We recently had the opportunity to talk with Abdu Murray about his new book Grand Central Question: Answering the Critical Concerns of the Major Worldviews (IVP, 2014). Murray is an attorney, a former Muslim, and an experienced apologist, and his book examines the critical questions of human existence in light of some of today’s major worldviews. This is part one of our interview.
CAA: For those who may not be familiar with your background, can you briefly share how you came to Christ and the ministry work you’re currently involved in?
AM: I grew up as a proud Muslim and I was eager to share Islam with the non-Muslims who surrounded me in the Detroit suburb where I grew up. In conversations with non-Muslim friends (especially nominal Christians, who I considered to be “low hanging fruit”), I frequently steered the discussion toward my favorite topics, God and theology. It was fairly easy to do because, as a Muslim in that context, I was “exotic,” which lead people to ask me about what I believed. I would then use those opportunities to talk about Islam and challenge Christianity. I would begin those conversations with a straightforward question that often caught Christians off-guard: “Why are you a Christian?” By far the most common response they gave was something like, “I was raised that way”, or “because my parents go to such and such a church.” I would then have a follow-up question: “Are you really going to trust your soul to a worldview just for tradition? Just because your parents believe it?” When those Christians would agree that tradition was not a good enough reason to believe something (and I still believe it’s not) I would then begin to challenge the Christian faith.
I typically began by challenging the Bible’s validity (if I could destroy a Christian’s confidence in the Bible, then I could more easily challenge the doctrines the Bible taught about God). Like most Muslims, I claimed that the Bible has been changed over the years, either intentionally or unintentionally, to include terrible blasphemies against God such as the incarnation of God in Christ, the atonement, and, of course, the Trinity. I would cite authorities like Bart Ehrman, claiming that even such “Christian scholars” (like a lot of Muslims, I considered anyone who was white and not a Jew to be a Christian) agree that the Bible has been changed. This argument would give me an avenue to talk about the Qur’an because, as a Muslim, I believed that the Gospel, the Torah, and the Psalms of David were once revealed by God, but became corrupted. And God revealed the Qur’an to humanity to correct all the corruptions of the previous scriptures and bring people back to true monotheism. To make that claim, I had to demonstrate that the Bible was in fact corrupted before the Qur’an’ advent in seventh century Arabia.
And while most Christians had very little to no response to any of my challenges, there were those precious few Christians who not only knew what they believed, but also why they believed it. Those Christians would challenge me back and give me something to think about. So I took it upon myself to learn more about Christianity so that I could use the information I learned against Christians. It was during my undergraduate days the University of Michigan that two Baptist gentlemen, named Dave and Pete, came to my apartment. They were going door-to-door to talk about Jesus with very little positive response. But when they knocked on my door, I was all too eager to invite them in.
We would discuss Islam and Christianity for hours at time and for multiple weeks in a row. Despite my arguments and objections, Dave and Pete kept coming back, the missionary equivalents of the Terminator. I decided to read the Bible carefully to point out a contradiction that would finally knock Dave and Pete down for good. But I didn’t anticipate the beauty and power of God’s word. I came acros Luke 3:7-8, where John the Baptist asks those coming to be baptized, “Who told you to flee from the coming wrath?” And then he says something interesting. “And do not even begin to think to yourself that you have Abraham as your father” as if that alone would save them from judgment. “For I tell you,” he says, “God is able to make children of Abraham from the stones.” Those words struck me because for the first time, I was confronted with the very challenge I had been leveling at Christians. When they said they relied on tradition for their beliefs, I remarked that tradition wasn’t a good enough reason. And John the Baptist was agreeing with me! But he also convicted me. By the power of the Holy Spirit inspiring his words so that I would read them 2,000 years later, John asked me what no Christian had ever asked me before: “Why are you a Muslim? Are you relying on tradition?” Sure, I had gathered plenty of evidence to back up my beliefs, but I suddenly knew that the real reason I was a Muslim was because I was born that way and I had to stay that way.
That realization spurred my nine-year search into the underpinnings of different worldviews. Over the course of those years. I began to see the evidence for the Christian faith, particularly the evidence for the authenticity of the Bible and historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Eventually, my mind could no longer to escape the objective truths of the Christian faith. They were, to quote Al Gore, “inconvenient truths” because I knew that becoming a Christian would cost me much, especially my identity. It took nine years to finally bend my knees to Christ, not because the answers were hard to find, but because they were hard to accept. But since then, I’ve come to realize that whatever I would lose was worth who I would gain.
From that experience, I’ve dedicated my life and ministry to offering the gospel’s credibility to non-Christians of every stripe—not just Muslims—in ways that touch the mind and the heart. I focus not just on providing apologetics, but in bringing the barriers to belief to the surface so that the answers that apologetics provides actually matter to the person asking the questions. And I firmly believe in equipping Christians to do the same. I’ve done that in churches, universities, conferences, and in the media.
CAA: What motivated you to write Grand Central Question? What will readers find that they may not come across in other volumes?
