"Do we worship the same God?" This has become a hotly contested and divisive question, posed in these troubled days by many Christians about Muslims and Islam. Influential theologian Miroslav Volf, who is Henry B. Wright professor of Systematic Theology at Yale, offers an answer in his latest book, Allah: a Christian response. Volf's influence is considerable, and this book deserves careful consideration.
Three influences and one agenda
Volf comes to this question with three formative influences, and an agenda.
His first influence is a long-standing engagement with the theology of reconciliation and conflict resolution, out of which he wrote his acclaimed Exclusion and Embrace. This engagement was shaped by growing up as a Pentecostal Croatian Christian in communist Yugoslavia, and through reflection on the Yugoslav wars of 1990-1995.
Volf's second formative influence is his intensive dialogue with Muslims in recent years, particularly through the Common Word initiative.
Volf's third influence is his admired father, to whom his book is dedicated, and who taught Volf from his earliest years that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God.
The agenda Volf pursues is one of political theology. He asks, "Can religious exclusivists, adherents of different religions, [i.e. most Muslims and Christians] live comfortably with one another under the same political roof?" (p.220). Volf's answer to this question is `yes': on the basis of a shared belief in the one God.
The `Commonalities Approach'
To fully appreciate Volf's argument - and its limitations - we must take careful note of his `commonalities approach'. His rules of engagement with the other are:
1. "Concentrate on what is common," and
2. "Keep an eye out for what is decisively different." (p.91)
At the heart of Allah are a handful of claims about God which Volf contends are shared by `normative' Islam, and `normative' Christianity (p.123). He argues from these shared convictions to propose a political solution for how the two religions can live together in peace.
Volf's six core beliefs of monotheism are: (1) There is only one God. (2) God created everything that is not God. (3) God is radically different from everything that is not God. (4) God is good. (5) God commands us to love God. And (6) God commands us to love our neighbours as ourselves.
The first four beliefs, Volf says, establish his claim that, when people say God (or Allah), they refer to the same object, while the final two reinforce this claim (p.110).
Volf also distinguishes between referring to and worshipping God, and proposes that `To the extent that Christians and Muslims strive to love God and neighbor, they worship the same true God.' (p.124). The Allah of whom the Qur'an speaks, Volf argues, is the God of the Bible, and this one God `requires Muslims and Christians to obey strikingly similar commands as an expression of their worship.' (p.124)
Volf is an advocate of religious freedom, and argues that common belief in the one God requires both Muslims and Christians to support the impartiality of the state toward all religions (p.238), and specifically to embrace freedom of religion, without interference by the state, including the freedom to leave or change one's religion. (p.234). This conclusion rests crucially on Volf's claim that Muslims and Christians both accept God's command to love one's neighbour.
Packed with Interesting Perspectives
A `hot and spicy' dish, as Volf calls it, Allah is jam-packed full of interesting ideas and perspectives. Volf's reflections on what Nicholas of Cusa and Martin Luther had to say about Islam are rich (chapters 2-3), as is his discussion of the Trinity in chapter 7, in which he argues that what Muslims deny when they reject the Trinity is also denied by orthodox Christianity, and `Christians affirm what Muslims affirm' about God's oneness (p.143).
Another engaging feature of Allah is Volf's capacity to point out that Christianity has had a history of perpetrating the very abuses which some present-day Christians attribute to the God of Islam, such as persecution of apostates, or the use of warfare to impose religious observance.
Blind Spots: Warfare against Unbelievers
Volf's statements about Islam betray large blind spots, in part because he relies too uncritically on the testimony of his dialogue partners. This problem is particularly acute in his discussions of warfare against unbelievers, which is an important issue for peaceful coexistence.
For example, in a brief discussion of martyrdom operations, Volf cites the Amman letter to Pope Benedict as his evidence that `normative' Islam condemns what he calls `suicide terrorism' (p.112). Yet there is no reference to or discussion of suicide terrorism in the Amman letter.
One of the points Volf makes is that Islam rejects suicide. Yet he seems to be unaware that among the Amman's letter's signatories are several who have endorsed what they refer to as martyrdom operations (i.e. suicide bombings). These scholars do not consider these operations to be acts of suicide:
- Shaikh Ali Jumu'ah, Grand Mufti of Egypt and Amman letter signatory has stated, "The one who carries out Fedaii [martyrdom] operations against the Zionists and blows himself up is, without a doubt, a Shahid [martyr] because he is defending his homeland against the occupying enemy who is supported by superpowers such as the U.S. and Britain."
