Abstract

The central question of this article is how the concept of hope shapes the experiences of refugees from Muslim backgrounds as they approach conversion to Christianity in Europe. I will explore this question by briefly considering Charles Richard Snyder’s definition of hope before offering a theological analysis of the similarities and differences between Islamic and Christian approaches to hope.

Introduction

The phrase “from despair to hope” indicates a process that bridges displacement, replacement, and settlement; disempowerment and empowerment; being lost and found, condemned and saved, and so on. Throughout history, forced and voluntary migration have been prevalent due to disasters, exploitation, war, persecution, and the natural human inclination to explore new places. Refugees fleeing persecution facilitated the early spread of the church, and accounts of refugees and migrants fill the Bible. Aside from actual geographical movement, in both the Old and the New Testaments, the people of God identify themselves as spiritual “foreigners and strangers” in this world (Leviticus 25:23; 1 Chronicles 29:15; 1 Peter 2:11).

We can pinpoint 2011 as the start of the refugee “crisis” in Europe. As violence erupted in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and North Africa, people were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. This was the biggest refugee crisis Europe had seen since World War II and came as a surprise to many. Unfortunately, this influx of refugees also sparked fear and prejudice towards foreigners, particularly Muslims, in Europe, due to nations’ lack of preparation. However, amidst the challenges, the Church has played a crucial role in providing assistance to these displaced individuals. In fact, some refugees from Muslim backgrounds (especially from Shia backgrounds) have even found solace in converting to Christianity as they search for a sense of belonging. Given ongoing global conflicts, migration remains a prominent concern in Europe – and continues to be an important part of the Church’s mission. Therefore, this article aims to contribute particularly to European Christians’ understanding of the migrants that surround them – as well as to global understanding of the refugee experience more generally.

I will use the concept of hope in Islam and in Christianity to reflect on the experiences of Muslim refugees who have turned to the church to enhance and activate their hope. My research will delve into their Islamic upbringing and how it influenced their journey towards hope and eventual conversion. Because refugee journeys are a combination of spiritual, physical, emotional, political, and psychological crossings, displaced persons’ religious worldviews serve as a guiding light as they endure these changes and, particularly, as they join their new host communities and even the church. However, the way Christian communities handle these encounters can either strengthen refugees’ hope or result in disappointment and despair. Therefore, this article’s final section will briefly examine how the church can offer hope to refugees using the Good Samaritan model in Luke 10:25-37.

Charles Richard Snyder’s definition of hope is a useful place at which to begin to examine how hope is understood and lived out by Muslim refugees. Snyder defines hope as “the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes” (Snyder 2000, 8). For Snyder hope is a positive state of motivation arising from a sense of agency or goal-directed energy that develops a pathway, that makes plans to achieve goals (Snyder 2000, 287). This definition has three basic components – goals/agenda, agency, and pathway – that provide a framework for understanding how refugees and migrants turn to religion in pursuit of their goals. Refugees’ goals are the anchors of their hope; goals translate into action. Yet every goal has a sense of uncertainty, so proper pathways are needed to ensure achievement of goals. Agency stands between goals and pathways and connects them. It is the motivational component in the refugee’s journey that provides perseverance and perception of possibility.

Muslim refugees’ religious worldview, Islam, plays a significant role in helping them find and direct their pathways toward their goals. Religion drives refugees’ sense of agency or motivation – though of course it also touches their setting of the goals themselves and their sense of the possible or necessary actions to take to achieve those goals. In Islam, God is at the centre of every agenda-setting action; he is believed to be even closer to each person than their own “jugular vein” (Quran, 50.16); and people are called not to despair of God’s mercy (Quran, 39.53). God’s mercy is understood in the doctrine of Tawhid (the oneness of God), Ma’ad (the resurrection of the dead) and Adl (God’s justice). I will explore each of these aspects in more detail below.