AM: I wrote Grand Central Question with on the basis of our ministry’s mission, which includes what I call “The Two E’s”: To engage non-Christians with the credibility of the gospel in ways that touch the mind and the heart and to equip Christians to do the same.
So I really had two motivations because I have two audiences in mind. Over the years, I’ve seen Christians daunted in their efforts to share the gospel because they felt that they needed to have expert-level knowledge about every aspect of non-Christian worldviews. I was also encountering non-Christians who kept raising the same questions (albeit in different forms) at my speaking engagements. For Christians, in Grand Central Question I hope to simplify the myriad questions so that Christians can become experts at communicating the gospel’s answers to life’s biggest questions to people regardless of their worldview. For non-Christians, I hope that Grand Central Question affirms their deepest questions while offering the gospel as the only worldview that really gives satisfactory answers. Obviously, there are many complex questions. But there really are core concerns that we are all trying to deal with, regardless of our backgrounds. And if we can answer those “grand central questions,” then we can approach the other questions with more confidence.
CAA: As someone coming from a Muslim background, how would you counsel Christians who are trying to share the gospel with Muslim friends or coworkers?
AM: I’m often asked this question and I usually start my answer with three deliberately chosen words: cultivate sincere relationships. As a Muslim, I could always tell which Christians tried to befriend me solely for evangelism. Non-Christians see that a mile away and it is quite off-putting. That’s why we need sincere relationships. So, become a Muslim’s friend even if that person shows no interest in hearing about Jesus. If you live a Christ-centered life, your convictions will become evident and opportunities to share your faith will come.
People are often intimidated by Muslims. Either they fear that Muslims will be hostile to talking about the difference between Christianity and Islam, or they feel that they need to know everything about Islam before approaching their friends and co-workers. It’s really not that hard. First, by far most Muslims are approachable and friendly. They want to form friendships with those around them, including non-Muslims. Muslims have no problem talking about religious matters. Muslims are often perplexed that Christians are so hesitant to discuss religion and politics. When I was growing up as a Muslim, I often wondered, “What else is there worth talking about?” So, feel free, even early in a relationship with a Muslim friend, to bring up spiritual matters. They will likely welcome it.
Which leads me to another point: Ask questions. If you don’t know much about Islam, you can find out a great deal by simply asking a Muslim friend or co-worker. If you’re a woman, ask a Muslim woman why she wears the hijab (head covering). Ask a Muslim what the Qur’an is. Or, better yet, ask them what they think of Jesus! They have an opinion about him and that will lead to great opportunities to share your opinions as well. And for heaven’s sake, show genuine interest in their answers.
CAA: I have found it frustrating that in modern, Western culture, so many people are seemingly oblivious to or apathetic about the grand questions of life and existence. Some skeptics have adopted the label “apatheist.” What are some ways to engage a person coming from this perspective?
AM: That can be tough because there really is no way to “make” someone care if they truly don’t. But I think true apathy is quite rare. The trick is to get them to admit that it isn’t that they don’t care, they just don’t want to critically examine their own views because that might be discomfiting. As Christians we know, however, that turning a blind eye to truth will lead to even more pain. As C.S. Lewis once said, ““If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperCollins ed., [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001], 32).
One way to do this is to point out to supposed apatheists that they seem to care about important truths that pertain to daily life all the time, and they’re willing to go through the process of making sure that they’re on the right side of those issues. They will take time to research the best schools for their kids, they get regular physical exams, they will make sure their tax returns are accurate, and they plan for retirement. In such cases, I often ask the question: “Why are you so concerned with those things, but not about your eternal destiny?” Their answers might reveal something important: it is not that they are apathetic about spiritual and philosophical questions. It’s that they are actually afraid of the answers they might come up with. In fact, I’ve seen people shocked to realize that about themselves because they’ve always thought of themselves as a believer in a higher power or as a “spiritual” person. But when I’ve pointed out that they spend so much effort on temporal things and almost no effort on eternal matters, they’ve suddenly realized that they have serious doubts about whether there are eternal realities. We need to carefully listen to how they describe their own apathy. I’ve noticed that when conversations turn spiritual, supposed apatheists will leave the room or say “I don’t like to talk about those kinds of things.” If they were truly apathetic, the conversation wouldn’t bother them. It would just bore them. But the fact that they don’t “like” those discussions gives us a clue as to what’s really going on. Whatever their reason for seeming apathetic is, I’m convinced that most people actually use apathy as a shield against having tough discussions. The art for the apologist is to use carefully worded questions to get at the root of that fear and bring it to light. We have to do this with gentleness of course. But once we do, a real conversation can begin.
In having those conversations, I like to follow a principle from something Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées : “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.” Apatheists aren’t apathetic about everything. Surely they care deeply about something. If we can find some core value that they share in common with us, we can artfully communicate how the gospel addresses that core value in the greatest way. If we rely on the Holy Spirit to move their minds and hearts (as only He can do), we can help such people wish Christianity were true and then show them that it is.