Ever since 9/11, Islam has captured the attention of millions of people who otherwise would not give it a second thought. Nevertheless, most non-Muslims still have little or no comprehension of the mindset of the typical Muslim. Understanding how Muslims think and what motivates their beliefs and behavior is naturally of great interest to evangelical Christians, who hope that Muslims will convert to the Christian faith. But even secular Westerners would be well-advised to disabuse themselves of common misconceptions, such as the idea that Muslims who live in the West are more than happy to buy into Western ideologies and behaviors, as long as they are given some space to practice a few religious rituals quietly and privately.
Stories of converts from Islam can be particularly illuminating, because they bring to the foreground many issues that might otherwise be hidden. Not only must the convert himself grapple explicitly with ideas and habits that are often taken for granted, but the reaction of the community to a conversion can reveal attitudes and beliefs that may not be evident under “normal circumstances.”
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi is a particularly vivid and well-written example of a conversion story. The son of a Pakistani man who moved to the United States and joined the Navy to build a better life for his family, Qureshi moved frequently as a child, spending considerable time in Scotland as well as the United States. His parents were devout Ahmadi Muslims, and invested a lot of time and effort teaching Qureshi and his sister about Islam—not just the basic doctrinal facts, although these were repeatedly emphasized, but also how to live one’s entire life as a faithful Muslim. In the first two parts of the book, Qureshi gives an illuminating account of Islam, explaining not just the beliefs, but showing how thoroughly Islam permeates the daily lives of the Muslim community. The first words ever spoken to Qureshi, at birth, were the adhan, the daily call to prayer. Every day, he would hear his parents recite salaat (ritual prayers, offered five times daily: fajr, zuhr, asr, maghrib, and isha) and du’aa (prayers for various occasions). His mother ensured that he and his sister had read through the entire Quran by the age of six or seven. Whenever possible, they would go to the mosque on Fridays (jumaa, the Muslim Sabbath day) to pray with the jamaat (the Muslim assembly). Community life is extremely important to Muslims. There are recognized authorities: imams (who lead prayer at mosques), ulema (scholars versed in Islam and sharia law), and muftis (judges who may issue a fatwa or legal ruling). During Ramadan, the iftar (the daily fast-breaking meal) is often a social event.
Qureshi was not just a nominal Muslim. His mother emphasized that since he was often the only Muslim in a Western context, he had a special responsibility.
Always remember this: no matter where you are or what you are doing, you are an ambassador for Islam. You will always be an ambassador for Islam. … Be such a virtuous person that no one can ever point a finger of blame at you. In their hearts, they will praise you because they will know you are honorable, or they will dislike you because they dislike themselves. Either way, they will know that Islam has made you the good person you are.Although Qureshi did by and large obey his mother’s exhortation, as a third culture kid struggling to find his identity during adolescence, he did not always fall exactly in line with his parents’ expectations. Whether because of personal temperament or the influence of Western ideas, or both, Qureshi developed a taste for critical thinking. As he explains, this was somewhat unusual for a Muslim.
People from Eastern Islamic cultures generally assess truth through lines of authority, not individual reasoning. Of course, individuals do engage in critical reasoning in the East, but on average, it is relatively less valued and less prevalent than in the West. Leaders have done the critical reasoning, and leaders know best. Receiving input from multiple sources and then critically examining the data to distill a truth is an exercise for specialists, not the common man.As a high school student, he would get into informal debates with his fellow students about Christianity and Islam. For the most part, his classmates were not equipped to rebut the standard challenges to Christianity that Qureshi had learned from studying Islamic apologetics, and so he experienced no crisis of faith. In fact, one of the most striking events during this period of his life was something that cemented his belief in God. At a gathering of tens of thousands of Ahmadi Muslims called a jalsa, Qureshi was hoping to reunite with some old friends, the Maliks, but he had no idea whether they were even there, let alone where to find them. So he prayed to God to help him find his friends.
When I opened my eyes, what I saw stunned me stock-still.
