“Allah” or “God”: Does it Matter?

“Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Do a Google search and you will find this question being addressed on numerous blogs by theologians, philosophers, and plebeians. Clearly it has generated a great deal of interest. My blog certainly experienced a big jump in “hits” after I published my own article on the question. The topic is not only controversial but more illuminating than one might initially think.

Over at the Eclectic Orthodoxy Facebook page, one reader asked, “Suppose for a moment that everyone agreed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (and agreed on what that meant). What then? What practical difference would it make?” Good question. My answer: “Probably not very much.” To acknowledge that Christians and Muslims worship and serve the same God is simply to say that the words “God” and “Allah” refer to the same divine reality, namely, the one transcendent Creator. It does not entail that Christians and Muslims are in perfect agreement on the divine attributes and the character of God. It does not mean that Christians and Muslims agree on the identity of Jesus of Nazareth or on the prophetic role of Muhammad. It does not mean that the differences between the two religions are inconsequential. And it certainly does not mean Christians have abandoned the claim that salvation is only found in Jesus Christ or adopted a unitarian understanding of divinity. All it says is that when a Christian prays “O God, merciful and compassionate, who art ever ready to hear the prayers of those who put their trust in thee” and a Muslim prays “Glory to Thee, O Allah, and Thine is the praise,” they are addressing the same divine Person. Ditto for third-person discussions about God.

How is it possible for “God” and “Allah” to refer to the same Deity when Christians and Muslims vigorously dispute core doctrines about him? Consider this trivial example from ordinary life. You believe that John is wicked and contemptible. I believe that he is delightful, profoundly wise, and exceptionally virtuous. Yet we both agree that the name “John” denotes the same person, despite our contradictory assessments of his character. In other words, the proper name “John” successfully refers, even though we dissent on specific descriptive statements about him.

(1) Christians and Muslims claim that “God”/”Allah” designates the one Creator of heaven and earth. (2) Christians and Muslims claim that they worship and serve the same Deity Abraham and Moses worshipped and serve. These two claims, both together and individually, are sufficient to establish referential identity. Nothing more is needed.

I was going to elaborate a bit more on reference and theological language, but fortunately three philosophers have recently shared their thoughts on this topic: “On Worshipping the Same God” by Michael Rea and “God, Allah, George Washington, and Eric Clapton” by Dale Tuggy, along with Tuggy’s follow-up piece “God, Allah, and Mistaken Identifications.”  For philosophically sophisticated analyses, see “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?” by William Vallicella and “Christians, Muslims, and the Reference of ‘God’” by Edward Feser.

It’s about reference, not full agreement on the doctrine of God. If you’d like to explore this topic further, I recommend that you begin with William Alston’s essay “Referring to God” in Divine Nature and Human Language.

So what practical difference does all of this make?” It clears away the underbrush for purposes of evangelism, ecumenical dialogue, and further theological reflection.

(Go to “Allah, Son, and Holy Spirit“)

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20 Responses to “Allah” or “God”: Does it Matter?

  1. Of course, Scot Mcknight was commenting on the previous post that this notion that Muslims and Christians worship the “same God” is “quasi-ecumenical”. I quite disagree with this. It’s not that we are inviting Muslims to the table and share the eucharist when we state that we worship the same God or that Muslims are not in need of evangelisation either. So the question as to whether it makes a difference is probably not much of one but it does establish a referential point of identity. All Christians of all Churches worship the same God but the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, the Protestants, we all have points of theological disagreement (some more significant than others) that separate us. So when McKnight asserted that this notion of Christians and Muslims worshiping the same God was quasi-ecumenical, I wondered if it had something to do with his own views on ecumenism. I think McKnight, from an Evangelical perspective, approaches ecumenism differently than perhaps my own church or the Roman Catholic Church (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) in which strict sacramental unity is also a major part of Church unity. Which is not to say that Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals worship a different God either. Saying that one worships the “same God” is not the same as saying they are not in need of any theological correction. Admittedly, even after my own baptism, I still needed some theological correction on the Holy Ghost and the Holy Spirit (I had not realised they were different translations of the same exact person in the Trinity!–I blame Dostoevsky for throwing me off!).

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  2. Tom says:

    Good thoughts Fr Aidan.

