2017-01-30

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?


I see this question a great deal on the interwebs, lots of people ask me my educated opinion, and there are dozens or hundreds of books written about this. Yet most people are not going to read those books, but they might read a short, under two minute write up. So, as a Christian priest who believes in the Trinity and follows Jesus as God incarnate, and who also serves as a chaplain at a school with many Muslim families, and also teaches World Religions year after year, here is my answer:


Allah is simply the Arabic Name for "The God", and it is used in Arabic to translate "God" from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Muslims root their faith in the same God that called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the same God who Jesus called Father. They attribute almost all of the same characteristics to God (look up the 99 Names of Allah): Compassion, Justice, Peace, Omniscience, Omnipotence, Omnibenevolence, Discipline and Forgiveness. 

On the whole, mainstream Muslim theology trends toward Legalism (satisfying God's justice by rigorously keeping a set of duties and laws) a bit more than many Christians. But many Conservative Catholics and Protestants would be as oriented to "Law keeping" as most Muslims are. But even here there is an exception with Sufi Muslims (such as the poet Rumi) who stress God's unconditional Love over all else. 

Perhaps the biggest difference in the conception of God is that Muslims make a strong claim that Allah has "no partners" (i.e. ruling out the Trinity) and that Jesus is not God in human form. This seems to stem from a misunderstanding that Muhammad had which posited that Christians worshipped three Gods. This may not be Muhammad's fault, as he could have heard it from theologically illiterate Christians who could not adequately explain the Trinity or the Incarnation. If we instead posit an accurate concept of the Trinity which views God as One Being expressed in Three Persons, or Dimensions, or Ways of eternally manifesting God's Life, then the Muslim objection doesn't seem to hold. 

Yet, full and exhaustive knowledge of God is not required to "know God" in any major religious tradition. From Islam to Hinduism to to Judaism to Christianity, there is a persistent claim that although we may know God, our knowledge is flawed and even fallible due to our limitations and sins. This is certainly true in Christianity when Saint Paul speaks of the partial nature of our knowledge of Divine Love in 1Corinthians 13. So since we all know God "dimly and in enigmas", as long as our mental pictures of God share a similar trajectory pointing in the same general direction, we can say we are aiming at the same God. Thus I would say, along with Dr. Peter Kreeft, a conservative Catholic philosopher, that Muslims and Christians and Jews all "worship the same God through different communications systems”.

A Concluding Post-Script for Christians:

This short essay got a bit of pushback because there was no comparative theology offered between Christianity and Islam. In terms of Theology of Comparative Religions, I am an Inclusivist, not a Pluralist or an Exclusivist. If these terms confuse you, you can get to know them here. From a Christ-centered, Inclusivist perspective, here is how I would unfold the differences between Christian and Muslim views of God:

In our Eucharistic Prayers, praise and thanksgiving is offered to the Father, through the Son and his atoning work, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the essence of Trinitarian prayer and soteriology: To the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. This is well described by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity. All other forms of Western Theism (including Islam) seek to use a more Unitarian method of prayer which goes directly to the God we identify as Father, without the mediation of the Son, or the empowerment of the Spirit. When I talk with Muslims about praying TO the Father, we both understand and identify God in very similar terms, and have a shared sense that we are approaching the same Reality. What Muslims deny is the mediation of the Son. They don't have a Theology which can make sense of a Divine Incarnation. And as I note in my short essay, this seems to be predicated on an incorrect understanding of the Trinity as "Three Gods". This was a common misunderstanding among average Christians in Arabia in Muhammad's era (and in most eras). 

But there has to be some sense in which God the Father can be approached in partial and incomplete ways, or else whole swaths of Scripture do not make sense. For instance, the whole Hebrew Bible, since God had not been incarnated when it was being written. But even in the New Testament, Paul speaks of God being known in partial and incomplete ways to the Greeks in Acts 14 and 17. He even quotes Greek poets in Acts 17. So there is some sense in which we are approaching the same God using different communications systems, whether Greek or Jew, Christian or Muslim. As Christian, of course, I would characterize that difference as being between smoke signals or morse code or text messages, as compared to talking face to face. Because, for the Christian, Jesus is the human face of God.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.