In the air before me were two streaks of color, one gold and one silver,
as if whimsically painted onto the sky by an ethereal brush.
They trailed into the distance, obviously leading me somewhere.
I still remember the words I spoke in shock: “You’re kidding. I’m supposed to follow those, right?”
Whether I was speaking to God or myself, I am not sure. What I intrinsically knew was that no one could see the stripes but me. They were not so much in the sky as they were in my perception of the sky. They were neither a mile away, nor a foot away, nor anywhere in between. They just were. And they were waiting for me.
The jalsa was crowded, and everyone was outside the tents because there was no speech currently in session. I followed the streaks into swarms of people, sifting my way through the crowd as if in a Pakistani bazaar.
And in fact, the streaks swirled over the jalsa marketplace. … The streaks funneled downward, dissipating over a space next to a clothing tent. When I weeded my way to the clearing, I saw two men standing there, chatting and trying on skullcaps. It took a moment, but I recognized them: they were the older Malik brothers.
Qureshi’s journey towards Christianity really began when he was befriended by a college classmate, David Wood, who was not only serious about his Christian faith but was Qureshi’s intellectual equal and loyal friend. In the book, Qureshi repeatedly emphasizes how the strength of his personal relationship with David was absolutely crucial in his faith journey. Because they were both so passionate about their faith and so honest in their discussions, tensions would inevitably flare up.
But it didn’t matter how rough our relationship got,
because we were living life together. Even if we were at
our wits’ end, vowing in moments of anger to never
deal with one another ever again, we would be forced to smooth
things out when we ran into each other in forensics practice later
that week. Or in class the next day. Or, in the case of our
argument about Paul, just twenty minutes later, because David
needed a ride.
This is only one of the reasons why a strong friendship is critical. A surface-level relationship might snap under the tension of disagreement, but by living our lives together, we were forced to reconcile.
Six of the ten parts of the book are devoted to Qureshi’s intellectual exploration of Muslim and Christian apologetics. The arguments from the Christian side were mostly familiar to me, but I gained some new insights into Muslim apologetics. For example, during an informal debate between Qureshi’s father and the well-known apologist Gary Habermas, it emerged that a popular Muslim view of Jesus’ crucifixion was that he never actually died on the cross—the so-called “swoon theory.” There is a popular Muslim book Jesus in India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad that makes this case in detail. As another example, there is a 1976 book The Bible, the Quran, and Science by a French convert to Islam, Maurice Bucaille, that argues that the remarkable scientific accuracy of the Quran proves its divine origin. At the end of most of these apologetics chapters, Qureshi directs readers to his companion book, No God but One: Allah or Jesus? which goes into more detail about apologetics.
One anecdote that I found particularly interesting was the moment when Qureshi came to terms with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which is anathema to Muslims because it smacks of polytheism. It happened during chemistry class, when he was being taught the concept of molecular resonance.
Projected in the front of the room were three large depictions of
nitrate in bold black and white. We were studying resonance,
the configuration of electrons in certain molecules. The basic
concept of resonance is easy enough to understand, even without a
background in chemistry. Essentially, the building block of every
physical object is an atom, a positively charged nucleus orbited
by tiny, negatively charged electrons. Atoms bond to one another
by sharing their electrons, forming a molecule. Different arrangements
of the electrons in certain molecules are called “resonance
structures.” Some molecules, like water, have no resonance
while others have three resonance structures or more, like the
nitrate on the board.
Although the concept was easy enough to grasp, the reality proved to be baffling. Mrs. Adamski concluded her lesson by commenting, “These drawings are just the best way to represent resonance structures on paper, but it’s actually much more complicated. Technically, a molecule with resonance is every one of its structures at every point in time, yet no single one of its structures at any point in time.” The rest of the class must have had the same expressions on their faces that I did because Mrs. Adamski repeated herself. “It’s all the structures all the time, never just one of them.”
