Andrew Richards, researcher and director for the Institute for Strategic Foresight, foresees an opportunity for the Church arising from trends in the Islamic world
The Islamic divide can be viewed from different perspectives. Firstly, a physical divide within the religion itself between its two main factions, Sunni and Shia. This purely doctrinal divide has defined the chasm within global Islam for millennia and has to its credit the two hearts of Islam, Saudi Arabia which governs the Sunni world, and Iran which governs the Shia.
This divide, stemming from the death of Islam’s founder, the prophet Muhammad and his successors, is so great that Iran (known for its anti-America rhetoric and military threats) has designated Saudi Arabia a greater enemy to the future of Islam than western vices.
A second divide within Islam can be seen in the acts of a minority and the defence of the majority. Radical vs moderate Islam. From peace-loving states like Lebanon to demonic caliphates like the Islamic State, this interpretive divide between those who interpret Islam as peaceable and those who interpret Islam as a religion worth radical defence against outside influences, have in many ways labelled Islam in the eyes of the non-Muslim world – mostly negatively.
1.8 billion followers
As a religion, Islam accounts for more than 1.8 billion1 people who adhere to its teachings worldwide. From loose interpretations that would scarcely turn heads in the West, to radical extremists that bleed religious duty, Islam has not only become the second largest religion in the world but also a formidable contender to the growth of worldwide Christianity.
Taking Africa as example, the spread of Islam has been unparalleled in the way it has gained ground, especially considering the fact that an alarming number of converts come from unreached people groups. Why is this a concern? Simply because it points to the failure of Christianity in reaching the nations with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ — instead leaving the door wide open for others.
By focussing first on the physical rather than the spiritual needs of a people, Islam has grown in leaps and bounds, not only in Africa but elsewhere throughout the developing world.
There is a third divide that threatens the future of Islam. A divide between the modernising realists and the old guard that is unwilling to accept change. In 2017, a watershed moment occurred when Prince Mohammed bin Salman2 said: “I will return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam”.
Saudi Arabia, as the guardian of Sunni Muslims worldwide, has for years tried to remedy its broken image as a perceived sponsor of terrorism and enforcer of harsh Sharia Laws that range from hacked off limbs to stoning as punishment for certain crimes.
Prince Salman’s claim to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam is therefore worth noting, especially when considering the future of the Church in a harvest field of 1.8 billion potential converts.
What is “moderate Islam” you might ask? In the words of Crown Prince Salman, who is the driving force behind the remake of Saudi Arabia, moderate Islam is “life in which our religion translates to tolerance”2.
What this translates to for the rest of the world is that Saudi Arabia, once one of the most closed, restricted, and religious persecuted countries in the world, is now open to the world. From empowering women who are allowed to travel and marry without harassment, to bars and nightclubs that openly serve alcohol, Salman’s moderate Islam is opening a door for the Christian church.
When China opened its doors3 to western business in 1978 it also loosened its hold on the Church that was persecuted under Mao Zedong.
Although Christianity in China did in fact grow amidst the harsh persecution, it was not until the opening of China that the Church experienced exponential growth to the more than 100 million strong it is today.
Could Prince Salman’s opening of Saudi Arabia offer the Church the same opportunities that have now caused even the Chinese Communist Party to take notice of the Church, that already has more members than the Communist Party, and is estimated to become the largest body of believers in the world by 2030?
It is within this third divide, modernists vs the old guard, that battle lines have been drawn that will decide the future of Islam.
The theological divide that sees Sunni pitted against Shia has already inflicted the first wounds of the battle. Iran accused Saudi Arabia of selling out Islam to the West, prostituting Islamic values in the name of modernising.
The interpretive divide, that separates the majority peace-loving from the minority radical extremists, is inflicting further wounds as Islamic terrorist groups throughout the world continue to forcefully push Islam on impoverished societies and spread fear elsewhere.
All the while the majority of Muslims that abhor the violent acts perpetrated in the name of Islam, try and beg the forgiveness of the West that tend to label all Muslims under the banner of the relatively few black sheep.
Prince Salman’s attempts at re-making Saudi Arabia is yet to stand the test of extremists that would rather die than see Islam adapt to a changing world.
The remake of Saudi Arabia is doublespeak for the remake of Islam. No confessing Muslims, moderate or radical, would stand for a reshaping of Islam that would see its pillars shaken to the tune of Western advancement.
Prince Salman knows that the Islam of yesterday is not compatible with the world of tomorrow. Oil reserves will run dry, and once it does, the princes of Saudi Arabia will be forgotten. This is already happening with the green movement away from fossil fuels.
Saudi Arabia has for decades used its vast oil wealth to help spread Islam worldwide. If Islamic world dominance is at all in Prince Salman’s future planning, it would make sense that he would move Saudi Arabia away from oil and into another more sustainable source of income, to safeguard the future growth of the religion.
In October 2017, during the Future Investment Initiative conference held in Riyadh, Prince Salman announced the creation of Neom. To be completed in 2025, Neom is intended to be a futuristic smart city, with the goal of gathering the smartest minds across the world to work together towards a new sustainable future.
To be sustained by 100% renewable energy, Neom is being marketed as a new city for a new world. What makes Neom even more noteworthy, is the fact that even though it is located in one of the most religious-restricted countries in the world, Saudi Arabia, it will be governed outside of its legal jurisdictions.
According to the official Neom website, as reported by Vogue4, Neom “will aim to be a community with a mix of homelands, religions and backgrounds, all living and collaborating towards a common goal”.
A mixture of homelands and religions will require a liberal government that looks the other way. And looking the other way is exactly what Prince Salman has been doing.
In 2019, Christian author and preacher Joel Richardson led the first-ever Christian tour to Saudi Arabia. Richardson is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Islamic Antichrist: The Shocking Truth About the Real Nature of the Beast.
According to Insider magazine5 Richardson led 25 other Christians in Bible reading and singing hymns while their Saudi Muslim minders were watching. These simple acts would have landed the entire group in prison just a year before. Yet, under the progressive leadership of Prince Salman, Richardson has already been granted permission to bring other Christian groups.
From communist China to the deserts of Africa, once you allow a people to taste freedom, their desire for more will ultimately overthrow whatever stands in their way. The Christian Church is no different, and once freedom is given; it will challenge for more.
Saudi Arabia is opening up to the world. And with it a potential 1.8 billion converts waiting to hear the Good News. The only question worth asking is whether the Christian Church is getting ready for its application to be processed?
1 Countries with the largest Muslim populations. Pew Research Center.
2 Crown prince says Saudis want return to moderate Islam. BBC. October 25, 2017.
3 China Open Door Policy. Wikipedia.
4 5 Cool Things You Really Need to Know About NEOM in Saudi. VOGUE. November 26, 2020.
5 Inside the evangelical mission to build the first church in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam where preaching the Bible can land you in jail. INSIDER. February 8, 2021.