What do Muslims and Christians believe differently about God?

By , January 4, 2013

(Second in a series comparing the social impact of theological differences between Christianity and Islam)

Based on the thesis that people become like what they worship, and people relate to one another based upon the way that they relate to God, in this blog series I intend to compare and contrast the social impact of Muslim and Christian beliefs about God, man, nature, salvation, end times, and revelation. This entry compares and contrasts the social impact of Muslim and Christian beliefs about God.

the Christian TrinityThe Christian God is three persons in one essence, while the Muslim god is a single autonomous unity. The English technical term for the three-in-one Christian God is “trinity.” The Arabic technical term for solitary singularity of divine essence is tawhid.

the Muslim TawhidMuslim scholars claim that tawhid is the most important article of Muslim faith and that all other Muslim doctrine springs from it. Tahwid means not only that there is only one God, but also that nothing in creation can be associated with God and that God cannot associate himself with anything in creation. We’ll explore the implications of divine non-association in my next post on the theology of man, but for now let’s consider the implications for society and civic structures if God is a singularity rather than a trinity.

In chapter one of He Is There and He Is Not Silent Francis Schaefer writes,

The Persons of the Trinity communicated with each other and loved each other before the creation of the world…. This is not only an answer to the acute philosophic need of unity in diversity, but of personal unity and diversity. The unity and diversity cannot exist before God or be behind God, because whatever is farthest back is God. But with the doctrine of the Trinity, the unity and diversity is God Himself — three Persons, yet one God. That is what the Trinity is, and nothing less than this

Honor, glory, love, integrity, morality, and truth demand relationships. These moral qualities cannot exist within a singularity. However, these moral qualities can exist in eternity past within a trinity. If God is a trinity, then glory, honor, and love are eternal. That eternity for glory, honor, and love is possible because the persons of the trinity have been glorifying, honoring, and loving each other for eternity. Also, if God is a trinity, then integrity, morality and truth are also eternal. That eternity for moral qualities is possible because the persons of the trinity have been holding each other accountable to standards of integrity, morality, and truth for eternity.

But if God is a singularity, then there are no interpersonal relationships within God. If there are no interpersonal relationships within God, then there is no eternal basis within God for honor, glory, love, integrity, morality, and truth. If there is no basis in eternal reality for God’s glory and honor, then God’s glory and honor are not eternally innate to him but depend on his relationship with creation. Also, if God is a singularity, then God can do nothing to shame himself. If God has no innate honor, then he can never potentially have innate shame. He can only be shamed by his creation. If God can do nothing to potentially shame himself, then his behavior has no moral boundaries. He can lie, cheat, and steal with impunity because God is only accountable to himself. If there are no relationships within God, then God has no accountability.

In Christian society, because God is a trinity, nothing and no one can embarrass or dishonor God. God’s honor and glory are part of his eternal essence and depend on nothing other than God himself. Nothing in creation can ever change or diminish God’s honor and glory — even if God becomes a man and dies a humiliating death on a cross. Only God himself can potentially shame himself, because a trinity has accountability within itself.

insulting islam shames GodBut in Muslim society, because god is a singularity, the society must guard and protect his glory. Nowhere on earth and at no time in history do we find Christians violently protesting in the streets when people insult God, his prophet, or his holy books. People in Christian societies know that God does not need his honor protected. But Muslims around the world throughout history are paranoid about the glory of their god. “Allah Akhbar,” the Arabic words for “God is Great,” are constantly on their lips. Insulting the prophet receives a death penalty in many Muslim countries. Defiling a Qur’an instigates violent protests and even murders around the world.

People become like what they worship and relate to one another based upon the way that they relate to God. In Christian societies, God’s honor is certain and his integrity is an innate attribute. Christian doctrine holds that God’s integrity constrains his behavior so that he cannot lie. If God were to lie, then he would shame himself. Therefore, in Christian societies, integrity is more important than honor, and society expects people to tell the truth even if it means embarrassing themselves, their families, their business, or their leaders.

Crucifying Jesus shames himBut the relative esteem for integrity and honor are reversed in Muslim societies. According to Muslim doctrine and according to the Qur’an itself, “Allah is the best deceiver.” In Islam, god’s honor depends upon how creation treats him, and integrity is not an innate part of his eternal essence. Power, as an attribute, can be independent of relationships, and it is the most vaunted attribute of the Muslim god. As a result, in Muslim societies, honor is more desirable than integrity, and people are expected to deceive in order to protect themselves, their families, their businesses, or their leaders from shame. Among Muslims, the notion that God would stoop to become a man and suffer at the hands of men is one of the most offensive blasphemies to comprehend.

Because of tahwid the Muslim god can only be dishonored by his creation, and he cannot dishonor himself. However, because of the trinity the Christian God can only be dishonored by himself and cannot be dishonored by creation. As a result, Christian societies do not worry about protecting God’s honor and care more about truth than honor, but Muslim societies are paranoid about god’s honor and care more about honor than truth.

Link through the chart to other posts on the social impact of Muslim and Christian theology:

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4 Responses to “What do Muslims and Christians believe differently about God?”

  1. In light of this, if one asks, “Is Islam true?” you may be killed, but you will be asking a very significant question. The Question which then follows is not merely “Is Christianity true?” but actually, “Is Jesus the Truth?” If He is, then He is also the life. If you take Jesus then as your life, then you have honor. For those who honor God, God will honor. http://if4es.wordpress.com

  2. Tim Bedsole says:

    This good comparison goes into shaping our worldview, moral foundations, and civil discourse. While I have always viewed tawid similar to the monotheistic view of Christianity you point out a deeper level of division we should consider. Consider its implications to our economic or ecological views and you can see how the foundational theology shapes the practical applications.

  3. Seth George says:

    This is an interesting article that opens up at least two good lines of conversation with Muslim friends or acquaintances. First is understanding the importance of the Trinity and how a triune relationship from eternity informs our ethics. This is super important. Within Sunni schools of Islam, as I understand it, the principal of Commanding the Right and Forbidding the Wrong (Q3:104) is a guiding principal for interpersonal and community relationships towards justice and of course, unity. However, the way this ethic is applied, especially by Sunni groups, sometimes becomes defensive in nature because it is a logical part of tawhid, and is prescriptive due to the Qur’an, i.e. unity is commanded and pluralism (especially apostasy) is forbidden as a way to defend the honor of God. Christian’s believe in absolute truth as well, and there is an element to “Commanding the Right and Forbidding the Wrong,” but it seems the doctrine of our reconciliation to God through Christ, and our call to be ministers of reconciliation provides a different ethical context and response (or at least should provide a different response) to how we deal with conflict among fellow believers or those who are not believers. I have heard that John of Damascus discussed the Trinity with Muslim leaders of his day. It would be interesting to know if he addressed issues of unity and ethics in light of Christ’s redemptive work.
    The second item for conversation would be figuring out the background of the individual with whom we are speaking. Wahhabi, Taliban and other Salafi groups grab headlines and are prone to actively defend tawhid and God’s honor under certain conditions. However, I have a suspicion that the Sufi desire to be unified with God rather than to prescribe unity through social action, could be a way of discovering what one thinks and wants when discussing tawhid. Also, I wonder if historically Arab and tribal cultures are inclined to understand tawhid differently than Muslims from India, Southeast Asia or even the United States. Any constructive comments are welcome . . .

  4. Bruce says:

    Here is a curious observation that underscores the difference referenced in this post. The very point of God’s greatest humiliation was also the point of his greatest glory. See John 12:23-33.

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