Is “From despair to hope” the appropriate title? Perhaps not, in this sense: Before despair there has to be hope, as we cannot move to despair if we do not initially have hope. Hope pre-exists and is more fundamental than despair. Hope is not optimism; it is not wishful thinking. As Snyder’s definition demonstrates, hope is not passive. It requires participation, engagement, and action. As we shall see by comparing the concepts of hope in Islam and in Christianity, hope is an active waiting. In both Islam and Christianity, it can also be translated as actively request something, for example in Matthew 7:7-8. The church’s message of hope not only sparks the possibility of a brighter future for refugees’ lives in Europe but also restores and transforms refugees’ faith in God (Tawhid), their belief in the resurrection (Ma’ad) (that in Christ they can be resurrected into a new life even here in this life), and their trust in God’s justice (Adl) that through the Bible and the action of his church, God has not and will not abandon them.

The Concept of Hope in Islam and in Christianity 

In all Abrahamic religions hope is a divine virtue. It is a significant part of human existence that makes life worth living. The source of hope is the image of God or the breath of God within us. In both Islam and Christianity, hope is also closely linked to believers’ covenant with God. Tabatabai, an Iranian Shai’a scholar, explains that, within the concept of Iman(Faith), the believer’s covenant with God relies on two activities: the believer’s role is to trust; God’s role is to save (Tabatabai, 1976). A similar concept of covenant exists in Christianity.

We may explore the idea of hope at greater length through three facets of Islamic belief that have parallels in Christianity. In Islam, hope is anchored in the concept of Tawhid, the oneness of God; in Ma’ad, belief in the resurrection of the dead; and in Adl, belief in God’s justice. The believer trusts the One God who promises, through his messengers and in his scriptures, that he will act mercifully to bring about salvation.

The Concept of Tawhid (Oneness of God)

The foundation of hope in Islam is the oneness of God (توحید). In Islam, Tawhid is not only the theological concept of the “oneness of God” but also a socio-religious practice, as the oneness of God manifests in creation, in commandment, and in worship. Islamic theologians such as Al Faruqi (2000) use the term Tawhid in four ways:

  1. Monotheism in essence, which means that God’s essence testifies to his oneness. The essence of God is unique and incomparable. It is immense and has no plurality.
  2. Monotheism in attributes, which indicates the objectivity of God’s attributes within his essence. Attributes are also essence.
  3. Monotheism in work and creation, which means that God has no partner in creative agency, just as he does not share his nature.
  4. Monotheism in worship, which simply means that (for example) you may pray to a saint, but only God deserves to be worshiped.

Quran 3.64 indicates that all Abrahamic faiths are bound together by the concept of Tawhid, God’s oneness. This similarity between how God is understood as One in Islam and in Christianity can help refugees transition from one faith to the other.

Refugees whose hopes have been spoiled, who are estranged from their religious communities, and who have fled their homes not only need a new physical home but also a new, stable religious worldview in which they can be restored, into which their hope can be translated, and in which they can be renewed. For example, in the deconversion process (moving away from one’s religion), the main concern is not about the loss of religion but about the loss of identity. The believer no longer knows who they are in the world because their sense of identity was rooted in the permanence, the stability – the Oneness – of the God in whom they trusted. The loss of that sense of identity includes a loss of hope. Loss of hope strips the believer’s life of meaning and purpose. Thus, a shaken belief in the One God can lead to a shaken identity and, potentially, to a loss of hope, even to despair.

In such a situation, people desire reassurance. So, when the Muslim believer turns to Christianity and learns to dream of a saviour, someone to rescue them and help them to achieve their goals – or to show them a light – they can set new, hopeful pathways. Introducing God as Saviour to their religious system makes God approachable and relational. Now, God can be trusted; trust is no longer a dream but reality. This fact can be seen in recurring stories of dreams and visions told by Muslim converts to Christianity. For instance, an Iranian refugee living in Cyprus initially planned to use Christianity as a means of migrating to a new country. However, after experiencing true encounters with Christ through dreams and prayer, he had a change of heart. During his final court hearing, he openly admitted to the judge that he had been using conversion as a strategy to secure his stay in the country. However, his sincere belief in Christ had alleviated his fear of losing his asylum case. The judge was moved by his honest confession and granted him refugee status.

