Islam’s new enemy
Unknown to most English speakers, Islam is currently under attack (at least that’s how many Muslims depict it) from Christian Arabic missionary satellite stations. Spearheading this phenomenon is Al-Hayat (Life TV).
This station is dedicated to discussing religious issues – specifically, the shortcomings and problems that beset Islam but are absent from Christianity.
Life TV has rocked the Islamic world and has been successful in winning converts from Islam, as Arab Christians confront and criticise Islam while unabashedly proclaiming their faith.
One programme I have followed is Su’al Jari’ (‘Daring Question’). Hosted by Muslim converts to Christianity known only by their first names Rachid and Ahmed, the show is one of the most watched programmes on Arabic satellite. It has come under increasing attack from Muslims, not least because of its evangelistic success.
Islam’s enemy number one
But perhaps the most notable ministry is that of Coptic priest Zakaria Botros – named Islam’s ‘Public Enemy No.1’ by the Arabic newspaper, Al-Insan al-Jadid. He has won an enormous following using satellite uplinks, Wi-Fi connectivity and a well-known reference tool he calls ‘St Google’. He can spend 14 hours a day researching each show.
Along with fellow missionaries (mostly Muslim converts) he appears frequently on Al-Hayat addressing controversial theological topics – free from the censorship imposed by Islamic authorities or self-imposed through fear of reprisals. Botros’ exposures of little-known but embarrassing aspects of Islamic law and tradition have become a thorn in the side of Islamic leaders.
Father Zakaria, as he is known to millions, appears onscreen robed and wearing a huge cross around his neck, sitting with both the Qur’an and the Bible in easy reach. Egypt’s Copts – one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East – have in many respects come to personify the demeaning Islamic institution of ‘dhimmitude’ – which demands submissiveness from non-Muslims in accordance with Qur’an 9:29.
But the fiery Botros neither submits nor minces his words. He has famously made ‘ten demands’,1 highlighting Islam’s own drastic demands on non-Muslims.
Besides the weekly TV programme, Thursdays find him seated with his laptop participating in the ‘Truth Talk’ chat room. When he logs on, hundreds of others, already online, begin to ask him questions about Islam and Christianity – all behind the anonymity of their internet names.
Botros spends six hours conversing and answering questions. The result? Many conversions to Christianity – if clandestine ones. Many phone to share their stories and the channel’s web site is full of genuine testimonies of people who have left Islam and trusted the Lord Jesus.
When I visited Morocco recently, a local pastor told me about a few Moroccans he knew personally who had been saved by watching Life TV. Indeed, Islamic cleric Ahmad al-Qatani recently stated on Al-Jazeera TV that some six million Muslims convert to Christianity annually, many of them persuaded by Botros’ public ministry. I’m not sure how accurate this figure is, but something significant is certainly happening.
Why Botros succeeds
Several factors account for the Botros phenomenon. First, the new media, particularly satellite TV and the Internet (the main conduits for Life TV) have made it possible to question Islam publicly without fear of reprisal.
Secondly, Botros’ broadcasts are in Arabic, the language of some 200 million people, most of them Muslim. Western writers have published persuasive critiques of Islam but their arguments go largely unnoticed in the Islamic world.
Botros’ mastery of classical Arabic not only allows him to reach a broader audience, but also enables him to delve into the voluminous Arabic literature – much of it untapped by Western writers. He can thus alert the average Muslim to discrepancies and affronts to moral common sense found within this vast corpus.
A third reason is Botros’ polemical technique. Each of his episodes has a theme, often expressed as a question (e.g. Is jihad an obligation for all Muslims?; Are women inferior to men in Islam?’; Did Mohammed say that adulterous female monkeys should be stoned?).
To answer the question, Botros quotes from authoritative Islamic texts on the subject – always giving sources and references. Starting with the Qur’an, he proceeds to the canonical sayings of the prophet (the Hadith) and finally quotes prominent Muslim theologians past and present – the illustrious ulama.
But Botros always treats the question as still open – and humbly invites the revered articulators of sharia law to respond and show where he is wrong. He does demand, however, that their response be based not on shout-downs or sophistry but on al-dalil we al-burhan – ‘evidence and proof’.
How do the ulama respond?
