By Zaine Abd Al-Qays, in the March 16, 2020 issue of Christianity Today ( http://www.christianitytoday.com )
I Was Warned to Keep My Distance from ‘Infidels.’ Then One Prayed for My Family. How a son of the Arabian Gulf met the Son of God in a strange new place.
My story begins in the Arabian Gulf region, where my tribe raised me as a devout Muslim. When I was a child, my father would wake me up at 5 a.m. so we could attend morning prayer at the mosque. Each day, I would sit with my uncles to read and study the Qur’an. By age 10, I had memorized the majority of the book, since family members would award me $100 for each chapter I could recite.
Growing up, I performed my mandatory prayers in the mosque and even woke up each night to pray for an extra hour. I was proud to be zealous in my faith. I wanted to obtain the blessings and favor of God, as well as the esteem of my family.
The first major turning point in my life occurred when my family moved to an English-speaking country. I hated it there. We went from being wealthy to dividing a two-room apartment among six family members. Barely anyone shared our faith or culture. I had a conversation with my grandmother, who warned me, “Watch out for the infidels, and don’t befriend or associate with them; they are a disease on society.”
At school, I formed an Islamic group that worked aggressively to make everyone around us conform to our religion. We demanded that the school serve halal food exclusively. During Ramadan, we would walk around forcing other students to pray with us. On one occasion, when another student criticized our behavior, a Muslim friend head-butted him violently, breaking his nose. We were all awestruck that someone had taken it upon himself to punish this infidel for his disrespect.
Meanwhile, I prayed for the death and destruction of Jews and Christians, the “atheists” who were unclean, equal to pigs and dogs, and not to be touched. At this point, I had never met a Christian, but I assumed they hated Muslims because they were jealous of Islam’s greatness. When a Christian man wanted to visit our apartment, we were strongly opposed, fearing his presence would contaminate both our home and our souls.
My first conversation with a Christian was with that same man. He came to our home bearing gifts—clothes for our family and a car for my father. He spoke to me with love and kindness. He even asked to pray for us, bowing his head and saying, “Father in heaven, I pray for your blessings upon this family. Show them your love, mercy, and grace.” It shocked me to see him pray this way while I was praying for his punishment.
Over time, I formed friendships with Christians, but I questioned them about their faith relentlessly, hoping to expose Christianity as irrational. But despite my efforts, they wouldn’t be deterred from trusting in Christ. Part of me admired their reverence for God, but I still viewed Christianity as a religion of confusion and fables.
My Christian friends knew I was struggling to adapt to my new life—that I missed my family and former community. They invited me to a church service for prayer and support. Initially I refused, but eventually I gave in. Entering the church, I experienced a strange sensation: As people began praising God, I felt an overwhelming surge of emotion and fell to my knees. I felt helpless and weak—but also as if someone was assuring me that everything would work out. I didn’t understand what was happening, but my friends were confident this sense of comfort had come from God.
After the service, I received a Bible and a contact form. I was afraid to provide any details, because I knew my family might disown me if anyone discovered that I had visited a church. But I decided to take the Bible and fill out the form with false information. Days later, I started reading the New Testament and fell in love with the character of Jesus. As a Muslim, I knew of Jesus, but I was unfamiliar with the miracles he had performed and the claims he had made about his status as God’s Son.
Within months, I had read the Bible in its entirety. Then I read it a few more times. The more I read, the more I saw God as my true and loving Father. God’s Word spoke to all the difficult situations in my life, to my many fears and anxieties. I knew that whenever I opened the Bible, I would feel God’s comfort.
One day I went up to my room, locked the door, fell on my face, and prayed to God, telling him I would put my trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. I wanted to share this decision with my family, but I was terrified of the repercussions. I remember calling my favorite aunt—she was like a mother to me—and asking, “If I was to believe in Christ, what would you think?” She responded, “You would be given three chances to return to Islam or be put to death.” After that, I decided to keep my faith hidden.
I started waking up every Sunday morning to attend church, but my family noticed these strange absences. They also noticed that I hadn’t been praying or reading my Qur’an. When my mother and my siblings found my Bible, they had proof I had become a Christian. One night, around 2 a.m., I received a call from my grandfather—the head of our tribe. As we spoke about my faith, he grew angry, shouting, “You are no longer part of the family! Change your name—you are dead to us!”
I sent him an image of the cross and a passage from the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). But this was powerless against his wrath. My uncle called me with a warning: “Gather your family, pack your bags, and move out of the house,” he said, “because your grandfather is going to terrorist groups, and if they find you, they will kill every single person in the house.
My family disowned me, and I disowned them in return. My pride in my new faith caused me to isolate myself. As far as I was concerned, they represented Islam and sin, while I represented Christ and righteousness.
Looking back, I can see that the boastful spirit I had developed as a Muslim carried over into my newfound Christianity. Even when I tried defending biblical doctrines and explaining the nature of the Trinity, I did so mainly to demonstrate my spiritual superiority. I needed to let go of my pride so I could love my Muslim family and community. I didn’t need to fear that I was abandoning Christ by participating in their events and celebrations.
In I Corinthians, Paul writes, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. . . . I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:20, 22). From his example, I learned that I can retain my traditions and honor my elders while remaining a follower of Christ, adapting to the Arabic culture to better reach those within it for Christ. Adopting this mindset has improved relations with my family, some of whom have now heard the gospel with warm hearts.
Today, I work for a ministry that shares God’s love with Muslims, presenting Christ in a way that connects with their cultural background and speaks to their interest in themes of shame and honor. Like Paul, “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (I Corinthians 9:23).
Zaine Abd Al-Qays (a pseudonym used for security reasons) is the founder of Al Haqq Ministries.
Matthew 5:43-44 — (Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Romans 12:21 — Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I Corinthians 9:22b-23 — I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
God of love, who sent Jesus Christ to seek and save the lost, may we who have been found by him value those who do not believe, and never shun neighbors who reject you. Remembering how our faith was given, may we preach good news with good will, trusting you to follow up your Word, so that all may hear and believe and come to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Presbyterian Hymnal, 1970, page 180.