Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Wheaton College suspended a tenured professor of Political Science for quoting Pope Francis that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

So, do they?

History Buff blog asked me what I thought, and this is what I told them:

“Hebrew, the language of the Hebrew Bible, is a Semitic language. It is very close to Arabic, the language of the Qur’an– they are like Spanish and Portuguese or German and Dutch.

One of the more common names for God in Genesis is Elohim, “the Gods,” but understood, at least later on, in the sense of “the God.” It may be that the word reflects an evolving understanding of monotheism, such that ancient Canaanites believed in a council of gods, but as some of them limited their worship to YHWH, they reinterpreted the plural to be singular in effect. The root of Elohim is Eloh, or ‘*L*H, the common Semitic triliteral root for the divine (the initial apostrophe is a glottal stop, which is used as the “seat” for the ‘a’ or ‘e’ sound)..

The most common name for God in the Qur’an is Allah, in which the deffinite particle has been mashed into the word. Originally that was al-Ilah, “the God” Ilah is the same as Eloh; both come from the triliteral root ‘ *L* H* .

So, philologically, the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an use the same Semitic root for God, and as a historian I’d say that means they worship the same God.

The Elohim of the Bible was said to send the patriarchs Abraham, David, Solomon, and prophets like Isaiah to humankind.

The Allah of the Qur’an is depicted as sending the same prophetic figures, as well as John the Baptist and Jesus.

So the Qur’an thinks that Allah or al-Ilah is Elohim, since both words name a divinity that has acted in human history with the very same inspired envoys.”

My reasoning here is historical and philological (word-study). If you asked if West Semitic peoples who worshiped the storm god Hadad were worshiping the same god as the Adad of the Assyrians and Babylonians, you’d certainly say yes. They all speak Semitic languages, the word is recognizably related, and Adad has the same attributes as Hadad.

There is also the matter of logic. Christians maintain there is only one god. Therefore, if someone asserts that they are worshiping the one God, it must be the one Christians say they believe in. There isn’t another god to worship, according to Christianity.

Moreover, Muslims say they worship the God who sent Abraham, David, Solomon, John The Baptist and Jesus to humankind. There are more verses about Mother Mary in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. That is, Muslims recognize the same God as Christians from the point of view of his actions in human history.

Christians have their own theologies (a lot of them!) and I’m not trying to tell them what they believe. That’s up to them. I’m simply pointing out that if they maintain that Muslims worship a different god, they are saying there is more than one god, which is contrary to most known Christian doctrine.

Could Christians say that Muslims may be trying to worship the same god as Christians, but are conceiving of God differently, and so misunderstanding Him?

Sure. But the Muslims and Christians would still be worshiping the same God, i.e. the object of worship would be the same. Christians would just be maintaining that they were doing a better job of it, or that they understood this God better. Certainly, many Christian theologies of God do differ from many Muslim theologies of God. No one is saying they are identical. But theologies inhere in believers.

The notion of better Christian understanding of the one God is dangerous spiritually. If the Christian God created 100 billion galaxies 13.8 billion years ago, He would be pretty hard for human beings to understand. Many Christian thinkers through the centuries have held that God is unknowable. If so, then Christians don’t know Him better than Muslims.

I recently had a Christian audience member maintain to me that God’s grace is restricted to Christians and Jews, and doesn’t extend to Muslims. OK. But even if you believed that, it wouldn’t follow that the two worship different gods. Moreover, how could you be sure that God wouldn’t extend His grace to other communities? Are you trying to tell Him what he can do?

I know that the Wheaton College action is coming from an Evangelical point of view. But let us consider further, beyond Pope Francis, what Roman Catholicism, the largest branch of Christianity, with some one billion adherents, says about this:

Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium 16, November 21, 1964:

“But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

and then the following year:

Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate 3, October 28, 1965:

““The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth (Cf. St. Gregory VII, Letter III, 21 to Anazir [Al-Nasir], King of Mauretania PL, 148.451A.), who has spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his Virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting. . .

“Therefore, the Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or any harassment of them on the basis of their race, color, condition in life or religion.

So I think the Second Vatican Council certainly affirmed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Someone should quote to our current “Christian” politicians the Vatican’s reproach of discrimination and harassment directed toward Muslims.

