Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

We live in a highly pluralistic context in the UK, one of the most multicultural societies on earth. For example, where I grew up in London, you could choose from Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Atheism, Islamism – you could even be a Crystal Palace FC fan, we used to call that ‘masochism’.

How do we navigate that maze of religious diversity? One answer that’s increasingly common is to say that every religion is essentially the same, that everybody is worshipping the same God in their own way, that all paths lead to God and so forth. My friend Jeff, who used to teach at the university of Toronto, likes to say that we should try to think of all the different religions in the world as being like paths up a mountain. There are hundreds of different paths, so just choose the path that fits you; after all, why worry, all the paths ultimately lead to the top.

That sounds such a simple idea, doesn’t it? Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, all the world’s different belief systems and religions are just different paths – and every path leads to the top of the mountain. But hang on a moment. As a hobby, I’m a mountaineer – I climb mountains, whenever I can. A few years ago I even made it to Everest Base Camp. And the thing is: I can confidently tell you this – every path does not lead to the top of the mountain. Some paths lead round the bottom of the mountain. Some lead to sheer cliffs, because they were designed to get rock climbers to a great climb. Some lead in entirely different directions. Indeed, if the fog comes down in the mountains and you have no map and compass, simply following any path at random leads not to wisdom but probably to death. Furthermore, it also occurs to me that there’s only place you could be to know that every path leads to the top of the mountain and that’s suspended in the air a few hundred feet above it. In other words, Jeff, without realising it, was effectively claiming to be god himself.

The other problem with the ‘all paths lead to the top of the mountain’ approach to religions is it ignores the massive differences between the different religions of the world – and the claims of exclusivity built into each one. And claims of exclusivity – whether by Christians, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or Hindus, or atheists shouldn’t make us nervous. It is the nature of truth to be exclusive: 2+2=4, it isn’t 7, 19, or 437.2, no matter what some economists may try to make you believe.

There’s a common assumption that Islam and Christianity are broadly similar

In this article, I’ll explore the idea of religious truth claims and exclusivity by comparing two of the world’s biggest religions – Islam and Christianity. There’s a common assumption that Islam and Christianity are broadly similar, terms like ‘Abrahamic religions’ are commonly thrown around. There’s also a persistent belief – certainly held by Muslims, certainly held by many in our culture, and held by many Christians that Allah – the God of the Qur’an – and Yahweh, the God of the Bible – are essentially the same. Even some theologians hold this view, such as Miroslav Volf who wrote, ‘Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God … I reject the idea that Muslims worship a different God than do Jews and Christians.[1]

But does this idea stand up? I’m a great believer that ‘contrast is the mother of clarity’[2] and so I’d like to briefly compare the biblical God and the qur’anic god and highlight three major differences – differences that I believe reveal just how different Islam and Christianity are as belief systems.

The God of the Bible is relational.

This is the thrust of the whole story of scripture, from the opening pages to the very last chapter. In the opening chapters of Genesis, we read of how God was to be found walking and talking in the garden with Adam and Eve. God walks and talks with Abraham (Genesis 17–18), speaks to Moses face to face ‘as a man speaks with his friend’ (Exodus 33:11), and, indeed God speaks with his people throughout the Old Testament. When human beings disobey, when sin comes between God and man, God seeks out and pursues humankind; indeed the story of scripture is the story of God winning us back. And at the close of the Bible, we are promised that in the age to come:

The dwelling of God will be with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Revelation 21:3, author’s translation)

The Bible uses highly relational language to describe God. He is described as a father, a husband and a friend. He is the relational God, the God who reveals himself by name – Yahweh – and the Bible’s call is for us to be in relationship with him. That’s what it means to be a Christian.

