Recently SBC pastor J.D. Greear received some criticism over claims that he said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
In all fairness, that’s not exactly what J.D. said. In his book Breaking the Islam Code: Understanding the Soul Questions of Every Muslim, J.D. stated that while the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God are irreconcilably different, there are some shared assumptions about God which can be used in apologetic conversations with Muslims, e.g. monotheism, affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, recognition of Jesus as a prophet, etc.
You can hear, watch and read J.D. Greear speak on this subject in his own words here.
Allah and God
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Israel, and during my time there I met several Israeli Christians, including some Arab-Israeli Christians. Arab-Israeli Christians refer to God by the Arabic word for God: Allah. Just as the English word God is of Germanic origin, and is not itself particularly tied to the God of the Bible, but is a “generic” name for deity, Allah is a similar word in Arabic. As monotheists, who believe there is only one God, we use this word to speak of the one supreme God rather than using a personal name for God to differentiate Him from other deities, since we do not believe any other so-called god is a rival to Him. There is precedent for this in the Bible, in which the ancient Hebrew word, with its Mesopotamian origins is used: אל (“El”), and in the New Testament, the Greek word Θεός (“Theos”).
Islam is different than Christianity in their belief that the Quran cannot be translated to any other language other than Arabic. Muslims are required to pray in Arabic, meaning that non-Arabic speakers are not allowed to pray to God in their mother tongue, but must memorize and recite Arabic prayers. Furthermore, when they read the Quran, they must read it in Arabic. There are “interpretations” of the Quran into other languages, but they are not considered scripture; only the Arabic-language Quran is considered valid and legitimate. It is for this reason, that muslims all over the world refer to their deity as Allah and not God in English, Gott in German, Бог in Russian, and so on.
So, the real issue is not: “What is the difference between Allah and God?”, but rather: “What is the difference between the God of Islam and the God of the Bible?” Even though they are both monotheistic supreme deities, they have different attributes, and therefore, even though they are both called “God”, they are not the same.
Why Islam is Like Mormonism
As the above tweet mentions, when Islam first came on the scene in the 7th Century, Christians did not consider it a different religion per se, they originally considered it a Christological heresy, and they considered Muhammed to be a false prophet.
In the Near East at that time, the majority of the population, particularly in urban areas, was Christian. In the Arabian peninsula, where Muhammed was located, polytheism was still practiced by the majority of the population, many of whom were nomadic. Muhammed led the Arabic people into monotheism, but a new and unique form of monotheism, which built on, but changed, the teachings of Judaism and Christianity.
The reason Islam was considered a Christological heresy was because Islam affirms both the Old Testament and the New Testament, considering them both holy scriptures, upon which Islam seeks to build. However, they claim that both the Old Testament and the New Testament have been severely altered and redacted, and therefore are not trustworthy. They argue that as a result, the Quran, which they claim is a new and trustworthy revelation given to Muhammed, the last and greatest in the long line of prophets, is the only trustworthy revelation available to us, and the Quran “sets the record straight” regarding things which have been altered and redacted in the Old and New Testaments.
For more information on why we can be sure that the Bible has not been altered (neither the Old nor the New Testament), check out this article in which I discuss historicity, attestation, and canonization.
Some of the things Islam claims were changed in the Bible: God’s choosing of Isaac instead of Ishmael (they claim Ishmael was the chosen son, since they trace their ancestry through him – and they claim the Jews changed the Bible to say that God chose Isaac). They also claim that what the New Testament says about Jesus was radically changed by Christians in order to claim that Jesus was God, when in fact (as they say), he was only a prophet. They do however, acknowledge that Jesus was sinless, unlike Muhammed.
Thus, Muslims deny Jesus’ deity, and along with that comes a denial of his identity as Savior. As a result, they teach salvation by works, whereas Christianity teaches salvation by grace, through faith, through the atoning work of Jesus on our behalf. The Christian gospel is that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, which is the basis for our standing before Him, as opposed to Islam, which claims that you must earn your way before God by trying hard enough to keep the 5 Pillars of Islam, so that hopefully your good works with outweigh your bad works, and then God will allow you into Heaven. These are two radically different soteriologies (doctrines of salvation, i.e. how one is saved).
In a way, Islam is quite similar to Mormonism. Consider the similarities:
- Both claim to build upon the Old and New Testaments, but claim that both have been corrupted and are therefore not trustworthy in the present form in which we have them.
- Both claim a “new revelation”: the Quran and the Book of Mormon
- Both claim a new prophet: Muhammed and Joseph Smith
- Both change the identity and story of Jesus
- Both teach a works-based soteriology (doctrine of salvation)
Are there bridges of shared assumptions between Christians and Muslims which can be used for apologetic and/or evangelistic purposes?
I believe there are. My wife and I, before we were married, used to serve together in a refugee camp in Hungary which was populated mostly by Muslims from Asia. We provided humanitarian aid to them, and as we built relationships with them, we got the opportunity to share our faith with them as well. We found that they had an affinity for the New Testament and an openness and interest in reading it, so we provided them with copies of the New Testament in their own languages. Many of them, though they had been taught that the New Testament was one of their holy books, had never had the opportunity to read it, assumedly because of the teaching in Islam that the New Testament has been changed and is not trustworthy. However, as these people read the New Testament, many of them were captivated by Jesus, and decided to become Christians. The inbuilt affinity for the Old and New Testaments, for Jesus, and their monotheistic belief, are great starting points for sharing the gospel.
An example of this in the Bible can be seen in how the Apostle John, in the Gospel of John, begins in chapter 1 by identifying Jesus as the divine Λογος (Logos = “the Word”). The concept of the divine Logos was a Greek philosophical concept, which basically meant: “the grand idea” or “the grand force” of the universe. John identified the Logos (translated: the Word) as Jesus. By doing so, John was tapping into an existing belief for apologetic and evangelistic purposes, like Paul did in Acts 17 in Athens, where he appealed to the Athenians on the basis of their altar to “the unknown god.”
Like Paul and like John, may we be uncompromising in our biblical beliefs, and yet wise to use opportunities to share the gospel with people in ways they can grab ahold of, that they might find love, joy, hope, freedom, and salvation in Jesus.