Qureshi was thunderstruck by this manifestation of “three-in-one” in hardcore science, and it led him to abandon his objection to the Trinity. (Note to scientists: At first I thought that Qureshi was describing quantum superposition, but when I tried to learn more about molecular resonance, I discovered that the relevant keyword is “Lewis theory” and that the superposition of Lewis molecular structures is not, strictly speaking, a quantum superposition, but is just an approximation to the quantum-mechanical description of the molecule.)
During the later stages of Qureshi’s investigations, the books of hadith (traditional material about Muhammad’s words and actions) played an important role. Unlike the Quran, the hadith are not considered infallible, but some are considered highly trustworthy. According to Qureshi, Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim are considered to be the most reliable. What Qureshi found disturbing was that even Sahih Bukhari painted a picture of Muhammad and of the process of compiling the Quran that were at odds with the picture he had been taught growing up. Far from being a peaceful man, Muhammad often engaged in violence, and not just in self-defense. The supposed word-for-word perfect transmission of the Quran also did not square with the account in Sahih Bukhari. Though it is acceptable for a Muslim to explain away such difficulties by rejecting individual portions of the hadith, Qureshi eventually decided that there was just too much troubling information in the hadith to dismiss.
Over the course of several years, Qureshi’s intellectual beliefs shifted dramatically, but he was still unwilling to make the decisive step of converting to Christianity, for at least two reasons. One, he knew that in the context of the honor/shame culture of Islam that permeated his family, his conversion would devastate his family. “My decision would shame my family with incredible dishonor. Even if I were right about Jesus, could I do such a terrible thing to my family? After everything they had done for me?” Two, although he was leaning towards Christianity, he was not absolutely sure.
The greatest concern for me, were I to accept Jesus as Lord, was that I might be wrong. What if Jesus is not God? I’d be worshiping a human. That would incur the wrath of Allah, and more than anything else, it would secure my abode in hell.
Torn, Qureshi begged God for a sign, and he received one. Praying in his darkened hotel room, he suddenly saw a vision of field of crosses. He was stunned, but still unconvinced. The sign was not clear enough for him. So he begged God for a dream to confirm the vision. That very night he had a dream unlike any other dream he had ever had.
In the beginning of the dream there was a poisonous snake with
red and black bands going around it, separated by thin white stripes.
All it did was hiss at people when they stepped into the garden.
The people in the garden couldn’t see it—it was far
away and watching from a perch on a stone pillar. This pillar
was across a chasm. The perch then became my vantage point for
the first half of my dream.
In a garden-like area with hills and lush green grass and trees, there was a huge iguana, like a dragon. It would lie still and hide by becoming like a hill—no one who walked on it knew it was an iguana. If they had known, they would be scared, but the iguana liked the fact that no one knew. Then a giant boy came, and this giant boy knew that the iguana was an iguana, and he stepped on it, accusing it of being an iguana. The iguana got angry, so he reared back to bite the giant boy, who had stepped on its tail.
As the iguana was about to bite the boy, the boy had a huge cricket that challenged the iguana to a fight. My vantage point changes now, and I am directly beneath the iguana, looking up at its head. The iguana nodded and accepted the challenge, and as the cricket flew away to go to a fighting place, the iguana turned to me and tried to lunge at me and kill me. The cricket saw that the iguana was lunging at me, so he came back and bit its head off, decapitating it.
Remarkably, when he called his mother to consult a Muslim dream interpretation book by Ibn Sirin, he learned that many of the symbols in the dream matched his life situation with uncanny accuracy. According to Ibn Sirin, if someone turns in to a snake, it means that he is questioning his religion. A stone pillar means someone’s religion is changing very quickly. A monitor lizard—the closest match in the book to an iguana—means a cruel, hidden enemy who appears very great and fearsome, but if it is challenged, it will fail because of its inability to provide proof. A beautiful boy is a friend who helps you overcome your enemies, who is the bearer of good news, and who will provide you with something you are seeking, something that will give you an abundant life. A locust—the closest match in the book to a cricket—means a warrior that will bring you joy and happiness and will help you overcome your enemies. The inexactness of the match between an iguana and a monitor lizard, and between a cricket and a locust, did not bother Qureshi once he noticed that Iguana and Islam both started with an I, and Cricket and Christianity both started with a C.
