Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Father Paul Massey sought to answer that question in a column published in The Citizen, Fayette County’s major newspaper, on January 19th.
As a member of Fayetteville's Muslim community, I read Father Paul's article with great interest.
I expected the pastor to note that Muslims do indeed believe in God, the eternal, merciful Creator who made Adam from dust, saved Noah from a great flood, tested Abraham’s faith, parted the Red Sea for Moses, and empowered Jesus to perform miracles (may peace be upon all of God's prophets).
Instead, Father Paul's column argued that Muslims and Christians worship two completely different deities.
"...while many in academia, the media, politics and both the Muslim and the Christian communities sincerely 'wish' and sincerely 'proclaim' that a sameness exists between the two religions, 'wishing' and 'proclaiming' simply cannot make a myth into a fact," Father Paul wrote in The Citizen. "Indeed, it has been my experience, upon probing the background, views and history of those making the claim that both groups worship the same God, that one inevitably finds such folks most often have never, ever done any serious, focused and in depth study of both religion’s holy books…the Bible and the Koran."
He added, "Why? Because it is far too much work. Its (sic) much easier to simply mouth the propaganda of progressives who proclaim the idea of sameness than it is to do the hard work of digging out the truth. Besides, speaking against the prevailing opinion that both Gods and both religions are essentially the same is not politically correct."
Father Paul eventually gave two reasons for his opinion. First, he noted that Muslims hold a Unitarian view of God as opposed to a Trinitarian view.
"While both religions do affirm that there is only one God," Father Paul wrote, "that he is eternal, all powerful, all knowing and present everywhere, Christianity is radically different from Islam in that Christians espouse the doctrine of their God as a “Trinity”…three manifestations of the same God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit)…while Islam denies this..."
That much is true.
Muslims, like Christians, believe that there is only one God. But Muslims also believe that God is one. That is, a single entity with a single personality besides whom no else and nothing else should be worshiped. Put another way: Muslims believe that the "Heavenly Father" is God all by Himself.
As the Qur’an describes, "He is God, the One and Only. God, the Eternal, the Absolute. He begets not, nor was he begotten. And there is nothing like Him"
The Islamic holy book also says, "The Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, was no more than a messenger of God, His word directed to Mary, a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a Trinity. Stop. That is better for you. God is only one God..."
But does this mean that Muslims worship a different God than Christians?
After all, the Jewish faith teaches the exact same strictly monotheistic view of God that Islam does. The Torah, or Old Testament, declares, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” which Jesus repeats in the New Testament.
Jesus also repeatedly refers to God in the third person, as a separate and greater being than himself, using “God” and “Father” interchangeably.
"Stop clinging to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father,” Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, according to the Gospel of John. “But go to my brethren and say to them, 'I ascend to my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.'"
Some of the earliest Christians believed in the oneness of God. So did Isaac Newton, who privately rejected the Trinity as blasphemous.
“Whenever it is said in the scriptures that there is but one God, it is meant the Father,” Newton wrote in papers released after his death.
Several of America's founding fathers, including President John Adams, were also Unitarian Christians.
"We do, then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity,” said Reverend William Channing, an American Unitarian, in an 1819 speech. “To us, as to the Apostle and the primitive Christians, ‘There is one God, even the Father.’ With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God. We are astonished, that any man can read the New Testament, and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God."
Despite these differences, Father Paul would probably never claim that Reverend Channing or President Adams or Isaac Newton, much less the Children of Israel, worshipped a different God.
But Father Paul also wrote that "the personalities, temperament, tone and declarations (spoken words) of Allah and Jehovah, as revealed in the Koran and the Bible, simply are too vastly different for them to be from one and the same God."
First, it is important to note that "Allah" is simply Arabic for "The God," just like the Hebrew "Elohim" and the Aramaic "Allaha" are proper names for God in those languages.
Secondly, the Bible and the Qur’an actually describe God's personality in nearly identical ways.
The Bible describes God as compassionate and merciful. So does the Qur’an. The Bible describes God as just and, when warranted, firm in punishment. The Qur’an does the same. The Bible describes God as eternal and all-powerful. You guessed it. The Qur’an does, too.
Father Paul nevertheless insisted that Christianity and Islam "are so opposite in beliefs that they are indeed, in many ways, irreconcilable."
Granted, people of different faiths obviously hold some different views. But Jews, Christians and Muslims also share many common beliefs. As Americans, we also share the same country.
Let us therefore focus on what unites us, not what divides us, starting with our shared belief in God.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell is an attorney and former journalist based in Atlanta. He serves as a member of the board of Fayetteville’s Islamic Community Center, a member of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, and as Copy Editor of AtlantaMuslim.com. Edward received his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and his graduate degree from Georgetown University, where he served as president of the law school's Muslim Students Association.