Often as I teach on Islamic vs. Christian theology, I ask the crowd, “What word would a Christian use to define the essence of God’s nature?” Invariably, the answer is “love.” Then I ask, “What word would a Muslim use to define the essence of Allah?” Here, the answers show some variety, but cluster around one theme: power, sovereignty, will, majesty. This of course makes perfect sense for a religion which names itself Islam, i.e., “submission. Allah is all-powerful, all-sovereign, and everything in creation is meant to show submission to him as a way of highlighting his “rightful stature.”
Of course, Christians would also say that the God of the Bible is all-powerful and all-sovereign. But why do we not see His power as defining who He is? A few weeks ago, while in a worship service prior to teaching a class on the question of whether the God of the Bible and of Islam are one and the same, the answer stared me in the face through the words of an old German hymn written in 1675 and translated into English as “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above.”
Sing praise to God who reigns above,
The God of all creation,
The God of power, the God of love,
The God of all salvation.
As we sang these words, it suddenly dawned on me with fresh force that the reason Christians focus on God’s love over His power is that the gospel demonstrates that God has employed His power principally in the service of His love for humanity. There are three major foes against which human beings are by nature powerless: sin, death and the devil (extra-human, personal evil). We cannot extract ourselves from sin, we cannot defeat death, we are over-matched against the devil. In our state of moral and spiritual incarceration, with death and judgment looming, we are helpless. Only power from heaven can open the cell doors, pry loose the icy fingers of death, force demons to flee. The message of the gospel is that God has come in His love to champion our freedom through defeating sin, death and the devil in His incarnate sacrifice on the cross and subsequent resurrection – He wields His power on our behalf because human beings are the apple of His eye. He invites all to find shelter in His invincible life and love. God exercises His power under the direction of His love for sinners.
In Islam, on the other hand, Allah shows no evidence of inherent love for sinners. In fact, he hates sinners. Love (seen not as a state of the heart but as an impersonal reward of blessings, both earthly and paradisial) is granted as a worldly reward for those who have demonstrated their worthiness through obedience. The power of Allah is wielded as a threat to plunge into the furnaces of hell all who refuse to bow before him, and as a promise to create a garden-like paradise of eternal sensual pleasures for all who surrender their will to him. Why? To demonstrate that he alone is Allah, and that none can compare to him.
The God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ loves, because that is His nature – “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son…” (John 3:16). The God of Islam demands subservience, because that is his nature – “Lo! religion with Allah (is) the Surrender (Islam)” (Qur’an 3:19).
In Christian thought, the defining purpose of God’s power is His love for the lost. In Islam the defining purpose of Allah’s power is his ego. It’s as simple as that.