Especially for Muslims

Although I publish some tough, hard-hitting articles and news stories on Islam here, I am driven by a desire to share the Orthodox Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially with Muslims.

I believe that each and every person is loved by God, and, as the scripture says, has been created in the image and according to the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). This is a profound honor and mystery, which we are all called to honor in return, in ourselves and in others. In this mystery lies the infinite worth of each human person.

Yet we are incapable by our own efforts of honoring the image of God within ourselves or within others. We sin daily, we fall short, we "miss the mark" (Greek: hamartia, the word most used for "sin" in the New Testament). Only Jesus Christ perfectly honored the image of God, in Himself, and in others. By being united to Jesus in and through His Church, we are made partakers of His life, and share in His righteousness, renewing the image of God in ourselves, and, as we grow in Him, perfecting the likeness of God in our own lives.

If this mystery resonates with you, if this reaches your heart, then I invite you to seek and learn about Jesus Christ in and through the Orthodox Church, the most ancient, unbroken living tradition of the Christian faith. There are some excellent resources on the website Journey to Orthodoxy (including many accounts of Muslim converts to Christ), and I have posted numerous accounts here on the Facing Islam Blog of Muslim coming to Jesus as well.   I fervently believe that if you seek God with your whole heart and ask Him to reveal the truth to you, He will do so, for as Jesus tells us in the Gospel,

"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." (Matthew 7:7-8)

For Muslims seeking to know more about Jesus Christ and Christianity I can think of no better teacher in our time than Orthodox Christian Priest Fr Daniel Byantoro of Indonesia. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Fr. Daniel. Fr Daniel is a convert to Christ from Islam. He grew up in Indonesia in a Muslim household, and so has a unique understanding and way of expressing the Orthodox Christian Faith which is very helpful to Muslims — and to other Orthodox! His life story is that of one who asked, sought and knocked. You can read about Fr Daniel's conversion and his mission to Muslims in Indonesia here.


Orthodoxy in Indonesia
An Interview with Archimandrite Daniel Bambang Dwi Byantoro
by Thomas Hulbert, Road to Emmaeus Vol 2, No 3

Thomas: How do you approach the souls that come to you? If they are Moslem how do you work with them and how do you explain the difference between Christianity and Islam. How do you draw them in?

Fr. Daniel: I think that in any missionary work, you must first of all understand the culture of the people and you have to be able to speak within the bounds of that cultural language, because otherwise your word cannot be heard or understood. So, when you talk with a Moslem, you must understand the Moslem mind. Don’t just try to throw in words and phrases that are familiar to Christians, to Orthodox, because they will not be understood by a Moslem. First of all, when you talk to a Moslem, you have to emphasize that God is One.

Thomas: Because they already believe this?

Fr. Daniel: Not only because they already believe this, but because they accuse us [the Christians] of having three gods. That is the problem. So, you have to clear up the misunderstanding that we worship three gods. Don’t try to use our traditional language, like Father, Son and Holy Spirit – because for them, that is three gods! In their minds, the Father is different, the Son is different, the Holy Spirit is different. For myself, I emphasize that God is One, that this One God is also the Living God, and as the Living God He has Mind. Because if God didn’t have a mind, I’m sorry to say, He would be like an idiot. God has to have a mind. Within the Mind of God there is the Word. Thus, the Word of God is contained within God Himself. So, God in His Word is not two, but one. God is full with His own Word; He is pregnant with Word. And that Word of God is then revealed to man. The thing that is contained within – like being impregnated within oneself – when it is revealed, it is called being born out of that person. That is why the Word of God is called the Son: He is the Child Who is born from within God, but outside time. So, that is why this One God is called the Father, because He has His own Word Who is born out of Him, and is called the Son. So, Father and Son are not two gods. The Father is One God, the Son is that Word of God. The Moslem believes that God created the world through the Word. So what the Moslem believes in as Word, is what the Christians call the Son! In that way, we can explain to them that God does not have a son separate from Himself.

