In my last post I addressed the reactions of many to the story about a Colorado high school and its once-off leading of the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic, including the words “under Allah”.
In sifting through the comments made on this story, I came across the statement that “Allah and God are not the same; they are totally separate beings.”
It’s made as if it’s a fundamental Article of Faith; as if it’s something that does not need to be proved because it is beyond challenge.
Seeing as how part of my argument rests on a personal challenge of this statement’s veracity, I thought it would be a good idea to address it directly.
Are God and Allah one and the same?
Well, firstly we need to define terms. For Arabic-speaking Christians, the word for “God” is “Allah”. So in the Arabic Bible, Genesis 1:1 reads “In the beginning [Allah] created the heavens and the earth.” It’s just the normal word in Arabic for God, and is thus the logical word to use to translate the Hebrew “Elohim”. It even comes from the same root: the Hebrew Elohim is a plural form (engaging in a Hebrew linguistic practice called a “plural of majesty”, ascribing a plural form to a particularly great singular being. In non-Biblical literature of the same period it was sometimes applied to great kings and pagan gods as well) of “Eloh”, which in the Arabic form of the Semitic language family is “Allah”.
But on the other hand, Muslims don’t understand Allah in precisely the same way we Christians understand the God of the Bible.
This, I presume, is where the whole idea that Allah and God are two separate beings traces back to. It’s true up to a point. Anyone who is not totally ignorant or an idiot can see that there are some crucial differences between what a Muslim believes about Allah and what a Christian believes about God. These mostly revolve around what it means for God to be Father and how we should understand the Triune nature Christians attribute to Him.
Christians, Muslims and Jews all believe, at least in their typical, “orthodox” understandings, that God is one, that God created the universe, that God is sole unrivalled ruler of the Creation, and that God will eventually bring the universe to an end and judge the world. We all believe, theoretically if nothing else, that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere at all times).
Jews and Muslims further believe that God is one absolutely, without division or multiplication, whereas the Chrstian understanding of the Trinity is more complex. So complex, in fact, that Muslims often accuse Christians of worshipping three Gods. A full explanation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity for Muslims is outside the scope of this post; I’m more focused on this strange idea some Chrstians seem to have that Allah and God are two different beings. What’s interesting for the argument that Allah and God are separate beings is the fact that we as Christians readily acknowledge that the God of the New Testament is the same as the Elohim of the Hebrew Bible. We believe we worship the same God who was the God of Noah, of Abraham, of King David, of Elijah. And yet a Jew who does not believe that Messiah has come in the person of Yeshua (or in the Greek form, Jesus) has many of the same differences of perspective on God’s character and nature that we point to in the Islamic understanding and say “see? God and Allah are not the same!” It’s kind of a double standard.
Christians, particularly in the modern time frame, focus on God’s omnipresence. Our primary understanding of God is as Father, as God With Us. Yes, God is omnipotent and all-knowing, but the important thing is that He’s close to us. Our worship to God is all about how near to us God is; I’d even say we over-emphasise it sometimes and are in grave danger of bringing God down to our level as if He’s nothing more than a man.
For Muslims, the focus is God’s omnipotence. Probably the single most recogniseable Muslim statement is “Allahu akbar”: God is great. Yes, God is omnipresent, but what’s important is that He’s great. The focus on God’s omnipotence is so great, in fact, that I’d venture to say that it affects perception of His righteousness. For many Muslims, it’s not so much that righteousness is some kind of objective standard to which even God adheres – to suggest that there is anything higher than God, even the idea of righteousness, is an offence against His greatness – but that God is so powerful that whatever He does is right because it’s Him doing it.
This is, in fact, one of the fundamental differences between Chrstianity and Islam, at least concerning our understanding of God.
Does it mean that the God of the Bible and the Allah of the Qur’an are different, then?
Define what you mean by “different”. Are there differences in the Christian and Muslim understandings of God? Undoubtedly. Does this mean that the God of the Bible is one being and the Allah of the Qur’an is another? Well, that’s a separate question.
How many omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Creator-Sovereign-Judges do we believe there are? The Allah of the Qur’an and the God of the Bible can’t coexist as separate beings. It’s logically impossible. Besides, belief in more than one God is polytheism. If there is truly one God, then “Allah” and “God” have logically to be understood as referring to the same One Being.
Which is not to say that the Allah of Muslims is identical to the God of Christ-followers. Christians, as I said, understand God as Father. Muslims generally understand this to mean that God physically fathers children in the sense of Zeus and the other lustful pagan deities. So when we call Jesus “Son of God”, they understand this to mean that God looked down from heaven, saw Mary, lusted after her and physically fathered her child, which any Christian who is not a heretic of the first magnitude will recognise as a blasphemous notion. Rather than just saying “That’s wrong. You Muslims need to accept that Jesus is the Son of God”, the onus is on us to explain better in what sense Jesus is God’s “Son”.
