On the issue of the Deity and Prayer in Islam and Christianity

At the risk of opening the complete can of worms on this discussion, I have an observation that might relate to the perennial debate of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and on the matter of prayer in Muslim and Christian practice.

Let me get this right into the open: it is my belief that Muslims seek to worship (ie. have the intention of worshipping) the same God that we Christians do. When we talk of “God” we mean basically the same divine being – even if what we say of the nature of that divine being and his self-revelation are quite different in respect to Allah and the Triune God.

In part this is granted by the crucial question that stands between us as Muslims and Catholics: Is Jesus God? That question only has meaning if we grant that we have similar understandings of who “God” is.

Take, for instance, our discussion of the same question with (for eg.) Hindus. If we were to say “Jesus is God” and they were to say “Jesus is not Krishna”, well, we would have no arguement. Jesus is not Krishna. (For the sake of heading off a different argument, I am aware that there are Christian writers who suggest Jesus IS Krishna – or vice versa – but I don’t think this can be called orthodox Christian theology.) Krishna is a different God from the God we mean when we say that Jesus is God.

But with Muslims (and for that matter, with Jews), the argument only has meaning if we give the same value to “God”.

Again, I stress that this does not mean that Muslims and Christians say the same thing about this one God. Yet when they pray, they pray to the One God who created heaven and earth. They explicitly reject all pagan gods and all idols. They identify the God they seek to worship with the God of Abraham, Moses and all the prophets – even with the God of Jesus.

This has, of course, implications for how we regard the prayer of Muslims. In my experience, their way of praying differs from our way of praying in one essential factor: namely, that when Christians pray, we pray “in the name of Jesus”. Whether we explicity say this as a part of our prayer or not is not the point; as those who have been baptised into Christ, all prayer we offer will automatically be through the mediation of Jesus.

Let me take this one step further and say that I believe that it is therefore possible (I do not say advisable, just possible) for us to pray the words of (for eg.) the first Surah as legitimate Christian prayer. Those words are as follows:

In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds, the compassionate, the merciful, Master of Judgment Day. You alone we worship, and to You alone we pray for help. Guide us to the straight path, the path of those whom You have favoured, not of those who have incurred Your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray.

The words of such a prayer – which forms the core of daily prayer for Muslims – are not alien to Christian prayer.

A similar example might be the way in which Christians pray the Jewish psalms. Christian tradition “christianises” these psalms with the addition of the “Glory be” at the end, precisely to say that we are praying these psalms not as Jews but as Christians. And yet it is possible for Jews and Christians to pray the psalms together.

Of course, an argument might be mounted that the psalms come from the Scriptures which are accepted as Word of God by Christians as well as Jews, whereas the First Surah comes from a book which is not accepted as Scripture by either Christians or Jews. For this reason I agree that it is probably advisable for Christians not to make a practice of praying Koranic verses. But many of our prayers do not come from scriptural sources, and the validity of Christian prayer depends on praying in the name of Jesus in a way that is in accord with God’s will and promises, not on the fact that the prayer form is found in Scripture.

Anyway, I would be interested in your reflections. Please try to be reasonable and moderate in your responses – good and precise argumentation is what we are looking for here.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “On the issue of the Deity and Prayer in Islam and Christianity

  1. Ben George

    VC2 stated that Muslims “propose to” worship the same God that we do, but I think we have to be very clear here:

    1. The God of the Koran has strong words against Trinitarian theology, is this the same God we worship?

    2. On a Friday afternoon at 3pm sometime around the year 33AD (give or take) our God suffered, and then died. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures. Is this the God that Muslims “propose to” worship?

    Islam proposes to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus… and Mohammed.

    By way of parallel, Mormons propose to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… yet their ideas of them are so different that CDF declared Mormon baptisms void—even when done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—because what Mormons MEAN by those names is not at all what we mean, it is rather what Joseph Smith meant.

    While I must, of course, agree with the VC2 that Muslims propose to worship this same God, I have to disagree that the God that they in fact MEAN is our God, the God they mean, finally, is not the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob and certainly not the God of Jesus Christ… he is the God of Mohammed.

    • The comparison to Mormonism is interesting – in that they certainly intend to worship the same God as we do. Yet I would be very uncomfortable praying together with a Mormon. More uncomfortable, in fact, than praying with a Muslim. I have to think about this a bit more.

      Yet, I think the CDF’s statement on Mormon baptism is simply saying that the Mormon doctrine of the Trinity is stuffed up. One could still say that they are attempting to worship the same God that we do.

