James White, David Wood and Nabeel Qureshi: Reaching Muslims
By: Deji Yesufu
This story is a two year old controversy that I have chosen to bring up because it might prove relevant to the way and manner some of us do ministry in Nigeria. It is a sensitive issue and I suspect that it was not more popular in the USA, where it initially started, because it was somewhat of a feud between Christians. It is possible that some of us are aware of the dramatis personae; so I would offer some kind of brief introduction – at least for those who do not know those who are involved and then I would try to reach a relevant conclusion on the whole matter.
Reaching Muslims with the gospel of Jesus Christ is a vital ministry. Our world has about the same number of Muslims and Christians, and any Christian worth his salt knows that it is incumbent on him to share the gospel with his Muslim neighbor, with the hope that Christ may open their hearts to understand the gospel and be saved. What became something of a feud between David Wood and James White, two of Americas leading evangelists to Muslims in the West, is the matter of methodology. White had released series of videos criticizing the way Wood was going about his apologetics; while Wood does not feel that White has the monopoly of methodologies. In the midst of the debate, Nabeel Qureshi, a Muslim convert to Christianity, whom Wood led to Christ after four years of witnessing to him, died. Nabeel had himself become a foremost apologist. He was working with the Ravi Zechariahs Ministry, when it was discovered that he had stage-4 stomach cancers and he passed away in September, 2017. Before his death, Nabeel had published three books – all of which were bestsellers; with his “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus” the most popular. Nabeel was turning out to be the foremost voice for Christianity in reaching Muslims when the cold hands of death snatched him. Christians take comfort in the fact that God knows what he is doing and trust that more Nabeel Qureshi will arise from this seed that perished.
It is this glowing testimony around David Wood that launched his ministry to a new height. But David, true to his conviction as a witness for Christ to Muslims, realized that certain elements were missing in Christians’ outreach to Muslims. David argues that his experience with Nabeel led him to realize that there are certain strongholds in the Muslim’s minds that must be pulled down if one would ever get the gospel to reach them. The first has to be the integrity of the Qu’ran. James White and David Wood are mostly agreed on this point. They see that if they would help Muslims realize that the Qu’ran does not carry the kind of authenticity that many Muslims are made to believe it has, there might be a space in their minds to convince them about the veracity of the Bible and win them to the gospel.
Another stronghold in the Muslim’s mind has to do with the person of Mohammed. While the Muslim is made to believe that Mohammed is a prophet of God, they are also taught to see him as the exemplary Muslim. What many Muslims however do not know is that there are many things about Mohammed that are not exactly exemplary, which are both recorded in Qur’an and the Hadiths. One of such things is what the world is battling with today – Islam and violence. It appears that the Qur’an teaches that the upright Muslim is the person who wages wars to spread the message of Islam and the foremost example in this is Mohammed himself. David Wood argues that the violence we see in the Muslim world with groups like ISIS and Boko Haram are persons who are laboring to follow Mohammed’s example. If other Muslims are not doing this, it is because they have been largely westernized and they understand the place of tolerance in human relations and morality. Wood argues that Mohammed never exercised such tolerance in his relations to his neighbors.
It is on this matter of showing Mohammed to the world for what he is, based on the records of the Hadiths, that Wood and White have come to differ. Admittedly, David Wood and two of his friends went a bit further than many would by publishing 32 videos, at an average of eight minutes each, which they titled Islamicize Me. In these videos, which can be viewed on YouTube, Wood and two others embark on a thirty day journey to becoming Muslims. The whole idea is to use satire to get a message out: Mohammed is not exactly the exemplary person that Muslims paint him to be. Using quotations from the Hadiths, mostly, these men tell the world some very unsavory things about Mohammed. They also make the videos in story formats that are laced with a lot of humor. The moment the videos began to come out, James White lashes out at David Wood and makes it clear that these videos cannot be useful means to reach Muslims.
Remember, however, David Wood’s experience with Nabeel Qureshi. Nabeel comes to faith in Christ because he saw first of all that the Qu’ran authenticity was questionable. Secondly, Nabeel becomes a Christian because he learns of so many things about Mohammed that most Muslims do not know. In the light of all these, David Wood was able to show him a Jesus who lived uprightly and righteously. In the end, Nabeel becomes a Christian and the testimony of many other Muslims is that they also left Islam because they realize that the one they were following was not particularly exemplary.
