Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science, who studies and teaches courses on the intersection of religion and politics at a leading evangelical college in the USA, has created controversy in two ways: first, by wearing the Muslim hijab, as a sign of the common humanity shared by Muslims and Christians and second, by asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. We may affirm the common humanity and dignity as (fallen) image bearers while doubting the wisdom of a Christian wearing the hijab. The act of taking the hijab, though well intended, is likely to be interpreted rather differently by Muslims—as an act of submission to Allah as they understand him—than as intended by Christians. Perhaps more fundamental, however, is the assertion that Christians worship the same God as Muslims.
The claim, as she has explained more fully, rests upon an editorial by noted Yale theologian, Miraslov Volf, published in the Huffington Post. His argument rests on two foundations. First, the ambiguity—some might say equivocation—over the Arabic name for God: Allah. It is true that both Christians and Muslims use this name for God. We might add that in the English translation of the Qur’an the name Allah is translated with the English word God. His second ground is that there is a tradition of Christians (he cites Nicolas of Cusa) teaching that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
To the first we may reply by saying that Platonists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews and Christians use the same generic word for God but we hardly mean the same thing by it. It is difficult to see how this argument proves anything other than the ability to equivocate is alive and well.
To the second, assuming for the sake of discussion that Volf’s contention is correct, it is still true one Nicolas is a complex figure in the history of medieval theology and not exactly representative of the mainstream of medieval thought in a variety of ways. It is certainly the case that Protestant Reformers rejected the notion that Allah, as understood in Islam is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or the God and Father of our Lord Jesus.
As we dialogue with representatives of other faiths, we should do our best to represent their views faithfully. The Qur’an itself explicitly rejects the biblical and historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity and it denies the deity of Christ:
People of the Book, do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God. His word directed to Mary, and a spirit from him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of ‘Trinity’— stop [this], it is better for —God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to Him and He is the one to trust. The Messiah would never disdain to be a servant of God, nor would the angels who are close to him. He will gather before him all those who disdain His worship and are arrogant: To those who believe and do good works he will give due rewards and more of his bounty; to those who are disdainful and arrogant he will give an agonizing torment, and they will find no one besides God to protect or help them (4.171–75).1
We are not doing justice to the explicit intent and teaching of the Qur’an and the Hadiths (traditions) of Islam to blur the differences that Islam itself teaches. The Qur’an says “those who say,’God is the Messiah, the son of Mary,’ have defied God…. Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only one God. If they do not stop what they are saying, a painful punishment will afflict those of them who persist…. The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger….”2
Not only does Islam deny the deity of Christ and reduce him to an inferior precursor of Mohammad, it denies that he died on the cross—Muslims hold either the swoon theory or assert the Simon the Cyrene was crucified in Jesus’ place. Therefore, they deny the resurrection. In other words, as we consider the basic articles of the holy catholic (universal) faith as summarized in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) and the Apostles’ Creed, Islam rejects the core message of the Christian faith. When Muslims say Allah, they are not thinking of nor are they addressing the Triune God progressively revealed in Scripture. They are not approaching him through the mediation of Jesus, the only way to God (John 14:6), nor are they present themselves on the basis of the righteousness of Christ imputed. These are not minor differences.
Both Hawkins and Volf are seeking for common ground for the sake of civil peace. All Americans live in a post-9/11 world. Volf is shaped by is experience of the Serb-Croation conflict. We need not flatten out the sharp differences between the Christian faith and Islam in order to seek civil peace. Here again we see how helpful it would be to distinguish the two spheres in God’s twofold kingdom. Christians ought to continue to insist graciously on the clear differences between Christians and Muslims in order that we might speak to them the truth that God is just, we are all sinners, that there is a Savior, and that he was raised on the third day for all those who trust him for salvation. We shall find civil peace when Islam confronts the Islamist ideology within and rejects violent Jihad as a path to producing submission to Allah. The ground of our common life together is not the painting over of clear religious differences but creation and the universal, natural revelation of God’s law revealed in it and accessible to all humans.
1. The Qur’an, trans. M. A. A. Abdel Haleem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 106.
2. Ibid., 5.72, 73, 75 (p. 121).