Round Table: Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? This is a question which has received much attention in recent years, with numerous theologians and cultural commentators weighing in on what has become a hotly contested debate. And rightly so, for as Christian and Islamic civilizations clash, a clarification of the foundations of each worldview remains necessary for understanding each religion and what is at stake.
Yet the question of this month’s Round Table discussion does not arise just from our present concerns. Rather, Christians have been asking this question for as long as they have interacted with Muslims. No less a theologian than John of Damascus—himself living and writing in Umayyad Damascus and Jerusalem—wrestled with whether or not the God of Jesus could be understood to be the same as the God of Muhammad. Along with our contributors, we invite you to thoughtfully join in this ancient and ongoing conversation between Muslims and Christians.
Kevin James Bywater
I used to point up 2 Corinthians 11:4 and assure Mormons that they worshiped “a different Jesus” because the LDS Church’s teachings about Jesus so radically conflict with the Bible. More recently, while speaking with a Mormon friend, I hesitated and reflected on my own transition out of Mormonism: As a new Christian, I recognized my conception of God had shifted; I didn’t sense I had turned to a different deity. My friend and I discussed whether one could dishonor and offend God. We agreed one could, and that one should avoid doing so. We spoke of how Mormon theology contrasted with Christian theology. At one juncture, to clarify my views, I stated I was still a Mormon. Naturally, he repelled the thought. I insisted that I did believe in Joseph Smith and that she was born in western Missouri in 1923. He assured me this was not Joseph Smith. I asked whether I had to believe in Joseph just the same as he did in order to be a Mormon. He smirked, conceding that the Mormon view of Jesus departs from biblical revelation. Well, our conversation continues.2
From my conversion to Christ in 1987 to this conversation found me learning biblical languages and theology and philosophy. I discovered that blasphemy occurs when we deny of God what is true or ascribe to God what is false. Blasphemy is a species of slander; a failure to tell the truth about another. However, in order to blaspheme God, one must be speaking about or to God in some sense. The speech is false in virtue of it being speech about God. To assert that there are many gods (as does Mormon theology3) detracts from God’s matchless glory, denies what he has revealed about his uniqueness, and thus is a blasphemy. In Mormon theology, God has not always been God, there are other gods, and humans may be exalted and literally deified. Such radical departures from biblical revelation present profound falsehoods about both God and human beings.4
Not only may we speak falsehoods about God or refuse to speak truth about him, we may worship him in obnoxious ways. One may impute worth to God by giving a tithe, by sacrificing time and attention, by being loyal to him above all else. But one also could express defaming words and engage in dishonorable acts of worship. Despite their sincerity, such practices would detract and distract from God’s expressed will and self-revelation. In biblical theology, to worship the true God falsely is tantamount to worshiping false gods. Thus, at times, Israelites were found worshiping false gods; at other times, they worshiped God falsely; both were disoriented and distortive. The response in both instances included a call to repent and a threat of divine wrath.
Several relevant texts come to mind just now. Jesus warned his followers that some persecutors and murderers would suppose they are serving God (John 16:2). Paul warned the Athenians concerning their ignorant worship of God (in both words and deeds), calling for their repentance (Acts 17:22-31). Paul lamented how fellow Jews exhibited an ignorant zeal for God (Romans 10:2). John tells us that those who do not have Jesus as their Messiah do not have God (1 John 2:23). Such passages give me pause.
So when I think about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God,5 I first wonder just how we would even know. I don’t know that we could verify this with confidence. Perhaps we do not both worship the same God. However, being a religious tradition (even a political ideology6) that significantly derives from biblical traditions, I’m inclined to suppose that Muslims do direct their worship to God. Some might infer from this a resigned satisfaction, supposing there are many successful paths to God. I am not so confident. If blasphemy is denying of God what is true or ascribing to God what is false, Islam would qualify as blasphemous, in my findings. Additionally, the history of Islamic jihad (instigated by Muhammad) is one of promoting unjustified violence against non-Muslims, and doing so presumably in the worship of God.7 Thus we find disoriented, deviant, and diabolical words and deeds. At best, Islam slanders God and enjoins false worship.
