Thanks to the holidays, the internet debate about whether Christians and Muslims worship the “same” God and refer to the “same” divine reality by their use of “God” and “Allah,” respectively, has died down a bit; but the question is not likely to go away anytime soon. So far we have mainly heard from Protestant analytic philosophers and evangelical theologians. But what about Roman Catholics and the Orthodox? So far I have not found anything particularly interesting on the subject by contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians, yet I have learned that in the first millennium Arabic-speaking Christians assumed that both Christianity and Islam believed in the one God/Allah. They commonly spoke of Allah and his Kalimah (Word) and his Ruh (Spirit). Tom Belt has shared with me his recent correspondence with Dr Najib G. Awad, author of Orthodoxy in Arabic Terms. With Awad’s permission I quote this passage from his email to Tom:
But, to my knowledge of the Christian-Muslim Kalam in the early Muslim Era, which I touch upon in my book Orthodoxy in Arabic Terms, the Arab-Speaking, Oriental Christians always believed that they and Islam believe in the same God. So, it was not a problem for them calling the God of the Scripture and of Jesus Christ, “Allah”. They even talked about the Trinity in terms that are reminiscent of the Qur’anic attestation: the Trinity is Allah, his Kalimah (Word) and Ruh (Spirit). They also talked about Jesus as God’s Word ‘kalimat Allah’ intensively in their kalam texts due to this belief in the commonality of their and the Muslim’s belief in God. John of Damascus in the 7th century would treat Islam as just a Christian-Jewish Heresy, not as a totally contrast faith. Timothy I in the 8th century and Theodore abu Qurrah, Abu Ra’itah at-takriti and Ammar al-Basri in the 9th centuries would also speak about the Christian God not just in Arabic terms, but also in Qur’anic ones because they believed that the common components between the Christian and Muslim doctrines of God are far more evident to be ignored or undermined. So, what western scholars like Volf try to reveal to the western world today as a revolutionary and new discovery has been considered a given fact for these Oriental Christians of the 7th-9th centuries.
Once Oriental Christians realized they could not ignore Islam but had to engage it theologically and apologetically, they found they could not simply dismiss it as a form of pagan idolatry.
Last week I came across an essay by the noted Roman Catholic theologian, Denys Turner. Eclectic Orthodoxy readers should find it of particular interest, given Turner’s emphatic insistence that God is not a being but is Being—hence the necessity of apophatic qualification when we speak of either his Oneness or Threeness. Turner is not interested in theological dilution for the sake of ecumenical dialogue and peaceful coexistence; but he does recognize that Christians must come to grips with the truth that both religions confess the one God who has freely made the world from out of nothing. Yet how do we speak of sameness and difference precisely at the point where all theological language is breaking down?
I hope to return to this topic in a month or two. I have ordered Miroslav Volf’s book Allah: A Christian Response, as well as a collection of essays titled Christian Theology and Islam. Hopefully I’ll have something intelligent to say after I read these books.
(Go to “Do Muslims Worship the Same God?“)