Recently, on an
unbearably hot July afternoon in Delhi, I found myself standing
barefoot in pilgrim reverence at the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi
(1869–1948). This self-proclaimed Hindu has been called one of the
most Christlike men in history. When India, a Hindu-majority nation
with a large Muslim population, wanted to pay its highest compliment
to its most famous native son, it chose to describe him as a
Christlike man.1 Missionaries in India were
greatly influenced by his example of Christlike living. They would
sit at his feet, seeking to learn what it meant to live like Christ
within the Indian context in order to communicate him more
effectively to a Hindu and Muslim populace.2
Gandhi was captivated by the person and message of Christ. He spoke of the
Sermon on the Mount as going “straight to my heart.”3
While Gandhi remained fundamentally a Hindu in outward things, he
was more Christlike than most Christians, with his inner life more
and more transformed toward Christ. In many ways Gandhi, a
non-Christian, helped to Christianize unchristian Christianity, yet
his influence for Christ on Hindus and Muslims was even greater. His
life, outlook, and methods provoked great interest—indeed
A Peaceable and Sacrificial Approach
Christians to make love their “working force,” adopting it as a
total way of life, “for love is the center and soul of
Christianity.”5 This advice fits with an early
picture we have of Gandhi, as reported by C. F. Andrews. Andrews, a
respected Scottish Anglican missionary to India, once visited Gandhi
at the Phoenix Ashram in South Africa, where he found Gandhi
surrounded by children, whom he loved. A baby girl belonging to a
family that in India was considered untouchable was in his arms,
along with a little Muslim boy who was an invalid. Gandhi’s
tenderness toward the smallest thing that suffered pain was part of
his devout search for truth, or God.6
Gandhi would constantly say to Christians and missionaries, “Don’t talk about it.
The rose doesn’t have to propagate its perfume. It just gives it
forth, and people are drawn to it. Live it and people will come to
see the source of your power.”7 Because of Gandhi,
a non-organized “Christ following” arose in India, apart from the
church. The leading ideas of this movement were love, service, and
self-sacrifice, which created an atmosphere for understanding the Gospel.
Gandhi called his type of power “soul force” or “the power of suffering”: taking
suffering on oneself but never causing suffering. Normally, the
Hindu doctrine of karma has little or no room for the cross. But
with Gandhi’s teaching that Hindus could joyously take on suffering
for the sake of achieving righteous purposes, there came a new
sensitivity to the cross.8 In light of this shift,
a Hindu intellectual once said, “What the missionaries have not been
able to do in fifty years, Gandhi by his life, trial and
incarceration has done, namely, he has turned the eyes of India
toward the cross.”9
Gandhi’s humility and sacrificial nature were particularly evident in his
relationships with Muslims. At the age of seventy eight, during the
riots in Calcutta between Muslims and Hindus, he chose to stay in a
Muslim home in the very center of the riot district. There he
welcomed the Muslim former premier, called “The Butcher” by Hindus
because they believed he had incited the riots, who stayed with him.
In order to stop the br /utalities, Gandhi went on a fast until death.
As a result, after seventy-two hours both sides came to him to
guarantee the lives of the opposite community with their own lives,
laying all their weapons at his feet. Later at the even greater
Hindu-Muslim riots in Delhi in early 1948, he drew up eight points
on which all must agree, or he would fast until death. All eight
points shamelessly favored the Muslims, including returning 117
mosques that had been converted into Hindu temples or residences. On
the sixth day of the fast, the parties signed the “Pact of Peace.”
Gandhi’s last pilgrimage was to Mehrauli, a Muslim shrine seven miles south of New
Delhi. Muslim women who had been fasting with Gandhi had complained
to him that Hindu violence had kept them from going alone to
Mehrauli. Gandhi therefore chose to accompany them. Once at the
Muslim shrine, which had been vandalized by Hindus, Gandhi promised
that it would be repaired. Three days later he was murdered by a
Hindu fundamentalist who was incensed at his kindness to Muslims.10
The example of Gandhi’s sacrificial approach made it easier for Indians to move
from the thought that if one man could take suffering on himself in
order to br /ing peace and reconciliation between two religious
communities, then if there was one divine and holy enough, this one
might take on himself the sin of the whole human race in order to
br /ing peace and reconciliation between us and God.11
When Gandhi died for the nation of India, his death pointed to the
cross, supplying on a national scale an illustration of what we see
in Christ on the cross. In the Muslim city of Hyderabad Gandhi’s
death was commemorated by a procession carrying his garlanded
picture with a cross above it.They saw the connection.
Though Gandhi’s life shed much light on the cross, there is much more in the cross
than his own experience illustrated. Furthermore, the final goal is
not just interest in Christ but faith in Christ. Gandhi’s life,
however, raises the question of what the effect in the Middle East
might be if those who bear Christ’s name were really more like
Christ, catching and demonstrating his spirit and outlook.
