Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad: A Conversation with Timothy George
Posted by Danielle DuRant on May 1, 2002Topic: FaithTopic: IslamTopic: Jesus ChristTopic: Just Thinking MagazineTopic: New Testament StudiesTopic: Reliability of ScriptureTopic: Theology and PhilosophyTopic: World Religions
Topic: Attributes of God
Danielle DuRant spoke to Timothy George in April 2002 about his forthcoming book, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad: Understanding the Differences between Christianity and Islam (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, September 2002). Dr. George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, AL, where he teaches church history and historical theology. A former pastor, he has also written numerous books, including Theology of the Reformers, which is the standard textbook in many schools and seminaries on reformation theology. Dr. George is executive editor for Christianity Today and serves on the editorial advisory boards of The Harvard Theological Review, Christian History, and Books & Culture.
In the Preface to Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad, Timothy George writes:
Thomas Merton once wrote that “every moment in every event in every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” The seed of this book was planted in my soul during my first visit to Jerusalem in 1970. Rising early one morning before dawn, I listened from my hotel window to the piercing, eerie sound of the muezzin as he repeated the daily call to prayer from one of the minarets high above the Garden of Gethsemane. Later on, I discovered the meaning of the words I heard spoken in Arabic that morning: God is most great. God, there is none save he. Come ye to prayer. Come ye to the good. I could not help but think of another invitation given in that same city long ago, “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden. I will give you rest. I will give you peace. I will lead you to the good.”
From that day on I have been intrigued by Islam and its relationship to the Christian faith. This book is an effort to understand some of the basic theological differences between these two faith traditions which together comprise more than forty percent of the world’s population. Jerusalem is a city sacred to both Christianity and Islam, as well as to Judaism. In the Holy Scriptures we are commanded to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. This book is written with that prayer in my heart. It is a prayer for true shalom and true islam—the peace of God, which is beyond our utmost understanding, a peace gained by neither bullets nor arguments, but only through surrender, surrender to the One whose love was written in blood on a hill not far from that minaret one Friday in Jerusalem.
Danielle DuRant: In chapter three of your new book you contend, “Ironically, the doctrine of the Trinity may be at once the most important and the most neglected doctrine we [as Christians] hold.” You suggest that this is “perhaps because we cannot understand or explain the Trinity.” Would you elaborate on this doctrine and how it bears upon our faith?
Timothy George: The Trinity is foundational to the Christian faith and is something that all orthodox believing Christians share. It’s a part of the structure of the building, and though often we don’t notice the infrastructure, it’s there. I think it’s that way with the Trinity. There’s another problem that some have with the Trinity; that is, the word isn’t in the Bible. And so some would ask, “Why should we make such a big deal over a word that the Holy Spirit didn’t think necessary to inspire? It’s not in the holy writ of Scripture.” Unfortunately, that kind of biblicist objection to the doctrine of the Trinity has played very strongly in some circles.
The Trinity is a concept that’s hard to wrap your mind around. It seems mysterious, even contradictory—how can three be one and still be three? And so when we think of it in numerical terms, in mathematical terms, I think we’re never going to get very far. That’s why I tried to emphasize in this book the relational character of God. That’s what the Trinity really is all about. But I do think, without the Trinity—yes, the word is not in the Bible but the Bible itself is Trinitarian from first to last—we can’t make any sense out of who Jesus Christ is, or what the atonement is about, or what salvation is really about apart from the Trinitarian understanding of God. So I am glad that there are Christians today who want to go back and recover the doctrine of the Trinity, and discuss it again. That’s a good thing that’s happening in the theological world. And in fact, this whole debate with Islam is bringing it more to the fore, and that’s one of the good things, we can pray, that can come out of the great disaster that we’ve seen happen.
DD: Yes, you speak of that term relational, and one of things that struck me in the book This We Believe was your chapter. You offer this wonderful description of God and who we are in relation to Him. You write, “Out of the richness and utter sufficiency of his own being, God creates the world and human beings within it…. At the heart of God there is a freedom, an unthreatenedness, a generosity that is a reflection of his own character. This is the basis of all human reality and freedom.” I’m wondering whether Muslims, in turn, would see this description as representative of Allah?