The final tipping point for Qureshi was that he asked for two more dreams, and he received them. The first of the two contained a clear allusion to Jesus’ parable of the narrow gate, which Qureshi was unfamiliar with at the time, but which David Wood was quick to explain to him.
I am standing at the entrance of a narrow doorway that is built into a wall of brick. I am not in the doorway but just in front of it. The doorway is an arch. I would say the doorway is about seven and a half feet tall, with about six and a half feet of its sides being straight up from the ground, and there’s a one foot arched part on the top capping it off. The doorway is slightly less than three feet wide and about three or four feet deep, all brick. It leads into a room, where many people are sitting at tables that have fancy and good food on them. I think I remember salads, but I’m not sure. They were not eating, but they were all ready to eat, and they were all looking to my left, as if waiting for a speaker before a banquet. One of the people, at the other side of the door just inside the room, is David Wood. I am unable to walk into the room because David is occupying the other threshold of the doorway. He is sitting at a table and is also looking to my left. I asked him, “I thought we were going to eat together?” And he said, without removing his eyes from the front of the room, “You never responded.”
In the final dream, Qureshi found himself sitting at the foot of the stairs leading out of a mosque. These three dreams were the last straw. Still filled with inner turmoil about the difficult decision facing him, Qureshi skipped the first day of his second year at medical school to stay at home and read the Quran and the Bible. The Quran was lifeless to him but when he started reading the gospel of Matthew, he found he could not stop. Soon he became a convert and he was baptized.
Qureshi writes well, and the thrill of following alongside his journey of discovery is reason enough to read the book. Beyond that, however, I took away at least three key insights.
The first is that I gained a better appreciation of just how powerful the social forces are that prevent Muslims from giving up Islam. Even in a Western country, isolated from most other Muslims, the social penalty for abandoning Islam is so strong that even a man as independent-minded as Qureshi almost could not bear to do so. Even secular Westerners who have no interest in converting Muslims away from Islam need to understand that Islam, for most of its followers, is not a private religious belief but a social framework and world view according to which Western countries are bastions of false religion and decadence, which must be resisted, and ideally converted to Islam.
The second is that I was struck by how both personal friendships and classical apologetics played a crucial role in Qureshi’s conversion to Christianity. In all likelihood, neither one by itself would have tipped the balance. Without a loyal Christian friend and a supporting Christian community to turn to after losing his Muslim community, Qureshi might never have had the courage to convert—at least not publicly. On the other hand, when Qureshi was in high school, he had some Christian friends who tried to convert him, but their lack of ability to counter his Islamic apologetics left him unmoved. The importance to Qureshi of apologetics and religious scholarship is underlined by the appendices of the book, which feature contributions by noted scholars, including the renowned apologist Josh McDowell. Note also that Qureshi ended up abandoning his medical career to join Ravi Zacharias ministries.
The third is that I was amazed at how important a role dreams played in Qureshi’s conversion. I had heard secondhand from missionaries to Muslim countries how important dreams were to Muslims, but Qureshi’s story cemented this fact in my mind.
The expanded version of Qureshi’s book contains an epilogue with some further information about his personal life after his conversion. But the final epilogue to Qureshi’s story is not in the book: in late 2017, Qureshi finally succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of 34. Some Muslims saw this as God’s judgment on Qureshi for the sin of apostasy. But I will let Ravi Zacharias have the last word:
I mourn your loss. I weep over a friendship that was so short. You taught me so much. You often asked me after a message, “Uncle, how did I do?” My delight was great. Greater will be your delight now as you ask your Lord and your God, “Father, how did I do?” You will hear the divine accolade: “Well done, my child.”