      As for Vatican II and the Muslims, Nostra Aetate actually goes further than saying that Muslims “propose” to worship the One God. It says that they DO worship the One God who has revealed himself to mankind and when they pray, they pray to HIM:

      “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.”

      The statement makes no distinction between the God they worship and the God we worship – although it recognises that the question of Christ as the supreme revelation of God as God Incarnate radically and definitely separates us in the matter of what we believe about this One God.

  2. I have to agree with your thoughts on this David.
    I, by no means have studied theology (of any persuasion) in depth, but it is entirely reasonable to consider that we are talking about the same God in terms of the Jewish and Muslim faith.

    The Christian/Catholic personification of God is obviously a little different, but nonetheless, most of the characteristics of an all-loving, all-seeing ‘Fatherly’ God, is certainly shared by the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

    It’s an area I wish I knew more about, and I’m very glad to be reading about it on this blog!

  3. Tricky ground indeed, and I hesitate to leap in, but it may perhaps surprise you given my relatively tough stand on Islam, that I do think we intend to pray to the same God. Whether we actually do in all cases is another question however.

    There really is very little tradition on this debate, but one of the Church Fathers, St John Damascene, had an up close and personal knowledge of Islam close to the time of its origins (he was a bureaucrat in an Islamic state), and his assessment was that Islam is essentially a Christian heresy (due to the denial of the divinity of Christ).

    I think there is something in this – there are a lot of similarities between our religions, but of course, the differences are both obvious and at times subtle.

    If this is true, even if we do worship the same God, for the same reasons that we (should) avoid using hymns and prayers composed by adherents of later heresies unless they have been carefully scrutinised and sanitised, it makes sense to me to avoid using those of Islam lest they lead us down a particular path.

    I also think there is a point about the efficacy of prayer that we need to consider. When we pray in the mind of the Church, we know our prayers will be accepted. When we ignore that guidance, they may be – but we can’t be sure.

    Consider for example Judaism – we certainly worship the same God. But the need for and acceptability of the Temple sacrifices was overturned by the sacrifice of Our Lord, a message reinforced rather dramatically with the destruction of the Temple. And for the argument about replaced covenants, there is an interesting series on New Liturgical Movement!

    It seems to me that problem becomes even more acute for Islam depending on what you believe about the nature of the Koran and its teachings.

    Now I’m certainly not suggesting that God doesn’t hear the prayers of well disposed Jews or Muslims at all. But our faith certainly requires us to believe he doesn’t find some of their formal prayers acceptable I think.

    And that means we should be very cautious indeed in this area.

  4. Tom

    Ohhh good fun!

    I think part of the answer lies in the history of the philosophy of natural law that both Christians and Muslims share, and also the cultural & religious history.

    Avveroes and Avicenna, whom Aquinas called ‘The Commentator'(s) were Muslim philosophers, and natural lawyers. They were both hugely influential in the Muslim world as they were in the Christian world (via. Aquinas who used alot of their Metaphysics – also, Maimodes[spelling!!] who was a Jewish metaphysician)

    In the same way that the Christian God (as known apart from revelation, by reason) is known by the analogy of being (and the related metaphysical transcendentals good, one, true) then yes; Christians and Muslims do worship the same God.

    Also certainly, by the history of the traditions themselves, as David mentioned Muslims and Christians both worship the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.

    re: Ben George – it’s true that the Trinitarian God (of the creed) is not worshipped by the Muslims in the same way by the Christians; nor do the Jews worship a trinitarian God. Does anyone seriously hold that Christians and Jews do not worship the same God? The Christian knowledge of Christ as God is revelatory – it is important to note that Christians do not worship three Gods, we worship One God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.

    Perhaps it helps to think of it in this manner: there are theological questions about the nature of God, that each of these three traditions have answered differently. The important thing is that each of them holds that God is One (He is not a Pantheon), God is Creator (ex nihilo; not the one who rearranged what was already ordered, but created order itself), and God is Other (is not in reality, or ‘nature’ but completly otherwise than nature and man). Historically, he is the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.

    There are other parts to the answer of the question ‘what is the nature of God?’ but this foundational starting point is common to all three. In this sense I think Muslims and Christians (and Jews) all worship the same God.

  5. Matthias

    I agree that Muslims worship the same God . We differ on the Deity of Christ,and as Tom has stated we worship one God and not 3.we believe that CHRIST died on the cross and that He rose again whilst Muslims state that he did not die,hence their adherence to observing the law whilst we refer to the saving work of Christ-nothing sepaartes us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Saviour
    When a Muslim such as al-Hallaj can talk about wanting mystical union with God in ways similar to the English Catholic mystic Walter Hilton,the we have that confirmation

  6. Peregrinus

    I think Tom makes an excellent point: any argument I have ever seen in support of the view that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods has invoked either the Trinity or the Incarnation (or both). But on those issues Muslims and Jews are absolutely at one. So these arguments also imply that Christians and Jews worship different Gods. And an argument which implies that must be wrong. No offence to Ben George, but the argument he sets out above seems to me to fail this test.