TG: I think that description represents a very different understanding of God than what you find in Islam. In Islam, God is absolutely sovereign. There’s no question about his omnipotence. In fact, one of the good things about Islam is that it doesn’t get into all the speculation about process theology. You know, we have a big discussion today in evangelicalism on the openness of God and whether God knows the future. Or, is God so much a part of the created reality that He’s like us? It whittles God down to size. No, I think Islam is right on that point. God is indeed truly sovereign and omnipotent. But what I’m trying to bring out in the book is the fact that within the omnipotence of God, there is this absolute freedom to commit, freedom to create, freedom to reveal the innermost character of his reality. He’s not compelled to do that; there is not compulsion toward that. But He chooses to do that. There’s no good word in English, but out of the innermost, the exuberance, the oversplashing (I know that isn’t a word!) of God’s being—his being is so great and marvelous and wonderful that it overflows—He chooses to include us. Islam thinks of that concept of God as threatening.
TG: Because, it seems to them, that for God to commit himself to us in such a way involves too close of an association of something creaturely with the Creator. And the one unforgivable sin in Islam is shirk. In fact, in Arabic to be a mushrikun is a person who commits shirk. It’s the worst thing you can possibly be. It’s to commit the unforgivable sin: shirk is precisely the associating of something with God that is not God. And it seems to me that Christianity says that while we must ever guard against elevating anything creaturely to the level of the Creator—so idolatry is a serious problem—God is not hampered from committing himself to us and from associating himself with us. In fact, that’s what the Incarnation is about. That’s what the Gospel is about: that this great, almighty, eternal God has taken this initiative and is not threatened by the fact that He enters into our history and into our lives, and does so out of his own freedom and great love for us. That’s a concept Islamic theology would find very difficult, and it’s a part of the central nerve and nub of difference, I think, between Christianity and Islam.
DD: Well, you’ve led nicely to my third question. You note that even Muslim scholars say, “No devout Muslim can call the God of Muhammad ‘father’ for this, in Islamic thought, would compromise divine transcendence.” You also mention in your book some of the revered 99 names of Allah, and they include “the Provider,” “the Nourisher,” and “the Near.” Would you comment on these two perspectives of God, and why it is so difficult for a Muslim to recognize God as being both Father and yet Holy Other?
TG: Right, that’s a good question. Let me start by saying why we call God “Father.” I think there’s a lot of folks in theology today, even Christians, who think that this is a word that is extrapolated from our human experience. We see our fathers, and so we project onto God out there a “fatherness” that we have learned from our human fathers. In fact, that is the root argument of Freud, and before him Feuerbach, against the Christian faith, this projection idea. As I read the Holy Scriptures, it’s the exact opposite. It’s not that we have an idea of what fatherhood is and project it onto God; it’s that the only real understanding of fatherhood we have is God’s revelation of himself to us. And when we use that word analogously in our own human communities, none of us clearly could be an adequate father in the way God is; it’s by analogy that we call our human parent a father, rather than the idea that we are projecting this onto God. So this is something God has chosen to reveal of his own character and nature to us.
Now your question has to do with why Islam finds that so difficult and almost a contradiction in the being of God. As I pointed out in the Koran, you have these names for God, that God is the one who is near, the one who provides, the one who nourishes. You can take all of the 99 beautiful names for God, as they’re called in Islam, and almost read them in a Christian way. They’re biblical, most of them. I think it’s because father—if Father is used of God in the kind of way it is in the Bible—this is somehow a revelation of the innermost heart and being of God, who God is, God’s character. And for Islam, that is to penetrate into an arena in which human beings are totally incapable of understanding. So we can call God “the High,” “the Almighty,” but when you begin to use relational words for God, it sounds as though you’re mingling the creature with the Creator, and that is a form of shirk, of idolatry. It seems this is because there’s an essential inadequacy in their understanding of who God is. When you reject the biblical revelation of God, then this is what you’re left with: God is the great Monad. God is the great Holy Other, who is totally incomprehensible, totally above and beyond. And, of course, all that’s true; had God not revealed himself to us, this is what we’d be left with. So what you have in Islam is a revelation of a natural theology of God without biblical revelation. This is also the God that many people revolt against today, a God who is unapproachable, who is so totally different and distant from us, He really can’t understand us or know us. And it’s this image of God that’s present, not just in Islam, but in various modern atheistic rejections of God.
DD: Yet, at the same time, I would imagine that evangelicalism can learn from Islam because God is so Holy Other, and we have lost this sense of reverence, of transcendence, and focused on the immanence of God. Yet we have to hold them both together; we cannot focus on one versus the other.
TG: Both are in the biblical record of who God is and how God reveals himself to us. You’re absolutely right. But the sense of the otherness and the absolute sovereignty of God is a point of commonality between orthodox Christianity and orthodox Islam. That’s why this process view of God is something that Islam rightly recognizes that we can’t go down that road.
