Allah and God: Are they the same - A letter to a Pastor
Dear Pastor Jack,
One only needs to glance briefly at the newspaper or news websites to see the impact of the Islamic world. Indeed, in our own cities and towns, Muslims are showing up - and Muslims of all stripes. The question is no longer whether Christians feel called to the Muslim world. The Muslim world has come to us. The question is how we will engage people who follow Islam in either word or in deed.
This question poses some challenges, because a multitude of messages abound from Muslims. We see pictures in the news of suicide bombings from Islamic militants. People who claim to be moderate Muslims say that radicals misinterpret the Quran and that Islam is a peace loving religion. They also say that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God. "There are some differences, yes, but we are spiritual cousins, descended from Abraham." Even some of our own fellow Christians assert that Muslims are our brothers and that, if we only accepted them, there would be peace and harmony.
Muslims need Christ just like anyone else. The current globalization and migration patterns (particularly as western countries accept refugees from Syria and Iraq) have given Christians an unprecedented opportunity to reach out to their friends, colleagues, and neighbors to demonstrate and speak the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are lots of ways we can do this. However, in doing so, it is helpful for us to know what Muslims believe. Knowing their world view helps interpret actions and words in a more correct light.
Pastor Jack, some people know that Islam comes from the Middle East, that a man named Mohamed was the prophet that started the Islamic faith, and that there are certain things that Muslims do - fast, pray, and visit Mecca. I am sure you have heard Muslims use the name of Allah for god. Did you know that Muslims will say that they believe in Jesus more than Christians? There are possible similarities here, but is Islam and Christianity truly the same? There are three questions I want to address which, I hope will help you discern this issue. Answering these three questions will help us to engage our Muslims neighbors:
1.Is the God of the Bible the same as the God of the Quran?
2.Is Mohamed truly a prophet in the same sense as a Biblical prophet?
3.Is Islam a violent religion?
1. Is the God the Bible the same as the Allah of the Quran?
Before I answer this question it is good to review the character of God from a Biblical standpoint. First, He is Spirit. He is not of material nature, but is outside of creation. Second, God is a person - He is not an amorphous force flowing through all of the created order, as believed by Hindus. He has a mind, a will, and can experience feelings. Third, God is One. He is whole, and there are not multiple gods. Last, God is Triune. He is made up of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Apart from God's nature there are the attributes of God. His natural attributes include the fact that he is all knowing, all powerful, present everywhere and eternal. There are also his moral attributes: holiness, righteousness, faithfulness, mercy, and love. And let's not forget the personal nature of God. He wants to be known and interact personally with his creation. So how does the God of the bible compare with Allah?
Sources are the first issue. Muslims look to the Quran as their authoritative and essential source of information concerning Allah. And, as you know, Christians look to the Bible for information about God. But you may not know that the Quran sometimes gives credence to the Bible as authoritative (Surah 10:94 ). Of course in later revelations the Quran accuses Christians and Jews of changing the scripture at worst and misinterpreting them at best.
How, then, does the Quran describe the character of Allah? On the surface, there are a number of characteristics that are similar to the God of the Bible. When considering Allah's nature, we find that Allah is One (47:19), as in Scripture. Allah is outside of creation, and is self-sustaining (3:1). Allah is also sovereign over all creation (17:13). He is never referred to as spirit, though one would suspect that Muslims would find commonality in Christian's description of God as spirit. Allah's natural attributes are similar as well. He is perfect in knowledge (15:25), and Allah is to be exalted (45:37).
Christians and Muslims would find common ground in Allah's moral attributes. Allah is never unjust (4:40). He gives life (46:33), and created the world in six days (32:4). He has dominion over his creation (5:120). As Allah interacts with his people, he is gracious and merciful (1:1-4), and watches over them (67:19), and says that he will be their friend (6:127). He demands right behavior (96:1-19), but he forgives (11:3).
Right behavior includes caring for the poor and for widows (93:6-11), ensuring justice for the poor (4:2), and doing good to others (4:36). It also includes worship as Creation and people adore Allah (2:21). But when people do things that are wrong, Allah forgives (11:3). In one instance, there is an intercessor (34:23). However, if anyone disregard's Allah's message, there will be hellfire that awaits them (72:24).