According to the Qur’an, the only ‘relationship’ that exists between humans and Allah is that of master and servant

For the Qur’an, on the other hand, there is no such relationship to be had with Allah. Allah, the god of the Qur’an, is so distant, so transcendent, and nowhere does the Qur’an invite its readers to enter into a relationship with him. According to the Qur’an, Allah did not walk and talk in the garden with Adam and Eve. He is not present with his people in heaven. And he did not take on flesh in the person of Jesus. The only ‘relationship’ that exists between humans and Allah according to the Qur’an is that of master and servant – not father or friend. Listen to these words from Muslim theologian, Shabbir Akhtar:

Muslims do not see God as their father … Men are servants of a just master; they cannot, in orthodox Islam, typically attain any greater degree of intimacy with their creator.[3]

This lies at the heart of the difference not just between Christianity and Islam, but between Christianity and every other religion – and is arguably what reveals Christianity to be far more than a ‘religion’. Religion says that if we follow the right rituals, obey the right rules, have the right mystical experience, then we can satiate the spiritual hunger within. Christianity, on the other hand, says that none of our efforts can ever bridge the gap between us and God. But the gap can be bridged from God’s side. ‘Do all religions lead to God?’ The truth is that no religion leads to God – only God can lead us to God, and that is what is offered in Jesus Christ.

The God of the Bible reveals himself and can be known.

At the heart of the Christian faith stands not a list of doctrines, not a set of moral commands, but a relationship with God.

Allah does not reveal himself to anyone … that is the great difference between Christianity and Islam.

- Ismail al-Faruqi

Of course, it’s only possible to have a relationship with somebody if they make themselves known and the God of the Bible does that consistently. From beginning to end, the Bible tells the story of a God who reveals not just his commands but his character, his very self. For example, in Exodus chapter three, in the story of the burning bush, God speaks personally with Moses, revealing his personal name – Yahweh, ‘I am’. Ultimately the biblical theme of God revealing himself is seen in the person of Jesus, who tells his disciples that ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). And because God has revealed himself, he can be known.

Again, this is utterly different from how the Qur’an describes Allah, who does not reveal himself in this way nor allow himself to be known personally. For example, it’s remarkable how in qur’anic theology, even Muhammad did not have the Qur’an personally revealed to him by Allah, but through an intermediary – the angel Gabriel. A contrast with the Bible, where time and time again, God speaks with his prophets and his people face to face, such as the powerful encounter that Moses has at the burning bush or on Mount Sinai. Listen to the Palestinian Muslim scholar Ismail al-Faruqi unpack this:

Allah does not reveal Himself to anyone in any way. Allah reveals only his will … Allah does not reveal himself to anyone … that is the great difference between Christianity and Islam.[4]

The God of the Bible is love.

The Bible is very clear that one of God’s primary characteristics is love. For example, in an amazing verse in the New Testament we read the words ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). Love is not something the God of the Bible does, but something he is. Indeed, the God of the Bible is a God who is Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – a loving relationship sits at the heart of who God is.

The Bible is very clear that one of God’s primary characteristics is love; in the Qur’an we see something very different

When we turn to the Qur’an and its depiction of God, we see something very different. Nowhere are we told that Allah is love – indeed, because he is not triune, it would not be possible for him to be loving unless he first created something to love.

There’s another fascinating feature in the Qur’an too, when one looks at how it talks about God and love. For unlike the Bible, the Qur’an is very reticent about talking of Allah and love. In fact, the main Arabic word for love, aḥabba, is used with Allah as the subject of the verb just 42 times and of those occurrences, 23 are negative,[5] the Qur’an describing the kind of people Allah does not love. For example:

God loves not the unbelievers. (Q. 3:32)

God loves not the prodigal. (Q. 6:141)[6]

The other 19 occurrences are conditional,[7] the Qur’an describing the behaviour required to earn Allah’s love:

Surely God loves the doers of good. (Q. 3:148)

God loves those who fight in His way, (drawn up) in lines (for battle) as if they were a solid building. (Q. 61:4)

The Qur’an simply has no conception of Allah offering anything remotely like an unconditional love to humanity. As the Pakistani scholar, Daud Rahbar bluntly put it:

[T]here is not a single verse in the Qur’an that speaks of God’s unconditional love for mankind … [Its verses] do not say that God loves all men.[8]

The Qur’an has an entirely different understanding of God – so different, that it makes talk of these being the ‘same god’ highly problematic

