Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslav Volf

The tragic event of 9/11 left an indelible mark upon people not just in America, but many around the world. With such an event, coupled with other pre- and post-9/11 terrorist attacks, it has left a sense of suspicion and fear regarding Muslims.

But should this be our response, especially for Christians? Should we view all adherents of Islam through such eyes? And, even more, is there common ground between Christians and Muslims that can help us move forward in dialogue in the 21st century?

Enter in Miroslav Volf’s recent and timely publication, Allah: A Christian Response. Miroslav Volf stands as a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School and also heads up the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Here is an author, a deep-thinking C.S. Lewis type of a man, looking to open up the discussion on how Christian and Muslim relations can improve in our world today.

And so, in this post, I share my review of Miroslav Volf’s newest release. The review is somewhat long. But on such books like these, which could be classified as fairly controversial, I want to try and give in-depth information and analysis. I also apologise for no page numbers with quotes, as I am engaging with my version on the Kindle application.

In the book, Volf takes up the challenge of considering how Christians understand the God of the Qur’an, Allah. He does so by reflecting on many things historical, biblical-theological and philosophical. And such presents for a very good and introductory read into the topic of Christian-Muslim relations.

Why such an interest for Volf?

He was raised in communist-atheistic Croatia but was also part of a small Christian community where his dad was a Pentecostal minister involved in much work amongst Muslims. Considering his specific upbringing, Volf tells us he does not set out so much to consider soteriology (the doctrine of salvation, and thus, whether Muslims are ‘in’ or ‘out’). His desire is to mainly approach the topic through political theology, or how Christians can faithfully engage with Muslims, as this is what he engaged with even from a small child.

To begin the book, he lays out some prefatory points, which I briefly summarise below:

  1. He writes as a committed Christian who embraces classical expressions of the Christian faith, including the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, justification by grace, and so forth.
  2. He writes both as a Christian and for Christians, not from a neutral perspective. He writes as a Christian, but he writes in the presence of Muslims, which he invites to also engage with his book.
  3. There are many kinds of Muslims in the world today, just as there are many kinds of Christians. Just as he tries to write from what he believes is the normative perspective of Christianity, so he also looks to write about what is the normative perspective of Islam.
  4. As he writes about Islam and Muslims, he seeks to be both truthful and charitable, loving his neighbours as himself.
  5. Except on the margins, he does not look to engage Judaism.
  6. The goal of this book is to explore how Christian and Muslim convictions about God bear on their ability to live together well in a single world. It is to consider how we engage in this world, not the world to come.

Having laid those points out, Volf then gives 10 main points of what he hopes to convey in the book, which I put in full below. Each point comes first with an affirmative statement and is then followed with a contrasting statement of rejection:

  1. Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God, the only God. They understand God’s character partly differently, but the object of their worship is the same. I reject the idea that Muslims worship a different God than do Jews and Christians.
  2. What the Qur’an denies about God as Holy Trinity has been denied by every great teacher of the church in the past and ought to be denied by every orthodox Christian today [meaning, Muslims reject what should also be rejected by Christians]. I reject the idea that Muslim monotheism is incompatible with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
  3. Both Muslims and Christians, in their normative traditions, describe God as loving and just, even if there are differences in how they understand God’s love and justice. I reject the idea that the God of the Qur’an stands as a fierce and violent deity in opposition to the God of Jesus Christ, who is sheer love.
  4. The God Muslims worship and the God Christians worship – the one and only God – commands that we love our neighbors, even though it is true that the meaning of love of neighbor differs partly in Christianity and Islam. I reject the idea that Islam is a religion of life-constricting laws, whereas Christianity is a religion of life-affirming love.
  5. Because they worship the same and similarly understood God, Christians and Muslims have a sufficiently robust moral framework to pursue the common good together. I reject the idea that Muslim and Christian “civilizations” are bound to clash.
  6. Christians should see Muslims, who give ultimate allegiance to God as the supreme good, as allies in resisting the tendency in contemporary culture to see mere pleasure, rather than justice and love, as the hallmark of the good life. I reject the association of freedom to do what one pleases with Christianity and blind submission to the iron law of God with Islam.
  7. What matters is not whether you are Christian or Muslim or anything else; instead, what matters is whether you love God with all your heart and whether you trust and obey Jesus Christ, the Word of God and Lamb of God. I reject making religious belonging and religious labels more significant than allegiance to the one true God.
  8. Love and justice for all, rooted in the character of God, requires that all persons have the right to choose, change and practice their religion publicly. I reject all attempts to control the decisions human beings make about what most profoundly matters in their lives.
  9. All people have the right to witness about their faith, curtailing that right in any way is an assault on human dignity. At the same time, those who witness have an obligation to follow the Golden Rule. I reject both all suppression of freedom of expression and all uncharitable ways of exercising that freedom.
  10. To give allegiance to the one God who enjoins humans to be loving and just to all, as Muslims and Christians do, means to embrace pluralism as a political project – the right of all religious people to articulate their views in public and the impartiality of the state with respect to all religions (and other overarching interpretations of life). I reject the idea that monotheism, properly understood, fosters violence and totalitarian rule.

