I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter with God by Bilquis Sheikh is, as the subtitle indicates, the story of how an aristocratic Pakistani woman, a lifelong Muslim, became a Christian in her fifties.
Bilquis’ family was well-known, hosting people from all over the world and often visiting London or Paris. Her husband was the Minister of the Interior, but they had divorced five years before, and feeling “the shame of rejection,” she secluded herself in her family’s ancestral home in the village of Wah. She lived with her servants and four-year-old grandson, and for the most part only visited with other family members.
After her grandson recovered from an illness, she started reading the Quran, not out of duty or obligation this time, but to see if it “would help explain the events and at the same time fill the emptiness within me.” She was “impressed by its many references to Jewish and Christian writings that preceded it” and wondered if it would be helpful to read them. Muslims believed that “the early Christians had falsified…much of” the Bible, but she felt compelled to obtain one and to read it. One of the first verses she came across was Romans 9:25-26: “I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.” Somehow that passage gripped her heart and stayed with her for days. As she continued to read more, particularly about Jesus and His claims to be God and the way of salvation through Him, she was confused, because the Muslims believed that Jesus was only a prophet, not God. After more reading and two vivid dreams, Bilquis decided to visit Christian missionaries in the village to get more information. One of her questions was, “What has Jesus done for you?” After sharing and praying, the missionary, Synnove Mitchell, kept in touch with Bilquis.
Bilquis continued reading “the Quran because of the loyalty of a lifetime, delving into the Bible because of a strange inner hunger.” She knew “God couldn’t be in both books…because their messages were so different.” When her grandson experienced pain in his ear to the point that he needed to be hospitalized, someone at the hospital asked Bilquis about the Bible she was carrying. Bilquis answered that she was “earnestly searching for God,” told about her experience so far, and admitted, “I must find God, but I am confused about your faith.” This person suggested, “Why don’t you pray to the God you are searching for? Ask Him to show you His way. Talk to Him as if He were your friend. Talk to Him as if He were your father.”
“The thought shook my soul in the peculiar way truth has of being at once starling and comforting…No Muslim, I felt certain, ever thought of Allah as his father.” But thoughts of her loving earthly father encouraged her to think of God in the same way, so she prayed to Him. In part of her prayer, she confessed her confusion and asked whether the Bible or the Quran was His book. He seemed to answer in her heart, “In which book do you meet Me as your Father?” And “that’s all it took” to convince her. She shut herself in her room with the Bible, read, thought about the consequences to herself and her family if she became a Christian, and finally opened her heart to Him.
The rest of the book details her growth and experiences, including those consequences.
There were several things that impressed me about this book and Bilquis’ story: the power of the gospel to change a heart, the love and courage He gave her to withstand persecution, her reaching out to family members during times of grief, even though they had shunned her.
When I reviewed Nabeel Qureshi’s biography, I mentioned that at first I was troubled by the mention of God speaking to him through dreams, believing that God speaks primarily through His Word. As I said there, I do still believe that, but I have come to understand that many Muslims experience dreams that aid them along the way to the gospel. In an afterward, it is said of Bilquis that when others who had experienced dreams and visions came to her, she “carefully brought attention to Jesus by praying for them and claiming the promises He Himself had made, and applying those promises in simple faith to their specific needs. She was concerned not only to give her visitors truths about God, but to bring them into the presence of Jesus, the Truth.”
One aspect of Bilquis’ testimony that troubled me was her frequent reference to experiencing or losing God’s presence depending on what she did. Sometimes she said “the sense of His presence,” and that I would not have had as much of a problem with. But she goes so far as to say that “the Spirit left” or “His Presence would disappear” if she disobeyed in some way. God is omnipresent and He is with His children always: He doesn’t leave us ever. And He deals with us on the basis of His grace. Yet He does still require obedience, and, just as we experience an uneasiness and lack of peace when there is trouble in any of our relationships until we talk about it, confess whatever we need to confess, and make things right, so we can experience that with God. Yet one can be walking in perfect step with Him and not sense His presence (see Job and many of the Psalms.) In Evidence Not Seen, Darlene Deibler Rose wrote of the comforting sense of God’s presence when she was a POW. But one day that sense was gone, and she searched her heart and couldn’t find any offense she needed to confess, prayed for it to return, but it didn’t for a long time.She finally realized it was something she needed to take by faith even if she didn’t always “feel” it. Bilquis doesn’t sound like she understood this truth. Perhaps what she meant is what we would call today “feeling peace” about a decision or action (although that’s not a foolproof indication of God’s will, either).
Nevertheless, God clearly worked in and through her, and it warmed my heart to see how He did and how she responded. Her obedience to what she determined to be the will of God at any given time was a rebuke to me, and the way He sustained her through many trials encouraged and blessed me. I like what someone shared with her: “God is always stretching us…until we don’t have a safe handhold left except Him.”
This book was originally published in Bilquis’ lifetime in 1978. The version I read was a 2003 reprint, and I am very thankful it contains an epilogue in the back, telling about the end of Bilquis’ life, along with a couple of afterwards by Synnove Mitchell, one of the missionaries Bilquis became friends with. In one, she tells of Bilquis coming to see her from her vantage point, which was neat to read. Then in the final one, titled “Enriched by the East,” she shares some of the differences between Eastern and Western ways of thinking (group culture vs. individuality, hospitality vs. punctuality, indirectness vs. bluntness, etc.) and talks about how we need each other and how we can enrich each other instead of clashing with each other.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)