As the apostle Paul once said: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising [Jesus] from the dead.”
Kevin James Bywater is the Director and Resident Scholar of the Summit Oxford Study Centre, a study abroad program offering advanced an advanced worldviews course coupled with Oxford tutorials and college membership.Show Sources
2 For an expansion of this paragraph, see the article, “But I Am a Mormon. Aren’t Christians Mormons Too?”
3 See the discussion in “Mormonism: A Survey and Biblical Critique.”
4 For an extensive expansion of this paragraph, see the article, “Why Do I Write So Much about Mormonism?”, and the sources listed therein.
5 An essay expanding on my observations and arguments here is “Do Muslims, Mormons, and Christians Worship the Same God?” It was written long before the current controversies.
6 Support for this contention may be found in the following articles: “Liberty or Islamic Law”; “Islamic Imperialism”; “Islam and the Shariah”; “The Islamic State and Islam”; and “Islam, Refugees, and the Kingdom of God: A Potpourri of Thoughts.”
7 If I read him correctly, Miroslov Volf holds that only by affirming that Muslims and Christian worship the same God can we hope for peace between Muslims and Christians. I see two massive fissures in that ground for hope: (1) how the Qur’an, the hadith, and the Sharia enjoin Muslims to treat infidels, especially Jews (see “Liberty or Islamic Law”); and (2) how Volf’s thesis presumably undermines any hope for peace between Muslims and polytheists or pantheists or atheists, those residing outside the Abrahamic tradition. An alternative grounding surely is required.
I anticipate that I will share similar thoughts on the matter as other Conciliar Post writers. Not because of groupthink, of course, but because if there’s one thing writing in the CP community will teach you, it’s how to evaluate not only every term of your answer but also every term of the question being asked. We are united in our pedantry.
What does “same God” even mean? We’re all aware of the headlines and op-eds swirling about the Wheaton College controversy. Yes, some say, Christians and Muslims do worship the same God; others retort no, of course they don’t. Each argument relies on different constructions of the idea of “same God,” and in the end we only seem to be talking over one another.
Muslims are religious (and sometimes genetic) descendants of a Semitic monotheistic tradition that held a singular, omnipotent and omniscient God created the world ex nihilo. They hold Abraham as a spiritual ancestor and they believe in Heaven, Hell, and a Judgment Day. Muslims believe that God is compassionate, merciful, and perfect. Christians and Jews believe these things as well. For some, this is enough to argue that we all worship the same God.
Of course, Muslims are unitarians, and they argue that the Trinity of Christianity is heretical polytheism. Jesus is not the Son of God or God himself as Christians hold, but a mere prophet, one who is of a lower order than Muhammad. Muslims reject Christ as God, whereas we hold his divinity as essential doctrine. The Holy Spirit endures the same treatment. For many, including myself, this presents a persuasive case that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.
However, there is a more compelling problem here than haggling over whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God. That is, what difference does it make? The study of Islam and interaction with Muslims has been a part of my life in one way or another for over a decade now, since I began learning Farsi from Iranians in 2005. Herein lies what I see as the core issue that separates Christians and Muslims: the divide between grace and law.
Islam is practical, methodical, and repetitious. It is greatly concerned with forms and structures. It is, in short, a return to the Law. God came to earth to break us free from the shackles of the Law, to impute us with grace and adopt us as sons. By rejecting Christ, Muslims reject not simply the truth of God but his work, too. When Christ is discarded, the bonds of the Law are once again clapped on our wrists, demanding we work for our salvation. This is Islam: to submit again to the keeping of rules and rituals, to the bending of our bodies to ceremonial obligation without assurance of salvation in God. In Jesus-as-God we have sabbath from our dead works. In Jesus-as-prophet we have only our dead works spanning the long corridor of our lives.
So I would not say we worship the same God. That would be to neglect the joy we have in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ and to return to an era of spiritual darkness.
This question becomes more difficult than it should be, because what it actually asks is very different from what its asker usually means. Usually, this question is meant to uncover whether the answerer believes that the metaphysical truth-claims of Christianity and Islam can both be equally correct and legitimate statements about the nature and character of God. The answer to that question must clearly be no, as the vast majority of orthodox Christians and Muslims would agree. Irresolvable differences include the doctrine of the Trinity, the scope and substance of divine revelation, and the structure of ecclesiastical authority—and, purely as a matter of history, which son Abraham was prepared to offer as a sacrifice. (Some, like Miroslav Volf, have argued persuasively that many of these differences are more terminological and philosophical; if one works from the original public meaning of the Nicene Creed and the shahada, however, the positions do appear fundamentally oppositional).
As a matter of careful theological metaphysics, the question is more complex. I tentatively suggest that individuals may be in error regarding God or his character, but this does not mean that the ultimate Deity to whom human prayers are addressed has an alternative essence in se.
For those who affirmatively assert that “Muslims pray to a different God,” it is unclear to what entity these critics believe Muslims are addressing their prayers. The mere fact that people believe in something does not bring it into being, yet the question “do Muslims and Christians worship the same God” implicitly assumes that “the Islamic Allah exists.” Labeling the Islamic Allah a “different god” is necessarily to presume that Allah is some kind of entity that actually exists in reality, but that is not the God of the Bible. This encounters several problems. First, the Islamic Allah cannot coherently be described as a type of “lesser” supernatural being: Christianity is not henotheistic, treating the biblical Jehovah as merely the preeminent power among a hierarchy of other world deities. Second, the allegation, popular in some far-right circles, that Muslims pray to an “evil god,” or devil, similarly fails: traditional Christian teachings do not ascribe to demons an omniscient power to hear and react to human supplications.
It instead makes doctrinal sense for a classical theist to say that all who call out to God are calling out to the one God who created, and who sustains, all reality. This does not compromise the proposition that some ways of calling out to God, and some understandings of God’s will, are more appropriate and more correct than others (and, by extension, that the saving work of Jesus is the only efficacious means through which humans may be reconciled to God). This framing is borne out by the narrative of Acts 10, in which the apostle Peter visits the centurion Cornelius. Luke notes in verse 2 that “[Cornelius] and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” It is only in verses 34 through 43, however, that Peter lays out the doctrinal distinctives and historical truth-claims of Christianity. Prior to Peter’s visit, Cornelius’s understanding of God was likely imperfect; this does not change the fact that Cornelius is still described as previously praying to the same God to whom Peter bears specific witness and detailed testimony. As Matthew Henry wrote in 1710, “This was the work of the Spirit of God, through the mediation of Jesus, even before Cornelius knew him, as is the case with us all when we, who before were dead in sin, are made alive.”
In short, it is coherent to affirm both that “when Christians and Muslims pray, they both address the one and only Creator of the world” and that “accuracy, not just sincerity, of one’s beliefs matters.”
Fr. Lawrence Farley
The question is deceptively complex, and since Islam post-dates the New Testament by six centuries, the New Testament cannot be expected to provide a direct answer. But the New Testament does help answer a similar question: Do pagans and Christians worship the same God? There were differences obviously, since paganism worshipped many gods and Christianity was staunchly monotheistic. But paganism did in some way dimly acknowledge that there was a supreme god of sorts, called Zeus or Jupiter (depending upon one’s geography). Could Zeus and the God of the Christians be more or less identified?
The answer (frustratingly for those who like to scream about such things on Facebook) is: Yes and No. That is, Yes, since there is only one God, and anyone consciously directing his prayers to The One God will find that The One God of the Christians receives his prayers, since He is the only God that there is. That is what St. Paul meant when he wrote that God is not the God of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles also “since God is one” (Romans 3:29-30). A pagan might direct his prayers to “the Unknown God”, but these prayers would be received by the God of the Jews and Christians, since He was the only true God who existed (Acts 17:23). Our God therefore has some sort of relationship to any who sincerely seek Him, regardless of their religion.
