What happens when a Muslim converts to Christianity?
I had the opportunity to ask this and many other questions of Dr. Mark Gabriel, an Egyptian and former professor of Islamic history at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He was also an imam who had the entire Quran memorized by the time he was 12 years old. His questioning of Islam led him to endure intense persecution, but to find his salvation in Jesus Christ. This is his story.
Mark Gabriel: I was born in the south part of Egypt, and my family moved to Cairo when I was almost 14 years old. My parents were strict Muslims and very devout, not the secular type of Muslim that we often encounter in this country.
I had an uncle who was mostly a cleric and an imam also. He was the one who first began to inspire me to memorize the Quran. He took me when I was five years old, and he started helping me in memorizing the Quran. By the time I was 12 years old I had the entire Quran memorized. I spent almost seven years exactly to finish memorizing the entire book. The size of the Quran is exactly like the size of the New Testament. By the time I was 12 years old I had memorized it by heart in the classical Arabic, because the language of the Quran is classic Arabic and not dialect Arabic — the Arabic you speak on the streets.
It wasn’t until after I had finished my secondary school and started high school that I began to understand the meaning of the verses and teachings of the Quran. But, it was a development you see from the time I finished the Quran when I was 12 years old until I finished my bachelor’s degree. It was a development taking place in understanding the meaning of this book. But, when I finished my bachelor degree, I finally then had the proper understanding of the meaning of this book.
Dr. Reagan: Now, why was it important for you to memorize the Quran as a child? Why did anybody put any importance on that? Is that something important in Islamic society?
Mark Gabriel: Mainly, it’s Islamic culture, and it hasn’t been just from the past ten years or fifty years. It’s a part of Islamic culture from the very earliest time of the first century of Islam. Muslims started to take care to pass the Quran from generation to generation by memorizing the book by heart.
Dr. Reagan: Were you ever exposed to any Christians while you were growing up, either missionaries or Coptic Christians, who represent the basic Christianity of Egypt?
Mark Gabriel: Absolutely. I saw Christians living in my neighborhood and country of Egypt as a minority. The Christians of Egypt don’t have really any power to influence Muslims. This is the reason why I wasn’t influenced by this type of Christianity during my life, because the Christianity in Egypt is so traditional. More than 90% of Egyptian Christians are traditionally a very liturgical type.
But, there was one incident that happened when I was a child of 15 with a Christian Coptic priest from that church. What happened at that time really left a huge influence over my spiritual life.
I became really upset and very angry at Christians and Jews because of the teachings I had started to receive everyday in my school, especially when I was in my secondary school at Al-Azhar Islamic Institute. One day I found a Christian priest in that church who was using the road outside of my house, going from his place to his monastery everyday. And so, I would stand in front of my house and I began to hit him with stones. I injured him in his head terribly and they took him to the hospital.
This priest when he got out of the hospital, he came to find out what was going on with me and why I was treating him that way. He came back and found me because he knew my house and he even knew my family. This man did not come for revenge or to treat me in the same way, but he came to advise me that there is a fire inside me, and he said that fire was going to burn me before burning others. He also came to tell me that he forgave me even though I injured him, and he just came to show me that he loved me. He forgave me when he said, “There is no reason for you to hate me or treat me that way.” This really influenced my spiritual life even after I grew up and became one of the best students at my university.
Islamic Reaction to Questioning Islam
Dr. Reagan: You were basically sitting on top of the world as a professor of Islamic history at Al-Azhar University. You were also a Muslim imam at a mosque in Giza, right?
Mark Gabriel: Yes, Giza City.
Dr. Reagan: You had all the academic prestige in the world, and yet one day you made a comment recorded in your book Jesus and Mohammed that you were a person who questioned things, and you were told at the university, “you don’t question.” Yet, you kept on questioning, and one day in a conversation with colleagues you made this statement: “We say the Quran is directly from Allah, but I doubt it. I see in it the thoughts of man and not the words of God.”
Mark Gabriel: This is what happened in the meeting between me and the other professors from the university. They had just met with me to discuss what was going on and what they had heard from the students. They were thinking that I was under the pressure of some former Christian influence. They just wanted to find out why I am doubting Islam, so I made that statement to them. They became very upset with me and they kicked me out of the university. The university fired me.
