Why Christians and Muslims Worship Different Gods

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On August 30, Cardinal Raymond Burke sparked a debate about the relationship of Islam and Christianity with regard to their worship of God. It is a debate that has been addressed before, and in an interview he stated: “I don’t believe it’s true that we’re all worshipping the same God, because the God of Islam is a governor. In other words, fundamentally Islam is, Sharia is their law, and that law, which comes from Allah, must dominate every man eventually. And it’s not a law that’s founded on love.” In addition to remarking on the different conceptions of the nature of God, he also noted a difference in the Divine Will as well: “How can the God that we know, a God fundamentally of love, St. John says ‘God is love,’ be the same God that commands and demands of Muslims to slaughter infidels and to establish their rule by violence.”

It would appear that Burke’s view is inconsistent with the Church’s recent teachings on the areas of agreement between Christianity and Islam. According to Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, “[Muslims] adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men.” However, it is obvious that Nostra Aetate is not as clear as it would appear initially.

The brief treatments of Islam in both Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate contain not a single reference or footnote to support them. It is usually the practice that Church documents contain references from Scripture, the Church Fathers, St. Thomas Aquinas, or previous documents to reinforce their teaching and assert its continuity with Divine Revelation and the magisterium. The Second Vatican Council’s analysis of Islam is completely lacking in this regard. In fact, as if making an attempt at circular reasoning, the Church has largely only been able to refer as far back as these two passages from Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate in subsequent documents concerning Islam. This shouldn’t be surprising since the dearth of writings on Islam by the saints of the Church in the thirteen centuries between the founding of Islam and the Second Vatican Council would actually contradict what Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate proffer. In his interview, Cardinal Burke attempted to resolve this contradiction by placing Nostra Aetate in its proper context: “[T]o say that we worship the same God as stated in Nostra Aetate, which is not a dogmatic document, I think is highly questionable.”

While Burke raises questions about Islam’s relationship with violence and the nature of God in order to point to the dichotomy that exists between the God of Christianity and the God of Islam, proponents of Islam are often quick to point to similar examples in the Bible (especially the Old Testament) of Divine vengeance and violence. Therefore, an analysis of the claims made about God in the understanding of the sacred texts of Christianity and Islam can provide the most concrete argument for the different conceptions of God worshipped by each religion.

Alfred Guillaume, one of the leading Islamic scholars of the twentieth century, analyzed the Apostles Creed in his book Islam in an attempt to point out the many similarities between Christianity and Islam. But even he, a great proponent of the two religions’ similarities, notes that “one cannot refrain from saying that the Muslim doctrine of God in philosophical theology is not so far removed from the Christian system until the crucial question of the Trinity comes into question.”

According to Guillaume, referring to God as “Father” is a term “abhorrent to Muslims in reference to God, because it is understood in the sense of physical generation…. Nor do they admit the term in the metaphorical sense that God is the father of all men, who stand to him in the relation of children.” Thus, Islam already rejects the notion of God as our Father in Heaven, directly contradicting the words of Christ in the Gospels. By extension, Islam, in the Quran, also rejects the belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity: “The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only an apostle of Allah, and His Word that He cast toward Mary and a spirit from Him. So have faith in Allah and His apostles, and do no say, ‘[God is] a trinity.’ Relinquish [such a creed]! That is better for you. Allah is but the One God. He is far too immaculate to have any son.” (4:171)

Nostra Aetate makes an effort at rapprochement by noting that though Muslims “do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet.” Can we imagine a greater chasm existing? He whom Christians worship as the Son of God and as God himself is simply revered as a prophet in Islam. In addition to completely rejecting the idea of the Incarnation, Muslims also deny Christ’s crucifixion: “[T]hey did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so … [T]hey have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure.” (4:157)

According to Nostra Aetate Muslims “also honor Mary, [Jesus’] virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion.” However, while the Virgin Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran, she is hardly portrayed in the manner that Christians are accustomed. The Quran tells us that Mary, while traveling and feeling birth pangs, received shade from a palm tree and was supplied with fresh dates to eat (19:23-25). There is also no explicit reference to the place of Christ’s birth and Muslim scholars are still divided as to whether it took place in Bethlehem or not. Sounding as if it was directly pirated from one of the apocryphal gospels, one of the Quran’s most bizarre episodes finds the infant Jesus defending his mother from locals who have criticized her. He does so by speaking from his cradle: “Surely I am a servant of Allah; He has given me the Book and made me a prophet.” (19:30) Insomuch as the Quran describes events that directly contradict what we know of Mary in Sacred Scripture, can the Christian genuinely believe that Muslims are honoring Mary whenever they disseminate such erroneous accounts about her life?

The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, tells us that “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.” In like manner, the Quran says of itself: “And this Quran is not such as could be forged by those besides Allah, but is a verification of that which is before it and a clear explanation of the book, there is no doubt in it, from the Lord of the worlds.” (10:37) While the Christian Bible (“the speech of God”) describes the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as well as the Crucifixion and death of Jesus, the Quran (“forged by Allah”) denies the Holy Trinity and Fatherhood of God, rejects the notion of Jesus as the Son of God, claims that Christ didn’t actually die on the cross, and refers to events in the life of Mary that are found nowhere in Christian Scripture or Tradition. If both respective religions view their sacred text as the inspired word of God, then the above references prove that they are directly contradictory. Only one can be true. God could not have sent Jesus Christ, His only Son, into the world to die on the Cross while also sending Jesus (who was not His son) as a prophet who didn’t actually die on the Cross.

Many Muslims today hold that the Bible of today is not the original one that was transmitted by God. Even a recent issue of Dabiq, the English-language magazine of the Islamic State, has made an effort in a particular article to discredit the Bible with the use of ample footnotes, Gospel references, and flashy Greek transliterations. The article concludes that “there should be no doubt that the text of the modern Bible is not the actual words and exact teachings of the original prophets like Moses and Jesus.” What the article doesn’t explain is why credence should be given to Islam in this regard, especially since the religion itself is six centuries removed from the New Testament events that it gnostically purports to have a previously undiscovered, secret knowledge of.

An analysis of the scriptural identities of God, Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary should help us to realize the deep chasm that exists between Christianity and Islam with regard to some of theology’s most basic and significant questions. While some similarities may exist between the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God, it is certain that the Christian who prays “Our Father, Who art in Heaven” each day is not praying to the same God as the Muslim who prays “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” This is because they are not worshipping the same God.

It would be dishonest and unhelpful for us to attempt putting puzzle pieces together that don’t complement each other. The best way forward would be to accept and acknowledge the serious differences that exist between the God of Christianity and the God of Islam. It is only then that a serious and genuine understanding of both religions can take place.

(Photo credit: iStock)

Fr. Brandon O'Brien

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Fr. Brandon O'Brien is a priest for the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York. He served as the 2012-2013 Editor-in-Chief of The Dunwoodie Review, the academic journal published by students of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York, before his ordination to the priesthood in 2013. He earned an M. Div and an M.A. in Theology from the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York.

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