This question is one of the biggest drivers of a strident Evangelical reaction to Muslims.
Two things bother me about the “no” response – one is the attitude of un-grace that can accompany it; the other is the tenuous evidence that is used to support the “no” verdict.
For some, a “yes” response is unthinkable – isn’t that a capitulation to Islam? It seems to be an insult to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some people in the cross-cultural mission community are even saying: ‘If we accept Allah and God as the same being, we are muddling-up Christian faith and Islam to the point of being an unfaithful hybrid that might as well be called ‘Chrislam’?
Having said all this, the question is like the trick question: ‘Have you stopped beating your wife yet?’ We are labelled, whether we say “yes” or “no”.
So the question is best answered by asking more questions – as Jesus sometimes did. If we unpack the big question by asking some lesser questions, it can help untangle the issues:
- Does Islam identify Allah as the God of the Bible? – “Yes” (S3:84; 29:46)
- Is the Muslim idea about God the same as the Christian idea? – “No”
- Is there anything in common between the Muslim and Christian ideas about God? – “Yes”
- Is there enough in common for us to use the same word? – “Yes”
There are two things to think about here; firstly – what a word refers to (i.e. its referent) and secondly – what a word causes us to understand (i.e. its meaning). So if we ask the question: “Are Muslims intending to refer to the high God of the Bible?” the answer is “yes”. However, if we ask: “Do Muslims understand what we do about who God is and what he is like?” the answer is “no”.
As is so often the case in such debates, the point at issue is not the real point at all. The names “God” and “Allah” are not the point – the Muslim understanding of what He is like, is the point. Muslims refer to Allah but they don’t appreciate His full biblical meaning.
It’s a bit like asking the question: Is the Jesus of the Jehovah’s Witnesses the Jesus of the Gospels? The answer of course has to be “yes” because there is only one Jesus to refer to. However, their understanding of Jesus is faulty to the point of being a caricature; the same is true of the Muslim concept of God.
In 38 years’ of experience in this field, I have met many followers of Jesus from Islam (particularly native Arabic speakers) who are puzzled why anyone should even think that Allah is not the God of the Bible. For example the Pakistani lady Bilquis Sheikh is a good example because she said that through Christ she had found the God she had been trying to know and worship, all her life. For her, the completion of her Islam was found in Christ.
Bishop Teqani Tafti of Iran was from Muslim background; his son was martyred for Christ. The bishop said:
‘Some people tend to think that Muslims have one God and Christians another. While I agree that the two concepts are very different from each other, I cannot agree that they really worship two utterly different gods… my faith in a Christian God was related to my childhood faith in a Muslim God. Then through the book of Psalms and Job I learnt anew the meaning of trust in God and came to worship Him at the foot of the Cross’.
David Pawson points out that the teaching of Islam is a ‘mixture’ of truth and error, but this is not a reason to conclude that Allah is not God; it is every reason to accept that their understanding of Allah is faulty.
The evident darkness at work in politicised radical Islam prompts some Evangelicals to site this as proof that Allah is behind such darkness. But we don’t apply the same logic by identifying the God of the Bible as the demonic force behind the violence of the Real IRA. Is the God of the Bible therefore evil, or is it merely how sinful human beings re-fashion him into their own image?
Reasons for using Allah for God
I address this vexed question in my manual Friendship First but let’s look at some points that validate the use of the word Allah for the God of the Bible.
For many centuries before Islam, Allah was the Arabic word for the high God. One of Muhammad’s relatives was called Abdullah (slave of God). The word “Allah” is used in all translations of the Arabic Bible; it is the only available word for God for tens of millions of Arabic-speaking Christians today.
The word Allah has also found its way into the Bible in the various non-Arabic languages of Muslim lands – including Indonesia, Malaysia and Central Asia. Some Islamic governments are now reacting to this by trying to stop Christians using Allah in order to force a cultural distinction between Muslims and Christians for political ends.
Muhammad was persecuted for trying to wean the idol-worshipping Arabian tribes away from the worship of pagan gods and onto the worship of the one and only God – Allah (S38:4), who is identified as the God of Abraham and the Jews (S3:84; 29:46).
It is therefore accurate (and more helpful) to identify Allah as the God of the Bible, with the proviso that the Muslim understanding of Him remains un-enriched without Christ. This is a challenge to Christians, who need to do something about this, rather than merely reacting negatively and driving a wedge between them and Muslims.