Sunday, January 31, 2010

Question Number 1: Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

We've all heard the argument and have perhaps used it ourselves, "Christians and Muslims worship the same God." After all, the first words of the Quran are "In the name of Allah", and the Arabic Bible begins with the phrase, "In the beginning Allah". Each of these monotheistic religions acknowledges a powerful spiritual being who created and maintains the universe. For many people, that's enough. "Of course," they say, "They all worship the same God."

Archeologists who study ancient civilizations include the religious beliefs of those societies, because their beliefs influenced their behavior. People who believed their gods required child sacrifices sacrificed their children, and people who believed their gods wanted their rulers buried in pyramids buried their rulers in pyramids. As the saying goes, "Tell me what you worship, and I will tell you who you are."

On January 6, 2010, Coptic Christians in the Egyptian town of Nag Hamada were exiting their church after a midnight Christmas Eve Mass when Muslims driving by opened fire into the crowd. Eight young people were killed and others critically injured. Is it possible, is it even logical, to claim that the Muslims who believed they were obeying Allah in their attack against the kuffar, the unbelieving infidels, actually worship the same deity as their victims? The Christians were celebrating their most holy night of the year, the night in which they believe God descended to earth and was born as a child. This, along with the belief that this child later died for the sins of the world, is the defining doctrine of Christianity. The same belief is considered "shirk", the greatest possible sin in Islam. If the central belief of one religion is the greatest offense in the other, how can anyone claim they both worship the same God? It's like arguing that the John Smith who is a policeman in Minneapolis must be the same person as the John Smith who drives a truck in Phoenix because, after all, they have the same name.

One of the ways to decide whether or not the God of Christianity and Islam really is the same entity is to look at his characteristics as understood by Christians and Muslims, and determine whether they really do represent the same person. To do this, we will look at three aspects of the Christian and Muslim God that each receive much emphasis in both the Quran and the Bible. These are his power, his mercy, and his love (and with my apology to all who might prefer it otherwise, since both faiths have traditionally and emphatically described their God as masculine in gender, male pronouns will be used throughout).

Both Islam and Christianity emphasize that God is all-powerful; he knows everything and has the power to do anything. In Christianity this is called his omnipotence; the Arabic equivalent is "ala kulli shain qadir". There is, however, a distinct difference in how each religion views God exercising his power. The first stories in the Bible show God not stopping evil, even when he could have, when this was in conflict with the ability he had given humans to exercise freedom of choice. God could have stopped Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, knowing it would have disastrous consequences, but he did not. He could have stopped their first son, Cain, from murdering his brother Abel, but he did not. In theological language, it was not God's "divine will" for the couple to eat the fruit or their son to kill his brother, but he allowed it to happen.

Parallel to this is the Biblical concept that God acts in the midst of evil to produce good. This is seen in the story of Joseph, a young man who was sold as a slave by his jealous brothers. While in slavery, Joseph was falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison. Many years later he became the Prime Minister and eventually saved his brothers from famine. His comment to them was, "You meant evil against me, but God turned it into good."

Islam sees God's power quite differently. Everything that happens is God's will, good or bad. When a planned terrorist operation goes bad, the jihadists interpret it as God's will they were not to succeed this time (which goes along with the Islamic concept of "sabr" or patience; that is, they try again until successful). If a woman's husband divorces her it was "maktoub", ordained by God to happen. Many drivers in Saudi Arabia refuse to carry vehicle insurance because insurance indicates a lack of faith in the God who determines if and when they will have a accident. I was talking to a Muslim friend a few weeks ago when he spilled some coffee on his slacks. His immediate, and serious, response was, "God wanted me to spill that coffeee on my pants."

In summary, both Allah in Islam and the Christian God have the power to do anything, but in Christianity God often allows humans to commit evil that is not his will. In Islam, all that happens is the will of Allah. Are these the same deity or not?

The next characterization is "rahmah", or mercy, which can be theologically defined as showing kindness to an offender when it is within one's power not to do so. God's mercy, "rahmat-Allah"" is a very important concept in Islam. Muslims who perform the required salat five times a day repeat "in the name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful One" seventeen times. The phrase is repeated before meals and speeches, and is a regular part of daily conversation. It is the opening sentence of all but one of the Quran's 114 suras.

