Christian God, Muslim God: What’s the Difference?

by Paul L. Heck (March 11, 2016)

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? A teacher at a Christian college in Illinois recently got into trouble for stating that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Some years back in Malaysia, the Home Ministry banned a Christian newspaper from using the word Allah for fear it would offend the country’s Muslim majority. The Church has long affirmed that Christians and Muslims worship “the one and merciful God who on the last day will judge humankind” (Lumen Gentium 16.126), a position recently reiterated by Pope Francis. Yet we know it’s not entirely the same. If it were all the same, wouldn’t we be praying together, Muslims in the Church and Christians in the Mosque? What’s the difference?

At a recent conference I attended a Muslim woman spoke of the Christian understanding of the Last Judgment. She had done her research and was able to represent Christian notions of the Last Judgment. Yet at the end of her presentation she remarked that the Christian view of the Last Judgment differs from the Muslim one. This is true, but she phrased it in a way that cast doubt on the integrity of the Christian vision: “In Islam God alone determines your fate on Judgment Day in contrast to Christianity, which includes a role for Jesus in addition to God.”

Christians might not find this strange at first glance. They believe that Jesus is Lord: Lord of Creation and Lord of Judgment Day. That’s Christianity. But for this Muslim woman it’s polytheism. She thinks of Christian notions of Jesus through the lens of the Qur’an. This implies that Christians have become like the tribal peoples of Arabia who turned their noble forebears into partner deities alongside God. Christians have added Jesus to God.

What do Muslims mean by God? And how might that work to challenge Christian concepts of Jesus as Lord? What do Christians mean when they say Jesus is Lord? How does that sound to Muslims? How can Christians and Muslims say they worship the same God?

There is a lovely passage in the Qur’an that speaks about the Lord. It is found in the twenty-sixth chapter of the Qur’an, entitled “The Poets.” In these verses (Q 26:69-­‐82) Abraham questions his people, including his father, about their devotion to idols. He calls them to abandon this misguided worship, speaking of the Lord of the Worlds, “who created me and guides me, who feeds me and gives me drink, who heals me when ill, who causes me to die and revives me, and who—I deeply hope—will forgive my sin on Judgment Day.”

Muslims speak of two sides to the godhead. There’s God’s divinity, which alone is the object of human worship. After all, what else would humans worship but divinity apart from anything non-­divine? And then there’s God’s lordship, which is God’s way of relating to creation, that is, all things other than God. He holds His creatures to account but also acts mercifully towards them. God’s divinity, then, is about God’s transcendence. Whether or not anything else existed, God’s divinity would still be God’s divinity. It is singular and ultimately wholly beyond human comprehension. Up to this point, Christian heads should be nodding in agreement. After all, the Bible speaks of God as the Creator. The forty‐forth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, for example, makes it clear that God alone is Creator. And if God is Creator, it goes on to conclude, who else but God could be Savior? Who else could mercifully restore us to God’s loving kindness when we’ve turned away, other than the God who created us?

Christians and Muslims are on the same page when it comes to God’s divinity, but are they on the same page when it comes to God’s lordship, God’s way of dealing with His creatures?

To repeat: It is God’s divinity (ulūhiyya in Arabic) that we all worship, Christians and Muslims alike. Who among us, in echo of both Isaiah and Muhammad, would claim to worship a piece of wood or a graven image or the paper on which the words of scripture are written? We might revere such holy artifacts but we don’t worship them. There’s something beyond all that, something transcendent. We’re all on board with that. You don’t even have to be a Jew, Christian, or Muslim to get it. A philosopher, too, can grasp the transcendence of divinity by the power of logic apart from any divinely revealed message.

