Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
THIS question has become pressing in some circles, especially after 9/11 and in the wake of strenuous attempts in the West not to demonise Islam.
An affirmative answer to this question is well supported by some of the most powerful political and religious voices in the world.
In an exclusive 2004 interview of ABC News’ correspondent Charles Gibson, President George W. Bush asserted that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In a 2004 lecture at the al-Azhar al-Sharif Institute in Cairo, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made the same assertion, although in a more sophisticated and nuanced manner. This view is supported by Vatican II, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in a number of speeches and writings of John Paul II.
Those who are of the view that Christians and Muslims worship the same God often offer the following reasons for their position. Both Christians and Muslims believe in one personal and transcendent God. That is to say, both Christianity and Islam are monotheistic religions. Both believe that God sent his prophets in the world, and inspired the writers of their scriptures. Furthermore, both believe that Jesus was a prophet sent by God, and that he was sinless and born of a virgin. For some, the broad similarities between the two religions are reasons enough to conclude that they are, to quote Mr Bush, “different ways of getting to the Almighty”.
But in order for us to reflect on this issue seriously, we must ask deeper questions. Doctrinal and theological issues should not be generalised, and difficulties and differences should never be avoided or sugared over for the sake of broad agreements.
Let us begin by looking at the claim that both Christianity and Islam belong to what has been described as the “Abrahamic tradition”. It is important to note at the outset that Christians and Muslims share no common scriptures. Indeed when we read accounts of the Muslims’ attitudes to the Christian scriptures in the Qu’ran, we find a spectrum which ranges from respect to the charge that large parts of the Christian Bible (Old Testament included) are rank forgeries.
That is why even though the two sets of scripture speak of the same figure – Abraham (Qur’an: Ibrahim) – they develop very different narratives and draw very different lessons. In the Qur’an, Ibrahim is an important link in a chain of Muslim prophets that culminates with Muhammad. This makes the claim that both Christianity and Islam belong to the “Abrahamic tradition” problematic, if not incredulous.
Even the argument that Christians and Muslims worship the same God because they are monotheists is untenable. While it is true that both sets of scriptures affirm that God is one (Sura 112:1; Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:29), they fail to agree on what this unity entails.
‘It is important to note at the outset that Christians and Muslims share no common scriptures … That is why even though the two sets of scripture speak of the same figure – Abraham (Qur’an: Ibrahim) – they develop very different narratives and draw very different lessons.’
Both traditions maintain that God is transcendent over his creation (Sura 42:11; Isa 6:1). But they do not agree on how this transcendent God may be also said to be immanent. The Qur’an describes divine immanence by insisting that although Allah is “the Lord of the heavens and the earth” (19:65) he is closer to his people than their jugular vein (50:16). Furthermore, Muslim thinkers such as the late Isma’il al-Fariqi have long argued that God does not wish to reveal himself, only his will.
The Christian account of divine transcendence and immanence is profoundly different. The transcendent Creator of the heavens and the earth is so profoundly intimately involved with his creatures. The doctrine of the incarnation teaches that the second Person of the Trinity took up human flesh and became a creature. The incarnation also shows that God does not simply wish to reveal his will, but his very person. In the incarnate Son we know that God is Emmanuel, “God with us”. And not only did God disclose himself to his creation, he gave himself in sacrificial love for his creatures, a concept alien to Islam.
But the most profound difference between the monotheism of Christianity and Islam is that in Christianity the one God is triune. The one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Islam rejects the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: “People of the Book (i.e., Christians), do not transgress the bounds of your religion. Speak nothing but the truth about God … So believe in God and his apostles and do not say “Three” … God is but one God.” (Sura 41:171).
Islam consequently rejects the claim that Jesus is the Son of God: “God forbids that He Himself should beget a son!” (Sura 19:35). And although Islam can say that Jesus lived a sinless life, it ultimately rejects the deity of Christ: “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was no more than God’s apostle.” (Sura 4:171).
We are confronted here with the problematic nature of appealing to a generic monotheism that both Christianity and Islam are said to embrace. It is not enough to deal only with abstractions and simply allow concepts like the one God or Supreme Being to dictate our reflection on Christianity and Islam.
We must look at what these traditions have to say specifically about the God they worship. And when we do so, we will discover differences between the two traditions that are so fundamental, sharp and irreconcilable that to say that their adherents worship the same God is simplistic, if not entirely mistaken.
Thus, although we may perhaps say that there are some similarities between the Christian and Islamic concepts of God, we cannot conclude that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Dr Roland Chia is Dean of Postgraduate Studies and lecturer in historical and systematic theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.