As Timothy George points out, Islam affirms that Allah's nature is one (tauhid) in the sense of his utter simplicity and uncompoundedness. But the unfolding truth about God throughout biblical revelation is that God exists eternally in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Islam resolutely denies the incarnation of Christ. Because the deity of Jesus and his place in the Godhead are fundamental to the Christian conception of God, it would be hard to assert, from either the Islamic or Christian perspective, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
But when discussing whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, we must remember that God does not deal with theologies; he deals with persons. Some Muslims are not schooled in theology and approach God with little of this systematic framework. Muslim popular piety is surely channeled by Muslim ritual. But many address God from the heart, with limited theological understanding. While nearly all would deny the Trinity if it were explained to them, their prayers might compare favorably with the experience of Cornelius in Acts 10 and so could be regarded as "God-fearing." Cornelius, of course, was in transit from one religious worldview to another. He was a Gentile whose piety took him to the brink of Judaism and ultimately into the Jesus movement. The majority of Muslims are not that far along.
Still, both in biblical times and in our own, are there not people like Cornelius whose knowledge of God is very limited and yet who turn to him in prayer? We must ask ourselves: How much knowledge about God is required to pray to or to worship God? Initially, not very much. This is not the same as asking, How much do I need to know to be saved? (Even that is surprisingly limited, though squarely a Christ-centered issue.)
What about children who pray to God generally and in nondescript ways in their pre-Christian state? We believe they address God and that God hears them. Throughout the history of religion, there have been many seekers after God. We should not exclude the possibility that some Muslims fall into that category.
When Begum Bilquis Sheikh (whose story is told in the book I Dared to Call Him Father) encountered the triune God in her native Pakistan, she did so under extraordinarily mystical circumstances. What revolutionized her life was a new conception of God as "Father." But she did not come to that understanding in one giant step. Rather, over time she spoke to God as she understood him until, under the guidance of Christian friends, she entered a personal relationship with God as Father. This transformed her life.
Christians would do well to be cautious with both the systematic and personalist answer to whether God hears Muslims' prayers. There are many Muslims who are reaching out to God and not finding him. For them, the radical "otherness" of God prevents a personal understanding of him and allows only knowledge of his will. As the Muslim scholar al-Faruqi said, "He does not reveal himself to anyone in any way. God reveals only his will." Christians, however, can help others discover a personal relationship with God.
In this new and dangerous epoch of world history, which threatens to embroil us in religious wars and civilizational clashes, we may do well to seek Muslim prayer partners and together beseech the true, one and only God to have mercy on us.
The words of Jesus to Muslims and to us might well be: "Believe in God; believe also in me" (John 14:1, RSV).
James Lewis is professor of world religions at Wheaton College and coauthor of Religious Traditions of the World (Wipf & Stock, 1999).
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also appearing on our site today:
Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus?The answer to this question reveals the heart of our faith.
I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh and Richard Schneider is available at Christianbook.com.
In 2000, Christianity Today focused on Muslim-Christian relations in a series by Wendy Murray Zoba. Articles included:
Islam, U.S.A.Are Christians prepared for Muslims in the mainstream?
Islamic FundamentalsChristians have a responsibility to understand our Muslim neighbors and their beliefs
How Muslims See ChristianityMany Muslims don't understand Christianity—especially the idea of salvation by grace through faith.
Engaging Our Muslim NeighborsThe Church faces a challenge not just to understand Muslims, but to befriend them.
Christianity Today's January cover package by James A. Beverley examined Islam teachings:
Is Islam a Religion of Peace?The controversy reveals a struggle for the soul of Islam.
A Many Splintered ThingThough Muslims shared allegiance to Muhammad and to the Qur'an, Islam faced division as soon as the prophet died.
James A. Beverley's Christ & Islam: Understanding the Faith of the Muslims is available at Christianbook.com.
Islamic and scholar's sites of interest include:
- Al-Muhaddith (download the Qur'an, hadith, and legal material)
- Islamic Studies, Islam (includes an extensive list of links to articles and papers on Islam and recent terrorism)
- Islamic Gateway (features great graphic, good organization, and
- IslamiCity (evangelism)
- Mamalist of Islamic Links (features over 1,000 links)
- Musalman: the Islamic Portal (includes good news coverage)
In a recent column for Christianity Today, Philip Yancey reprinted a letter from a Muslim. Written shortly after the September 11 attacks, the letter read: "I read some books about the prophet Muhammad and the Islamic faith by Western scholars. I was shocked to learn a lot of things about my religion that I never knew."
In early October, Books & Culture Corner's John Wilson reported that "until a month ago, learning more about Islam was a low priority for all too many Americans. Since the attack, that has changed." In November, Wilson said "There's good reason to believe that there will be staying power to the West's belated 'discovery' of Islam."
In the 1998 article, "Is Islam the enemy?," Sojourners magazine said that the navigation of the road ahead for Christians and Muslims would have profound consequences for both communities—and for the world.
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