Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Do They Worship the Same God?

A common refrain on message boards and in comment sections on the Internet is that Jews, Christians and most especially Muslims do not worship the same God. Is there any merit to this statement? All three religions are part of the Abrahamic tradition and find their roots in the ancient Hebrew faith. Modern Judaism developed after the fall of the Second Temple in 72 CE. Christianity as we know it today probably began with Paul’s teachings and solidified with the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, though it began as a Jewish movement around 30 CE. Islam, the newest (or oldest, depending on your religious perspective) of the three religions dates its beginning to approximately 610 CE and both draws and builds on Jewish and Christian religious traditions. All three religions share stories and in some cases texts. All three claim to be worshipping the God of the Patriarchs. All three also clearly conceive of God in different ways. Do we judge whether they worship the same God based on their own claims, or on their understandings of the nature of God?

A related video on the topic from YouTube:

In “The Perspective of at-Tawhid” (1983), Muhammad ‘Abdul Haq argues that there is a distinct difference between the monotheisms practiced by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Writing from an Islamic perspective, the foundation of ‘Abdul Haq’s argument is the differing conceptions that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have about the unity (at-Tawhid) of God. He is critical of both Jews and Christians and believes that, because of their diverging religious traditions, they have an imperfect understanding of monotheism.

‘Abdul Haq argues that, while Islam places ultimate importance on the concept of the divine unity of God, both Judaism and Christianity are based on divine manifestation in history. He links the idea of monotheism in Judaism with the concept of ‘chosenness’ and the pact made at Mount Sinai. Because of this, he feels that it is impossible to disassociate the God of Judaism from the Jewish people as an ethnic group, making the conception of the Jewish God contingent on a historical event. Regarding Christianity, ‘Abdul Haq points out that everything revolves around the person of Jesus Christ and the events of his life, which also roots Christianity firmly into history.

The author believes Judaism and Christianity’s entrance into history is important because it differentiates them from Islam, which he claims has an absolute truth versus the formers’ relative truth. In other words, Islam sees God as being utterly transcendent and beyond our conception while both Judaism and Christianity place God in history, thereby restricting his essence. One could also argue that God sending Gabriel to reveal the Quran to Muhammad was an intervention in history. However, the difference is that in Judaism and Christianity, God Himself appears in history, while in Islam He works through an intermediary, Gabriel. The result is the same: an intervention in history, but the method is what sets Islam apart. Muslims see God as being beyond history, because entering history would necessarily restrict or limit his essence.[1]

He also states that Judaism monopolizes and nationalizes monotheism and prophecy.[2] This is not actually, true, however. While it was perhaps not always the case, modern Judaism does have a conception of God as being universal. This is not a new development, either. The Noahide Laws in Genesis, which are seven rules that apply to non-Jews, provide redemption for those who follow them. Essentially, it is a path to participation in monotheism without being Jewish. There is, of course, still a difference between inclusion in the covenant community and being a part of the Noahide community, but this still contradicts ‘Abdul Haq’s point.

Christanity, like Islam, has a universal message, but the author is still critical of the concept of the Trinity, which he bluntly states is not monotheism, regardless of how the explanation is framed.[3] Returning to the idea of God’s essence, he writes that “Judaism and Christianity have failed to evaluate the true worth of Divine Unity, the incommensurable nature of which signifies that there is no common measure between the finite and the Infinite.”[4] Breaking God down into parts is counter to Islam’s idea of God’s unity, which cannot be subdivided or contained.

Another way to look at the similarities and differences between the Abrahamic religions’ conceptions of God is by comparing their revelatory and mission structures. Martin Jaffee does this well in his article, “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism” (2001). Jaffee engages with the symbolic structures of the Abrahamic religions to show that they are constructed in a way that brings them into almost inevitable conflict. He believes that their structural similarities, along with the decline in polytheism as a viable competing model of piety, explains what Jaffee calls their obsessive self-definition “over against” each other.[5]

Essentially, Jaffee looks at how the Abrahamic communities see themselves in relation to God and how they see their mission in history. For Israel, the “divine self-disclosure” comes in the form of human language via the Torah, a scriptural set of commandments passed down to man.[6] In Christianity, the divine self-disclosure comes in the form of Jesus’ historical life. This is distinct from Judaism, because it is not revelation transmitted in the form of human language. In Islam, the form of divine self-disclosure is textual, like it was in Judaism. The position that Islam takes on the previous two divine self-disclosures is that people altered the original texts and changed their meanings, which is what necessitated the third divine self-disclosure. Islam sees the Quran as a corrective that is meant to reestablish monotheism as universal and inviolable. This does not imply that Islam sees the Jewish and Christian views of God as the same or valid, however.

Writing in response to Jaffee, Yehezkel Landau attempts to bridge that gap in “God as Multiple Covenanter: Toward a Jewish Theology of Abrahamic Partnerships” (2015), an article that presents Christianity and Islam as legitimate, additional covenants between man and God. Landau asks, “[C]an monotheism be pluralistic, …that is, if God is One, how can different understandings of that Oneness be valid?”[7] Landau is attempting to present the God of the Torah as the same God worshipped in Christianity and Islam. He does this by finding a precedent in the Torah and then explains how Christianity and Islam fit into that existing pattern.

When people think of God’s covenant with Israel, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the covenant with Abram / Abraham that includes circumcision and a promise to make Abraham’s descendants plentiful. Landau argues instead that there are many covenants in the Torah that apply not only to Jews, but to all nations, starting with the covenant of the Sabbath. He notes that in Isaiah 56:1-7, Sabbath observance also applies to any stranger or foreigner that chooses to “join himself to the Eternal.”[8] The next covenant Landau reviews is the Noahide Covenant, which binds God, all human beings, and other living things on Earth. Lastly, Landau discusses the significance of the Abrahamic Covenant and Abraham’s role as the progenitor of both Israel and the Arabs, linking God’s covenant to Islam. The idea is, perhaps, to imply that part of God’s promise to Abraham is being carried out through the descendants of his son, Ishmael, as well as through Jacob / Israel.[9]

Landau casually dismisses non-Orthodox positions on religious pluralism, which is disappointing in a paper written to supposedly present a Jewish viewpoint. He simply states that they are more likely to be open to religious pluralism since they don’t follow halakha as strictly. It would have been more interesting and informative to see what the major Jewish denominational positions are, rather than having them dismissed out of hand, especially since most Jews are not Orthodox. In Landau’s defense, it is possible he believes his primary audience will be those who are not yet convinced and by his reasoning those people would tend to be Orthodox.

Another problem in Landau’s article is that he draws on the work of an Orthodox Rabbi named Irving Greenburg to tie Christianity into his argument of multiple covenants. Greenburg argues that covenant develops in stages. He specifically points out the change in Jewish practice after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple as an example of an unfolding covenant. Greenburg sees Christianity as a natural outgrowth of the Hebrew faith and as a part of God’s design.[10] This argument does not make sense. If Christianity is part of God’s plan, and Christianity’s goal is to convert everyone to Christianity, then Greenburg is essentially arguing that Judaism should disappear. Landau quotes Greenburg at length. In one of the quotes, Greenburg attempts to position Christians as part of the house of Israel with the common goal of defending a unified religious tradition and the state of Israel against Islam.[11] While Landau criticizes Greenburg for taking this stance, he fails to realize that this undermines Greenburg’s entire argument, which comes across as a veiled appeal to Christian Zionists to begin or maintain support for the state of Israel.

‘Abdul Haq, Jaffee and Landau each take up the issue of whether the three Abrahamic religions are worshipping the same God from different perspectives and each comes up with different answers. While ‘Abdul Haq never states outright whether he thinks the God of Judaism and Christianity are the same deity being worshipped in Islam, it seems likely that he would say they are not. He pointedly criticizes the Christian concept of the Trinity, which he feels is certainly not monotheism. He also contends that Jews are worshipping a restricted sense of God in the form of a tribal rather than universal deity, though this is not actually the case. Jaffee points out that while each group believes they have received a divine self-disclosure, that disclosure came in different forms. Judaism and Islam received textual revelations, while Christianity believes God revealed himself in the form of a human being. This points to a difference in each religion’s understanding of God based on their belief in how He disclosed Himself. Landau makes a strong attempt to reconcile these differences by arguing for an ongoing covenantal system in which God forms many, rather than one covenant, but his solution only approaches the problem from a Jewish theological perspective, ignoring the fact that reconciliation will require a combined approach. His argument regarding the inclusion of Christians in an extended covenant is also flawed because it is based on a questionable source.

Do these three faiths have the same God? That is debatable. All three traditions clearly stem from the same source, but is that the only qualifier for having the same deity? I would argue that there is more to be said for how a person conceives of God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not think of the same God when they imagine Him/It. On the other hand, how can Man conceive of the inconceivable? For Christians, this gap is bridged through God’s revelation as Jesus, but in Christian theology that is a manifestation or aspect of the Infinite rather than the Infinite itself. It would be just as reasonable to say that each religion understands and worships God in slightly different ways because Man can never totally comprehend God.


[1] Muhammad ‘Abdul Haq, “The Perspective of at-Tawhid,” Islamic Studies 22.3 (1983): 3, accessed November 21, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20847235.

[2] Ibid., 1-2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Martin S. Jaffee, “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69.4 (2001): 756, accessed November 21, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1466340.

[6] Ibid., 766.

[7] Yehezkel Landau, “God as Multiple Covenanter: Toward a Jewish Theology of Abrahamic Partnerships,” Crosscurrents (2015): 57, accessed November 21, 2016.

[8] Ibid., 60-61.

[9] Ibid., 64.

[10] Ibid., 69.

[11] Ibid., 71.


References

 

‘Abdul Haq, Muhammad. 1983. “The Perspective of at-Tawhid.” Islamic Studies (Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad) 22 (3): 1-19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20847235.

Jaffee, Martin S. 2001. “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Oxford University Press) 69 (4): 753-775. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1466340.

Landau, Yehezkel. 2015. “God as Multiple Covenanter: Toward a Jewish Theology of Abrahamic Partnerships.” Crosscurrents 57-79.

 

Bible in Pop Culture Week 7: Cartman’s Favorite Psalm

In episode nine of season four of South Park, titled “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?”, we find out what Cartman’s favorite Psalm is. The episode starts with Stan, Cartman and Kenny sitting in church. Mr. Garrison is called up to the lectern to read his favorite Psalm. As Mr. Garrison begins to read, Cartman leans over his pew and tells Stan and Kenny his favorite Psalm is: “It’s a man’s obligation to stick his boneration in a woman’s separation. This sort of penetration will increase the population of the younger generation.”

Father Maxi, the church’s priest, catches the boys repeating this Psalm and delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon to the congregation, criticizing the children for not going to Sunday school and the parents for not going to confession. Father Maxi’s depiction of Hell terrifies the kids and they wind up rushing off to Sunday school to learn how to avoid swimming in the lake of fire. They learn that they must go to confession and take Communion. Problems arise when they realize that Kyle is a Jew and is going to go to Hell and that Timmy, a mentally handicapped boy that can only say his name, is unable to give a confession, meaning that he will also wind up in Hell. The boys become increasingly terrified and rush to the church to confess. On the way, a bus strikes Kenny and he is apparently killed.

Meanwhile, in Hell, Satan is celebrating Luau Sunday with his friends, Conan O’Brien, Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, John F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., Princess Diana Spencer, Michael Landon, Mao Tse-Tung, Gene Siskel, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia, Tiny Tim, Walter Matthau, Bob Hope, George Burns, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

Bible in Pop Culture Week 6: Cartmanland and Job

“Cartmanland,” the sixth episode of season five of South Park, contains a specific reference to the Book of Job. In the story, Cartman’s grandmother dies and leaves her entire life savings to Cartman, because she believes the rest of her family would just spend the money on crack. Cartman decides to use the money to fulfill his dream of having a theme park all to himself. So, he purchases a theme park that was on the verge of going out of business and renames it Cartmanland. Cartman uses the park solely for his own fun and makes it a point to advertise on television that no one else may enter the park or ride the rides.

Kyle is horrified that a person as despicable as Cartman is experiencing such good fortune and questions his faith in God. Kyle’s faith is further damaged by the discovery that he has a hemorrhoid. Kyle and Stan decide to try to break into the park by climbing the fence, but this only makes Kyle’s situation worse: his hemorrhoid breaks and becomes infected, leaving him hospitalized. Kyle’s parents try to cheer him up by reading him the Book of Job, but they forget to mention the ending, where Job receives more material wealth than he previously had. Kyle is horrified and his health begins to fade as the hemorrhoid infection spreads to his lungs.

Kyle’s health only improves when he discovers that Cartman’s plan to have Cartmanland all to himself fails and he ends up worse off than he was before inheriting the million dollars. Cartman had to allow in guests to defray operating expenses, was fined by the IRS for not keeping tax records, was sued by Kenny’s parents because Kenny died in the park, and ends the show by losing the park and being $13,000 in debt to the IRS, sprayed with mace and crying, restoring Kyle’s faith in God.

“Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last Saturday, I went over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue to conduct a scavenger hunt for certain types of items in this exhibit and then drafted up an essay response, but I thought it might be useful to people thinking about going to see the exhibit itself, so I’m posting it here as well.