Perhaps unknown to himself, Gandhi presented an Eastern face of Christ to India. By his
life, Gandhi helped Indians to visualize Christ walking down Eastern
roads, dwelling among Eastern villagers in lowly poverty,
simplicity, and love. Many Hindus believed Gandhi was the Eastern
incarnation of Christ, and others began to see the meaning of the
cross because they had seen it in one of their sons.12
Gandhi reflected the Easternness of Christ, and this Easternness had
profound implications in the Indian context. One Christmas day
Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel-Prize-winning Bengali poet and friend
of Gandhi, wrote this amazing prayer: “Great-souled Christ, on this
blessed day of your birth, we who are not Christians bow before you.
We love you and worship you, we non-Christians, for with Asia you
are bound with the ties of blood.”13
A Muslim Disciple
Gandhi’s unintentional witness of Christ to Hindus and Muslims stretched over
time to 1959 and geographically west from India to the Middle East,
touching Mazhar Mallouhi, the celebr /ated Arab novelist and
publisher, as a young man posted on the Golan Heights as a soldier
in the Syrian army who was looking for spiritual life. The story of
how Mallouhi met Christ through Gandhi is yet another example of
God’s using unexpected and irregular channels to accomplish his
purposes. Born into a large Muslim family in Syria that has
produced a number of well-known writers, including one uncle who
translated all of Chairman Mao’s works into Arabic, Mallouhi cares
deeply for his country and is proud of its heritage. His family is
also very proud of their religious heritage. A family tree in a gold
frame showing the Mallouhis’ descent from the Prophet Mohammed hangs
on their wall. To date the family has produced Muslim clerics,
Communist political activists—and one disciple of Christ.
An avid reader from his childhood, Mallouhi spent much time alone with books. At an
early age he began to have religious questions but was strongly
discouraged from asking them, for according to Islam it is
blasphemous to question God. “When I read the Qur’an, I pictured God
up in the sky smoking his water pipe. He had given me his book but
had no involvement in my daily life or in the suffering of humanity
below.”14 Spiritual restlessness led Mallouhi to
study many Eastern religions, as well as ancient Greek and Roman
religious beliefs. His search led him to conclude that because
humans had created a hell on earth, they had created “God” as an
escape so as to obtain peace of mind. Furthermore, he observed that
the leaders of all the religions preached something they themselves
could not live; all were striving for something they never actually
experienced or realized. This conclusion led him to reject his
family’s plan that he pursue a religious vocation as a cleric.
Though Muslims respect Christ highly, Mallouhi refused to study the Christian
faith. He saw Christianity as a tool of oppressive colonialists, a
Western religion that was continuing its medieval Crusades against
the Arab people. Western “Christian” nations gave blind support to
the injustices of the State of Israel against the Palestinian
people. He observed Christians calling Christ the Prince of Peace
but then supporting and waging war. “The most beautiful part of the
Gospel, the cross, became a weapon used against us in Crusaders’
hands. The cross, where God had embr /aced humanity, had become a
sword,” he says. (The Arabic word for Crusader means “cross-bearer.”)
During the 1950s Mallouhi, like many moderate Syrian intellectuals, joined a popular
secular political party. He also began to write for newspapers and
publish some of his poetry. During this period he started reading
Gandhi’s works and learning about Gandhi’s nonviolent movement, and
soon he discovered Gandhi’s great respect for Christ. Mallouhi began
to see a different Christ through Gandhi’s eyes than he had heard
about previously. He was fascinated, he says, to see how “Gandhi
took Christian principles without Christ against a Christian nation
[England] without Christian principles and won the battle.”
“Gandhi stands out to me as the one person who most dramatically demonstrated Christ’s
teaching.” In this way Gandhi opened Mallouhi’s heart to consider Christ.
Influenced by Gandhi, Mallouhi decided to study the Bible while stationed as a
soldier on the disputed Golan Heights. After spending one year
reading the Scriptures, he concluded that Christ was unlike the
other religious leaders he had studied; like Gandhi, Christ matched
his teaching with his life. Mallouhi was drawn by the words of
Christ, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I
will give you rest.” Finally, at the age of twenty-four, his heart
responded, crying out, “This Christ is my Lord! Give me this new
life you promise!” Not only was Mallouhi given new life, but the
whole world came to life for him. Now instead of hating people, he
wanted nothing more than to be with them.
Mallouhi immediately experienced rejection from his family. Not long
afterward, as a result of his being an active member of a certain
political party, a warrant was issued for his arrest, which led to
his exile from Syria.
