As Catholic Christians, one of the most basic things we learn about God and about ourselves is that human beings are all made in the image and likeness of God. In this sense, we all belong to the same family, the human race. Through our baptism, we are then brought into an even closer union with each other and with Jesus Christ. This is why I can walk up to any baptized Christian and refer to them as “my brother and sister in Christ”. Since we are now adopted sons and daughters of God through that one faith and baptism we share, we now have God in heaven as our Father. But we still share a close connection with the rest of our human family that has not yet been baptized into Christ.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.… The Church’s bond with non-Christian religions is in the first place the common origin and end of the human race.”CCC 839, 842
We can affirm that many of these non-baptized folks do indeed worship the same God. This is true, for example, in the case of the Jewish people. The Catechism, quoting from Lumen Gentium 16, goes on to say:
“The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims.”CCC 841
Speaking of God
For Christians it is pretty clear to observe that the Jews, as our forefathers in the Faith, do worship the same God. But what about Muslims? Some find this a bit trickier to answer. The simple response to such a question is “Yes”. Practitioners of Islam do worship the same God. However, we must be careful to make some important qualifications in doing so, as there are many Christians who do not affirm that Muslims worship and adore the one, true God with us because of our vast differences. As we’ll see below, even though there are many substantial differences and deficiencies separating Muslims from Christians, we can still safely say that Muslims and Christians have the same God as the object of their worship.
The first question we should ask ourselves is this: What is referred to when Christians and Muslims talk about God? We as Christians profess that God is one, yet has revealed himself in three Persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Muslims reject not only trinitarianism, but the fact that God is Father.
However, this is not enough to dispute the fact that Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, as Jews even in Jesus’ time did not often refer to God as “Father”. Not to mention that practitioners of Judaism today also do not recognize the Holy Trinity. We wouldn’t say that Jews do not worship the same God because of this.
Now if by “God” a specific Muslim were to only mean one who was the source of revelation in the Koran, then it could be understandably said that such a Muslim does not worship the same God as Christians. However, this is not all that Muslims mean when they refer to God. They also profess that God is the Creator of all things visible and invisible and that he is the uncaused First Cause who is also omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. This should sound familiar as to what we as Catholic Christians profess when speaking of God.
A Carefully Qualified ‘Yes’
Despite this familiarity, some might argue that differences regarding the Trinity, or the explicit denial of Jesus as God, are enough to assert that Muslims are not referring to the same God Christians worship. Catholic philosopher Dr. Edward Feser sheds further light on how to look at this topic with a helpful thought experiment, reminding us that “a difference in sense does not entail a difference in reference.” The entire article should be read regarding this topic, but the following excerpt is extremely helpful:
“[A] speaker’s erroneous beliefs don’t entail that he is not referring to the same thing that speakers with correct beliefs are referring to … Suppose you’re at a party and see a man across the room drinking from a martini glass. You say something like ‘The guy drinking a martini is well-dressed.” Suppose, however, that the man is not in fact drinking a martini, but only water. It doesn’t follow that you haven’t really referred to him. Furthermore, suppose there is a second man, somewhere in the room but unseen by you, who really is drinking a martini and that he is dressed shabbily. It doesn’t follow that you were, after all, really referring to this second man and saying something false. Rather, assuming that the first man really is well-dressed, you were referring to that first man and saying something true about him, even though you were wrong about what he is drinking. And thus you are referring to the very same man as people who know that he is drinking water would be referring to if they said ‘The guy drinking water from a martini glass is well-dressed.’ Similarly, the fact that Muslims have what Christians regard as a number of erroneous beliefs about God does not by itself entail that Muslims and Christians are not referring to the same thing when they use the expression ‘God.’”
This is very reminiscent of what Venerable Fulton J. Sheen said in reference to different religions. In explaining that truth was like a circle, and said circle is made of 360 degrees, he observed that:
“A religion that started in Los Angeles just this afternoon has some good in it. It only has ten degrees, but it’s got some good.”
