by Martin Accad
Today’s path to Christian-Muslim dialogue and relationships is riddled with a great number of obstacles. What Christians write about Islam and what Muslims write about Christianity can no longer be hidden in obscure anonymous pamphlets or embedded in in-group conversations. As a result of globalization, migration, and social media, what we write about each other has a greater impact on our societies worldwide than it has ever had. What we promote through script and speech contributes just as easily to peace as to conflict among neighbors of various faiths. In my recent book, Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching Across the Christian-Muslim Divide (Eerdmans, 2019), I venture into the field of theological dialogue, adopting a “history of ideas” approach, as I revisit some of Christian-Muslim dialogue’s most enduring disagreements in the realm of doctrine. In the present piece, I address 5 enduring “myths” among Christians regarding Islam.
Myth #1: Allah is not the God of the Bible
Much ink has been spilled of late on this affirmation. Those who believe that Christians and Muslims worship different gods emphasize the differences between the Christian and the Muslim understandings of God. At one extreme, some have argued that Allah was a pagan deity of pre-Islamic Arabia, reinvested with new meaning and authority by Muhammad as he sought to unite the Arab tribes around a new ideology. Others argue that only a Trinitarian God that includes the second person of the Trinity and the belief in the divinity of Christ can be identified with the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Still others argue for the superiority and otherness of the Triune relational God over the monistic absolute God of Islam and the Qur’an.
I choose to abandon the question as it is often asked, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” or “Is the God of Islam the Father of Jesus Christ?” The first question, in my opinion, takes us too quickly into the realms of ontology and metaphysics—to a philosophical discussion on the very nature of “being.” We end up having to ask what we mean by the word “same.” But do any two people in fact worship the “same” God? Doesn’t every person, in the end of the day, bow down to and worship a particular representation of God that forms in his or her mind and heart as a result of a complex blend of scriptural understanding with personal socio-cultural, religious, historical, and geographical background? From the perspective of phenomenon, don’t we each, in some sense, worship a different God? And if it is so, is not our worship only acceptable to God—when it is accepted—as a gift of divine Grace? This seems, in any case, to be the lesson from the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4. And I am not convinced that the morale of the story allows us to stand as judges as to the kind of worship that is accepted and the kind that is not in the eyes of God.
The second question takes us too quickly into the realm of soteriology—the question of salvation. But must an affirmation that Christians, Muslims—or Jews or others for that matter—turn their prayers to a “common God,” necessarily need to lead to affirming that all who do so will be saved? In an argument about the intrinsic relationship of salvation with both belief and action, the apostle James affirms (2:19): “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Though this is not the place to discuss comprehensively the doctrine of salvation and the role of Christ in it, clearly salvation does not ensue from right belief alone. Suffice it to say that worshipping the One God of Abraham is not the only condition for salvation.
With this concern for the question of salvation out of the way, my emphatic answer to the first “myth” affirmation is that, at least in the mind of the Qur’an and its author—which for me as a non-Muslim I consider to be Muhammad himself—every reference to Allah in Islam’s founding text is a reference to the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Qur’anic message in its entirety affirms this relentlessly. Does Allah, as represented in the Qur’an, reflect the fullness of the Father as revealed in the New Testament? Again, as a non-Muslim, I feel free to respond in the negative. Neither is the Jewish belief in YHWH that considers Jesus of Nazareth to have been an imposter, nor the Muslim belief in Allah that rejects the divinity of Christ and his death on the cross, all-the-while affirming his greatness, adequately represent God in his fulness—again from my perspective as a disciple of Jesus. But this belief needs not be based, either on a lack of appreciation of the historical Muhammad, or on a denigration of what I believe Muhammad was trying to accomplish in his redaction of a message that he intended as an affirmation of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and a reform of these two traditions as he experienced them in his day.
By affirming that the Qur’an and its author were undeniably referring to the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition every time the name Allah occurs in the Muslim scriptures, I am reaffirming our belief in the God of the Bible as the sure starting point of Jewish-Christian-Muslim conversation. Every contemporary attempt at questioning this common platform, I would consider counter-productive, and frankly as a modern aberration unknown to most Christians, Muslims, and Jews through history. There is no doubt in my mind that the reference to the biblical God as “Allah” preceded Islam among Arab Christians and Jews. Both the form and pronunciation of the name Allāh reveal its Judeo-Christian Syro-Aramaic origins. Whereas most languages have derived their nomenclature for God from pagan traditions, such as Gott, Deus, Theos, and even Elohim, the Arabic Allāh is a rare instance where the name of God is taken from an already existing biblical tradition.
Read more about “God in Christian-Muslim Dialogue” in chapter 3 of my book.
Myth #2: Muslims demean Jesus
This second myth is more widespread among the common Christian than among scholars. Because most Christians know that Muslims do not believe in the deity of Christ, and many are aware that Islam has rejected the crucifixion of Jesus, they often assume that Muslims therefore reject Jesus altogether and that the Qur’an is demeaning to him. Among Christian scholars, though most are aware that the Qur’an actually speaks very highly of Jesus, many still argue that the Qur’an is demeaning of the “real” Jesus, since it contains several polemical passages about Christian doctrines, including the divinity of Christ.
In my book, Sacred Misinterpretation (chapters 3-5), I argue that, far from being motivated by a desire to demean Jesus in its rejection of his divinity and possibly his crucifixion, the Qur’an’s desire is to vindicate him from the perceived excesses ascribed to him in the Christian tradition. The Qur’an is so emphatic about God’s absolute oneness and otherness that it construes any attempt at undermining this affirmation as arrogance that leads to shirk (ascribing a companion to God), and hence kufr (unbelief). In this spirit, while affirming that Jesus was a miracle worker, a healer, a life giver, and a great teacher, the Qur’an affirms that “the Messiah was never too proud to be God’s servant” (an-Nisā’ 4:172), and that Jesus’ affirmation of servanthood was a sign of his humility and lack of arrogance. The fundamental disagreement between the Christian and the Muslim view about Jesus is therefore not related to his greatness but to his function. In the Christian tradition, the primary function of Jesus is to be the savior of the world. Thus, Christian theologians have affirmed both his full divinity and his full humanity in equal measure. Church Fathers affirmed that “what Jesus did not assume on the cross was not healed.” In other words, if he had not borne our humanity fully at the cross, including a body that needed to be fed and rested and that could suffer, as well as a human will that needed to be brought into obedience to the Father’s will, then our salvation would not be complete. But Jesus Christ was also fully God, they affirmed, for only God in his fulness could initiate and achieve our salvation at the cross.
It is in the same spirit that the Qur’an seems to be rejecting, not so much the crucifixion itself, but the perceived arrogance of the Jews, who claimed that they had managed to overpower Jesus and to kill him by crucifixion (see an-Nisā’ 4:155-8). As a matter of fact, Muslims often affirm that they love Jesus more than Christians, because they cannot accept the possibility that he had been abandoned by God and given up to such a violent death. The obstacle, as it transpires, lies not so much in the fact of the crucifixion as in its soteriological (related to salvation) implications. Muslims love Jesus and this affirmation is a wonderful bridge and starting point in any conversation we have with Muslims about Jesus’ function as savior.