Mallouhi persevered in his new faith and began writing Arabic novels with a
spiritual theme in the mode of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. His supreme
desire became to share the treasure of Christ with others. The most
natural way for him, and one of the most effective methods in the
Arab world, is through literature, for stories are especially
powerful in the Eastern tradition.
This transformation occurred because of one humble Indian, Mahatma
Gandhi, who did his best to live his life in the shadow of Christ as
taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Being introduced to life with
Christ through Gandhi has greatly influenced Mazhar Mallouhi’s
approach to living and sharing his faith with fellow Muslims.
Waging Peace on Muslims
The best way to describe Mallouhi’s approach is to speak of his “waging peace on
Muslims.”15 With this perspective, he has been a
powerful force for peace and healing between Muslims and Christians.
In Mallouhi’s understanding, the critical element, if Muslims are to
be able to see Christ’s true nature, is that they first see the
likeness of Christ in his followers. For Mallouhi, who describes
himself as “a Muslim who follows Jesus,” following Christ in the
spirit of Gandhi means taking the path of love, peace, sacrifice,
and self-denial on a daily basis. Gentleness, kindness,
open-heartedness, and joyfulness exude from him, and people are
drawn to him like a magnet. It is fascinating to watch him sharing
about the sweetness of Christ to those gathered around him in Arab
cafes. He is known through North Africa and the Middle East as a big-hearted man.
The Mallouhis’ lives are always open. The result is a continual flow of people
through their home. Everyone comes, from Muslim fundamentalist
sheikhs, Catholic priests and nuns, Baptist pastors, Coptic
Orthodox, Communists, Jewish rabbis, and Baha’is, to all kinds of
Western expatriates. Mallouhi has hundreds of friends around the
world. Everywhere he lives, he forms a weekly meeting of men, drawn
largely from the intellectual and artistic communities.
When he was in jail once in Egypt, fellow prisoners who were fundamentalist Muslims
asked him why he was there. After telling them it was because he
was sharing his faith in Christ with other Muslims, a fundamentalist
sheikh shared his blanket with him, and another shared his food.
Muslims often say to him, “I can’t figure you out. Why are you going
to so much trouble to help us? What is your hidden agenda?”
Mallouhi’s reply is simply, “If I see a chance to do good and don’t
help, it is a sin. The opposite of love is indifference.”
A prison experience in Syria had a profound effect on his understanding of
Christ’s sacrificial suffering. After twenty-five years of exile, he
returned to his homeland. Upon his arrival he surrendered to the
authorities, requesting that his case be investigated and that he be
given a chance to prove his innocence. For eighteen days he was kept
in solitary confinement in an underground cell, sharing it only with
rats. For the cold concrete floor he had only a thin blanket. God
used this prison experience to teach him anew to “embr /ace the bitter
until its piercing br /ought drops of sweetness.” Mallouhi testified,
“I felt as if I was released from my dismal surrounding and from my
personal internal prison. I drank deeply of the Father’s love and
suffering for us in Christ on the cross.”
Some Western Christians have sought to demonize Islam, portraying it as the last
great enemy to be conquered. Rather than create further alienation
between Muslims and Christians, Mallouhi advocates a
non-confrontational approach to Muslims and demonstrates the
importance of building on commonalities between Islam and Christianity.
By offering respect and reciprocity, Mallouhi has found an amazing openness
among Muslims toward his faith in Christ. For example, Muslim
students, studying in the prestigious Islamic intellectual and
missionary center of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, have sat around him
in the courtyard of the mosque as he taught them of Christ, opening
the Scriptures to them.
Presenting Christ as a Middle Easterner
Perhaps Mallouhi’s most significant spiritual contribution is that of stripping Christ
of his Western trappings and introducing him to Muslims as one who
was born, lived, and died in the Middle East. This Christ, one that
Muslims can understand, is the Christ that Mallouhi met, which
explains why he calls himself simply a Syrian Arab follower of
Christ, avoiding the label “Christian.”
Muslims generally perceive Christianity as part of a Western political agenda and see
Christ as a Westerner with no relationship to Eastern culture.
Christianity, however, is Middle Eastern in origin, not a Western
faith. Christ, a Middle Easterner, was culturally more like today’s
Arab than a Western Christian.
Mallouhi effectively br /idges this gap because of his own personal experience.
When he became a follower of Christ, he was told by Christians that
he needed to leave his cultural past behind. However, Mallouhi
realized that following Christ does not mean denying his loyalty to
Middle Eastern culture and becoming part of an alien “Christian”
culture. Although he worships Christ, he continues to embr /ace his
Middle Eastern roots, the very roots of the one he serves. He came
to understand that his family’s rejection of him was not because he
was following Christ but rather because they saw him as rebelling
against all the best values they had taught him; any decent family
would have been similarly and rightly concerned.
