Allah: A Christian Response
by Miroslav Volf
HarperOne, 336 pages, $25.99
The thesis Miroslav Volf defends in his welcome new book is twofold: Christians and Muslims confess belief in one and the same God, who bids humans to love God and one another, and this confession may serve as the basis for achieving peace between Muslims and Christians. Allah: A Christian Response builds on his earlier engagement with the well-known Muslim text “A Common Word between Us and You,” issued in 2007, and with the response, “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” in which he had a guiding hand. Along with Ghazi bin Muhammad and Melissa Yarrington, Volf edited the resulting volume, A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor. In Allah: A Christian Response, he draws extensively on the studies published there as well as on his own experience of living among Christians and Muslims in his native Croatia.
Volf’s intended readership seems to be Protestant Christian thinkers, many of whom have expressed reservations, not to mention outright denials, of both points of his thesis. He expends great effort to show that Martin Luther’s thought can be interpreted to support his thesis, in spite of Luther’s often strongly anti-Islamic (more precisely, anti-Turkish) language. While Volf also pays much attention to relevant papal and conciliar texts from the Middle Ages to Vatican II, his discussion of Catholic viewpoints on Islam are complicated by his dubious desire to convict Pope Benedict XVI of thinking that Muslims worship another God than do Christians.
Commendably, he promotes the deeper study of the pertinent works of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, the fifteenth-century polymath who can be considered an ancestor of today’s comparative theologians, but he neglects altogether the influential thought of other major writers on Christian–Muslim relations, most notably the Catholic Louis Massignon and the Anglican Kenneth Cragg.
Worse, he follows the mainstream of Western Christian writers on Christian–Muslim relations, who regularly ignore what those Christians who actually lived with Muslims for centuries in the Arabic-speaking world have had to say on the subject. When asked by a fellow Christian if one might recite along with the Muslims the first article of the Islamic creedal formula, “There is no God but the God,” one anonymous ninth-century Christian answered in the negative. With these words, he said, “they mean a God other than the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and he went on to point out that “what they say and what we say is one in words but very different in meaning.”
Two questions are at issue here: Is Allah the same for Christians and Muslims, and is it appropriate for a Christian publicly to recite the Islamic formula along with Muslims? Volf insists that the answer to both questions is yes. But his reasoning requires some further discussion.
It is true, as Volf points out, that all parties concerned identify the one God they worship, creator of all that is, as the God of Abraham, Isaac (Ishmael), and Jacob. But under the tutelage of the gospel, Christians have learned to confess this one God to be the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The scriptural key to this confession is the early Christian recognition of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, the Son of the living God, the Son of the very God of the patriarchs, whose oneness Jews, Christians, and Muslims confess.
This is also the primary point of the Christian faith that the Qur’an consciously critiques (Q 4:171, 5:72–73). For example, in an obvious reference to trinitarian doctrine, the Qur’an advises Christians to stop speaking of “three” in reference to the one God (Q 4:171, 5:73). Volf acknowledges that because of passages like these, the Trinity has become in post-Qur’anic times the main point of theological and even creedal difference between Christians and Muslims.
We may think of this difference as entailing a latter-day answer to Jesus’ question reported in the gospel, “Who do men say the Son of Man is?” In this context, the crucial question arises: Does this creedal difference effectively mean that the God Christians acknowledge is different from the God Muslims worship? Some Christian thinkers have thought so, and in this connection they have often cited Jesus’ question “Who do men say the Son of Man is?” and John’s declaration that love is the very being of the one God in three persons, alleging that this affirmation and its consequences in Christian theology are in stark contrast to Islamic thought about God.
Volf and the Muslim scholars whose work he cites conclude that, the differences in “God-talk” notwithstanding—differences both in what they say about Jesus Christ and in what they believe about God’s own self and his will for human beings—Christians and Muslims nevertheless are speaking of the same, one God. In Volf’s judgment, the Christian affirmation of God’s Son does not bespeak another God, but a deeper, revealed knowledge of the same God Muslims worship. His view envisions a higher quotient of congruence between Christian and Muslim creed and theology than many other thinkers in both communities would perceive.