Having laid out much of Volf’s groundwork in the preface, you can see there is a lot to deal with here. I suppose some of it, if not most of it, could make some Christians quite uneasy. To even consider that the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an are similar, this could be borderline heresy.

I’ll share some personal thoughts at the end of this review. But let me first note that there are mainly four parts to the book, which help flesh out these 10 major points from Volf.

Part 1: Disputes, Present & Past

The first three chapters consider some historical relations between Christians and Muslims. Though it is by no means a full-out engagement (for there are only 3 chapters), it was good to consider other voices, past and present. He especially spends time looking at the statements of three notable Christian leaders of the present and past: the current Pope, Benedict XVI, as well as two past theological powerhouses, both coming from Germany – the great reformer, Martin Luther, and the 15th century Roman Catholic Cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa.

Volf also considers some current history (i.e. the Danish satirical caricature of the prophet Muhammad in February 2006, as well as other Muslim and Christian response to such). Finally, in an attempt to fully engage with his premise that Christians and Muslims worship a similar God, Volf brings in many thoughts and writings, even throughout the whole book, of past and current Muslim leaders and theologians. It was interesting to hear what many well-known Muslim leaders are saying on the topic.

I’ll spare too many details, as to get on to some of the more biblical-theological discussion in the book, but suffice it to say that Volf utilises such historical discussions to address and engage with statements that would both agree and disagree with his perspective. Definitely a well-rounded approach.

Part 2: Two Gods or One?

For starters, Volf looks to interact with an understanding of the word, Allah. For some Christians, we could feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of addressing God as Allah, for that is the name that Muslims use, not Christians, is it not? But Volf helpfully corrects our understanding of this word, Allah, showing that such is simply a generic name for God, just like our word God is a generic term. Or, to put it another way, Elohim is the general word for God in Hebrew. Allah is the general name for God used in places like the middle east and Indonesia.

Throughout the book, Volf brings in much discussion surrounding various biblical passages, one of the major ones being Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

In the midst of their conversation, Jesus makes an interesting comment to the Samaritan woman: You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews (4:22). To this, Volf writes:

Jesus assumed that the Samaritans and the Jews worshipped the same God, the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim and the Jews in Jerusalem. But the Samaritan’s worship was not pure. According to 2 Kings 17:41, it had an admixture of foreign worship in it, because Samaritans “served their carved images” as well (or served the Lord by means of worshipping those carved images). So they worshipped God, but without true knowledge of God.

He continues:

Now apply this model to Muslim worship. On the one hand, Muslims are unlike Samaritans because they adamantly reject “carved images” and affirm as the central pillar of their faith that “there is no god by God.” On the other hand, according to this analogy, they are like Samaritans, because they worship the one true God, but they don’t truly and adequately know the God they are worshipping.

He, then, goes on to remind us that this is roughly what Martin Luther would have argued, pointing back to the previous chapter of the book where he discussed in detail the view of Martin Luther.