But the answer to this question is also No, since all pagan religions had an element of the demonic. Though a devout, ignorant, and well-intentioned Athenian pagan’s prayers to Zeus may have been received by the God of Israel, this is did not mean that his Athenian paganism was more or less interchangeable with Judaism or Christianity. While his heart and intention may have been acceptable to God, his actual religion, cultus, and sacrifice were not. Paul affirmed that “What the pagans sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Corinthians 10:20). Idolatrous worship, though perhaps intended for and aimed at the Most High God, was intercepted and used by the demons, and Christians in the early centuries always regarded pagan religion as infected with the demonic. That is why pagans converting to Christianity in baptism renounced their former religion as the worship of Satan. Pagans and Christians did not in fact find their acts of devotion received by the same God.
This analogy with paganism therefore would suggest that Islamic worship does not, in fact, connect the Muslim worshipper with the one true God of the Christians. Our God is the God who eternally begets the co-eternal Son, and from whom the Spirit eternally proceeds to rest in the Son, and who therefore may be described as the holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity. The Second Person of that Trinity died by being crucified on a cross under Pontius Pilate—all of which is emphatically denied by the Qur’an. Despite their shared theoretical monotheism, Christian and Muslim worship does not focus upon the same God, and (more importantly) the objective and spiritual reality present through their worship is not identical. In Christian assemblies, Jesus Christ is present, for He has promised to be present whenever two or three gather together in His Name (Matthew 18:20). In Muslim assemblies, Christ is not present in the same salvific way. Rather, just as the early Christians said that the demonic was present in the sacrifices of the pagans, that same terrible reality is present now liturgically in Muslim assemblies.
Does this mean therefore that every Muslim is therefore damned? Like I said, the question is deceptively complex. If a Muslim has no real exposure to or understanding of the Christian message, he might still be spared on the Last Day after all if his heart was in ignorance seeking the true God. C.S. Lewis wrote about such a possibility in The Last Battle, the last volume of his Narnian series: a worshipper of the god “Tash” (a thinly-veiled version of Allah) finds himself in the presence of the true God, the lion Aslan, an image of Christ. He realizes that his life-long worship of Tash was the worship of a false god, and that Aslan was the true God after all. In his own words, “Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc [or, King] of the world and live and not to have seen Him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service to me… But I said also, Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” I believe this. I believe that those Muslims who have sought the true God so long and so truly will be accepted by The One God. I believe that our God, who loves the sinner, will not reject any who are happy to see Him. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? No. But our God is all-knowing, and looks at the heart.
If we call God “Father”
The Christian God and the Muslim God cannot be one
For they believe God is alone
And we believe God the Son
If we call God “Son”
The Christian God and the Muslim God cannot be the same
For they believe God is Allah
And we believe Jesus Christ is His name
If we call God “Spirit”
The Christian God and the Muslim God cannot be one
For they believe God acts alone
And we believe by His Spirit acts are done
If we call God “Judge”
The Christian God and the Muslim God will then be the same
For the only Judge of all men
Will condemn those who reject Christ’s name
One of my first encounters with Islam was on a world religions exam. Playing the part of a test savvy student, I immediately began blocking the religions into different categories and evaluating which ones needed my attention. Looking at Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, I figured that they all came from the same text, give or take, so I shouldn’t really need to study them too much. Benefits of being a faithful church attender and Bible reader growing up. Ha! Was I wrong. I managed to pass the test, but I also realized that, to borrow from Shaw, Islam and Christianity are two religions separated by a similar text.