Drawing out the implications of this, some Muslim scholars have gone so far as to suggest that because the Qur’an speaks so little of Allah’s love, because Allah is so transcendent, and because it crystal clear in the Qur’an that Allah is ruler and master but certainly not a father as God is described in the Bible – because of all this, Muslims should avoid using the very word love. The German Muslim scholar Murad Hofmann writes:

Allah is self-sufficient … this fundamental self-description excludes that Allah is in love with his creation … [I]t is safer and more accurate not to speak of ‘love’ when addressing His clemency, compassion, benevolence, goodness, or mercy.[9]

This is a profound contrast from the Bible’s understanding of God – who, we are told on numerous occasions, loves everybody – even the sinner. As the New Testament puts it: ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this – while we still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).

So the God of the Bible is a god who is relational, a god who can be known, a god who is love. The Qur’an, on the other hand, has an entirely different understanding of who God is – so different, that it makes talk of these being the ‘same god’ highly problematic.

Mercy and Justice

But there’s one last difference between the God of the Bible and the Allah of the Qur’an that’s important to mention, and that concerns mercy and justice.

God’s mercy and God’s justice are ideas at the heart of many religions – they are certainly something the Bible and the Qur’an both talk about.

But have you noticed something? There’s a problem, because ‘mercy’ and ‘justice’ conflict. Think about this: mercy is always granted at the expense of judgement and justice. You stand before the judge, guilty of the crime. If she sentences you to the punishment your crime deserves, she has been just, but not merciful. Conversely, if she lets you off, she has been merciful but she has not been just.

Mercy and justice contradict and this is a problem for most religions, especially for Islam. But in Christianity, this problem is solved

Mercy is always exhibited at the expense of justice and the same applies to God. If God executes justice and treats us as we deserve, he has been just but he has not been merciful. By contrast, if God simply forgives us, he is merciful but not just – and when justice fails, hope fails. Just ask anybody who has lost loved ones in one of the world’s many war zones.

The simple fact is that mercy and justice contradict and this is a problem for most religions, especially for Islam. But in Christianity, this problem is solved. Because God does not exercise mercy at the expense of justice, but through his justice displayed at the cross, where judgement and mercy meet. The Bible says that God stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ, and Jesus offers to make himself one with those who trust him. When we trust in Jesus, our sin, our rebellion, becomes his sin, he takes the injustice we have done into himself and he pays the price. At the cross, every sin was punished. Every penalty paid in full. Justice was upheld, not ignored. The law was fulfilled. At the cross, Jesus paid for us and only because of that is mercy possible.

The Bible says that God will judge the world and everything that has taken place will be revealed and brought into the light: every injustice, every sin, every crime, every evil, every secret thing. Every wrong will be punished. If we are forgiven and welcomed into heaven, it won’t be because God says ‘your wrongdoing doesn’t matter’ but precisely because it does matter – in the cross, God passed judgement on it, said it’s worthy of death, and then if we are one with Jesus Christ, he takes our place. We are forgiven because sin matters, it matters so much that Jesus paid a high price to deal with it. If we accept Christ, we are forgiven because he has paid. If we reject him, we will be judged and we will pay. Either way, the price of justice has to be paid.

If I lend you my new iPad and you break it and I say to you, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it,’ you’ve been forgiven. But that doesn’t mean that nobody pays, it means I have to pay. Jesus Christ pays for us. God’s justice is fulfilled and his mercy extended because of the cross and because of his love.

Love

I meet so many people, both Christians and Muslims – and those of other faiths – who tell me they believe that God is a God of love. But I want you to think about something for a moment. What is the greatest possible form of love that can be expressed? Interestingly, Jesus provides the answer to that question when he once said: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).

And we all know this to be true, don’t we? If a truck is roaring down the street and my three-year old daughter is playing out there, oblivious to the danger she is in, and I run from the house, push her to safety, but am struck and killed in the process, what would you infer from this? How deeply I loved my child, that I was willing to give my life that she might live.