The Bible also places much emphasis on mercy. The prophet Micah instructed his audience that God required only three things of them: justice, humility, and mercy. Another prophet, Hosea, taught that God preferred mercy to sacrifice. Jesus said in the Beautitudes, which are the introductory sentences to his Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."

There is a difference, however, in the emphasis. In the Bible, God's mercy is extended to everyone and Christians are to do likewise. The Golden Rule is to treat people as you would like them to treat you, not to give them what they deserve. Jesus told his followers to do good to those who hated them, and to forgive their enemies. In Islam, God's mercy to the world extends to giving people the choice to accept Islam. In surah 21 of the Quran, Al-Anbiya, Allah stated in ayah 108 that Muhammad was sent as "a mercy" to all mankind. In the following verses, Allah defined his mercy. Muhammad was to invite people to Islam and warn them against associating anything with Allah (this was a specific warning to the Christians not to believe that Jesus was God). If they did not accept the invitation, Muhammad was to pronounce a declaration of war.

I noted above that 113 of the 114 suras of the Quran begin with the verse, "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful One." The only chapter that does not is chapter 9, Al-Taubah or Repentance, which contains Muhammad's final revelation before his death. This chapter contains the famous "Verses of the Sword" which give detailed instructions on how this war is to be carried out against those who refused the "invitation" to become Muslims.

Is the God in Christianity, who extends his mercy to everyone and asks those who believe in him to do likewise, the same deity as the Allah of Muhammad who expresses his mercy by giving people the opportunity to accept Islam or face warfare?

The final consideration is love. It is perhaps here that the difference between the Gods of Christianity and Islam is the most striking. The Bible not only uses the word "love" hundreds of time to describe the relationship between God and his people, it even insists that God is love. This in itself provides a theological problem to the Muslim purist, because to state that God is anything at all is impossible. Allah is above human knowledge and the Quran is an expression of Allah's will, not who Allah is.

The Arabic word for love "hubb" appears in the Quran numerous times, but usually in a negative sense. Quran 14:3 is one of a dozen verses that chastised people for "loving this world more than the world to come". Muslims hesitant to engage in armed jihad were warned in Quran 2:216 not to "love things" that were bad for them while turning away from warfare that was good for them. In Quran 3:119 Muslims were ordered to curse non-Muslims who pretended to love them while rejecting their faith. The Quran warned that God does not love sinners (Quran 2:190) and those who are corrupt (Quran 5:67). His greatest hatred, however, is reserved for all the kuffar, that is, Christians and Jews and everyone else, who did not accept the message and prophethood of Muhammad. Quran 3:32 is one of many verses that state Allah does not love those who do not obey his Apostle.

Muhammad's understanding of Allah's love is perhaps most clearly expressed in this Hadith recorded by Sahih Muslim (Book 032, Number 6373). Muhammad stated that when Allah decided to love someone, he would summon the angel Gabriel and say, "I love that particular person, and I want you to also love him." Gabriel would then begin to love that person and announce to all the angels of heaven, "Allah loves so-and-so, and all of you are to love him." The angels then, as the heavenly executors of Allah's will, would arrange matters so that honor was bestowed upon this person on earth and he or she would lead a blessed life.

If Allah, on the other hand, decided to hate someone, the same scenario would take place but with opposite results. God would tell Gabriel to hate that person, Gabriel would pass the message to the angels, and that person would be hated on the earth. Who knows, he might even be murdered in a remote Egyptian town as he walked out of a Christmas celebration on January 6, 2010.

The answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this article, "Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?", is pretty clear to me. According to the most elementary rule of Socratic Greek logic, "A" cannot equal "non-A". It's possible to argue that the true divinity is the God of Christianity, the Allah of Islam, or take the atheists approach and say both of them are equally false. But it's really hard to claim they are both the same.

Acknowledgement: Some material from this post was adopted from the Arabic TV shows Daring Question and Removing the Veil with host Rashid.

1 comment:

observant observer said...

I really like your view here, many times I discussed this matter with other people, none has seemed to address these matters or differences. I still think that God is one and is above any conception or teachings of different religions, it's just the understanding of God is different. But since islam claims that they got direct revelation from an angel sent by God, we should be concerned whether it's the true angel or something else in disguise..! after all God will not let people be confused.

Thank you for the great work u presented!