Abstract:Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? This “Same God Question” has again captured the attention of the Christian public. Increasing numbers of Christians are now responding in the affirmative, especially as they seek amicable relations with Muslims. This article looks at this age-old question from the Islamic point of view, noting that Muslim scholars have not mirrored their Christian counterparts in moving toward theological reconciliation. Indeed, the foundational teachings and example of Muhammad restrict them from doing so, thus creating a dynamic of “one hand clapping” in interfaith discourse. While Muslim scholars have largely minded their Unitarian orthodoxy, Christians have been much more lax in standing for their belief in one loving God, eternally co-existent as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Encouragingly, the Triune God of the Bible is now drawing Muslims to himself in unprecedented numbers. Christians may enhance this movement by unashamedly proclaiming this unique God to Muslims.
Christian missiologists are split over whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In response to the firestorm over this topic which recently engulfed Wheaton College,1 23 missiologists contributed short essays on this question. These responses were published in January 2016 by the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS) in its Occasional Bulletin.2 A reading of this bulletin indicates there was no consensus among the contributors regarding the basic “Same God Question” (SGQ).
This article seeks to address the SGQ in greater detail, particularly from the perspective of Muslims. The introduction to this article considers the relational issues between Christians and Muslims that have set the backdrop for the interfaith theological discourse. My thesis states that Muslim scholars are not moving toward Christian scholars regarding the SGQ; indeed, they are theologically restricted from doing so.
Two recent interfaith efforts initiated by Muslims themselves—the 2007 “A Common Word between Us and You,” and the 2016 “Marrakesh Declaration”—provide excellent data points for assessing Muslim sentiments regarding contemporary interfaith dialogue, in general, and the SGQ, in particular. These data points indicate that Muhammad’s own non-inclusive, non-tolerant view toward other religions continues to influence his followers today. However, Christian scholars seem slow to appreciate the rigidity of the theological constraints upon their Muslim counterparts. The article concludes with encouraging news that the Triune God is drawing Muslims by the Holy Spirit, in order that they might believe in the Son of God, and hence become children of a Heavenly Father they have not previously known.
1. Can Theological Reconciliation Foster Relational Reconciliation?
The theological movement of Christian scholars toward the Muslim position may not be fully and consciously based on theology, but on a desire for improved relations. Due to the centuries of hostility between Christians and Muslims, many peace-loving Christians would gladly trade much for peaceful co-existence—that elusive biblical shalom. This desire is not wrong. Yet this desire, even if it is subconscious, cannot be realized through theological acquiescence.
Even the SGQ itself is rendered in a manner that elevates the human element of things: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? This only breeds more questions, some of which were addressed by missiologists in the EMS Occasional Bulletin. Which Muslims? Which Christians? What is meant by worship? The EMS query constitutes an anthropocentric version of the SGQ. It could be better rendered theologically: Is the God presented in the Qur’an the same as the God presented in the Bible?
In the EMS Occasional Bulletin, I argued that an important question underlies the SGQ, and ultimately requires a negative answer to the SGQ. This underlying question posits: “Since the Bible teaches that Jesus is God and since Islam teaches that Jesus is not God, then how is it possible that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”3
Having given this enhanced rendering of the SGQ, this article turns to an evaluation of the SGQ from an Islamic perspective.
2. Evidence that Muslims are not Moving toward Christians on the SGQ
Muslims are not moving toward Christians on the SGQ, because to do so would necessarily require them to abandon the foundational tenet of Islam—Tawhid (Divine Unity). Any expansion of the Islamic view of the Godhead toward biblical Trinitarianism would undercut the prophethood of Muhammad, and thus collapse the entire Islamic theological edifice. Muslims, realizing this reality, have refrained from theological reconciliation with Christians as it relates to the Godhead.