Both the Bible and the Qur’an refer to Jesus as the Word of God. But the Bible goes further. Proceeding directly from God as a physical son from his father, the Bible says that the pre-existent Word of God which was in the beginning “became flesh and made His dwelling among us”. The Fathering of Jesus by God is a description in human words of a transcendent spiritual reality. Even most Christian heretics don’t understand it as a physical event.
Let’s take this out of the question of the Islamic understanding of Allah for a moment.
Let’s pretend that we have been suddenly set down in the midst of a hypothetical pagan tribe who worship numerous gods or local spirits. They have “gods” for food and war and the sun, moon and stars, and for everything else. They understand these gods as both limited in scope (only concerned with a particular sphere of life) and in power (their will can be successfully resisted). They fear these dwarf powers and make regular sacrifices designed to keep the gods off their backs.
In addition, behind these local spirits, they acknowledge a virtually unknown “high god” that they call Movo (I’m making this name up), who created the world. The high god is understood to be like the other gods in that he is limited in his presence (can’t be everywhere) and even in his power (can’t, for whatever reason, bridge the gulf between himself and people), but he’s acknowledged as the world-maker and is known to be far greater in power than the tribal spirits.
Most of us would immediately identify Movo with the God of the Bible, even though Movo isn’t known by them as being omnipresent or even omnipotent. We would want to come in and, like the Apostle Paul in Athens upon finding an altar “to an unknown god”, start with their understanding of Movo and build on it to proclaim the true One God. What you worship as something unknown, we now proclaim to you.
So why are we willing to grant a pagan tribe the courtesy of believing that they are worshipping God, though in ignorance, but we aren’t willing to do the same with Islam?
A lot of it, I believe, is just sheer mental laziness. If we make the blanket statement that “The Allah of Islam is not the same as the YHWH of Jews and Christians” or “God and Allah are two different beings”, we don’t have to think. We can lump all Muslims together as “enemies of God” and ignore them, rather than wrestling with the idea that most of them are just trying to serve God according to the way they’ve been taught. It becomes easier keep up our pretence that “enemy of God” and “enemy ofAmerica” are the same thing. We get to maintain the illusion that Islam is 100% wrong and Christianity is 100% right. We don’t have to examine our attitude to the fairly vehemently anti-Messianic State of Israel (not that they don’t have reason); aren’t they also opposed on a root level to the idea that Jesus is God’s Son?
Saying that we are worshipping the same God is not the same as saying that Muslims don’t need to be saved, or that Christianity and Islam are somehow the same thing. They aren’t. There are still crucial differences, and we need to recognise those. But to me at least, there’s more than enough commonality in what we believe about God, and enough logical reason in that they can’t coexist separately, to believe that we’re worshipping the same Being.
Does that mean we believe the same things about how we get to be counted righteous? Absolutely not. As I understand it, Islam is at its base a legal code: it tells you all the things you must do to be righteous before God, in minute detail. Christianity, at base, isn’t. According to standard Chrstian teaching, what you must do to be righteous before God is to repent/believe. To turn the focus of your life off of yourself and your own ways and your own legalistic righteousness and believe and accept the perfect righteousness that comes from God through the work of Jesus and is by faith. There are still big differences between Islam and Chrstianity. But let no-one deceive you; there’s a lot of common ground too. Saying that we have differences of understanding between the Muslim conception of Allah and the Christian conception of God is one thing. But saying that they are two entirely separate beings flies in the face of all reason.
Some Christians say, in effect, that “we know that Allah is a false god because Al-Lat was the name of a pagan moon god from the pre-Islamic period”. This is, to my mind, a little beside the point. As I alluded to before, “El”, the word for God used in the Bible and the root word of the Divine name Elohim, was also the name given by the Canaanites to one of their pagan gods. This fact gives us a new understanding of just why the ancient Israelites may have had such a problem with chasing after pagan gods. Canaanite “El” kept getting confused with Biblical “El”. But the point is that the present meaning of the Arabic name Allah is entirely unconnected with pagan moon deities, just like the present Hebrew name El is completely divorced from its ancient Canaanite associations, and the English name God is completely divorced from its pagan associations as a name of Woden. If you’re going to deny the use of Allah based on word origins, then to be fair you have to also deny the use of the English word God and the Hebrew word El. Let’s be grown-ups about this.
If there’s common ground between Islam and Christianity, so much the better for Christianity. It gives us an inroad to talk about the things we believe that are different in a way that they can actually understand and have a chance of accepting.
We both believe that Jesus is the Word of God. We both believe that Jesus is Messiah, something Christians and Muslims hold in common that most Jews don’t believe. We both believe that Jesus is Healer and Judge. Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus lived a sinless life.
It really shouldn’t be too difficult to go from there to the idea that Jesus is Saviour, and all that that means.