Over the years, there has been considerable debate and confusion about the relationship between Christianity with Islam. Because they are two distinct religions with differing conceptions about God, many are of the opinion that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God. Despite the fact that Arabic speaking Christians refer to God as Allah, many English speaking Christians even throw a continuous line of insults at Allah, while others create false etymologies for the origin of the name.
While one should not confuse the two religions as being one and the same, one should be able to recognize the two religions do indeed share one God in common, not only with one another, but also with the Jews. The God of Abraham is the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Vatican Council II states quite clearly the respect the Church has for Muslims. “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God,” Nostra Aetate. 3.Vatican Translation. John Paul II reiterated this throughout his dialogue with Islam. “Continuing our discussion of interreligious dialogue, today we will reflect on dialogue with Muslims, who ‘together with us adore the one, merciful God’ (Lumen gentium, n. 16; cf. CCC, n. 841). The Church has a high regard for them, convinced that their faith in the transcendent God contributes to building a new human family based on the highest aspirations of the human heart,” John Paul II, General Audience, May 5, 1999. Pope Benedict XVI has reaffirmed this position. “For more than forty years, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council has inspired and guided the approach taken by the Holy See and by local Churches throughout the world to relations with the followers of other religions. Following the Biblical tradition, the Council teaches that the entire human race shares a common origin and a common destiny: God, our Creator and the goal of our earthly pilgrimage. Christians and Muslims belong to the family of those who believe in the one God and who, according to their respective traditions, trace their ancestry to Abraham (cf. Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate 1, 3),”Pope Benedict XVI, Apolistolic Journey to Turkey, Meeting with the President of the Religious Affairs Directorate, November 28, 2006.
Many people ask, “How can Muslims and Christians have the same God? Christians believe God is a Trinity, while Muslims believe God is only one person.” While it is true that Christians and Muslims have vastly different understandings of God, this does nothing to support the conclusion that they have different Gods. This line of argumentation requires that an understanding of an object has to be the same between two different people in order for that one object to be one and the same for both. This can be shown to be false in two ways. First, let us assume this is true. Since no two people, not even two Christians, have an identical understanding of God, no two people, not even two Christians, would have the same God. Secondly, and more importantly, let us see how it would deal with an object other than the one under discussion (God), that is, the Holy Bible. One person, a Christian, believes it is Holy Scripture revealed by God; another person, an atheist, does not. Despite the different understandings these two people have about the text, it is still the same text, the same object that these two people have views about. The same applies for God: while the object of understanding is the same, the understanding of that object (God in this case) is different. By saying Christians and Muslims believe in the same God, no one is disputing this fact.
It is with this foundation that Christians and Muslims can begin to dialogue with one another with the respect they should have for one another. Without it, dialogue becomes more difficult, and it quickly becomes a debate with participants from both sides talking against one another without listening to the other side. But once this is accepted, then further – and more difficult questions – can be asked and addressed.
For a Christian such as myself who is interested in Islam, the truths contained in it, and what we share in common, many questions come to mind. Probably the first one is the status of Mohammad. Who was he? Was he a vile, warlike barbarian who corrupted the Arab nations leading them entirely astray? Again, if we believe Muslims and Christians share the same God (as Vatican Council II indicates, and as Popes have consistently reiterated in their dialogues with Muslims), then this cannot be the answer. Mohammad could not have been entirely wrong. If he were, he could not be pointing the Arabs, who were mostly polytheists, to the one God. Moreover, he could not be entirely vile if he led these same Arabs, mostly small petty tribes fighting against one another, into an order of peace and justice which had not been known by the Arabs at his time. “From its inception, Islam championed the formation of a new kind of human community, an umma, bound together by a common faith rather than kinship relations. This was a fundamental shift in the social paradigm of traditional Arabia, which had before centered on tribal and clan-based affinity systems.” Frederick M. Denny, “Islam and Peacebuilding” in Religion and Peacebuilding. Ed. Harold Coward and Gordon S. Smith (New York: SUNY, 2004), 131. While we might question the extent of this program, it is clear that not only did Mohammad work to overcome the blood feuds had by Arabs against each other in his time, and he even taught forgiveness was the of creating societal harmony (Surah 42:37- 40).Can a Christian deny all of Mohammad’s teachings? No, we must say he was right when he said Jesus was the Messiah miraculously born of the Virgin Mary. Moreover, can we say he was wrong to say that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead? Is the Koran wrong when it declares the perpetual virginity of Mary? Certainly, it isn’t; and indeed, it is an interesting piece of evidence for how ancient and widespread this Marian teaching is.