More often than not, the response is deafening silence – which attracts even more Muslim viewers. Those ulama who have replied publicly often find themselves forced to agree with Botros – which has led to some amusing (and embarrassing) moments on live Arabic TV.
Botros spent three years bringing to public attention a scandalous (and authentic) Hadith stating that women should ‘breastfeed’ strange men with whom they spend any amount of time. A leading Hadith scholar, Abd al-Muhdi, was confronted with this issue on the live talk show of popular Arabic host Hala Sirhan.
Opting to be truthful, al-Muhdi confirmed that breastfeeding adult males is, according to sharia, a legitimate way of making married women ‘forbidden’ to other men – the logic being that breastfed men become ‘sons’ to the women and therefore can no longer have sexual designs on them.
To make matters worse, the head of the Hadith department at al-Azhar University (Sunni Islam’s most authoritative institution) issued a fatwa legitimising Rida’ al-Kibir (‘breastfeeding the adult’). This prompted such outrage in the Islamic world that it was subsequently recanted.2
Botros played the key role in exposing this obscure and embarrassing issue and forcing the ulama to respond. Another guest on Hala Sirhan’s show, Abd al-Fatah, declared, ‘I know you all [fellow panelists] watch that channel and that priest and that none of you [pointing at Abd al-Muhdi] can ever respond to him, since he always documents his sources!’
Incapable of rebutting Botros, the only strategy left to the ulama (aside from death threats) is to ignore him. They could easily refute his points, they insist, but will not deign to do so. That strategy may satisfy some Muslims but others are demanding straightforward responses from the ulama.
A dramatic example3 of this occurred on the international Islamic station, Iqra. The host, Basma – a conservative Muslim woman in full hijab – asked two prominent ulama, including Sheikh Gamal Qutb, one-time grand mufti of al-Azhar University, to explain the legality of the Qur’anic verse (4:24) that permits sexual enslavement of captive women.
She repeatedly asked: ‘According to sharia, is slave-sex still applicable?’ The two ulama dissembled, giving no clear answer. Basma persisted: Muslim youth were confused, she said, and needed a response, since ‘there is a certain channel and a certain man who has discussed this issue over twenty times and has received no response from you’.
The flustered Sheikh roared, ‘Low-life people like that must be totally ignored!’ and stormed off the set.
But the ultimate cause of Botros’ success is that his primary interest is the salvation of souls. His motive is not to incite the West against Islam or demonise Muslims, but to draw them away from the dead legalism of sharia to the living spirituality of Christianity.
He often begins and concludes his programmes by stating that he loves all Muslims as fellow humans and wants to lead them from falsehood to truth. To that end, he doesn’t just expose troubling aspects of Islam but ends every programme with pertinent Bible verses, inviting his viewers to come to Christ.
Botros grew up in a Christian family in Alexandria. Muslim attackers killed his older brother when he was a young teenager. ‘Instead of anger against Muslims, the Lord saved me from that. I had pity on them’, he said.
Twice he was jailed for preaching the gospel to Muslims. A judge sentenced him to life in prison but ordered his release on the condition of forced exile. He had to leave Egypt and never return.
By that time he had ministered in Cairo for over 30 years but moved to England with his wife, where he ministered in a Coptic church for 11 years before ‘retiring’ to begin the television and internet ministry.
Botros’ fearless determination in the face of Muslim hostility, and his willingness to label Islam a false religion – when many Christian leaders are seeking common ground with its worshippers – earn him a heady following and serious enemies. Jihadists have reportedly posted a $60 million death threat against him. His name and photo have appeared on an Al-Qaeda web site seeking retribution for his teachings.
We would not agree with all Botros’ Coptic theology, but his proclamation of the gospel of grace is clear and commendable. If only for that reason, we should support him in prayer.
E. M. Hicham
E. M. Hicham is an assistant pastor and author of Your questions answered: a reply to Muslim friends, published by Evangelical Press. He is also a founder member of MEC Word of Hope Ministries – a non-profit-making literature ministry producing literature for Muslim evangelism. For more details visit: http://www.word-of-hope.net.
2. Read an interesting article at: http://memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=IA35507
3. For those who understand Arabic: http://info.islamexplained.com/Responsetoshows/tabid/513/Default.aspx