THE APOSTLE OF ANATAPUR: THE CONVERSION STORY OF SHAIKH ISMAIL
(An abridged version of Shaikh Ismail's own testimony by Roland E. Miller)
The story of Shaikh Ismail includes much more than his conversion. What he did after that and what he is doing now has an epic ring. The readers of this Newsletter know about the remarkable Anantapur movement of some Telugu-speaking Muslims and Hindus towards the Saviour, centred at Anantapur. Shaikh Ismail is the leader of that movement which was well described in the 2010 spring edition of the Newsletter and earlier. How did he get started on this missionary road?
The answer to that question can only be the work of the Holy Spirit. Nothing but a divine impulse could have produced such an event and its outcomes. As is well-known certain societies are more resistant to the message of the Gospel than others. Among them must be included most Muslim societies. Why that is the case is another story. This fact alone makes Ismail's conversion a demonstration of God's power and, in his own words,"the abundant love of God towards me." But in addition is the fact that it was as it were "out of the ground," and could not have been anticipated at the human level.
Ismail was born July 1, 1949, in the village of Ganjukunta in Anantapur District, northwest Andhra Pradesh. Andhra is a huge state located in south India. It has much variety, but the dominant and state language is Telugu. In rural areas many Muslims reflect Telugu culture, even though in Andhra's cities Urdu is the common Muslim language. Ismail was born in that rural context and in a loyal Muslim family. His parents were firm in their religious practice including the five daily prayers and the required fast. Ismail remembers their frequent recitation of the name of the Prophet Muhammad. Like all Muslims they also admired the prophets Moses and Jesus (Isa).
Despite Ismail's religious upbringing things took a different course after his father died and his two elder brothers took charge of the family affairs. By that time he had turned 18 and had drifted into a period of restlessness. By his own admission he lapsed into a period of sinful behaviour. He kept attending the mosque and maintained the outward appearance of a pious individual, but he left home frequently, and even felt suicidal impulses. The unhealthy pattern was interrupted after three years when an itinerant Christian witness arrived in his village. The Christian gave a clear witness to Christ through his singing, praying and teaching. Ismail's mother developed an interest in listening to his message. She even asked the Christian to pray for her wayward son and one day took Ismail to meet him.
The Christian's words and ideas seemed incomprehensible to Ismail. In particular, the teaching about sin did not make any sense to him because he believed that heaven is "a free boon" for all Muslims. How could sin annul that fact, he wondered. The Christian pointed out that sin produced a universal condemnation that required a special solution. A spiritual break-through came for Ismail when the Christian witness pointed out the references to Jesus in the Quran. Ismail had a superficial knowledge of Jesus whom he called Isa Nabi (Jesus the Prophet) and Isa Masih (Jesus the Messiah), but he had never actually read the many Quranic references to Jesus, all of them complimentary although incomplete. Ismail testifies that by reading them he came to the realization that Jesus is the "the real saviour of the mankind." The great event took place in 1969, in his 20th year. He repented, believed and began to spend all his time with Christians, learning more from them about the Saviour. He was convinced that Jesus had personally communicated to him the message of 1 John 1: 9: "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Now Ismail's troubles began since it is contrary to Muslim law to change one's religious affiliation. Villagers complained, and his elder brothers took him to task. His consistent answer to them was this: "Jesus has changed my life." To divert his attention, Ismail's family arranged his marriage with Jubeda Begum in 1970, but he continued on his chosen path. Deeply distressed, the family members became very angry, and his new wife too was saddened. His mother was sympathetic (and Ismail believed she had come to faith), but she pleaded with him to be content to be a secret believer. He remained firm in his decision but the pressures were heavy. Now he began to take refuge in the Bible and its promises. He was moved by the Lord's words in Mark 10, 29-30, indicating that we must be companions in Christ's suffering.
As the village bedlam increased Ismail's family felt compelled to present him with an ultimatum–either retract or be excommunicated and lose your inheritance. They demanded that he put his response in writing. He wrote that he would accept the penalties rather than disown his faith. He was given 24 hours before he had to leave his home and family. During those moments he was greatly consoled by what he called the golden words of Isaiah (46:4): "Even to your old age I am he, even when you turn grey, I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear, I will carry and will save."
Taking his unhappy wife with him Ismail went 30 kilometres away to the village of Mopidi. Their hardship was severe. They had no possessions, very little food, and no work. They were in a personal wilderness. Only the charity of others kept them alive. His wife cried out, "How can we go on, why cannot your God provide for us?" In turmoil she left him and returned to her family in Anantapur where she stayed for three months. She resisted her parents' demands that she divorce Ismail, and returned to him, but she continued to beg him to alter what seemed to be a destructive decision. Finally in her hopelessness she turned to suicide. Obtaining a bottle of pesticide from a farmer, she consumed half of it and fell down. As her body lay convulsed on the floor Ismail threw himself down beside her in prayer and she vomited out the poison. To Ismail it was God's miracle: "She came back to her normal condition, praise the Lord. He gave her life back." When she had recovered, Jubeda begged God for forgiveness, and she took the decision to accept Jesus, informing everything to her parents. "It was an awesome news for them and other relatives too." From that time she joined Ismail in faith and witness. "Many visitors started to come to see and listen to her testimony."
Now somehow there was food twice a day. Their sufferings and persecutions were far from over but as Ismail says: "God performed many miracles and saved us from many dangers." They decided to spend their lives and efforts to tell others the good news of the Saviour and His free salvation. Ismail's ministry became a travelling one as he carried his witness over four districts whose fruit is the extensive Anantapur movement that is taking place today. Four daughters and a son were born to the family. The daughters all married Muslim converts, while the son now helps Ismail's ministry after doing theological studies in Bangalore. Ismail is now called "shaikh" by his many new fellow believers, a term of respect for a patriarchal, venerated leader. Yet he is a quiet unassuming man whose message to fellow Christians is a simple one.
"Lastly I would like to say a word. God provided us everything and protected us. The same God will also save you if you keep faith in His word. May God bless you."