- The second signatory to the Amman letter, Professor al-Buti, has said martyrdom operations are completely legitimate if the motive is to spite the enemy.
- Another signatory, Shaykh Ahmad Al-Khalili, Grand Mufti of Oman, has stated, "We are quite sure that the Jews are in their way to extinction, this is the promise of Allah ... Suicide is human boredom of life and his intention to kill himself, those Palestinian mujahideen are not bored with life and their intention was not to kill themselves: instead, they wanted to spite their enemy."
The truth is that a great many leading Muslim scholars endorse `martyrdom operations', while rejecting the view that these are acts of `suicide' on the grounds that if the intention of the bomber is to attack a legitimate enemy, blowing himself up is not an act of suicide at all.
A more serious blind spot shows when Volf alleges that the use of military force to extend Islam is `rejected by all leading Muslim scholars today' (p.210), again citing the Amman Letter.
However, nothing in the Amman letter rejects aggressive jihad. What this letter rejects is killing people simply for the sake of their faith, and the use of force to compel conversion. It does not reject the use of warfare to extend the political dominance of Islam over unbelievers.
As Haykal's magisterial 1993 survey of jihad in Islam shows, many leading scholars, both past and present, endorse jihad to make Islam dominant in the world. That the purpose of military jihad is to extend Islam is supported by the consensus view of classical scholars, including the Shafi'i jurist al-Ghazali, of whom Volf states `he is in many ways the most representative Muslim thinker you'll find, from any period' (p.169).
Aggressive jihad is also supported by many Saudi scholars, such as Shaykh Muhammad al-Munajid, who has said, "Undoubtedly taking the initiative in fighting has a great effect in spreading Islam and bringing people into the religion of Allaah in crowds."
Even among the signatories of the Amman and Common Word letters can be found advocates for aggressive jihad. For example, M. Taqi Uthmani, one of the leading Muslim jurists in the world today, and signatory to both these letters, has taught that "Aggressive Jehad is lawful even today... Its justification cannot be veiled ... we should venerate ... this expansionism with complete self-confidence".
Muhammad Salim Al-Awwa, a prominent Egyptian cleric, is another prominent scholar who signed the Common Word letter. He has pointed out that the word for Islamic conquests in Arabic is fut'h `openings'. Al-Awwa explained that the purpose of conquest in Islam is `to clear the way between Muslims and the invitation to Allah without the obstruction of the [non-Muslim] rulers'. In other words, conquest opens up a land to Islam by removing political obstacles to the Islamic mission.
The Killing of `Innocents'
At some points Volf seems almost gullible. He recites the oft-repeated claim that Islam forbids `the killing of innocents', whereas in fact what sharia jurisprudence forbids is the killing of those whose lives Islamic law does not allow to be taken. The classical view is that the blood of disbelievers not living under a dhimma pact is halal (i.e. it is permitted to kill them).
While it is true that the laws of jihad forbid the killing of women and children - these should be enslaved rather than killed - it is permitted for infidel adult males to be put to death, `innocent' or not. Even killing women and children is allowed as collateral damage. For example, Volf's favoured authority al-Ghazali wrote `[O]ne must go on jihad at least once a year... one may use a catapult against them when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them.'
An Ungenerous Reading of an Opposing View
On the one hand, Volf gives too generous an interpretation to his dialogue partners, finding rejection of objectionable aspects of sharia where there is none. On the other hand, he misrepresents a view which is opposed to his own. In my book Revelation I argued that when comparing the God of the Qur'an and the Bible, one must consider differences, not just similarities. Volf interacts with this part of Revelation, but misrepresents it, saying:
Durie ... maintains that if you don't have a complete match between descriptions of God in Islam and Christianity, you don't have identity. To find out whether the God of the Qur'an is a genuine or false God, the procedure should be the same as when trying to figure out whether a banknote is genuine or counterfeit. If there are any differences from the banknote you know is genuine, then it's counterfeit'. (pp.91-92 - Volf's emphases)
This is a straw man. In reality I nowhere said that there must be a complete match to have identity, nor that finding any difference establishes that the God of the Bible and the Qur'an are not the same. I argued that while differences are important, the mere listing of differences is not enough to disprove identity. Instead one must focus on the deeper, fundamental attributes of God, and I then devoted a series of chapters to discussing deeper differences.
A Crucial Blind Spot: Love for which Neighbours?
The crux of the matter is Volf's claim about the love of God. Absolutely pivotal for Volf's argument is a hadith (a tradition of Muhammad) which he claims is a command to love `all' neighbors (p.182), including non-Muslims. Volf appears to have derived this insight this from the Common Word letter, which makes use of an edited version of this tradition.
Because this is such a key point in Allah, I reproduce the exact text of the tradition (in the English translation of Abdul Hamid Siddiqui), including its chapter heading:
Chapter 18: CONCERNING THE FACT THAT IT IS ONE OF THE CHARACTERISTICS OF IMAN [Faith] THAT ONE SHOULD LIKE THE SAME THING FOR ONE'S BROTHER-IN-ISLAM AS ONE LIKES FOR ONE'S SELF
§72: It is arrested on the authority of Anas b. Malik that the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) observed: one amongst you believes (truly) till one likes for his brother or for his neighbour that which he loves for himself.
§73: It is narrated on the authority of Anas that the Prophet (may peace blessings be upon him) observed: By Him in whose Hand is my life, no, bondsman (truly) believes till he likes for his neighbour, or he (the Holy Prophet) said: for his brother, whatever he likes for himself.
(Sahih Muslim, The Book of Faith (Kitab al-Iman)
The first thing to note about this hadith is that the chapter heading in the very source Volf cites makes clear that the tradition is about loving one's Muslim neighbour. The second thing to note is that the preferred reading (listed first) is `brother', understood in Islam to refer to a fellow Muslim. Also the version of the tradition in the even more revered Sahih al-Bukhari reads: "The Prophet said, "None of you will have faith till he wishes for his (Muslim) brother what he likes for himself."
It is also striking that Volf is unable to cite a single verse of the Qur'an to support the idea that God commands love for one's neighbour. What can be found in the Qur'an are disturbing instructions on how to deal with non-Muslim neighbours, such as Sura 9:123 "O you who believe! Fight [to kill] those who are near to you of the disbelievers, and let them find harshness in you. And know that Allah is with those who fear him."
Also questionable is the phrase Volf uses to justify his claim that Islam `commands us to love God with our whole being' (p.104). He cites Allahu wa'dahu `God alone', translated rather grandiosely as `God, One and Only'.
However the verse in question, Sura 39:45, literally says: "When God alone is mentioned, the hearts of those who do not believe in the hereafter shrink back with aversion; but when those besides him [i.e. other gods] are mentioned, behold, they rejoice." It is hard to read this as a command to `love God with our whole being', for the intent of this verse is simply to condemn those who worship a multiplicity of gods, in the context of future judgment.
It is about More than Love
It is disappointing that Volf goes no further in considering God's character than `God is love'. Certainly for Christians, the claim that `we worship the same God' demands agreement on this above all, but there are other salient attributes of God in the Bible, which it would have been fruitful to investigate in dialogue with Islam, such as his holiness, his covenantal faithfulness, his divine presence, and his creation of human kind in his image.
Leaps of Logic and Selective use of Evidence
The impression given throughout Allah is of someone who is keen to achieve his stated agenda of establishing a political theology for mutual coexistence. So keen that he is blind to contrary evidence, even when this is readily available, and makes unwarranted logical and rhetorical leaps in reaching for his goal.
For example, Volf cites verses to show that the God of the Qur'an loves (p.101), but then, without explanation, he immediately transforms this into `God is good'. These two claims are not the same, and the first is much easier to justify from the Qur'an than the second: `The Good' is not one of the famous 99 names of Allah found in the Qur'an.
Another example is Volf's claim that the Qur'an's commands are similar to the Ten Commandments of Moses. What is problematic is that there are other commands in the Qur'an which contradict the Ten Commandments, specifically in the context of relations with non-Muslims. For example there are verses which command killing disbelievers (e.g. Sura 9:5); a verse which endorses sexual intercourse with (non-Muslim) married captive women (Sura 4:24; see also 4:3, 23:6, 33:50, 70:29-30); verses which encourage Muslims to take booty from disbelievers (e.g. Sura 48:20); a verse and associated hadith which encourage Muslims to disrespect their non-Muslim parents if they are hostile to Islam, Sura 60:8-9; and verses which incite deceiving disbelievers under certain circumstances (e.g. Sura 3:28).