2.1. A Review of Recent Interfaith Initiatives by Muslims
The global Islamic umma (community) features ethnic and sectarian diversity. As a rule, Muslim religious scholars (the ‘Ulama) take theology seriously. Their ranks include many prolific writers. While a wide-ranging theological survey exceeds the scope and space allowed by this format, several recent interfaith initiatives by teams of prominent Muslim scholars provide a good basis for analysis. These include the famous “A Common Word between Us and You” initiative of 20074 and the “Marrakesh Declaration” of 2016.5
2.1.1. “A Common Word between Us and You”
On 13 October 2007, 138 Muslim scholars presented the document, “A Common Word” to the Christian world. The full document begins with an immediate affirmation of the non-negotiable prominence of Muhammad as the basis for belief in God:
The central creed of Islam consists of the two testimonies of faith or Shahadahs, which state that: There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. These Two Testimonies are the sine qua non [indispensible characteristics] of Islam. He or she who testifies to them is a Muslim; he or she who denies them is not a Muslim.6
Though this document highlights values cherished by Muslims and Christians alike, such as love of God and love of neighbor, the Muslim scholars nevertheless fail to hold out an olive branch to their Christian counterparts regarding the SGQ. Instead, they immediately follow their initial insistence on acceptance of Muhammad with one of his hadith statements that Allah “has no associate,”7 a clear admonition against belief in the Sonship of Christ and the Trinity. (These statements which emphasize that Allah has no partner serve a polemic purpose, and therefore do not create an environment of mutual respect. A reciprocal introduction from Christians would be to preface an inter-faith document for Muslims with multiple verses regarding “false prophets.”)
The authors of “A Common Word” frame their appeal around the key Qur’anic verse, Al ‘Imran, 3:64, from which the document gets its name:
Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him; and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).8
With the command “Come!” this verse clearly commands Christians to move away from their cherished and long-standing belief in the Trinity. The verse reiterates that Christians must ascribe no partners or associates to Allah. The word used in 3:64 for ascribing partners with Allah is a literal cognate of shirk, the unpardonable sin in Islam according to Sura 4:116. “A Common Word” finishes by again quoting Sura 3:64 and admonishing Christians not to attribute partners with Allah. The Muslim scholars conclude invitingly: “Let this common ground be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us.”9
Throughout “A Common Word,” the Muslim scholars quote Bible verses that they reinterpret in a Unitarian fashion. Nowhere in the document do they affirm that the Trinitarian understanding of God is acceptable. In fact, they continually use the Islamic honorific, alaihi as-salaam (in Arabic script) after the name of Jesus Christ, to emphasize they are referring to the Islamic Jesus, who is neither Lord, God nor Savior. “A Common Word,” therefore, serves primarily as a theological thumb in the eye to Christians.
“A Common Word” received immediate acclamation by Christian leaders, who responded with heartfelt appreciation the next month with the “Yale Response” to that document.10 Readers familiar with the “Same God Question” (SGQ) will recognize Yale professor Miroslav Wolf, a leading proponent that Muslims and Christians do indeed worship the same God, as a co-author of the Yale Response.
The Yale Response was ultimately signed by over 300 hundred prominent Christian leaders, including several who contributed essays to Evangelical Missiological Society’s Occasional Bulletin on the SGQ. The Yale Response represents an embarrassing level of one-sided, self-abasement on the part of the Christian scholars. Their Preamble declares:
Muslims and Christians have not always shaken hands in friendship; their relations have sometimes been tense, even characterized by outright hostility. Since Jesus Christ says, “First take the log out your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:5), we want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g., in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g., in excesses of the “war on terror”) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors. Before we “shake your hand” in responding to your letter, we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world.11
Based on this beginning, the Christian respondents indicate they seek amicable relations between Muslims and Christians. This conciliatory statement appears to overlook the fact that the Muslim authors of “A Common Word” had just taken Christians to the theological woodshed. The Yale Response makes no insistence that Muslims tolerate or co-exist with the Christian belief in biblical theology, including the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since the Muslim scholars utilized Qur’anic material and co-opted biblical material to excoriate the biblical position, it is surprising the Christian scholars—who should know the Bible even if they may not be familiar with the Qur’an—failed to raise this objection.
