(or) same thing, different name…
In an interview for christianitytoday.com made in 2011, Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, was asked this question: “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” he answered: “I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same.” Afterwards he goes on to explain his position to a greater detail, yet his initial statement remains.
In a world of multicultural societies full of pluralistic prospects we experience a natural tendency to link similar looking concepts and consider them to be the same. We incline to connect ideas that are foreign to us to those we are already familiar with, thus looking rather for similarities than differences. Today many would share Volfs perspective and suggest that the Muslim “Allah” and the Christian “God” is virtually the one same god, only perceived from different angles. In the following lines I will not attempt to give, what is in philosophy called, “a killer” argument, that would decisively disqualify one of the alternatives. No, the intention of this paper is more modest. Both similarities and differences of the two theologies will be highlighted and the conclusion, whether the referent is the same, will stay with the reader.
Only one God
With regard to the broad spectrum of world religions Islam and Christianity is at this point truly very close to each other. In fact this parallelism is taken to be one of the most impressive. Yet this is not to say that a great many other religions do not recognize a figure of a high god. Egyptians worshipped Ra, Isis or Osiris, while Greeks gave their praise to Zeus or Jupiter. Nordic people among others feared Odin and Thor while in China “Yu-huang-shang-ti” was originally taken to be the greatest sky deity. Hinduism exalts Brahma, Vishnu and Siva while Mahayana Buddhism follows the example of Buddha. Hiebert, Shaw and Tienou further in their book offer a list of several other tribes that hold this belief: “In sub-Saharan Africa, belief in a creator God is taken for granted by almost everyone. The Masaii call this god “Engai,” the Yoruba “Olorun” [“ Lord of the Sky”], the Dinka “Nhialic,” the Mende “Ngewo,” the Ibo “Chukwu,” and the Fon “Mawu.” The overriding issue with all these other belief systems is that they at the same time recognize multiple high or lesser gods or goddesses, ending up in polytheism. Their belief is nowhere confined to only one god. On the contrary both Islam and Christianity make indisputable claims about only one true God.
Det. 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” Mk. 12:32: “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 1 Cor. 8:4: “…We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” Exod. 20:3: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
The last verse is mentioned as one of the Ten Commandments given by God directly to Moses when he was on the mountain of Sinai.
Surah 112 “…He, Allah, is One.  Allah is He on Whom all depend.  He begets not, nor is He begotten.  And none is like Him.” Surah 57  He is the First and the Last, and the Outward and the Inward; and He is Knower of all things. Surah 4 “Lo! Allah forgiveth not that a partner should be ascribed unto Him. He forgiveth (all) save that to whom He will. Whoso ascribeth partners to Allah, he hath indeed invented a tremendous sin.”
The last verse in Islam is associated with an unforgivable sin called “shirk” (associating). As suggested, Allah, if he pleases, can forgive other sins yet if someone breaks his commitment to the only one God, he falls beyond Allah’ remission. Thus it appears that this strong monotheistic attitude is an undeniable bond between the two religions.
Trinitarian or Unitarian
While the first look at the oneness of God is outwardly without a problem, the second one does raise a challenge. Deep in Christian theology lies the doctrine of Trinity according which God consists of three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This concept is often misunderstood by folk Muslims who because of it consider Christians to be polytheists. Frequently these Muslims assume that Christians believe in a sexual union between a Father God and a Mother God (Mary) begetting their “Son of God.” This is a very mistaken view which practically nobody holds. Yet even well-informed Muslims are having troubles accepting one God who in the same time consists of three persons.
Despite the fact that this post is not focused on explaining the Trinity alone I believe that a useful analogy of Cerberus offered by Professor William Lane Craig can bring a certain level of understanding to this apparent paradox:
“In Greek mythology, there is a dog which is supposed to be guarding the gates of Hades named “Cerberus.” One of the tasks of Hercules is to subdue Cerberus at the gates of Hades. Now, Cerberus is no ordinary dog. He is a three-headed dog, and each of these heads is a fully functioning canine head. I think we can suppose, therefore, that Cerberus has three brains and that these brains are associated with three distinct states of consciousness, whatever it is like to be a dog. Whatever a dog-consciousness is like, Cerberus has three of them, not one of them. Therefore, even though Cerberus is a sentient being, he doesn’t have a unified consciousness; rather he has three consciousnesses – three centers of consciousness. Obviously, in order for Cerberus to be a biologically viable organism, as well as to be a good guard dog, there needs to be a considerable degree of cooperation and harmony among these three canine minds. Despite the diversity of his mental states, Cerberus is clearly one dog. He is one three-headed dog, a single biological organism which exemplifies a canine nature.”
Muslims on the other hand explicitly deny any form of fatherhood or sonship related to Allah.
Surah 23 “No son did Allah beget, nor is there any god along with Him: (if there were many gods), behold, each god would have taken away what he had created and lorded it over the others!”
As we read previously, Allah is considered to be “one” in all aspects and any other teaching is an unacceptable heresy. This view also called a “pure” monotheism.