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Another Look at Whether Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God


coexistThe Problem

The controversy surrounding Wheaton College’s decision to suspend Prof. Larycia Hawkins over her statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God has led a number of intellectual heavyweights to weigh in on the subject.

Some, such as Miroslav Volf and Kelly James Clark, say Hawkins was correct: Muslims and Christians do worship the same God, the God of Abraham, though Muslims do not worship Him correctly. They conclude that Wheaton College’s suspension of Hawkins was nothing but an act of anti-Muslim bigotry. Francis Beckwith agrees that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but does not think Wheaton’s action was bigoted.

Other thinkers, such as Albert Mohler, Scot McKnight, and former Muslim Nadeel Qureshi, argue that the conceptions of God of Christianity and Islam are so different that they cannot be the same being.

The first group then responds that since there is only one God, it is not possible for Muslims to worship a different God since there is no other God out there that can be worshiped. Besides, if one had to know God as Trinity (as some who hold the second view assert), then you would have to argue that Jews and Christians do not worship the same God.

Not so fast, says the second group. Christianity grows out of and completes Judaism and so Christians and Jews do worship the same God, whereas Islam rejects Christian (and Jewish) revelation.

And so on.

Talking Past Each Other

Part of the controversy comes from the two sides approaching the question from very different directions. The side that argues that Allah and God are one and the same is viewing the issue from a metaphysical or ontological perspective: There is only one omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc., being; since both religions worship such a being, the object of their worship must be the same. The other side takes a more epistemological approach: What Muslims affirm about Allah is so different from the Christian understanding of God (other than the “omnis” and the claim that it is the God of Abraham) that it makes no sense to say that they are the same being. For example, one of the 99 Names of Allah is “the Deceiver,” a term that Christians use for Satan; “Father,” on the other hand, is not one of those 99 Names.

The net result is that to some extent, the two sides are talking past each other because they mean different things when they ask the question of whether or not it’s the “same” God.

Here’s my attempt at a resolution.

Looking at the Options

Logically, there are three and only three possible answers to the question from a Christian perspective:

  1. They are the same God, though Muslims do not worship him correctly;
  2. They are not the same God and Allah does not actually exist;
  3. They are not the same God, but Allah is a spiritual being masquerading as God (which would make him Satan).

These choices should clarify one aspect of the discussion: They demonstrate that saying the Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God does not necessarily imply anything about Judaism. Any of these could be true and it would have no impact on the relationship of Judaism and Christianity.

So which of these is the best explanation of the relationship between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity?

Unacceptable Worship

Before we can answer that question, we need to ask a few others. First, what do we mean by worship, and what are the implications if we say that Christians and Muslims do worship the same God? Many Christians think that option 1 makes Islam more acceptable and minimizes the real differences between the two religions. Further, Christians find it morally repugnant to suggest that a Daesh* fighter who prays before raping his sex slave is somehow worshipping God in that prayer. (Of course, many Muslims also find that suggestion repugnant.)

The question, then, is whether all worship offered to God is acceptable to Him or whether worship offered to the true God can be Satanic, as in the example of the Daesh fighter.

To answer this, consider the Christian world. If a person is a nominal Christian who only attends church at Christmas and Easter, who ignores the faith in the interim, and barely pays attention even when in church, does that qualify his worship as acceptable to God? Or what about people who worship in a Prosperity Gospel church—is that acceptable to God? In other words, can one worship the true God in a way that is unacceptable to Him?

Jesus tells us in Mark 7:7 that, yes, it is possible to worship the true God in an unacceptable manner: “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” If this was the case for the Jews in Jesus’ day, it would seem possible that Muslims (and some Christians) could be worshiping God, but doing so in vain.

This leaves option 1 on the table, though it does not address the question of whether the concepts of God are so different that they cannot be the same being. These differences are put in stark relief by the Daesh fighter who sees rape, torture, and killing as service to Allah. It is hard to conceive of those actions as being directed in any way toward God however much Daesh may misunderstand Him. Of course, some will argue that Daesh is not true Islam, yet that claim itself may be problematic since, for example, Egypt’s Al Azhar University, one of the most important prestigious Muslim universities in the world, refuses to condemn Daesh as un-Islamic.

Which Islam?

This raises yet another question: which Islam are we talking about? Islam is hardly a monolithic bloc. In addition to the division between Sunni and Shia, there are a multitude of other variations within Islam, ranging from sub-sects within the Sunni and Shia worlds with varying practices and varying degrees of rigor, to Sufis (Muslim mystics), to practitioners of African folk religions and sorcery who nonetheless consider themselves Muslims, to liberal Muslim groups such as Muslims for Progressive Values which advocates gender equality, secular government, full religious toleration and freedom, LGBTIQ rights, etc., to Dr. Sarah Ahmed, the main assistant of Canon Andrew White (the Vicar of Baghdad), who works freely with Jews and Christians in a wide range of relief efforts and who self-identifies as a Muslim. In what sense can we say that they all worship the same Allah?

(The same question can be asked of self-professed Christians, who range from Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to people who deny the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the Trinity, to Prosperity Gospel preachers, to Unity Pentecostals, to Anabaptists, Protestants, and Evangelicals, to Catholics, to Orthodox. . . . Evangelicals frequently argue that nominal Christians can be idolaters and actually worship money, sex, or power rather than the God they claim to worship.)

To put it simply, compare a Muslim sorcerer in West Africa who regularly invokes demons but attends a mosque, a Salafist cleric in Saudi Arabia who would execute that sorcerer, Dr. Ahmed, and the Daesh fighters who want to kill her as an apostate and traitor to Islam: Do they all worship the same Allah even though their views of what he demands and thus who he is are so radically different?

Recall the epistemological perspective that argues that the Christian and Muslim concepts of God are so different that they cannot be the same God; one could make a similar argument between the different varieties of Islam.

This suggests that a single choice among the three options listed above may not be possible; different Muslims may end up in different categories. Some worshippers of Allah, such as Daesh or the West African sorcerer, might be worshipping Satan rather than God (option 3 above), but others such as Dr. Ahmed, could well fall under option 1 or 2.

In other words, the answer to the question of whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.” If we must have an answer, we will first need to establish what we mean by the question: are we dealing with our understanding of God or the being of God? What do we mean by “worship?” Which version of Islam are we dealing with? And who gets to define “real” Islam, since Muslims themselves differ radically on that point? Even without getting into the technical details of metaphysics and theory of language that some philosophers have used in attempting to answer the question, the degree of uncertainty in terms of what the question means makes it impossible to give a simple answer.

*Also known as ISIS.

Image courtesy of Splendor of Truth.

 

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed the intellectual exercise by Glenn and i have a Question. Would looking at the birth, life death, and resurrection of Jesus along with the writings of the four gospels and the life of Mohammad make any difference?
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