Conversion And Cultural Understanding


Imagine for a moment an Iranian Muslim student in the 1970s who, after having been in the United States for just a few months, heard the Gospel for the first time.

Unlike my American friends, I was raised in a shame-based society rather than a guilt-based one. I knew the greatest sin I could commit was anything that might bring shame to my family; I sought instead to bring them honor.

I was introduced to Christianity for the first time at a Bible study with a few other foreign students. As a hungry and penniless student, I appreciated the offer of an American friend to come and enjoy free food at this meeting. As we ate, a gentleman opened a book and began to talk to the group; I didn’t understand a thing the man said. It wasn’t until the other Muslim students and I left the house that I realized I wasn’t the only one confused. Language was not the only problem, however. Everything the man talked about posed a problem for what I was raised to believe.

The stranger talked about God. The only gods I knew were Khoda, the dualistic god of the Zoroastrians, and Allah, a Semitic god to the
Arabs. But the God referred to that night appeared as a man, Jesus, to the Jews 2,000 years ago and called himself the Son of God. To me, that was blasphemy. In fact, as a Muslim, the greatest sin I could commit was the sin of shirk—making an equal with God.

As a little boy, I was told that according to the Quran, the Muslim holy book, God was neither begotten nor begets. I was brought up to respect Jesus as one of the many prophets God sent to warn mankind. While he performed some miracles and raised the dead, Jesus was simply a man whom the Jews appeared to have crucified. Like many Shia Muslims, I believed that in the last minute before Jesus was arrested, God changed the appearance of Judas to make him look like Jesus, and that it was actually Judas who was nailed to the cross.

I was always taught that in the last day, everyone will be judged according to his or her own actions on earth; no one could take your place for punishment. For the strange man in the living room to assert that I was a sinner and that Jesus died to forgive my sins was, frankly, offensive. I could not believe this man, who knew nothing about me, would dishonor me in this way.

Two years later, I faced expulsion from school due to bad grades. I couldn’t face being such a failure to my family who made many sacrifices to send their oldest son and brother to the United States to become an engineer. This extreme shame led me to contemplate suicide.

But things got even worse. The house I was living in burned down and I lost all my belongings. Shortly thereafter, as I was sitting on a street curb on campus thinking about my future, a young lady walked up to me and asked how I was doing. She was apparently concerned about the way I looked. I was surprised to see someone actually care about my wellbeing, especially someone I did not know. I have never forgotten that simple act of kindness, which included her giving me a sweater, and have made a point of practicing it every chance I get.

The young lady, Ellen, belonged to a group of former Hippies who had become followers of Christ, or as they were called, “Jesus Freaks.” Through her I got to know the whole group, where in the midst of them, I felt the sense of peace that I had been longing for. At one point I asked what gave them such peace, to which they simply replied, “Jesus.” Once again, I was offended. I didn’t understand how a second-class prophet could provide such peace when Islam, the revelation to end all revelations, was not able to offer me the same.

That Thanksgiving, Ellen invited me to her house for dinner. As we sat around the dining table, her father said a blessing over the food. I had never heard anyone pray over a meal. As Muslims, if we ever said a prayer, it was after we had finished the meal and were full. For whatever reason, that prayer was what brought me to the following.
That evening, as I rode my motorcycle to school, I began to have a conversation with the only god I was familiar with, Khoda. I said, “I’m a Muslim. I believe in Mohammad, Ali and the other 11 Imams, but I want to kill myself.” Then I added, “Jesus, if you really are who these people tell me you are, I’ll accept you if you give me good grades at school.”

At the time, I did not believe Jesus was the Son of God, that he was divine, or that he had died on the cross. I was concerned not about my sins, but my honor. I wanted someone to restore my honor by changing my grades. Interestingly enough, as little as I knew about this man named Jesus, I did believe that he cared about restoring my honor just as much as my Christian friends believed in his power to forgive their sins. That is why I prayed the way I did, and though I prayed to Khoda, it was Jesus who came to my rescue.

