“All arabs are muslims!” This is probably what comes to mind when we hear the word Arabs. Most of us in the West use the words Arab and Muslim interchangeably, and some even might use them synonymously. Admittedly, many Muslims promote such notions in an attempt to overshadow the presence of millions of Christians in the Arab world.
However, not all Arabs are Muslims, just as not all Muslims are Arabs. The fact is that the Christian faith reached the Arabs in the first century long before Islam was established in the seventh century. The gospel of Christ was announced to Arabs on the Day of Pentecost, as Luke records in Acts 2:11. Speaking in tongues supernaturally given by the Holy Spirit, Peter and the disciples proclaimed the mighty works of God in many languages, including Arabic. The good news of salvation spread across what is today the Arab world, and churches were established in major cities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Key church fathers flourished in North Africa, including Clement (150–215); Origen (184–253); and Athanasius (296–373) in Alexandria, Egypt; Tertullian (160–220) in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia); and Augustine (354–430) in Hippo (the modern city of Annaba, Algeria). The Catechetical School of Alexandria, one of the most important centers of Christian learning in the early church, was established in the second century to teach subjects such as theology, Christian philosophy, and the Bible as well as science, mathematics, logic, and arts.
With the rise of Islam, however, Christianity suffered greatly in the MENA regions. Yet, by God’s grace, the church there has continued throughout the ages in the face of opposition and persecution. Although Islam is the predominant religion in the Arab world, we must never forget or neglect the millions of Arab Christians who trace the roots of their Christian faith to the Day of Pentecost and the subsequent missions work of Christ’s disciples and Apostles.
Globally, there are 420 million Arabic speakers today. They live in the Middle East, in North Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula, and in diaspora around the world. The three main regions comprise twenty-five countries. Although these countries are ethnically diverse, Arabic is the dominant language and Islam is the dominant religion. Yet in many Arab nations, Christian churches are established, fellowships are formed, and even Bible schools and seminaries are set up for leadership training and biblical education. The Arabian Peninsula is the very heartland of Islam. There has not been a viable church in that region in 1,400 years since the creation of Islam. Yet there is a growing number of believers in each of the seven countries on the peninsula: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
The upheavals associated with the “Arab Spring,” which started in late 2010 and led to destabilization and the resignation of political leaders, have given birth to a new, unprecedented era of questioning long-established traditions, political views, and religious beliefs among Arabs. Political uprisings brought about a fresh sense of freedom among Muslims to criticize their religious leaders. Furthermore, the rise of ISIS, which proclaims itself to be the true representation of Islam and forcefully compels conversion, upon penalty of death, of all those who come under its dominion, has led many Muslims to abandon Islam in pursuit of the truth and to look for answers to their spiritual questions. As a result, thousands of Muslims have been converting to Christianity in North Africa. In northern Algeria, a Christian revival has been underway for quite a few years among the Kabyle people group, many of whom are coming to faith in the Lord Jesus. Moreover, a mini revival has been happening in Yemen in the midst of a tragic civil war that has been destroying the country and its people. The media has called this war the “forgotten war,” but we know the Lord has not forgotten His people there. The horrific civil war in Yemen and the oppression in Saudi Arabia have made people aware of their need, making them more open to the gospel. Indeed, God is breaking through two of the most conservative Islamic countries in the world today.
The cost to follow Christ is extremely high in any Arab country. These new believers from a Muslim background face potential and real persecution daily. It is illegal in the Arab world to convert from Islam to Christianity, so new Christians are sometimes sent to jail or killed. Many of them are deprived of any Christian fellowship, and some of them live in places where there is not an indigenous church. In many Arab countries, it is legally prohibited to hold Christian meetings at home. Nevertheless, new believers meet secretly in small home groups to study the Bible and to pray for one another.
Still, the Arabic-speaking church is facing different kinds of challenges, which can be divided into two main groups. First, there are challenges that come from the East. These challenges include asceticism, Gnosticism, mysticism, and monasticism. These “spiritual” and philosophical trends are typically associated with Eastern churches found in Arab countries (historically, these church families include the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Oriental Orthodox churches, and the Eastern Catholic churches), which teach a works-based salvation and emphatically reject the teachings of the Reformation. Of course, challenges from the East include what Islam brings with its denial of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the crucifixion.
The second group of challenges comes from the West. The mainline Protestant churches in the MENA regions are largely stained by liberal theology exported from the West. The exclusivity of Christ and salvation in His name alone are seen as forms of fundamentalism that are incompatible with modernity. As a result, syncretism is spreading like wildfire in many Middle Eastern countries. Moreover, Western religious cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, and the Seventh-day Adventists, are actively promoting their teachings and trying to make converts. Health, wealth, and prosperity preachers are making their way to Arab countries through translation and video dubbing. Charismatic movements have produced pastors in many Arab countries who undermine the sufficiency of the Scriptures and seek extrabiblical revelation.
Amid these sorts of challenges, however, our sovereign Lord has not left Himself without witness and has not abandoned His church in the Arab world. Faithful churches exist in the Arabic world, proclaiming the excellencies of Christ and the glories of His gospel. Today, the gospel is advancing among Arabs in unprecedented ways despite opposition and challenges. Jesus is expanding His kingdom even in the Arab world.
The growing interest in Christianity among Arabs raises this question: How will Arabic-speaking believers be built up in the faith when there is no access to sound biblical resources in their own language? Churches in the Arab world are facing the need to give biblical answers to Muslims who are asking theological questions. In addition, many churches lack a basic knowledge of biblical evangelism, missions, and discipleship. Sound biblical and theological resources from a Reformed perspective are very rare in Arabic. Most Christian materials available in the Arab world either reflect the teachings of the prosperity gospel, promote liberal theology, or are written from the standpoint of the Eastern churches. Evangelical churches are requesting theological resources and training to equip their members and build them up in the faith.
That is why on March 15, Ligonier Ministries announced the launch of its Arabic outreach. This major new initiative includes a website (ar.ligonier.org) and social media platforms where Arabic-speaking people from any country can freely access trustworthy theological and biblical resources in Arabic. Newly translated articles, books, and video teaching series are added regularly to the website. These materials are translated into Modern Standard Arabic to overcome the differences among colloquial Arabic dialects and regional subdialects. Modern Standard Arabic is widely understood among Arabic speakers. The accessibility of the Internet and new advances in technology, including smartphones and tablets, have enabled digital resource distribution to reach millions of people in closed countries where it was nearly impossible before to bring the gospel. Ligonier’s video teaching series with Arabic subtitles are broadcast to the Arab world on a Christian satellite TV station three days a week. Through Ligonier’s efforts, the truth of God’s Word is shared among millions of Arabs in their own land and in their own language.
In addition, Ligonier is working with well-known Christian publishing houses in the Middle East and North Africa to plan the translation, printing, and distribution of a variety of titles by Dr. R.C. Sproul and others. These international partnerships with churches, organizations, and publishers seek to encourage Arabic-speaking Christians with the Word of God, especially in the midst of great suffering and turmoil.
We know that God will establish His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. So, let us pray that He will minister to our Arabic-speaking brothers and sisters whom He has chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).