IS IT WRONG for a Christian to pray to Allah? When a Muslim worships Allah, is she worshiping God?
Questions like these have arisen with more urgency than usual in the months since a Malaysian lower court ruled in October that the word “Allah” was exclusive to Muslims and therefore the Herald, a Malay Catholic newspaper, could not use the word “Allah” in print. (The decision is currently under appeal.)
Many Christians lament the lower court’s decision. They see it as an infringement on the rights of religious minorities. But other Christians welcome the ruling. They claim that it actually helps Malaysian Christians by protecting them from confusion and preventing them from making a grave mistake.
For example, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in the U.S., has argued that Christians should not call upon the God of the Bible using the word “Allah,” because “Allah” refers only to the god of the Quran, a god who is radically different from the true God of Jesus Christ.
Whether Mohler and those who agree with him are right carries dramatic implications. If they are, then prospects for respectful, trusting cooperation between Christians and Muslims are slim. There is one and only one God. If Christians believe that Muslims do not worship that God, then we must believe that Muslims worship nothing, an empty, created idol, or else something demonic. The claim to worship the one and only God is one of the most central claims of Islam. No matter how respectfully a Christian denied that claim, it would be difficult for most Muslims to receive that rejection. Mutual respect is an important ingredient in public cooperation. Thus cooperation between Christians and Muslims would be impeded. Even more disconcertingly, if the bulk of Christians held, as some do now, that Muslims actually worship a demonic force, then those Christians would have compelling reasons not to cooperate with Muslims. To do so would be to cooperate in opposition to God.
AS CHRISTIANS WE are called to follow the truth, regardless of the consequences to ourselves. Indeed, since Jesus is the “truth” (John 14:6), to deny the truth is to deny Christ. Knowingly accepting a falsehood for the sake of pleasant social outcomes is not an option.
Thankfully Mohler and those who agree with him are wrong about Allah. Not only should Christians feel free to use the word “Allah” in their worship of God if it’s natural to do so in their language, but Muslim speech about and worship of “Allah” is not, by definition, worship of a “false god.” But how do we know this?
- The first thing to say is that no human language can adequately capture God. No words can refer to God in any straightforward way because God is so far beyond creatures like us. All of our conceptions of God fall short. But we often worship these ideas about God in place of God and fall into idolatry ourselves. All our words about the one who dwells in unapproachable light are inadequate. It is only by God’s grace that our thoughts and language are ever truly worship. This constant risk should give us a stance of humility when talking about a subject like this one.
- Regarding Christiansusing the word “Allah,” it is important to recognize that Christianity has always been a fundamentally translatable faith. On the first Pentecost (Acts 2), the believers speaking in tongues (including Arabic, see verse 11) illustrate this feature of Christianity. So does the fact that the New Testament books use common Greek words to translate Aramaic and Hebrew words referring to God. And the English word “God” comes from an Old English word used long before Anglo-Saxons started converting to Christianity. So using generic words for “god” from local languages is just how Christians talk about God. If “Allah” is one such word, then Christians ought to feel free to use it.
- As it turns out, “Allah” is just such a word. It is related to the Aramaic word that Jesus uses for God in Matthew 27:46 when he said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and would have used frequently throughout his life. If you want to translate the Greek ho theos (literally “the God”) found in John 20:28, Matthew 1:23, and elsewhere, there is no good option in Arabic other than “Allah.” Unsurprisingly then, we have evidence that Arabic-speaking Christians have used “Allah” in their worship and scriptures since at least the 9th century. It’s even possible that they did so before the time of Muhammad (570-632 C.E.).
- However, it is only prudent for Christians to pray to and worship “Allah” if the meanings associated with that word are not radically opposed to what Christians say about God. After all, early Christians didn’t call God “Apollo” or “muse.”
Some Christians think that “Allah” doesn’t pass this test. They claim that the “Allah” whom Muslims worship simply cannot be the God of Jesus because the meanings of the word are just too different from what English-speaking Christians mean by “God” or Spanish-speaking Christians by “Diós.” Therefore, they conclude, Christians shouldn’t refer to God as “Allah.”
In this argument, they usually emphasize two points: 1) Muslims reject that Jesus was and is the incarnate son of God; and 2) Muslims deny the Trinity, that God is three in one.
We agree that these are two of the most important claims of Christian faith. Without them, Christians believe, one misses the decisive revelation of God and the very heart of who God is. Even so, just because someone denies these claims does not by itself mean that she doesn’t believe in and worship God.
Consider the vitally important case of Judaism. Incarnation and the Trinity are perhaps the two most significant differences in belief between Christians and Jews, and yet the vast majority of the Christian tradition has held that Jews believe in the same God as Christians.
For instance, one of the earliest heresies—Marcionism—was rejected by the church in part because it denied that Jews believed in the same God as Christians. More important, the gospel stories about Jesus show him assuming that the Jewish religious leaders he disagreed with believed in the same God that he proclaimed. When in John’s gospel Jesus debates those leaders over his status as “Son,” he does so assuming that he and they are talking about the same God whom Jesus claimed to reveal (John 5:18).
But Jesus’ assumption about common ground isn’t confined to his fellow Jews. In John 4:5-42, Jesus discusses with a Samaritan woman the right way to worship God. He assumes that he and she are talking about one God, even though he affirms the superiority of the Jewish understanding of that God: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). That the woman doesn’t know God as the Jews do doesn’t mean that she fails to worship God at all.
Following Jesus’ example, some early Christian thinkers extended a similar assumption to certain of the Greek philosophers. In his Confessions, Augustine spoke to God about books by Neoplatonist philosophers that he’d read earlier in his life. “The books say that before all times and above all times your only-begotten Son immutably abides eternal with you,” wrote Augustine. These same philosophers denied the incarnation, according to Augustine, and so missed the saving truth of the gospel. But nevertheless, Augustine thought their books really talked about God. The disagreement is about what Jesus revealed about God and how God is related to Jesus.
IN ALL OF these examples, the debaters were monotheists. They believed that there is one and only one God. At a minimum, they would agree with one or another version of three claims that are central to Christian faith:
- There is only one true God. Any other supposed “god” is no god at all.
- God created everything that is not God.
- God is different from everything that is not God. The cosmos is not God.
Importantly, claims very much like these can be found in the Quran. For example:
- “Know, therefore, that there is no god but God” (Muhammad 47:19).
- “It was He who created the heavens and the earth in all truth” (Al-An’am 6:73).
- Allah is “the Merciful One who sits enthroned on high,” which is usually taken to mean that God is beyond the created world (Al-Baqara 2:255).
Consequently, there is good reason to treat Muslim beliefs in and claims about Allah in the same way Jesus treated Jewish and Samaritan beliefs and Augustine treated the Neoplatonists. We may disagree about immensely important things about God, but we are disagreeing about God, not between gods, so to speak.
THAT IS ALL well and good, you might think, but isn’t the character of “Allah” in the Quran and Islam radically different from the character of God as revealed by Jesus? Monotheism aside, isn’t it just misleading to treat them as the same in any practically important sense?
There is no way to answer an objection like this definitively, but we think that there are good reasons for rejecting this argument.
A common stereotype about Christianity and Islam goes something like this: The Christian God is loving and merciful, but Muslims believe that Allah is demanding and punitive. This stereotype is mistaken on multiple counts. A robust picture of God as portrayed in the New Testament must include the recognition that God is just (for example, Romans 3:5), makes demands of us (John 15:10), and is unwavering in judgment against sin (2 Peter 2:4-9). In the Quran God is praised as “The Merciful,” “The Compassionate,” “The All-Forgiving,” “The Generous,” “The Benevolent,” and “The Loving.”
There are—we emphasize this—crucial differences between how Christians and Muslims understand God’s character. (For example, Christians emphasize that God loves unconditionally.) But those differences do not erase the commonalities.
Overlaps also exist between the commands that Christianity and Islam believe God makes on human beings. The important document “A Common Word Between Us and You,” issued by many of the world’s leading Muslim scholars and clerics in 2007, points out that love of God and love of neighbor—the commandments on which Jesus says “the law and the prophets hang” (Matthew 22:40)—are central to Islam as well as to Christianity. And yet there are substantial differences. For instance, Jesus unequivocally commands that we love our enemies. Many Muslim thinkers and leaders insist that Muslims should be kind to all, but they tend not to include “enemies” among the “neighbors” whom they are commanded to love. But again, the differences do not erase the commonalities.
Exploring how Christians ought to relate to Allah leads us to see significant common ground between Christianity and Islam. This common ground does not mean that Christianity and Islam are the same faith. They are not. Nor does it mean that Christians and Muslims agree about everything important. They do not. But it does mean that our visions for the common good are likely to overlap in meaningful ways. We have somewhere solid to plant our feet as we strive to promote that good.
As Christians, we are called by Jesus, who is love incarnate, to love even our enemies. We are called by the Prince of Peace to be seekers of peace. And we are called by the Reconciler of the world to pursue reconciliation. Whether we ought to love others, to pursue peace with them, to forgive them and seek forgiveness from them does not depend on whether or not they worship the one and only God. But if we are daring enough to hope for a peace between Christians and Muslims that includes cooperation in pursuit of the common good, then we should be happy to find that our common God provides a common ground from which to begin.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz is a doctoral student at Yale University. Miroslav Volf teaches at Yale University and is author of Allah: A Christian Response.