DD: Regarding salvation and redemption, you write: “Redemption is not a category Islam recognizes. Every Muslim is his or her own redeemer.” Would you talk about the differences between a Christian and a Muslim understanding of the Fall, the need for salvation, and appealing to God for mercy?
TG: Islam does have a concept of the Fall. It’s not as though they are totally Pelagian in that respect. But here’s how they understand the Fall: it is forgetfulness; it’s not remembering; it’s ignorance. These are all words the Koran uses to describe the condition of a human being vis-à-vis God. Therefore, what’s needed to correct that is information—essentially, revelation. That, of course, is what is given in the message of the prophets, and they teach there are thousands and thousands of prophets: Adam was the first, Mohammed was the last, and this has been codified in the Holy Koran for time and eternity. So if you know this, if you can assimilate this information, then you can act on it; you can remember who you are.
In a way, it’s a bit like Gnosticism in that regard—because Gnosticism, too, in the early church said the problem is lack of knowledge. The problem is that the veil is over our eyes; we need someone to lift it and show us who we really are. And so Jesus is essentially not a redeemer, but a revealer. The problem with that from the biblical revelation is that sin is presented in the Bible as something that is much more serious, much deeper, and much more radical in its implications than mere forgetfulness or ignorance would imply. It is something that creates an impenetrable moral barrier between us and the Holy, between us and God. And it is so significant that only God himself can act to remove this barrier, and this is what He has done in Jesus Christ. That’s why Christianity, and Judaism, too—you can read it in the Old Testament—are religions of redemption. God must buy us back from the slave market of sin. God must intervene to bring about a reconciliation with himself. This He does through the death of his Son on the cross, which presupposes the moral character of God has been deeply offended by human rebellion and human sin, and that’s the presupposition for redemption.
DD: And you note that in Islam one may appeal for mercy to Muhammad or even Jesus, in some sense, because He’s spoken of in the Koran as being one of the many prophets, yet God need not act upon this appeal.
TG: That’s true. In fact, one of the most frequently used names for God in Islam is “the All-Merciful One.” God is compassionate; God is merciful. But in Islam his mercy is fortuitous in the sense that He doesn’t bind himself to be merciful. If God promises to be merciful, He may or may not fulfill that promise. That’s not something that God commits himself to do for us ultimately. So there’s a complete lack of the doctrine of assurance, or any basis of trust in God, and therefore, what human beings have to do is essentially by their own effort and works merit a standing before God that they hope at the end of the day will be sufficient against the holy, righteous wrath of God. But it’s in some way a matter of caprice whether or not God really does intervene and save.
DD: You’ve led again to my next question! You write that scholar Kenneth Cragg said that “the Names of God in Islam describe his activity but not his essence.” And you cite several passages from the Koran that lead you to conclude that, “In the Qur’an, God’s love is conditional and accidental. Love is something God does, not that which God is.” Would you comment on that assertion, but also a counterpoint. That is, couldn’t a Muslim go to our Scriptures—for instance, Psalm 1 or the book of Proverbs—and conclude that our God’s love, or at least His blessing, is conditional as well?
TG: That question gets to the heart of the revelation of the character and being of God. Two times in the Koran it is spoken that God can love someone or God does love someone, but his love is conditional: God loves those who do this, that and the other. Now the Bible does not present the love of God as conditioned upon our response in that way. Our response is itself a reaction to God’s love. Now our human commitment—clearly God holds us accountable; I think it would be a great mistake to think that He didn’t. But God is love in the biblical revelation because at the very heart and being and nature and reality of God, there is relationship. Love presupposes an object on which love can be extended, and the word doesn’t make sense apart from that.
There is this idea that many people have—it’s in Islam, in certain forms of Judaism, and it’s certainly there in Christianity—that there was some aching loneliness in the being of God, some inadequacy, so God felt the need to move beyond himself in order to make a world so that He would have something to love. However, the Christian faith teaches that from all eternity, God has forever lived and existed in a relationship of total mutual self-giving, of reciprocity, of mutuality. The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. So that had He never created the world, had He never redeemed the world, once it was created, God would still be love and God would still be God because He doesn’t depend upon us or need us to fulfill some innermost part of reality that’s lacking. In other words, salvation is not about getting God right; it’s about getting us right.