The same can be said of Muslims in reference to their conception of God. They have a number of erroneous beliefs about not only God, but his revelation, but that doesn’t mean they get everything wrong. That’s why we can rightly say along with the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate that “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems” as “they adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth” (NA 3).
We can affirm what is good and correct, while at the same time denouncing what is evil and false. There is no need to go full tilt in one direction or the other, which is why I mentioned above that a “Yes” answer to this question must be carefully qualified.
We Confess One God
One can even go back much farther than the Second Vatican Council to see that what is correct in Islam has been affirmed throughout the ages. For instance, Pope St. Gregory VII in his letter of 1076 to Al-Nasir, the Muslim Ruler of Bijaya in present-day Algeria, commented:
“we believe in and confess one God, admittedly, in a different way, and daily praise and venerate him, the creator of the world and ruler of this world.”
Some Christians might not even realize that Muslims and Christians have long referred to God in the same way. It has been said by some polemicists that “Allah” cannot at the same time refer to what we as Christians call “God”. As Catholic author Robert Spencer points out (links added):
“Arabic-speaking Christians, including Eastern Catholics such as Maronites and Melkites, use the word ‘Allah’ for the God of the Bible. Flowing from this is the common use among both Christians and Muslims of many Arabic interjections that feature the word ‘allah’: Inshallah (‘God willing’), Smallah (‘in the name of God’), Wallah (‘by God’), Allah ma’ak (‘God be with you’), and others.”
As can be seen we cannot allow ourselves to completely close ourselves off to the idea and fact that Muslims and Christians do share some unity that might not be shared with other world religions. By “God” we make reference to the same Creator, yet the understandings of our Creator are very different.
This should now allow us to take the opportunity to consider the differences between our understandings of God, so that we do not fall into the other extreme that says Muslims and Christians each have their own “path” to God. Such an extreme would lead to the heresy of universalism and would undermine the call to evangelization that baptized Christians are to fulfill.
The Faith of Abraham
One should closely observe the careful language used in Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate mentioned above. Far from saying that the Church in these documents has proclaimed that Muslims are already saved and do not need to hear the gospel’s saving message, as many anti-Catholics will claim, the Church instead teaches here that Muslims and those others that have “not yet received the Gospel” have the possibility of salvation open to them. And it can rightly be said that Muslims have a head start on others, especially those without any religion, as they profess the one God. Spencer ties these various points together nicely:
“Muslims figure in the ‘plan of salvation’ not in the sense that they are saved as Muslims … but insofar as they strive to be attentive to and to obey the authentic voice of the creator whom they acknowledge and who speaks to them through the dictates of the conscience. The conciliar statement [in LG 16] also wisely adds the qualification that Muslims profess to hold the faith of Abraham. The Church does not definitively affirm that Muslims do actually hold that faith, but only notes that they believe they do.”
When looking at Nostra Aetate, specifically section three where it mentions “the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself” with Abraham, Spencer notes the precise language:
‘Islam’s identification with Abraham is presented not as fact, but as something Muslims claim, or ‘take pleasure’ in claiming.”
Catholics can see the link between the faith of Abraham and our faith in Christ Jesus today through the Old and New Testaments of Scripture, the revealed Word of God.