Proof by Contradiction?
Volf's method does not engage objectively with Islam in a rigorous way, carefully examining the weight of evidence for and against his various positions. Instead he zeroes in on commonalities to secure his six principles, backs each these up with a verse or two taken in isolation, and then constructs his argument on this foundation, seemingly in splendid isolation from Islamic theology and jurisprudence.
The weight of evidence is significant. It is not enough to just point out that something can be found somewhere in the Qur'an. One should also ask how central this theme is in the whole book. For example, the statement that God is loving is attested only twice (Sura 11:90, Sura 85:14). Scores of other attributes are far more more central, being mentioned more frequently (such as The Creator or The Omnipotent). The paucity of references to the love of God contrasts with the hundreds of references to God's love in the Bible, including central descriptions of the character of God, such as God's revelation of himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6.
An example of the isolation of Volf's argument, in the light of Islamic thought, is that, although he advances an argument that the monotheism of `normative' Islam should favor political inclusivism, rather than reinforcing exclusivism (p.246), Volf devotes no space to considering on what grounds Islam bases its unreciprocal treatment of the dhimmis, non-Muslims living in an Islamic society.
The result is that Volf's conclusions are at odds with normative Islamic beliefs and practices. This gap is so great - on such topics as freedom of religion, treatment of apostates, and the political status of non-Muslims in an Islamic state - that he virtually mounts a proof-by-contradiction against himself, in which his premises are undermined by his conclusions.
What about Muhammad?
Perhaps the biggest blind spot of all in Allah is Muhammad. Islam is not only based on the Qur'an - it is also based upon Muhammad himself. The sharia, as a system for all of life, is constructed, with painstaking care, upon the details of the life of Muhammad, whom the Qur'an itself repeatedly commends as the `best example' to follow. A problem with this is that Muhammad's example includes many instances of the ill-treatment and subjugation of non-Muslims, in contrast to many exhortations for Muslims to treat fellow-Muslims with respect.
If Muhammad did not love his non-Muslim neighbour as himself, and his is the best example for Muslims to follow, how can Islam overlook the moral force of this example? Volf's assumption that Islam should base its political vision on a few principles about the character of God - some of which are rarely if ever mentioned in the Qur'an - naively ignores this reality.
Because Volf turns a blind eye to Muhammad, he also completely underestimates the sharia as the most pressing issue for coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims.
This appears to be the reason why Volf has nothing to say about growing pressure from Muslim groups to establish parallel legal systems in Western nations. Muslim communities all over the lands of immigration have been asking and even demanding that non-Muslim governments recognise plural legal jurisdictions in order to accommodate the sharia. In our day, as sharia courts are springing up everywhere from London to Sydney, this is one of the most practical challenges to Volf's vision of a common political roof for Muslims and Christians. Yet without engaging with the issue of Muhammad and his sharia, Volf can have nothing of importance to say about the real world of religious coexistence.
It has also to be emphasised that sharia implemention is not specifically a Muslim-Christian issue. The sharia raises much broader human rights issues, which impact severely upon Hindus in Pakistan, Zoroastrians in Iran, Ahmadiyyas in Indonesia, apostates from Islam in just about any nation, and, of course, Muslim women everywhere. The question is not how Christians and Muslims can live together, but how Islam can coexist with non-Islam. In the prescient words of William Montgomery Watt in 1993:
There are undoubtedly some Islamic states which treat non-Muslim citizens in ways which can only be described as oppressive ... It is of the utmost importance that Muslim jurists should consider whether such treatment of non-Muslims is in accordance with the Shari'ah or contrary to it. More generally, does the Shari'ah allow Muslims to live peaceably with non-Muslims in the `one world' ... To have an answer to these questions may be a matter of urgency in a few years time.
In reality, what Muhammad, the Qur'an and normative Islam consistently teach - which is nothing to rejoice over - is that Muslims should strive to achieve political dominance over the adherents of other religions, for example Sura 48:28 states "He [Allah] has sent His messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may cause it to triumph over all religion." This belief is expounded in countless commentaries, legal textbooks and writings of Muslim scholars, past and present. It is a core part of normative Islam, which has not been renounced by the Islamic mainstream. It is upon this rock that Volf's whole thesis founders.