On that same day in the evening time I was kidnapped by Egyptian secret police because they accused me of having converted from Islam. They put me in a little cell in the headquarters of the Egyptian secret service in the center of Cairo. They put me in there for three days with no food or water.
On the fourth day they started to interrogate me. They took me to one of the offices, maybe on the sixth or seventh floor, and interrogated me during the day. On the fourth day they started giving me food and water again because they wanted to stimulate me and get whatever information they could. They found out during that time that they could not get what they were looking for. They started interrogating me during the evening time which was a time of torture. They burned me with cigarettes on different places on my body like on my hand. They beat me. They put me in cold water. They put me in a little tank filled with water and they put hungry rats inside that tank with me. All night the rats were just swimming over the water around my head, though the rats didn’t bite. The next day they took me out and I was surprised that I was still alive. I did not know what was next.
Next, the interrogators put me in a little cell with a vicious, hungry dog. After they put me in the room and closed the door and I just sat in the middle of the room thinking that I was going to be eaten by the dog. I was so surprised when the dog came up and just sat at my right hand side and began licking me on my ears.
Dr. Reagan: They must have thought that you were Satan or something to have such power.
Mark Gabriel: They said that! They said, “Is this a human being or something else?” They believed that there was some spirit or some ancient power in me.
Dr. Reagan: At that point didn’t they decide to turn you over to some guys in a cell and tell them that you had renounced Islam and let them kill you?
Mark Gabriel: Yes. Their understanding was that I had been questioned by professors at the university and I had been fired by the university. To them it meant that this guy was just out of Islam and had converted. In fact, they wanted to find out what missionary had converted me, though I hadn’t been converted. I had no idea about Christianity at that time, or about Christ. I never even discussed Christianity, but in Egypt when someone decides to leave Islam they will automatically accuse him that he came under pressure of the Church or some Christian, and say he converted you to Christianity.
Dr. Reagan: How in the world did you get out of that situation without losing your life?
Mark Gabriel: I was crying to the God who created me at that time. I didn’t know who he was. After 15 days, my uncle who was working as the Vice President of Egyptian Parliament and was visiting Russia at that time, when came back he heard about my kidnapping. He then came with permission from the government and he came with his car and he took me out of the prison.
Family Reaction to Questioning Islam
Mark Gabriel: One year after I got out of prison and back home my father tried to kill me. I had been searching for God and trying to find out who God was. I had received a Bible from a Christian pharmacist. When I started reading the Bible, I started to find out the truth about Christ. After I gave my life to the Lord, I lived for one whole year as a secret believer. When my father heard about my conversion, he shot at me with his own gun. He tried to kill me. He felt that there would be a shame that was going to be over him, his life, the family and even the community.
After my father shot at me and tried to kill me for what he saw as me running away from his faith, I went to my sister. At my sister’s house I put the whole situation in front of the Lord, and the Lord led me to get out of Egypt. That same evening my sister helped me by bringing my passport and other stuff.
On the Run From Islam
Mark Gabriel: I fled from my family to South Africa by road traveling from Cairo to South Africa. It took three months over the road. I was the first Egyptian who did an overland journey between Cairo and Johannesburg.
In South Africa I met with many Christians and many churches there started to hear about my story. The public media in South Africa published articles about my story. After I wrote my first book while in South Africa, my activity became very well known and the Muslim community felt threatened by my activity there and by my book being released in Johannesburg in 1996. They tried to end my life there three times.
Dr. Reagan: So, just because you questioned Islam, this “religion of peace” kidnaps you, tortures you, tries to kill you, and even sends assassins to kill you in South Africa. That’s some “religion of peace” isn’t it?
Mark Gabriel: Yes, this is how the world has been really deceived by the secular world media. Islam is not a religion of peace.
The Appeal of Christianity
Dr. Reagan: What appealed to you about Christianity?
Mark Gabriel: Before I met Christ, I lived for 34 years under Islam, believing in Islam, serving Islam, learning about Islam, teaching about Islam. I lived another year without faith after I found myself out of Islam. So, I lived for 35 years searching for peace, searching for the true God, who was going to show me that he loves me more than anything in this world. Through the Quran, through the teaching of the prophet of Islam, I never experienced something like that.
