by Roger Olson
November 11, 2014
I’m not an expert on Islam; very few non-Muslims are. However, many years ago, while a graduate student in Religious Studies at Rice University (a national, “tier one” research university), I taught an undergraduate “mini-course” on Islam. (A “mini-course” was a graduate student-led unit of Religion 101.) I went out of my way to learn as much as I possibly could about Islam: its history, theology, and varieties. I visited a mosque, engaged in conversations with knowledgeable Muslims, invited knowledgeable Muslims from the U.S. and other countries to speak in my class, read voraciously everything I could get my hands on about Islam, and lectured about Islam. Since then I have kept up as lively an interest in Islam as possible given my focus on Christian theology. Again, I do not claim to be an expert on Islam but, aside from those who are true experts, I think I know more about it than most people.
Before I discuss the question “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” a very lively question being debated by contemporary Christian theologians, let me say that I have no special disdain for Islam. I do not hate or fear Muslims. I believe that, in our pluralist society, Muslims should be free to believe and worship and practice their religion without hindrance or suspicion. I do not consider all Muslims “potential terrorists.”
Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? It’s not as simple a question as it appears and therefore no simple, straightforward answer should be given. The question itself begs analysis—before any answer can be given. I worry that people who jump to answer “yes” may be motivated more by political correctness and/or fear of persecution (of Muslims) than by clear thinking about the theological differences between Islam and Christianity. I also worry that people who jump to answer “no” may be motivated more by Christian fundamentalism and/or fear of terrorists than by clear thinking about the historical-theological roots of Islam in Jewish and Christian monotheism.
So, let’s analyze the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”
First, both Christianity and Islam are diverse religions. Do all Christians worship the same God? What all is being included in “Christians” in the question? What all is being included in “Muslims” in the question? Which Muslims? Which Christians? I know enough about the diversity of Islam to wonder if they all worship the same God. And I seriously doubt that all who claim to be Christians worship the same God. Does a liberal Christian who denies the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity worship the same God as an orthodox Christian who affirms them?
Second, the question could be interpreted as asking whether Muslims and Christians are thinking of God sufficiently alike to be worshiping the same God. Then my answer would tend to be “no”—they are not worshiping the same God. For orthodox Christianity “God” includes Jesus which is heresy if not blasphemy to most orthodox Muslims.
Third, the question could be interpreted as asking whether God accepts sincere Muslim worship of Allah as worship of himself. That is a very different question from whether Muslims and Christians are thinking sufficiently alike about God to be worshiping the same God. That latter question (discussed in the paragraph above) is an epistemological question with a more or less empirically (or at least sociologically and philosophically) determined answer. That is not to say equally astute scholars won’t disagree; it is only to say it can be researched. The question whether God accepts Muslim worship of Allah as worship of himself is very different and much more difficult to answer because answering it presumes knowing the mind of God.
Of course, some Christians will answer “no”—God does not accept worship of Allah as worship of himself—based on Jesus’s saying in John 14:6 that no one comes to the Father except through him. But, a problem with that, as I have pointed out before here, is that most of the same people who quote that verse to claim that God never accepts non-Christian worship as worship of himself admit that even when Jesus said it (sometime around 33 AD) there were Jews whose worship of God without Jesus was accepted by God as true worship of him. The question then becomes when God “cut off” all worship not centered around Jesus? When Jesus died on the cross? Then did the cross “unsave” thousands, if not millions, of Jews and God-fearing gentiles? Did God suddenly turn a deaf ear to them just because they did not know of Jesus? (Most Jews and gentile God-fearers lived outside of Palestine during Jesus’s earthly life, death and resurrection.) To say that God “grandfathered them in,” as one fundamentalist pastor said, is absurd. What about their sons and daughters who also never heard of Jesus before dying? When did God stop accepting worship by people with Abrahamic faith in God’s promises? So simply quoting John 14:6 does not settle the question whether God has ever accepted worship that does not include faith in Jesus Christ as worship of himself.
I do not think we can answer the question of what worship God accepts as worship of himself with any degree of certainty. To be sure, there are some “worships” that we can say with certainty God does not accept as worship of himself (such as worship of Satan). I admit that I am uncomfortable even with C. S. Lewis’s scenario of God accepting Emeth’s worship of Tash as worship of himself in The Chronicles of Narnia. That’s partly, however, because of the way Tash is described in the stories. Still, and nevertheless, I do not think we can say with assurance that God does not accept any Muslim’s worship of Allah as worship of himself.
On the other hand, I tend to think the theological differences between Allah in orthodox Islam (both Shia and Sunni versions to say nothing of Amadiyyah) and orthodox Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) are strong enough to doubt that, in most cases, Muslims and Christians are thinking of the same God when they worship Yahweh and Allah.
Having said that, however, let me also say that, as a Christian theologian, my main concern is whether all Christians are thinking of the same God when they worship. But that’s a subject for another post.