The Presbyterian Church has an interesting take on all this, writing

“Christians respond to the challenges of our contemporary encounters with Islam through faith in the sovereignty of God over the world. Our search for faithful living must be motivated by a desire to love God, to be obedient to God’s will, and to love neighbors as ourselves—whether they be “neighbors” or “enemies.” Where this may lead and how it will bring new understanding between Christians and Muslims rest in the mercy and grace of God. Both Christians and Muslims are challenged to allow God to guide them into a future free from hatred, free from fear, and directed by hopeful love. The future holds the possibility that in our shared life, Christians and Muslims may faithfully respond to God and realize the peace and justice so desperately needed.”

(Donald Trump should read this statement; doesn’t he claim to be a Presbyterian, ‘right down the middle’?)

These Christians are starting not from what people believe in, but from the sovereignty of God over the entire world. That is, the God Christians believe in is also sovereign over Muslims. The question then is how people of different faiths respond to that sovereignty. It isn’t a question of believing in different gods, but of meeting the challenge thus posed.

We may conclude that the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world maintain that they worship the same God as Christians do (though they think Christians exaggerate the station of Jesus Christ, whom they see as a prophet).

We may also conclude that 1 billion Roman Catholics accept that Muslims seek to worship the same God as Christians worship. Some further percentage of the world’s Christians are Presbyterians, Anglicans/ Episcopalians, etc., who affirm much the same thing.

So if the Wheaton College administrators deny this proposition, they are at the least in a tiny minority of Christians and an even tinier minority of human beings.

I don’t really care about their theology one way or another. And I’m sympathetic to the dilemmas of people of faith trying to live in a secular world. But I think if you’re going to suspend tenured professors for speech, you have to change your name from “College” to “seminary” or something. Colleges and universities are there to encourage skeptical thinking.

——

Related video added by Juan Cole

CNN “Christian college puts professor on leave”

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56 Responses

  1. As any man of science will tell you, there is no such thing as God, so who worships which ever God is merely of academic interest. There is however, one God which man kind universally worships, and that is the God of money.

    • A Pew Research Survey poll found that 51% of scientists say they believe in God. I think it is a definitional issue. You can define god in ways that are pretty difficult to refute. For example, where did the matter come from for the Big Bang? You can say it was put there by God and there is no evidence to the contrary. I am an agnostic myself.

    • “God” is not something scientists (qua scientists) can meaningfully pronounce upon, although *belief* in God may be a subject of research.

  2. No two people worship the same god. God is an ephemeral, subjective construct built in the mind. On the other hand, two people may be worshiping the same picture painted on the Sistine Chapel, and that’s about the sum of it. There are many one and only Gods in the collection of Judaic myths and legends the Christians call the Bible, from the God who walked and talked with Adam, to the God who could only be perceived as a burning bush. Which one of the one and only’s do the two religions supposedly mutually worship?

  3. It is my strong belief that Christianity and Islam stems from the same source. It cannot be a coincidence that they believe in the old testament, have the same Prophets (Moses/Moosa, David/Davood, Abraham/Ibrahim etc), same Angels (Gabriel/Gibreel, Michael/Mikael etc), the history is from the same area, both believing in the 10 commandments, and so on. It is a shame that scholars from both religion do not emphasize this, it would unite both sides, and tolerate each other. The Quran is the only Holy Book that includes both Judaism and Christianity, and calls their followers “people of the books”. They believe that God gave the respective Prophets the Bible and the Torah. It is obvious that there are too many similarities between these two religions.

    Most probably they worship the same God, but do not know it. :))

  4. You can worship the Christian God and still be cast into hell, according to splinter groups within Christianity. For instance, Jehovah Witnesses teach that if you are not a JW you are not worshiping the true God and will not be in the 144,000 who ascend to heaven or live on earth, forever, after Armageddon.

    It’s not uncommon for cults and major religions to claim superiority in the sight of God, which is why Jews labeled themselves the “Chosen ones” and “The apple of God’s eye” and various armies throughout history have claimed God to be on their side.

    I hold with the belief that God was created in man’s image.

  5. Mr. Cole,

    Great article!

    How sad that in this day and age there’re those who insult the Muslims by telling them they believe in a different God, as if there’re two Realities that encompass and permeate all their realities, and therefore two Creators.

    I’ve heard the same fro some evangelical Christians.