These refugees find inner peace in their new faith. During my research in Denmark, I noticed that almost all the refugees with whom I spoke (especially Afghan refugees) mentioned three reasons for attending church: a sense of inner peace; seeking God’s presence; and hope for a better, more certain life here and now. Such peace and hope connect refugees to the idea of the oneness of God who is not only creator but also sustainer (Psalm 54:4).

The Concept of Ma’ad (Hope)

Many Muslim refugees who convert to Christianity do not limit their hope to a better life here and now, though that hope is indeed the most important for their current situation. Rather, their new Christian hope builds upon the concept of Ma’adthat they know from Islam. In Islam, Ma’ad is belief in the resurrection of the dead. The Quran 15.56 says, “Do not despair of the mercy of God.” One of the meanings of the “mercy of God” in Islam, in relation to the concept of resurrection of the dead, is God’s forgiving attitude towards his people that comes from his kindness. Therefore, belief in the resurrection of the dead means also hope of better life after death. As Quran 39.53 says, “Believers without hope are sinners,” because they refuse to believe in God’s mercy. Both of these verses indicate that Islamic hope, similar to Christian hope, is a futuristic hope that emphasizes the promises of God for life after death. However, in Islam, God’s mercy is associated with life after death only and excludes the idea of a better life in this world. We will explore implications of this difference between Islamic and Christian concepts of hope under the concept of Adl later.

Yet belief in eternal life is strongly linked to the present condition of life, to ethical, moral, and spiritual attitudes and actions. For that reason, no one can talk about eternal hope without printing it into their life here and now: the future exists in the present and is in the making. Therefore, as in Christianity, in Islam hope is an active and participative waiting that, even as it looks to the future, also engages the past and present. Engagement with past and present while looking into the future demonstrates the non-linearity of time in relation to hope. Through hope, our inner beings comfort us that “one day problems will be solved, peace will reign, and justice will prevail.” That one-day includes yesterday, today, and tomorrow. For instance, a refugee woman from Iran who endured two abusive relationships (with her family and in marriage) believed that her conversion to Christianity was a manifestation of God’s hope for her since birth. In this light, her past hope was viewed through the story of Christ’s resurrection, as she saw herself as having died (she had to go through the two abusive relationships) and now being alive. As she expressed, “He brought me back from the land of the dead and from hell.”

Therefore, religious pathways can encourage the individual to hope in God’s mercy, which can empower the individual to move away from despair and to set new, hopeful goals. Indeed, taking the risk of leaving one’s home and becoming a refugee in an unknown land is an indication of hope translated into agency and “goal-directed energy.” In fact, moving from one own’s religion to another can also be interpreted as moving to an unknown territory since the church is unknown territory for the Muslim. In this new territory, the Bible comforts them that all believers are “foreigners and strangers” in this world (1 Chronicles 29:15; 1 Peter 2:11).

The Concept of Adl (Divine Justice)  

While “just” is one of God’s attributes in Islam, the Quran makes no direct statement that “God is just.” This is because, in Islam, God is the absolute owner to whom all things will ultimately return (Quran 11:123). He has the right to dispose of everything as He pleases. The concept of justice and injustice does not apply to God, as everything belongs to Him. One demonstration of this concept’s implications is the argument by Iranian scholar Morteza Motahhari, who claims that justice and injustice are moral and social terms; therefore, God is neither just nor unjust. Nonetheless, as in other Abrahamic religions, Muslims believe in God as “the establisher of justice” (Quran 57:25). This is because justice is not only a social issue but also an eschatological one. As Motahhari puts it, “[J]ustice, in its social sense, is the purpose and goal of prophethood (nabuvat), and in its philosophical sense, it is the foundation of the afterlife (ma’ad)” (Motahhari, 2005). So, how does Adl (God’s justice) relate to hope?

