This is an excerpt from Matthew Bennett’s new book, 40 Questions About Islam (Kregel Academic, 2020).
On December 10, 2015, a Facebook post reignited debate over a 1,400-year-old question. At the center of the debate was Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Wheaton College who posted a message to her personal Facebook page:
I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.
This post initiated a chain of events that led initially to Hawkins’ suspension, and ultimately culminated in her resignation.
This highly public incident sparked heated controversy as those inside and outside of evangelicalism weighed in with their opinions regarding the question, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” Prompted by the controversy, the Evangelical Missiological Society invited a variety of missiologists to present their approaches to answering the question. Despite reaching various conclusions, one clear theme emerged from the contributions: the question itself is flawed.
In an effort to clarify this discussion, here are three alternative questions which help to elucidate the underlying issues that the question-as-posed obscures.
Idea Question: What Is Allah?
A good place to start this investigation is with the Arabic word Allah. While Allah is the word Muslims use for God, Arabic-speaking Christians also use Allah in their Bible translations to refer to God. In Arabic, Allah is the word formed from the noun “god” (ilah) and the attached definite article (al). Thus, Allah could be translated into English as “the God.”
Since Islam and Christianity share the idea that there is only one God, it is appropriate to share the word Allah to describe the One who is responsible for creating the universe. This shared idea provides some common conceptual ground, yet the concept alone describes merely an impersonal idea. A more helpful question might be, “Who is Allah to Muslims and Christians?”
Identity Question: Who Is Allah?
At first blush, the Qur’an includes multiple descriptions of God’s activities that evangelicals would affirm. Muslims believe that God is creator, ruler, revealer, judge, and that God forgives. Still, missiologist Colin Chapman warns against prematurely concluding that we’re talking about the same God, cautioning, “The issue between us is not whether God forgives, but how he forgives; not whether he reveals, but what he reveals and how.” We do well to consider that shared activity does not necessitate shared identity.
‘For the Christian, the doctrine of God cannot possibly be separated from Christology.’
One factor that must be considered in the Islamic answer to the question, “Who is Allah?” is the Islamic doctrine of God’s absolute unity (tawhid). The God of Islam is undivided and singular. He is the completely other creator and judge to whom humanity owes worship and submission. The result of such otherness is that God himself is unknowable in any intimate, relational sense. Isma‘il al-Faruqi illustrates this stark contrast with Christianity, writing that in Islam, “[God] does not reveal himself to any one in any way. God reveals only His will. . . . Christians talk about the revelation of God Himself—by God of God—but that is the great difference between Christianity and Islam.”
This difference is most pronounced when one considers the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Not only did God make himself intimately immanent and personally knowable by taking on flesh and living among humanity, but the incarnation also provides the lens by which we understand the Trinitarian nature of God most vividly. Timothy Tennent highlights the importance of this difference between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity:
It is not as if the texts of the Qur’an and the Bible differ on minor points of eschatology or the precise nature of the soul. They differ on central doctrines of identity such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the incarnation, the redemptive power of the cross, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. All of these doctrines are central to what we as Christians mean when we say, “We worship God.” For the Christian, the doctrine of God cannot possibly be separated from Christology.
In other words, the Islamic and Christian conceptions of God are fundamentally irreconcilable because of the incarnation, which is as essential to the Christian as it is anathema to the Muslim.
Further, the incarnation is an indispensable component of what Christians mean when they say they worship God. The triune God of the Bible has provided a single solution to humanity’s sin-induced estrangement from himself. Therefore, if we’re curious about how to answer the question, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” we should first consider what God thinks of our respective offerings of worship.
Inverted Question: Does God Receive Muslim Worship?
The central flaw in the question-as-posed is that it frames what should be a theocentric investigation as an anthropocentric discussion. We end up asking what humans think about their worship rather than what God thinks of it. By inverting the question, we might more helpfully ask, “Does God accept the worship of both Muslims and Christians?” The biblical data produces a negative answer and thus engenders a greater evangelistic burden.
The Islamic and Christian conceptions of God are fundamentally irreconcilable because of the incarnation, which is as essential to the Christian as it is anathema to the Muslim.
Throughout both testaments of the Bible one finds explicit instructions on how humanity can approach God and present acceptable worship. Jesus’s words are clear: “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Moreover, it’s through the gospel of the Son of God incarnate that God reveals himself most fully. This central truth is categorically denied in Islam.
In friendships with Muslims, a Christian need not aggressively attack the idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The gospel itself will highlight the incompatibilities. Yet we must be aware that, though Muslims are conceptually monotheistic, the idea of God in Islam envisions a character different from the God of the Bible. Further, if the Christian gospel is what it claims to be, it is the only means by which sin-stained people can offer acceptable worship to the one God of creation.