    I invite you to read the essay by Joseph Lumbard entitled “The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions” in the newly published “The Study Quran” and this essay, “No Salvation outside Islam”, at link to shanfaraa.com

    Also read Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Martin Lings, Frithjof Scheoun, Rene Genon, and others who belong to the Perennial school of thought to see how many Muslims acknowledge the truth in every religion regardless of their outer differences.

    • And don’t forget J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. Salvation guaranteed, or triple your money back.

      (Perennialize *that*!)

  6. The Devil detests love. So the Devil divides folks, plants hate leading to fight and mutual destruction, e.g. a few decades ago, the Devil re-invented Islamic fractions, planted false flags in them, got them killing each other and prevented any loving unity among themselves. Now the Devil wants to work on the Christians and Muslims. Hope Pope Frances prevails.

  7. Further excellent reading on this topic:

    “One God Many Names” by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

    “This paper addresses the primordial origin of the divine names of God in order to establish the equivalency of the Biblical ‘God’ to Islam’s ‘Allah’ and the need for American Muslims to embrace both. While Muslims affirm that they worship the ‘God of Abraham,’ recently America’s religious right has denied this common ground. This point is aided by English-speaking Muslims’ avoidance of the word ‘God,’ due to an erroneous assumption that ‘Allah’ alone carries legitimacy.”

    link to nawawi.org

  8. Two more points:

    First — the Arabic word for God is Allah. The Christian Bible, written in Arabic, uses the name Allah. A Christian minister speaking in Arabic refers to God as Allah, just as a Christian speaking Spanish uses the name Dios and a French speaker uses the name Dieu.

    Second — there are all sorts of doctrinal differences, and I can see where certain Christian sects may believe the Christian God is not the same as the God of Islam. The Christian Triune God (Father, Son & Holy Spirit) is not the same as The Father alone.

    • Once you imagine something split off from absolute unity you have not two elements but three because there remains the unity of which they are both part. This notion is not uniquely Christian but it serves to uphold the idea of the Son being both separate and one.

  9. I love your analysis. I disagree only about the name “Allah” deriving from “Elohim,” not “El.” You are right, of course, that Allah is a contraction of “El-Ilah,” where “Ilah” (“god”) is from the same Semitic root as Hebrew “Eloah” (“god”) — so much is settled philologically and widely accepted by Muslim teachers. But the “El” of “El-Ilah” (Allah) is not, in my view, the Arabic definite article “the.” For example, the “El” is absolutely never separated from the “Ilah,” even in contexts when a definite article makes no sense grammatically. In addition, even when Muslims pray in vernacular languages, the name Allah is absolutely never translated as “The God” — it is always treated as a holy name of God that cannot be translated, not as a descriptive phrase (compare the use of Hashem as a name of God in Jewish circles — no one, I think, would argue that Hashem is a holy name that cannot be translated). Finally, all Muslims would, I think, agree that they worship the God of Abraham (it would be a very odd form of Islam that did not believe this). Muslims also respect much of Hebrew scripture, and the Torah makes clear that Abraham’s god was El or El Shaddai. (See Genesis 14:18; Exodus 6:3.) The Torah uses the descriptive term “Elohim” as a reference to the “70 sons of El,” a pantheon that derives from Canaanite religion. In Ugaritic texts, the “70 sons of El” were referred to with the Ugaritic cognate of Elohim.

  10. nicole

    as a nonreligious person, I always thought most of the major religion’s “god” was the same. they’re all different versions of the

  11. “Christians have their own theologies (a lot of them!) and I’m not trying to tell them what they believe. That’s up to them. I’m simply pointing out that if they maintain that Muslims worship a different god, they are saying there is more than one god, which is contrary to most known Christian doctrine.”

    I don’t think your conditional is true: your antecedent is not logically sufficient for your consequent. Christians may be implying that Muslims worship another “God”, but that God is nothing–Muslims (in general?) worship something that does not exist–a fake god.
    In light of your analysis of the origins of words and your other evidence, this possibility is probably a deeply confused one for most (all?) Christians to maintain, but it is logically possible.

    –Tim

    • Then the Christians concerned are themselves using inexact language. If they are saying that the Muslims do not worship a god at all, but only think they do, and are worshiping a fantasy, then they should say that. They are not using that diction. They are saying that Muslims are worshiping “a different God.”

  12. Thanks for putting this forth, I enjoyed it. In my current state of life, I’m amazed that people think they know the mind of “God”, yet when reading the Bible you have a god who commits genocide and kills children and Jesus who says turn the other cheek and also says that he brought the sword. One thing I’ve learned is the Bible, and I’m guessing the Quran, will say whatever you want it to say.

