The Lord is Near to All Who Call on Him

[1] My first encounter with Islam was much more sensory than theological. In Fall 1981 our family of four arrived in Damascus, Syria, to begin a year of teaching and research. Immediately we were immersed in the sights and sounds and smells of the Arab East, if not always of Islam itself. Outside the bedroom window of our garden apartment was a fragrant jasmine vine. Walking the streets that took us to the walled ancient city, we passed brilliant displays of fresh fruits and vegetables and inhaled the aroma of roasting coffee and cardamom. But the most persistent sensory experience, and the one I most missed when we returned to the United States, was the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer issuing five times each day from the half-dozen mosques in our neighborhood. As I grew to love this melody of echoes, did I wonder whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God? I must confess that during those eleven months, hearing the call to prayer, touring the city’s diverse mosques, and talking with my Muslim students at the British Language School, I cannot remember once doubting that the Syrian Muslim Allah was God. Only later did I learn that Allah, “God” in Arabic, is used not only by Muslims, but also in the worship of Arab-speaking Christians in places like Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

[2] Because a few months after we left Syria to return to the United States I began a Ph.D. program in biblical studies, my resources for answering the “same God” question come from both personal experience and study of the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In many ways there is as much diversity in the conceptions of God in the Hebrew Old Testament as there is between conceptions of God in the Bible and those in the Qur’an. As portrayed by the Deuteronomic historians, God consistently rewards those Israelites who are faithful to the covenant and punishes those who are unfaithful. As portrayed by the wisdom writers of Job and Ecclesiastes, God’s ways are inscrutable and God does not necessarily deliver success to the virtuous or defeat to the wicked.

[3] On the other hand, compare these descriptions of God in the Bible and the Qur’an. From Psalm 145:10: “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you.” From Surah 59:24, “All that is in the heavens and in the earth magnifies Him, the Almighty, the all-wise.”1 From Psalm 145:18, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” From Surah 57:4, “He is with you where-ever [sic.] you are. God is aware of all you do.” From Psalm 145:8, “The Lord is gracious and merciful….” From Surah 59:22 , “He is the merciful Lord of mercy.”

[4] Certainly one can find in the Qur’an claims about God that deny the Christian understanding that God is triune and that Christ is Son of God, as understood in the Nicene Creed. But I continue to be struck by the theological and linguistic parallels between the Psalms and the Qur’an, parallels that affirm reverence for a God large enough to be embraced by all of humankind. In the words of R. Marston Speight, considered by many to be dean of Muslim-Christian relations in the United States, “The centrality and reality of the one true and living God is the basic rallying point for Christians and Muslims. Living daily as the conscious and grateful recipients of the gifts of an Almighty and Gracious Creator, we have a scope for mutual understanding as broad as any human experience” (God Is One: The Way of Islam. New York: Friendship Press, 1989, p. 111).

A postscript:
[5] I would ask those Christians who reject the conviction that Christians and Muslims worship the same God to consider this same question with regard to Jews. Because Christianity began historically as a movement within Judaism, Christians may be more likely to view themselves as worshiping the same God as do the Jews. But if the chief issue with Muslims is their “low” Christology, Muslims’ refusal to accept Jesus as divine, then that difference is even more the case for our Jewish sisters and brothers. Normally Judaism regards Jesus as an ethical teacher. Islam regards Jesus as one of God’s greatest prophets along with Moses and Muhammad and even calls Jesus “messiah” and a judge who will return at the end of history.

[6] As it turns out, both interfaith experience and study of sacred texts have brought me to a place of deep appreciation for what I have learned about God from other monotheists. From my Jewish friends (and indeed also from Muslims) I have come to appreciate Law as God’s gift to humankind, even as we Lutherans confess our own inability to be reconciled with God (and thus to be able to follow that Law) apart from God’s grace in Jesus Christ. From my Muslim friends (and indeed also from Jews) I have come to appreciate the scripture-centered discipline of prayer so frequent and habitual that it achieves for the believer, dhikr, or “the continuous recollection” of God.

End Notes

1 Psalm passages from the NRSV; Qur’an verses from Kenneth Cragg, Readings in the Qur’an (San Francisco: Collins, 1988).

Carol Schersten LaHurd

Carol Schersten LaHurd is Distinguished Affiliate Professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and educational outreach consultant for its Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice.