I can see how some of my fellow Christians would push back against my last post on the subject of “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same god?” In this post, I take a stab and stating and evaluating these objections. I wish to thank Dr. Lydia McGrew and Dr. James Anderson for their stimulating recent posts on these topics that were helpful to me.
Objection 1: But Christians and Muslims don’t just disagree about something God has done (as in your George Washington story), but they even disagree about the essential attributes of their god. Most Christians think their god is tripersonal, while Muslims think theirs is unipersonal. At some point, the background assumptions get so wrong that you’re literally not referring to the same being anymore.
Reply: One can be very mistaken about the essential features of something, and yet refer to it. Suppose I’m paranoid, and you decide to troll me by sending me a letter, ostensibly by Barack Obama, on fake presidential stationary, instructing me that I must wear a tin-foil hat. I am taken in, and comply. And I’m not only paranoid but delusional; I also think Barack Obama is a space alien. I’m quite mistaken, then, about what Mr. Obama has done, and also about his essence. I falsely believe that he’s not human, but rather Martian. But when I say “Barack Obama sent me this letter,” I’m talking about the same guy you’re talking about when you say, “If only we could elect Mr. Hope and Change to another four years!”
Objection 2: But “Allah” – in an Islamic context – is by definition the god who sent Muhammad as his last and greatest prophet, as his “Messenger.” Note the Islamic confession of faith, the shahada that one must publicly confess to become a Muslim:
There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.
Alternate translation: There is no god by God; Muhammad is the the Messenger of God.
The central, defining feature of this “Allah” is not, as you suggested last time, that he sent Moses and Abraham, but rather that he sent Muhammad. Now we Christians do not agree that God sent Muhammad. With whom was Muhammad interacting, when he thought he was dealing with Gabriel, the chief angel of God? Either no one, or a demon. But not, we believe, God. His life and certain aspects of his teaching are best explained by his not being in contact with God. That has always been the main Christian view of Islam.
Reply: Clearly, any (traditional) Christian thinks that Muhammad was not receiving revelations from God. Christians are divided on whether he was sincere or lying, but I would guess that most think Muhammad was sincere, and that he was mistaken about the source of his experiences and verses. And the objector is correct that it is more central to Islamic thinking that Allah is the one who sent Muhammad, though yes, they also think this is the one who previously sent Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.
Suppose you call me on the phone in your best movie-alien voice and say “I am Zorg. You have done well, Dale, by donning the tinfoil hat. We will spare you when we invade.” I believe that I’ve talked to an alien commander, but of course there is no Zorg, no alien who called me, but only a human prankster. Now suppose that you had called me up in your best Barack Obama voice. Now, I go around telling folks that the president (who is also an alien) called me to say he’s pleased with my hat. And suppose that some believe me. I’ve falsely identified the caller with the president. But now my followers are believing something about the president. To make the story weirder, imagine that secretly, in the White House, Barack Obama wants people to wear tin-foil hats. He just finds it amusing, like hicks who ignorantly cling to guns and God.
Me and my tin-foil hat wearing followers: are we pleasing Obama? Yes. We think we’re also pleasing the guy on the phone, but of course he’s not Obama, and (let’s suppose) he has moved on and doesn’t care what we wear.
So, was Muhammad dealing with God? I don’t think so. But does that mean that “Allah” refers only to this being, real or imagined, who is the source of his revelations? No. Because Muhammad complicated matters by identifying (mistakenly) the source of his revelations with the one God, who sent Abraham and Moses. He did this by appropriating the Arabic name or title used by Jews and Christians (and perhaps also some pre-Muslim Arabs who were neither) for the one god (“Allah”), and also by explicit identification. (See, e.g. Sura 2 in the Qur’an.)
It seems to me that Muslims are referring to God, just as in my story, I and my kooky followers would be referring to Obama. Just as we falsely identify the caller with the president, so in the Christian view Muslims falsely identify the God of Abraham and the the source of Muhammad’s revelations.
Does it follow that God chooses to respond, to interact in these conditions? No. Conceivably, he may or may not. Maybe he’s so offended by Muhammad and his legacy that he just as it were plugs his ears. “I don’t answer to ‘Allah’ in an Islamic context.” On the other hand, maybe he takes pity on some Muslims who are reaching out to God, but with these false assumptions as background beliefs.
Just as with Obama. If I send a letter to him, he can ignore it, on the grounds that kooks are a waste of time, or he can answer it, and patiently explain that he has never talked to me on the phone, and that he came from two ordinary human parents.
This, I think, is why some Christians take such offense at the suggestion that Muslims and Christians “worship the same god.” Pushed, they may admit that yes, obviously, Muslims can refer to God. But you may think that worship is a give and take thing, with action by the worshiper, who gives her worship, and also by the worshipee, receiving that worship and perhaps also responding in some way. Many American evangelicals now find Islam to be unholy, corrupt, distasteful, menacing, and wicked. And so they assume that God is too holy to interact with people on this turf, answering to “Allah,” with people associating him with Muhammad and his traditions.
OK. But consider also God’s mercy. How many false assumptions about God did you have when you became a Christian? Also, what do you make of former Muslims who say that they prayed to “Allah” (in the Islamic manner, in mosques and in Arabic) and God answered, leading them to Jesus, who really is the last and greatest revealer of God? Could it be, so to speak, that God’s compassion sometimes trumps his holiness in some such cases?
How could Muslims have enough correct information, in their context, to reach out to God? Natural revelation. And/or special revelation, by way of dreams, visions, reading the Bible, or conversations with Christians. And/or the teachings of Islam which are true. Quite a lot of them are true, according to Christianity, right? e.g. Humans best flourish when they submit to their creator, one god created all else, adultery is wicked and also against the creator’s will, people should cease practicing idolatry.
Does this imply religious pluralism, that “all” religions (or at least these two) are equally valuable? No! Does it imply inclusivism, roughly, the view that God ordains other religions as means of salvation for some peoples, at least before they’ve fully heard the gospel? No! Does it imply that Muslims are correct in saying one being inspired both Abraham and Muhammad? No!
But are Christians and Muslims worshiping the same god? From the human end, yes – Muslims are referring to who we’re referring to.
But is this “worship” which God in some sense accepts and responds to? This is not obvious. Christians may disagree, and may also think that it varies person to person. God, who looks on the heart, does not only see rows of people bowing and standing in unison; he sees each unique human as he or she is, a sinner in need of grace and also uniquely valuable, made in his image for fellowship with him. All motives are plain to him, as are all beliefs. Far be it from me to say that he’ll never answer to “Allah” (in an Islamic context).