In spite of all of these similarities, there are a number of characteristics that are at odds with scripture. And many of those characteristics bring into question the integrity of the attributes discussed above. First, the Quran says that Allah is above all comprehension (6:103). For the Muslim this means Allah is unknowable. However, this defies logic. Certainly, there are certain things that we do know about God. While many statements about God's nature are in the negative, there are characteristics that can be known: his justice, his forgiveness, and most importantly in the Quran, his oneness. So Allah can be known to some degree. The Quran also explicitly denies the trinity (5:73) and specifically says that Allah does not beget, nor his he begotten (112:1-4). This seems to be a reaction against Christian theology that Mohamed encountered that contradicted his strict adherence to Allah's oneness, and his misunderstanding of the idea of begotten. Allah also swears by things other than himself. He swears by the sun, moon, stars (91) and swears by the angels (79:1).
Another contrast are a number of practices Muslims must do that can be summed up in obedience (26:108). Obedience is the most important aspect of a Muslim's life. Unfortunately, Allah might engage in tempting people (43:36-38). Fortunately, he forgives, but it is conditional forgiveness (3:31) and based on behavior. This stands in direct contrast to God, who forgives through faith in Jesus. In a number of places in the Quran, Allah's forgiveness and salvation is based on the work that people do (23:102). However, forgiveness is only for those who avoid great sins (53:32). This calls into question whether Allah's mercy is a consistent. Unfortunately, for those who cannot please Allah, Allah declares that there is no intercessor (40:18).
When people do obey, he will make them successful (3:147), which is consistent with “Christian” prosperity theology, and in contradiction to the reality in 1Peter that Christians will face persecution and difficulty. The same deeds that bring prosperity to obedient Muslins will also reap eternal rewards (95:6).
Another issue with Allah's character is that he changes what he says (10:64), so what is said now may not be what is said later. In fact, Allah tricked the Jews (who are apparently his chosen people at one point) to think that Jesus died, when in fact Jesus did not die (4:157). God only loves those who love him first. But all of this is for naught. If Allah decides, he will punish you whether you live a righteous life or not (17:54). An interesting command not found in the bible is that Allah tells the angels to fall before man (38:72)
One of the biggest differences between Islam and Christianity is the purpose for creation. There is a strong tradition in Christian history, in what John Piper calls Christian Hedonism , or rather finding our deepest satisfaction in the Glory of God. However, Allah is not focused on the joy of his creation, he is focused on obedience and judgment (45:22). In fact, judgment is one of the most important topics to a Muslim. There is no security in their salvation. Allah may allow them into paradise if they do enough good works (23:102), but in the end, they may not make it in at all if Allah so wills (2:7).
Pastor Jack, these contradictions call into question the claim that the God of the bible is the same as Allah. One of the most striking contrasts between Allah and God is that Allah grants forgiveness without exacting any punitive judgment. That is, when a wrong is committed, there is a need to give punishment for that wrong. For Christians, this is satisfied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, for Muslims there forgiven sins are not satisfied through punishment. So while Allah is just, his justice is not perfect . By perfect I mean that Muslims do not believe in the depravity of man or that forgiveness provides entrance to the presence of Allah for eternity. As such man does not need to be cleansed from sin to enter into his holy presence. Forgiveness, for Muslims is just a key that gains entrance into a paradise devoid of Allah. That is why Muslims do not have a problem with Allah’s capricious nature. If holiness isn't required to enter into the presence of a holy being, then forgiveness doesn't require restitution for sin. Their claim that Allah is all powerful and can do what he wants sounds reasonable. But inso claiming, they dismiss the idea of a perfect deity. Either Allah is capricious or he is perfectly just. He cannot be both.
So what is the conclusion? Are Allah and God the same? The only sources we have are from the Bible and the Quran. It seems fairly clear to me that the Bible and the Quran are describing two significantly different gods. One might say they are the same because they are both "one", but the differences are too wide. I don't think we can reasonably and honestly tell our Muslim friends that we believe in the same god and that we believe essentially the same thing. It should be noted that not all Muslims will be well versed in the Quran, and that most of them might not understand some of the more capricious elements of Allah’s nature.
2. Is Mohammad the same as the Prophets in the Bible?
Muslims might make an appeal to Christians that Mohamed is part of the tradition of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Certainly passages in the Quran refer to many characters that we are familiar with. Some Muslims will make the argument that in John 14, Jesus was not referring to the Holy Spirit, but was referring to Mohammad! In fact, one person I spoke to acknowledged that Mohammad's message is, in fact, somewhat different from Jesus’. He went on, though, to say that the differences in the message between Mohamed and Jesus is not the same as the difference between the message of Jesus and Moses. So how do we discern whether Mohammad is prophet in the same vein as Moses and Jesus?