Thomas: So the Moslems see our idea of the Son of God in terms of physical sonship.

Fr. Daniel: Yes, of course. And God does not have a son in that way, that’s true. He is not begetting in the sense of a human being giving birth. He is called the Father because He produces from Himself, His own Word, and that Word is the Son.

So because God is the living God, He must have the principle of life within Himself. In man, this principle of life is man’s spirit. God is the same. The principle of life within God is the Spirit of God. It is called the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is not the name of the Angel Gabriel, as the Moslems understand it. The Holy Spirit is the living principle, the principle of life and power within God Himself. This One God is called the Father because He produced from Himself His own Word, which is called the Son, and the Word of God is called the Son because He is born out of the Father eternally, without beginning, without end. This One Living God also has Spirit within Himself. So, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one God. This is the way we explain to Moslems about the Trinity, and we should not try to use our language of “Father and Son, co-equal, co-...” something like that. Even though it is our Christian terminology, they will not understand this. The purpose is not to theologize to them but to explain the reality of the Gospel in a way that is understandable to them. This is point number one: you have to be clear about the Trinity.

The second point is this: the basic difference between Islam and Christianity concerns revelation. In Islam, God does not reveal Himself. God only sends down His word. “Revelation” in Islam means “the sending down of the word of God” through the prophets. And that word is then written down and becomes scripture. So in Islam, revelation means the “inscripturization” of the word of God while in Christianity, it is not the same. The Word was sent down to the womb of the Virgin Mary, took flesh and became man. Namely, Jesus Christ. So, the two religions believe that God communicated Himself to man by means of the Word, but the difference is how that Word manifested in the world. In Christianity it is manifested in the person of Jesus Christ and in Islam it is manifested in the form of a book, the Koran. So, the place of Mohammed in Islam is parallel to the place of the Virgin Mary in Orthodox Christianity. That is why in Islam the Moslems respect Mohammed, not as a god, but as the bearer of revelations. Just as the Orthodox Church respects the Virgin Mary not as a goddess but as the bearer of the Word of God, who gave birth to the Word of God. Incidentally, the two religions both give salutations, to Mohammed for the Moslems and to the Virgin Mary for Christians. The Moslems also have a kind of akathist, like a paraclesis but to Mohammed! It is called the depa abarjanji – in Orthodox terms it would be a “canon” to Mohammed, because he is the bearer of the revelation.

Thomas: So Mohammed is venerated like a saint?

Fr. Daniel: He is venerated, yes. Very much so. But there are also the Sufi Moslems, who sometimes believe that Mohammed was “already there,” like the Arian misunderstanding of Christ. In their view, Mohammed was the “first created soul,” for whom the world was created. This is called the Nor-Mohammed. So, the purpose of Islamic mystics is to be like Mohammed, to imitate him.

Thomas: To be the bearer of the Word?

Fr. Daniel: As Mohammed was.

Thomas: So, that is why Sufi mystics are perhaps not so legalistic?

Fr. Daniel: Yes, they are more mystical.

So, for us, the image of the Church is the Virgin Mary. We are called to be like the Virgin Mary in our submission to God. The Virgin Mary is the picture, the image, or I should say, the icon of the Church. Mohammed is the “icon” of the ideal Moslem man, and because of that the way we worship diverges. In Christianity, because the Word became a man, became flesh, for us to be united with that Word we have to be united with the content of that revelation. What is the content? The incarnation, crucifixion, death and resurrection of that Person. In order for us to be united with the content of that revelation, we have to be united in that Person, namely in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How? Through baptism. And we also have to be united with the life of the resurrection of that incarnate Word. How? By the Holy Spirit, through Chrismation. So, the sacraments are very important for us because God became man. He sanctified the physical world so that the physical elements of nature can be used as the means by which we are united
with the person of Christ in the sacraments.