So when we say that “God is love,” this means that then when God acts toward us in a loving way, He is doing something that is consistent with his own innermost character and being. This is why Jesus can say that remarkable statement in John 14:9. We’ve read this so often we just ignore it: “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.” What does that mean? It means what Jesus Christ is, is not simply someone that kind of helps us along life’s way by giving us nice words of instruction or advice on how to live, but Jesus Christ is the revelation of the innermost reality of God. When we look at him and we see how He loved, how He had compassion, how He gave himself unstintingly to the cross, then you have a window to the reality of God. God is love. There are only two times in the Bible where God is spoken of in an unqualified way—“God is love” and “God is light” (1 John 4:8; 1 John 1:5). Now God is Spirit, Father, and Son, but if you take away those personal names for God, both God is love and God is light speak of the innermost reality of God’s heart and being. His holiness, his purity, his power, his glory, and his unfathomable and unconquerable love: the love that He is and the love that He chooses to display to us in Jesus Christ. So that’s a very different way of thinking about love as the consequence of God’s innermost being and reality, and not as somehow a fortuitous or capricious act that He does that is divorced from his character and his being.
DD: Which is why I imagine that when Muslims speak of turning to Christ, or missionaries speak of sharing the Gospel, again and again you hear, it is the love of Christ that drew them. I think of that wonderful book by Bilquis Sheikh, I Dared to Call Him Father.
TG: Isn’t that a wonderful story?
DD: Yes, it’s amazing. And your book reminded me again of just how unique and overwhelming this God is who loves us, and that He would want to have a relationship with us. I guess I assume that’s a part of other religions in the sense that we all recognize that God is love. That is sort of the veneer, if you will, that I think most people would acknowledge if you asked them “Who is God?”
TG: And often when we use love language for God, we tend to import into it all the kind of superficiality of love that’s in our culture today. The love of God revealed in Jesus Christ is a very costly love. It’s a very expensive love, and one that cost God his own dear Son on the cross. So that again is a major difference that we have with Islam.
DD: That Jesus would not actually suffer on the cross. The Koran says that He walked up to the cross, but there are some different interpretations of that passage, is that right?
TG: Yes. A lot of people don’t realize this, even Christianity’s most virulent critics—atheists, Jesus Seminar people—hardly anyone that I’ve ever met would say Jesus didn’t die. There is a lot of debate about the resurrection, about the virgin birth, but did He die? But Islam has this very interesting idea that Jesus did not die on the cross. Later Islamic tradition says it was Judas; that at the very last minute, there was a crucifixion in Jerusalem on Good Friday and it was intended for Jesus—they agree with the New Testament at that point. But at the very last minute, right before Jesus was to be impaled on the cross, a switch happened. A ruse took place, slight of hand, if you will, and Jesus was actually raptured into heaven. And someone else in later tradition says Judas was taken and crucified in Jesus’ place, and there’s this interesting kind of Gnostic story in Islam of Jesus laughing as the wrong guy gets crucified; He’s tricked the devil.
Now why do they say this? There’s no historical evidence for this. As I said, the worst critics of Christianity admit He died. They say this because they think it is unworthy of God to let his messiah, as they called Jesus, his prophet, undergo such torturous and barbarous treatment, his crucifixion. This would seem to invalidate everything about God that Islam teaches, if God could allow the messiah to experience this. And so God rescues him at the right moment, just before his death, takes him back to heaven where He is today, according to Islam, and then He’s coming again at the end of age. Well, the Christian faith really is a theology of the cross.
TG: Yes, it is scandalous: It was, and it is, and it says to us that not only is the cross compatible with the reality of God, it reveals to us who God really is. There you see him most of all. Jesus said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.” “If you see Me, you see the Father.” What you see in the cross is the ultimate outworking of the Father’s love for us. It’s the innermost revealing of who God is. So, you know, it’s really interesting that Christians often romanticize the cross, though we all agree that Jesus died, of course. Very often, I think, Islam actually wins the battle by the way we treat the cross, simply because we don’t take it seriously, we don’t look at it in all its horrible reality, and we don’t feel the offense of it. We make little icons out of it, and all the things we do with it in our Christian décor. But the fact that God himself—and not a substitute and not a surrogate—entered into our history and actually experienced what Jesus Christ experienced on the cross is a shocking thought. And so we need to come back to that, to remind ourselves of the depth of God’s love for us. Out of the ultimate victory that we have in the resurrection, but not the resurrection apart from the cross. That’s why in Christian theology, Jesus still bears in his hands in heaven the marks of his passion. So that is forever constituently a part of the revelation of God to us.
DD: Well, we’ve come to the end of our conversation. I wonder if you have anything you might want to add or comment on?
