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Allah: A Christian Response.

Miroslav Volf
Published by HarperOne in 2012

I am grateful to Benjamin DeVan for writing an extended review of my book. I am flattered that he described the book as “brilliant.” But he has also raised significant issues and leveled serious criticisms. At one point he even seemed to suggest that my failings in the book match in gravity the most egregious sin in Islam, namely shirk, or the sin of worshiping a creature instead of the One Creator. Hence, I am grateful to DeVan and the editors for inviting a response. As the issues are complex but space limited, I ask both DeVan and the readers for indulgence, for I must be concise and selective rather than thorough and comprehensive. Also, I address mainly the points of criticism or misinterpretation. This may give an adversarial feel to the response. I harbor no ill will toward the reviewer, just as I do not sense ill will in him.

At the outset, let me touch on the character of my theological engagement with Islam and the reason for it by noting a kind of attitudinal ecology in which the book grew. I am not suggesting that DeVan and I differ on this matter. I want to describe it here as it sheds light on the reasons for some of my possibly controversial arguments and positions. My stance toward Islam is very different than the stance of many Christians today. They tend to zero in on what is different and highlight what is negative and false in Islam. To me, such attitude is unworthy of the followers of God, who out of love created all human beings, and of Jesus Christ, who out of love gave his life for the salvation of all. A more appropriate stance, consonant with the character of love sketched in 1 Corinthians 13, is to zero in on what is common and positive while not losing sight of what is decisively different and incompatible. Does this imply that I am unconcerned with the truth? In no way. Truth of the faith matters, decisively. But what does not matter at all is its uniqueness. Uniqueness as such is not a positive value; it is a value only if it is the consequence of embracing the truth. The fact that the truth of faith (rather than differences from other faiths) matters and that love toward others ought to inform our stances, suggests the following two rules for engaging Islam. First, while seeking to be truthful about what I have termed “normative Islam,” we must offer charitable interpretations of Islam and allow it to appear in the best rather than worst light compatible with truthfulness. Second, we should be will-ing to recognize the failings of Christians in regard to Muslims without the need to point out immediately the corresponding and maybe even worse failings of Muslims in regard to Christians. Put differently, Christian faith pushes us (1) to speak well of others irrespective of how they speak of us and (2) to note our own failings and repent of them, irrespective of whether others note their failings and repent of them. Many Christians think that they cannot afford such a generous attitude toward Muslims and Islam. They see themselves in one or another kind of a “war” with them. Wanting to win, they let the requirements of victory guide their actions. But when victory is won by such means, it is often worse than empty, since it rests on actions which contradict the way of Christ and the character of God as unconditional love. It is essential to be true to our own faith not just in the content of what we espouse or defend, but also in the way we engage others; the means matter, not just the ends.

As DeVan notes, Allah was consciously subtitled as “A Christian Response” rather than “The Christian Response.” Given the diversity of Christianity—some like to use the plural, “Christianities,” but I remain unreformed on this point—any-thing else would be presumptuous. At the same time, I am not simply offering the idiosyncratic response of a lone Christian. I have tried to write (from my vantage point, of course) representing the normative Christian tradition and to explicate positions that a great majority of Christians could recognize as their own. Had I done otherwise, the book would contain only private musings, and it would be cut off from the centuries-long Christian tradition as well as contemporary Christian communities worldwide.

I do not claim (and harbor no secret illusions) that my book has resolved—or even addressed—all the important questions that concern the compatibility of Muslim and Christian understandings of God! In my mind, many issues still re-main to be discussed, including which divine attributes should be foregrounded and which backgrounded or how we should understand the precise nature of God’s unity and internal differentiation. Debates about these issues are the stuff of Christian theology with regard to its own understanding of God. And debates about them will continue between Muslims and Christians as well.

A minor concession of sorts. Agreed, I have not offered a rebuttal of the thesis that Muslims do not worship the moon god of Mecca; I have simply dismissed this view. But then, I do not believe that this view requires a rebuttal. I know of no serious student of Islam who advocates it. And none of the arguments I have read in favor of it struck me as plausible, either historically or theologically. But let us assume for the sake of argument that Allah was originally a moon god. What follows from it? Some OT scholars believe that YHWH was originally a storm God, and almost all of them believe that henotheism preceded monotheism—a late development. Are Christians then worshiping a storm god or just one god among many? It does not. Origins of the word do not dictate its meaning in all contexts. The same would hold true for Allah as moon god.1

I have not taken up key Christological questions, except to note that the most fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam does not concern the doctrine of the Trinity strictly speaking, but the doctrine of Christ, both his person (whether, in addition to being fully human, he was also divine and there-fore ought to be worshiped) and his work (whether he died on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world). Christians claim that Christ was the divine bearer of the sin of the world, and this claim is absolutely central to classical Christianity. Muslims, as a rule, contest both dimensions of this claim. I do not engage Muslims on this point of crucial disagreement. Instead, leaving Christological discussions aside but faithful to the stated purpose of Allah, I argue that Muslims’ contestation of this central Christian claim does not invalidate the thesis that Muslims and Christians have a common God.