Remember, Volf is not so much trying to argue the details of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. He is simply noting the reality that it is not out of the question to say Christians and Muslims look to and worship a similar God.

Even before this, Volf reminds us of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 8:4 – So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” This alludes back to Old Testament passages such as Deuteronomy 4:35, 39 and Isaiah 41:24. Ultimately, he reminds us, that there is only one true God and could it be that Muslims do worship this one true God, although not to the full extent as seen in Christ?

He then takes time to compare some of the similar statements about God and His character found in both the Bible and Qur’an, mainly in 6 major points:

  1. There is only one God, the one and only divine being.
  2. God created everything that is not God.
  3. God is different from everything that is not God.
  4. God is good.
  5. God commands that we love God with our whole being.
  6. God commands that we love our neighbours as ourselves.

The point? That both the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an have revealed very similar things about themselves and their will within the context of these two sacred texts.

Thus, as a practical summary, Volf would argue that: 1) To the extent that Christians and Muslims embrace the normative teachings of Christianity and Islam about God, they believe in a common God and 2) To the extent that Christians and Muslims strive to love God and neighbour, they worship that same true God (for this loving of God and neighbour are the great acts of worship).

Part 3: Critical Themes: The Trinity and Love

Here, in the third section of the book, Volf takes some in-depth time to really work through the Christian Trinitarian concept and the Muslim conception of God. He specifically engages with what could arise as Muslim objections to the idea of the Trinity.

There are 5 main objections he points to that he believe Muslims might hold up, which due to my many lists already above, I shall leave these 5 detailed points out for now. But, suffice it to say that, each objection that a Muslim could raise, Volf believes that classical and orthodox Christianity would also raise a very similar objection. For example, in regards to the objection that God cannot have an associate joined to Himself, not any equal or lesser divinity next to Himself. Volf argues that Christianity would agree with such a statement. And, alongside addressing these objections, Volf takes time to explain certain terminology that could be easily misunderstood by Muslims, i.e. the use of older language of ‘begetting’ with regards to the Son’s relationship to the Father.

Volf states:

Recall the crisply formulated conclusion that Nicholas of Cusa reached after examining Muslim and Jewish critiques of the doctrine of the Trinity: “In the manner in which Arabs [Muslims] and Jews deny the Trinity, assuredly it ought to be denied by all.” The Christian creeds and the great Christian teachers reject dividing the divine essence no less adamantly than do Muslims and Jews.

He continues later on:

My goal is to remind Christians that Muslim objections to the doctrine of the Trinity and the uncompromising affirmation of God’s oneness from which these objections stem are not, in themselves, good enough reasons for Christians to think that they have a radically different understanding of God than Muslims. Unity of God doesn’t separate Muslims from Christians; it binds them together.

After much dealing with the concepts of God’s oneness and Trinitarian nature, Volf then spends a chapter looking at God’s mercy and love as expressed in both the Bible and the Qur’an. In this, he discusses whether the God of the Bible and the Qur’an are shown as loving, merciful and just, and specifically whether or not the presentations in both sacred texts show that God loves the ungodly and commands His followers to love not only their neighbours but their enemies.

Of course, for the Christian, the answer is an unequivocal, Yes, that the Bible presents God as loving all peoples and that we are commanded to even love and pray for our enemies. But what about God as presented in the Qur’an?

Volf does recognise that it is much easier to see God’s love for all in the Qur’an than to see a command to ‘love your enemy’. But he still believes that the Qur’an clearly teaches love of neighbour and to show kindness even to one’s enemy. So, though there might be a little more tentativeness in Islamic teaching on loving our enemies, there is a bedrock foundation of a loving and merciful God as presented in the Muslim scripture and His call to lovingly engage with the people of the world.

Part 4: Living Under the Same Roof

Here lies the final part, which I won’t give much detail about myself, so as to move on to some final words of mine before closing out this review.

The final four chapters deal with practical issues of how Christians and Muslims can live alongside one another in this global world in which we find ourselves together. How can we move past prejudices and even consider working together for the common good?

