Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Article excerpt

IN I KINGS 18, the prophet Elijah, confronted with widespread defection to Baal among his countrymen, poses a stark challenge: "If the LORD [the conventional English rendering of the four-letter Hebrew name of the Cod of Israel] is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!" When the people refuse to commit themselves, Elijah proposes an empirical test, which, despite the best efforts of Baal's own prophets, the Canaanite deity fails, and the LORD alone passes. The people shout out the obvious lesson: "The LORD--He is God! The LORD--He is God!"

Elijah's initial challenge implies that the Israelites are worshiping two deities, either separately or syncretistically, but it also implies--and the people tacitly agree--that there is but one "God," the only open question being who he is. Elijah does not accuse his hearers of polytheism or atheism; he accuses them, rather, of catastrophically misidentifying the one particular being who alone is worthy of the title "God." The prophet readily acknowledges that the apostates believe in God, but insists that they do not properly or adequately know the LORD.

An argument can be mounted that since monotheism means that there is only one God, no monotheist can ever accuse anyone--certainly not another monotheist--of worshiping another god, only (at most) of improperly identifying the one God that both seek to serve. This is all the more the ease with the three religious traditions that claim to worship the God of Abraham, since these exhibit complex patterns of dependence and reciprocal influence. The charge that the two other traditions have seriously misidentified the God of Abraham--a charge made by each in various ways and times--is not necessarily the same as the claim that they worship another god.

To the extent that God is characterized by attributes such as uniqueness, omnipotence, foreknowledge, justice, mercy and the revelation of his will in prophecy and scripture, then Jews, Christians and Muslims can easily detect the selfsame God in the LORD of Judaism, in the triune God of the church, and in Allah (which is simply the word for "God" used by Arabic speakers in all three traditions). There is a problem with such reliance on at tributes, however, for it actually describes a Supreme Being who is closer to the God of the philosophers than to the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob. To state the point differently, to the extent that the one God of the universe is rendered through narratives such as those in the scriptures and not through abstract attributes, the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God cannot but appear, if not false, then certainly simplistic and one-sided.

Part of the difficulty here is that Christians and Muslims share no scriptures. The Muslim attitude toward both testaments of the Christian Bible has traditionally run a spectrum that ranges from respect to a charge that large parts of them are rank forgeries (the figure of Ezra is a major villain in the latter view). But even the respect comes with a claim that Christians have dangerously misinterpreted their own holy writ--for example, in failing to recognize that passages about the Paraclete in the Fourth Gospel foretell the coining of Muhammad.

At times, the Qur'an manifests so much anger at Jews and Christians for failing to see that its teachings constitute the completion of their own scriptures that it pronounces them to be enemies doomed to destruction. For their part, Christians have often seen the variations between the two sets of scriptures as Muslim distortions of the Christian Bible, as if the latter, and not the Qur'an, were the highest standard of truth--as indeed for them, but not for Muslims, it is. Even when the two sets of scripture speak of the same figure--such as Abraham, supposedly the common father of all three traditions--they tell some different stories and draw markedly different lessons, and this makes the term "Abrahamic religions" more problematic than at first seems the case. …