I recently listened to Miroslav Volf and Nabeel Qureshi on Julie Roys’ Seeking Truth podcast debating the issue: Do Muslims and Christians worship the “same” God? These two were the perfect choices to debate the “yes” side and “no” side of this debate. Volf is the author of Allah: A Christian Response (2012) and the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Qureshi is a Muslim convert to Christianity and an itinerant speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM).
The debate was respectful, intelligent, and at times impassioned, but the debate ended in an utter stalemate. It seemed like they continued to talk past each other on the crucial issues, particularly Qureshi. They failed to engage in the ideas presented by the other regarding the primary issue of the sameness, or lack thereof, of the God worshiped in these two global religions.
Qureshi tended to repeat his primary argument that Muslims deny both the Trinity and the deity of Christ and therefore do not worship the “same” God as Christians, without providing much response to Volf’s argument that Muslims, like Jews, worship the one God of creation.
Volf makes the case that if Muslims worship a different sort of god, then they are worshiping an idol. Qureshi indicated that Volf’s point was a false dichotomy, but he did not offer much of a response outside of clarifying that he is not claiming Muslims are guilty of idolatry. He also failed to respond to Volf’s strongest argument that Jews deny both the Trinity and the deity of Christ and yet most of us feel uneasy saying Jews and Christians do not worship the same God.
“Same” vs. Sufficiently Similar
Qureshi did concede that Muslims and Christian have some common ground in “what” God is, but differ significantly in “who” God is. Volf did not respond to Qureshi’s bifurcation at this point in the debate. Qureshi created too stark a contrast between God’s attributes (“what” God is) and God’s personality (“who” God is). A good reply, for example, would have been Karl Rahner’s often quoted claim that “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.” Nevertheless, while I disagreed with Qureshi on this point, I felt that this moment was as close as the two men came to agreement on the central issue in the debate.
In Allah, Volf is clear that what he means by “same” is “sufficiently similar.” Volf never argues that Muslims and Christians worship the identically same God. In the debate Volf admits Muslims and Christians have significant differences but that their “conception about God partly overlap.”
I do not recall Qureshi weighing the merits of how sufficient the similarities are between the Christian view of God and the Muslim view of God, which is at the heart of Volf’s argument. Instead he quoted heavily from the Quran to defend his position that the differences between Muslims and Christians prevent him from claiming they worship the same God.
An Overwhelming “No”
After listening to the podcast, I scrolled through the comment section of the post of this debate on the RZIM Facebook page. The comments were not crude, but they were overwhelming on the “no” side of the debate. Some of the comments were dismissive of the entire debate, comments like: “Why is there a debate? The answer is NO.” and “A waste of time [and] space, with this idiotic question.” The debate over whether Muslims worship the same God is certainly not a waste of time. Click To Tweet
This debate is certainly not a waste of time, particularly in light of Wheaton College’s initiation of a process to terminate Professor Larycia Hawkins after she publicly stated her belief that Muslims and Christians worship the “same” God. At a time when we see knee-jerk reactions to violence committed in the name of Islam and some confusion in the Christian community concerning the beliefs of our Muslim neighbors, I think the debate, or rather the discussion, regarding the “same God” issue is important, but the conversation needs to be reframed.
An Overly Simplistic Question
First, the question: Do Muslims and Christians worship the “same” God? is far too simplistic. Too many Christian react with a quick “no” because we worship the God revealed supremely in Jesus and Muslims worship the God revealed by the prophet Mohammed. A clear difference, right?
To be honest we all agree there are some similarities and some differences between the concepts of God in Christianity and in Islam. (It is a matter of clear fact that both religions are monotheistic so there is at least one similarity!) I fear we will not make much progress in this discussion when we state the question in this manner. When we do not agree on what we mean by “same,” we will simply continue to list all the similarities or differences between our two religions and continue to hammer home the argument we have formed as we remain entrenched in our positions. We should use more nuanced language like “sufficiently similar” instead of “same.”
Second, I find the word “worship” to be problematic. When we discuss worship, we will begin to think of the liturgical practices of each of the two religions, which are obviously different. As Volf says in the debate, Christianity and Islam are indeed different religions. It also seems to me that Christians begin to have an emotional reaction to any conversation about the sacred practices of worship. We can stay clear of any emotional interference from cluttering up our conversations if we choose to talk about the “conceptions of God” or “views of God” in each of these two different religions. In this way our conversation becomes much more about theology than religion.
Towards Productive Dialogue
My suggestion for a more productive dialogue would be to frame question this way: Do Christians and Muslims have sufficiently similar concepts of God that gives us common ground to have a dialogue regarding our differences?
In this rewording of the question, the debate becomes reframed around the sufficiency of our common beliefs about God. Asking the question in this manner focuses on the core issue of the debate which is not about tallying the similarities and differences between the God Christians and Muslim worship to see if we have more similarities or more differences. Rather the core issue is about the sufficiency of the similarities.
Furthermore, the debate in this reframed context does not center around worship, but about shared beliefs and whether or not those shared beliefs are significant or not. I believe phrasing the question this way gets at the heart of Volf’s work, namely that we work towards empowering and encouraging our fellow Christians to have respectful dialogue with, and mutual love for, our Muslim neighbors. Can we stand together in solidarity with Muslims and work towards peaceful neighborliness? Click To Tweet
We know Christians and Muslims have theological differences, but do our theological similarities give us enough common ground upon which we can stand together in solidarity and work towards peaceful neighborliness?
The Necessity of Common Ground
If we reform the question as I suggested above then I think we can re-evaluate Volf’s position that Christians and Muslims share the following common concepts of God:
- God is one and only.
- God is the creator of all that is not God.
- God is separate and different than all that is not God.
- God is good, merciful, and just.
If we are asking if these foundational statements about God are sufficient enough to have common ground with our Muslim neighbors, I think the answer is clearly “yes.”
Some may disagree and attempt to build an argument against the necessity of finding common ground between Christians and Muslims, but I find value in searching for common ground because some kind of commonality gives us a place to stand together. If all we do is point out our differences, we will continue to stand at arm’s length from each other which will only magnify our stereotypes and biases. Genuine love requires a step closer to one another. Click To Tweet
Genuine love requires a step closer to one another. Finding common ground can also be helpful for those laboring to preach the gospel in predominantly Muslim areas where the church searches to contextualize the gospel in those settings. For we Christians living in places where Muslims are the minority, it gives us open doors to love those who seem to be so different.