It certainly seems as if we worship the same God. After all, we call God by the same name. Arabic-speaking Christians, including Eastern Catholics such as Maronites and Melkites, use the word “Allah” for the God of the Bible.
But are they the same God?
The question is not answered by simple linguistic identity, as evidenced by St. Paul’s complaint to the Corinthians: “For if some one comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough” (2 Corinthians 11:4). The “other Jesus” that was being preached among the Corinthians was not a different person of the same name, but a view of Jesus of Nazareth that was so radically different from Paul’s that he termed it “another Jesus” altogether.
In the same way, it is possible that the Qur’an and Islamic tradition present a picture of God so radically different from that of the Bible and Catholic tradition that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the proposition that they are the same Being in both traditions, apart from some minor creedal differences.
But wait a minute. Don’t Catholics have to believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, because the Second Vatican Council says so? The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church tells us that the “plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” (Lumen Gentium 16)
It is almost more important to clarify what this text does not say than what it does. The first statement, that “the plan of salvation also includes” Muslims, has led some – mostly critics of the Church – to assert that the Council Fathers are saying that Muslims are saved, and thus need not be preached the Gospel, as they’ve already got just as much of a claim on Heaven as do Christians.
This is obviously false. This statement on Muslims comes as part of a larger passage that begins by speaking of “those who have not yet received the Gospel” and concludes by reaffirming “the command of the Lord, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature.’” It speaks of the possibility of salvation for those who “through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”
Clearly, then, Muslims figure in the “plan of salvation” not in the sense that they are saved as Muslims, that is, by means of Islamic observance, but insofar as they strive to be attentive to and to obey the authentic voice of the Creator whom they acknowledge and who speaks to them through the dictates of their conscience.
This suggests that a Muslim who refrains from suicide bombing because he understands that it is cold-blooded murder has a better chance to be saved, and is more clearly attuned to the promptings of the Creator within whose plan of salvation he finds himself, than does a Muslim who blows himself up in a crowd of infidels because the Qur’an promises a place in Paradise to those who “kill and are killed” for Allah (9:111).
The Conciliar statement also wisely adds the caveat, all too often ignored by the Church’s critics, that “Mohammedans” (Musulmanos) are “professing” to hold the faith of Abraham. Whether or not they actually hold it is arguable, but the Vatican Council is only noting that they claim for their faith that it is that of Abraham, without discussing whether or not Islam actually is an authentically Abrahamic faith.
Likewise widely misinterpreted, or at least given a weight that it was clearly never meant to bear, is the subsequent affirmation that Muslims “along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” Many see in this also an assertion that the Gospel need not be preached to Muslims, or that they are already saved, for they adore the one and merciful God. Many Catholics, including writers of some prominence, have asserted that Vatican II, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church that quotes it, teach that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God, and then proceed as if this establishes more than it actually does, or as if it were obvious that the Council was thus forbidding a critical stance toward Islam or concern about Islamic supremacist advances in Europe and the U.S.
In this vein the great Catholic writer and apologist Peter Kreeft writes disapprovingly that “many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, do not believe what the Church says about Islam (for example, in Vatican II and the new Catechism): that Allah is not another God, that we worship the same God.” He leaves unexplained, however, what he thinks that means exactly, or what responsibilities or courses of action it sets out for Catholics.
The Council document is actually saying perhaps less than Kreeft and others of like mind would wish it to be saying. In the first place it is clearly affirming that Muslims, like Christians, are monotheists, which is a rather commonplace observation that has been noted numerous times over the fourteen centuries of Islam’s existence. As far back as 1076, Pope St. Gregory VII wrote to Anzir, the king of Mauritania, that “we believe and confess one God, although in different ways.”
What it is asserting beyond that bare fact, if anything, can best be ascertained by considering the passage in light of those “different ways” to which Pope Gregory alluded. It is noteworthy that Pope Gregory doesn’t say that the one God that he and King Anzir both worship is the same God. All he says is that both he and Anzir worship one God; in other words, they’re both monotheists. And the Second Vatican Council is not actually making a definitive statement on that issue. It is saying that both Catholics and Muslims adore the one and merciful God, and while that clearly does indicate a certain commonality, there can be no doubt about one thing it certainly doesn’t mean: that Muslims and Catholics adore the same God in every particular, for Catholics do not believe that Muhammad was a prophet or the Qur’an is God’s Word, and Muslims do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God or the Savior of the world, or that God is Triune.
