Risking the Crescent for the Cross

Image of Shoreline/Breaking Waves with Article Title

Truth or Dare. You’ve probably played the game as a kid. Maybe you’ve even played it as an adult, because risk can be alluring. Do you offer up vulnerable information about yourself, or perform some chancy prank to prove your sense of adventure and bravery? Most importantly: in the end, is whatever you said or did even worth it? 

Whether Muslim scholar Syed Mazhar Hussain Rizvi ever played this game is unknown, but he certainly took some greater risks—converting from Islam to Christianity being one of them. Such a jump often involves an alienation of culture, of family, or friends. It can turn one’s whole life upside down. In some countries, it could even get one killed. But if Christianity is true, if Christ is who He says He is, it proves to be worth the risk.

A SCHOLAR ABROAD

Rizvi was probably the last person who’d even consider converting if you met him. He was a Muslim teacher and missionary; he was professor of Islamic studies; he knew the Koran inside and out; he was capable of defending his faith intelligently, having several of his own disciples; and his family even claimed to be a descendant of Islam’s main prophet, Mohammed. Rizvi was as Muslim as Muslim gets.

Born in the village of Dokoha Saadat in what is now Pakistan, Rizvi was the youngest of eight kids. After his parents passed away, he was placed under the care of his oldest brother and attended Karachi Grammar School.

Though a good student, Rizvi despised the teachings of the Christian missionaries. What made his young life even more frustrating was that his closest friend at school, Andrew, converted to Christianity.

A scholar at heart, Rizvi continued his education at Bombay University for his bachelor’s, and sailed to England to obtain another degree from Birmingham University. He studied science, but at Birmingham grew increasingly interested in Islamic studies and comparative religions. Following his graduation, Rizvi traveled and preached in Europe, and taught in the oldest center of Islamic learning in Cairo, Egypt.

SEEKING ILLUMINATION

Throughout his travels, Rizvi found that neither life in the West nor in the Middle East could quench his “turmoil of mind or satisfy his restless spirit” (Envoy Matthew of Pakistan, 1984).

Another journey had to prove more promising—Mecca. Rizvi visited this birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, as well as Medina, “the illuminated city.” “But he could not honestly say that the act did anything for him spiritually. Rather it left him feeling empty and unfulfilled” (Unsung Heroes, 2007). So Rizvi left for Jerusalem, and wrote to Andrew about his soul’s distress.

“Why do you not study the Christians’ Bible?,” replied Andrew. “If you read and study these, you will come to know the truth that you are seeking, just as I did myself.”

It was easier said than done, mainly because Rizvi couldn’t accept that Jesus was the Son of God. Reading the Scriptures was not enough to convince him, because he had grown up learning that the Christians altered the Bible to support their claims about Jesus.

As is often the case, words do not convince people, but actions that show a transformed life. While in Jerusalem, Rizvi encountered an old Christian preacher who would smile and say the Islamic greeting of “Peace be upon you.” But instead of returning the greeting, Rizvi spat at the preacher. Every day the preacher would extend a message of peace and kindness, but every day Rizvi continued to spit at him, with a continued grudge for the Christian faith. This repeated for nearly a year until slowly but surely, the preacher’s unbreaking love in the face of hatred began chipping away at Rizvi’s coldness toward Christianity.

And when this happened, Rizvi started to have a positive relationship with the preacher. Through him, he began to study Greek and Hebrew, a few original biblical languages, and read through the Gospels.

John 1:1-14 was both particularly impressive and a cause of struggle for Rizvi. Though some teachings of this aligned with the Koran, the parts about Christ caused him to doubt again. Nonetheless, something powerful was influencing Rizvi, and he began asking questions related to baptism and becoming a Christian. He also went to the Mount of Olives and prayed for a sign. Suddenly he “felt that a gracious person was near [him], one full of kindliness and pity. [He] knew in [his] heart that it was Christ whom [he] could not accept” (Unsung Heroes, 2007).

A MIRACLE AT SEA

In 1964, Rizvi returned to his homeland of Pakistan and spent time with his family and friends. However, he still felt empty and became so depressed that he planned to commit suicide and drown himself in the Arabian Sea.

“Suddenly,” recalled Rizvi, “I felt again that same warm presence. I felt an invisible force holding me back. Everything grew so bright around me and I knew it was indeed the Lord Jesus who held me back. I knew He had some purpose for my life.”

Rizvi discovered shortly after what that purpose was. The Salvation Army had just started working in the area. Missionary officers established corps, tended to people’s needs, and taught about Jesus.

Out of the blue, Rizvi walked into the office of the divisional commander and announced, “Muslim I was born, and in effect am, but let me tell you my story. I have spent many years in the Middle East in study and contemplation. As a result I embraced the teachings and person of Christ. I am a Christian. It only remains for me to be baptized. How do I go about it?”

The divisional commander sent Rizvi to be baptized by a Baptist minister and a few days later appeared to be illumined by an inner light. Rizvi changed his name to Matthew and offered his services to The Salvation Army as an envoy.

Instead of teaching Islam, he now taught Christianity to a group of 35 children. Many more children wanted to be taught by Envoy Matthew, so nearby huts were bought and teachers were enlisted to meet the demand. The Christian school reached 375 children, with Envoy Matthew as its first principal.

Envoy Matthew also ministered to families. He started with four, but the number grew to 42, as more people wanted to learn from him; Envoy Matthew taught dozens of children from these families to read and write. In 1978, Envoy Matthew also started a coaching center for 550 children in Mahmoodabad. Everyone from kindergarteners to 10th graders received schooling, and many received vocational training as well. Until his death, Envoy Matthew remained a faithful Salvationist.

Image of Envoy Matthew Syed Mazhar Hussain Rizvi

Envoy Matthew Syed Mazhar Hussain Rizvi 

EXPERIENCING CHRISTIANITY

Envoy Matthew was led to discover Christ not only by scholarly arguments, but by the godly examples of those around him. The advice and experience of his friend, Andrew, as well as the miraculously patient love of the old Christian preacher allowed him to experience Christianity, rather than just hear about it.

Ghandi is often quoted as saying, “I love your Christ, but I hate your Christians because your Christians are unlike your Christ.”

When it comes to apologetics, if we don’t practice the transforming love that we preach, then our words fall flat. It also begs the question, “Have we truly surrendered our lives to God, or are we living only for ourselves?” This month, pray for God to give you the strength and love to be more like Him, so that your words, actions—and ultimately your heart—reflect the Gospel.

—Mariam Aburdeineh, Editorial Assistant, Young Salvationist Magazine