4). One would expect from the use of "Pilgrims" to find several examples of what it means to be a "follower of Christ within Islam." "A pilgrim of Christ on the Muslim Road" would more accurately reflect the book’s content since the author only focuses on one such "pilgrim," Mazhar Mallouhi, a self-proclaimed "Muslim follower of Christ" (p. 104). But such subtleties and semantic subterfuges seem to abound when dealing with proponents of "insider" movements (cf. p. 119).

A second issue with the title comes from its subtitle—while the author may think that "following Christ within Islam" is "new" he would do well to remember that "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Some 60-70 years ago there were certain Christians who pleaded "for an entire change of missionary method and program … of ‘Christianizing Hinduism’ and of ‘evangelizing Islam’ (Zwemer: The Cross and the Crescent, p. 259; also see: "Re-Thinking Missions" by William Hocking). I wish the poor choice of a title and subtitle were the only problems with this book—unfortunately the weightier issues of syncretism and universalism confront the reader and the problems with the full title only serve as a harbinger for what follows.

Chandler attempts to prove his premise that "someone who comes from a non-Christian faith can follow Christ and remain within his own religious culture, thereby bridging the two" (p. 4) by "examin[ing] and learn[ing] from Mazhar’s attitude and approach to Islam as a follower of Christ within the context of his life and today’s religious climate" (p. 6). While this makes for an interesting read the lines are often blurred between the author’s sentiments and Mallouhi’s. Chandler should have done a better job of differentiating between the two. As for his premise, the author has already made up his mind that it is possible to "follow Christ and keep an Islamic ‘religious culture;’" Mallouhi’s life, to Chandler’s satisfaction, substantiates his foregone conclusion. Even if correct, the author’s dependence on a single individual’s experience is a pronounced weakness in trying to prove his point of view. Since this book is not a biography per se, Chandler could have made a stronger case for his argument by giving us several examples of "pilgrims" (even then his premise would not necessarily be proven because we are dealing with an inherent appeal to the Bible—how does one define "follower of Christ" if not by looking at the Bible? Unfortunately, those who embrace this "new path" between Islam and Christianity have, in practice, if not in theory, rejected the authority of Scripture as the rule of faith and conduct and substituted it with human experience).

Mazhar Mallouhi, the subject of the book, was born to a poor but respectable Muslim family in Salimiyyeh, Syria. In his youth he determined to improve his lot in life and developed a love for reading and writing. It was through his disillusionment with Islam and lack of inner fulfillment that he began to study other religions. During military service in Syria, while in his early twenties, Mallouhi started to read Mahatma Gandhi’s writings and "soon discovered Gandhi’s great respect for Christ" (p. 21). This led Mallouhi to begin reading the Bible in Arabic, which he requested from a Presbyterian army officer. At the end of two years of reading the Bible and speaking with this officer, Mallouhi cried out to Jesus (p. 23) and was converted. Chandler writes that the change in his life was immediately apparent. Instead of being depressed, alcoholic, aloof and suicidal, he went to being friendly, caring, and committed to Gandhi’s example of non-violence (pp. 23-24). Within two years of his conversion, Mallouhi faced heavy opposition: he was discharged from the Syrian army and an uncle tried to kill him by slitting his throat in public (pp. 24-25).

Mallouhi began associating with Arab Protestant Christians to whom he now attributes much mental anguish and an almost complete inability on their part to relate to Muslims. He moved to Beirut, where he found work at Librairie du Liban, the Presbyterian printing press, and later with Arab [Christian] Literature Mission (A.L.M.; formerly Nile Mission Press from Cairo). Although he tried to identify with "Arab Protestants" he experienced what many converts from Islam to Christianity experience from local Christians—suspicion and outright rejection. Mallouhi, as can be imagined, never felt fully welcomed (p. 29). In spite of this he continued to read through the Bible, grew in his faith, and during this time "developed a strong vision to write in order to communicate to other Muslims about this Christ who had so changed his life and whom he was seeking to follow [which] would turn out to be his primary mission in life" (pp. 29-30). A major influence in his life at that time was Hugh Thomas, director of the A.L.M. Thomas later resigned from the A.L.M. refusing to sign a then newly-drafted statement of faith because "it was theologically much too narrow and conservative", and he "could not sign it in good conscience" (p. 32). Yet it was through Mallouhi’s interaction with Thomas that he "found himself falling in love again with his own Arab culture" as they would "read and discuss Arab poets, listen to Arab music, and generally relish the richness of Arab culture" (pp. 30-31).