The claim that, notwithstanding their denial of the divinity of Christ, Mus-lims have a common God with classical Christians is controversial, of course. I cannot repeat here all the arguments in support of this position, which I have marshaled in the book. But I must reiterate one crucial aspect of the argument: I do not see how Christians can almost universally hold that they worship the same God as the Jews, who deny the divinity of Christ, while thinking that the similar Christological views of Muslims imply that Muslims worship a different God than Christians do! The following holds true, I think:

1. Because Jesus and the early Christians recognized the God of Judaism as God, Christians today must do the same.
2. Monotheism entails that recognizing the God of Judaism as God requires rec-ognizing that God as the “same God” as the God of Christians.
3. There are significant differences between the Jewish and Christian understandings of God, most importantly on the Trinity and the Incarnation, both of which the Jews reject (and on account of that rejection themselves often deny that Christians worship the same God as they do).
4. But because of (1), those differences cannot be a sufficient condition for Chris-tians to deny the “same God” thesis (“same God” in the qualified sense in which I am using it: “same God with God’s character understood in a partly different but sufficiently similar way”).
5. If Christian affirmation of the Trinity and the Incarnation does not falsify the claim that the Jews and Christians have a common God, it cannot falsify the claim that the Muslims and Christians have a common God.

In recent controversies about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God (partly triggered by the “Yale Response” to the “Common Word”), some Christian leaders have rejected the classical position that Christians worship the same God as the Jews. This is a serious mistake, with pernicious consequences not only for Christian relations with the Jews, but for the character of the Christian faith as well. Historically, it was Christian heretics who held this view!

I do not merely assume that in John’s Gospel Jesus and the Jewish leaders “disagree about the same God.” I argue that John’s Gospel itself makes this assumption. This reading of John’s Gospel is born by the fact that the debates between Jesus and the Jewish leaders were not about which God is true, but what is the proper way to worship God and what is Jesus’ status in relation to God. What about Jesus’ claim, noted by DeVan, that the father of his opponents is the devil? It does not undermine the above interpretation of the Gospel. For it is possible to have the right God and at the same time not to “belong” to that right God; it is possible to identify God rightly in the sense of talking rightly about God or even praying rightly to God, but not to serve that right God, and instead to serve God’s adversary. As DeVan notes, I give some examples of such practices, on both the Muslim and Christian sides.

I take it that I have persuaded DeVan that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity does not compromise God’s unity, and that therefore, from a Christian perspective, Muslims’ insistence on God’s unity is not a denial of God’s Triunity properly understood. But he is puzzled by a lack of positive arguments for the doctrine of the Trinity in my book. He notes that my purpose was “not to persuade them (Muslims) that God indeed is the Holy Trinity … (but that) … the Christian doctrine of the Trinity does not call into question God’s oneness as expressed in Muslims’ most basic belief.” From the stated purpose, he concludes that I believe that Christians “should not” try to persuade Muslims that God is the Holy Trin-ity. This simply is not true. I believe that, in discussion with Muslims, Christians should both explain what they believe about God as the Holy Trinity and try to show to Muslims that what they believe makes sense. Though I do sketch very briefly why Christians believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is true (see 145), mostly I argue that Muslims deny a wrongly understood doctrine of the Trinity. Why? Because the critical point for the question of whether Muslims and Chris-tians have a common God is whether Christian trinitarianism compromises divine unity. Beyond that, it was simply a matter of a practical judgment that explicating fully the reasons why Christians believe that God is the Holy Trinity would go beyond the confines set by the book I was writing. After all, everything important does not need to be said in every conversation!