Just over forty years ago, in Alive to God, Cragg adroitly put his finger on the answer to the question: Have we the same God? His answer is yes as theological subject but partly no as theological predicate. Although a consistent promoter of “theology in cross-reference” between Christians and Muslims, he speaks of very serious differences in the Christian and Muslim predicates, noting that, in the Islamic instance, “they jeopardize the whole Christian understanding of Jesus as God in self-predication.”
This way of putting it has all the sharpness and accuracy of expression that one might want. For as we have seen, the fulcrum point of difference between Christians and Muslims, from the Qur’an onward, has been their differing response to the question concerning who Jesus Christ really is. For this reason, the Qur’an does not reject only unorthodox Christian doctrines of the Trinity, as some have thought; by denying the divinity of Jesus, the Qur’an rejects the entire doctrine of the Trinity, root and branch. Rather than glossing over this difference, the more sound position is to admit the incommensurability of Christian and Muslim views of this radical article of the Christian creed.
The question now becomes, Does this incommensurability mean that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods? The answer has to be both yes and no. On the one hand, in terms of identity, both Christians and Muslims worship the one God of Abraham, Isaac (Ishmael), and Jacob, the creator of all that is. On the other hand, the Christian confession that the one God of the patriarchs is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accepts an affirmation about God’s identity that is explicitly denied by Muslims.
In the light of this difference, Volf argues, Christians and Muslims are called to charity, in the knowledge that in the end the judgment between them about what they believe about Jesus of Nazareth belongs to God. The Qur’an itself suggests as much in those passages in which, according to the traditional interpreters, the Islamic scripture speaks of a meeting between Muhammad and the Christians of the south Arabian city of Najran in the last year of his life, a meeting at which the creedal difference between them about the true identity of Jesus was precisely the point at issue.
Volf insists at numerous points in the book that the mutual belief of Christians and Muslims in the one creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac (Ishmael), and Jacob, should alone commend peace between them, even proposing a helpful protocol for charitable, interreligious behavior on the part of fellow believers in the one God. But neither history nor current events suggests that such common belief actually begets peace on its own; one need think only of Europe’s wars of religion and the world of Islam’s battles between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims to see the point. These were and are in-house conflicts, where the religious commonalities are on an even higher level than is the case between Christians and Muslims.
Volf readily identifies the disjunction between belief and practice in these events, but he nevertheless insists that Christ’s dual commandment of unconditional love for God and one another is the only way forward for Christians. This is the ground for the Christian interest in everything human, and it is the ultimate ground for the Christian pursuit of interreligious dialogue in general and of Christian-Muslim dialogue in particular. Many Muslims, as Volf shows, espouse similar views within a different set of parameters.
Believing that Christians and Muslims acknowledge and worship the same God, and that Christians and Muslims recognize this one God’s love and mercy as bidding humans to love one another in ways appropriate to each confession, Volf brings up a number of practical questions that call for answers from Christians. Is it possible to be Christian and Muslim at the same time? Should Christians and Muslims engage in common prayer? Does the recognition of a common God justify a political position in favor of civic pluralism in religion? Volf leans toward a positive answer to these questions, although much more discussion and research is necessary to justify this optimism in light of the difficulties mentioned above.
In my view, the Islamic creed implicitly endorses the Qur’an’s explicit denial of the distinctive Christian confession that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, the acknowledgment in faith that gives rise to the doctrine of the Trinity, the heart of Christian faith. For a Christian formally to endorse the Islamic shahadah would implicitly entail a contradiction in belief. But as the Qur’an seems to suggest, there is a difference between being a “muslim” and being a “Muslim.” One might submit to the one God according to one’s own creed (a “muslim,” with a lowercase m).
For a Christian formally to endorse the Islamic shahadah or to participate fully in Muslim public worship would implicitly entail the acceptance of contradictory creeds, as the ninth-century theologian quoted above rightly observed. But, Volf suggests, commonly to address prayers to the one God of Abraham, Isaac (Ishmael), and Jacob to show the way to the common good for Abraham’s children could nevertheless be the way to begin to walk on the divinely mandated path of mercy and love.
Sidney H. Griffith is a professor in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at the Catholic University of America.