The suspension last month of Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins for stating that Christians and Muslims are both “people of the book” and “worship the same God” has sparked quite a debate over the merits of her position. The question, of course, is more than academic. In a world where ecumenism is the highest virtue, rejecting distinctions between Christianity and Islam carries very practical implications for outreach and evangelism.
If we’re going to ask whether Muslims worship the same God, we ought to start by considering where the Muslim idea of God originated. When Muhammad founded his religion in the early Seventh Century, he drew heavily from Judaism and Christianity, overlaying and modifying that foundation in line with his own ideas and emphases. Because Muhammad’s image of Allah started with a basically Judeo-Christian sketch, the Muslim God does remain recognizably similar in many ways. Surah 112 states, “Say: He is Allah, the One. Allah, the Self-Subsisting. He begets not, nor is He begotten, and there is none like unto Him.” With the exception of verse 3, an intentional contrast with Christian Trinitarianism, this surah would be unobjectionable as a summary of Jewish or Christian monotheism. But that caveat about the the third verse goes right to the heart of the matter, in more ways than one.
It would be fairly accurate to think of Allah as a heavily adapted version of the Old Testament Yahweh. But we must give sufficient weight to both “heavily adapted” and “Old Testament.” In the Old Testament, God’s revelation of himself was less comprehensive. It was not until the second person of the Godhead was born as a human, living and teaching among us, that a clearer picture of God’s being came into focus. The Incarnation forced Jesus’ followers to reconcile “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1) with “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4), and as a result, the doctrine of the Trinity grew out of God’s self-revelation in Christ.
If we think of the Bible as offering a gradually sharpening picture of God as divine self-revelation builds from the Old through the New Testament, then the Muslim Quran starts from a similar outline but ends up with a radically different image. Despite adopting the Old Testament’s basic monotheism, Muhammad rejected key elements even of Old Testament revelation, and wholly discarded God’s additional self-revelation in the Messiah.
Among other differences from even the Old Testament picture of God, Muhammad’s Allah is changeable and less knowable. Relationship with Allah means obedience to the divine will, no more, no less. “Islam” itself means “submission,” a word which contains almost the entirety of true religion as far as the Quran is concerned. The sort of affectionate relationship–even friendship–which the Old Testament portrays between God and men like Abraham and King David would be presumptuous and offensive to Muhammad’s God.
But of course, the real split comes with the New Testament. God Incarnate said of himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). His apostles taught, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
The Quran declares, “O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, ‘Three’; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son” (Surah 4:171).
Jesus commanded New Testament Christians to “Go… baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), and his followers hoped for “the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:13).
The Quran teaches, “Allah will say, ‘O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, “Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?”‘ He will say, ‘Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right. If I had said it, You would have known it'” (Surah 5:116).
What else, really, needs to be said? It is true that Muslims believe in a God who is holy, righteousness, just, merciful, and loving, among other attributes which Allah shares with the Christian God. But on the most essential questions of his nature–and those most relevant to human beings yearning for relationship with him–Muhammad’s God is radically different from the God of the Bible. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? No.
But perhaps we have been focusing on the wrong word all along. Perhaps we should not only be asking about God, but about worship. I think the answer is plain, but if we find ourselves tied up in knots over what exactly is meant by “the same God,” the way out of the semantic weeds may be to ask whether Muslims worship the same God. And the answer to that most important question, tragically, is an unqualified no.
Throughout the Bible, God warns that self-declared worship which rejects his Lordship is no worship at all. When Cain and Abel presented their sacrifices, Cain’s rebellious offering was not received as worship (Genesis 4). The problem was not to whom he made the offering, but what the offering signified. When King Saul unlawfully usurped the prophet Samuel’s role and offered burnt offerings to God, his actions brought judgment rather than blessing (I Samuel 13:8-14). In the New Testament, Paul warns against taking the Lord’s Supper carelessly, lest the sacrament become a curse (I Corinthians 11:23-32). Even with “the right God” in mind, worship is not acceptable unless we approach God as he commands.
Six hundred years before Muhammad’s time, God sent a final Sacrifice, a perfect Lamb whose blood would be sufficient for atonement for everyone who trusted in him. Jesus declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me,” but Muhammad says, “O People of the Scripture… desist – it is better for you.” Whatever Islam believes about the nature of God, it explicitly and finally rejects the salvation of God; and that, not semantic quibbles, should be our focus as we reach out to our Muslim neighbors.