One of the most vexing questions facing Christian-Muslim dialogue is this: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? The answer to this is often plagued by a grammatical confusion which must be cleared up before proceeding to a fruitful discussion.
Nouns in the English language are separated into two categories: generic and proper. Generic/common nouns refer to things in general – tree, cloud, animal, dog…. Proper nouns, on the other hand, refer to a specific, usually one-of-a-kind object, and so are capitalized to indicate their uniqueness.
One may speak of “god” as a generic noun, defining it along the lines of “a supernatural being often worshiped as having power over nature or human destinies.” In this sense, the term is not capitalized for it does not refer to a specific being as such. On the other hand, when we use the term “God” we are referring to One specific being whose nature is uniquely defined in contradistinction to every other being.
According to Christian thought, God is the being who has revealed Himself to humanity over the course of history, particularly in His interactions with Abraham and his descendants. The Bible, inspired by His Holy Spirit, is the record of this self-revelation, which culminates in the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, the fullness of God in human flesh. To Moses, God revealed His everlasting name in the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters we transliterate as Yahweh, a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” In Exodus 3:14, He defines His name or essence as “I am who I am;” in other words, I define Myself – no one else can accurately assess My nature, except as they depend upon My self-revelation. He declares that “This is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Ex 3:15). Yet, interestingly, when we get to the Qur’an some 2000 years later, this name of God is nowhere to be found, even in what would be the Arabic equivalent of this Hebrew construct. Instead, we find the name “Allah,” literally “the God.” [Either the God of the Bible forgot His name and its meaning by the time He spoke to Muhammad, or the God Muhammad was listening to was some other being….]
So when we as Christians speak of God, we mean the specific Being who has revealed Himself uniquely in biblical history, not some generic being whose nature we define according to our own philosophical or religious categories.
One-of-a-kind entities, by their very nature, are unique. One may find imitations or counterfeits, but ultimately they prove themselves to be false copies of the original. Simply slapping the proper name on the counterfeit does not thereby make it real. For example, suppose you have always dreamt of owning a Rolex GMT 116769TBR watch, which retails for $485,350, and you travel to the Rolex dealer at 655 5th Ave, NYC, to view and perhaps purchase it. Once there, after having seen it and tried it on, reason grabs hold of you, you decline the purchase and exit the store. A man on the street observes you and asks, “Did you just purchase a new watch?” You tell him the Rolex was too expensive for your taste, and he replies, “I have the model you want with me, and can part with it for $50,000.” With that, he opens his overcoat to reveal a slew of watches pinned to its inside. He detaches one of them and hands it to you. The casing looks exactly like the watch you drooled over in the store, and sure enough the face bears the name Rolex. Would you part with 50 grand to purchase this watch? Of course not, because you would soon discover that although it looked like the real thing, the inner working mechanisms would be a cheap imitation. Simply carrying the right proper noun does not guarantee the reality behind the name.
Hence, when we ask whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, we must compare what the unique term “God” means in each case, and then judge whether both religions point to the same reality.
Upon doing that, we discover that the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an are so different in their “make-up” that they must describe different beings. Let me give you a sample of these differences:
- Knowability – both Christianity and Islam teach that God is unknowable in His essence, but Islam teaches that God cannot/does not reveal His true self to the created order, whereas the Bible makes clear God has revealed His heart to the human race through His interactions with His covenant people, and supremely through His Son, Jesus.
- Nature – power or sovereignty is what is central to the nature of God in Islam; that is why the religion is so named: Islam means “submission,” thereby indicating the proper relationship of human beings, and indeed all creation, is voluntary submission to the will of its Creator. In Christianity, on the other hand, what is most central to the nature of God is love, and the Bible portrays God as One who seeks and saves His lost and rebellious creation. He is spoken of as a Father, a jilted Husband, a loving Shepherd, a tender Vinedresser, the God who comes into the world as one of us to bear our sins as the sacrificial Lamb of God that we may go free.
- Nature, part II – even more telling, Islam speaks of the tawheed of God, an Arabic term built from the word for “one” (wahid) meaning “indivisible oneness.” As such, God cannot by nature be love, for love demands both a subject and an object, and for the eternity before creation came into being there was nothing for God to love – only God existed in His majestic, stark aloneness. Christianity, on the other hand, speaks of the Trinitarian nature of God, recognizing that while there is only one God, He has existed from eternity as a community of three persons sharing one essence, revealed to us in their relationships to each other as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Because of this communal nature, God has always been a being of love, for even before the creation, God’s love was freely shared within the Trinity, each member giving himself in communion with the others.
- Attributes – while both definitions of God share many attributes in common (omnipotence, omniscience, creativity, wisdom, justice, mercy, etc.), there are also significant differences, and after all, it is the differences that matter most. When seeking to decide between a real $20 bill and a counterfeit, it is not the hundreds of thousands of likenesses that matter, but the relatively few differences which are sometimes hard to spot. With regard to divine attributes, we discover a huge difference with regard to holiness. Although the God of the Qur’an is called holy twice (59:23; 62:1), this holiness is never explained; it remains merely a title. On the other hand, the God of the Bible is referred to as holy hundreds of times; even more hundreds of times, holiness is associated with God’s works and actions. As one scholar put it well, “If every reference to holiness was removed from the Quran, the Islamic faith would be barely touched, but if the same were to be done with the Bible, it would be absolutely gutted.”[i]
Likewise, with regard to divine love, we discover that eighteen times the God of the Qur’an shows an impersonal love (the impartation of material blessings and pleasures) toward those who earn His approval, but no personal relationship. Conversely, twenty-two times He declares He has no love (but rather rejection and hatred) toward those who resist His will. For more details on this, check out my previous blog here. On the other hand, the God of the Bible declares His love for sinners, even those in outright rebellion against him. As John 3:16 notes, God’s love for a recalcitrant world is shown in His sacrificing His Son for the evils of humanity. In Romans 5:8, the apostle Paul records the stunning truth that while we were still helpless sinners and enemies of God, He showed His love for us through the death of His Son (Romans 5:6, 8, 10). The biblical God’s love takes the initiative to love the unlovely; the qur’anic God’s love is reactive, showing itself as a reward for those who have pleased Him.
[i]Durie, Mark. Revelation? (City Harvest Publications: 2006), p. 108.
(To be continued with Part 2, tomorrow).