Even-handedness or Tu Quoque Reasoning?
One frustrating aspect of Allah is Volf's subtle reliance on tu quoque reasoning, which works to deflect attention from core issues. For example, Volf only mentions the idea of the dhimmi -which is so central for Muslim-Christian coexistence - in a discussion of 16th century Christian religious compulsion (p.225). His seemingly even-handed presentation underscores Volf's emphasis that intolerance is a universal human problem, but it conceals a refusal to engage with the Qur'anic basis of theological non-reciprocity in Islam. Thus Volf nowhere engages with Sura 9:29, which is perhaps the most crucial verse for determining the status of Christians in Islamic political theology.
Beware the Blurb
The reader should also beware of attributing what the cover blurb says to Volf himself. The cover, prepared by the publisher, states that `a person can be both a practicing Muslim and 100 percent Christian without denying core convictions of belief and practice'. This is an unfortunate misreading, for Volf in fact only says that a person can be 100% Christian while following certain Muslim practices (p.199) such as fasting during Ramadan, or calling Muhammad a `prophet' with what is a non-religious meaning of that word.
It would have been more helpful if Volf had explained why belief in Muhammad as a prophet, in the orthodox Islamic sense, is inconsistent with Christian faith. Indeed through the whole book, the reader should be careful not to read implications into Volf's text which he does not actually make explicit, for in the effort to maximize common ground, he sometimes sails very close to the wind, not making explicit the boundaries he will not cross.
Who is Allah really written for?
There is a tension concerning who is the intended audience of Allah. On the one hand, Volf repeatedly claims that he has written this book for Christians. However, it is Muslims who most need to be convinced about his proposed common `roof' for coexistence.
Although Volf argues at length that normative Islamic and Christian monotheism should both support principles of religious freedom, most modern Christians do not need to be convinced about these principles as far as their own understanding of God is concerned. On the other hand, if Volf's claims about the God Muslims believe in are not compelling for Muslims, what difference will it make what Christians think about the God of the Qur'an?
Volf has announced a party, under a common political roof, of love for God and neighbour. In a sense, the Christians are already at the party: for them the roof is already in place. The Muslims, by and large, are not there yet. In Allah, Volf has written a book to persuade Christians that Muslims ought to come to the party, but in the end this will make little difference to whether the party actually takes place. The important thing is for Muslims to turn up, not for Christians to be convinced that they must.
If Volf is wrong about Islam - and I believe he is - and the whole Christian world were to think like him, the outcome could be that Christians do nothing to counter resurgent Islamic supremacist ideology, all the while being convinced in themselves that `normative Islam' supports principles of equality and freedom. This could be a recipe for a long steady spiritual decline, leading to political surrender.
For Western Christian eyes only?
Allah is very much pitched at Western Christians. However for Christians who currently live under Islamic dominance, even in countries where some of Volf's dialogue partners are in a position of leadership, his book could cause great pain and offense, for it denies oxygen to a coherent understanding of the roots of the non-Muslims' plight in Islamic theology and jurisprudence. To Volf's claim that belief in a common God of the Bible and the Qur'an should produce conditions for reciprocity and freedom, persecuted Christians will respond with shocked incredulity. They are all too familiar with the verses of the Qur'an which Muslims use to justify such ill-treatment, and to them Volf's rhetoric could sound like a form of abuse (i.e. the dhimmi syndrome), in which non-Muslims are only allowed to pursue peace by praising Islam.
Love trumps Truth
Volf's Allah is a good-hearted attempt to forge an interfaith theology for political coexistence and peace under `the same political roof' (p.220). Although his edifice is constructed on a profound knowledge of Christianity, warts and all, it relies upon blind spots and wishful thinking about Islam. Volf takes irenic delight in focusing on what is good and similar in the other. This is commendable in itself, but his method fails him badly, as he repeatedly overstates what is common and overlooks what is different. His loving gaze upon Islam is a heuristic failure.
Volf looks upon Allah through Christian eyes, seeing the God of the Bible in the pages of the Qur'an, but is often blind to contrary evidence. His image of Islam is thus fundamentally skewed.
This is a form of prejudice, not one born of a hostile fear of the other, but rather of the fear of excluding the other. This is a fear of being found to be less than Christian. Unfortunately, in Volf's method, and - it must be conceded - against his avowed intent (see p.259), love trumps truth. Caveat lector.