I write so rarely on here these days that, when I put a lot of work into a comment, I might as well adapt it into a post.
This post is inspired by a great question over on @SirNickDon ‘s site, which in turn was inspired by Miroslav Volf’s book. Basically, the question is, are the God of Christianity and Allah of Islam the same being? Can all the differences between them be ascribed to misunderstandings? Do Allah and Yahweh have the same essential character?
It’s a question worth asking.
I do think that a lot of Muslim theology about Allah arose in reaction to either misunderstandings about Christian doctrine or heresies within Christianity. Even today, many less-educated Muslims think Christians believe the Trinity is God the Father, Jesus, and Mary; even better-educated Muslims often think Christians believe in three Gods. Islam is strongly monotheistic (even as a proper understanding of Christian trinitarianism is), and thus reacts very negatively to these ideas.
I also think that the name itself isn’t what’s important here: Arabic Christians refer to God as “Allah” as well. But the “Allah” of an Arabic Christian is very different from the “Allah” of Islam.
And thus I have to say in the end that no, the God of Christianity and the God of Islam cannot be the same being, or one is a distorted account of the other. Two things stand out in particular that cannot be reconciled between the two: first, the Incarnation, and second, Grace.
The Incarnation is crucial to Christian theology, and is a defining belief. First, it means that when Jesus sacrificed himself in the crucifixion, it was not merely a prophet who died, or even a perfect human: God himself died so that we could be reconciled to him. This is a huge teaching, a mind-boggling idea. And second, it means that God is not only a righteous being in the sky somewhere who sits over us in some kind of judgment: it means he knows what it’s like to be human, knows what it’s like to struggle with pain and death and grief and temptation, knows from firsthand experience. The author of Hebrews underscores this point for us. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Muslim theology, however, is offended by the rawness of the Incarnation. Surah 4:171 reads, “O People of the Book! commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah anything but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah, and His Word, which he bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Do not say “Trinity”: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One God: glory be to Him: (far Exalted is he) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs.”
and Surah 5:17a reads, “In blasphemy indeed are those who say that God is Christ the son of Mary.”
A God who would incarnate as human is as incompatible with Islam as a micro-USB cable is with my three-year-old cell phone.
Grace, too, is a crucial part of Christianity. Repeated over and over again in Christian thought we find the idea that the Law could not save, that it only showed our weakness and our inability to please God through our actions, fallen creatures that we are. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Instead, Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf, he paid our bloodprice, he cast down death and rose in triumph. So when we are saved, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We still are called to do works, but we do these works out of our love (John 14:23), and as a demonstration of our faith (James 2:18), NOT as anything on which our salvation is contingent.
In Islam, however, while Allah is described as “gracious,” his grace is activated by obedience. Works hold a more important role in a Muslim’s salvation than they do in a Christian’s. It is he who “believes and does good deeds” that Allah forgives. Surah 23:102-103 says that when “the Trumpet is blown,” that “Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy, they will attain salvation: But those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls; in Hell will they abide.” Surah 33:70-71 reads, “Fear Allah, and (always) say a word directed to the Right: That He may make your conduct whole and sound and forgive you your sins: he that obeys Allah and his Messenger, has already attained the highest Achievement.” Surah 49:14b reads, “But if you obey Allah and his Messenger, He will not belittle anything of your deeds, for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.“
Modern Muslims confirm this interpretation. Bassam Zawadi, in refutation of an article entitled “Does Islam teach salvation by works?” writes, “Matt Slick says that us Muslims are not sure if we are goingto heaven or not but Christians are. The thing is, us Muslims believe that if we live upto the standards that God wishes us to live up to. Meaning, if we truly try our best tokeep ourselves within God’s law (and God knows our intentions) then yes we believe that weare going to heaven.”
I remember, when I was in college, a joint meeting my InterVarsity chapter had with the Muslim Student Association. I got into a great theological discussion with the MSA’s chaplain. He told me that, from a Muslim perspective, Islam is the balanced faith between the excesses of Judaism and Christianity. He said that, as they see it, Judaism emphasized the Law too much, but Christianity emphasized Love too much. Islam, to his mind, was Goldilocks’ bowl of porridge, “just right,” the perfect balance between Law and Love. Muslims try hard to follow God’s law, and trust to God’s mercy for those areas where they’ve failed… but there’s no sense of why God would be merciful, or what (other than a previously good track record) activates God’s grace.
Allah of Islam does not have the impossible standard (for fallen humans, anyway) of the Christian Yahweh: his Law is possible, do-able. If you try hard enough, you can be good enough. And thus there is no need for sacrifice, for the Crucifixion, for the Incarnation.
This may seem like a slight difference between the personalities of the two deities (or the one deity as described two different ways) but in the end it makes a world of difference.