Having since read the Qur’an and spent some time in the Hadith, I have not found anything to contradict this opinion. Rather, while I have found evidence that there appear to be similar texts (and stories) behind both religions, there are also significant differences between how they describe God; differences too great to be explained as alternative perspectives on the same deity. There are at least three areas where Christian and Muslim views of God are incompatible, leaving us with the conclusion that God and Allah are not one and the same person.
The first of these differences lies in their respective conceptions of God. Christianity clearly embraces Trinitarian monotheism. In everyday language, we believe that God is three persons in one Godhead. Islam, on the other hand, holds to a Unitarian monotheism. That is, God is one and, well, there isn’t much more to say on the subject. This difference isn’t one of semantics. It direction impacts both your understanding of Who God is as well as what is valued in creation. An example of these is present in our second difference.
God and Allah are, in some degree, separated by their love for their creation. Granted, one will find references to Allah’s love and forgiveness for the world. At the same time, one does not see Allah taking the punishment that he decreed for Man’s sin. This is a key part of the Christian message, though. On closer inspection, this difference has at least two facets worth mentioning. First, between the two faiths we receive contradicting opinions of how God loves his creation. He cannot simultaneously take the punishment and wait to see how you live your life before handing out mercy. It’s either one or the other. As it relates to the Trinitarian/Unitarian views of God, we also see here a practical impact for whether you believe God is one or three. If Christianity is true, than love is part of God’s nature, for he exists in a community. If Islam is true, then love is accidental to God’s nature, for he exists as a self-sufficient entity. Again, these claims cannot be simultaneously true.
At the center of our previous two differences is a third difference: Jesus Christ. Christianity tells explains that Christ is the member of the Trinity who became human to take God’s punishment for our sin. Key to this definition is the fact that for Christians, Jesus is God. Islam on the other hand, tells us that Jesus is a prophet. A great prophet to be sure, but still a prophet. And so we run into the spot where the differences in God’s nature find a common expression, for in Christianity Jesus highlights both God’s Trinitarian nature and sacrificial love. Less rhetorical, though perhaps more important, Jesus’ perfect filling of both human and divine nature is the fact that Christianity rests on. This being the case, any religion which does not recognize Jesus as being God and man cannot be worshiping the same God.
The question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God must be addressed on three levels. The first level is semantic focusing on the term “Allah.” The term is formed by combining the definite article “al” with the indefinite term for god in the Arabic language, which is “ilah.” Thus, the term “Allah” literally means “the God,” as in the only God. On this level, there is no difference between the English word “God” and the Arabic “Allah.” In fact, Christians in the Middle East used Allah to refer to the God of the Bible even before the advent of Islam and still do so to this day.
The second level is literary. Is the character the same in both the Qur’an and the New Testament? I would answer in the affirmative for the following reason. The Qur’an assumes a familiarity with the stories and traditions found in the Bible. For instance, in the sura (chapter) named for Noah, the story of Noah and the flood is not retold. The sura assumes that one already knows the story and proceeds to give its lesson as such. In fact, many of the biblical characters are there: Job, Noah, Moses, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Abraham, Lot, and so on. Several of these biblical figures, like Noah, also have their own suras in the Qur’an.
The third level is much more complicated. This would examine the nature of God in Islam and in Christianity. Here is where the most compelling arguments are made both for and against the notion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. It is usually argued that since Muslims do not believe in the Incarnation or the Trinity they do not worship the same God. I’ll leave the details of that argument up to the theologians who are far more qualified than I. However, I will offer a few thoughts here. The Qur’an does describe God somewhat differently than the New Testament does. But does that mean Muslims worship a different God? Think about it like this: if you asked one person about me (we’ll call him Jack), he might respond that I’m a total jerk and a horrible person. But then you could ask another (we’ll call him Joe) and they might say I’m the nicest person one will ever meet. Here are two very different descriptions for the exact same person. Thus, on the third level I have not found any convincing arguments either. Most arguments simply come down to different descriptions of the same character in the story.
Christopher Cameron Smith is a Ph.D student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. He is a former regular writer at Conciliar Post.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.