In Islam, however, because the word becomes a book, the content of the book is writing. It is not flesh. So, that is why in order for a Moslem to unite with the content of the two-fold revelation (that God is one and that Mohammed is His prophet) one has to recite the source of revelation – because it is a book. But you cannot be united with or immersed in a book, you can only memorize the content of the book in the original form, namely in Arabic. So, Arabic scripture is the form of that revelation. The God-Man Jesus is the form of that revelation in Christianity. In order for a person to be initiated into Islamic revelation, you must confess the creed: “I confess that there is no God except Allah, and that Mohammed is the Apostle of Allah.” When you confess that, you become Moslem. There is no baptism, you are not united in the death of anyone, you are only united to the form of the revelation. To stay united to the revelation, you must keep the prayers. In prayer you recite the Koran, so five times a day you pray, five times a day you immerse yourself in the ocean of divine revelation, which is the Koran. Prayer itself is the sacrament of Islam. In order for us Christians to be immersed in the form of the revelation, which is Jesus Christ, we have to partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ continually. In that way we are united to Jesus Christ, while in Islam the recitation of the Koran is the most important thing, because it is a form of sacrament to the Moslems.

So those are the basic differences. This is a way to understand the Moslem mind instead of just arguing against them.

Thomas: Would you say that most Muslims are conscious of this theological aspect of God and man’s relationship to Him?

Fr. Daniel: Yes, of course, through the Koran, through the prophets. 

Thomas: In Islam, is a person’s manner of life of secondary importance to the correct understanding of the form of revelation?

Fr. Daniel: In the manner of life, Islam refers again to the form of revelation, which is a book. The content of the book is writing, the writing is law, so the law has to be obeyed. If we have the imitation of Christ and His teachings, they have the imitation of Mohammed and the Koran. That is why the life of a Moslem is dictated and governed by the law of the Koran, while our life is dictated by the law of Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Thomas: What is the difference then between following these two laws?

Fr. Daniel: In Islam, there is no new birth, just a return to God, which means repentance. This is called submission to God.

Thomas: And that is the meaning of the word Islam, “to submit?”

Fr. Daniel: Yes. Islam means submission to God. That is the way we have to understand the difference between the way of life of Islam and of Orthodox Christianity. There are some parallel ways of thinking, but very different con- tent. The main difference is that in Orthodox Christianity the Word became flesh and in Islam the word became a book. That is the main difference.

Thomas: How do Moslem converts to Orthodoxy sustain their belief in the predominantly Moslem society of Indonesia? Do you have communities of Orthodox Christians who live together and support each other in the hostile religious environment, or is the parish way of life more common?

Fr. Daniel: No, we don’t really have any special kind of community where we live together. We are spread out geographically like other Christians, and we come to the church for services. But as to how we withstand the environment – the way I do it is that I teach very strong Bible classes in Indonesian. Every day I have Bible study before Holy Communion. In between Orthros [Matins] and Liturgy there is always Bible study. And in my Bible study, there is always a comparison between Christianity and Islam, all the time. It reminds people that this is Christianity and this over here is Islam. For example, I ask questions like: “OK, in nature which is higher, a human being or a book?” Being formed by Moslem culture, some of them say “a book.” So then I’ll ask them, “Which is higher, then, revelation of God in the form of a human being or in the form of a book?” Of course, revelation is higher in the form of a human being. They can see that from God Himself. So, God the Word become flesh, the Word become man, is higher than the word which became a book. That’s number one. Second, if in the past God sent down His word through the prophets in the form of a book, namely the Old Testament, and the Old Testament has been fulfilled completely in the form of man, Jesus Christ, is it possible, after the Word of God has been fulfilled in man, that God would revert to the old way, sending a book again? Of course not! When the Word has become man, it is already complete. And that Man, Jesus Christ, is still alive! So, it is impossible that God would again send another revelation in the form of a book. From our point of understanding, it is not possible. For us, the most perfect prophet and the last revelation of God is Jesus Christ. There is no need for any other revelation. This is the point I emphasize again and again. They understand this quite well. So this is how we keep holding onto the path of Christ in spite of so many attacks from the Moslems.

