A reader writes:
The thought comes from one of your commenters, and I
think it’s worthy of a blog entry (because I’m trying
to work it out myself).
Is the Christian God the same god as the Muslim Allah?
I think most orthodox Catholics will answer yes, but
that generates the question, what does that mean?
The immediately obvious discrepancy is that Muslims
deny the Trinity. But other characteristics fail as
well. Muslims would shudder at the description of God
So if suffient characteristics of their description of
God diverges suffiently from our description of God,
do we have different gods?
I wrote a philosophical paper on this question a few years ago that I meant to submit as a journal article, but I’m afraid that I haven’t gotten around to it. At this point, I’m not even sure what hard drive it’s on, so I’ll have to do some digging around.
In the meantime, lemme see how well I can come up with a quick encapsulation of the overall argument.
For purposes of simplicity, let us consider the question of prayer, with the understanding that what is said about this topic can be applied in a general way to other forms of relating to the divine, such as offering praise, adoration, etc.
Prayer can be defined in various ways (lifting the heart and mind to God, petitioning God for some good, etc.), but let’s use an understanding of prayer that anyone can understand: Prayer is talking to God.
So the question becomes: When Muslims talk to Allah, are they talking to God?
We need not be detained by the fact that the word "Allah" is not the normal English word for God. It is the normal Arabic word for God, and it is used by Arabic-speaking Christians as a designator for the true God all the time.
We also need not be detained by alleged origins of the term in pre- and proto-Muslim history. Where a term comes from does not determine its meaning. How it is used determines its meaning (otherwise the word "nice" would mean "ignorant" since it comes from the Latin word nescius) and so, regardless of where the word came from, how Muslims use this word today is key to determining whether they pray to the same God we do.
How important it is to recognize present use is illustrated by the fact that Arabic-speaking Christians also use "Allah" as a descriptor of the true God. When they so use it, they have in mind a Trinitarian Being, the Second Person of whom became incarnate as Jesus Christ. That’s what Arabic-speaking Christians mean by "Allah."
Arabic-speaking Muslims (and other Muslims) obviously mean something different, and the question is whether their usage of the term is different enough that it would prevent prayers they address to Allah from being prayers addressed to God.
What characteristics does a Muslim typically envision Allah as having? I would advance the following list as some of the most important characteristics:
1) Is an uncreated being
2) Is the creator of the universe
3) Appeared to Abraham
4) Is just
5) Is merciful
6) Will raise the dead
7) Is not a Trinity
8) Is not incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth
Characteristics 1-6 are ones that Christians agree with Muslims about. It is characteristics 7 and 8 that are the key points of disagreement. Are they sufficient to keep God from receiving Muslim prayers directed to him?
Before answering that question, take note of this fact: A non-Christian Jewish person would say exactly the same list of characteristics applies to the God to whom they direct their prayers.
Christian tradition and the Bible itself acknowledge that Jewish individuals do worship and pray to God, even if they do not understand that he is a Trinity or that he is incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. If you’re going to say that belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation are essential for worshipping or talking to God then you’re going to have a huge problem with Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.
And yet the person’s understanding of God is different than the one that the Church proclaims.
I think that light on this question can be shed by recognizing that it is quite possible for us to talk to someone even if there are things that we don’t know about them or even if we have false beliefs about them.
To illustrate this point, let’s take the case of someone with a secret identity: Bruce Wayne.
Suppose that I am a paperboy who delivers copies of The Daily Planet in the neighborhood where stately Wayne Manor is located, so one of my customers is millionnaire playboy Bruce Wayne, who always comes out to get his paper promptly, being as interested in local and world affairs as he is. One day as I’m pitching The Daily Planet in the neighborhood, I see him out on his lawn, and I say, "Howdy, Bruce!" He waves back and says, "Hi, Jimmy!"
I had this (brief) conversation with him even though I–as a normal Gothamite (transplanted from Texas)–am totally unaware of the fact that he is secretly Batman. There thus can be things about a person that I do not know and do not believe about him, yet it doesn’t stop me from having a conversation with him.
This is analogous to the situation of the Jewish people in the Old Testament, who prayed to God even though the doctrine of the Trinity had not yet been revealed.
But it’s not analogous to the situation of someone after the revelation of the Trinity who has considered and rejected the doctrine, so let’s go back to the thought experiment.
Suppose that one day as I am pitching copies of The Daily Planet and I notice an article on page one by Lois Lane that is headlined BATMAN IS REALLY BRUCE WAYNE!
Now, I’ve read all of Lois’s previous attempts to prove that Superman is really Clark Kent, and every single time she’s run a story like that, it’s been disproved. So I long ago concluded that Lois Lane is an unreliable source on the subject of superhero identities.
When I see her latest such story, I just laugh and shrug it off, and when I pitch the paper to Mr. Wayne, I call out "Hey, there’s a story on page one that you should really get a kick out of! Haw-Haw!" and Bruce smiles and says, "I know. I already read it on the Internet and had a good laugh. By the way, the Internet is driving dead-tree newspapers out of business, so you should start looking for a new job. May I suggest apologetics?"
Bruce and I were able to have this conversation even though I had already entertained and rejected the claim that he is Batman.
So if I can talk to someone about whom I have false beliefs, what would prevent a person from talking to God even though he has false beliefs about God?
Let me go back to the thought experiment one more time to unearth an insight that should be of help.
The next day I’m tossing papers and I see Mr. Wayne on the lawn and there is a TV reporter there interviewing him. I toss him his paper and shout, "Hey, Mr. Wayne! Thanks for that tip about apologetics! I put in my application with a group in California!" and he calls back, "Good for you, son!"
