A few years back I had the chance to ride in a car with former Muslim from central Asia who is now a church-planting missionary in Europe. I had the chance to ask him a question that had been perplexing to me for a while: “When a Muslim accepts Christ and converts to Christianity, do thy perceive that they have changed from worshipping one deity (Allah) to worshipping another (the Christian Triune God)? Or do they think they are still worshipping the same God, only now correctly (or more fully)?”
I was surprised by his answer.
For a while I had been trying to get my head around the answer a different missionary—an American from a Christian background who had served in Southeast Asia for many years—had given to that question. His perspective was that Muslims who become Christians do not see themselves as “changing” from, say, a lesser or false god to the true God, but rather they have more or less added Jesus to their conception of Allah. In other words, prior to conversion they did not worship the wrong God, but rather worshipped the only true God, just inadequately (because they lacked Jesus).
The answer I got from this missionary who himself had converted out of Islam (and who is native to one of the most strict Sunni Islam nations in the world) was surprising because it was the precise opposite: “Greg, yes, in my experience, when a Muslim experiences the heart change by which they accept Jesus, they always describe it to me as a total conversion, exchanging the false for the one true God.”
So what do we make of this issue? Which is correct? Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians?
As it turns out, it is question that is much harder to answer than one might expect.
One Perspective: Allah is Not the Christian Triune God
In the prior few posts, I have outlined what most consider to be the the central theological dogma of Islam, that of tawhid. Specifically, I have contrasted three aspects of tawhid with the teachings of Christian trinitarianism:
- Dhat (the absolute unity of essence of Allah) vs. the ontological aspect of the Trinity (one God, three Persons)
- Sifat (the non-sharing of Allah’s attributes) vs. the Christian doctrine of perichoresis (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mutually indwelling and sharing in attributes)
- Af’al (the non-sharing of Allah’s redemptive works) vs. the economic aspect of the Trinity (Father ordaining, Son achieving, and Spirit applying redemption)
I have been outlining these three pairs of teachings to demonstrate that, according to the respective central teachings regarding the nature of God and his works in the world—that is, tawhid versus trinity—Islam and Christianity stand completely and irreconcilably at odds. At all points along the way, the fundamental conceptions of the nature of the Godhead completely contradict each other.
From the Muslim perspective, to deny Dhat, Sifat, or Af’al is, according to the Qur’an and Islamic dogma, to commit the unforgivable sin of shirk. At every point, however, Christianity does precisely this.
From the Christian perspective, from the time of the earliest ecumenical councils, the lines between heresy versus orthodoxy have often been drawn precisely at these points. For instance, the Apostles’ Creed is thoroughly trinitarian, and the Nicene Creed deals with whether Jesus is a divine person of the Trinity, of equal substance with the Father. Islam, naturally, completely rejects these central beliefs which form the core of anything that remotely looks like Christianity.
Granted, we cannot know how much light of truth a Muslim background Christian had before that mysterious point of their definitive calling and regeneration; it is certainly possible that one’s understanding of God increases in clarity in truth as the Holy Spirit works to change your heart. In other words, empirically I have no reason to doubt that some Muslims may indeed be moving in the direction of worshipping the true Triune God before the precise point of their conversion, since the Lord indeed works in mysterious ways in the hearts of his sheep.
However, the reason why I offered up such a thorough analysis of tawhid versus Trinity is to make quite clear that each religion on its own terms denies the other religion’s conception of God. There really is no way around this. Islam denies Jesus is divine, that the Son and the Spirit share any attributes of the Father, and that Jesus is the mediator of salvation for God’s elect.
In other words, by definition Allah is not the same as the Christian God.
Other Perspectives: Does Islam Refer to the Same God?
The question, “Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians” can be viewed from other perspectives that call into question the conclusion reached above. Here are a few questions that frame the issue (and my responses).
(a) Do Muslims break the first or second commandment?
(1) “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). The first commandment prohibits worship directed towards other (false, non-existent) gods. Does Allah-worship fit in this category? Or…
(2) “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exod 20:4). The second commandment prohibits the worship of the true God (Yahweh) through false means, such as images, etc. Does Allah-worship fit into this category instead?
