Friday, 20 March 2015

Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians?

In short, as explored in the previous two posts, this is not in fact the only question that matters in deciding whether to open a church to a service of Muslim prayers, and the answer to the question is not as clear-cut as some seem to think.

Kelvin Holdsworth considers it “bizarre” to deny that Muslims worship the same God as Christians. Glen Scrivener asks the slightly different question “Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammed?” and answers “Of course not.”

Here are some incomplete considerations. 

Language. “Allah” is Arabic for “God” and it must therefore follow that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. This line of argument reflects a basic confusion of terms and referents.

True, “Allah” is Arabic for “God” and has been used by Arabic speaking Christians from before Muhammad was even born until today to refer to our God, maybe except for places where the local government doesn’t allow non-Muslims to use the term. In addition, before Muhammad came along, “Allah” was regularly used by polytheists to refer to the moon-god worshipped in Mecca.

The English word “God/god” has Germanic roots and was used to refer to Odin, the chief Teutonic deity who was thought to live on top of the world-tree and to have created the first humans with his wife Freya, a blonde, blue-eyed goddess of love and fertility.

Are these then all the same? The Tri-une God is Mohammed’s Allah is the moon-good is the husband of a blonde, blue-eyed goddess just because various people use the word “God” (“Allah”) to refer to these entities? Of course not.

Referential uniqueness. But what about the fact that some things are said of Allah (God) in Islamic theology and God (Allah) in Christian theology which can only be predicated of one and the same person? Thus Allah is said in the Quran to be the only one to be worshipped just as the Bible affirms that only God is to be worshipped. Muslims seek to direct their worship to the Creator of the universe, so do Christians. From this perspective the Muslim Allah and the Christian God cannot be two different, competing gods. But does this necessarily mean that the Allah of the Quran and the God of the Bible are in fact the same God (Allah)? No, because it is possible that one (or both) of them is fictional or that false claims are made about one or the other (or both).

Characterisation. The God to which the Bible bears witness can be characterised in one way, the God of which the Quran speaks must be characterised in another way. The portrayals overlap, even allowing for the fact that "compassionate" and "merciful" etc. do not necessarily mean the same in these different contexts, but there are also significant contradictions so that (at best) only one of the portrayals can be true.

The question here is what sort of divergence can be tolerated before it becomes impossible to affirm that we believe in the same God. Do those who hold out placards saying “God hates fags” believe in the same God as I do? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least, I would want to say that they bear false witness about God. 

Those who affirm the truth of the Quran cannot but deny that the Christian Scriptures accurately testify to the truth; those who affirm the Christian faith cannot but question the characterisation of God in the Quran.

Christians and Muslims who sit lightly on their respective Scriptures may find more common ground in a less specific notion of God (or one that is specific in some respects but vague in others) but those who affirm the historic Christian faith can do hardly other than conclude that the God of the Quran is either a false God or a false picture of the true God.

Experience of worship. Kevin Holdsworth argues, “If Paul could recognise those worshipping “an unknown god” as people who were worshipping the same God as he was and then use that recognition to go on to share his experience of God with them, then it doesn’t seem to me to be that difficult for us to presume that the Muslims are worshipping the same God as we are worshipping.”

Alas, there were lots of temples in Athens dedicated to one god or another. Paul picked up specifically the devotion to “an unknown god”. Why? Because he was looking for a starting point to share the truth of the Gospel and the idea that the Athenians were worshipping someone they did not know served the purpose well. In John’s Gospel Jesus tells even his Jewish opponents that they do not know God. It is a tenet found elsewhere in the NT that those who do not know Christ do not know God. Hence "unknown god" is a suitable starting point.

The situation with Islam is rather different. Muslims do not acknowledge that they worship a God they do not know. As a post-Christian religion Islam contradicts the Christian faith explicitly. The starting point is therefore different, even if the end point (faith in Christ) were to remain the same.

Can those who worship in one tradition really know what it is like what worship in another tradition means? We can listen to one another. Should we privilege the witness of converts (in either direction) because they have insider experience of both religions? Maybe, but this is not likely to be conclusive. Converts report various levels of discontinuity, some more compatible with the view that we are talking about one true and one false God, others more compatible with the view that Islam and Christianity present one true and one false portrayal of God. The devout would have had to unlearn some things, while continuing with other things.

What are the options?
  • Some claim that referential uniqueness demands that we identify the Islamic-conceived Allah with the God in whom we Christians believe. As indicated above, this is a logical fallacy, as it excludes other conceivable options.
  • Others say that the overlap, especially with regard to characteristics that can only be assigned to the one true God, allows us to presume that we are worshipping the same God, even if we have serious reservations about the portrayal of God in one or both religions.
  • Still others insist that because it is not possible for someone to have and not have a son, Allah-who-does-not-beget and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be the same person. 
Which of these options we find most attractive will also relate to our own conception about what or who God essentially is. 

Those for whom God is essentially “the ground of our existence” (or some such thing) that manifests itself to some but maybe not to others in personal ways will cast their nets most widely, maybe even claiming that in the end all human beings are striving towards the divine regardless of the religious or non-religious forms through which this happens.

Those for whom God is first of all the grand architect of the universe (or some such thing) who secondarily can be said to send prophets and have a son etc. will likely be attracted to the second option.

Those who believe that God is essentially tri-une (Love between persons, even before the creation of the world) will likely be attracted to the third option. 

While I do not exclude the possibility that "you worship what you do not know" may apply to Muslims in the sense that their worship is directed to the one true God but without personal knowledge of that God, I lean towards the third option. Muhammad's Allah is not the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth. Muhammad's Allah is not the Son who sets us free. Muhammad's Allah is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Muhammad's Allah is not tri-une. The Allah to which the Quran bears witness is maybe best described as a fictional character (loosely) based on a real person.

PS: To what extent angels and demons might make use of worship of a fictional character is another discussion again.

An argument in favour of equating the Allah of the Quran with the God of the Bible is put forward by Miroslav Volf in his Allah: A Christian Response, reviewed by Mark Durie here.