A God by Any Other Name: Evangelicals and Allah Part 1: Setting the Parameters – By John M. Hubers

From the Urban Dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com/)
meme    mēm     noun
2 : a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means

The Allah Meme

One of the memes that has recently rooted itself deeply in the consciousness of some American Christians, particularly those who come from the more conservative side of the evangelical tradition, is the confident assertion that Muslims worship a different god from the Christian God.  This is more than saying that we have different conceptions of God.  This is a blunt and often combative claim that we are, in fact, talking about two entirely different divine entities.  Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, who heads up the diaconal ministry Samaritan’s Purse, has been most strident in his public statements to this effect reaching back to the time just after 9/11.  He first did so in an address he gave at the dedication of a North Carolina church that was quoted by an NBC Nightly news segment (as well as nearly every news source in the Muslim majority world)  just two months after the 9/11 tragedy.

            The God of Islam is not the same God. He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo- Christian faith. It’s a different God, and I believe it [Islam] is a very evil and wicked             religion.[1]


Graham is not alone in this perception.  It has, in fact, become a kind of theological maxim among more conservative groups, particularly after 9/11.[2]

I discovered this in a personal way when I was approached about becoming full time pulpit supply at a conservative church in a Chicago suburb during the years I was doing my PhD studies.  I had first been invited to preach a sermon in this church about Christian-Muslim relations that was well received, enough so that the consistory decided to invite me to preach on a full time basis as they carried on a search for a permanent pastor.  But it wasn’t an open invitation. I was first asked to justify the assumption some heard in my sermon that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  They were correct in what they heard as this has been an assumption of mine  since the onset of my years of missionary service in the Muslim majority world, just as it was the assumption made by every other missionary I have ever known in that part of the world, evangelical or otherwise.  But at this traditional Christian Reformed Church such a belief was considered suspect, perhaps even bordering on heresy.   So before I was given the invitation I was first required to write a paper giving justification to that assumption for the consistory to review.  I must have made a good case, as I got the invitation and it was never mentioned again.

What I discovered in this incident was the weight of this particular meme – strong enough that in certain circles it has become a kind of litmus test for evangelical orthodoxy.   And while it should be said at the outset that there is a legitimate theological discussion to be had around the question posed by this meme – “do Muslims and Christians worship the same God” – the challenge it poses is related less to the way it answers this question than to its operative force as a test of evangelical orthodoxy.  Simply put those who hold it are suspect of those who don’t. That is the nature of a meme – the confidence with which it perpetuates itself as a kind of foundational truism for those who become its proponents. In this case, however, more is at stake than personal opinion as the tenacity with which it is held can have the effect of endangering the sensitive incarnational witness those of us who teach missions are trying to inculcate in our students.


Two Approaches

There are two ways to approach an examination of the assumption upon which this meme is built (that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God).   The first is to examine it from a theological perspective.  Here I recommend a book recently written by one of America’s most celebrated Protestant theologians, Yale Divinity School’s Miroslav Volf.  The title of the book is Allah:  A Christian Response.[3]   Its purpose, as suggested by the title, is to probe the theological and philosophical issues surrounding the topic.  What Volf acknowledges in the care with which he approaches the subject is that there is a legitimate theological debate surrounding this question with thoughtful Christians giving it different answers.   At issue is the contrast between the Qur’anic & biblical revelation of divinity, particularly related to the Christian belief in the incarnation.   The divine attributes are not completely equivalent.  Does this, then, suggest that we are speaking of different “gods?”  Some believe it does.  Volf does not.   His book offers well considered reasons why he doesn’t.

I recommend Volf’s book as one of the most comprehensive treatments of the subject from a theological standpoint.  My interest, however, and the focus of this paper, is different.  What interests me at least partly due to my studies in the history of Christian-Muslim relations, is to examine how key spokespersons in the evangelical tradition stretching back to the Reformation have conceptualized this question.  The meme assumes that there is only one valid answer to this question for Bible-believing Christians:  “no.”  What my exploration of this issue will show is that there are, in fact, a number of different ways Reformation-based Protestants have answered it, which more often than not contradicts the assumptions upon which this meme is built.