Obviously, I disagree fundamentally with the teaching of some Muslims (maybe even the majority of them?) about aggressive jihad or about the harsh laws of apostasy that they advocate. For I think that something close to pacifism expresses the authentic Christian faith and that freedom to leave one’s own faith and embrace another is rooted in the very character of the Christian faith (and was recognized as such in the early centuries of the church). My point is not that Christianity in its first centuries and Christianity today are no different than Islam when it comes to power, violence, and freedom of religion. There are marked differences, the most notable of them being the command of Christ to love one’s enemies (rather than wage what are considered to be just wars against them). In my opinion, to deny this command is to undo something essential to the Christian faith. A responsible debate with Muslims on this issue is crucial. My point in Allahwas narrower—but still a crucial one—and it is this: All other things being equal, the difference on aggressive jihad or on the laws of apostasy does not call into question the fact that Muslims and Christian have a common God! How could it, unless we were willing to say that Christians today worship a different God than, for instance, did the Old Testament legislators and prophets or the medieval Christians! The laws of apostasy were no less harsh through the many centuries of Christendom than they are today in some majority Muslim countries! And the protection and the spread of the faith by the sword were not foreign to some great representatives of the Christian faith!

By referring to positions of Mahmoud Taha and his disciple An-Na’im, De-Van rightly notes that much in the debate between Muslims and Christians will depend on the proper method of interpretation of the sacred texts. The so-called theory of “abrogation”—an interpretative practice by which the later texts cancel the earlier ones—is problematic from a Christian standpoint above all because it favors harsher and more law-like Medina texts and suppresses gentler and more spiritual Meccan texts. But theory of abrogation is not the only interpretative theory available to Muslims. Even those who do not give preference to the Meccan stage can interpret the Qur’an in a way that to Christians seems more consonant with the Christian faith than do the strict “abrogationists;” many of them do so by stressing the importance of the fit among all texts and reinterpreting discordant texts by taking into account the particularities of the situation in which they were written. My primary interest in the book is in the positive possibilities of qur’anic interpretation—“positive” from a Christian standpoint, of course. That strategy is all the more important if it is true that many “historic Muslim luminaries” have “acclaimed Jewish and Christian Scriptures as divinely revealed” without at the same time disparaging them as corrupted.

When it comes to the question of salvation—as when it comes to the positive reasons for embracing the doctrine of the Trinity—DeVan thinks that I failed my readers. He thinks that I shy away from discussing salvation and that this shy-ing away represents “neglect” on my part, “the worst shortcoming” of the book, my own “shirk.” I disagree, completely. Here is how the issue looks to me as the author: The substance of the objection is not that the book I wrote is actually inadequate in this regard, but that I have not written the book DeVan wanted me to write. As it happens, it is on authors to decide what kind of book they will write, not on reviewers. If authors state clearly the purpose of their texts and at-tend to what is crucial to achieve it, they have done what they have set out to do. I decided to write a book about political theology, not a comprehensive book on Christian-Muslim relations; others can write books about theology of the Trinity, soteriology, and more in dialogue with Islam. No “shying away,” no “neglecting” was involved in my decision. The crucial question about my book with regard to salvation is this: By not discussing the question of salvation have I failed to achieve my purpose to write about the role of the convictions about God in the ability of Muslims and Christians to live together in peace “under the same roof”? I do not think that I have. Let me make clear something that for some may be obscured by the distinction between political theology and soteriology. I think that both Christian political theology and Christian soteriology are rooted in the same real-ity of the Trinitarian God who is love and who therefore loves unconditionally. Distinction is not separation.

Let me conclude with one observation, crucial for interpreting Allah. The main point I have made is not that Muslims and Christians agree on all major issues, not even that they agree on major questions about God. They do not. Instead, the main point was the following: since they have a common though partly differ-ently understood God, they have sufficient basis to debate in a reasonable way their culturally and politically consequential disagreements. For monotheists, to have a common God is, among other things, to inhabit a common moral universe because most fundamental values are inscribed in their convictions about God. Of course, non-theists and non-monotheists have other foundations of values than do monotheists. When it comes to non-theists on non-monotheists, we build on similar values. In the case of monotheist religions, beliefs about God embody ultimate values. Hence, if they have a common God, they inhabit the same moral universe; if they do not have a common God, they do not inhabit the same moral universe. It is politically an important question whether or not they in fact do so. Why? Inhabiting a common moral universe is a necessary (though by no means sufficient!) condition for resolving differences through reasonable debate. In an inter-meshed world in which Muslims and Christian often live “under the same roof,” the other alternative is war. It should be clear that the problems in relations of 2.2 billion Christians and 1.7 billion Muslims cannot be resolved through violence.

Enough said for now. May the conversation on this important topic continue beyond this one exchange!

Cite this article
Miroslav Volf, “Response to DeVan’s Review Essay of Allah: A Christian Response”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:2 , 187-192


  1. I owe this point to Ryan McAnnaly-Linz, my assistant.

Miroslav Volf

Miroslav Volf is the Henry Be. Wright Professor of Sytematic Theology at Yale University’s Divinity School and the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.