Responding to Islam with gospel proclamation, not fear: Ayman Ibrahim encourages ministry to Muslims
Ayman Ibrahim knows Arab and Muslim culture as intimately as anyone. The newly appointed assistant professor of Islamic studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary grew up in a Coptic Orthodox family in Cairo, Egypt, and he wants more American evangelicals to reshape the way they think about their Muslims neighbors. That starts by not being afraid of them.
“Among Westerners in general, there is a sort of phobia about Muslims,” he said. “But Islam is not monolithic. To say, ‘Islam is ISIS,’ is very naive.”
Ibrahim tells his American students that the Muslim faith is as diverse as most other faiths — it is best to talk not about “Islam, but Islams,” he says — and although much of his ministry involves the apologetic defense of Christianity, he chiefly wants to proclaim the gospel to Muslims and invite them to receive it in faith.
“My goal is not to attack Islam,” he said. “My goal is to love Muslims and to bring them the hope I have received freely from Jesus.”
He remembers the first time he was exposed to evangelicals: when he was 9 years old, he was playing soccer with his friends when a group of evangelicals watching him said they were impressed by his ability. They invited him to visit their church, and later to a church retreat where he heard the gospel for the first time.
“You would be surprised to know that I really cried,” he says now, just a little sheepishly. “What kind of sins am I crying about? Nine years old? Maybe I was mad at my sister or something, pulling her hair. But I felt the conviction of encountering Jesus. I felt like I was being washed by the blood of the Lamb.”
While much has changed for Ibrahim since that moment — he’s earned three degrees, lived on three different continents, and taught at four different schools — the overwhelming sense of gratitude still motivates his ministry with Muslims to this day. He tries never to lose sight of the grace he received as a 9-year-old.
“I never graduate from the school of the disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.
After his conversion, Ibrahim started using his gifts in the church, leading music at 13 and preaching for the first time at 18. It was clear God had uniquely equipped him, he said.
“My best moment is when I’m preaching, standing in the pulpit and encouraging people to imitate Christ,” he said.
While working for a decade as an engineer after graduating from college, Ibrahim would preach in various contexts in Cairo five times a week on top of his day job.
“I used to work from 8-to-5 every day, but my real life began after 5 p.m. when I went to preach in churches,” he said.
Over time, he learned that he needed to supplement his passion for preaching with a seminary education, so he moved to the United States and attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. After earning his M.A., Ibrahim started teaching Islamic studies — first at Southwestern College, then at the seminary — and quickly grew just as comfortable in front of a classroom as a congregation. He met his wife, Emily, during his final year at Southwestern after she returned from the mission field.
At the encouragement of a mentor at Southwestern, Ibrahim earned his Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where he also served as an Arabic professor. After spending a year working toward his second Ph.D. at University of Haifa on Mount Carmel, Ibrahim received a call from Adam W. Greenway, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry, who offered him the position at Southern.
All the moving around — from Cairo to Dallas to California to Mount Carmel, all before coming to Louisville — renders the word “home” elastic and his family’s sense of belonging fluid, Ibrahim said.
“We are nomads,” he said. “So wherever God calls us, that is home.”
Much of Ibrahim’s teaching style carried over from preaching — teaching the material in depth, challenging students to think missiologically and biblically, and encouraging them to interact with Islam regularly. That last part will require that the students actually go out into their communities and get to know Muslims around them.
“You cannot take my class and finish it without actually interacting with Muslims in the neighborhood,” he said. “Part of what we do is to encourage students to get out of their comfort zones and just do something.”
Ibrahim’s classroom style is lively, full of hand gestures and facial expressions borrowed from his preaching, and he brings a similar charisma.
“It’s very hard to sleep in my class because I am very loud,” he said.
Ibrahim hopes to bond with his students, in part through visits to his home, where his wife prepares Egyptian and Mediterranean cuisine.
“One of my real desires is to impact these students at many levels,” he said. “I don’t like to drink coffee by myself.”
Ibrahim wants his students to have a clear vision for how they should interact with Islam. In his first few weeks on the job, he’s already prepared a thorough mission statement for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam — which he now leads as senior fellow — urging a rigorous but gracious engagement with the Muslim faith. While the Christian witness to Islam will always be apologetic, he hopes it will also be “kerygmatic” — a passionate, positive proclamation of the gospel — rather than polemical.
“There are many people who follow the polemic, and some of them have fruit in their ministry,” Ibrahim said. “It’s not my approach. I want to explain my faith and proclaim the good news.”