Often the church is its own worst enemy. Sure, there is plenty of opposition and animosity towards Christianity, but sometimes those calling themselves believers can do as much damage or more to the Christian faith.
Consider the case of a Dutch Roman Catholic Bishop, Tiny Muskens. He has recently argued that people of all faiths should refer to God as Allah. He says this will bring more tolerance and harmony in Holland, a country with one million Muslims.
Said Muskens, “Allah is a very beautiful word for God. Shouldn’t we all say that from now on we will name God Allah? What does God care what we call him? It is our problem.”
What are we to make of such a proposal? Firstly, it can be said that God does care about how he is revealed, and how he is named. His self-revelation is an important part of how he communicates to us, and what he wishes us to know about himself. Names do matter, and the one true God is to be defined on his own terms, not ours.
But more significantly, what should we think about equating the God of the Bible with Allah? Can we use the name of Allah and experience no theological problems?
This of course has been a long-standing theological debate, especially in missiological circles. It has been a very practical question to ask: how much should Christian missionaries working amongst Muslims seek to contextualise the Gospel?
Contextualisation is always important, but how far does one go? Should this include using the name Allah? Various answers to this problem have been forthcoming over the years. And it is true that in parts of the Arab world, Christian and Muslim Arabs use the words God and Allah interchangeably.
But many would argue that Allah of Islam in no way resembles Yahweh of the Old Testament or God the Father of the New Testament. There are numerous reasons for this.
But first, by way of background, it should be pointed out the Arabic word Allah is a somewhat generic term for God. It predated Islam, and had been used of a pagan deity in Mecca prior to Muhammad. Muhammad used the term, but sought to strip it of its old pagan connotations.
Also, it should be pointed out that Muslims argue that Allah is the god of both Jews and Christians. Moreover, they insist that all three groups worship the same God. Jews and Christians are considered by Muslims to be “people of the book,” and in Muslim missionary endeavours, this insistence upon the one God argument is imperative.
But is Allah in fact just another name for the Judeo-Christian God? No it is not. Let’s begin with the Old Testament. Several important names are used as part of the divine self-revelation. YHWH is one of the more significant names. Exodus 3:13-15 is a foundational passage in which God declares his name to Moses.
While this is not the place to go into all the complexities of this term, it can be said briefly that it might best be translated, “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be”. Part of the Old Testament conception of God is that he has made himself known to us, that he reveals himself to us. Thus YHWH is knowable in a very real sense.
In Islam, Allah is utterly inscrutable and unknowable. Allah is utterly transcendent, and cannot be known by man. Only some of his activities are revealed, but not his true essence. At heart Allah is incomprehensible.
Also little mentioned in the Koran is the love of God. While this is a prevailing theme in both biblical Testaments, it is at best an insignificant trait of Allah. And Allah is seen as totally omnipotent and sovereign. His ways cannot be resisted, and the term Islam means to submit. Muslims simply submit to the mysteries and transcendent demands of Allah. Theirs is not to reason why, simply to obey.
But the Biblical God – who is also sovereign and majestic – invites us to come reason with him, to ask questions of him, to seek relationship with him, and to pray to him, with the sense that in some ways our prayers can be really efficacious. In contrast, there is a deep fatalism amongst Muslims. What happens is Allah’s will, and we are not to question it.
While some versions of Christianity – such as extreme Calvinism – may be equally fatalistic and over-emphasise the sovereignty of God, the balanced Biblical picture is of a God who is both sovereign yet stoops to meet with us and interact with us.
One aspect of YHWH, mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament, is his holiness. This is a defining characteristic of God. Yet it is merely tangential in Islam, and Allah is only called holy twice in the Koran.
And of course the God of Christianity is a triune God: one God in three persons. The strict monotheism of Islam has no place for such a Trinitarian conception. Thus the place of Jesus Christ in Christianity is fundamentally at variance with the position accorded him in Islam.
As already mentioned, a major difference between Allah and the God of the Bible is that Allah is aloof, transcendent, far removed from his creation. This is worth exploring a bit further. The utter transcendence of Allah is a major theme in Islam. The God of the Bible, by contrast is certainly transcendent, but he is also immanent. That is, he stoops to our level, he interacts with us, he has relationship with us. And in the Incarnation, he even becomes one with us, one of us.
In the Bible we find the possibility of having a close and intimate relationship with God. And in the New Testament, we can experience a very close relationship with God through his son Jesus Christ. We can even call God father, something unheard of in Islam. Allah is stern, aloof and utterly separate from mankind and mere human concerns. He is certainly not to be thought of as a loving heavenly father.
In the Bible, our relationship with God can also be spoken of in terms of friendship, as was the case with Abraham, or as Jesus called his disciples. Such talk would be blasphemous in Islam. Allah is far removed from his creation. But the Biblical God is intimately involved with his creation, and is in fact involved in a deep love relationship with us.
While sin separates us from a holy and just God, the work of Christ at Calvary opens the way for us to reignite a love relationship with the father. As such, the gospel message is really just a plain old-fashioned love story: boy meets girl, girl rejects boy; boy wins back girl. Then they live together happily ever after.
That is the core Gospel message. The triune God created us to have an intense love relationship with him, just as the three members of the Godhead had a loving relationship amongst themselves for all eternity. But the creature rebelled against the creator, and a broken-hearted God sought to woo back his beloved. Indeed, so great was God’s love for us, that he sent his son to make reconciliation possible.
Now all who come to God through Christ by means of the Spirit have that love relationship restored. And as the book of Revelation makes clear, the grand climax of human history will be a wedding. Jesus, the groom, will wed his church, the bride.
Such a cosmic love story is the heart of Christianity, but is totally absent in the Koran and Muslim teaching. Indeed, in the Islamic ninety-nine “beautiful names of God,” love is not one of them. Yet God is love, we are told in 1 John 4:8.
In sum, the Muslim must cower in fear before an inscrutable, harsh and remote deity. In Christianity, the believer is invited to run into the outstretched arms, and nail-pierced hands, of a loving saviour. The two could not be more different. So no, Allah is not the God of the Bible, and yes, it does matter how we describe and understand God.