    I’m going to double-down on my sense that the real concern behind the denial of referential identity is (as Volf’s Washington Post piece said) religious bigotry and fear. What seems to me to be behind the denial is the unsettling of faith that many Christians experience at the idea of the God they worship actually hearing the honest prayers and sincere devotion of devout Muslims (to whatever degree their sincerity and honesty approximates genuine faith as the abandonment of self-righteousness and simple trust in God). They want (at the very least) non-Christians to have absolutely zero access to God and God to have zero access to them outside explicit agreement to uniquely Christian beliefs.

    That’s what all this is about.

    Tom

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    • Thomas Renz says:

      I do not recognise myself in this description. The fact that Volf can only think of bigotry and fear as reasons why someone might disagree with him on this question is one reason I have not bothered to take up his book. How likely is it that someone who does not allow for the possibility that there are good arguments on both sides will address the theological issues in a way which will further my understanding? Another reason is that I agree with Fr Aidan. I cannot see that how we answer the question will make a big difference.

      You have told us of your own experience, Tom. It suggests to me, although maybe not to you, that while most people (most Christians at any rate) in the Middle East would say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, it is not an altogether settled matter. Why else would there be, as you testify, hardly a serious theological conversation that does not return to this point?

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    • infanttheology says:

      Tom,

      Or maybe they just simply want to be faithful to the Scriptures, particularly difficult and uncomfortable passages like John 8. It is that God in the flesh who commands us to love our enemies and not another.

      -Nathan

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      • Tom says:

        I hope you’re right, Nathan. I’ve just run into the sort of view I described so often now.

        Thomas, I didn’t have you in mind, and I didn’t mean to suggest that ‘every’ denial of referential identity without exception was a case of bigotry. Sorry if I communicated that.

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        • infanttheology says:

          Tom,

          Please know, I do not deny your experiences. I think all of us, even if we consciously do not be this way, have, due to the sin that remains in us (Rom. 7), deep-seated fears and prejudices which we are even unaware of.

          That said, tt seems to me that if persons like yourself and Volf do not *assume the best* in this case you may very well – I would say it is likely – unintentionally dilute the full [yes, disturbing and unsettling] strength of the full biblical witness surrounding these matters.

          -Nathan

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          • Tom says:

            Thanks Nathan.

            When you say “if persons like yourself and Volf do not *assume the best* in this case you may very well unintentionally dilute the full [disturbing and unsettling] strength of the full biblical witness surrounding these matters,” I’m not following you. What is *assuming the best* Is that my believing that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? If so, how would *not* believing this lead to diluting the full biblical witness? I would think the criticism more likely to be that if we *do* think the best (i.e., view Muslims and Christians as worshiping the same God) THAT would dilute the full (disturbing and unsettling) message of the gospel. Or by *assume the best* do you mean my assuming that many of those who object to agreeing Muslims and Christians worship the same God object out of fear and/or bigotry?

            Tom

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          • infanttheology says:

            Tom,

            Not sure why I can’t respond to you below your last post, so I am doing it here.

            To “not assume the best” would be to assume that persons who say they cannot affirm “muslims [and jews] worship the same God” talk are doing so out of “religious bigotry and fear.”

            +Nathan

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  3. Cal says:

    So, given this particular description for “God”, how does this actually entail anything? Whether its Nature, Multiverse, Destiny, the Force etc. are we not all worshiping the same God in this respect? What attribute is the sine qua non for recognizing the similitude of God amongst wildly different claims? How do we decide this? This is perfectly ok if we’re saying no more than St. Paul when he showed Pagans were worshiping ignorantly in his sermon at the Areopagus.

    But, then again, ignorance may beget mistaken identity. As per Fr. Aidan’s example, if we are both describing wildly different Johns, then if someone makes a pretension to be John, in a way consistent with a particular form but inconsistent with the real John, those people who believe those things about John might believe the imposter to be John.

    With all due respect, it’s of this sort that non-Muslims must say about Islam. If Muhammad claims to have received a revelation through the angel Gabriel, then either he is lying, his account became corrupted, or it was not an angel but a devil. The same is what Muslims must say about St. Paul and the rest of the Apostles in the Christian account.