On that day, I took my first step toward the cross. Islam was my religion, identity, tradition, and attached to my family’s honor; renouncing it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to face.
It has taken me many years to understand who Jesus is. In fact, I learn more about him every day, but I never forget the reality that Jesus accepted me as I was and did not wait until my theology was perfected.

Over 30 years later, I do not believe I switched gods to follow Jesus any more than the apostle Paul did on his way to Damascus, but rather I came to a more complete revelation of the Creator through my Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ—the one who saved me from my sins, fears and shame—the son of God and God himself.

I know now that according to Jesus, the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. That act of love can start with a simple smile followed by the heartfelt question, “How are you?”

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11 thoughts on “Conversion And Cultural Understanding

  1. Hello sir,

    I am honored to say I am a friend of your son Todd. Our paths crossed only briefly as his military career began and mine drew to a close…but it was immediately evident that he was a man of high character. You have been blessed brother.

    I enjoyed reading your testimony but am left very curious to hear the rest of the story…the most important part…your conversion. I imagine it's on your page here somewhere. For the sake of saving time can you kindly point me in the right direction? Thank you.

    Warm regards,
    James Deal

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  2. An absolutely amazing story, Mr. Afshar. And thanks to Todd for sending me your way.

    I'd like to point my friends from the Evangelical Christian Church in Abu Dhabi to your blog, if I might. An incredible success story in its own right, the ECC is another example of how God chooses to work to bring cultures closer to Him through Jesus Christ.

    And I think your story would inspire many of us living in the Middle East and remind us yet again of the power of the cross.

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  3. Dear James:

    Thank you for all your kind words. We're very proud of our children. They both are unique in their own way.
    As for me, I'm mostly a product of my Muslim parents and what Jesus did with that.
    I, eventually, received my prized BS in civil engineering. Worked as one for 10 years. Started the first Iranian Christian org. in the US and pastored it for 25 years. Graduated from Fuller Sem. with a MA and Served as the Middle East regional coordinator for Foursquare denomination for 6 years while teaching at a Bible college for 5 years. For the last 3 years, having been extremely disillusioned and unsatisfying with the organized church, I've been on my own.
    I hope this answers your questions. However, if you want to know more, please write me directly:
    S.afshar@ca.rr.com

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  4. Ben,

    Thanks for your encouraging words.

    I've been to ECC. It's a beautiful church. Please feel free to forward my blog to anyone you want.
    Some of my friends in Dubai who were under my care when I was a Middle East regional coordinator were recently arrested and promptly deported for working among Muslims.

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  5. Hi Shah,
    I am blessed to know you and rejoice with you reading and hearing of your conversion to Jesus Christ. That someone asked a simple question 'how are you' is the key to getting to know people and what complexities they are going through in life. You hit a tender spot in me that tells me I must be a better witness of His love and saving grace. Thanks for 'sticking' a pin in me and making me more conscious of my brother's and sister's needs.
    God Bless,
    Charlene M.

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  6. Dear Charlene, I consider it an honor that you take time to read my blog. That blesses me to no end.
    As you said, the key is carrying for people genuinely. I honestly believe it was Christ's care for people with no string attached that attracted many to him.
    I don't know what it means to be a better witness, but I know when I'm transparent and honest, people are willing to listen to what I have to share with them and the little I know about you tells me you are also such a person.
    Again, thank you for your kind words.

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  7. Dear Shah,
    I was touched by your telling of this story. I've heard you tell it before, but I read new things in it today.

    Also, I have never heard of the god Khoda and zoroastrianism being involved with the Muslim faith.

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  8. Lydia, good to hear from you. It is important to know that only Persian speaking Muslims use the word khoda for God or Allah. The Arabs, even the Christians, use the word Allah for God. It is the same as the English speaking Christians using the word God for YHVH of the Bible. As you know, the word God was originally a Viking god (if I remember correctly) which the Anglo Christians started to use is as the God in the Bible.

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