Do Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God?
(I wrote this some time ago and find it has never been posted to this blog!).
Do Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God? This is of course a central question, perhaps the central one, in dealing with what to make of another religion.
Some people feel they can give a simple “yes” or “no” answer to this question. My choice, if limited to only “yes” or “no” would be “yes.” Perhaps the most telling reason for this is that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews had and have no problems whatsoever referring to God as Allah, despite the presence of other words in the Arabic language that might be considered more neutral, less specific to Islam. But any one-word answer to our question will be useful only in limited contexts, meaningless in most, and prone to overemphasize similarities or differences. Moreover, the answer is too easily dependent on the context of the question, the questioner and the respondent, and misses the main point of monotheistic faiths.
Let us examine four statements:
1. Muslims, Christians and Jews are basically Monotheists and as such must maintain that there is only one God.
2. Muslims, Christians and Jews each maintain distinct propositions about God, and members of the other confessions recognize certain of these propositions as denials of their own faith.
3. For some believers, disbelief in certain propositions about God or belief in certain propositions rejected by these believers, means either disbelief in God or invalid belief in God.
4. Within the framework of the monotheistic religions, “God” in Islam, Christianity or Judaism is necessarily, in each case, the One God, the only God there is. So positing the question about whether these traditions believe in the same God is something like asking whether they recognize the same current President of the United States. These religious traditions deny the validity of certain beliefs of the other, or recognize the object of other beliefs as “not God” or a involving “wrong ideas about God”) but a literal understanding of “Do the three faiths worship the same God?” basically makes no sense within the framework of monotheistic religious beliefs.
For many monotheists asking the question about whether the three faiths worship or recognize the “same God” is, ultimately, a question about whether the three faiths each worship or recognize the “One God.” There is another way of asking the question, however, which I will return to below.
Each of these religions is remarkably similar in certain beliefs about God: each considers God to have created the Universe, created Man, and indeed, for each, the Man God created is called Adam. Each talks of Revelation, of Redemption and Judgment, and of God requiring a certain type of lifestyle and certain patterns of worship, charity, community.
But the revelations are different—even different in type: the different traditions talk of the centrality of Sinai, Christ, and Qur’an in ways that make them each very distinct. And we need look no further than this to see how it impacts on whether the God worshipped by the three faiths is the same or not. For those who truly believe in Sinai as the archetype of Perfect Revelation which needs no completion, what need or even purpose can there be in Christ, as understood by Christians? Similarly, for Trinitarian Christians, those who do not accept Jesus as Lord and the Holy Spirit as the third element of the Trinity do not truly accept God. And for those who accept Jesus as Christ and Lord, what need is there for an additional revelation in the Qur’an? And some Muslims would say that those who profess that there is no god but God yet do not accept that Muhammad is His prophet—or maintain that Muhammad was sent by God but only to his own people or maintain that the Qur’an is something less than the eternal Word of God directed at all mankind—deny a basic Truth about the deity.
There are some considerations internal to each of the three religious communities which can give practical perspectives about the question: Maimonides, a Jewish scholar who died in 1204, provided a scheme in which Islam and Christianity are seen as part of a Divine plan to promote true knowledge. Of relevance to our question, he (and many Jewish authorities since his time) saw Islam as having the true teaching about the unity of God, although lacking the true teaching about the authority and authenticity of revelation at Sinai, which Christianity has. For most Muslims, Islam is understood as seeing Jews and Christians as sufficiently monotheistic that when they “pronounce the Name of God” over animals slaughtered for food, their meat can be eaten, although the Qur’an declares that Jews and Christians nevertheless associate others with God. What is common to some of these discussions, however, is the assumption that the others have incorrect beliefs about God, not that they deny God.
So far, I have spoken about whether each faith can believe that the other worships the One God. For some within each faith, the propositions are so different that this is denied. There are those within Islam who consider Judaism and Christianity to be so misled as not to worship the One God at all. They are “Kafirun”—“Deniers”—just like the idolaters of old. Still, this is not necessarily a position that the Gods are different: it is a position that “our faith worships God and their faith worships Satan.” We have still not addressed the question of whether it is “the same God.” Again, within the perspective of monotheism, or of religious thought, this is a rather difficult and probably meaningless distinction.
What about scholarship and “critical analysis” of the situation? One can bring points from philology and linguistics (mostly words used to name or describe God), history, rituals, theology and philosophy, and other areas. The most important example is the common usage of “Allah,” as pointed out above. It seems to me that this type of study is appropriate to our course, but does not lead to any better answer to the question. Instead, it leads to a history of how the concept, nomenclature, rituals and beliefs came to be, not whether the God worshipped by each faith is “the same.” But this is a different question than the one which was being discussed here.
More to the point: Islam believes that the Islamic religion is the true religion of all the prophets. The message God sends to all Prophets is basically the same: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad came bearing the same message. They came with “books”—in some cases, this is understood to mean specific scriptures, and Muslim sources talk about the scriptures of Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus (Jesus’ scripture is “Injil” i.e. the Gospel, a book, according to Islam, written by Jesus containing the Word of God as revealed to him). What is consistent with the Qur’an and Islam among the beliefs and practices of Jews and Christians is true—and what differs is the result either of careless or purposeful (and thus perfidious) changes introduced by Jews or Christians. This extends not necessarily to the specific details of the prayer and alms—how much to give, at what times, and so forth, but the obligation to pray and to give charity.
In summary: for monotheists, it is most correct to say that Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship God, while they understand God in ways that are similar in some ways and different in others. It is foolish to attempt to prove that “Allah” is different from “God.”