What about God’s lordship (rubūbiyya in Arabic)? Do Christians and Muslims agree on this point? This is where things get theologically complex. Let’s return to the verses in the Qur’an, cited above, where Abraham contrasts the Lord of the Worlds to the idols his people worship. The passage hints at how Muslims conceive of God’s lordship. It can be summed up as follows: The Lord Creates. The Lord guides and provides. The Lord governs all things including Judgment Day. In other words Muslims understand God’s lordship in three modalities: creation (khalq), provision (rizq), and governance (tadbīr). God’s lordship in Islam is about God’s relation to what is not God—the cosmos, the stars, and all of us, plants, animals, and humans: all that exists. God is origin of all that is not God; that makes God the Creator. And God has created the cosmos as a sustainable ecosystem; that makes God the Provider. Finally, God is not subject to the laws of this extraordinary ecosystem, which God created and which we call the cosmos; that makes God the Governor of all things including our destiny on Judgment Day. According to Islam, in addition to the laws of the universe, which guide our efforts to build up a global ecosystem, we are also to acknowledge God’s lordship over all that is and will be. According to Islam, if you recognize God’s lordship, you will be safe from all that is truly evil and all that risks your moral integrity. You will be set free by God to live for God.

This is why Muslims obey God—God’s commands and prohibitions as propounded by Islam’s scholars through the ages on the basis of a diversity of sources, including the Qur’an and the Sayings of the Prophet but also what are known as cosmic norms (sunan kawniyya), something akin to natural law, as well as communal consensus, local custom, and even what a particular religious scholar simply deems best in a given particular situation.

For Muslims God alone is Lord. Christians share this view even if thinking about it differently. For Muslims it is the lordship of God that gives one a sense of moral responsibility. I am responsible to the Lord God alone. It is also the lordship of God that liberates me from the lords of the world, worldly temptations and satanic seductions, what Christians might refer to as the world’s powers and dominions. In the end, we are responsible to the Lord God alone. For believers, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it is God’s lordship that makes the idea of God compelling, empowering, and liberating. God is transcendent in His divinity, but God enters into our particular lives through His lordship. This distinction is not new. It features in the Bible where God is both Elohim and Yahweh.

Recall that in Islam God’s lordship has three general modalities: creation, provision, and governance. God’s divinity is one, but God’s lordship is three. This raises a theological conundrum. Is God three? Muslims have debated this for centuries, as have Christians. It depends on how one sees the relation between God’s divinity and God’s lordship. If they are the same thing, there’d be a triune nature to the godhead. The argument runs like this: In Islam, God’s lordship has three basic modalities: Creator, Provider, Governor. God’s lordship is God’s divinity. Hence, God’s divinity has three modalities. Is God three?

It gets more complex with God’s ninety-­nine names (merciful, holy, forgiver, judge, all‐knowing, all-­powerful, etc.). Each name represents a pre‐eternal characteristic of God. The theological term in Islam for this conundrum is the plurality of the pre‐eternals. It ends up sounding like theological hairsplitting. It is. Muslims and Christians alike get bogged down in it.

In general Muslims say that God’s lordship is God’s divinity. How could the two ever be separate? If they were, we’d be in for a real surprise when we meet God: All this stuff that we had thought about God on the basis of his lordship, which is all that we can really know since His divinity is beyond us, would turn out to be false. If God’s lordship were different from God’s divinity, we’d find God to be very different from His lordship, which is what made God so compelling to us in the first place. Muslims, like Christians, don’t believe God is playing a trick on us. He is as He says He is. God’s divinity, which we don’t know, is like God’s lordship, which we see played out in our lives everyday as God provides and guides.

Some Muslims, however, would separate God’s lordship from God’s divinity. Not doing so would risk Islam’s monotheism in their view. This idea is not new in Islam. Indeed, it is as old as the theological debates on the relation of God’s essence (or divinity) to His names (or characteristics). The idea still has traction in some circles, but for Muslims in general, God’s lordship is God’s divinity. We can trust that God is as He says He is—at work in the world through the agency of His lordship, mercifully creating, providing, and governing all things.