The same may be said of Jews, of course: they, along with Muslims, reject the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the divinity of Christ, and yet clearly Catholics and Jews worship the same God. This, however, is because Christianity began as a form of Judaism and is in a certain sense an extension of it, affirming faith in the same Old Testament Scriptures, the same prophets, and many points of belief.
These things cannot be said about Islam, which considers itself to be less an extension of Christianity than a rejection and correction of it, such that Muslims even reject the Old and New Testament Scriptures as corruptions.
In declaring that both Muslims and Catholics adore the one and merciful God, the Council obviously did not mean that Muslims and Catholics regard that God in exactly the same way, or that the differences were insignificant. The Council is silent on the question of whether or not the Muslims’ adoration is blind or informed. So what, then, is the Council actually saying?
Vatican II was a large-scale attempt to restore relationships that had been broken for centuries and build new bridges of trust where groups had been divided from the Church by centuries of mistrust, suspicion and outright conflict. Consequently it emphasized common ground rather than differences, unlike every ecumenical council that preceded it. No case, however, can be made that its statement about the shared adoration of the one and merciful God in any way mitigated the Church’s truth claim or sense of its own responsibility to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, any more than shared monotheism removes that responsibility in regard to Protestants or anyone else, for that responsibility is reiterated in the same passage.
It is not even certain that the Council is saying that Muslims and Catholics adore the same “one and merciful God.” Muslims certainly believe that their one and merciful God is the same One whom Christians (and Jews) worship, for the Qur’an tells them so (29:46). And whether they know it or not, the only God actually available to receive their adoration and hear their prayers is the Christian one. However, the differences in how Muslims and Catholics conceive of the one and merciful God lead to the possibility that while Muslims believe that they are worshiping the same God that Catholic worship, the teachings of Islam itself, despite the Qur’an’s insistence that Muslims worship the same God as do Christians and Jews, actually paints a picture of a God who is substantially different from the God of the Bible and the Catholic Faith.
It is noteworthy in this connection that the Council speaks of “Muslims” (Musulmanos), not “Islam,” adoring with Catholics the one and merciful God. It is a manifest fact that Muslim people believe that their God and the Christians’ God is the same. It is by no means as clear that the teachings of Islam itself about God offer a picture of the same Being who is delineated in orthodox Catholic theology. Although Arabic-speaking Christians generally use the word “Allah” for the God of the Bible – the same Arabic word used for the God of the Qur’an – this identity of name does not require that the two Beings referred to in each book are one and the same. It may be so, but it is not established on the basis of the Qur’an’s declaration, or of the identity in nomenclature.
In any case, this short passage from Lumen Gentium is burdened down by a weight of assumptions. When Kreeft says that “many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, do not believe what the Church says about Islam (for example, in Vatican II and the new Catechism): that Allah is not another God, that we worship the same God,” he apparently assumes that to affirm that Muslims and Christians worship the same God establishes an important kinship between the two groups, and may even indicate that Islam in itself is a fundamentally good thing, such that Catholics should encourage Islamic faith and Muslim piety. Kreeft, in fact, espoused such a view in a debate with me.
These assumptions, however, do not proceed as a matter of necessity or inevitability from the Conciliar text. It would do no outrage to that text if the differences between the Islamic and Catholic views of the one and merciful God, and between Islam and Catholicism in general, were such that Catholics would not wish to encourage Muslim faith or fervor. One may therefore take a jaundiced view of the prospects for Catholic/Muslim cooperation and dialogue without dissenting from the Council’s teaching.
At the same time, even if the Council Fathers did mean to affirm that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God, this would have little significance for the contemporary ecclesiastical or political situation, in which Muslims are oppressing and killing Christian believers in several countries without regard for the Qur’an’s insistence that “our Allah and your Allah is one.” And as for the assumption that the Council meant to speak of a special kinship between Catholics and Muslims, Catholics have a moral obligation to be charitable to all people, regardless of whether or not they believe in the same God we do. Genuine charity includes a concern for justice.
The second Vatican II reference to Islam comes in the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate:
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
While this is a bit more descriptive about Muslim belief than was Lumen Gentium, as it includes the Islamic classification of Jesus as a non-divine prophet and Islam’s respect for the Virgin Mary, it adds nothing in terms of substance to the Dogmatic Constitution’s statements about Muslims. Here again we see that the Muslim linkage of Islam to Abraham is presented not as fact, but as something Muslims affirm, or “take pleasure” in affirming. Here again we see that they adore the one, merciful God; in other words, that they’re monotheists.
That is all that Vatican II is really saying about Muslims: they’re monotheists, they say they belong to the religion of Abraham, and they revere Jesus, but not as the Son of God, and His Blessed Mother.
