A generation ago many people in the west (including some Christians) wondered if, perhaps, followers of other faiths were worshipping the same God as Christians. Usually this question was prompted by looking at the many different religions around the world. Today, however, Christians are hearing this same question and often we’re hearing it directly from Muslim neighbour or work mates – who’ve recently emigrated to the west in large numbers and now comprise the largest non-Christian faith.
It is not uncommon to hear a friendly Muslim remark to his Christian neighbour, “You are not so different from us … we worship the same God as you”. In this day and age dominated by religious pluralism and tolerance towards other cultures, Christians are increasingly perplexed by the question, Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians?
If one focuses only on certain similarities, it might be easy to agree, especially when you consider that Muslims believe – as Christians do – in one God who created the universe. Not only so, the word for God in the Arabic Bible is Allah – the very same term Muslims use. The question of whether Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God will continue being asked, and increasingly so, as the number of Muslims keeps growing in the west, and indeed, globally.
Let me clarify that our intention is not to argue against using the terms God or Allah in a generic sense, as if to imply that we should undertake a new translation of the Arabic Bible. Our aim is simply to discuss the core character qualities of God. ‘Oneness’ is a primary attribute of God but aren’t there other key characteristics that distinguish God from all other so-called gods – traits that prove he is greater? These are the kinds of questions we want to consider.
Now that we have properly understood the question, the reader wants to know, “How should I, as a Christian, respond to my neighbor?” Should I immediately try to expose those aspects of Islam which I know to be false? Should I begin by pointing out the stark differences between our two faiths? For example, the Qur’an – strictly speaking – denies that God is Father. Muslims emphatically reject Jesus as God’s Son and they firmly deny Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection – the very heart of the gospel.
If we begin discussing such topics with a Muslim it will probably provoke an argument. The alternative is to start talking about common beliefs, such as the oneness of God. This approach is wiser (generally speaking). Not only is it consistent with the gracious example we see in Christ’s life (especially with ordinary people), it is also in keeping with the teaching of the apostles. (John 4; 1 Corinthians 9:19-22; 1 Peter 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 2:22-26)
If our aim is to speak the truth in love – as the Bible instructs us to – we will want to use a gentle approach. We can respond warmly to our Muslim friend’s comment about Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God. We can give him ‘the benefit of the doubt’, so to speak. Of course, it is entirely possible that our friend might discover – on closer examination – that the evidence points to a different answer.
We might say, “I believe in one God, as it is written in the first commandment, ‘You must not have any other god but me.‘” (Exodus 20:3) By taking this approach we set the Muslim at ease because this belief is the cornerstone of his faith. In fact, most Muslims acknowledge that this commandment was the very first commandment (of 10) which Allah revealed through the prophet Moosa (Moses).
It is important not to just tell our friend the short version of this command. We should read the full statement as recorded in Exodus 20:2-3, “I am the LORD your God who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me.”The Exodus story, as recounted in the Qur’an, corresponds to the Biblical account – in most respects – although the Muslim version omits the 10th plague and Passover Lamb. The fact is: Muslims know the broad outline of this epic rescue story, including the climactic rescue when God parted the waters of the Red Sea. Muslims, therefore, are inclined to agree with the first commandment as found in Exodus 20:2-3.
It would appear – on the surface – that Muslims recognize Allah exerted awesome saving power on behalf of the helpless Israelites who faced an overwhelming Egyptian army! Unfortunately for most Muslims, this amazing deliverance is something they take for granted. True, they agree that Allah was ‘mighty to save’ but they overlook its significance because they don’t include the name Savior on the prominent list of 99 names of Allah (nor are close synonyms such as Deliverer and Redeemer mentioned in this list).
The Bible, on the other hand, repeatedly emphasizes God’s saving power, showing how it serves as a criterion for distinguishing the true God from other so-called gods. This is clear from the report Moses gave to his father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest. We read that Moses told him,
everything the LORD had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians on behalf of Israel. He also told about all the hardships they had experienced along the way and how the LORD had rescued his people from all their troubles. Jethro was delighted when he heard about all the good things the LORD had done for Israel as he rescued them from the hand of the Egyptians. “Praise be to the Lord,” Jethro said, “for he has rescued you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh … I know now that God is greater than all other gods.” (Exodus 18:8-11)
How do Muslims respond when they hear this amazing story? They agree that Moses’ God must be greater than all other gods. The logic is simple and straightforward. But we should not assume that this one story is enough. The truth that God is ‘mighty to save’ needs to be reinforced by reading the stories of other prophets.