The exhibit, “Jerusalem: 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven,” is being shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 26, 2016 to January 8, 2017. Like the title of the exhibit implies, the selection of art being displayed includes pieces that are representative of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the “People Under Heaven” in the Abrahamic tradition.

Jerusalem 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven
 

One of the displays contains a set of astrolabes, which, according to the description, were devices that were “used to answer questions related to time, geography, and the position of the stars.” The three astrolabes on display were all created in Andalusia and include the city of Jerusalem. The text on the astrolabes were written in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew and Latin. Another interesting item with text in multiple languages is “Slaughter of the Amalekites and Saul’s Last Stand,” which contains marginal notes in Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian, written by subsequent owners of the book.

Most of the items were in pretty common languages used in the area, like those mentioned above, though there were exceptions. There is a text called “The Book of Kings” which I assume is written in an Ethiopian language, but I cannot be sure because the language used is not included in the description. More clearly labeled is a Copto-Arabic Book of Prayers, written in the Bohairic dialect of Coptic Egyptian. There is also a Book of Saints’ Lives written in what I can only assume is Georgian, again because the description is not clear.

There is a very large variety of items on display. There were at least three different versions of the Bible: a Samaritan Bible from 1232 CE in Yavneh, a Bible from northern Europe, ca. 1300, and a Bible from 13th century Rome or Bologna. There are also Jewish liturgical books like “Opening Prayer for Shabbat Parah” from 1257-58 CE, “The Catalan Mahzor” from 1280 CE, and “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a Haggadah from 1360-1370 CE. There were also choir books, swords, vases, amazing Jewish wedding rings, pillar capitals and reliquaries.

Two items that really caught my attention were the “A Knight of the d’Aluye Family” and the “’Umra Certificate.” The “Knight” sculpture was the covering of a burial place for a Crusader, dated to between 1248-1267 CE. What piqued my interest was the sword depicted in the sculpture, which is Chinese in appearance. It was fascinating to see actual proof of the exchange of items between Europe and Asia during that period. The ‘umra certificate from 1433 CE, which belonged to Sayyid Yusuf bin Sayyid Shihab al-Din Mawara al-Nahri, fascinated me because it emphasized just how important pilgrimage was and perhaps continues to be in the Islamic tradition. Going on the Hajj to Mecca had a direct impact on a Muslim’s social standing and warranted adding the honorific al-Hajj or al-Hajjah to one’s name. The ‘umra scroll shows that pilgrimage to areas in and around Jerusalem were nearly as important and warranted their being added to a certificate that could be displayed when the pilgrim returned home.

The exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is definitely worth attending. It shows the central importance that Jerusalem played to a huge range of areas between 1000 and 1400, with items on display from Africa, Europe, Persia, and various places in the Middle East. It would be nice if there were translations of the texts on display, or if the languages being shown were at least clearly labeled. The grouping of the items could have been somewhat clearer as well, either chronologically or thematically. On the other hand, the items were displayed in a way that made them easy to view and appreciate. It is definitely a worthwhile way to spend an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.

Response: Book of Jonah

The story of Jonah centers around repentance and God’s mercy. Jonah is given a task by God to travel to Nineveh in order to announce its imminent destruction. Jonah tries to avoid doing this by fleeing to Tarshish, but after spending three days in the belly of a whale, he repents and travels to Nineveh. Once he arrives, he announces that the city will be overthrown in three days. The King of Nineveh mandates repentance in the hopes that it will cause God to change his mind and spare the city. God does indeed spare the city, which causes Jonah to become angry.

The story of Jonah contains parallels to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. In both stories, God is anthropomorphized. He speaks, he reasons, and he can potentially change his mind as a result of man’s actions. In Genesis, Abraham argues with God in an attempt to convince God to spare Sodom for the sake of the righteous people who may be living there. Jonah, on the other hand, attempts to flee. It is not clearly stated why, but after the Ninevites do repent, Jonah becomes resentful and angry. He tells God he knew this was going to happen and that is why he attempted to flee in the first place. Jonah sets up a lean-to outside the city, where he sits and waits, as if to tell God that he won’t leave until God does what he said he was going to do.

This story raises a question about the way that people perceived God when the book of Jonah was written. Was this story written at a point when God was being refashioned from a tribal deity into an unchanging entity? Other interesting points in the story are the recognition of other gods, the implication that God controls other nations as well as Israel, and that anyone can repent and turn back to God.

Image: By Unknown – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection: entry 453683, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32908844