The tone is very different, but not much in terms of substance is added in earlier Church statements on Muslims and Islam. And as Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us, Vatican II is not a super-council that supersedes all previous Church teaching; rather, its teachings must be understood in light of tradition. When it comes to Islam, the consistent focus in earlier statements about Islam is generally not on what Muslims believe, but on Islam as a heresy, and on the hostility of Muslims to Christians and Christianity. In that vein, Pope Benedict XIV in 1754 reaffirmed an earlier prohibition on Albanian Catholics giving their children “Turkish or Mohammedan names” in baptism by pointing out that not even Protestants or Orthodox were stooping so low: “none of the schismatics and heretics has been rash enough to take a Mohammedan name, and unless your justice abounds more than theirs, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.”
Pope Callixtus III, in a somewhat similar spirit, in 1455 vowed to “exalt the true Faith, and to extirpate the diabolical sect of the reprobate and faithless Mahomet in the East.” Neither this statement nor that of Lumen Gentium rise to the level of a dogmatic definition, but is it possible for Islam to be a “diabolical sect” that at the same time adores the “one and merciful God”? Certainly, for it is always possible that their adoration of the one and merciful God may be wrongly directed, marred by wrong emphases and outright falsehoods.
Nonetheless, many Catholics would argue that the statements of Benedict XIV and Callixtus III (and others like them from other popes) reflect a very different age from our own, and that Vatican II’s statements reflect a more mature spirit, as well as the charity toward others that Christians should properly exhibit. And that may well be so, although it must be noted that even though they are only fifty years old, the statements of Vatican II on Islam reflect the outlook of a vanished age no less than do those of the earlier popes. For in the 1960s, secularism and Westernization were very much the order of the day in many areas of the Islamic world. It was, for example, unusual in Cairo in the 1960s to see a woman wearing a hijab, an Islamic headscarf mandated by Muhammad’s command that a woman when appearing in public should cover everything except her face and hands. Now, on the other hand, one may walk down the streets of the same city and be surprised to see a woman who is not so attired.
This change has not been solely external. The hijabs in Cairo are but one visible sign of a revolution that has swept the Islamic world, or more properly, a revival. Islamic values have been revived, including not only rigor in dress codes but also a hostility toward Western ideas and principles. The “Arab Spring” uprisings have led to a reassertion of the political aspects of Islam, as opposed to Western political models, all across the Middle East. Western ideas of democracy and pluralism that were fashionable in elite circles all over the Islamic world in the first half of the twentieth century have fallen into disrepute.
One consequence of all this is that the Islamic world that the Fathers of Vatican II had in mind is rapidly disappearing. The words of Vatican II on Muslims must be accorded the respect that all Church teaching merits, and obeyed to the degree that obedience is owed to all magisterial statements. These statements must be evaluated, however, within the context of their times. The documents of Vatican II are no less a product of their age than the statements of Benedict XIV and Callixtus III are a product of theirs. Just as the age of crusading knights has vanished, so also the age of a dominant secular West striding confidently into what it terms the “modern” age is rapidly vanishing. This is not to devalue or denigrate the Council in any way, but simply to see it as what it is, no more, no less: an enunciation of certain eternal truths, to be sure, but within the context of a number of unexamined and yet decisively influential core beliefs and assumptions about the nature of the world and of mankind.
Ultimately, while it may always be the Christian’s responsibility to reach out with respect and esteem to Muslims, the hostility that the Islamic world had always displayed toward Christendom was never less in evidence than it was in the 1960s, and so a statement of friendship was never more appropriate, either before or since. That situation does not prevail today, a fact that has a great many implications for the prospects for dialogue as well: Western-minded Muslims who have a favorable attitude toward the Catholic Church no longer have nearly the influence among their coreligionists that they once had, at least in the Islamic world.
That is not to say, however, that we have returned to the world of Benedict XIV and Callixtus III, when Catholics understood that Mohammedanism, as it was then popularly styled (to the indignation of Muslims themselves) was a heresy, steeped in falsehood and perhaps even diabolical, and dedicated to the destruction of the Church and the conversion or subjugation of Christians. We are centuries away, and separated by chasms of cultural assumptions, from the world in which it was even possible to think of one’s faith as having enemies and needing to be defended. Catholics of the modern age have long assumed that that world was gone forever, and there is some reason to believe that it is indeed.
But with Muslim persecution of Christians escalating worldwide, there is also considerable evidence that that rough old world is returning, and may never have been as far away as it seemed to be.