This is the thirteenth in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.
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QUESTION # 13 – DO MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS WORSHIP THE SAME GOD?
IN QURESHI’S FIRST YEAR of medical school, a male physician from India approached him, offered the Muslim greeting of peace, and told Qureshi that he knew his mother. Qureshi returned the greeting, but he had a hunch the doctor was mistaken. Qureshi’s mother maintains purdah, the Islamic practice of wearing a burqa, and socializing outside the family only with other women. Qureshi thought it unlikely a strange man would know his mother or talk about her in such a casual manner.
On the other hand, he was a physician, he was from India, and he appeared to be part of the Muslim community. Perhaps he did know her? Upon asking further, he assured Qureshi that he did know Mrs. Qureshi. He said, “She lives here in Norfolk, and she is from Pakistan, is she not? I see her every now and again in the hospital. She is a smart, very kind woman.” Qureshi thought that did sound like his mother. She is very kind and smart, and she is from Pakistan. Also, she did come to Norfolk for medical treatment, but she primarily went to the naval hospital in Portsmouth. He was wrong about where she lived, though. The Qureshis lived in Virginia Beach, not Norfolk, but the two cities are right next to each other. Though he was wrong about a detail or two, Qureshi decided this man probably did know his mother.
But Qureshi was wrong. As the conversation progressed, the doctor told him that he had admitted some of Mrs. Qureshi’s patients from the emergency room. Apparently, he thought Qureshi’s mother was a colleague of his, but she was not a physician. Although the two were talking about the same role, that of a mother, they were not talking about the same woman. Qureshi said, “I later discovered there was a Dr. Qureshi in the emergency room at the children’s hospital, and from then on I was able to inform dozens of people that, no, she was not my mother.”
Qureshi notes intriguing similarities between that conversation and the one our nation is having about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The question is pressing because the national conversation has grown controversial in light of the growing refugee crisis and concerns about jihad.
THE WHEATON CONTROVERSY
Wheaton College, a flagship of evangelical educational institutions, placed one of its professors on administrative leave on December 15, 2015, for “theological statements that seemed inconsistent with [their] doctrinal convictions.” Five days prior, while donning a hijab and staking her position on a variety of controversial matters, Larycia Hawkins had written on Facebook, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Wheaton’s decision to give Hawkins “more time to explore theological implications of her recent public statements” ignited a firestorm of controversy. One strong voice in the fray was Yale Professor Miroslav Volf, a theologian greatly respected for his contributions to Christian-Muslim dialogue, who wrote in the Washington Post, “There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’ forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”
Such a dialogue-stifling judgment from a highly acclaimed Ivy League scholar was surprising, but it served to illustrate the enormous tensions in Christian-Muslim relations. As a former Muslim, Qureshi said, “I have many Muslim family members and friends I spend time with regularly, and I often encourage Christians to consider gestures of solidarity with the hope that, somehow, this affection will trickle down to the Muslims I know and love. I have even recommended that Christian women consider wearing the hijab in certain circumstances, as well as counseled Christian men to consider fasting with their Muslim neighbors during the month of Ramadan, as long as it is clear these gestures are out of Christian love and not submission to Islam.”
So without a shred of “enmity toward Muslims,” Qureshi stated that he disagrees with Hawkins and Volf. Qureshi’s position is that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God, but given the complexity of the matter he believes we ought to stop demonizing those who disagree with us.
WHY MANY CONCLUDE THAT MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS WORSHIP THE SAME GOD
For years after leaving Islam and becoming a Christian, Qureshi believed that Muslims worshiped the same God as Christians, but were simply wrong about what he is like and what he has done. After all, Qureshi had been taught as a young Muslim to worship the God who created Adam and Eve, who rescued Noah from the flood, who promised Abraham a vast progeny, who helped Moses escape Egypt, who made the Virgin Mary great with child, who sent Jesus into the world, who helped the disciples overcome, and who is still sovereign today. Is that not the God of the Bible?
For that matter, the Qur’an asserts that the Torah and the Gospels are inspired scripture, and that Jews and Christians are people of the book. The Qur’an tells Muslims to say to Jews and Christians, “Our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender” (29:46). If the Qur’an asserts that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians, does that not settle the matter? For years Qureshi thought it did, and the great overlap between Islam and Christianity meant we were talking about the same God. Just as when the Indian physician was right about many details and wrong about a few, leading Qureshi conclude they were both talking about his mother, so he used to think Muslims disagreed with Christians on a few details but they were talking about the same God.
Qureshi no longer believed that. At a certain point, the differences go beyond details to essential matters of identity, and it turns out he and the doctor were talking about different people. When the Indian physician said Qureshi’s mother lived in Norfolk, he was wrong about a minor detail, and yet they still could have been talking about the same woman. But when he said she was a doctor, it was not just a detail. He was wrong about an essential characteristic. It became clear that he was envisioning someone else. In the same way, the Muslim God is different in essential characteristics from the Christian God, which is why Qureshi came to the conclusion they are not the same God.
