La illaha il’allah: There is no God but God

[1] As an Arab-American Lutheran who has lived in Muslim countries, has been in religious dialogue with Muslims, and has close personal friends who are Muslims, I am always troubled – even vicariously insulted – by the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Part of the insult comes from the fact that – even living in the so-called Bible Belt South – I have never heard the question asked with regard to other religious groups. The very question seems part of the national xenophobia related especially to Arabs and Muslims.

[2] Be that as it may, the common approach to answering this question seems problematic as well. Well-versed in the literature of theology, I am, nevertheless, not a professional theologian. So it is perhaps unsurprising that I find little that seems amenable to my own thinking in the answers most theologians offer to this question, even those who might answer it in the affirmative, as I do. Theological treatment of the question tends to focus, in my experience, on doctrinal positions related to how each religious group understands the divine nature. To me this seems tantamount to arguing that we human beings grasp the very identity of the deus absconditus and to saying that God can be circumscribed by our propositions – even though many of Christianity’s acknowledged great theologians have argued that God can and does contain contradictions. Doctrinally-based answers have an additional limitation when one is dealing with orthoprax religions like Judaism and Islam from Christianity’s orthodox approach.

[3] Given this method of comparing definitions of God, I am troubled, as I said, that the question is not asked of other religions. Except for 4th Century sermons of Chrysostom, for example, I have not heard it asked of Judaism. Like Islam, Judaism maintains that God is neither begotten nor begets and cannot be separated into multiple persons. So if an orthodox conception of God is the issue, then neither Judaism or Islam could be said to worship the same God as Christians. Indeed, the same answer would have to be made regarding Unitarians. Yet were we to speak in degrees, one could certainly argue that Muslims are doctrinally closer to Christians in many ways. Muslims can say, unlike Jews for example, that Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, will come to judge the living and the dead at the end of time.

[4] What I want to suggest as a more appropriate approach to the question, however, is something relational rather than doctrinal. Just as our understanding of who a human person is relies foremost on our relationship with that person and on that person’s relationships, I would argue that the same is true about our understanding of God. Further, I find it arrogant and triumphalist that Christians think it is their decision at all whether Muslims or Jews or anyone else worships our same God. That decision ought properly be made by the person doing the worshiping.

[5] I would like to rely on analogy rather than propositional argument to make my point about this relational approach. A friend of mine tells about a meeting he had with a woman he met in a community organization after moving to a new city. At the start of a meeting, all participants introduced themselves in a few sentences. The woman, Mary Begley, stated that she had two children. Her son Joshua lived in Minneapolis. My friend was excited to speak with the woman after the meeting. “Mrs. Begley,” he said, “did your son Josh graduate in 1989 from the University of Chicago?” She answered affirmatively. “Then your son was one of my best college friends,” he continued. They continued talking about their common connection. “Wow,” my friend said, “this is so great. You know, Josh and I spent some crazy times partying and getting wildly drunk.” Mrs. Begley stiffened a bit. “Oh my,” she said, “I’m afraid there has been a mistake. We have been talking about two different people. I know my son totally and know he never touches alcohol and has never been drunk.” Shocked, my friend asked questions about her son’s college major, his first job after college, even a birthmark on his shoulder. Everything matched; but the mother insisted that if my friend’s friend Josh drank with him, then he was talking about some other person, not her son.

[6] As silly and obstinate as this mother seems, I think her approach is the same as Christians who answer negatively the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Muslims profess that their God is the God of Abraham, Moses, Noah, David, and Jesus. They insist that their God is the one and only God who created the world and all humanity and who inspired the Gospel. It seems to me that we can act like silly Mrs. Begley and say, “That’s true about our God as well, but yours is a different God”; or we can say, “We share the same God, but we believe different things about that God. Let’s talk.”