By Martin Accad
The Malaysian Supreme Court finally confirmed last week what many in the Evangelical community have been suspecting in recent years: Muslims and Christians worship different gods, and we must establish clear theological and linguistic boundaries, lest our people get confused! The first time I heard anyone suggest that Muslims and Christians worshiped different gods was in 1997. I had moved to the UK to study and it was the first time I lived outside of Lebanon for an extended period of time. The emotion I felt when I heard my new British friend suggest that Muslims worship a different God is still vivid for me. I would describe it as a mixed feeling of sadness and shock. It made me feel slightly nauseous, while at the same time causing me to dismiss it with a shrug as I ascribed it to simple ignorance. Yet since that time over 15 years ago, I have heard that argument more and more often. While growing up in Lebanon, I never heard this suggested, either by Muslims or Christians, even though those were years of intense civil war precisely between Christians and Muslims. Most importantly perhaps, the fact that my Muslim friends and I never questioned whether Allah that we all worshiped was the same divine being never led us to feel that we were all part of the same religion. They still felt that they had the truth and so did I. They talked to me about their own understanding of God and I invited them to Sunday school.
I know that an argument from silence is not the strongest, nor is relying on a gut feeling or emotion necessarily the best test for truth. But however sophisticated an argument I could make to demonstrate the absurdity of this claim (and perhaps I’ll present that on another occasion), I am still driven by my gut feeling. I know the counter arguments will never convince me, not because they are bad arguments, but simply because I have always grown up with the assumption that my Muslim friends and I worshiped the same God. Conversely, I do not expect to convince many who believe we worship different gods, even through the most sophisticated of arguments, simply because they are likely driven by the opposite gut feeling. Isn’t the argument beyond human reach anyway?
When the Malaysian appeals court ruled that “the term Allah must be exclusive to Islam or it could cause public disorder,” did that not reflect the human obsessive drive for control, even of God? Especially God we must control, for he is such a powerful catalyst for action in human beings. No amount of complaining that Christians have used the word “Allah” for centuries before Islam in the Arab world and in Asia will do anything to change the mind of religious leaders. God must be kept under control. Monopolies over the names of God must be settled in court. Otherwise our people might get confused. It might “cause public disorder.” Our symbols of exclusion, our walls, our boundaries might be laid low. It’s news like this that issued from Malaysia last week that reminds me why I hate religion so much. Because religion sparks tensions between communities, it causes churches and mosques and Sikh temples to be attacked and burnt down.
Then I am reminded that God cares about the nations too, not just about his “chosen people.” The prophet Jonah learnt this lesson at great cost to himself. Even in the cases where God punishes the nations in the Old Testament, is that not a reflection of God’s care for them? He punishes a nation for practicing injustice towards the oppressed, the orphans and the widows among its own population. But these downtrodden people are themselves unbelieving pagans. On the other hand, we read of times when God did not listen to the prayers of his own people anymore. Consider the following scathing criticism relayed by the prophet Isaiah (1:11-15):
‘The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!’
Is it because his people’s theology had gone heretical that God turned a deaf ear to them? Clearly not. Two verses later (v. 17), God tells them what they need to do for their worship to be accepted again:
‘Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.’
The fact is that, throughout the Bible, what seems to matter more to God is our love and care for our fellow human beings rather than our correct theology. I know this may not sound pleasing at first to our Evangelical mind-set, steeped as we are in the belief that we are not saved by our good works but by faith. I believe this as well. But it is clear that we cannot convince God of our good faith if our works don’t reflect it. And salvation by faith also points to the fact that we are not saved by right theology or by sophisticated doctrine.
Finally, I am reminded of the parable that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Both were Jews, so we can assume they were worshipping the “correct” God. Yet after they had finished praying, Jesus affirms: “I tell you that this man (that is the tax collector), rather than the other (the Pharisee), went home justified before God.” We learn from Jesus’ narrative that one man’s prayer was accepted by God because it came from a humble heart, whereas the other man’s prayer was not because it came from a heart that exalted itself. We learn, too, that we can have the right theology and pray to the right God, yet our prayer and worship is not accepted because our heart is not right. On the other hand, God will hear the cry of the oppressed even if they don’t have the right theology, if their heart is humble and they come in brokenness before him.
Is it of any relevance, then, to reach a conclusion on whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Besides my conviction that it is Biblically irrelevant, I believe we will never get to a satisfactory conclusion that everyone agrees with. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that Jesus occupies a central role in our ability to approach the holiness of God and to understand and experience his Fatherly heart. But I would feel like a Pharisee if I insisted that Muslims, who affirm passionately that they worship the God of Abraham and of Jesus, were actually worshiping a different god. I’d much rather work hard on reflecting the love of Jesus for them, so that they too would be attracted to his beauty and grow deeper in their understanding and experience of God. I refuse to align, like so many these days in my own Evangelical community, with the religious extremists in the Malaysian context.
For more on this issue of God in Christianity and Islam, please refer to previous post by IMES colleague Jesse Wheeler: “Is Allah God?”