Pastor Jack, it might be wise to review the office of prophet. Prophets claim to speak for God. This claim is serious, and the Old Testament was extremely harsh towards prophets who were found to be false. So how do we know that a prophet has authority? The most common appeal to authority is to words that were already recorded from God. Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Samuel, and Jeremiah spoke with authority to call individuals and people back to obedience to already revealed laws and covenants with God. 1 John 4 instructs us to test the spirits and confirm that the message the preacher or prophet is giving matches that of the Old Testament.
Mohammad's message never called people back to the message of Jesus in the New Testament or the laws and covenants of the Old. Mohammad proclaimed that Abraham and Moses declared that there could be no intercessor (53:41). Though Mohamed uses Biblical characters, his stories do not match those of the Old Testament (Surah 20). Though there were elements in Mohammad's message that can be a point of connection with Scripture he leaves out significant requirements. Mohammad is calling people to obey (Surah 92), and certainly obedience to God is to be lauded. He warns people that if they do not follow Allah that there will be punishment (111:2). Certainly as Christians part of proclaiming the Gospel is not only proclaiming that which is good, but also warning against eternal damnation.
However, I think it should be noted that there were prophets who did come and give new revelation, or new perspective on revelation. Moses' words from the Lord were not something the people of Israel were familiar with (though God's character could be seen in them). Both Moses and Jesus presented a new message, and had to show that they had authority. Moses displayed miracles in front of Pharaoh and in front of the Israelite community. Jesus not only performed miracles, but took it a step father and did that which was only ascribed to God, he forgave sins and made people clean.
The message of Mohammad was not accompanied by miracles. In fact, the people that Mohamed preached to in Mecca wondered why there were no miracles. They were looking for some confirmation of his message.. Mohammad at first declared that soon miracles would come that would show people he had authority (21:37). However, Mohammad could not produce any supernatural miracles (20:133). Rather, the Quran declares that the Quran itself is a miracle (17:90-93). Recently, I spoke with a Muslim friend who repeated this. "The Quran is a miracle! Nothing written by man could ever be so beautiful." In his biography of Mohamed, In Ibn Ishaq gives accounts of Mohamed performing miracles, but the biography was written over 100 years after Mohamed died, and so it seems these stories were added later in order to reinforce Mohammad’s authority.
I should emphasize, Pastor Jack, that the message of Mohammad is not in line with scripture. While Jesus brought something new and seemingly foreign, it was possible to look back at the Old Testament and see how Jesus fulfilled, not only the prophecies, but became the lynchpin of the whole of process of God bringing his people back to him. Jesus was the logical next step . Indeed, Jesus even explained this on the road to Emmaus. Mohammad didn't do anything like this. Mohammad’s message was that Jesus is not divine and that God is not Triune (4:171-172). Mohammad's message also denies that Jesus ever died on the cross (4:157-158). It is not possible to reconcile the message of the bible with the message of Mohammad. The only way to bridge the incongruence is to assert that scripture has been altered - one that we as believers do not accept.
The third issue of authority is the source of the authority. Where did the Quran come from? The Quran asserts that it is the direct word of God, not mediated by any man as Muslims will say of the bible. However, when Mohammad first received his revelation, he was unsure of whether or not he was possessed . His wife had to convince him otherwise. This is a shocking recording in the Quran, since it so adamantly argues for its own authority (68:2). In contrast, the source of Moses' message was God, and that was clearly laid out when he visited Mt. Sinai. It was displayed powerfully with the cloud of the Lord that stayed with Israel while they traveled. Jesus' source is God himself, since he is God.
There are additional problems with the Mohammad. Mohammad was not subject to the laws that the rest of the Muslim community was subject to (66:2). In particular, he was allowed more than four wives. You also get the sense in the Quran that some of the regulations are based on his own personality and idiosyncrasies. At one point, the Quran declares that chattering women are not to approach the prophet (33:53). Is the Islamic practice of separating men and women based on this?
The conclusion is, I believe, clear. Mohamed is not a prophet in the biblical sense. He has no authority. His message is not the same as that of the bible. He even questioned the nature if Quran’s source. Did it come from Allah, an angel, or a jinn? The source of his authority is in serious question as he was not even sure who he was talking to, even after the revelation had finished. Third, Mohamed has no power or miracles to confirm his authority.