To return to the Muslim woman who spoke about the Christian view of the Last Judgment: Again, she represented it fairly only to end by suggesting that it is polytheistic. For many Muslims, Christians don’t understand the gist of monotheism, and she apparently felt the need to say so. We’re not going to get anywhere, Jews, Christians and Muslims, by pointing out theological deficiencies in the other’s view of God. We can note the differences along with the overlap and then leave it to God to attract people to His divine mercy as He wills.

By grasping how Muslims and Christians understand the distinction and also the relation between God’s divinity and God’s lordship will greatly help us comprehend what the other means when speaking of God. This won’t resolve the differences, and that’s not the point, but it will enrich mutual discovery. In Islam, too, it is not by God’s divinity but by God’s lordship that God governs all things, including Judgment Day. In Islam God is Lord of Judgment Day. In other words, it is by one of God’s three modalities that He governs affairs on Judgment Day. This is the same in Christianity, except that it is Christ who incarnates God’s lordship.

In other words, while Christians and Muslims both worship God since He alone is divine, Christians have a distinct view of God’s lordship. There are two sides to the Christian notion of God’s lordship: creation and redemption. God in His lordship relates to us as Creator and Redeemer. This is similar to the Muslim notion of God’s lordship but also different. God’s lordship as Creator is straightforward. God as Creator is the source of all that is good. It is in this sense that Christians refer to God as Father. But what about God as Redeemer? More so than the Christian idea of God the Creator as Father, the idea of God as Redeemer distinguishes the Christian view of God’s lordship from the Muslim one. I don’t want to push things too far. Muslims certainly speak of God assisting them to repent and to live righteously, but they don’t speak of God as Redeemer. In Christianity, the idea of God as Redeemer has two parts to it. There is the divine sacrifice and the divine spirit that proceeds from it. Christians refer to these as Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus is Son not because he got tacked onto the godhead but because he is agent of God’s redemptive lordship. It is Jesus who is Son because He brought about the redemptive will of the Father. It is the divine sacrifice on the Cross that fully unleashes the Holy Spirit into the human heart.

There’s a lot more to it. One would have to return to the biblical narrative to understand the backstory. There the institution of the divine sacrifice plays a central role in the way God relates to His creatures. This took special form in the Temple in Ancient Israel. God was Lord of the Temple. The Glory of the Lord was present to the people through the Temple. God’s redemptive lordship was closely related to the priestly activity of sacrifice in the Temple, and this activity was seen to have its origins in the story of Isaac, whom God redeemed from death. Jews refer to this story as the Binding of Isaac. Many see it as God’s test of Abraham’s obedience, but the crux of the story is God’s redemption. The biblical narrative thus emphasizes the redemptive pattern of life that God sets for His people, climaxing for Christians in the Cross. Christians, then, are invited to participate in the redemptive pattern of God’s lordship by acting mercifully towards others. Muslims, as seen in the last article, are also inspired to act mercifully towards others, but in doing so they don’t see themselves as participating in God’s lordship nor, therefore, in His divine life. At least that’s what I’ve been told. There is another side to Islam that draws close to the Christian idea of participating in the life of God. We’ll treat that in a subsequent article.

Muslims sometimes think that Christians worship the Cross. Christians revere the Cross but do not worship it. They worship God alone, but their worship of God in the sense described above would not be possible without the redemptive gesture of God that Christians see in the Cross. The Cross is the place where the Glory of the Lord (that is, God’s redemptive power) was made fully manifest and the Holy Spirit given in abundance, working to make all of creation anew. For Christians it is through the Cross that God has redeemed all things.

There’s a lot more to consider. Our goal here is only to provide Christians and Muslims with some concepts to facilitate fruitful discussion of their divergent views of God’s lordship even while acknowledging a common worship of God’s divinity. There is a lot of overlap in their respective views of God’s lordship, that is, God’s way of dealing with His creatures. After all, for Muslims, mercy is God’s chief characteristic. Muslims believe that God is both our origin and our final destiny. But there are noteworthy differences. Christians and Muslims will be mutually enriched by discussing these differences and by discovering through them how their hearts are equally even if differently moved by God to live for God as the Lord of Life.