Does Islam worship the one God of Abraham, like Jews and Christians, or some other god? Many strident voices insist Allah is a different god. Inconveniently, though, the three great monotheistic faiths claim Abraham as their patriarch and resulting from that, each claim Abraham’s one God as their own. Regardless, I am told, we can’t possibly be worshiping the same God as Muslims.
Challenged by Islam, numerous Christians adopt this “my god’s bigger than your god” thing. That’s a really poor way of initiating a Christian–Muslim conversation with, say, the food court clerk at my local grocery. (Under my questioning, she's reading her Qu'ran more, she tells me.)
One of the problems Christianity has had with Islam is deciding whether Islam represents an independent revelation, or whether it is only a derivative religion. Early Christian reaction to Islam treated the Qur’an as a subtext—a mix of Judaism and Christianity spiced with Gnosticism. Certainly the low Christology of the Qur’an matches well with some forms of Gnostic teaching: Jesus was not crucified (a substitute was found) and therefore was not resurrected; God instead snatched him up to immediate ascension.
As a result, for Christians Islam was not “true” revelation, not “true” in the same sense as the Torah revealed God through his Law, or in the way that Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfilled the Law. At best Islam was said to be a Jewish-Christian heresy, a mismatch of traditions haphazardly filtered through an Arabian Desert culture. It was not in any sense “true,” historically or theologically.
But for those who worship the one God of Abraham, we must ask: Is Islam a “false” religion? By that I only mean to ask, “Does Islam in fact lead people away from the knowledge of the one God of Abraham?”
False religions deny Abraham’s God. Wicca and neo-paganism deny the one God of Abraham, as does the ancestral animism of Disney’s Pocahontas and the talking “grandmother tree.” A polytheistic construction with a diffuse deity scattered among many gods and avatars does the same. Does Islam do that?
When it comes to knowing something about Abraham’s God, we three—Jew, Christian, Muslim—are the only people who name our faith as first a faith in the one God who took Abraham by the hand. In this sense, and in no other, we must ask if Islam is a “true” religion. And what, we must then ask, does that question itself mean for those of us who assert that Jesus is the Christ?
The conversation, I think, should start with Mary, not God. To speak of Mary in any Christian sense is to speak of Mary’s son. Turns out, to speak of Mary in any Islamic sense also is to speak of Mary’s son. We must speak of what God has done through Mary and in doing this Muslims and Christians will always in some sense be drawn nearer to Mary’s son.
So what do Muslims and Christians together learn from the Qur’an?
Then We (God) sent her (Mary) our angel (Gabriel), and he appeared before her as a man in all respects. She said, “I seek refuge from you to God Most Gracious! Do not come near me, if you fear God!”
He said, “No, I am only a messenger from your Lord, (to announce) to you the gift of a holy son.”
She said, “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?”
He said, “So (it will be). Your Lord says, ‘That is easy for Me, and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men, and a Mercy from Us.’ It is a matter decreed.”
(Surat Maryam 19:16-21, the Chapter of Mary)
The Qur’an is terse compared to St. Luke’s Gospel. In St. Luke (1:26–38) Gabriel has a longer speech, and he must spend more time explaining matters under Mary’s sharp questioning: How can God do such a thing? He cites examples, gives explanations, and actually cajoles: the Holy Spirit will “come upon her”; Mary’s barren aunt, Elizabeth, is expecting and God did that; and besides (something of a standby) with God, nothing is impossible. Importantly, Mary must make a choice. She accepts the summons to become the Lord’s servant.
In the Qur’an, when God decides a thing, the thing is done. No dithering, no rationalizations, few explanations—it happens because God has said so and what God says happens. “That’s easy for me,” Gabriel quotes God. “It’s a matter already decreed.”Mary does not voice consent; it is presumed. “So,” the next verse makes it plain, “she conceived him.” See, all done. If Christian scripture is story, Islam’s is declaration.
Mary is to give birth to a son, a “gift” from God, a “holy son” who will be a “Sign unto men” and a “Mercy” from God. This is something we both may say, and say—in God’s inexplicable ways— together.
Seems to me we have a lot of things to talk about, Muslims and Christians, but only after we have first talked about Mary.
Russell E. Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church, is book review editor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his previous First Things contributions are here.