The concept of Adl in Islam encourages individuals to prioritize following God’s will in their actions in order to receive God’s mercy and strive for a better life after death. In this sense, hope is seen as a request (tammana) – asking benefit from God in exchange for leading a good life (Q 53:24). However, these requests should be made with a sincere fear of God in one’s heart (Q 3:75). This fear of God is a reminder that punishment and hell are real; as an eschatological response, it is closely tied to the concept of hope in God’s mercy.

Because God owns all things, controls life after death, and demands perfection, one could conclude that in Islam, hope is not solely focused on individuals’ goals and agendas but rather on God himself and on achieving perfection before God. Therefore, finding agency and pathways to achieve personal goals in Islam might be problematic, as the emphasis lies more on obeying God to secure eternal life than on finding personal benefit here and now.

As I have studied converts’ testimonies, I have seen that this perspective, together with fear of God (fear of hell and punishment), have been among key reasons why some who have converted from Islam have renounced their faith or have been disillusioned by Islam. Many refugees and migrants left their homes in search of safety and a better life here and now. Implied in that action is the fact that their hope centres on themselves in the present.

In addition, these refugee converts desire to anchor (agency) their hope on God (pathway) to provide them security, unconditional love, and support as they strive towards their aspirations for this life now. By promising Christ’s boundless love as a present, persistent reality, Christianity provides them with a welcoming space to pursue their personal goals: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).

The Church’s Model of Hope

As I have demonstrated above, many similarities exist between traditional understandings of hope in Christianity and in Islam.

However, there are differences between the concept of hope in God in Islam and in Christianity for example in the concept of God’s justice (Adl). The fact that in Islam people have to earn their salvation (heaven) means that Islam has no notion of justification by grace through faith, as does Christianity. In Islam heaven must be gained by the believer’s work. Second, in Islam, one of God’s attributes is love. Yet a direct (without a mediator) and intimate relationship with God may not be possible in Islam. In both Islam and Christianity, it is believed that God is love and that He has blessed every person with His breath and his image. However, in Islam, believers are considered as servants of God rather than His children. They will stay God’s servants even if they become God’s successors on earth (Khalifatollah). Third, there is a kingdom of grace in Islam (mainly linked to the afterlife), but Muslim converts are more familiar with the idea of a kingdom of power and fear because of the emphases of Islamic teachings and leadership.

Thus, the main difference between the two concepts of hope is the fact that Christian hope is based on justification by grace and the fact that God’s loving action allows Christians to move from being his servants to being his children, to move from the kingdom of fear to the kingdom of grace. Through these differences, a shift in worldview from Islam to Christianity can give refugees assurance and certainty – a pathway to their hope.

Though Christianity teaches salvation by grace through faith, Christian hope must still be an active hope. One reason for this is because the price of salvation was too high for anyone to afford, so God personally paid for it. Therefore, this costly grace should serve as the foundation of our hope, which in turn requires us to actively engage with God, the world, and our faith. This engagement includes repentance and a strong belief in God.

To return to Snyder’s language: During their experience in the church and with Christian communities, refugees engage in a learning process to comprehend the impact of Christian teaching on the agendas they set. This process includes re-evaluating their goals and desires. As they gain new understandings, their attitudes towards their active hope and their agendas may shift. This transformation requires close guidance from the church.

An illustration of a revised agenda is the story of Mahmoud, an Iranian convert from a Muslim background. After 15 years of struggle, his refugee status was finally approved, and he was granted leave to remain in his new country. Unfortunately, two months later, he was diagnosed with incurable cancer and passed away four months afterward. Those who visited him in the hospital were struck by his unwavering trust in God and the immense love and gratitude he displayed. Although he could have questioned God’s reasons, he never did – or at least, no one heard him do so. He believed that through his faith in Christ, he had found a life that even death could not take away. This hope is a gift that the church can offer others like Mahmoud. The world might have failed Mahmoud, but he was able to reclaim his life through his faith in Christ and to rewrite his understanding of his life through Christian hope.