Today, Mallouhi enjoys praying and meditating in the quiet, reverent atmosphere of a
mosque, where he sits on the carpeted floor and reads his Bible.
While there, he often visits the sheikhs and imams, who are his
friends. Mallouhi says, “Islam is my heritage and Christ is my
inheritance,” and as a result he has kept his Islamic and Arab
culture while being a follower of Christ for four decades. He
emphasizes that following Christ does not require taking a Christian
name, wearing a different type of clothing or using the symbol of
the cross. He works to help them become disciples of Christ without
having to join the “Christian” West.
Presenting Scripture to Muslims
Mallouhi now spends most of his time and energy working to present the Christian
Holy Scriptures in ways that Muslims can respect. To assist in
carrying out this mission, he founded Al Kalima (“the Word” in
Arabic), which publishes spiritual books through one of the largest
secular Arab publishing houses. Al Kalima’s most important projects
focus on re-presenting the Christian Scriptures as the ancient
Middle Eastern writings that they are, returning them to their
authentic cultural origin. The Bible is not a Western book, being
actually rooted in Middle Eastern cultures more ancient than that
underlying the Qur’an.
Mallouhi asks Muslims to contribute articles and introductions for these
publications. Fadhel Jamali, the late prime minister of Iraq, wrote
the introduction for the Oriental Reading of the Gospel of Luke,
saying, “We Muslims know less about the Christian faith than
Christians know about Islam. Therefore, I encourage you as a Muslim
to read this book to understand what they truly believe.”
By presenting the Scriptures as culturally Middle Eastern, Mallouhi has gained
unprecedented access and acceptance for God’s Word. At a recent Arab
book fair in a North African country with very few local Christians,
An Oriental Reading of the Gospel of Luke was the
best-seller. After reading it, a Muslim professor commented, “This
is the first time we’ve seen that Christ has Middle Eastern roots,
related to our own culture! Historically, we’ve only received
Christianity through the imposed view of Western colonialists. But
we want everyone and every student in our Department of Islamic
Studies to read this.” It has since become a required textbook in
Coupled with Middle Eastern presentation and packaging of the Scriptures is
Mallouhi’s strong belief that their distribution should be
exclusively through legal sales channels, as opposed to smuggling or
mass free distribution of any sort. Al Kalima’s publications are
sold legally and openly through normal outlets from supermarket
bookstands to book fairs to Arabic Muslim bookstores. They all have
been approved by government censors for sale in the mainstream
market and therefore do not bear the stigma of smuggled contraband
that much Western-produced Christian literature does. At the same
time, the greatest financial support for these publications comes
from Muslim readers themselves, as the proceeds from the sales are
reinvested to underwrite re-printings and further publications.
As Mahatma Gandhi
enabled Indians to visualize Christ walking down their Indian roads,
so Mazhar Mallouhi is serving to return Christ to his cultural
origins, walking naturally down the roads of the Middle East. His
vision to win a home for God’s Word in the heart of the Muslim world
is helping thousands of Muslims to understand the Gospel and
enabling many to find true and lasting reconciliation in the Middle
Eastern Prince of Peace.
- E. Stanley
Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1925), p. 51.
- The well-known missionary evangelist to India, E. Stanley Jones said, “I bow to
Mahatma Gandhi and I kneel at the feet of Christ... A little man... has taught me more of the spirit of Christ than perhaps any
other man in East or West” (Gandhi: Portrayal of a Friend [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993], p. 8).
- Ibid., pp. 82–83.
- Jones, Christ of the Indian Road, pp. 86, 76, 101.
- Ibid., p. 148. In this passage Gandhi urged Christians to “live more like Jesus
Christ,…. put your emphasis on love…..[and] study the non-Christian religions and cultures more sympathetically in
order to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to people.”
- C. F. Andrews,What I Owe to Christ (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1932), pp. 223–24.
- Jones, Gandhi, p. 62.
- Jones, Christ of the Indian Road, pp. 91–92.
- Ibid., p. 92.
- Marie Louise Gude, Louis Massignon: The Crucible of Compassion (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1996), pp. 193–94.
- Jones, Christ of the Indian Road, p. 98.
- Ibid., pp. 77–78.
- Ibid., p. 143.
- All quotations of Mazhar Mallouhi in this article are taken from the manuscript
of a book the author is preparing on his life and thought.
- See Christine Mallouhi, Waging Peace on Islam (Downers Grove, III.: InterVarsity, 2002).
International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 27, No. 2
* Paul-Gordon Chandler, President and CEO of Partners International, grew up in
the Muslim country of Senegal, West Africa. An Anglican minister, he served as the rector of St. George's Anglican Church in Tunisia,
North Africa. He is the author of God's Global Mosaic (InterVarsity, 2000) and is currently writing a book on Mazhar Mallouhi's life and thought.