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

Bradley FarlessReligion, Undergraduate Work0 Comments

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.