Revisiting the Question of the Muslim Deity

[1] The question is whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This question has been posed, and answered in the negative, by Walter R. Bouman (JLE, 4/8/02). Harold Vogelaar has weighed in on the other side (JLE, 4/24/02). I would like to affirm everything Professor Vogelaar has to say, especially in his distinction between a different God and worshiping God differently, while offering a few thoughts of my own.

[2] But first, I would like to join Professor Bouman in his very Lutheran allergy to knowing too much about God before encountering the crucified and risen Christ in the gospel proclamation. The trinitarian naming of God is authorized by the resurrection and reception of the Holy Spirit and is normative for authentically Christian discourse about the Holy One of Israel. Again, Professor Bouman alludes helpfully to the multivalent, generic nature of the symbol “god”: it is an emptiness waiting to be filled with content. Trinitarian language is non-negotiable and constitutive of specifically Christian speech. Raimundo Panikkar once remarked to me that he had heard too many sermons in churches that he labeled “Muslim” precisely because they lacked trinitarian imagery. Nevertheless, we must remember that this is inner-Christian speech about God – a point that Professor Panikkar would be swift to make. For me, this means that the story of God as the career of Christ need not be told against the narrative of Allah (which itself is an inner-Islamic affair).

[3] Muslims regard “Allah” as the true name of a Reality that exceeds the reach of language, and by which humans are allowed to address this Reality directly. In addition to this generic symbol “Allah,” Islam knows ninety-nine Most Beautiful names (folk tradition accounts for the camel’s dignified mien by its knowing the hundredth). God is all-merciful, all-compassionate; indeed, the former appellation is used almost as a synonym for God. God is the author of life who “brings forth the living from the dead.” The Prophet Muhammad responded to critics who scoffed at resurrection by saying that if God can create you once he can do it again. Known as Everlasting Refuge, Allah is also Owner of the Day of Judgment.

[4] Even a quick sketch, then, of the Muslim view of divinity will afford Christians flashes of the Reality to which we point with the symbol of the Trinity. And surely Jesus would have recognized his Father in the beautiful names. In Islam, the proper structural parallel to Jesus is the Qur’an. It is, in a sense, God present and available in time and space, not an incarnation but nonetheless a benevolent arrival and remaining of the deity monotonously referred to in the book as “the beneficent, the merciful.” Professor Bouman seems to imply that Muslims worship the Qur’an, which is not true. He also makes an erroneous comparison between self-criticism in Christianity and its supposed absence in Islam. While it is the case that radically traditionalist and authoritarian voices are the ones heard most loudly just now, there are other voices beginning to raise critical questions about the development of the Islamic tradition. It is well for us to resist painting monochrome portraits of the Muslim world as we are tempted to do after last autumn’s attacks.

[5] Professor Panikkar has cautioned that “. . . to have climbed by one particular way up to the heights of reality does not prove that there is only one peak.”1 It is the case that Christianity and Islam are different. Especially as it elaborated itself primarily along jurisprudential lines it is closer to Judaism. However, it would seem that we can find some overlap and at least a tentative commonality not only in the symbol but also in the reality of God.

[6] In the tenth year of the hijra, Muhammad’s sojourn in Medina, he was visited by a delegation of Christians from Najran. They stayed several days and negotiated a favorable taxation treaty for their community. While they were there they were allowed to conduct mass in the mosque of the Prophet. Perhaps we can be as commodious as he.

End Notes

1 Raimundo Panikkar, Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics. New York: Paulist Press, 1979, p. 348.

Bruce Wollenberg

Rev. Bruce Wollenberg, PhD. is a retired pastor living in Santa Barbara.