Christian or Christ follower?

When Muslims come to Christ they often suffer a cultural and religious identity crisis.

I recently spoke to a Muslim background believer on the phone.  He told me of his struggles to live as a Christian within a Muslim setting.  His extended family has many Muslim religious leaders and there has been much opposition.  He recently registered his oldest son in elementary school and wrote down his religion as “Christian.”  The teacher was shocked and refused to allow the word “Christian” beside his obviously Muslim family name.  However, after some discussion he persuaded the teacher to comply.

Contrast this with a discussion I had with a believer who had become a follower of Christ during the time we lived as a family in Pakistan.  He came to me somewhat disturbed and, after the appropriate amount of preliminary chat and the customary cup of tea, he asked, “Do I have to call myself ‘Christian’?” 
I asked him, “What is a Christian?” 
He replied, “They are a certain caste of people in Pakistan who sweep the streets, eat pork and sell liquor.” 
I said, “Oh.  That doesn’t describe you very well.  What do you consider yourself?” 
“I consider myself to be a follower of Jesus.” 
“OK,” I replied, “Call yourself that, but be sure that you do live like Jesus.”

Which approach is the right one?  As a cultural outsider, it is not my place to judge.  Instead I see my role as encouraging both these men to live faithfully to the form of discipleship they believe God is calling them to.

culturally Muslim while openly claiming Jesus as Lord

At the same time, there is a controversial movement of believers within the Islamic context who are remaining culturally Muslim while openly claiming Jesus as Lord.  Consider these excerpts from an essay entitled “Transformation versus Rupture” by someone who calls himself a Muslim follower of Christ (from Chandler, Paul Gordon. Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: exploring a new path between two faiths. Plymouth Cowley Pub. 2007, pp 116-117):

In my life I have pitifully seen the wretched destinies – in the cultural sense – of Muslims who have become Christians. They sometimes personified the concept of total alienation because they seemed to have undergone a process of eradication from their [indigenous] cultural soil. Eradication! Detraditionalisation! Deculturation! Deracination! The whole thing entailed a renunciation of one’s culture and traditions.

I have always wondered if it was really necessary to renounce one’s own Islamic culture to deserve Christ’s message. A renunciation, which in cultural terms means auto-destruction…. Culture is built into the heart of the heart. That is why a person who renounces his culture is doomed to remain till the end of his days suffering a terrible crisis of identity.

… if in Islam as a religion (i.e. a set of religious beliefs) difference of opinion is possible, Islam as a culture has a powerful impact which is impossible to rid oneself of. Thus in terms of culture, a Muslim remains a Muslim despite himself because he has been built as such.

This is why it is a bad approach to try to transmit Christ’s message to a Muslim by undermining lslam. (i.e. trying to efface the halo from above the great representative figures of Islamic culture.)… It is also a bad approach to make him feel that the mosque, which is a powerful spiritual and cultural space, is a negative and adversary place. It is also a house of God where if he likes he can experience his new relation with Jesus. It is also better to not make him feel that fasting during Ramadan alienates him from Christ’s message, but that he can give Ramadan fasting a new spiritual orientation through Christ.

It is also better not to ask him to affect a rupture with his spiritual verbal discourse. Let him in his prayers keep the name that Jesus is given in Islam, because that is the name dear and familiar and dose to him: and so with the other Biblical names. Let him keep the basic prayer formulas common in Islamic praying discourse. This will make him feel at home in his new relation with Jesus.

The main objective … is to experience conversion as a transformation … rather than rupture. [end quote]

This is not a sentiment that every Muslim background believer holds to, but it does represent the internal spiritual and cultural struggle that followers of Christ face within an Islamic context.

See also: Missions and Other religions, Is Allah God? and How are we to think about God in Islam?