First of Seven Hard Questions

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On the Salaam Project website are seven hard questions that people often ask. I am planning to post one per month for the next seven months. I look forward to your responses.

Are Allah and God the Same?

This is one of the most common questions that I receive. Most Muslims would be quick to say “yes.” We can agree with them, and it is good to do so, because it puts us on common ground. Searching for common ground shows respect for the other, and opens up room for dialogue and the sharing of our faith. Searching for common ground also reduces prejudice and hate and helps to form bridges and relationships. It is the hospitable thing to do. There are some good reasons for this approach.

First, we are both monotheistic religions. We believe there is One Supreme Creator God who is in charge of all things. We will answer to this God on the Day of Judgment for our actions. In this we can agree that we believe in the same God. We can agree with almost all of the 99 names of God that Muslims recite. We have much in common.

Second, the name Allah is a legitimate name for God. Many Middle – Eastern Christians read the Arabic Bible. God is referred to Allah in this Bible, and he has been referred this way for hundreds of years. Allah is linguistically more closely related to the Hebrew name for God Elohim. When Jesus said, “Eli, Eli” in Aramaic on the cross, and some of the people standing there thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah, he was using a word that has closer ties to Allah than to God. Our English word for God comes from Germanic roots and even farther back from the Farsi language.

Third, by stressing the similarities rather than the differences we can begin to explore together our understanding of God’s mercy, compassion and grace. This can lead us into important discussions about Jesus and forgiveness of sin. So Allah is also a bridge to a Christian understanding of the nature of grace.

But, a caveat. Having said all of this, it is clear that the way we conceptualize God is different from how a Muslim thinks of Allah. God, as He is revealed in Scripture, is a loving Father. This could not be said of Allah. The Qur’an describes Allah as merciful but his mercy is something unknown – it cannot be counted on. Even the prophet Muhammad himself did not know if he would secure salvation from Allah on the Day of Judgment. The Christian concept of God giving his own Son to die for the sins of God’s people is a very different form of mercy. Jesus’ death on the cross, and his resurrection on the third day, gives the believer in Jesus the assurance that their sins are forgiven and that they have been made right with God. This then leads to the desire to live a holy life in gratitude for this gift of grace.

So clearly the starting point is yes. We gain much by focusing on what we hold in common in our respective faiths. Differences are best left to later when relationships have formed and the Holy Spirit is at work.

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Greg, you are correct that this is a hard question! Thanks for your thoughtful response to it.

In your webinars I’ve heard you share about the Shahada from the Quran which states “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet (or messenger).” Here’s my follow up question for you: 

Because Muhammad is not the messenger nor the prophet of the Judeo Christian God (e.g. Yahweh, Jehovah), if one takes the position that the Christian God and Allah are the same, don’t they also imply that they recognize Muhammad as a prophet? How do you address that issue if/when it comes up in conversation with a Muslim?

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Thanks for your question Kim. I had not thought about the implications of the Shahada. The question of Muhammad is a good one. He did not point people to the God of the Christians, although he was more sympathetic in his Meccan suras. In fact, I believe he saw himself as a prophet to the Jews and Christians as well as the Muslims at that stage. It was only later in Medina that this seems to have changed. What we can say is that Muhammad was a reformer who sought to convert his people from polytheism to monotheism. All monotheists, including Christians, should appreciate this. So I maintain that we worship the same God, however, we fundamentally understand him in different ways. Certainly Muhammad did. In terms of how we relate to Muslims, I would speak of Muhammad as a God seeker and a reformer in his culture. We don't encourage conversation by speaking ill of him. But pointing people to Jesus, the ultimate reformer is our goal.

Greg, I think most Muslims would say that Allah and God the Father may be the same. But no Muslim would affirm the Trinitarian God. I think you are right to say that Allah is a bridge to talk about grace and forgiveness and the nature of God the Father. But if the Nicene Creed is binding then we are ultimately talking about two different views of God.

I'm grateful to have this opportunity to read and engage in some thoughtful discussion.  Growing up, I don't recall knowing anyone of the Muslim faith (of course, I may well have known Muslims and simply not been aware of that particular detail!)  That has certainly changed now - and so I feel compelled to learn more.  Thus far, I've read Karen Armstrong's books, The Case for God and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.  This first of your seven hard questions was a great start and I look forward to the next six!