    A Christian wishing to argue that he worships a different God from the Muslims must (unless he is very, very unorthodox) establish that Jews and Muslims worship different Gods. And as Jews and Muslims are themselves agreed that they worship the same God, this is a very big ask. I doubt that it can be done by reference either to the Trinity or to the Incarnation.

  7. David,

    On the philosophical level, I recall an article by the philosopher Peter Geach, himself the husband of the late great philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, which set out to enquire into this very issue and decided in favour of your thesis that Muslims do indeed strive to worship and serve the One True God, albeit rejecting what they think to be the false notion of the Trinity.

    • Any chance you might be able to recall where that article can be found, Josh?

      • Sorry, old bean, I don’t remember the title; but I do recall that if you go into the Mannix Library and go to the shelves along the back wall, to the right of the reference books, there is a book of essays by Peter Geach that includes it… I can see it all in my mind’s eye!

  8. Ben George

    “So these arguments also imply that Christians and Jews worship different Gods. And an argument which implies that must be wrong. No offense to Ben George, but the argument he sets out above seems to me to fail this test.”

    There is a difference.

    Jews say ABCD about God. Christians say ABCDE. Muslims say ABCDF. From a Christian perspective, Jews and Christians might worship the same God, but not Muslims. From a Muslim perspective, Jews and Muslims might worship the same God, but not Christians. From a Jewish perspective, it could be posited that neither Christianity nor Islam worship the Jewish God.

    If a friend of mine claimed to know my father and gave me condolences on his death, I’d have to wonder if we’re talking about the same man, seeing as how my father is alive and well. If my friend further insisted that he was sure my father was dead and in fact that he had died in a space shuttle accident I would KNOW we’re not talking about the same man.

    I find Catholic documents that claim that we do in fact worship the one true God with Muslims to be incoherent: The God of the Koran says NO to the Trinity, resoundingly. Our God IS the Trinity.

    I see the problems that disagreeing with Vatican documents presents to me as a confessing and believing Catholic, but I honestly don’t know what to make of it. I feel like I’m being told 2+2=5.

  9. Michael Y. Medvedev

    Being of a very firm opinion that Moslem prayer is addressed to the real and only God, I would like to stress that the “antitrinitarism” of Koran is not so “antitrinitarian”. This largely depends on interpretation. IMHO Koran simply states that the God is the only Deity and that no other God was born by Him. Is this wrong? Actually it is not. I presume that Mohammed himself experienced communication and discussions not with Catholics but with Christian heretics and justly opposed their wrong concepts of the Trinity as not strictly monotheist.

  10. And – yes, there is two other points if you permit.

    I. The Apostle defined the half-heathen, half-agnosticist invocation “Deo Incognito” as one which may if not must be applied to the real and only God. Was this a mere rhetorical trick? I do not think so.
    If the abstract “Deo Incognito”, formulated within a pagan context, is about our God, how may the Moslem prayer be addressed to another one?

    II. We do not “form” God by our prayers. He exists as He is, irrespectively of our prayers. By the way in which He is addressed, we are expressing our concepts and beliefs, right or wrong, but this is not the only content of our prayers, and He is listening to everyone anyhow, just because He hears, sees and knows all.

    Imagine Professor NN who, during his working day, talks to these and that students. One of the students calls him by a wrong name, another merely confuses him with another lecturer, the third believes him (wrongly) to be a Marxist and fills the talk with relevant implications… yet all these students, as a matter of fact, talk to no one but Professor NN. It is up to Prof.NN to answer or to decline, to correct a student’s error or to ignore it. As he is a good professor, he presumably knows better how to treat students…

    Got it? 😉

  11. Tom

    Ben George – to say we are worshiping a trinitarian God who is somehow different from the Jewish God is simply wrong. Your example of us worshipping ABCDE and the Jews worshipping ABCD is a false analogy.

    As Christians God has revealed himself to us more fully, in his revelation of the trinity. The thing you must remember though is that God is NOT a trinity of Gods, but a trinity of persons in ONE God.

    The triune God is not different from the God of the Jews, he is EXACTLY the same God – the Jews just know him less perfectly.

    Your comparison of Christian (ABCDE) and Muslim (ABCDF) is false; Muslims don’t believe anything about Allah that the Jews do not believe about their God. What is this F and E that you think is different?

