A Christian’s honest reflection on the nature of God in Christianity and Islam
Currently I'm reading Miroslav Volf’s Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011). Volf raises a question asked by many Christians today—do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Volf unequivocally answers that they do (14), though he admits that he arrives at this answer through “political theology.” In other words, Volf seems to be arguing that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God primarily (though not solely) out of an interest in keeping the peace between Christians and Muslims worldwide. He writes that his book “is a book about God and this world, not a book about God and the world to come; it is primarily about socially relevant knowledge of God, not about saving knowledge of God (13).”
To me, this smacks of a utilitarianism that does not do true justice to the irreconcilable differences one finds between the Bible and the Qur’an. When the Qur’an rejects Jesus as being the Son of God (Miriam 19:35), when it calls Muslims to kill pagans (al-Tawbah 9:5), when it promulgates polygamy, concubinage, and slavery (al-Nisā’ 4:24-5), I cannot as a Christian but conclude that this is no worship of God but a distortion and even rejection of him. Moreover, a focus on “political theology” hardly addresses the key point of difference between Christianity and Islam—God’s solution to the problem of sin as found in the sacrifice of Jesus (Romans 5:12-19) versus depending on the guidance of sharī‘ah for salvation (al-Baqarah 2:38).
Such commands or statements in the Qur’an prevent me from accepting outright Volf’s claim that Muslims and Christians indeed worship the same God. But can I readily accept the claim of those Christians who say simply that Muslims worship a false god? How many of these Christians know that the Qur’an affirms Jesus to be the Word of God (al-Nisā’ 4:171), born of a virgin (Miriam 19:20-21), and one who raised the dead and healed the lepers (al-Mā’idah 5:110)? Do these Christians know that many biblical stories (albeit with differences) appear in the Qur’an, that Muslims believe Adam disobeyed God (al-Baqarah 2:30-39), that Noah built an ark and that God drowned those who did not believe (Nuh 71), that Joseph honored God in his refusal to be seduced by Potiphar’s wife (or as the Qur’an calls her, the wife of the Aziz) (Yusuf 12), or that Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in spite of Pharaoah (al-A‘rāf 100-141)? How is it that a false god could provide so much truth?
In musing on these problems, I was reminded of a passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Last
. In that book,
the beloved Battle comes to an
end, the old order is obliterated, and Aslan, the Great Lion, remakes Narnia
into a new land. As the children who love Aslan enter the land, they find an
inhabitant they did not expect—an enemy of Narnia from the land of Calormen who
has worshiped the god Tash and hated the name of Aslan all of his life. But
this man named Emeth personally encounters the Lion and immediately recognizes
him as worthy of worship. And remarkably, Aslan accepts him: “Child, all the
service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” When Emeth
asks Aslan if Tash and Aslan are one, Aslan rejects this idea as false, but
explains that any service Emeth gave that was vile was done to Tash and any
that was not vile was done to Aslan. “Therefore if any man swear by Tash and
keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he truly sworn, though he
know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my
name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by
Tash his deed is accepted.” (pp 154-5) land
Could it be that a proper Christian theology of Islam might follow such a course? That anything in the Qur’an that agrees with the Bible and gives honor to God accounts as proper worship of the true God, but that anything that dishonors the truth as presented in the Bible gives honor only to Satan? In other words, Muslims may be worshiping both God and Satan: they worship the true God, but not rightly, and they worship Satan, without knowing that they do so. I know this is not a position that would earn me many friends; indeed, I do not know if this position is theologically tenable, but as a Christian who earnestly seeks to be both true to the claims of Scripture and fair to what I know of Islam, I essay it anyway.
I return to that question that exercises so many Christians—is the Father of Jesus the same as the Allah of Muslims? Allah is only a name—a name that Arab Christians use for God, but also a name that Muslims use with some assumptions about God that directly contradict those in the Bible. To be sure, a name is important, but it is not the same thing as the person himself, and it does not determine that person’s actions or even his or her character. I may properly refer to Elizabeth, the Queen of England, as “Your Majesty,” but what might she think if I referred to her as the “King of England,” as if I were somehow deluded into thinking that
was male? Certainly she would be bemused with my confusion, but would she
accept my homage? Might God accept the worship of a Muslim, even if that Muslim
wrongly assumes Jesus is only a prophet? Elizabeth
And yet I will not let go of the significance of the Cross. I will not approach this question with an interest only in “political theology,” as Volf does, but also from a soteriological one. It matters that Jesus was God, died, resurrected, and that his blood covers the sin of those who repent and place their faith in him. And it matters that these truths are not proclaimed in the Qur’an. I cannot be a Christian and say that these things do not matter, for to me to simply say that we worship the same God as Muslims, and leave it at that, is to somehow devalue the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
But to take the approach of Lewis is to approach our Muslim friends with Christian charity. It makes it possible to say to them, as I have personally done, that though I believe Christ is the Son of God and that that there is no salvation but through him, I do not stand in judgment over my Muslim friends and that their salvation is known only to God. This is not a logical contradiction, as one Muslim friend once charged, but a paradox in which I hold truths in tension. This is to accept that the Lion might choose to welcome Emeth into his kingdom even after he has entered the land without any intention to worship Aslan, that God might accept the worship given to someone else as worship given to himself. And it is to pray that through the power of personal encounter, God in Jesus might correct the error that clouds the vision of Muslims (and many others) and prevents them from worshiping God rightly. This is to love my neighbor whole-heartedly, by loving God without theological compromise.