I wonder if the coming months might include a hard question about our understandings of authenticity in our "books of Revelation" and how monotheists understand God revealed?  (As a discussion starter perhaps, I've just begun to read The Bible, The Qur'an and Science by Maurice Bucaille (1976), in which Bucaille writes, "Thanks to its undisputed authenticity, the text of the Qur'an holds a unique place among the books of Revelation, shared neither by the Old nor the New Testament".)  

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Thanks for the comments. I appreciate this forum for discussion. Thanks also to Pat for suggesting a further question on revelation. Perhaps we will have ten hard questions in the future. To start that conversation, I googled Maurice Bucaille and discovered that he is a Catholic with a great respect for the Quran. I respect his "respect" but cannot agree with the indisputable authenticiy of the Quran. Bucaille applies higher criticism to the Bible which in his view makes the Bible less authentic. The Quran has never been subject to higher criticism. So it seems like an unfair playing field. The reality is that the Quran makes many statements that are contradictory to core Christian doctrines, so if it is authentic that is a problem for Christians. But maybe a better focus is on the manuscript tradtions of the Bible and the accuracy of transmission as evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls (OT). The core message of the Bible has been a consistent one for thousands of years and the focus remains on Jesus as God's Son and our Savior.

Point taken, Greg, and thank you for this response.  I still hold dearly the message of the Bible, especially Jesus' teachings.  Nevertheless, holding one view can leave less room for understanding or being open to another view.  And the connection with science is of great interest to me.  How do we read the Qur'an and the Bible?  How literally, how culturally, how humbly?  I console myself that where it doesn't make good scientific sense, then God will have the answers... something interesting to learn about in heaven.  Life will always hold some mystery and that is just fine!

Greetings Greg:

   It was with interest that I read the words about how we "conceptualize God." This could give the reader the impression that this discussion begins and ends with humans. Although I don't think that is what you are saying, it could be inferred. What is missing here, is how each of the deities of Islam and of Christianity have revealed themselves. The law of non-contradiction says that two things cannot be essentially different and the same at the same time.

Allah of Islam says, "I am the best of deceivers"  An Arabic speaker suggested that the root word m-k-r can be the action of a sighted man leading a blind man to fall into a hole, by means of deception. Lexically it means 'an act of deception aiming at causing evil' or 'desiring to do another a foul, an abominable, or an evil action, clandestinely or without his knowing whence it proceeded.' (Lane's Lexicon). This descripton can be found in Qur'an 3:54—And they (the unbelievers) planned to deceive, and Allah planned to deceive (the unbelievers), and Allah is the best of deceivers.; 7:99—Are they then safe from Allah's deception? No one feels safe from Allah's deception except those that shall perish.; 8:30—And (remember) when the unbelievers plotted deception against you (O Muhammad), to imprison you, or kill you, or expel you. They plotted deception, but Allah also plotted deception; and Allah is the best of deceivers.

 Also recall that Abu Bakr the first of the so-called 'rightly guided caliphs was said to have reported this:

“Although he had such a faith, which was too great to suffice all the inhabitants of the earth, he was afraid that his heart might go astray. So, he used to utter, while weeping: ‘Would that I have been a bitten tree!’ Whenever he was reminded of his position in Allah’s sight, he would say: ‘By Allah! I would not rest assured and feel safe from the deception of Allah (la amanu limakr Allah), even if I had one foot in paradise.’” (Khalid Muhammad Khalid, Successors of the Messenger, translated by Muhammad Mahdi al-Sharif [Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah, Beirut Lebanon, 2005], Book One: Abu Bakr Has Come, p. 99; 

 

Now, we compare this picture of a caprioucious, deceiving, deity with that of the faithfulness, truthfulness and holiness of the God of Bible, and the law of contradiction will say, nice try, but all the talk of sameness is simply the Islamic view which says, "our god and your god are the same." Both cannot be true.

"God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?" Numbers 23:19

"He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind." 1 Samuel 15:29

"Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth." Psalm 31:5

"Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’" John 14:6

"a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time," Titus 1:2

"Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged." Hebrews 6:17-18

 

Shalom.