    To me, this all seems to be an attempt at a lowest-common denominator “Abrahamic” tradition, building upon Judeo-Christian moniker. As Nathan points out, despite its use in culture building and nice dialog, it has no recourse with Jesus. To Him, Israelites who reject Him belong not to Abraham or to God, but to the Devil.

    Americans are generally inept when it comes to social functioning. There’s a need to be right, not a way to bond despite serious differences, hence why it is advised not to talk politics or religion at the table.

    I recommend reading Ivan Illich’s exegesis of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We all need the refreshing water that it brings.

    cal

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    • Tom says:

      Cal: So given this particular description for “God”, how does this actually entail anything? Whether its Nature, Multiverse, Destiny, the Force etc. are we not all worshiping the same God in this respect? What attribute is the sine qua non for recognizing the similitude of God amongst wildly different claims? How do we decide this?

      Tom: Any claims about fundamental unity among religious worldviews are, after all, “claims” that are part of the religious worldview of the one making the claim. I may be wrong about the traditional (Patristic) Christian view here, but it’s my understanding that God is the Good that orients all finite goods. For an example of how that might be worked out in terms of a philosophy of religions, see for example David Hart’s The Experience of God. I don’t see that I’m stepping outside of the Tradition on this.

      Cal: With all due respect, it’s of this sort that non-Muslims must say about Islam. If Muhammad claims to have received a revelation through the angel Gabriel, then either he is lying, his account became corrupted, or it was not an angel but a devil. The same is what Muslims must say about St. Paul and the rest of the Apostles in the Christian account.

      Tom: Cal, I at least am not suggesting that different religions don’t in fact make contradictory and contrary claims about what is ultimately true about the world, its origins and relationship to God (or ‘the’ supreme, uncreated reality) or that the sense in which different religions ‘reference’ the same reality means the different claims that make are beside the point or don’t make a practical difference existentially to those who hold them.

      Cal: this all seems to be an attempt at a lowest-common denominator “Abrahamic” tradition, building upon Judeo-Christian moniker.

      Tom: Well, let’s think about the “lowest-common denominator” criticism for a second. Let’s consider sentient beings who bear the divine image. What’s wrong with (actually, how do we avoid) the idea of “the divine image” in us all being a “common denominator” that remains a fundamental unity and grounds all transcendental desire, religious aspirations and longing, etc.? Of course we all share a common denominator. What ought to be surprising is not asserting this, but denying this.

      Cal: As Nathan points out, despite its use in culture building and nice dialog, it has no recourse with Jesus. To Him, Israelites who reject Him belong not to Abraham or to God, but to the Devil.

      Tom: Well, it does have recourse to Jesus for Christians at least, for Jesus is that Image incarnate. Christ is the Logos who creates and sustains all things; he whose image we bear particularized in human form. It can’t NOT have recourse to Jesus for Christians. Christians (due to their belief in Incarnation) are the one faith that ought to be affirming this fundamental unity above all others because we have a Christological worldview best suited to accommodate both particularity and universality.

      But let me ask this, Cal and Nathan. So, the Jews of Jesus’ day all worshiped together, shared the same traditions and history, same Scriptures, etc. You’re suggesting that for those Jews who placed their faith in Christ their worship of YHWH in terms of these shared traditions/liturgies continued without abandonment or interruption as the worship YHWH the true God (which we have to say since none of the Apostles felt that in coming to faith in Christ they had stopped worshiping one God and began worshiping a new and different God), but for those Jews who didn’t place their faith in Christ, their worship (in terms of the same history, Temple, liturgy, Scriptures, etc.) stopped referencing ‘God’ as it had and began referencing Satan?

      Tom

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      • Cal says:

        None of your responses are making much of the particularity of Islam. I am not denying that God is silently guiding the ignorant. But what separates Islam from idolatry? How do we have knowledge of God?

        I am not denying the image of God present in man. But even as you say, the common denominator is our common Humanity, not whether we are Christians or Muslims. Christ, being the True Image by Nature, holds us together. It’s why Christians can continue forwards to relate, speak, care for, have compassion etc. But your point on this is irrelevant if we talk about Islam and Christianity worshiping the same God. That is unless you want to deny the reality that idolatry exists and men can offer worship to demons. But I don’t presume that.