Thomas: The Moslems pressure the Christians, then, knowing that they can tempt them with these deeply-rooted cultural ideas? 

Fr. Daniel: Yes.

Thomas: Maybe you could tell us more about this. What are the difficulties that Christians encounter in a Moslem environment? 

Fr. Daniel: You know, when you are living among a Moslem majority, sometimes you are afraid of being asked about your faith. Christian people who have been formed in a Moslem environment cannot always explain themselves; and Moslems, fearing that Christian “heresies” will spread are always ready to attack – about the “three gods,” about “worshiping a human being,” about the cross, about all the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. Christians are often not ready to answer these things. Also, almost every morning all of the Indonesian TV channels broadcast about Islam. There is no other religion being aired. Everyone is bombarded with Islam, the mosques are plastered with loud speakers and people are always talking against Christianity. The police do not do anything. In this way, we have been psychologically defeated. Many books are written attacking Christianity and there is no way to answer them because when a Christian tries to answer about his faith he has to criticize Islam and this is very difficult. There will be a reactionary demonstration against him. In the city of Solo, there is a man by the name of Achmed Wilson who became a Christian. He is now on trial in court because he was asked on a call-in radio program what he thought about Mohammed, and he answered that he believed as a Christian. So, this is a great problem for him now. Things like this are very common.

Thomas: So there is no real religious freedom?

Fr. Daniel: No. Don’t even think about it. It is very difficult when you live in such a society. You are allowed to criticize the idea of God because god is a general term. The Buddhists believe in a god, the Hindus believe in a god, the Christians believe in a god, but don’t criticize Mohammed because that is distinctly Islamic. You can criticize the idea of God, you can become an atheist, but don’t say anything about Mohammed or you’ll be in trouble.

Thomas: How do former Moslems who convert to Orthodoxy cope with family situations? Are they able to continue to live with their non-Christian family members? Are they accepted?

Fr. Daniel: Some of them are accepted and some are not. There are cases when they return to their former beliefs, to their families, and confess Islam again, although when they meet me they still say that they believe in Christ. They do believe and they worship secretly in their homes, but they cannot come to church. Several of our people are like that. Some of the families are better. They are more open and they let their children continue in their Christian faith without being disturbed. It differs with each person, from area to area, and even from one ethnic group to another. Some ethnic groups are more fanatical than others.

Thomas: How do you encourage Orthodox Christians to conduct themselves in public given this dangerous environment? We here in Europe often read about persecution and martyrdom in Indonesia.

Fr. Daniel: I always teach them that if there is no possible way to escape (even if we have been trying to be good and obey the laws of society), if we become known as a believer, if they stigmatize us as unbelievers as heretics or whatever, then it is obvious there is no other way – if martyrdom comes, then we have to accept it. If you cannot escape being a martyr, do it! Go for it! I teach this in church, and I say, even to myself, that there is no other way. But still, we do not try to provoke other people. Even if we evangelize, we evangelize nicely, explaining our faith like: “this is your faith and this is our faith.” We do not degrade other people’s beliefs.

Thomas: How would you encourage Christians to look at Moslems? There are two tendencies in the West: either to unconcernedly accept Islamic people and ideas regardless of their growing numbers and cultural and religious influence; or to see them as bogey men responsible for many of the world’s current political problems. Of course, we know that as individuals there are many wonderful individual Moslem people who are charitable and generous to their neighbors regardless of creed, but for many of us the overall influence of modern Islam, particularly on Christian populations, is a question. We do not want to be naive on one hand, nor uncharitable on the other. Do you have any thoughts on this?


Fr. Daniel: It is a difficult problem indeed, even for us, because there is always a dialectical relationship between us and them. In Indonesia, because they are the majority, we have to befriend them, there is no other choice. Individually, we must treat them as anyone should be treated – with love. But theologically we have to stand on what we believe to be true, there can be no compromise...