    God is not somehow different because he is a trinity – always remember God is completely simple, completely necessary and completely unchanging. For God the Father to be different because of his Son or the Holy Spirit is false; he always is, always has been, and always will be, and cannot be otherwise. He is completely perfect in himself, for this he does not move, because he does not ever move from his total perfection.

    In regards to talking JUST about the first person of the trinity (God the Father) Christians say ABCD, Jews say ABCD and Muslims say ABCD. Christians, as being set apart by the special revelation God has done for us & the world know that God is more than just ABCD, but he is still certainly ABCD.

    Muslims do not believe anything about God (the Father) that we do not, except that he does not reveal himself other than by the word of the Koran.

    Inasmuch as Christians see that revelation can come apart from the word (the spontaneous order, the conscience etc.) this is the biggest difference (about the first person of the trinity – which is who we are talking about here). However in terms of the worship of the particular God who is Father of all, Muslims and Jews and Christians are batting for the same side.

    This is NOT a defense of Muslim theology. I just realised I should make that clear.

    Do not get me wrong, God IS three persons in one God. I am a faithful son of the Church, and I would not argue otherwise.

    However, insofar as we can know God the father by his indication, or even by old-testament revelation, it is the same God who said from darkness let the light shine – he has been known as this God by all Christians, Jews and Muslims.

  12. Harry

    I think that the whole issue is mute, Christ said that no one come to the Father except through Him. John 14:1-14. Muslims worship a god, the same as Mormans.

    • No arguement with you there, Harry, about HOW one comes to the Father. Certainly the Christian confession is that Christ is the mediator between God and man – and such a mediator is necessary. In fact, it is one of the odd things about Islamic theology that, although they emphasise the absolute otherness of God from Creation (including humanity), yet they do not seem to grasp the problem that arises when humanity tries to PRAY to this “totally other”. How does such communication take place? Communication with the Divine requires a “mediatorship” – and a mediatorship which is not “half-human/half-divine” but “totally human/totally divine” – otherwise the “mediator” would in fact become a barrier to full communion with the divine. Ratzinger expands this point in his excellent “Introduction to Christianity” (to which the Reader is referred).

      But in fact, it is this issue which is “mute” in this discussion. For the discussion is about whether the Muslims are, in their prayer, intending to communicate to the same deity – the same “Father” if you like – as we are (although obviously not through the mediatorship of Christ).

      Which raises an even more interesting question: What if we, as intercessors for our Muslim friends, were to take their prayers – offered in good intention – and offer them on their behalf to our Father in the name of Jesus? Eh? What then?

  13. Ben George

    “Ben George – to say we are worshiping a trinitarian God who is somehow different from the Jewish God is simply wrong. ”

    I didn’t say that.

    • Ben George

      “Muslims don’t believe anything about Allah that the Jews do not believe about their God. What is this F and E that you think is different?”

      The Koran.

      (And in my example, E was the addition to ABCD that was particular to the Christians, not the Jews.)

      “In regards to talking JUST about the first person of the trinity (God the Father) Christians say ABCD, Jews say ABCD and Muslims say ABCD.”

      Christians claim that God the Son reveals God the Father and gives God the Holy Spirit… We can no longer talk about “JUST the first person.”

      “Muslims do not believe anything about God (the Father) that we do not, ”

      They do not believe that he is the Father of Christ, in fact they SPECIFICALLY believe that he is NOT the Father of Christ.

      “except that he does not reveal himself other than by the word of the Koran.”

      It’s all in the “except” there.

      • I’m following you, Ben. But it all goes to show that the argument is about the SAME God, not a different God. The argument between Jews, Muslims and Christians over what we believe about God only has meaning if we give the same value to the word/name “God”.

      • Peregrinus

        But Jews also explicity and firmly deny that God is the Father of Christ, or that he [i]could[/i] be the Father of Christ. They reject the Trinity and the Incarnation, and even the [i]conceptual possiblity[/i] of Trinity and Incarnation, in exactly the same way as Muslims do. For them, a being which is capable of Trinity, or capable of Incarnation, cannot be God.

        I don’t think you can find anything about the nature or personhood of God which Muslims affirm which Jews do not also affirm.

        (I was told, in fact, by a Rabbi that Jewish philosophers of the past spent a good deal of time discussing whether Christians are idolators because of their Trinitarian and Incarnational beliefs. This matters, because Jews are basically bidden to have nothing to do with idolators, and the conditions in which Judaism existed in the medieval period this was kind of hard to accomplish.)

  14. Tom

    Hrm, I think you mistook what I meant.