Christian hope serves as a source of strength and expands refugees’ horizons. Despite facing challenges, such as being incarcerated in or forced to flee from their home country, or losing their asylum cases, many of them do not lose faith. They may lose a place in the Christian community, but they remain steadfast in believing in God’s love and mercy. They persist in hoping for better circumstances. Their hope in God’s mercy empowers them to stand firm and feel a sense of security, even in the midst of uncertainties and challenges. As Hebrews 6:19 says, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” Such hope allows individuals to embark on a transformative journey towards the future with perseverance and steadiness.

Conclusion

How has the church responded to refugees’ hopeful agendas? My conclusions here are mainly based on my observations during my time in Denmark and the U.K.

In my research, I have found notable parallels between certain aspects of the church’s reactions to issues faced by refugees and the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Despite facing criticism, the church has continued to welcome and care for refugees, to take pity on them, to bandage their wounds, to feed them, to shelter them, to pray for them and with them, and to teach them about Christian faith. The central focus of the Good Samaritan model revolves around the dynamic interplay of hope, faith, and love – characterised by active faith, steadfastness of hope, and the labour of love. 1 Thessalonians 1:3 echoes this interplay: “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therefore, at its core, the Good Samaritan story centres on empowerment and encouragement.

However, many churches learn to care for Muslim-background refugees through trial and error. The church still needs to enhance its knowledge and practice of true diakonia as modelled by the Good Samaritan. If I may reapply the parable to this situation: The church should transition from being a Good Samaritan to fulfilling the role of Innkeeper or Home. The Good Samaritan (Jesus Christ) brings refugees into the care of the Innkeeper (the church), presenting the church an opportunity to learn and grow. It is important for the church to know when to move the refugees from the inn (where they receive welcome and care) to the home (where they can find a sense of belonging and share space and power). Discerning how and when to move refugees from dependent to independent, from guests to family, has been a challenging task for the church. At times, it seems like the church and refugees are caught in a cycle of constantly welcoming and being welcomed, a cycle that inadvertently traps refugees as temporary lodgers in an inn rather than as permanent, responsible members of a family.

This process of care is a journey on which both the church (as symbolized by the Samaritan and the Innkeeper) and refugees (as symbolized by the Wounded) must embark together in order to foster reconciliation. The church must come to terms with its own flaws, while refugees must confront their past. Together, church and refugees must become a family (in a real and practical sense) and witness to God’s acts of love as He heals, restores, and reshapes every believer, no matter their background. As the church moves beyond serving as a temporary guesthouse to become a permanent, inclusive space for refugees, refugees can learn to act on their new hope by setting their own, hope-filled goals, taking agency, and pursuing pathways that share their hope with others.

Author Bio: Dr. Sara Afshari serves as a Research Tutor at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in Oxford, U.K. Her areas of research include media, religion and culture, religious conversion, interfaith and Islamic studies, and the experiences of refugees and migrants as they settle in new communities. In 2023, she published Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran: Mediated Christianity in an Islamic Context with Routledge.

References

Al-Fārūqī, Ismāʻīl Rājī. Al-Tawḥīd: its Implications for Thought and Life. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1992.

Khan, Muhammad Muhsin, and M. T. U. D. Al-Hilali. “The Noble Qur’an.” Maulana Maududi 135 (2020). Online version: https://quran.com/en

International Bible Society. The Holy Bible: New International Version. Broadman & Holman.

Mutahhari, Murtada. ʿAdl-i ilahi (Divine justice). Tehran: Sadra (2005).

Snyder, Charles, ed. Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications. London:    Academic Press, 2000.

Tabatabai, Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn. Tafsir al-Mizan (An Exegisis of the Quran).

Farsi edition. CreateSpace: 1976.

Sara Afshari

Dr. Sara Afshari serves as a Research Tutor at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in Oxford, U.K. Her areas of research include media, religion and culture, religious conversion, interfaith and Islamic studies, and the experiences of refugees and migrants as they settle in new communities. In 2023, she published Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran: Mediated Christianity in an Islamic Context with Routledge.