A good example is the prophet Hosea who came hundreds of years after Moses. The Israelites were forgetful so the prophets had to remind them to worship God alone. We read in Hosea 13:4, “But I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me.” (bold font added for emphasis)
Most Muslims agree that Hosea 13:4 echoes the first commandment, but the last part of the declaration that says there is “no Savior except me” is unfamiliar to Muslims – to put it mildly. There are some Muslims who do not think this name is valid in our day, and there are a few who object strongly to using it. A Christian who understands this will be forbearing and patient. He knows the wisdom of gradually “unfolding your words [so that it enlightens and] gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130, NIV, see also 2 Tim. 2:24-26)
Space does not permit us to explain why Muslims respond so differently to the Divine name Savior (or with such ambivalence). Nevertheless, it is interesting that these reactions remind us of the question that started this whole discussion: “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?”
Of course there are some Muslims who anticipate where this topic is going and jump to conclusions. In a few cases, they even prejudge the answer to the question. However, we will assume – for the sake of our discussion – that the Muslim friend we are talking with continues to give us the green light. The dialog continues with both parties showing mutual respect and a teachable attitude.
Jonah is a prophet who Muslims acknowledge was rescued by God from a near-death experience. As the story unfolds, the sailors were the first ones to narrowly miss being drowned. You recall that they desperately prayed to their idols while the storm raged around them. But their idols could not save them. However, they finally did as Jonah instructed and the raging sea suddenly stopped. Their lives were spared, “they were awestruck by the LORD’S great power and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him.” (Jonah 1:16)
Jonah barely survived the fury of a killer storm, and then he experienced something frightfully close to death – being swallowed by a gigantic sea monster. However, he was miraculously rescued by God. From inside the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, “But you, O Lord God, snatched me from the jaws of death! … Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise … For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.” (Jonah 2:6-9)
There is a story that isn’t told in the Qur’an but it makes fascinating reading for a Muslim – the story of Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego. They defied the King’s command to bow down to an idol. Every Muslim would agree this is a brave and noble act. They faced the threat of punishment from King Nebuchadnezzar for disobeying his orders. The punishment would be certain death in a fiery furnace. They were willing to die rather than deny God – a very admirable and heroic act (especially in the eyes of Muslims). God miraculously saved them which amazed Nebuchadnezzar so much that he ordered everyone in his kingdom, “I make this decree, ‘If any people, whatever their race or nation or language speak a word against the God of Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego, they will be torn limb from limb… There is no other god who can rescue like this.’” (Daniel 3:29)
All these stories show that God is ‘mighty to save’. Not only so, in each story idol worshipers are confronted with the one true God who alone is worthy of worship. Each story reinforces what we learned from Jethro – that God’s saving power distinguishes him as utterly unique from (and greater than) idols. As we discuss these stories with our friends we should be much in prayer that God’s Spirit will awaken in them, a deepening hunger, to read the Bible for themselves.
Now let us reflect once again on the Exodus story. This time, however, we will pay special attention to its world-wide implications. Notice how God said to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:16, NIV) Pharaoh hardened his heart as a series of confrontations unfolded between Moses and Pharaoh. Pharaoh kept on hardening his heart and the plagues became more and more severe. Finally God struck Pharaoh and his people with a plague that was worse than any disaster Egypt had suffered or would ever suffer in the future! (Exodus 11:6) The magnitude of the catastrophe was so great that it reverberated around the world and its repercussions have been felt until today. The epic Exodus story has echoed down through the centuries, having been popularized 60 years ago in the block buster movie, The Ten Commandments.
Long after most movies have been forgotten, this movie has continued being sold; in fact, just a few years ago it was digitalized. And, of course, today the Exodus story has become even more widely known since Steven Spielberg produced his animated movie, The Prince of Egypt. Like The Ten Commandments, this movie was circulated world-wide, in fact it was dubbed into 17 languages! Think about it and you’ll realize that this epic story appeals not just to Muslims but also to people of other faiths, such as Sikhs, Jains, New Agers and even Hindus! There are limitless possibilities for sharing the Exodus story with followers of other religions.
It is significant that these movies have helped spread the fame of Israel’s God – the One who gave the 10 commandments through Moses. Although many Muslims would agree that the LORD gained world-wide fame and honour by overpowering Pharaoh and his idols, some might prefer to say that the title Saviour had a peculiar relevance only to the Jewish people. After all, it was the Israelites who God rescued, so naturally they should honour him as Saviour. Whether or not other nations acknowledge him as Saviour is another matter.