    That except was about revelation. In terms of what i’m arguing here i’m talking about non-revelatory knowledge of God. As Aquinas argued it, he called it the Analogy of Being (analogia entis).

    The Christian knowledge of God as known apart from revelation and through reason is taken by and large from what Aquinas argued (his famous 5-ways proofs).

    Now each (except the 5th, I think) of these proofs is from what he (and before him Aristotle) called the analogy of being. It is part of the sub-division of Metaphysics that both called ‘Natural Theology’.

    Aquinas was heavily influenced by Avveroes and Avicenna. These two metaphysicians were both hugely influential in their own world, which was the Muslim world. (Infact, Aquinas’ argument for God as the necessary being is almost entirely taken from Avveroes or Avicenna – I forget which).

    This is in part to do with the way the history of philosophy went – Aristotle was lost to the west for some 1700-1800 years; it was preserved by the Muslims and renewed by Aquinas in the 13th Century.

    In this sense alone Christians and Muslims (and Jews) all worship the same, mono-theistic, singular, perfect, necessary, true God.

    Each of these characteristics of God is derived from the analogy of being; the transcendentals being (necessary), truth (true), good (perfect), one (singular) are the metaphysical transcendentals. Boetheius wrote in the 6th (I think) century on ‘The Names of God’ – these were the transcendentals, although he included also some virtues; love, wisdom, hope etc.

    These were all known to Jewish, (Moses Maimonides *spelling correct here*) Muslim (Avveroes & Avicenna) and Christian (Aquinas) metaphysicians. Each of these have written works that within their own traditions are very highly regarded.

    Each of these traditions knows God (to an extent!) and acknowledges the same God – because there is only one God who is true, necessary, perfect and singular. There are not two, or three, and anyone who worships the one, true, necessary and perfect God is worshipping the same God as Christians.

    Revelation is seperate from knowledge of God by reason. Revelation perfects reasonable knowledge of God, it does not substitute or replace it. Now Christianity and Islam as an inheritence of Judaism (for they are both the younger brothers of Judaism; they both with the Jews worship the revealed God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob) worship the same God as each other.

    Each has a different tradition of revelation however, and in this sense the Gods that are worshipped are not different, but known in different ways. The Christians here have something singularly different to each of the others in that God has revealed himself personally in the life of Christ, and continues to reveal himself today. Thus we might reasonably say that Christians have a ‘more perfect’ knowledge of God, by which I mean a more complete, more thourough knowledge; just as with Mathematics (and i’m not saying knowing God is like Maths, but that knowing is like knowing) knowing 1+1=2 may be the same for all three, but there may be one of the three who not only knows 1+1=2, but also that 2+2=4, and that 4*4=16. In this way, one may know Maths more perfectly than one who only knows the rudiments; this is not the same as saying that they know different maths. They know the same maths to a different degree.

    Just as with God (him who is called I am); Christians have a more perfect and complete knowledge of God in Christ; this is not a knowledge of God that is contradictory to the knowledge of the God of the Jews or the Muslims. He is the same God, just known less perfectly by those people.

  15. Harry wrote today:
    -=-=-=-=
    “I think that the whole issue is mute, Christ said that no one come to the Father except through Him. John 14:1-14.”
    -=-=-=-=
    Dear Harry,
    IMHO it is totally erroneous to deduce from this that those who do not believe in Christ as God the Son cannot believe in God the Father. The exact meaning of this particular phrase of Our Lord is that the salvation is possible only because of His redeeming sacrifice and His resurrection, which changed the whole world. As He suffered and died for the mankind rather than for Christians alone, the “Moslem-banning interpretation” of this phrase is, I believe, merely irrelevant.

    Ben George wrote today (answering to Tom):
    -=-=-=-=
    “[Tom: “Muslims do not believe anything about God (the Father) that we do not”]
    They do not believe that he is the Father of Christ, in fact they SPECIFICALLY believe that he is NOT the Father of Christ.”
    -=-=-=-=
    Dear Ben,
    May I remind you that biologically Jesus had no father and He was not a Son of God in the sense well-known to the heathen mythology (like, say, Hercules of Alexander the Great). The naïve and sacrilegious belief that Jesus was “a son of God and Mary” was frequently met with among the heretics and ignoramuses in the days of Mohammad; and again, I am inclined to think that in this case Koran simply opposes what we all must oppose as Christians.
    The Sonhood of Christ is an inner matter of the Deity, which aspect is merely closed to the usual Moslem and Jewish “optics”.
    In a sense, to reject the concept of Trinity one must accept it first. It is too complicated and multi-levelled to be criticised from outside.