Wheaton College is stirring up an old debate this week that’s worth revisiting. Professor Larycia Hawkins, in an effort to show solidarity with Muslims, decided to wear a hijab during advent. While wearing a hijab may have been tolerated by the school, what she said about the relationship between Islam and Christianity, was not. She wrote:
“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
For the crime of saying, “we worship the same God” Hawkins was suspended from school. Once news of this broke, the Evangelical Machine™ went into over-drive to celebrate the decision. Bloggers quickly weighed in with approval, and it certainly caught the eye of my brother-from-a-TOTALLY-different-mother, Franklin Graham, who said “shame on her!” for wearing a hijab (as if a head covering is some mortal sin), and continued to say she was “absolutely wrong” that we worshipped the same God.
In light of what will be ongoing conversations about Islam in America, the issue of God v. Allah is a critical one to have.
Do we worship the same God? If so, what does that mean?
The best answer to this question is, of course, Miroslav Volf’s book, Allah: A Christian Response. It’s so important that I’d almost say one should hold off on having a firm opinion on the matter until they’re informed- and Volf has produced what really is the best that exists on the topic. However, for those who would never go out and read a book, I’m going to answer this question in the most broken-down, basic way I can.
Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Is God and Allah one-in-the-same? In the most primitive way, yes. Let me explain:
In ancient times there was a man named Abraham who is revered in three of the world’s great religions. Abraham, of course, is considered the father of the Jewish people as well as Arabs and then Muslims. Essentially, Abraham somewhat founded a religion that went into three different streams: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here’s the important part: all three of these religions are Abrahamic religions, trying to worship Abraham’s God.
And this is where we can say all three religions do in fact worship the same God, as all three religions are pointing to, offering worship, and attempting to describe, the same object.
On the surface, it appears different because we say God, and Muslim’s say Allah, but that’s simply because that’s the word for God in Arabic. In fact, Christians in that part of the world also call God Allah. Allah is just a word- if Islam were born in a different culture, they’d use a different word. In this regard, saying that God and Allah are different because we’re using different words would almost be like saying, “Who is this weird god Mexicans worship and call Dios?” It’s an issue of language, that’s all.
Here’s where we’re at: all three religions are offering worship the same object, and that is Abraham’s God– though they might use different terminology (and described traits, which we’ll get to).
Now, when we affirm that Muslims and Christians worship the same God the Evangelical Machine™ goes bonkers, and that’s because they assume we’re affirming way more than what we affirm when we say, “yes, it’s the same God.”
Same God yes, but that doesn’t mean all three religions are equally true, or that we’re describing this God in the same way.
Affirming the basic fact that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are three religions attempting to worship and describe the same God (Abraham’s God, whatever one calls him), doesn’t mean we’re saying all three religions are the same, equally valid, correct, or anything else. We’re simply pointing to the fact that we’re attempting to describe the same entity.
Some will argue that God and Allah are not the same (Abraham’s God) because Christians and Muslims describe the character of Abraham’s God differently, even conflictingly. However, describing an object differently doesn’t mean that two people are describing two totally different objects. For example, let’s say Jane and Henry both work for a guy named Jeff. Jane says that Jeff is a decent boss who treats people fairly. Henry on the other hand, describes Jeff as being lazy and unavailable. The two people may be describing Jeff differently, and one or both of them might be wrong in their understanding of Jeff, but they’re still attempting to describe the same object.
Describing an object differently doesn’t make it a different object.
However, if having different understandings and opinions on the attributes of the object to which we offer worship were a legitimate argument to say that they are entirely different, one would have to say the same thing about Judaism, and even among Christian denominations/traditions.
For example, Evangelicals are quick to paint Judaism as our close brother, and will say that not only do we worship the same God, but that they are God’s favorite people. However, Jews do not believe about God what we believe about God. If this difference in understanding God’s attributes or activity through history makes the God of Islam a different God than the one we are worshipping, we would have to say the same thing about Jews. Not only that, we’d have to say it about other Christians, too– making the case that each denomination has it’s own God.
And this is the basic logic that’s wrong: “You describe the object differently than I do, therefore it is a different object.” Unfortunately, that logic would get us into all sorts of problems.
For example, plenty of Christian traditions describe a God I have a hard time recognizing. I even find some of the ways they describe his attributes to be offensive. However, as Christians we do in fact worship the same God– we just disagree on what God is like. It’s not the object we disagree on, but the attributes.
We could play this out with every Christian sect– 40,000+ of them. Again, if we apply the same principle Evangelicalism applies to Islam (they describe God differently than how we describe God, thus it is a different God) that same logic would cause us to declare that every Christian different than ourselves is worshiping a different God.
However, we don’t do that. While we disagree and sometimes even fight about these differences, we still have the charity and decency to largely affirm that all Christians are attempting to offer worship to the same object: the God of Abraham. That obviously doesn’t mean we think all Christian traditions are equally right or valid– we simply affirm that we are attempting to worship the same entity: Abraham’s God.
We extend this charity to other Christians. We extend this charity to Judaism– which outright rejected God’s covenant and the Messiah. Yet, when we find Islam, we depart from our norm of acknowledging the object of our worship is the same but simply disagree on what the nature and characteristics are like.
Why we refuse to have the charity to admit that, like Jews and 40,000 versions of Christianity we disagree with, we’re all attempting to worship Abraham’s God, is beyond me. There’s plenty the Christian and Muslim disagree on, theologically. We disagree on the attributes of God, the nature of sin, soteriology, etc. However, like it or not, both religions are attempting to worship the same entity.
And that is the God of Abraham.
When I myself was struggling with this question, the most helpful words came from Miroslav Volf when he came to speak to my class when I studied Islam at Gordon-Conwell. Volf said, “there’s a difference between worshipping the right God, and worshipping the right God rightly.“
One can affirm we are worshipping the same God without it being an affirmation that one is worshipping the right God in the right way.
So, yes: Christians and Muslims do in fact worship the same God– but that doesn’t mean everything you’re assuming we mean when we say it. It’s not a confession of Unitarian Universalism. We’re not saying both religions are the same and equally true or correct.
All it means is we affirm that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all trying to worship the same entity: Abraham’s God.