Those who read my blog know my profound respect for James White. I have written about him a couple of times here. One thing I have however come to be quite uncomfortable with is this: James White reaches out to Muslims; he presents the gospel to them; but he leaves out too much leverage for them to discard the message. In a 2018 G3 conference that held in Atlanta, Georgia, White debates Adnan Rashid before a Christian congregation. At the close of the day, one could almost go away with the feeling that White was keeping himself from saying certain obvious facts so that he would not offend his Muslim friend. At the end of that debate, while White would normally have presented a good argument, his opponent appeared to have won. Why? Because his opponent was not afraid to say the things that needed to be said. In another occasion, James White enters into a dialogue with a Muslim. He opens the discussion with the fact that he does not feel that these discussion will change either of their minds but that the discussions were necessary all the same. If debates or discussions are not means to reach a community of people with the truth of the gospel and change their minds, I am at a loss as to what else they are meant to do.
David Wood is obviously not afraid to hurt the feelings of Muslims. It is clear to him that if he is able to bring a Muslim to question the character of the leader of the Muslim religion, he would have succeeded in helping this person to question the whole religion. Incidentally, David Wood has a celebrated example in the person of Nabeel Qureshi.
It is okay for anyone to think that I am defending Wood without sufficient data in hand; I think that the little data I was able to glean from watching these videos off YouTube is indeed sufficient. What bothers me, however, is that many of us Christians do not realize the immense mission field that we have in the hundreds of Muslims we meet with on a weekly basis and we underestimate the immense resources we have to reach out to them. Thankfully a lot of Christians are doing their bit to reach Muslim; but I think we can all do more. What I do not think we should be doing is criticizing the methodology that other Christians are using to do it all because it offends our sensibility and offends our Muslim friends. We understand that the message of the gospel is already offensive. Our calling is not to reduce the offence of the cross; we are called to bear this offence by faithfully witnessing to the gospel.
The many accounts that I have gleaned has shown that while many Muslims will be unhappy when they learn about some unsavory truths on Mohammed, many other Muslims will equally be led to question their faith and ultimately grasp the gospel and believe in a Christ who died and rose again to save them from their sins. We are in a post-religious world today. The conflict between Islam and Christianity is reducing because there are fewer and fewer persons who are committed to the tenets of the two religions. However, the greater percentage tilts to the Christian world and if we are not careful, Islam would invade the West with their ideology and practices and take over these places – the same way they took over much of the Middle East where Christianity once thrived. These are the things that David Wood and James White see that has made them to step up in their efforts to reach Muslims. I find it disappointing, however, that brothers in Christ would be bickering over methodology when millions of souls in the Muslim world pour into a Christ-less eternity every day.
Another concern I have over this matter bothers on the issue of pragmatism; the tendency to think that one’s own method of doing things is the right one, while the one employed by another person, which might seem a bit unorthodox, is not the right one. James White said that what David Wood was doing in those “Islamicize Me” videos ran afoul of scriptures like 1 Peter 3:15 and Ephesians 5:4. The first scripture talks about presenting our apologetics with gentleness and respect. The other scripture said that foolish talking and crude joking should not be found with Christians. Wood, in response, said that there was a place for presenting the gospel with gentleness and respect. There was also a place for rightful rebuke. That when Jesus addressed the Pharisees in Matthew 23, there was no gentleness or even respect about it; neither was he doing this when he drove out the money-changers. Wood also made the point that his videos did not carry any course words and their jokes were satires pointing to the errors of Islam.
In my estimation, I think that James White made a point and that this is a necessary concern that Wood or others like him should employ if they were ever to embark on a similar project again. But I have seen those videos and I do not see anything course or foolish joking in them. The videos where clearly satirical and the target audience would get the message quite easily. I think that White was reading too much into those videos and his bid to discredit them, he only went further to make them more popular. I believe that God led David Wood to make those videos and that there are a certain set of people that need to hear these messages to under the errors in Islam. It is however very uncomfortable to see Muslim debaters employ James White’s criticism of David Wood, and use those points against Christians in debates. If Muslims are celebrating White and his methodologies, he may want to again re-examine them. What is clear from scripture is that while God’s people are not meant to intentionally offend unbelievers; our ways and methods should not at the same time become something they applaud.
PS: Nabeel Qureshi’s testimony of his conversion from Islam to Christianity is one of the most powerful testimonies to the power of the gospel in recent times. You can watch a YouTube clip of it here: https://youtu.be/k0D8Uz4oQck