Editorial note: This article from Martin Accad’s recent book continues an important conversation on the “Same God” debate. To compare a variety of perspectives on this issue check out these other Acts211 articles:
– Allah or Jesus? New Book Cuts Through the Murk of Religious Pluralism
– Getting the Trinity out of the Ivory Tower
– What Arab Christians Think of the ‘Same God’ Debate
– Do Christians and Muslims Speak of the Same God?
Myth: Allah is not the God of the Bible
Today’s path to Christian-Muslim dialogue and relationships is riddled with a great number of obstacles. What Christians write about Islam and what Muslims write about Christianity can no longer be hidden in obscure anonymous pamphlets or embedded in in-group conversations. As a result of globalization, migration, and social media, what we write about each other has a greater impact on our societies worldwide than it has ever had. What we promote through script and speech contributes just as easily to peace as to conflict among neighbors of various faiths. In my recent book, Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching Across the Christian-Muslim Divide (Eerdmans, 2019), I venture into the field of theological dialogue, adopting a “history of ideas” approach, as I revisit some of Christian-Muslim dialogue’s most enduring disagreements in the realm of doctrine.
Much ink has been spilled of late on this affirmation. Those who believe that Christians and Muslims worship different gods emphasize the differences between the Christian and the Muslim understandings of God. At one extreme, some have argued that Allah was a pagan deity of pre-Islamic Arabia, reinvested with new meaning and authority by Muhammad as he sought to unite the Arab tribes around a new ideology. Others argue that only a Trinitarian God that includes the second person of the Trinity and the belief in the divinity of Christ can be identified with the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Still others argue for the superiority and otherness of the Triune relational God over the monistic absolute God of Islam and the Qur’an.
I choose to abandon the question as it is often asked, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” or “Is the God of Islam the Father of Jesus Christ?” The first question, in my opinion, takes us too quickly into the realms of ontology and metaphysics—to a philosophical discussion on the very nature of “being.” We end up having to ask what we mean by the word “same.” But do any two people in fact worship the “same” God? Doesn’t every person, in the end of the day, bow down to and worship a particular representation of God that forms in their mind and heart as a result of a complex blend of scriptural understanding with personal socio-cultural, religious, historical, and geographical background? From the perspective of phenomenon, don’t we each, in some sense, worship a different God? And if it is so, is not our worship only acceptable to God—when it is accepted—as a gift of divine Grace? This seems, in any case, to be the lesson from the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4. And I am not convinced that the morale of the story allows us to stand as judges as to the kind of worship that is accepted and the kind that is not in the eyes of God.
The second question takes us too quickly into the realm of soteriology—the question of salvation. But must an affirmation that Christians, Muslims—or Jews or others for that matter—turn their prayers to a “common God,” necessarily need to lead to affirming that all who do so will be saved? In an argument about the intrinsic relationship of salvation with both belief and action, the apostle James affirms (2:19): “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Though this is not the place to discuss comprehensively the doctrine of salvation and the role of Christ in it, clearly salvation does not ensue from right belief alone. Suffice it to say that worshipping the One God of Abraham is not the only condition for salvation.
With this concern for the question of salvation out of the way, my emphatic answer to the first “myth” affirmation is that, at least in the mind of the Qur’an and its author—which for me as a non-Muslim I consider to be Muhammad himself—every reference to Allah in Islam’s founding text is a reference to the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Qur’anic message in its entirety affirms this relentlessly. Does Allah, as represented in the Qur’an, reflect the fullness of the Father as revealed in the New Testament? Again, as a non-Muslim, I feel free to respond in the negative. Neither is the Jewish belief in YHWH that considers Jesus of Nazareth to have been an imposter, nor the Muslim belief in Allah that rejects the divinity of Christ and his death on the cross, all-the-while affirming his greatness, adequately represent God in his fulness—again from my perspective as a disciple of Jesus. But this belief needs not be based, either on a lack of appreciation of the historical Muhammad, or on a denigration of what I believe Muhammad was trying to accomplish in his redaction of a message that he intended as an affirmation of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and a reform of these two traditions as he experienced them in his day.
By affirming that the Qur’an and its author were undeniably referring to the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition every time the name Allah occurs in the Muslim scriptures, I am reaffirming our belief in the God of the Bible as the sure starting point of Jewish-Christian-Muslim conversation. Every contemporary attempt at questioning this common platform, I would consider counter-productive, and frankly as a modern aberration unknown to most Christians, Muslims, and Jews through history. There is no doubt in my mind that the reference to the biblical God as “Allah” preceded Islam among Arab Christians and Jews. Both the form and pronunciation of the name Allāh reveal its Judeo-Christian Syro-Aramaic origins. Whereas most languages have derived their nomenclature for God from pagan traditions, such as Gott, Deus, Theos, and even Elohim, the Arabic Allāh is a rare instance where the name of God is taken from an already existing biblical tradition.