Furthermore, neither “A Common Word” nor the Yale Response ever mentions the atrocities inflicted on Christians by Muslims over fourteen centuries. This reality cannot be overlooked if Christians and Muslims are indeed to proceed into an era of open and honest communication. The Barnabas Fund penned a much more reasonable response to “A Common Word” than the one originating from Yale and gives appropriate attention to this point.12
In summary, the Yale Response to “A Common Word” was written not in the spirit of Christian humility, but in a spirit of Islamically-ordained humiliation, known as Dhimmitude.13
2.1.2. “The Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Countries”
Since Muslim scholars authored the “Marrakesh Declaration” so recently, Christians have had limited time to respond to it. Therefore, this section is shorter than the previous one. Additionally, the “Marrakesh Declaration” has not offered much new, in relation to the SGQ, as compared to “A Common Word.” On one hand, the contributors to the “Marrakesh Declaration” merit praise. They obviously want to set themselves, and their religion, apart from the Salafists of ISIS who are carrying the news headlines. And they clearly have a more benevolent position toward non-Muslim minorities than would be found in the Caliphate—though the Caliphate has not set that bar too high.
Importantly, the “Marrakesh Declaration” fails to ascribe any legitimacy to the worship of the biblical Triune God. This would seem to be a minimum standard of affirmation in protecting the rights of non-Muslim minorities. Furthermore, the Declaration makes no statement asserting that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Instead, the “Marrakesh Declaration” celebrates the example of Muhammad and the Charter of Medina, which he implemented during his rule over that city from (AD 622–632).14 Use of the Charter of Medina as a paradigm proves problematic because this covenant was between the Muslims and only those who “followed them and joined them, and laboured with them.”15 The text of the Charter comes from Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (“The Life of the Prophet of Allah”), which is the basis for all later biographies of the prophet. Though Guillaume translates the final clause above into English as “and laboured with them,” the Arabic original is “wa jaahad ma’hum,” based on the verbal form of the noun “jihad.” W. M. Watt translates this Arabic clause “and who crusade along with them.”16 The Charter of Medina, therefore, establishes the political-military-religious Islamic state, upon which the current Islamic State in Iraq and Syria bases its legitimacy. Ironically, Muslim scholars have advanced this same charter as a template for religious tolerance and co-existence.
The Charter did not ensure the rights of those who chose not to follow Muhammad and the Muslims. There were no Christians in Medina, but there were Jews. None of the three Jewish tribes in Medina chose ultimately to follow Muhammad—and thus accept Islam. Muhammad, the example for all Muslims according to Sura 33:21, banished two of the Jewish tribes, and exterminated the final one. Presently, no Jews live in Medina.
The Charter of Medina, rather, created the paradigm for the Dhimmi system of Sharia law, in which non-Muslim monotheists are systematically humiliated and strictly forbidden from sharing their faith with Muslims. This system fails to provide a reliable, protective umbrella for Christians or other religious minorities. Indeed, the Dhimmi system oversaw the slow asphyxiation of many Christian and Jewish communities living under Islam—some of which have been extinguished.17
Despite this sobering picture, several Christians present at the Marrakesh proceedings responded with irrepressible exultation. Christian peace activists Bob Roberts and Rick Love were reported to have attended, with Roberts claiming to have been “blown away,” in a positive sense, by the Declaration.18 Nevertheless, the “Marrakesh Declaration” does nothing to move Muslim religious scholars toward their Christian counterparts on the Same God Question. Neither does it affirm the right of Christian minorities to share their faith among their Muslim neighbors. Nor does it safeguard former Muslims who have converted to Christ. Even the statements purporting to protect religious minorities from Islamic violence must be read with caution: this Declaration will not be followed by millions of Jihadists, since Sharia law does not unequivocally guarantee this protection.
In the case of both “A Common Word” and the “Marrakesh Declaration,” the Muslim scholars could not have substantively moved toward their Christian counterparts on the SGQ without being considered by other ‘ulama as apostates—expulsed from the faith of Islam. This same threat of excommunication, takfir, will haunt any Muslim scholar from making substantive theological overtures toward biblical Trinitarianism. Indeed, Muhammad established the religion of Islam within these strictures. It is to that prophet, and to that establishment, that this article now turns.