If Muslims made the effort of reading the prophets they would realize that the LORD clearly commanded the whole world to honour him using this specific title. As it is written, “There is no other God but me, a righteous God and Saviour. There is none but me. Let all the world look to me for salvation! For I am God; there is no other. I have sworn by my own name; … Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess allegiance to me.” (Isaiah 45:21-23)
How Does the (Jewish) Savior-God Bring Salvation to the Whole World?
We’ve seen how the OT prophets praised God for accomplishing mighty exploits of deliverance. But there is something else the prophets highlighted which is virtually synonymous with saving power, that is, salvation. The prophets foretold that God’s servant would come – the Messiah. God described the Messiah’s mission saying, “I will make you a light to the Gentiles and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
Seven hundred years later we read in the Gospel (Injil) how Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus Christ (Al Masihu Isa) was born. Notice how this nativity story – in the Bible and Qur’an – tells of a special name revealed through the angel. (Surah 3:45; Matthew 1:21) This common belief lends itself to friendly discussions between Muslims and Christians. Furthermore, as we ponder this miraculous sign from Allah (see Surah 30:21; 21:91), our discussion becomes even more stimulating, i.e. “seasoned with salt.” (Colossians 4:6) Our hope is that Muslims will be motivated to explore specifically how the Messiah brought salvation.
Speaking of giving children names, it is interesting to see how Muslims are encouraged to choose meaningful names for their children. If we apply this to how God chose a name for the new-born Messiah we find an amazing insight. I’ve asked many Muslims, “Do you think Allah chose the name Jesus/Isa randomly as in a lucky draw or do you think he chose the name purposefully and wisely?” How do you think they replied? They consistently said that God would not choose a ‘lucky’ name. He would choose purposefully in keeping with what he knew of the future. As one Muslim writer put it, the name reflects a person’s personality or accomplishments. As Christians we could not agree more strongly, especially with regards to Jesus’ name!
Some Christians are amazed to find out that our Muslim friends can agree on this point – that is, Allah chose a fitting name. So where does this discussion lead us? What is the next piece of the puzzle?
Do you recall Isaiah’s prophecy which we read a moment ago? (Isaiah 49:6) This strategic choice of a name provides a clue to those who will “ponder” this sign of Allah (cf. Surah 30:21). The name Jesus, meaning ‘God is salvation’, fittingly summarizes Isaiah 49:6.
You will remember how the OT portrays God’s saving power by rescuing people in perilous circumstances. Similarly, in the NT the Messiah is described as intervening and saving people who were in life-threatening situations. Rescuing people in such situations confirmed the meaning of his name.
- Jesus healed sick people, not just those who were mildly sick, but those who were terminally ill. (Matthew 11:5; cf. Surah 5:113)
- Jesus saved his disciples from a perilous storm
- Jesus even saved people who had gone beyond the brink of death, into the grave. (John 11; Surah 5:113)
- Jesus saved people from their sin. (Luke 19:1-10) As we have recounted OT stories we learned that God intervened and rescued his servants in extremely dangerous circumstances. Most stories focus on a physical rescue but at a deeper level these stories usually imply that God saved people by forgiving their sin. The same holds true in the NT. Jesus not only saved people physically he saved them spiritually. Both layers of meaning are important. God worked through Jesus to save people from death (physical deliverance) AND from sin (spiritual deliverance).
Perhaps you have found these insights eye-opening. You’ve learned how Muslims can acknowledge that the one true God proved himself greater than impotent idols, so he is ‘mighty to save.’ You’ve also been surprised to see that Muslims – in dialogue with a Christian – can acknowledge prophecies about the Messiah bringing God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. (If they don’t agree, at least they can ponder it!)
As we’ve been tracing the theme of salvation from the OT to the NT perhaps you’ve also been surprised to learn that some Muslims acknowledge God chose Jesus’ name wisely – and that his name means ‘God is salvation’. Not only so, this meaning is reflected in Christ’s personality and accomplishments!
Christians may well ask themselves, “How is it possible that Muslims can acknowledge so many similar beliefs and yet it is incredibly difficult for them to accept the Lord Jesus as Saviour?” The fact is: they are able to connect the dots. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where the discussion is leading. If we read Luke 19:1-10 where Jesus saves/forgives a sinner like Zacchaeus he might connect the dots to the end of Christ’s life – his climactic saving act on the cross where he takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) Three of the more common reasons why Muslims find it difficult to accept the Messiah as Saviour are:
- Islam emphatically denies that Messiah died on the cross.