The God of the Bible loves us. Tremendously so

Or consider a famous historical example. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Catholic monk,[10] who was arrested by the German Gestapo in 1941 in Poland for his work sheltering Jews and other refugees. After his arrest, he was shipped to the notorious Auschwitz Concentration Camp. A year later, three prisoners escaped from Auschwitz and to deter further escape attempts, the Deputy Camp Commander picked ten men at random to be locked in an underground bunker and starved to death. When one of the selected men, a friend of Kolbe’s, cried out ‘My wife! My children!’ Kolbe volunteered to take his place. He was thrown into a tiny bunker with the other nine men, and left to die of starvation and dehydration. ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’

And this raises a fascinating observation. If God is a God of love, then, of course, God is the greatest being – that’s what it means to be God. And that means that if God demonstrates love, it must be the greatest, the highest conceivable form of love. And if the highest form of love is to lay down one’s life, then we can see why the life of Jesus and who he is becomes so crucial. If Jesus is who he claimed to be, God come in the flesh, God stepping into space and time, getting his feet dirty with the dust of the world and his hands bloody with the nails of the world, then what we see in Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross, to deal with our brokenness and our mess and our hang-ups, is the greatest possible act of love by the greatest possible being – who loved us so much, even while we were his enemies, that he was willing to do that.

The God of the Bible loves us. Tremendously so. He knows what you are really like; there is nothing you can hide from him. But in spite of that, despite knowing exactly what you are like, God came into the world and offers to make us one with him, pay for what we have done wrong, and offers us forgiveness as a gift. A very costly gift. A price was paid, but we didn’t pay it, we didn’t earn it. The greatest possible act of love by the greatest being, to demonstrate the greatest gift of all – forgiveness and mercy, but not at the expense of justice.

If God were merely an abstract principle, who had set the universe running, then left it: that God would be utterly irrelevant. But the God of the Bible didn’t do that. The God of the Bible has stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ and that changes everything. The God of the Bible is a God who is relational, knowable, truly merciful, truly just and truly love – there is quite simply no other God like him.

References

[1] Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: HarperOne, 2011) 14.

[2] Os Guinness, ‘Relevance or the Gospel?’, http://www.churchleaders.com/outreach-missions/outreach-missions-articles/139230-os-guinness-on-outreach.html (accessed 17 March 2021).

[3] Shabbir Akhtar, A Faith for All Seasons (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990) 180.

[4] Isma'il Al-Faruqi, Christian Mission and Islamic Da’wah: Proceedings of the Chambésy Dialogue Consultation (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1982) pp. 47-48.

[5] See Q. 2:190, 205, 276; 3:32, 57, 140; 4:36, 107, 148; 5:64, 87; 6:141; 7:31, 55; 8:58; 16:23; 22:38; 28:76-77; 30:45; 31:18; 42:40; 57:23

[6] As Gordon Nickel points out, this is a striking contrast with Jesus’s famous story in Luke 15:11–31, where the father (representing God) shows incredible love and forgiveness toward his prodigal son. See Gordon Nickel, ‘The Language of Love in Qur'ān and Gospel’ in Juan Pedro Monferrer-Sala & Angel Urban, eds., Sacred Text: Explorations in Lexicography (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2009) 223–248, citing p. 229.

[7] See Q. 2:195, 222 (twice); 3:31, 76, 134, 146, 148, 159; 5:13, 42, 54, 93; 9:4, 7, 108; 49:9; 60:8; 61:4.

[8] Daud Rahbar, God of Justice: A Study in the Ethical Doctrine of the Qur’an (Leiden: Brill, 1960) p. 225.

[9] Murad Wilfried Hofmann, ‘Differences between the Muslim and the Christian Concept of Divine Love’ in 14th General Conference of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought (Amman, Jordan, 2007) 8.

[10] There are several biographies of Maximilian Kolbe; in what follows, I am broadly following Elaine Murray Stone, Maximilian Kolbe: Saint of Auschwitz (New York: Paulist Press, 1997) especially pp. 71–91.

This article is partly extracted from Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? (London: IVP, 2021). Used by permission. Find out more at http://solas-cpc.org/dmacwtsg