2.2. How Muhammad Has Painted Muslim Religious Scholars into a Corner
The Qur’an gives God-fearing Christians the status of Ahl ul-Kitab (“People of the Book”) since they have believed in God and a bona fide prophet, Jesus. Islamic Law sets the Ahl ul-Kitab above the Atheists and idol-worshippers who must be killed if they resist Muslims by not submitting to Islam. This seeming conciliatory position of Islam toward Christians may engender hopes for eventual theological reconciliation. In its full context, however, this paradigm established by Muhammad should be considered as the co-opting of Jesus into the Islamic theological edifice, and an invitation to Christians to embrace Islam and become Muslims.
2.2.1. Muhammad and the Najrani Christians
The encounter in Medina of the Najrani Christians with Muhammad provides a clear picture of Muhammad’s interaction with, and policy toward, Christians. As Muhammad and the Muslims gained political hegemony over Arabia, various tribes came to seek terms of peace with the Prophet of Islam. The town of Najran sent a Christian delegation to seek such a peace agreement. The Najranis, who were accompanied by their bishop, spent three days in theological discourse with Muhammad in Medina. This episode is referred to in Sura 3 (al-Imran). Gordon Nickel provides a thorough recap of the encounter and its treatment by Qur’anic commentators.19
The Najrani Christians offered to pledge their political allegiance to Muhammad if he would embrace their belief in the divinity of Jesus. This Sura recounts their testimony to the Annunciation (3:42–46), the Virgin Birth (3:47), Jesus’s miracles (3:49, including some apocryphal miracles).
The Qur’anic narrative then markedly pivots to an antibiblical Christology in which Jesus denies his own Lordship (3:51). Jesus’s disciples then shockingly declare: “We have believed in Allah and testify we are Muslims” (3:52). Sura 3:57 establishes salvation by works, and also states that “Allah does not love those who do wrong,” another drastic departure from biblical theology. The Najrani episode concludes with Muhammad declaring that Jesus was no more the Son of God than was Adam, who also was created without a human father (3:59).
Because of this theological impasse, Muhammad insisted on a mutual cursing ceremony with these Najrani Christians. Though the Najranis declined to curse Muhammad, Muhammad gathered his daughter Fatima, his son-in-law Ali, and his two grandsons under his cloak, and cursed the Najranis. The incident is known in Islamic history as “The Cursing” (al-Mubahala) with Muhammad’s indictment stated in Sura 3:61: “May God’s curse be upon those who lie!” The Qur’anic narrative ends here with: “This is the true account. There is no god but Allah. . . . If they turn back, God has full knowledge of those who do mischief.” (3:62–63).
For those keeping track of the verse numbers, the next verse in this passage is 3:64. This is the “common word” verse in which Christians are called to repent of associating partners with Allah (i.e., worshipping Jesus) and to return to Tawhid. Thus, Muhammad’s single notable encounter with a Christian community ended with him cursing that community because of their biblical beliefs regarding the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the historical context surrounding the “common word” verse summons a narrative of Christians rejected by Muhammad and the early Muslims, rather than one of inter-communal harmony and mutual respect.
2.2.2. The Primacy of the Shahada Confession
Any person who wants to become a Muslim must declare with sincere intention the Shahada confession: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his apostle.” The Muslim authors of “A Common Word” featured the Shahada in their document. Inherent in Shahada is a denial (Arabic, nafy) as well as an affirmation (ithbat). The nafy denial is that “there is no god. . . .”
Early Muslims could have originally simplified the Shahada to “Allah is God . . .” or “The Supreme Being is Allah. . . .” The fact that the followers of Muhammad felt the need to include a negating statement in the Shahada meant they specifically wanted to exclude from their faith community those who embrace the biblical teaching of plurality in the Godhead.
