I remember the moment, over a year ago, when I read on my social media newsfeed that Nabeel Qureshi had been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. My heart fell. Why? Here was a vibrant and intellectually gifted young apologist with an extraordinary testimony of seeking the truth about Christianity as a young Muslim and eventually coming to faith in Christ as a result (as told in his best-selling book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus). As well as his promising future as a Christian thinker and evangelist he also had a wife and a young child, Ayah.
Yet there was hope – we believe in a God with the power to heal and turn the darkest situations around. In the ensuing year Nabeel kept a video diary of his battle with cancer. There were moments of hope and positivity along the way. I often remembered him in my own prayers, and thousands of people were mobilised to pray for him every day, along with the many Nabeel met who prayed for his healing in person. But the general trend continued to be grim. In the latter months his video updates came from a hospital bed where he told us of the excruciating ordeal that led to having his stomach removed, and eventually that, after the doctors had done everything they could, there were no longer any medical options for treating his cancer.
This weekend as social media was flooded again - this time with tributes to Nabeel - I felt both sadness and hope. Sadness for those close to him who will feel his loss the most, and also sadness for the loss to the Church (here on earth at least) of a man who embodied Christian witness so faithfully. Yet also hope for the legacy he leaves and the knowledge that he will now rest in peace and rise in glory one day to enjoy the new creation with the one he came to know as Lord.
Nabeel grew up a devout Ahmadiyya Muslim, but was converted to Christianity through his friendship with college room-mate David Wood, a Christian evangelist. The process was a long one involving many intellectual questions, debates and arguments. Eventually Nabeel became convinced that the biblical account of Jesus’ death and resurrection was true, and the Qu’ran’s was false. But it was a series of dreams that finally brought him to the point of kneeling before Jesus, not as one in a line of Islamic prophets, but as his own Lord and Saviour.
He genuinely cared about those he debated with – his life was as prayerful as it was intellectual
Nabeel was hungry for the truth and his pursuit of the evidence led him to Jesus. Firstly with his friend David Wood, and then latterly as a speaker with RZIM he went on to speak to thousands of Christians, Muslims and sceptics and saw many come to faith as a result. His books, which married his intellectual pursuit with his own testimony, were widely read. In person he was robust in his exchanges but gracious in his demeanour. He was endlessly patient with his critics, who were vociferous especially within parts of the Muslim community. Moreover, he genuinely cared about those he debated with – his life was as prayerful as it was intellectual.
Nabeel had been a guest on my Unbelievable? radio discussion show several times over the years. In fact, before I heard the news, I had happened to request prayers from my radio audience for him on the day he passed away.
I met him twice in person. The last time was on 31 March 2016 when he came to our studios to record an hour long interview with me about his life and faith journey, some video clips from the recording went on to be widely shared. Unbeknown to him, his body was already infected with the cancer he was diagnosed with later in the summer.
After the recording we went for lunch tougher, along with a friend of his from Oxford University where Nabeel was pursuing his PhD in New Testament studies. He told me excitedly about the direction his research was heading, we swapped stories, and talked at length about our shared interests in biblical studies and apologetics. I was due to record a debate with noted New Testament critic Bart Ehrman later that day. Nabeel was looking forward to listening to it when it aired. He was constantly open to listening and learning. We parted hoping that we could pursue a conversation about his speaking at Unbelievable? the Conference in 2017. Of course, once his diagnosis emerged, those plans were abandoned.
Whenever he appeared on the show to engage with others, he was a model of gracious interaction, as was demonstrated in one of his last outings on the show when he engaged with another scholar, Joseph Cumming, on the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Nabeel argued with characteristic warmth and wisdom that they do not.
Apologetic debate, especially when entered into with Islamic counterparts, can be a confrontational affair. But Nabeel walked a wise line, never seeing others as opponents to be defeated but as people to be loved. It was the message of his final video recorded from his hospital bed, titled 'Love and Peace are our Motivation'. Knowing the end was near, he wanted to make sure that nobody would misconstrue his motives. He hoped his life would be remembered not so much for his intellectual journey, but for the love and compassion he tried to embody.
I will certainly remember him not only for his love and peace, but also his personal courage and commitment to share the gospel. In his twelve years as Christian, Nabeel touched more lives for Christ than many apologists and evangelists may hope to do in a lifetime. How desperately the world needs more witnesses like Nabeel.
His was a unique story. His loss is felt keenly by those of us who move in apologetics circles. It also raises again the familiar 'why?' questions: Why wasn’t Nabeel healed? Why was his life - so full of promise - cut short aged 34? These are questions all Christians must wrestle with at some point, and there are no easy answers.
Nabeel had already experienced the spiritual miracle of coming to faith in Jesus against all the odds, and had hoped for a physical miracle too. That was not to be.
Just like the rest of us, Nabeel inhabited a world which groans under the weight of evil and suffering (Paul in Romans 8 sums it up well). A world which is out of kilter with the way things should be. We don’t know why restoration didn’t happen in the present, but we have the hope of a God who, through Jesus Christ, will restore Nabeel along with his whole creation. Nabeel, no longer riddled with cancer, will be raised to new life along with all those who find their life in Christ. More than anything Nabeel rested in that hope that "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21).
So we mourn for the loss of Nabeel. But as St Paul also reminds us "we grieve, but not as those without hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We may not have all the answers, but we do have hope. Nabeel experienced what that looked like in his life, and thousands have and will continue to experience it, because of the life he lived.
Hear Justin Brierley's one hour Profile interview with Nabeel at 4pm, Saturday 23rd September on Premier Christian Radio, or download The Profile podcast