Commandment the First
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?
When George Bush last month declared that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God, some of his evangelical supporters had a holy cow. They have been arguing for some time that Islam is a fundamentally dangerous and false religion, and then the most important evangelical in America, George Bush, goes and pays Muslims the ultimate compliment.
Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, explained his disagreement with Bush:
The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite. The personalities of each god are evident in the cultures, civilizations and dispositions of the peoples that serve them. Muhammad's central message was submission; Jesus' central message was love. They seem to be very different personalities.
Richard Land, a top official of the Southern Baptist Convention, explained the theology. "The Bible is very clear about this. There is only one true God and His name is Jehovah, not Allah."
Haggard and Land were articulating a common view among evangelicals. In a poll of evangelical leaders at the community level, 79 percent disagreed with the statement that Muslims and Christians "pray to the same god."
Most evangelicals these days have no problem with the idea that Jews and Christians pray to the same God. They acknowledge that Christianity grew out of Judaism and that therefore Jews must be at least attempting to pray to the same God, even if they're making the big mistake of going around Jesus.
The real controversy is whether Muslims pray to the same God as Christians and Jews. So, in the spirit of the Ramadan-Hanukkah-Christmas season, we went straight to God's biographer, or at least Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography. He noted that linguistic similarities indicated that Bush's position is correct:
Allah in Arabic is a contraction for al-ilah, "the-God," and as such is cognate with Hebrew eloh, "god" (plural of abstraction, elohim, "deity"). Linguistic technicalities aside, what matters is that back in the seventh century, the first Muslims were using the same kind of word in Arabic that the Jews were using theologically in Hebrew and using it in the same way.
As evidence that Jews, Christians, and Muslims "have always assumed their differences to be about the character rather than the identity of God," Miles points to life in medieval Spain, where people of the three faiths mingled and disagreed with each other about the "same divine subject." Thomas Aquinas, for instance, wrote Summa Contra Gentiles in part to refute the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, but he never tried to make the argument that Muslims were praying to a different God.
Muslims have been even clearer about the kinship among all "peoples of the book." As Miles notes:
Steven Waldman is editor in chief ofBeliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality and religion Web site.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.