Editor’s Note: Reprinted by permission from the Evangelical Missiological Society’s Occasional Bulletin – Jan 2016
As a Muslim boy, I was taught in the mosque by our instructor to fear optical illusions. Like most Muslims, we learned from an early age to recite Sura Falaq, which states, “Qul a’oodhu bi Rabbil Falaq…min shirri nafathaati fiil uqad” (“Recite: I seek refuge in the Lord of the Daybreak…from the evil of those who blow into knots” (Q113:1, 4). “Those who blow into knots,” we were taught, were magicians who made it appear they could untie big knots just by blowing into them—optical illusions.
In an optical illusion, there is always something unaccounted for behind the scenes. In the verse above, it is the magician’s sleight of hand, an evil deception from which Muslims seek refuge. In the “Same God Question” (SGQ) there is also something—or Someone—that must be accounted for behind the scenes: the Lord Jesus Christ.
The “Same God Question” appears to me to be a theological optical illusion: “Christians worship one God; Muslims worship one God; physical creation itself points to One Creator. Therefore, Christians and Muslims must indeed worship the same God.”
The question I pose to those who argue that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is:
Since the Bible teaches that Jesus is God, and since Islam teaches that Jesus is not God, then how is it possible that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
I have never been able to reconcile this “Underlying Question.” So, while I can concede that Christians and Muslims both seek to worship God, I believe it is impossible that they are worshipping the same God.
Missiological Implications of Concluding We Do Not Worship the Same God
As a missions instructor now, I always teach students that theology must come before missiology, not vise versa. We must first understand and internalize what we believe (theology) and then, from this basis, create strategy to invite others into God’s family (missiology). If we conform our theology to a pre-determined missiology, then we get the paradigm backward. Error will ensue and we actually become incapable of missionally assisting those whom we yearn to help—in this case Muslims.
Upon closer examination, much of the missiological controversy in ministry to Muslims stems directly from the theological SGQ. If we have correctly concluded that Muslims do not worship the God of the Bible, we will have tremendous motivation to reach them with the gospel. We will see their true lost-ness before God (though Muslims are not more lost than other unsaved people).
Though some may be concerned that my theological conclusion to the SGQ will create an adversarial climate in our relationships with Muslims, my response is that this is where missiological strategy begins. It is not necessary to argue with Muslims about the SGQ. We need not begin a conversation with a Muslim, “I would like to inform you, dear Ahmed, Fatimeh, Mustafa, etc, that you worship a different god than I worship.” The point here is that our theological deliberation has created missiological urgency, and thus we at least then engage our Muslim friend with the gospel. And my theological conclusion to the SGQ does not forbid us from affirming the positive intention, or Arabic niyya, of Muslims regarding their faith and practice.
Missiological Implications of Concluding We Worship the Same God
If we as Christians conclude that Muslims worship the God of the Bible, then myriad problems will flow from this error. First, we will be drawn into the Christ-diminishing theology of Islam, and our glorious Savior Jesus Christ will shrink away to invisibility before our very eyes. This is the true tragedy of Islam: Muhammad’s transfiguration of Jesus Christ from King of Kings and Lord of Lords to his own personal servant of servants. Indeed, Jesus’ primary functions in Islam are: i.) to assure people he was neither divine nor allowed people to worship him (Sura 5:72, 116), and, ii.) to predict the coming of Muhammad (Sura 61:6).
Second, we will have no missional impetus to reach out to Muslims—if indeed they are already worshipping the one true God. One of my favorite missionaries was the luminary William McElwee Miller, a Presbyterian missionary who served in my ancestral homeland of Iran from 1919-1961. Urgently seeking the salvation of Iranians, Miller pled for a doubling in the number of missionaries sent to his field. Due to theological liberalism that invaded his denomination during his missionary tenure, the Presbyterian Church USA curtailed their missionary sending almost entirely, much to the anguish of Miller. Here, theological compromise resulted in missional collapse.
Third, with our remaining missiological breadcrumbs, we will tend to affirm Muhammad and the Qur’an, since we have concluded that Muhammad as messenger of the Qur’an points to the same God we Christians worship. And since Muhammad gave more recent revelations about God than did biblical prophets, we will be inclined to accept his views of God, laced as they are with anti-biblical ideas.
I will conclude where I started from my own personal upbringing as a Muslim. We may think that we are being affirming and congenial toward Muslims by asserting we all worship the same God. Most Muslims, however, know that Christians worship Jesus as God. Therefore, any assertion that we all worship the same God is actually offensive to informed Muslims. Furthermore, shrewd Muslims who seek the expansion of Islam will detect by our wavering spirit that we are theologically ripe for the picking for absorption into Islam. Since most Muslims operate on an honor-shame paradigm, they will respect us more if we are unashamed by our unique and exalted view of Jesus.
Rather than trying to remove the offense of Jesus, I advise that we as Christians help Muslims understand that this Stumbling Stone does not ultimately intend to trip them up, but to lift them to heaven.