The Only Name Under Heaven
Muslims do not take the various books of Scripture to be the supernatural revelation of God. For if they did, their understanding of God would be vastly different. This gives us clear reason to be sure that we charitably present the gospel to them so that they may understand God in the way that he has revealed himself to the world. On a natural level, our Muslim friends know God, but we must bring them to that supernatural faith that affirms Jesus as God and the only “name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
That All May Worship the True God
In tackling this subject of natural and supernatural faith, Bishop Athanasius Schneider of the Diocese of Astana in Kazakhstan affirms both the reality that Christians and Muslims worship the same God as well the reality that the deficiencies in Islam must lead Catholic Christians to witness to their Muslim friends boldly. In his recent book, Bishop Schneider gives the same “yes” answer the Church does regarding the Muslim understanding of God, but he includes those important qualifications that are necessary. Thus I quote him at length (emphases added):
“In my opinion, the majority of the Muslim people … live a religion of natural belief in one God as Creator and Judge. This is natural and is inscribed in the soul of every human being.…
“Faith by definition is the theological virtue by which man, with gift of divine grace, believes in God and believes all that He has said and revealed, and all that Holy Church proposes for our belief (cf. CCC 1814). Faith involves an intellectual act, by the grace of God, of accepting the supernatural world, which is divinely revealed through Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, though it was prepared for in the Old Testament….
“When someone does not believe in the Holy Trinity, he has no faith but simply natural religion. By natural religion, one can reach the knowledge of one God, who is Creator and Judge … In the act of adoration, we always adore the Holy Trinity, we don’t simply adore ‘the one God’ but the Holy Trinity consciously – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Islam rejects the Holy Trinity. When Muslims adore, they do not adore on the supernatural level of faith.
“[Our act of adoration] is essentially different. Precisely because we turn to God and adore Him as children constituted in the ineffable dignity of divine filial adoption, and we do this with supernatural faith. However, the Muslims do not have supernatural faith. I repeat: they have a natural knowledge of God. The Koran is not the revelation of God, but a kind of anti-revelation of God, because the Koran expressly denies the divine revelation of the Incarnation….
“[W]e can accept the affirmation of Lumen Gentium, but then we must give a long explanation. Of course, when a person sincerely adores God the Creator – as I assume the majority of simple Muslim people do – they adore God with a natural act of worship, based on the knowledge of God, the Creator. Every non-Christian, every non-baptized person, including a Muslim, can adore God on the level of the natural knowledge of the existence of God. They adore in a natural act of adoration of the same God, whom we adore in a supernatural act and with supernatural faith in the Holy Trinity. But these are two essentially different acts of adoration: the one is an act of natural knowledge and the other is an act of supernatural faith.
“The acts of adoration, and the acts of knowing on which they are based, are substantially different, though the object is the same in that it is the same God … Perhaps [the affirmation of the Second Vatican Council] could be formulated in this way: ‘Muslims adore God in an act of natural worship, and thus in a substantially different way than we Catholics do, since we adore God with supernatural faith.’”
As can be seen not only from the Church herself, but philosophers and theologians also, the question regarding the God worshipped by our Muslim neighbors is both simple and complex. As Dr. Feser crisply puts it:
“Muslims, who are as well aware as any Christian is that God cannot be identified with an idol, can successfully refer to the true God, despite their gravely erroneous rejection of Trinitarianism. And since they worship that to which they refer, it follows that they worship the true God.”
The One and Only True Religion
We can absolutely affirm that we worship and adore the same God, but we must not gloss over our differences as we work to preach the gospel to all peoples. There should be no reason why we can’t commend our Muslim friends for believing in the one Creator of all. But if we love our dear friends, we will charitably point out the insufficiencies that we see and accompany them as we all walk toward that lasting union with our Lord Jesus, recognizing him as God in union with the Father and Holy Spirit. May the words of Pope St. Paul VI be something for us to reflect on as we go forward:
“We do well to admire these people [of the Muslim religion] for all that is good and true in their worship of God…
“Obviously we cannot agree with these various forms of religion, nor can we adopt an indifferent or uncritical attitude toward them on the assumption that they are all to be regarded as on an equal footing, and that there is no need for those who profess them to enquire whether or not God has Himself revealed definitively and infallibly how He wishes to be known, loved, and served. Indeed, honesty compels us to declare openly our conviction that the Christian religion is the one and only true religion, and it is our hope that it will be acknowledged as such by all who look for God and worship Him.”Ecclesiam Suam 107
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.