Since 1963 he has written several novels, commentaries on Luke, Genesis, and John, all in Arabic, and started his own publishing house, Al Kalima. Some of these titles have resulted in good sales and are unique when compared to typical Christian writings in Arabic: the novels are written "for Muslim audiences about the person and transforming power of Jesus;" the commentaries are designed to look like Islamic religious publications, and they are carried by major Arabic publishing houses. This has given Mallouhi’s writings incredible access to bookshops, libraries, and book fairs across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia (pp. 1, 152). He is currently working on a new Arabic translation of the Gospels and Acts, "into modern literary Arabic for the Muslim reader" (p. 158; this "translation" has since been printed). The only specific given about this translation is that it will use "dynamic equivalency." No mention is made as to whether this translation will be directly from the Greek or not.

Several things come to light when reading this book, both positive and negative. It is quite true that there is a divide between Arabic-speaking Muslims and Arabic-speaking "Christians" (i.e. anyone who professes to be a Christian). The current Arabic Bible translations are indeed often misunderstood, or more properly, not understood well by Muslims. The standard "Van Dyck" translation (original spelling of the Dutch translator's name; in English writings often referred to as the Smith & Van Dyke translation) from 1865 has passages and verses that often communicate nothing to the average "Christian" not to mention Muslim! There are key theological terms in the Bible that Muslims are completely unfamiliar with or, because of Islamic teaching, have quite different meanings to them. There is also the issue of relating to Muslims as people. Mallouhi makes some valid observations that not everything that Muslims do prior to their conversion to Jesus needs to be dropped upon believing in Jesus. Another commendable aspect of his life is his seeming ability to relevantly communicate something about Jesus to Muslims. His ability to publish through legal means also creates opportunities for "witness" for which most missionaries to Muslims can only fantasize.

The negatives, however, seriously outweigh the positives. Mallouhi makes some very heretical statements that, unlike a reviewer in Arab World Ministries’ Seedbed (2008, vol. XXII, First Trimester) cannot simply be attributed to "Chandler’s portrayal of Mazhar’s view of the Bible" (Seedbed, p. 7):

When I hear the Psalms read, for example in church, and when it says "The God of Israel," I find this a stumbling block for me, because this presents a tribal God. (p. 181)

I cannot reconcile God ordering massacres in the Old Testament. (p. 181)

We are part of several groups of Muslim mystics, Sufis; sometimes we meet in our home, other times in theirs. But we walk together this spiritual journey toward God. (p. 193)

I have met many Muslims who I believe are farther spiritually than me, and a million miles closer to God, loving God and devoted to God with complete sincerity … The difference Christ makes for me is that through his life and teachings I am able to see the heart of the Father. The benefit of Christ is that we see the beauty of God through him. Without Christ, something of the picture of God is missing for me. (p. 193)

"If people do not have the revelation of God in Christ, this of course does not mean that they do not know God," says Mazhar. (p. 91)

"I fully expect to see Gandhi when we are privileged to enter God’s presence in eternity." …In Tertullian’s sense of the soul being naturally Christian, he views Gandhi as a "natural Christian." Mazhar meets many Muslims who are in the same predicament. (p. 123)

Author: Let’s address the issue of eternal destiny, as both Christians and Muslims often emphasize this. Do you believe in a hell?