Historical Foundations

The key spokespersons I have chosen to examine are representative figures from different eras in the development of what today is referred to as the “evangelical tradition.”  What characterizes them is their decision to move from a generalized to a more informed knowledge of Islam.  All made an attempt within the limitations of their context to study Islam at a deeper level than others of their generation.

I begin my study with Martin Luther who was living at a time when Muslim armies were knocking on Europe’s door.  I turn next to the prominent eighteenth century American theologian, Jonathan Edwards and his nineteenth century missionary protégés who were the first Americans to venture out as evangelical missionaries to the Muslim majority world. I then take into consideration the thought of the Reformed Church in America’s pioneering missionary, the Rev. Samuel Zwemer, who served as an evangelical missionary in the Muslim majority world from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, and end my study with the writings of contemporary evangelical missionaries and scholars.  What will be shown in this all too brief survey is that more often than not the question “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” has been answered in the affirmative, even by those who have held an otherwise highly negative view of Islam.


Setting the Parameters for the Study

            The Rev. Colin Chapman, who served for many years with the Middle East mission of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) sets the parameters for the exploration upon which this paper is built when he begins his treatment of the subject in this way:

The question itself is a kind of trick question, because it forces us to answer with a simple            ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  What we need to do is to break the question down into several smaller      questions, such as:

  • Is the Christian idea of God the same as the Muslim’s idea of God? Most Christians would answer ‘No.’
  • Is there anything in common between the Christian’s idea of God and the Muslim’s idea of God? Most would not hesitate to answer ‘Yes.’
  • Is there enough in common between the Christian’s idea of God and the Muslim’s idea of God for us to be able to use the same word for God? This is probably the crucial question.[4]


For the purposes of this paper the later question is the “crucial question,” as it highlights the way the representative figures I have studied chose to answer the question.   All would agree with Chapman’s generalized answers to the first two questions.  They would affirm that the Christian idea of God is not the same as the Muslim idea of God.  They would also affirm that there are commonalities between the contrasting ideas.  Where they differ is in the answer they give to the third question, either due to their own creative reflection on the issues or based on viewpoints handed down to them from previous generations. In at least one case and possibly two, the view adopted had as much to do with inherited prejudices and perceptions as it did with a thorough examination of the issues. This was certainly the case with Martin Luther who may have been a revolutionary when it came to grace, but was a child of his time when it came to perceptions of Islam. It was also true to a certain extent with Jonathan Edwards who drew heavily on the normative perceptions of his era. But even in these cases it can be shown that the norm was not to give a negative response to the question, but rather a nuanced affirmation.





John Hubers is an ordained pastor in the Reformed Church in America who has served as a senior pastor in RCA churches in Michigan, New York and Texas.  He also was pastor of three international congregations in the Arabian Gulf states of Oman and Bahrain.  From 2001-2006 he was the supervisor of the Global Mission program of the RCA in the Middle East and South Asia.  For the past six years he has been teaching Christian Missions at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa after obtaining his PhD from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the area of Global Mission and World Christianity.  For the past two years he has also been serving as director of NWC’s global education program. 


[1] Quoted in a number of different sources based on statements Graham made at the dedication of a North Carolina chapel in October of 2001 as cited by NBC News sources (http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/04/18/graham.pentagon/)

[2] Richard Cimino’s extensive research comparing pre to post 9/11 evangelical literature noted that this was a major shift in emphasis with the literature post 9/11. The possible reasons for this will be explored further in this present work.  “No God in Common:  American Evangelical Discourse on Islam after 9/11,” Review of Religious Research, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Dec, 2005), p. 166.

[3] Miroslav Volf, Allah:  A Christian Response (New York:  Harper One, 2012)

[4] Colin Chapman, Cross and Crescent:  Responding to the Challenge of Islam (Leicester, UK:  Intervarsity Press, 1995), 228

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