Before I was given a Bible from the doctor of a pharmacy, I had lived for a whole year searching for God and asking myself who God could be. I had terrible headaches. Everyday I went to the doctor at the pharmacy to get headache tablets. She finally gave me a Bible along with the headache tablets. I took the Bible in one hand and headache tablets in the other hand.
When I started reading the Bible, I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter five. He was telling me about love. I was to love my enemy, not kill my enemy. The word of the Bible, the word of Jesus Christ, that evening came to me just like a beautiful rain. I began to find the peace and forgiveness that had eluded me all those years. I felt for the first time that my sins had been forgiven, and I had been justified by the blood of Jesus.
You see, I had lived for 35 years with the guilt of my sin, the guilt of living as a lost person. In Islam I didn’t know who was going to forgive my sin. I didn’t know who was going to rescue me from the punishment of Allah. I had no assurance that I could be in a right place to live there eternally. In Islam you never really know for sure whether you are saved or not. Muhammad didn’t know whether he was saved or not. Isn’t that something?
Testifying to Islam for Christ
Mark Gabriel: When I finally made it to the United States, I was given religious asylum in this country. I had a remarkable experience in Washington D.C. after somebody told me that there was going to be a Muslim imam who would be speaking at George Mason University. I went there and found out this man had been a Baptist pastor from Texas. He had converted to Islam and he was now preaching for Islam at George Mason University by sharing his testimony.
After the pastor turned imam finished his speech, he requested that if there was anyone who had a question to raise his hand. I found that my hand was the first hand up. First of all I identified myself as a former professor of Islamic history at a university. The imam was so impressed by that he said something like, “Oh, honored professor, please come up here and take over the podium.” The next thing I knew, I was on the stage at the podium in charge of the whole meeting and asking him the questions.
I asked him, “Sir, when did you make that decision to leave Christianity to become a Muslim?” He answered, “Eight years ago.” I thought, “This is like myself.” My next question was, “Since you converted to Islam and you left Christianity, were any churches or any Christians ordered to kill you because the Bible said that the penalty of Christian apostasy is death?” He replied, “No.” I asked, “Did the F.B.I. persecute you here, or arrest you here, or torture you here because you left Christianity to become a Muslim?” He confirmed, “No.” I said to him, “Sir, I am a human being like you, and I have the right to make a decision to change my religion or my faith like you, and I was a Muslim like you. I was an imam, as you were a pastor, and I made the same decision you made, but the difference between me and you is how I was treated by Islam. I was fired from my university. I was kidnapped by the secret police. I was tortured. I lost my family. I lost my country. The sword of Islam is on my neck wherever I go. Why? Because the Quran says that the penalty for Muslim apostasy is death.” He was shocked.
Dr. Reagan: Isn’t it amazing how the Lord works! You showed him immediately the differences between Christianity and Islam in that if he leaves Islam every Muslim will try to kill him and kick him out of his family. When he left Christianity, none of that happened to him. And yet, Islam is supposed to be the “religion of peace.”
Mark Gabriel: The imam is still enjoying his life in America because of the freedom brought to this country through the Christian and the biblical principles.
Dr. Reagan: I’m struck by the point that you made a few moments ago about no one in Islam knowing for sure whether they are ever saved or not. Unless they die as a martyr, they have no assurance of salvation.
Mark Gabriel: Yes, that is absolutely true.
Dr. Reagan: There is no assurance, and again, even Mohammed did not know for sure whether he was saved or not?
Mark Gabriel: Yes.
Dr. Reagan: That is a horrible thing to think you have to earn your salvation. No matter how hard you work, you still don’t know.
Mark Gabriel: Exactly.
Dr. Reagan: What a glorious thing it is for a person living under works to encounter the grace of God.
Mark Gabriel: Absolutely! I was questioning the doctor of pharmacy who had given me the Bible after Muslim fanatics in Egypt attacked a Christian church. I was so upset by the attack. I was such a baby Christian. I asked her, “Why can’t your people defend your church and your people?” What she said to me was, “Mark, I want to say something to you. Our God, He is not in need for us to defend him, or to kill others to defend him, or to defend His church. Our God is strong enough to defend Himself, His name, and His people.”
[Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for publication. The full transcript is available by clicking the pdf icon above.]