That there is much in common between Islam and Christianity cannot be denied; if all that Mohammad taught was wrong, then what is in common with Christianity would be false as well. Someone might respond, “But Mohammad did not teach anything new.” To the Arabs he most certainly did, if not to the Christians.
Does this mean Christians should consider Mohammad to be what he claimed to be – a prophet of God – and that the Koran is also a revelation of God? These two claims are actually two separate ones. One could in theory believe Mohammad was a prophet of God and still not believe in the Koran. The Koran was compiled after Mohammad’s death, and there is much one can question as to the method and reason for its compilation. Probably it contains elements of Mohammad’s teaching, but is it all from Mohammad? If some and not all of it is from Mohammad, how do we identify the authentic with the inauthentic texts? Do we have quotes which are taken out of context and reinterpreted by the compiler? These questions are very difficult, if impossible, to answer. If the evidence one has that Mohammad is not a prophet rests upon the Koran, then the evidence is silent and one cannot make a conclusion. Even if one did take the whole of the Koran to be Mohammad’s words, one would still have to question the meaning and intent of the words – which admittedly are not as clear cut as many would have us believe. When we look at Surah 4:157, what does it actually mean?
That they said (in boast),
‘We have killed Christ Jesus
The Son of Mary
The Messenger of Allah’
But they killed him not.
—Surah 4:157. Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali (Brentwood, Maryland: Amana Corporation, 1989).
One way to read this is to say Jesus was not killed. Muslim tradition would eventually make this the normative reading. But it was not the only one. Who is it that is saying ‘We have killed Christ Jesus?” Many Muslims scholars throughout history have said, “The Jews.” Yet did the Jews kill Jesus? No, it was the Romans. So even if he was crucified, this passage could be correct.
Interestingly enough, many Christians throughout history have taken Mohammad to be a prophet of God. They have either seen his message was later perverted by his followers (which would then not disqualify him as being a prophet; if it did, then Jesus is not a prophet because many Christians have perverted his message), or that his message was only a temporary, local message preparing the Arabs for the fullness of the Christian Gospel (such was the opinion of the Paul of Antioch.) Or, he could be a prophet like unto Balaam – one who spoke for God at times and at other times spoke out of his own human greed.
This is not to say a Christian should view him as a prophet, but they should be at least open to that possibility and not discount it based upon what happened in Arab society after Mohammad’s death, even as they would not discount the Bible based upon the history of its interpretations. It is an open question and a question which Christians can respectfully engage in dialogue with Muslims and with each other. Yet, it also helps move us beyond the “evil Mohammad” polemics which many Christians have engaged through history – the kind which the Church has said we are to stop.
Other questions emerge when Christians seek good relations with Muslims. Certainly some of them are very vital, and not all of them are only for Christians to consider. If Christians are indeed a People of the Book, why do Christians suffer much persecution and find life difficult in many Islamic nations? What can and should Muslims do to correct this terrible situation? How much of the way of life in an Islamic nation actually Muslim and how much of it is cultural? What aspects of the culture can be and should be changed to help Arab nations merge into the modern world? Certainly many Muslims have asked this question, and some of them have been among the greatest leaders in the work of peace and justice in modern times, such as Badshah Khan, Gandhi’s friend and ally in India.
Dialogue is two ways. Christians should realize that it is their duty, as followers of Jesus, to engage others in a loving and respectful way, even if they are shown scorn in return. We should not seek to ridicule and mock the faiths of others. The response is not an eye for an eye, but to find a way to make an enemy into a brother. If we lose sight of this, we lose sight of Jesus’ message. Why call him Lord if we do not do the things he says?