by Andy Bannister
Modern Britain is increasingly pluralistic: many of us live in cities surrounded by hundreds of different faiths and belief systems. And that diversity raises lots of issues – not least how as Christians we relate to friends, neighbours and colleagues in other religions.
In the UK, the second biggest religion is Islam, one that is frequently on the front pages of the newspapers, often for all the wrong reasons. Now some people have suggested that one way to foster peace between moderate Muslims and Christians is to acknowledge that Allah, the God of the Qur’an, and Yahweh, the God of the Bible, are the same God — that Muslims, Christians (and Jews) can be pooled together under a label like “Abrahamic Faiths”.
I’ve been working among Muslims for over 20 years and I confess when I began sharing my faith with Muslims, that was my assumption — that Muslims and Christians worshipped the same God. But during those years of talking, sharing and studying, my views have changed. Let me explain why.
First, let’s acknowledge that Muslims and Christians do believe some things in common about God’s role. We all believe that God is the creator and ruler of all things, for instance. But notice that this description is fairly thin: it gives you a kind of distant, abstract God of the philosophers. In particular it says little about God’s identity — not so much who God is as what God is.
Now it’s possible to agree about somebody’s role but disagree about their identity. If I believe that the Prime Minister is Theresa May, you believe it’s Jeremy Corbyn, and the man in the pub believes it’s Donald Duck, we all believe in one Prime Minster, but we disagree about the PM’s identity. And surely that question is one that really matters.
When it comes to God, the Bible is deeply concerned with the identity question. Think about what Jesus asks his disciples in Mark 8:27: not what do you say I am, but who do you say that I am?
Now mistaken identity is a common problem. Suppose you say to me, “Andy, I met your friend Mike yesterday.” “My friend, Mike?” I query. “Yes, you know, the six foot tall bald guy.” I explain that the only Mike I know is five foot with dreadlocks. “No, it was definitely your friend,” you insist, “he’s got a small dog and plays the guitar”. I explain my friend Mike is allergic to dogs and tone deaf. And so it goes on. Now here’s the thing: how many differences would we need to discover before we were forced to conclude we were talking about two different people?
Something like that is going on when it comes to the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an. As the Bible addresses the question of who God is, the Bible lays out a number of key characteristics of God’s identity. Four of the most important are that the God of the Bible is relational (walking and talking with Adam and Eve, stepping into history in the person of Jesus etc.). That he is knowable (the Bible claims we can not just know about God, but know him). That he is love — not just a God who acts lovingly, but who is love in his very being. And that God’s love has been primarily demonstrated through suffering on the cross, in Jesus, to deal with our sin and brokenness and offer us the possibility of forgiveness and new life. 1
Relational, knowable, love, suffering. And here’s the problem: the Qur’an either ignores or directly denies each of those core aspects of God’s identity. For example, Muslim scholar Shabbir Akhtar points out that in Islam, Allah cannot be known nor any kind of relationship had with him:
Muslims do not see God as their father … Men are servants of a just master; they cannot, in orthodox Islam, typically attain any greater degree of intimacy with their creator. 2
Whilst the Muslim academic Isma’il al Furuqi writes:
Allah does not reveal Himself to anyone in any way. Allah reveals only his will … Allah does not reveal himself to anyone … that is the great difference between Christianity and Islam. 3
Which means that the God of Islam, the Allah of the Qur’an, is a very different God indeed.
All that said, I do meet many Muslims who are yearning for a God of love, who when you ask them about the God they believe in, speak of characteristics like love. What’s going on here? Well, the Bible explains that we are designed for a relationship with God, created to be in loving communion with him, and so that desire bubbles up in Muslim hearts too. Thus when I meet a Muslim who talks of God and love, I often begin not by saying “you have the wrong God” but instead, by pivoting off Acts 17 as my model.
In Acts 17:16-34, when Paul is wandering around Athens and observing the myriad pagan altars he notices one inscribed: ‘To an Unknown God’. Later, in his sermon at the Areopagus, Paul doesn’t launch into an attack on the Athenians’ idolatry, rather he builds on the Unknown God idea, saying:
“Now what you worship as something unknown, I am going to proclaim to you.”
I believe that in some cases this approach can work with our Muslim friends. Yes, the Qur’an clearly describes a very different god to the God of the Bible: utterly, irreconcilably different. But many individual Muslims are yearning for a God like the God of the Bible. In that case, we should look at our Muslim friend and say: “Come on home, friend, come on home, to the God of the Bible, the God who has revealed himself so clearly, so powerfully, so compassionately in Jesus.”
Here in the West, immigration has brought and is bringing more Muslims to our countries. As well as welcoming them to our lands, let’s also introduce them to our Lord: a God who is relational, a God who can be known, a God who is love, and a God who has demonstrated that love in costly suffering in the cross of Christ.
If you enjoyed this short blog article and would like to dig deeper, you can watch the longer lecture I gave on this topic for the CS Lewis Institute in 2016. (And you can also watch the Q&A from the evening).
- There are many, many other differences between the god of the Qur’an and the God of the Bible. In his excellent book, The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes: Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion, Mark Durie, PhD, undertakes an incredibly thorough analysis of the theology of the Qur’an and the Bible, showing that they are utterly different, especially in their conception of God. This is, Mark argues, because Islam is not related to Christianity and Judaism, but a thoroughly different religion with an entirely different conceptual grid. The book is expensive (academic pricing!) but it’s worth tracking down a copy in a library. You can also watch a lecture by Mark on some of this material.
- Shabbir Akhtar, A Faith for All Seasons (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990) p180.
- Isma’il al Furuqi, Christian Mission and Islamic Da’wah: Proceedings of the Chambésy Dialogue Consultation (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1982) p47-48.