Mallouhi: It is very hard for me to picture God, whom I love, and whom I know loves humanity; his creation, sending anyone to an eternal hell. God is just. And if he treats evil with evil then what difference is there between him and us. [sic-no question mark in original] (p. 198)

Nor can we summarily dismiss such statements as does this same reviewer because "He’s an evangelist, not a theologian" (Seedbed, p. 7). This last statement is frightening. If this is Mallouhi’s message then he IS NOT an evangelist according to the Bible. He also forfeits his ability to provide accurate Biblical commentary regardless of how much it appeals to Muslims. Another disturbing sign that Mallouhi should not be writing commentaries is his ridiculous hermeneutic on Matthew 5:17 ("Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them"):

My Lord said, "I did not come to demolish the law, but instead to fulfill (enrich) it." He takes me further, not to demolish our Arab duty, where we have hospitality, and kindness, and so on, but he enriches it, taking us farther and deeper into our culture—enhancing it. (p. 196)

This passage has NOTHING to do with Hebrew/Jewish culture (or any other culture for that matter) but with the Old Testament.

There is so much to find fault with concerning Chandler and Mallouhi it is difficult to be selective. Even though both Mallouhi’s ex-wife and current wife of over 30 years have Protestant connections a disturbing amount of vitriol is expressed towards Protestants, coupled with "intellectual dishonesty and tendentious reinterpretations" as Ibn Warraq subtitles a section in his recent book, Defending the West: a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. In fact, it would do the reader a great deal of good to read "Edward Said and the Saidists" (Defending the West, pp. 17-54) along with this book to help correct the extreme biases of both Chandler and Mallouhi which are very similar to Said’s. One example in particular is the statement: "Mazhar does however readily acknowledge that the existing translations of the Bible in Arabic have all been done by Christians for the minority Arab Christian population" (p. 158). Notwithstanding the aforementioned issues of existing Bible translations in Arabic, Mallouhi and Chandler need to do their homework concerning the "Van Dyck" translation. The Protestant missionaries who undertook the "Van Dyck" translation did it to provide an accurate rendering of the Bible into Arabic from the original languages that could be understood by Arabic readers everywhere, whether Muslim, Christian, or otherwise. Van Dyck was assisted by the Muslim Sheikh Yusef el Asir, a graduate of the famed Islamic seminary in Cairo, Al-Azhar, to help with the rendering in Arabic (cf. Fifty-Three Years in Syria by Henry Harris Jessup, chapter IV: The Arabic Bible—Its Translation and the Translators). How ironic that God was able to use this very translation to reveal himself to Mallouhi while a young man in the Syrian army and used a Protestant army officer to help disciple him!

Mallouhi has obviously been wounded by his experiences with Arabic-speaking Protestants and "Christian conservative evangelicals" and chides them for their hatred of Islam and inability to relate to Muslims, both of which are generally true, although the former is not unbiblical. However, as he bashes Protestants for their inability to appreciate and interact with Muslims, needlessly offending them by disregarding their culture, it is ironic, if not hypocritical that he himself engages in activities to which many Muslims would not only find offensive, but contribute to their incorrect ideas that they have of Christianity: he drinks red wine (p. 135), has used "Coptic Orthodox icons" in worship (p. 37), and is generally sympathetic to Roman Catholics (p. 60, 136, 187) although they are the ones who undertook the Crusades!