  13. Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
    By Juan Cole

    Given the different sects to which Christians and Muslims subscribe we might usefully ask which gods they worship.

  14. While I enjoyed reading your detailed explanation, I’d like to offer a simpler one: if two “gods” share three qualities: omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, how can there be more than one of them? Logic tells me it’s impossible.

      • (Well, the editing certainly made hash out of that comment. Let’s try again:)

        Capt. Marvel is “earth’s mightiest mortal,” but the Hulk is the “strongest one there is.” How can this be explained? By realizing that they are fictional characters, whose universes are not 100 % consistent.

  15. ملطشة

    The plural often means aggrandizing, like when a king refers to himself as We, so Elohim can mean the grand God, not gods.

  16. Stephen Hatt

    Excellent and timely article. Sent it on to my pastor. Am really surprised at Wheaton. Evidently, you can get suspended for quoting an authority over there? Really? Isn’t that usually thought to be a scholarly pursuit, part and parcel of the research based productivity most tenured professors and those seeking tenure, are expected to do?

  17. I studied these issues with both a Christian biblical scholar and an Islamic Iman. This is an unbelievably concise and beautiful synthesis. Thanks.

  18. I must say that, upon opening my daily web reading to your page and seeing the title of this post, I was skeptical about a.) your venturing into that territory, and b.) my interest in whatever you might have to say about the topic.

    Now, having not only read your article, but having read all the postings on the “History Buff” site which motivated the heart of your posting, I think it is outstanding. And, I am so impressed with your handling of the religious issues in both an historical and contemporary context that I am going right away to your home page and make the annual contribution which I have so far failed to do. How’s that for my “putting my money where my mouth is” and for genuinely appreciating your thoughts and writings.

  19. It is rewarding to read the results of good research. Thank You! You can add United Methodists to the list of those who worship Allah. Join the Detroit Area Peace with Justice Network to stand with refugees and Muslims…and for democracy – Monday, December 21 @ 9 Mile and Woodward in Ferndale.

  20. A very balanced and careful article. So many Americans who claim to be Christians ( even Catholics like Biden and some of the SCOTUS members) seem to have very odd ideas which they have the gall to push on others.

  21. Mike Cantrell

    Christians and Muslims definitely worship the same God. The practices differ and the name differs. It should be the Christian-Islamic world, NOT the Judeo-Christian world.

  22. Thank God for Juan Cole. I’m actually a buddhist, but I’ve learned so much from reading your blog over the years. Especially with all of the negativity in the world today, your posts are always sane, reasonable and written in a spirit that seeks the truth. I don’t know where else to get the perspectives I get on this site. I truly rely on it to better understand what’s going on when the rest of the news seems like just so much noise. (You and Krugman provide this function, actually, but on different topics : )

  23. The Arabic version of Genesis 1: 1 reads as follows: “In the beginning, Allah [which I leave untranslated into English] created the heavens and the earth.”

  24. As Violeta Parra stated: my father was a communist and an atheist by the grace of god. So much debate for an entity that we can’t prove it exist. Me then: agnostic of course

  25. It is increasingly evident that American far-right Christians worship a different God than everyone else in the world, a tribal God that they’ve concocted to claim that He has transferred His covenant, and the bloody murder always associated with it, to only the “real” Americans. The rest of us are barely tolerated servant races under their Patriarchal authority. American Christianity is evolving into a heresy.

  26. Excellent article Professor Cole. Please keep writing about similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam and how many of these have been simply lost in translation between Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Latin, English etc. Would be interesting to know your views e.g. about:

    1- the term “Ahl-al-Kitaab” (people of the Book) in the Koran. Can this not also be translated as the “people of the Bible” (bible means book in Latin if I’m not mistaken).

    2- Also, what is the meaning of the word “Nasaara” used for followers of Jesus in the Koran? Is it Nazarenes? Does it simply mean those from Nazareth? Does it mean that Christians used to call themselves “Nazarenes” before, or was it simply a name for a particular sect? Does Christian not correspond to Maseehi (follower of Messiah) which is a term not used to describe Christians in the Arabic Koran?

    3- What about Jews/ Yahudi – why did the followers of Moses become known as Jews/Yahudi? Does it simply imply those from Judea?