2.2.3. The Predicament Confronting Muslim Scholars regarding the SGQ
The above material indicates that Muhammad saw as a central part of his mission the demolition of the biblical belief regarding the Incarnation of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. Muhammad transformed Jesus into a fictional character who advances the Islamic theological narrative by announcing the coming of Muhammad (61:6) and assuring all who will listen to him that he never allowed anyone to worship him (5:72; 5:116).
Muslim scholars have long since been painted into a corner by Muhammad, who created a watertight monotheistic theology with no freedom to consider plurality in the Godhead. Any deviation from absolute Tawhid can only trigger the echoing of Muhammad’s cursing of the Najranis through the fatwas (edicts) of his disciples today. Furthermore, Muslim scholars cannot directly contradict the prophet’s teaching, especially on such a foundational doctrine as the divine nature. Therefore, Muslim scholars cannot move theologically toward their Christian counterparts.
Even the moderate and conciliatory Muslim scholar Mahmoud Ayoub of Hartford Seminary resigns himself to this conclusion: “Muslims could not, in the Qur’an or later, understand or accept the idea that God could reveal himself in a human person, that is to say, Jesus Christ.”20 Another Muslim scholar, Smail Baliç, states that Christians and Muslims merely share belief in a Creator God: “If theology is discourse about God, then Islam makes no assertions about Jesus Christ. Islam rules out any incursion of the human into the sphere of the divine. . . . Christians and Muslims can only agree on a belief in a God who brought forth and sustains creation.”21
Muslim scholars understand all of these things, yet their Christian counterparts seem largely unaware of the historical and theological boundaries within which scholars of Islam—regardless of sectarian affiliation—must operate. Should Muslims cross these boundaries, they become part of the growing population of ex-Muslims. Muhammad’s theological position closes the door on reconciling Islamic Unitarianism with biblical Trinitarianism. Therefore, it is no surprise that Muslims are not moving toward Christians on the SGQ.
Muslim and Christian scholar-leaders may find theological common cause on a number of issues. These could include: theism in the face of secularism, creationism/origins, as well as standing against abortion on demand. The mutually exclusive positions of the Bible and the Qur’an on the identity of Jesus Christ, however, rule out any rapprochement on the SGQ.
3. How the Triune God of the Bible is Drawing Muslims to Himself
Despite their irreconcilable theological positions, Muslims and Christians have much in common. The commonality between Muslims and Christians lies in their humanity, not their theology. In other words, all people are created equal, but not all religions are created equal. Muslims, like Christians and others, are sinners whom God loves equally and unconditionally. Muslims are not worse sinners than others. Neither are they under any curse that the blood of Christ is unable to cancel. While the Qur’an states in the “common word” passage, “Allah does not love those who do wrong” (Sura 3:57), the Bible states, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8, NASB).
Tragically, Muslims are taught from birth that God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet, this does not preclude the Triune God from becoming active in their lives. The God of the Bible, not the God of Islam, is even now wooing countless Muslims to himself. God’s activity is thus resulting in many of these precious souls leaving behind Islam, the affirmation of Muhammad as a prophet, and the deity he promoted. A new generation is coming into a living relationship with the eternal Son of God. Included in this movement are even Islamic clerics who used to teach the anti-biblical polemics of Islam.
Duane Miller and Patrick Johnstone (editor of Operation World) recently published a country-by-country report of believers in Christ from Muslim background. They estimate there are 10.2 million of these believers.22 Truly these are astounding times for the Missio Dei!
4. Concluding Thoughts
The current debate over the SGQ has precipitated a crisis for Christians. Muslims themselves do not seem embroiled in a parallel season of anguish and hand-wringing regarding the SGQ. Since Islam is a strictly Unitarian faith which denies both the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, any affirmative response by Evangelicals to the Same God Question can only hasten our rapid decline into a mainline manifestation of “Evangeliberalism,” and the ultimate extinguishing of our missional candle.
The cost of moving away from biblical Trinitarianism is the loss of fellowship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This loss renders Christians unable to help Muslims toward salvation in Christ, regardless of the status of inter-communal relations. Christians can encourage the ongoing process of Muslims coming to Christ by minding well the guiding light of biblical orthodoxy.