- Muslims deny Christ’s deity (in fact, this is the unforgivable sin).
- To become a Christian means becoming an apostate – a crime punishable by death.
What does all this mean with regard to our earlier discussion i.e. in terms of the Almighty One (Allah) who is ‘mighty to save’? In conclusion, consider this question that summarizes our discussion; “Is this Jewish Saviour-God the same as the Islamic Allah?”
At this point in our dialogue journey, we may find some Muslims parting ways. It should sadden our hearts whenever a person turns his back on God’s mercy through one Mediator – the sacrificial Lamb of God, Christ Jesus.
I trust that you, the reader, will appreciate how difficult it is to explain the theme of salvation in just a few pages. My prayer is that this brief overview will help Christians and Muslims engage in discussing these important truths in a gracious and mutually respectful way. Let us bear in mind how Jesus told the woman of Samaria, ‘God the Father is seeking people from all cultures to worship him in spirit and in truth.’
For those of us who are Christians, let us pray that God’s Spirit would open the hearts of our Muslim acquaintances and friends to gain a fresh understanding of God’s salvation. Let us be alert to opportunities to connect and talk with one another as genuine friends (just as our Master showed us in his example of dialog with the Samaritans in John chapter
4) If you would like to receive an article which shows glimpses of how Christ seamlessly interweaved grace and truth throughout his dialog with the Samaritans contact Roland Clarke here.
As we conclude, let us look briefly at another monotheistic faith which, in many ways, parallels Islam: the religion of Samaritanism.
Is the Samaritan God (Elohim) the Same as the Jewish God? (also named Elohim)
Probably you can see a similarity between this question and what we asked earlier: “Is the Qur’anic God (Allah) the same as the Allah whom Arab Christians worship?” The answer to both questions initially seems to be, “Yes”. But let us pause and ask ourselves, “How would Jesus answer this question?” A careful reading of John chapter 4 shows that Jesus did not answer this affirmatively. He spoke frankly with the Samaritan woman, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews … the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.” (John 4:21-23, NIV)
Jesus did not exactly tell her that her understanding of Elohim – the name both groups used for Almighty God – was incorrect. He told her, “You Samaritans worship what you don’t know.” What Jesus said next was very significant. He put his finger on the key flaw in her religion – “salvation is from the Jews.” Samaritanism, like Islam, prided itself in being monotheistic. Over the years, they distanced themselves from their Jewish cousins so much so that they became increasingly disconnected from (and unaware of) the theme of salvation as taught by the prophets. This theme can only be grasped as one reads the Messianic prophecies. These particular prophecies are recorded in the scriptures which Samaritan leaders branded as corrupt and not worth reading, i.e. all the prophetic writings which were written after the Pentateuch.
My wife uses an analogy to explain the puzzling question about the real identity of the One who is called God by followers of different monotheistic faiths, i.e. Allah or Elohim. Let’s suppose Nelson Mandela’s biography is penned by an honest, objective author. Later a dishonest schemer also writes a biography which gives a distorted portrait of Mandela. Both biographies identify him by his correct name (outwardly) but one of them isn’t the true Mandela.
This analogy also explains the finer nuance of counterfeit or forgery. A false biography that is obviously at variance with what everyone knows to be true of Mr. Mandela will not sell. It has to be close enough to the truth to be seen as plausible. In the case of a criminal who forges money, the more the counterfeit money can be made to look like real currency, the more successful he will be at deceiving people. At the beginning we noted how this question is being asked more frequently than ever: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Now as we conclude, I trust you realize how urgent this question is.
Here is the conclusion to the whole discussion: The most recurring and prominent signature attribute of God which distinguishes him as the true God is that he is ‘mighty to save’. He alone is Savior. It is precisely this criterion that Jesus applied to the Samaritans when he said, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews …” (John 4:22, NIV, bold font added for emphasis)
Bible quotations are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.
Having spoken the praises of the ‘mighty-to-save’ God it is only fitting to join the chorus of praise by singing the well known song ‘Mighty to Save.’ As you sing the words “he can move the mountains” I want you to think about the ‘mountain’ that Moses and his people faced as they stood before the Red Sea, “trapped in the wilderness” – so Pharaoh thought – and facing what seemed an inevitable onslaught from the Egyptian armies which were now about to overtake them. (Exodus 14:3ff)