He said, “I do not condemn those who think Muslims and Christians worship the same God, because it is a complex issue. But the identity of the Muslim God is different from that of the Christian God in essential characteristics. The Qur’an seems to agree with this assessment. Though Muslims and Christians worship a God who fulfills the role of Creator, the persons they see occupying that role are quite different.
HOW THE CHRISTIAN GOD AND MUSLIM GOD DIFFER IN ESSENTIAL CHARACTERISTICS
Qureshi starts with the obvious. Christians believe Jesus is God, but the Qur’an is so opposed to this belief that it condemns Jesus worshipers to hell (5:72). For Christians Jesus is certainly God, and for Muslims Jesus is certainly not. For this reason alone, no one should argue as Volf has done that “there isn’t any theological justification” for believing Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. There is, and it is obvious when we consider the person of Jesus.
Another difference between the Islamic God and the Christian God is God’s fatherhood. According to Jesus, God is our Father, yet the Qur’an very specifically denies that Allah is a father (112:1-4). In 5:18, the Qur’an tells Muslims to rebuke Jews and Christians for calling God their loving Father, because humans are just beings that God has created. So the Christian God is a father, while the Muslim God is not.
Similarly, when we consider the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, Islam roundly condemns worship of the Trinity (5:73), establishing in contrast its own core principle of Tawhid, the absolute oneness of God. Tawhid emphatically denies the Trinity, so much so that it is safe to say the doctrine of God in Islam is antithetical to the doctrine of God in Christianity. Not just different but opposed. This difference is profound. The Trinity teaches that God is not a person, but three persons: Father, Son , and Spirit. To assert that the God of Islam is the same person as the God of Christianity becomes almost nonsensical at this point, as the Christian God is tri-personal, two persons of whom Islam specifically denies in the Qur’an.
There is more to be said about the differences between the Christian God and the Muslim God, especially in terms of character as it relates to jihad, but Qureshi addresses those issues in Questions 15 and 16. The point he is trying to make here is simply that the essential characteristics of God are different in Islam and Christianity. They are more different, in fact, than the woman the Indian physician had misidentified as Qureshi’s mother. In theory, his mother could have been a doctor, but the tri-personal Christian God cannot even in theory be the monadic Muslim God. The two are fundamentally incompatible. This is why, according to Islam, worshiping the Christian God is not just wrong; it sends you to hell.
WHY DO PEOPLE SAY MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS WORSHIP THE SAME GOD?
So how can people argue that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Primarily by giving undue priority to the Islamic assertion that it is so. Even though the Qur’an says that worshiping Jesus or the Trinity will send Christians to hell, it somehow asserts that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (29:46). Though the logic is not clear, it is asserted as blunt fact that must be accepted. Ultimately, this is the reasoning of those who believe, as Qureshi once did, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and it is flawed.
The similarities between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are superficial and at times merely semantic. Though Islam claims that the Muslim God has done some of the same things as the Christian God and sent some of the same people, these are minor overlaps and far less essential to the reality of who God is than fundamental characteristics of his nature and persons. [For me, however, I do not agree that Allah sent anyone, let alone persons sent by God Almighty.] Islam and Christianity overlap at points on the former, but they differ fundamental on the latter. So Volf’s rejoinder to this line of thinking is that Christians believe they worship the same God as Jews even though Jews do not worship the Trinity. How then can Christians say Muslims worship a different God without also saying the same of Jews? He argues that would be inconsistent or hypocritical.
Yet the response should be obvious to any who have studied the three Abrahamic faiths: the Trinity is an elaboration of Jewish theology, not a rejection. By contrast, Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity, Jesus deity, and the fatherhood of God, doctrines that are grounded in the pages of the New Testament and firmly established centuries before the advent of Islam. The earliest Christians were all Jews, incorporating their encounter with Jesus into their Jewish theology. Nothing of the sort is true of Muhammad, who was neither a Jew nor a Christian. Islam did not elaborate on the Trinity, but rejected and replaced it.
Additionally, Volf’s assumption that Jews did not in the past worship something like the Trinity is debatable. Many Jews held their monotheism in tension with a belief in multiple divine persons. [Especially those who believed the prophecies regarding the coming Advent of Jesus Christ.] Though the term Trinity was coined in the second century AD [the term does not appear in Scripture], the underlying principles of the doctrine were hammered out on the anvil of pre-Christian Jewish belief. It was not until later, after Jews and Christians had parted ways, that Jews insisted on a monadic God. The charge of Christian hypocrisy is thus anachronistic.
Qureshi says the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is complex. Wheaton College made a reasonable decision in giving Hawkins time off to consider the implications of her statement. Whether or not she was aware of it, her statement allowed Islamic assertions to subvert the importance of essential Christian doctrine. Yet she ought not be faulted harshly, as these issues are murky. What is more dangerous is the path taken by Volf, accusing people of bigotry to shut down valid conversations. One can both love Muslims and insist that the God they worship is not the same as the Christian God.
Christians worship the triune God: a Father who love unconditionally, a Son who incarnates and who is willing to die for us so that we may be forgiven, and an immanent Holy Spirit who lives in us. This is not who the Muslim God is, and it is not what the Muslim God does. Truly, Tawhid is antithetical to the Trinity, fundamentally incompatible and only similar superficially semantically. Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.