By Azar Ajaj
You might be aware to the controversy of a Wheaton University professor who donned a hijab in solidarity with Muslims, after they faced backlash following the terrorist attacks in Paris. She also was suspended from the school in response – not for her wearing of the hijab, but for her comments in justification that Muslims and Christians worship the ‘same God’. A few friends wrote to me asking what we believe as Arab Christians who lived for centuries side by side with their Arab Muslims neighbors. Therefore I found it appropriate to share some of my thoughts concerning this issue.
Do Christian and Muslim worship the same God? This is a complex question and not easily answered. The issues entailed in this question weigh heavy on our experience as Arab Christians, and yet the issue is rarely addressed explicitly in our daily interactions. This is due to the sensitive nature of Muslim-Christian relationships in our region. (Before going further, it is worth clarifying that the term “we” refers, in my answer, mainly to evangelical community, either at large or in the Middle East.)
When one examines the relationship between the God of the Bible and the God of the Quran from a purely existential or even “mathematical” perspective, one could easily conclude that we are speaking about the same “deity”; for, after all, there is only one “god.” We should admit that Muslims and Christians both claim to speak about the same “god” in the sense that they both intend to refer to “God, the One and Only.” And, when it comes to that God, there is certainly some real overlap between Islamic and Christian claims about the one God. Muslims as well as Christians believe that God is the creator, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal, and so on.
In addition to that, the usage of the name “Allah” adds to the complexity of the question. The Arabic Bible uses the word “Allah” when referring to God. I do not believe Islam “owns” the Arabic language, even though it does dominate. So, “Allah” should not be a “bad” word for Christians. Thus, when interacting with Muslims in our daily life, the word “Allah” is conventionally used by Arab Christians and Arab Muslims as though it refers to the same Person. That is, in the Arabic language, the term “Allah” is the standard generic term for the word “God” (however else it may be used in this or that special context). For an Arab Christian to use the word “Allah” does not imply any specific theological congruence between our respective understandings of God; it is simply conventional linguistic usage.
So much for linguistics. When it comes to theology, however, I am convinced that there is a rather significant gap between the God and Father of our Lord Jesus (God as we know him) and God as he is conceptualized in Islamic thought. Muslims do not believe in the following essential theological elements: Trinity, the fatherhood of God, the eternal sonship of Jesus, the deity of Jesus, Jesus the Redeemer, the cross of Christ, and eve the nature and his covenant with humanity. Also, the person of the Holy Spirit is understood very differently in Islam. (Generally, Muslims believe that the Holy Spirit is created by Allah as his one of angels.)
When any Muslim converts to Christianity, he or she ceases to draw truth about God from the Quran and adheres instead to the revelation of God in the Bible, both testaments. By way of contrast, converting from Judaism to Christianity, in a sense, involves gaining critical new light on the story of God already known in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Think, for example, of the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. When it comes to the Quran we have a very different picture: despite some literarily powerful quranic passages, despite some true assertions in the Muslim book, and despite some overlap between the contents of Quran and Bible, the two scriptures are, at the end of the day, incompatible “revelations.”
So, to use the argument that both visions of God are “one” for the sake of building bridges is unnecessary and not entirely truthful. Both Muslims and Christians already believe that there is only one God (“Allah” in Arabic). To that extent the bridge already exists. There is little virtue, because there is little truth, in seeking to imply that on the most vital level we understand this God similarly. We do not.
Nonetheless, we as Arab Christians do not seek to inflame emotions and relationships between the communities by aggressively highlighting our differences at every turn! Employing such bridges as already exist is necessary both for the sake of outreach as well as for the sake of living in harmony with the Muslim majority throughout the cities and villages of the Middle East.
We do not believe that the God Christianity is the same as the God of Islam. In our context, no one could stand on the pulpit and preach or voice such a sentiment. In so doing, it would bring the Quran to the point of being viewed as another alternative through which to know the true God, the Father of Jesus Christ. In other words, I believe there is only one God, the God of the Covenant, which was fully enacted in the person and life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ.
Having said that, Christians do not, and usually need not, initiate relationships with Muslims by focusing on the issues of highest tension and offense between the communities. Yes, our ultimate goal must be to proclaim the revelation of Jesus as Lord, speaking the truth in love, but more often than not it is wiser to begin by building trust and strengthening potentially fragile relationships rather than by stoking controversy from the start.
And, finally, concerning wearing the hijab as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with victims of anti-Muslim hatred and/or racism, I fully endorse the intent of the act, and would leave the question of that mode of protest to the conscience of the individual. Christians should certainly stand against injustice and stand by oppressed people whoever they may be.