Many folks argue based on the analogy with modern Judaism that Muslims are violating only the second commandment, not the first. The logic runs thus:
- Judaism arose out of the same OT Israel out of which Christianity arose (and, in fact, the earliest Christians [and Jesus] were originally Jews).
- In the OT, the second and third persons of the Trinity were not as clearly revealed as in the NT era.
- It was only as revelation from God progressed that the nature and personhood of the Son and the Spirit were made clear.
- Hence, many argue that modern Jews are not worshipping a different God simply because they do not recognize Jesus as the divine Son of God and messiah, for they stand in the tradition of OT Israel and, according to Romans 9–11, will experience some sort of future reconciliation.
- Rather, Jews are in a sense violating the second commandment, chiefly by worshipping the true God wrongly, by denying the Son and Spirit, etc.
- By this logic, Muslims are doing the same: they are worshipping the same God but incorrectly/wrongly.
Even if one adopts that view on Judaism, I’m not sure the logic holds. The “progressive revelation” argument is a strong one, but the reality is that Islam came on the scene nearly 600 years after the final revelation of God in the person of Christ. Their epistemic situation is VASTLY different than OT Israel, which arose thousands of years before Christ.
(b) Isn’t “Allah” just the Arabic word for God? Don’t Arabic-speaking Christians use that same word?
This is factually true. “Allah” is merely the Arabic word for God and appears in Christian translations of the Bible.
However, the fact that “Allah” is the generic name for “the deity” really proves very little. In Hebrew, “Elohim” was not just the name for the true God, but also for other pagan gods like Ba’al or Chemosh. In Greek, “Theos” is merely the general name for a deity and is used not only for the Christian God but for pagan Greco-Roman gods as well (in the NT and elsewhere). In English, the simple fact that we have the distinction between “God” and “god” that other languages do not have does not tell us much.
The real issue is what is meant by “Allah” (or “Elohim,” or “Theos” or “G/god”). The striking thing in the OT is that God revealed himself not just as generically “Elohim” but as the true, covenant-making, self-revealing, just, merciful, self-existent, and omnipotent Lord of all things—Yahweh. So the whole “Allah is just Arabic for ‘god'” tells us nothing, for the issue is who is referred to by that label, and what he is like. Hence, we’re back to tawhid vs. trinity.
(c) Doesn’t the Qur’an seem to presuppose the same referent for “Allah”?
As outlined in my first post, the Qur’anic deity and the Christian God share many of the same attributes, and the Qur’an, because it is parasitic on the OT and NT, posits numerous overlaps between what Allah did in history and what Yahweh did (e.g., creation, etc.).
Some have argued, thus, that Allah could in principle refer to the same referent, even if they get it wrong in other ways. In other words, their ladder is up against the right building, but it’s the wrong ladder.
This argument can be appealing. I suppose there is room for flexibility here, as I mentioned above: for some Muslims upon whom God has been working and revealing himself, this may very well be true.
However, the argument on the whole is fairly weak. Numerous so-called gods look a lot like the true God: most deities created the world in some way; many ancient gods were involved in some kind of flood; many gods interact providentially with humans; and in some religions there is a type of salvation impulse that is a vague shadow of Christianity. But no one would seriously argue that those religions have the same referent when they think of their god as Christians (see Paul’s similar distinction in Acts 17:23). I’m not sure why Islam would be privileged here.
In the end, in principle I am not convinced that the equation “Allah = Yahweh” holds. The question of whether a Muslim person existentially feels like they have changed one god for the true God upon embracing Christ is, of course, much more a case-by-case kind of thing.
Connecting to the pew
I’ll mention simply one important takeaway. It is VERY popular today to assume two things: (a) Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all equally valid and true “Abrahamic” religions; and (b) Muslims, if they basically worship the same God, do not really need to be converted, but rather just need to embrace Jesus (whatever that means).
Position (a) hinges partly on a dubious historical claim. While Islam is clearly dependent on the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is little evidence that their claim of descent from Ishmael (and, thus, Abraham) is valid. Either way, there are very very few soteriological connection points between Christianity and Islam, and if Abraham is our forefather of a salvation that comes through faith in Christ alone (Gal 3:7), it is hard to fit Islam into that scheme.
Position (b) is obviously a dangerous manipulation of this entire discussion.
So, when you hear the media try to portray Islam as simply a different version of the same Abrahamic monotheistic religion, you need to question that claim.