Another revealing look at Mallouhi’s thinking is found by contrasting his remarks about Samuel Zwemer, the once-famous missionary to Muslims, and Gandhi. Of Zwemer: "It is very sad that the spirit of Christ was not evident to some Muslims. So it requires generations of sowing the true spirit of Christ" (p. 194). Although he qualifies his judgment by saying "some Muslims," he implies that Zwemer did not have the "true spirit of Christ." Contrast that with his statement on p. 83: "Gandhi has taught me more of the spirit of Christ than perhaps anyone else." What a joke!! Zwemer, an outspoken advocate of the supremacy of Jesus Christ, did not have the spirit of Christ, but Gandhi, who, for all of his life was a professing Hindu, did! But this is not surprising considering that Mallouhi "views Gandhi as a ‘natural Christian’" and says, "I believe Gandhi loved Christ … And I fully expect to see Gandhi when we are privileged to enter God’s presence in eternity" (p. 123). Chandler gives his assent to this by writing that Mallouhi is "an example of ‘Christian fruit’ from Mahatma Gandhi’s life (p. 13; cf. last paragraph on p. 23). But why should this preoccupation with Gandhi be abnormal for one who stood, "barefoot in pilgrim reverence at the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi" (p. 13). [It is interesting to note that Zwemer’s book, The Solitary Throne: addresses … on the glory and the uniqueness of the Christian message, published in 1937, was specifically chosen as a direct rebuke to Gandhi’s statement: "I am unable to place Jesus Christ on a solitary throne."]

For Mallouhi, a professing idolater is a better representative of the Creator than "Christian conservative evangelicals … who are ‘too black and white on truth’ and who in his mind do not therefore reflect the spirit of Christ" (p. 79). In light of Romans 8:9 which states "if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ" this is a serious judgment!!! Therefore, Zwemer, and other "Christian conservative evangelicals," if Mallouhi is correct, cannot be Christians (i.e. belonging to Christ) but a person who professes belief in more than one God can be!?! For such a self-professed devotee of Jesus Mallouhi seems to forget that Jesus said "out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mt. 12:34). That confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord can be "optional" to salvation is blatant heresy:

"it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved" (Rom. 10:10),
"everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13 quoting Joel 2:32),
"I believed; therefore I have spoken" (2 Cor. 4:13 quoting Ps. 116:10)

and condemned by Jesus Himself:

"Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 10:32-33).

In conclusion—if words are to be taken at face value—Mallouhi is a Sufi Muslim with an infatuation for Jesus that often imitates evangelical commitment to Christ; at worst, he is a pilgrim who has lost his way by embracing doctrinal heresy to suit his emotional preferences. As a professing follower of Jesus, Mallouhi needs to repent of his doctrinal errors and for encouraging others to follow those same errors (as well as Chandler). Both of them are guilty of some form of universalism, that is, of proclaiming that there is salvation apart from Jesus Christ. For Mallouhi at least, Jesus Christ may be the most preferable way of salvation but according to Jesus, "no one comes to the Father except through me" and "[anyone] who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber" (John 14:6; 10:1). It is abominable that something so elementary and foundational to the Gospel is dismissed. May God in his mercy restore both of these men to the simplicity of the Gospel and limit the damage for those who will be emboldened to embrace the heresies they espouse and adopt the syncretistic practices that inevitably follow. This "new path" is best addressed by Scripture:

But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (2 Cor. 11:3-4)

Notwithstanding some of the valid cultural issues that Mallouhi raises, Chandler has chosen a poor doctrinal example to promote "insider" movements and C5-C6 contextualization/"Muslim followers of Christ" models. There are valid ways in which we can "be all things to all men" without compromising the truths of Scripture. After reading this book I prefer to keep Biblical faith and "ask for the old paths" (Jer. 6:16).

2 September 2008: Since writing my review in early August 2008, it has come to Mazhar Mallouhi's attention.  He granted an interview with one of his friends in which he responded to some of the issues that I raise; I hope permission will be granted to publish it here as well.  I have spoken with Mazhar face-to-face as well as on the phone in which he repeatedly stated to me that he believes the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and that he believes in Hell.  I urged him to do "whatever he can" to make sure that people who read "Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road" will find out what his real doctrinal positions are, if indeed they have been misrepresented in the book.

10 November 2011: As there have been no further positive developments .... we therefore now provide more data from our examination of Mallouhi's books themselves by looking at the (mis)translations of various Biblical terms and passages: Father, Son, Son of God, Son of Man, John 17:1-3, John 3:13-18, John 5:17-19

For more discussion on issues related to the "Insider Movement(s)", see the Biblical Missiology Blog.