Unbeknownst to me, the person I talked to this time was not actually Bruce Wayne. In reality, it was Chameleon Boy from the Legion of Super-Heroes, who used his shape-shifting power to impersonate Bruce Wayne so that he coud be interviewed by a reporter while the real Bruce Wayne was being interviewed on TV with Commissioner Gordon at the same time across town, setting up "proof" that Batman and Bruce Wayne are two different people and thus once again denying Lois Lane the prize of outing a superhero.
In this case I believed that I was talking to Bruce Wayne, but in fact I was not. I was actually talking with Chameleon Boy.
In this case I had a massive number of false beliefs about the person I was talking to. I believed that he was (a) a human being, who was (b) a resident of Gotham and (c) a native of the 20th century and (d) from the planet Earth, and (e) a millionnaire and (f) a middle-aged man and (g) someone who possesses no superpowers.
In reality, I was talking to (a) an alien being, who will be (b) a resident of Metropolis and is (c) a native of the 30th century and (d) from the planet Durla, and (e) has no special wealth and (f) is a teenager and (g) possesses the power to change shape.
How could I get so much wrong about the person I was talking to and yet be talking to him? What was it that allowed my words to be addressed to him even though almost every belief I had about him was wrong?
It would seem that there is some set of minimal core criteria that allow me to talk to a person even though almost everything I believe about him is wrong. What might this be?
In the case of an ordinary conversation, I would suggest that the fundamental criterion of who we are talking to is something we aren’t always fully conscious of.
Suppose that on the third day I had a partner with me in the car, helping me roll papers, and after I finished speaking to Chameleon Boy, he turned to me and said, "Who were you just talking to?" I reply: "Bruce Wayne," and my partner says, "Who’s that?" Annoyed, I point and say, "That guy over there."
"That guy over there" is the real descriptor of who I was talking to. I believed that this person was Bruce Wayne (which was false) and that he was not Batman (which was true), but in reality I was talking to a particular person "over there." As long as there was someone "over there" (i.e., as long as I wasn’t hallucinating) then that is the person I was talking to, even if I was mistaken about the person’s identity and everything else about him.
Notice thus that we have to different kinds of characteristics that apply to the person I was talking to. The primary criterion is that he was "that guy over there," while everything else about him (the idea that he was Bruce Wayne, that he was not Batman, that he was a human, that he was a millionnaire playboy) were secondary criteria.
This is the way conversations work when we are talking to someone in person: The person we are talking to is the one who satisfies the primary criterion we have in mind–usually "that person over there"–even if none of the secondary criteria we have in mind apply to that person.
Upon discovering that none of the secondary criteria apply, we may say "Oh! I wasn’t talking to you!" but we refer in this case to who we intended to talk to, not who we were talking to. If I discover that the person I have been talking to is not who I thought he was, that doesn’t change the fact that I was talking to him.
So we’ve got a handle on how conversations work in person, but what about conversations with people who aren’t physically present and can’t think of as "that person over there"?
In this case, it seems to me, we have to decide which criteria we are going to treat as primary and which as secondary.
Suppose that I am a person who is unsure whether Christianity is true. I believe that God exists and that he created the world, but I am not sure whether he is a Trinity or whether he incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth. So I pray, "God, please guide me so that I realize the truth about you and whether I should become a Christian."
In this case, the primary criterion of who I am addressing would presumably be "Creator of the Universe" or something like that, and thus the Creator of the Universe would understand that I was addressing him, even though I am uncertain about other things concerning him.
Suppose, though, that I was a person who really hated Christians and was unwilling to address their God, even if he exists. In this case the criteria I am applying to the person I am addressing might be something like "the Creator of the Universe as long as he isn’t the Christian God."
In this case my prayer would be addressed to no one because, in fact, the Creator of the Universe is in fact the Christian God. Up in heaven, God would say, "Sorry, but if you’re really determined not to talk to the Christian God then you’re not talking to me. You’re talking to the void."
Now suppose that I believe that the Creator of the Universe isn’t the Christian God, but I’m willing to talk to him if he is. In this case my primary criterion is "Creator of the Universe" but "is not the Christian God" is a secondary criterion. As long as this is the case, I’m still going to be talking to God. Up in heaven, God will say, "Okay, you’re wrong about me not being the Christian God, but you’re still willing to talk to me even if I am, and so your prayers are addressed to a real Being."
If we’re going to ask about the prayers of Muslims in particular and whether they are addressed to God, I would say that it depends on the Muslim in question. Some Muslims may be so anti-Christian that they would be unwilling to talk to God–to Allah–if it turned out that he was the God of the Christians. Those Muslims would not be talking to God because there is no being that corresponds to the description "the true God who is not the God of the Christians." They would be talking to the void.
But the vast majority of Muslims don’t seem to be in that condition. They may not believe that God is a Trinity or that he incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, but they are still directing their prayers to something like "Creator of the Universe" or "God who appared to Abraham" or "the one true God" or something like that.
This is what enables the Catechism to state that Muslims "acknowledge the Creator" and that "together with us
they adore the one, merciful God" (CCC 841).
Okay, that ended up being longer than I meant it to, but I hope it sketches some of the philosophical basis for how a person can genuinely talk to someone (including God) about whom one has false beliefs.
That’s something we need to happen because, no matter who we are, at some point in our lives all of us have entertained false beliefs about God–even from misunderstanding perfectly orthodox catechesis in childhood–and we still need God to answer our prayers in those times and to guide us toward a correct understanding of him.