        In regards to the Jews, you are attacking a strawman. The point was that those who rejected Jesus, forthrightly, were blinded by the god of this world. St. Paul, a Jew, says as much. No, Jews who worshiped in the way of their fathers were worshiping the True God. However, Christianity is not a child of Judaism. Judaism and Christianity are sisters, two different possibility given the apocalyptic happenings of the 1st century. The Rabbis had to renovate worship, reinterpret the Scriptures, and had to make do with what was left. In this way, Jews who practice Judaism are akin to Samaritans. They are separated, and worship in ignorance.

        BUT, the point is that they have reference to the same source of Revelation and privilege it as God’s written words. Muslims and Mormons may refer to it, but they reject it as corrupted in place for their own sources of revelation through their own prophets. Who did Muhammad speak to? How did Joseph Smith receive revelation?

        But again, as you pointed out, our agreement on worship does not mean we cannot recognize the truth, namely that God made man in His image. We can seek the welfare and love one another based on this. It’s a personal relationship, not an intellectual affinity.

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        • Tom says:

          Don’t know what to say other than what I’ve said, Cal. If it doesn’t make sense, cool. If someone else has a different angle or insight, they can jump in.

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      • infanttheology says:

        Tom,

        That is not how I would put it. I would say that the revelation of Jesus revealed the thoughts of many – some had been worshipping the true God and continued to do so, others had not been worshipping the true God but Satan and continued to do so, and perhaps others were transformed at Christ’s coming from unbelief to belief. In all of this, faith in God and His promises – apart from works – is key. From first to last, faith in the Triune God, made full in the revelation of Jesus.

        +Nathan

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  5. Thomas Renz says:

    I had a look around to see whether Alston’s essay is available for less than $45. Seems not. Maybe I’ll get to read it in a library one day. Peter Leithart gives voice to my concern: “Beckwith makes an explicit appeal to classical theism as a core set of convictions shared by Muslims and Christians. But he implicitly treats God as a member of a class of beings, since his argument assumes there is a difference between God’s being God and God’s being this particular God. That is, the argument assumes a difference between God’s essence and His existence. That is a denial, not an affirmation, of classical theism.” http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2015/12/muslims-and-christians

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  6. Tom says:

    Nathan: Tom, Not sure why I can’t respond to you below your last post, so I am doing it here.
    To “not assume the best” would be to assume that persons who say they cannot affirm “muslims [and jews] worship the same God” talk are doing so out of “religious bigotry and fear.”

    Tom: Not sure why it wouldn’t post on the other location.

    Are you saying that because I see a fundamental unity between the two I can’t really deliver the gospel, that somehow I’ve conceded Muslims are to some extend “fine” and aren’t in any need of the unique claims of the gospel?

    Tom

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    • infanttheology says:

      Tom,

      No. I am saying that its hard for me, in light of what Scripture says about the scandal of particularity and the way they evangelized, to understand your position and how it plays out on the ground.

      +Nathan

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In the comments to the first part (not all of which I have (yet) read), someone noted the importance of “worship” as well as of “same”.

    I suspect a lot of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who agreed about Him being “the same God of Abraham”, would tend to think the others were sooner misworshipping than worshipping Him.

    And what of the ‘iconological’ aspects of this (if that is an apt word)? Might some say others were worshipping a false mental ‘image’ of God rather than God?

    And, at least in part in relation to the ‘iconological’, there is the point Cal raises with respect to imposture. What would, or could, the results of imposture be? That one would not only be misworshipping God, and/or, worshipping a false mental ‘image’ of God rather than God, but worshipping a kakodemonic imposter rather than God?

    Where Islam is concerned, there is a striking body of apologetic very little of which I have yet read (in translation), by St. Paul of Antioch, Bishop of Sidon, and expanding upon his work. He seems to drawn a line between Mohammed and the text of the Koran on the one hand and Islamic traditions, exegesis, etc., on the other, such that the latter end up misrepresenting the former, which (as far as they go) are not incompatible with Christian revelation and theology!

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I encourage the participants of this thread to take a look at Ed Feser’s new blog article: “Christians, Muslims, and the Reference of ‘God.'”

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Bill Vallicella continues to clarify his views over at his blog:

    Christians and Muslims

    Do Christians and Jews Worship the Same God

    Peter Geach on Worshipping the Right God

    I wish we could bring Vallicella and Feser together into one room to talk about this fascinating question.

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