Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

The Concept of God in Christianity and Islam

It’s not unusual to hear the claim that the three great Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all worship the same God. Since all three are monotheistic and claim descent from the same patriarch, it is argued that the differences in understanding the details about the nature of God are minimal and insignificant. The purpose of this paper is to explore the extent to which this is the case, in particular between the religions of Christianity and Islam, and it will assert that, while there are some similarities, the understanding of God in each of these religions is quite different based on the theology of each faith.

The God of Christianity is regarded as a deeper revelation of YHWH, the God of Judaism. Jewish people believe in a monotheistic God, and so do Christians. However, Christianity teaches that this one God has revealed himself more fully as a tri-unity, or Trinity of persons in the single unity of God. According to Christian theology, this plurality in the persons of God is implied (though not explicit) even in the Hebrew Scriptures. Norman Geisler writes, “Even the Hebrew word for one (echad) God (Deut. 6:4) implies a plurality with unity, just as male and female are considered “one” (echad) flesh (Gen. 2:24)” (Geisler, p. 548). The three persons in the Christian Trinity are identified as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

It is important to note that this tri-unity in the nature of God does not imply polytheism; there is only one God, and the three persons are the one God. While distinct in person, the three share a single essence; they constitute one Being. There is no human analogue for this; every illustration that can be conceived to explain the concept ultimately proves inadequate. It is generally acknowledged among Christian theologians that, while the concept of the Trinity may be “apprehended,” or understood, by finite man, it cannot be fully “comprehended” (Bowman, p. 16-17). Though the three persons of the Trinity are seen as being ontologically equal, they perform different functions. The Father is regarded as “the Source, Sender and Planner of salvation” (Geisler p. 549). The Son, by contrast, is the One who actually achieves salvation for humans. He does this through the miraculous process of assuming a body of human flesh as the man Jesus of Nazareth, living a perfectly holy life, and then giving that life on the Cross as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Finally, the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son[1] in order to make application of God’s grace in salvation to individual persons. He convicts of sin, grants the gift of faith and regenerates those who will believe. He then indwells the believer’s heart as a guarantee of salvation (2 Corinthians 1:22).

The God of Christianity is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Being spirit, He has no physical being (with the exception of the Son, who took upon himself a physical, human nature in addition to his divine nature). He is perfect in love, holiness, justice, wisdom, grace, mercy and power. He is the Creator of everything that is, and, speaking of the Son, the Apostle Paul writes, “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

For the Muslim, God is a solitary unity. Allah (the Arabic word for “God”) is a single person, a single Being, indeed, the ultimate Being. Prior to Muhammad, Arabs had worshipped a variety of gods. But Muhammad joined himself with those who devoted themselves exclusively to Allah, eventually elevating Allah to the position of the only true God. According to Smith, “He was what his name literally claimed: He was the God, One and only, One without rival” (Smith, p. 225).

This concept of the oneness or absolute unity of God is crucial in Islam, and the doctrine is known to Muslims as tawhid.  According to Maqsood, “Nothing is remotely like God, and nothing can be compared to Him. Nothing shares His power, and He certainly does not have partners, or any kind of ‘family’” (Maqsood p. 37).  According to the Qur’an, “The fact is, Allah is One, Allah is the Eternal. He did not beget and He was not begotten, And no one has ever been His peer” (Surah 112; Jeffery, p. 64).

Allah is the Creator of the universe and Judge of all who live in it. He is loving and compassionate and fully just, though his justice is tempered by his mercy coupled with his complete knowledge. “God knows every thought and motive, every influence acting upon a person” (Maqsood, p. 38), and that being the case, he can judge with great mercy, compassion and fairness.

In assessing the similarities and differences between the concepts of God in Christianity and Islam, it becomes obvious that there are certain similarities. For example, God in both religions is the Creator of all that exists, and is presented as both transcendent (above and greater than the universe) and yet immanent (involved with his creation). In each religion, love and compassion, justice and holiness are seen as being among the primary characteristics of God. Also, for both Christians and Muslims, God has the qualities of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. It is undeniable that the two religions have much in common in terms of the way that they perceive the Ultimate. However, as it is sometimes said, the devil is in the details.

The God of Christianity is a God of personal relationships. Jesus taught his followers to pray to “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). The Apostle Paul spoke of God as being “actually not far from each one of us,” for we are each “God’s offspring” (Acts 17:27, 29). Paul also wrote, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). Islam, on the other hand, rejects the idea that Allah is a Father. Surah 112, quoted above, states explicitly that “He did not beget and He was not begotten” (Jeffrey, p. 64). One Christian website notes, “But Allah is not truly personal, knowable, or approachable… In Islam, it is considered blasphemous to “presume” that one can know God or claim any sort of close, personal fellowship with Allah. He reveals his will, not himself” (oncedelivered.net).

The doctrine that Allah is not and cannot be a Father denotes a critical sticking point between Islam and Christianity, one seemingly impossible to overcome in any attempt to harmonize the doctrines of the two religions. It is a central doctrine of Christianity that God does have a Son. This teaching is the axis that all of Christian teaching revolves around; it is what distinguishes Christianity from Judaism. Without the person and work of the Son of God, Christianity is meaningless. Yet Islam insists that Jesus, seen in Christianity as God manifested in flesh, is a mere human prophet, and a prophet inferior to Muhammad at that. In fact, the doctrine most central to Christianity – that Jesus Christ is the Son of God – is regarded as blasphemous by Muslims, specifically condemned as shirk, the worst of all sins, that of dividing the unity of God by attributing to him partners or a family. The Holy Spirit, regarded as the third person of the Holy Trinity in Christianity, is seen as another name for the angel Jibreel (Gabriel), who gave the Qur’an to Muhammad.

In reviewing the history of religions, it appears that the greatest hostilities often develop between those who are conceptually the closest in their understanding of doctrine. There are unquestionably many similarities between YHWH and Allah, yet at the heart of it, the two are fundamentally incompatible. The central teaching about the nature and personality of God in one religion is rejected as utter blasphemy by the other. There can be no meeting of the minds here, it seems, no ecumenical joining of the hands in worship. The question that remains is not whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God; they do not. The question at hand is whether they can coexist in peace and tolerance despite the wide gap between them.

 

Bibliography

Bible (2010). Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Study Bible. S.l.: Crossway Books.

Bowman, R. M. (1989). Why You Should Believe in the Trinity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Cairns, E. E. (1996). Christianity through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub.

Geisler, N. L. (2011). Systematic Theology: In One Volume. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.

Jeffery, A. (2000). The Koran: Selected Suras. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Maqsood, R. W. (2003). Islam. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books.

Smith, H. (1991). The World’s Religions. New York: HarperOne.

Yahweh (the God of the Bible) vs. Allah (the God of the Qur’an). (2007, December 19). Retrieved June 17, 2016, from https://oncedelivered.net/2007/12/20/yahweh-the-god-of-the-bible-vs-allah-the-god-of-the-koran/

Notes:

[1] It is accepted by the Western church (Roman Catholic and Protestant) that the Holy Spirit is sent by, or “proceeds from” the Father and the Son. The Eastern Orthodox churches reject this concept, claiming that the Spirit proceeds from the Father only. This dispute, involving different versions of the Nicene Creed, became a catalyst that sparked the split between the Eastern and Western churches in 1054 CE (Cairns, p. 196).