    My view is that Jews, Christians and Muslims obviously worship/serve the same God. The Koran says that Abraham believed in the one and only God and called himself “Muslim” i.e. one who submits (to God), and his religion was “Islam” (Both words come from the root S-L-M which is the same root in hebrew for peace/submission). But for different reasons, some believers from the Children of Israel started calling themselves or became known as Jews/Yahud. And then later the followers of Jesus Christ started calling themselves or became known as Christians. The followers of Muhammad (including converts from Jews and Christians) were told in the Koran to stick with the name that Abraham had chosen initially and not divide into sects – thus they did not call themselves e.g. Muhammadans and remained “Muslims”. Although now even they have also unfortunately divided into sects of Muslims like sunni, shia, etc etc.

    • You say, “don’t ask me how I do it.” I must be bound by that, but still must ask how you do it over and over with such exquisite timeliness.

  27. Just a few points – PCUSA is no way Orthodox in a Reformed sense. Many of those ordained deny basic Christian doctrine, even those shared with Catholics. Also, I don’t think Trump is closer to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church either; he is probably a nominal Presbyterian identifying in the Reformed tradition through his Scottish heritage.

    Another issue is that the Eastern Orthodox are more known for Apophatic theology but this is balanced with Cataphatic theology i.e. God did reveal himself in Christ but also in relationship to the believer. None of the patristics and later major Christian theologians held what Bryant wrote in the Guardian article you linked to, if I understood him correctly.

  28. Or to translate this into the symbols of the Chinese folk religion, can’t we all agree that we all propitiate the same malevolent ghosts?

  29. I was a bit taken aback that you would even pose this question – of course Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same deity and even have the same “founding patriarch” as it were in Abraham. They are different strains of worship of the same deity of course, but perhaps that is why the feud is so bitter between the three – because there is no fight worse than a family fight.

  30. Look at it historically. There was a well-established trade route between Babylon and the Eastern Mediterranean, which traversed the territory that gave rise to Islam. In the early centuries AD, this route was plied by Jewish traders. Remember that Babylon had a significant Jewish population- they didn’t all return to Jerusalem, as inferred by the Old Testament.

    The native population living in this area were allegedly polytheists, but they would have had ample time to be exposed to Judiasm, to learn of Christianity, and to absorb aspects of these more advanced religions into their own religious belief structure, which became formalised with the writings of Muhammad.

  31. Christians should never think that they knew God better than theother people. Because it is not or never come from christians brain. It only comes from grace of God.
    Christians should only knew that the bible is the word of God. And from that word we have relations with God. And than shows it to the world that we recieving the grace by acting like the bible said. Not forcing anything to others.
    Said nothing but the truth. Biblical truth.

  32. John Wilson is mistaken. Many scientists are persons of faith and most people in the world believe in the existence of God, though they may call on God using various names, such as Allah, Jehovah, Christ, Buddha, Lord Krishna etc.

    • “Buddha” is not an alternative name for God. And although Krishna is a god (perhaps even the supreme deity, depending on who you talk to), this does not make him interchangeable with Yahweh.

  33. One thing we can all agree on is that anyone who kills in the name of religion is a criminal. And the word ‘criminal’ translates pretty well in ALL languages throughout history.

  34. At some very early point all theological talk is bound to break down and turn into non-sense. And that’s not to comment on the truth of any particular pronouncements…it’s just the way it is.

  35. The Maltese language derives from medieval Arabic with a huge infusion of Italian and English. Touring Malta, I could read a lot of signs, since I speak Italian and English. In a Catholic church I could read the inscriptions. What is God in Maltese? Easy: Allah.

  36. Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God because Christians worship Jesus and depend on him alone for salvation. Muslims believe otherwise and don’t even acknowledge Jesus as God. Secondly, if you think the Roman Catholic church is christian, you are seriously deceived. The Catholic church is a cult who pray to Mary and “work their way to heaven”. Also Muslims in their own Quran say they must kill christians and jews when the time comes. And you say that Muslims aren’t violent? Give me a break. People have been killing in the name of God for centuries, that doesn’t make them a real christian. A real christian won’t hurt anyone unless it’s in defense or to stop evil. The christian crusades were not christian at all but started by an evil pope wanting fame and wealth. I hope you meet a real christian some day who will show you the truth and not the myths written in this article.

  37. A good read on this subject is “Allah” by Miroslav Volf. Also read the Muslim ecumenical paper, “A Word for Us and You”

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