The call is not for Christians to be mish-mashy about their faith in and following of Christ, keeping such on the shelf as they engage with Muslims (or any other group). But rather, knowing that there is some common ground between these two great monotheistic faiths, we can live side by side in a peaceable manner, even helping provide a way for actual good to be accomplished in our world.

I believe such to be a worthy cause.

In all, I think this book is well worth reading. I can imagine that many will have problems with various statements and points put forth by Volf in the text. And I do understand. Trust me, this is a challenge to my walk as well. There are questions that arise, no doubt.

But let me also say that, though my review was quite lengthy and in depth, I cannot do justice to the fuller premise of Volf in this book. And, even though one may disagree with some points, I do believe this book is a timely piece of literature to engage with in our 21st century, global world where we no longer live next to people that are very much like us, but rather we brush upon alongside differing people all the time, whether religiously, ethnically, politically, etc. And here is a great contribution in helping Christians know how they can better interact with and build bridges in Christian-Muslim relations.

Three things I wish Volf would have spent more time on:

  1. For Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God and Lord of all heaven and earth, how do we practically engage with the difficulty of finding that ultimate common ground with Muslims? On that point, how do we engage with Muslims? Or, if we look to co-exist alongside Muslims, even consider working together for a common good in our world, how can we do so and still clarify our following of Christ? I suppose Volf didn’t emphasise this too much in the book as he was looking to bring out the similarities to help us move towards better relations. I have some of my own thoughts to these questions, but I would have loved to hear Volf.
  2. How does this relate into parts of the world where there is continued Muslim persecution of Christians? Would they not have a different perspective than those in the west? With this, I would suppose that, just as most Muslim leaders and scholars would reject terrorism and suicide-bombing as God’s will, so would they reject the idea that persecution (especially unwarranted war and persecution) is also not God’s will for His followers. Thus, as Christians might deny allegiance with those who defame, persecute, show violence, or even kill, in Christ’s name, so would most Muslims do the same with those who are terrorists and suicide-bombers.
  3. Finally, if there is such common ground between Christians and Muslims, does this also extend into our interaction with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, and even Hindus, Buddhists, etc? I suppose Volf would draw a line, at least willing to consider the discussion with what we might term as cults-sects, but not with polytheistic religions. But, again, this is starting to move more towards who is saved and isn’t saved in the end, rather than how to approach the topic through the lens of political theology.

Therefore, I believe here is a book well worth reading. I do expect some disagreement, if not lots of disagreement from some. I can only imagine that many will be asking, as they asked with Rob Bell, is Miroslav Volf an inclusivist or universalist? But, again, do bear in mind that his goal isn’t so much to discuss the salvation issue. Rather he is trying to discuss how the two different monotheistic groups of Christians and Muslims can relate together in our world today. How can we find common ground and live alongside each other in a peaceable way?

Miroslav Volf believes such is possible. I am convinced this is a noble undertaking to consider. I also believe the book is a opportune work in that it can be of great help and support with the initiation of Awareness Sunday, which I shared recently about on my blog. This is a day of remembrance and reconciliation to be celebrated on September 11th, 2011, the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. Click on the link to find out more.

I believe Christian-Muslim relations will continue to grow as a major issue in both the church and the world of today. Let’s prepare our hearts and minds to engage in such dialogue.

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4 thoughts on “Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslav Volf

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere (07.22.2011) | Near Emmaus

  2. Scott, Great review and my guess is that I would likely land in a broadly similar place to you. I have for many years now believed that ‘Christianity’ is substantially about Jesus not God. By that I mean that belief in God even the ‘same’ God is but the foothills of ascent!! The person and work of Jesus is the focus of our faith and it is there that it will be more difficult to source ‘similarity’ between Islam and Christianity.

    • I have actually been moving away from the view that Christianity is ‘centered on Jesus’ over the years. The reason for this is that apparently, regardless of His identity as God [the Son], Jesus did not want worship to be centered upon Himself, but rather on the one Whom Christians know as God the Father.

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