3. Is Islam a religion of peace?
Pastor Jack, for Christians who do not regularly interact with Muslims, this is one of the most pressing questions today. There are contradictory messages: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria adhere to the most violent and brutal forms of Islam, while the new mayor of London is a Muslim who, on the day after he took office visited a cathedral, visited a holocaust museum, and spoke vehemently against anti-Semitism, chastising even his own party. Which Muslim message is true?
The Quran itself is unclear. There are a large number of verses that command Muslims to kill and destroy. The most famous is the verse of the Sword - "kill the polytheists where ever you find them" (9:5). There are a significant number of similar verses. However, there are verses such as 5:32, "if you kill one man it is as if you have killed all of humanity." There are conflicting opinions among scholars as to which one is more important.
The question lies in how you interpret the Quran. Are particular comments situational or universal? Certainly there are similar questions and accusations about the bible. How are Christians today to understand God's command to Israel to destroy the people of Canaan? Most Christians would interpret that as situational. One of the difficulties of the Quran is that there is not an inspired narrative with which to judge the commands. It is as if you have Isaiah separated from the Old Testament context. Ibn Ishaq's biography of Mohamed helps to give some context, but while this is certainly authoritative on the life of Mohammad and his following, it is not considered inspired.
A unique problem in the Quran is the principle of abrogation. Abrogation is the Islamic theological concept that whatever comes later supersedes what comes before. 2:106 says, "None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?" Mohammad certainly recognizes that he is changing the message, so he determines that whatever comes later supersedes that which comes earlier. Topics of abrogation include wine, divorce, and of most interest - fighting and violence.
The problem is that the Quran is not clear as to which text abrogate another. There are also questions on the order in which the Quran was revealed. Additionally, it does not seem as if Mohammad has a clear theology which directs abrogation. Revelations seem to be, for the most part, situational. So where the Bible has a theme of God redeeming his people, the Quran struggles to pull together the patchwork of responses into an inconsistent theology.
Let's consider one of the most quoted verses on violence, 9:5-7. It states, "But when the forbidden months have passed, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every strategy of war, but if they repent and establish regular prayers, then open the way for them, for Allah is oft forgiving, most merciful." First, we find that this is referencing a specific event. It is after the forbidden months (months when it was not polite to engage in warfare). Second, the preceding verses refer to a specific treaty with the pagan tribes around them. Mohammad gave them four months to convert. If they were not converted before hand, then they should be killed.
How is this verse dealt with by Muslims? Some Muslims will say that it has a specific context, and will compare it to verses in scripture such as 1 Samuel 15:2-3, where God commands Israel to wipe out the Amalekites. Few Christians, and certainly no Christians respected by the Church, would take the view that this is in effect for the church today.
However, there are plenty of Islamic scholars that would take this verse in the Quran and apply it universally. Not only applying it universally, but since this verse is a much later revelation, that it abrogates most or all prior verses that describe peaceful ways in which Muslims should engage with people of other religions. It should be noted that Mohammad's followers and successors interpreted the verses as aggressive. Indeed, Muslim empires have a long history of treating Christians within their lands as less than equals. Not only that, but there is a significant portion of Muslims who interpret these verses as universally applicable, and probably a number of Muslims who are sympathetic to this interpretation (though not ready to pick up the sword themselves).
The immediate question for us, Pastor Jack, is what this means as we engage our Muslim neighborhood. First, I would encourage you not to assume that your friend interprets these verses as I have described. There are plenty of well meaning Muslims who see the Quran as a truly peaceful religion, though I suspect that he (or she) will not have wrestled with the verses in the Quran that advocate violence. Second, if the topic comes up, meet that person where they are at; not where the Quran is at. Third, the temptation for many of us is to become defensive, or worse, self righteous, when it comes to verses like these. But we must strive to show love in patience, kindness, not boasting or prideful.
The Muslims we meet need the love of Jesus. Many are hungry to meet God in some real way, and have not had a personal experience with God the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit. Their religion is based on works, and there is often fear about whether or not Allah will let them into paradise. However, we are secure in knowing that no one can snatch us out of the Father's hand. I encourage you to engage with your Muslim friends, showing them love and compassion not only in talking about issues of religion, but in all aspects of life. And as you share with them, share with them the good news of the death and resurrection of Christ. Not all hearts are good soil, but some are. And maybe, just maybe, God is using this time to grow the church among Abraham's lost son.