THE QUESTION: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
This topic hit the news February 4 when Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayebb of Egypt’s influential Al-Azhar University issued a joint declaration “in the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity.” Did Francis, who was making history’s first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, thereby mean to say that the Christian God is the Muslim God?
Yes, he did, if properly understood, and this was no innovation on his part. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and the world’s Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate, the declaration on relations with non-Christian religions. The decree’s denunciation of calumny against Jews gets most of the attention, but it also proclaimed this:
“The church also regards with esteem the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,” although “they do not acknowledge Jesus as God” and regard him as only a prophet. The subsequent Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise defines the belief that “together with us [Muslims] adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”
Such interfaith concord is disputed by some conservative Protestants in the U.S. For example, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry believes the Catholic Church has “a faulty understanding of the God of Islam,” and Muslims “are not capable of adoring the true God.” Hank Hanegraaff of the “Bible Answer Man” broadcast has asserted that “the Allah of Islam” is “definitely not the God of the Bible.” [Note that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word meaning “God.”]
Back in the century after Islam first arose, such thinking was expressed in “The Fount of Knowledge” by John of Damascus, a revered theologian for Eastern Orthodoxy. John spelled out reasons why Islam’s belief about God is a “heresy” and Muhammad is “a false prophet.”
Islam’s fundamental profession of faith declares that “there is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” How are we to understand this one true God? Christianity worships the one God who exists eternally as three persons, God the Father, Jesus the divine Son, and the Holy Spirit. This doctrine of the Trinity distinguishes traditional Christianity not only from Islam and Judaism but groups like the Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), Jehovah’s Witnesses, “Oneness” Pentecostals, and those Unitarians who define themselves as Christian.
Islam’s Quran opposes those “who say that God is the third of three” (5:73). A further passage declares that “we worship God alone; we ascribe no partner to Him, and none of us takes others beside God as lords” (3:64; similarly in 6:161-163). The Quran also says that God asked Jesus, “Did you say to people take me and my mother as two gods alongside God?” Jesus then denied this (5:116).
Hanegraaff referred his listeners to a book with the relevant title “Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?” (Zondervan). Author Timothy George is the dean of Samford University’s seminary and a rare Southern Baptist expert on Islamic theology. George, however, did not exactly agree with Hanegraaff.
His answer to the book’s title question “is surely yes and no.” That is, “yes in the sense that the Father of Jesus is the only God there is” and that Christians and Muslims both “affirm many important truths about this great God – His oneness, eternity, power, majesty” and so forth. But (like Hanegraaff) his answer is no in terms of “the Christian understanding of God.” George also observed that faithful Muslims cannot address God as the father, like Jesus and the New Testament do, because that would compromise their understanding of God’s transcendence.
In 2007, Jordan’s Royal Al al-Bayt Institute organized a distinguished international lineup of 138 Muslim thinkers to issue an appeal to Christians titled “A Common Word Between Us and You.” The declaration, well worth reading, professed Muslim belief without harshly assailing Christians’ claim to worship the one true God or their doctrine of the Trinity.
A Yale Divinity School institute then fostered a response from Christians, also of interest, titled “Loving God and Neighbor Together.” The endorsers included not only the usual Christian liberals but notable conservatives, George among them. That statement praised Islam for its “unique devotion to one God.” Regarding whether Islam’s God is “the same God that Christians worship” it hedged, saying “differences are substantial,” yet “Muslims and Christians share enough in their perspectives about God” to provide a basis for “constructive dialogue.”
In the wake of those interactions, Miroslav Volf, a theologian formerly at Fuller Theological Seminary and now teaching at Yale, wrote “Allah: A Christian Response” (HarperOne), which takes a friendly attitude toward Muslim belief and is recommended reading for those who want to seriously explore this matter, alongside George’s book.
The Guy notes but will sidestep a related assertion from the pope and the imam, that “the diversity of religions” is “willed by God in his wisdom,” and this is the basis for universal freedom of religion. Must Muslims believe God’s will produced Christianity, and Christians believe that God’s will produced Islam? Does this indicate the world’s two largest religions should proclaim that God created all other faiths great and small?