TG: I think this whole great clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam is a cause of great concern at all kinds of levels, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity that God is providing for us—a window of witness that may never come again in our lifetime or the lifetime of our civilization. And so then we must find a way to be faithful to Christ and faithful to his Word, and to be open and sensitive to those who are Muslims. The anti-Muslim rhetoric that you hear in some Christian circles is not very helpful. There are many things we could deplore about radical Islam and Islamism; there’s no defense for any of that. But to see these people as many who are open to the revelation of who God is, if they can hear the Word, and God will use it to speak to their hearts as He has to so many other people in the history of the Christian and Islamic encounter. We have students at our school and other schools who have come to Christ from an Islamic background. Often they tell us the thing that was really critical to them was the loving witness of some other Christian person who didn’t beat them over the head, but who bore witness in their life and their lips to the reality of Jesus. The Holy Spirit used that to open their hearts. So I hope I can learn and we all can learn how to do that more faithfully to the Gospel.
I mentioned in the preface of the book an encounter I had when I was in Jerusalem in 1970, which I’ll never forget. I was staying near the Dome of the Rock, the old city, and I opened my window early one morning, and there you could hear the muezzin with that call to prayer that resounds throughout the world, thousands and thousands and thousands times a day. Probably the most frequently quoted statement in the world today, given the vast expanse of Islam: Come ye to prayer. Come ye to the good. I will never forget hearing that. And then to remember that, of course, it was not very far from there that Jesus spoke those words that are recorded in Matthew 11: “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The wonderful, great invitation of the Gospel that Jesus said in that city not far from where that muezzin calls people to come to prayer, come to the good, and not very far at all from where Calvary was, where Golgotha was. That will forever stay in my mind as the contrast between Christianity and Islam, the different invitations, and the way in which we are also to issue that invitation in Jesus’ name as ambassadors for Christ. “Come unto him, all who labor”—that includes Muslims as well as non-Muslims—and He will give rest, He will give life.
In preparing this book, I read many marvelous stories of Christians who shared the Gospel, who’d given their lives, sometimes at great risk and tremendous courage. They make you want to thank God for his ability to break through any barrier. Indeed, there’s no barrier too impenetrable for the love of God, and for the grace of God, and for the Good News of the Gospel.
Danielle DuRant is research assistant at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
 Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publications, 1949), 17.
 Taken from Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad: Understanding the Differences between Christianity and Islam by Timothy George. ©2002 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan.
 An abbreviated version of chapter 3—entitled “Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus”—can be found in Christianity Today (4 February 2002, 28-35). This article—and several excellent links to Islam and Christianity—is also available online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/002/1.28.html
 Timothy George, “The Big Picture” in This We Believe: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World, eds. John Akers, John Armstrong, and John Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, August 2000), 225. A brief review of this book was featured in the Fall 2000 Just Thinking; the review (“Studying the Mirror Image: Captive or Free?”) and the book are available at www.rzim.com.
 For more on this discussion, see Geoffrey Bromily’s essay “Only God Is Free” in the same issue of Christianity Today (4 February 2002, 72-75). The article and other links are available online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/002/9.72.html
 Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) asserted in his book The Essence of Christianity that the object of one’s faith is nothing more than a projection of one’s self: “God as God…is only an object of thought” (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989), 35.
 Pelagius was a fifth-century British monk who denied the doctrine of original sin; his teachings were condemned by Augustine and the Council of Ephesus in 431.
 For further reading, see John Gilchrist’s essay “The Love of God in the Qur’an and the Bible” at http://www.answering-islam.org/Gilchrist/love.html. Writes Gilchrist, “It is not possible, according to the Qur’an, for men to actually experience God’s love in their very own hearts such as a son’s experience of his father’s love and a wife of her husband’s love. God is indeed called ‘the Loving One’ (al- Wadud) in the Qur’an but only on two occasions (Surahs 11.90, 85.14). This statement, however, does not imply the depth of love in the nature of God such as is found in the Biblical declaration ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). Instead one of the great theologians in Islamic history, al-Ghazzali, is at pains to inform us that the expression ‘the Loving One’ means far less than the title would seem to indicate. In his work on the names of God in the Qur’an entitled Al-Maqsad Al-Asna he states that this title in the Qur’an is a lesser one, for example, than ‘the Merciful’ (ar-Rahim)—an opinion with which we find ourselves compelled to agree, for God is called ‘the Merciful’ over two hundred times in the Qur’an but ‘the Loving One’ only twice. Al-Ghazzali explains this love as consisting solely of objective acts of kindness and expressions of approval. He denies that there is any subjectivity in the love of God, that is, that God feels any love in his own heart towards mankind: ‘He remains above the feeling of love’ (Al-Maqsad Al-Asna, p.91).”
 Bilquis Sheikh, I Dared to Call Him Father (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980).
 John 12:32.