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The Character of God in Bible and Qur’an; A Study In Contrasts

1998 dialog between a Christian and a Muslim about the Character of God

Answering Islam – Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! I think tonight we are witnessing a very exciting event, since it is not very often that Muslims and Christians get together to listen to each other. And I would like to put the emphasis tonight on truly listening to each other.

I have not come here with my boxing gloves. I have not come here to score points or win an intellectual battle. I am sure most of the Christians and the Muslims out in the audience have already raised their defensive walls quite high and are ready for a good fight on the stage. Well, I would like to ask everyone to make a conscious attempt to lower their walls and try to listen empathetically to the position of the other side. After 1400 years of debates and polemical exchanges between Muslims and Christians, a deep gulf of misunderstanding still separates the two communities of faith.

Just to cite one example, a great contemporary Muslim writer, Shabbir Akhtar, can still say,

“Most Muslims, including educated ones, know next to nothing about Christology. Few Muslims can distinguish clearly between the view that a man claims to be divine – a blasphemy – and the entirely different view according to which God volunteers to become human – the orthodox Christian conviction. And both of these views are routinely confused with the heretical doctrine that God `adopted’ a son… A Muslim cannot reasonably claim to be seriously engaged in dialogue with Christians unless he can possess a thorough knowledge of the Christian faith…”[1]

Of course, one can put the same charge towards Christians and their ignorance of the Islamic faith and the many negative stereo-typed images that Christians have developed against Muslims.

So, once again, my request is that tonight we would all make an extra effort to really listen and thus take one step closer towards a mutual understanding of each other’s position.

Having said that, I must note that I am not advocating that we ought to brush aside the deep and genuine differences that divide Islam and Christianity. In fact, in my lecture tonight, I would like to highlight five points of tension that I notice as a Christian when I compare the doctrine of God as it is developed in the Christian faith with the view of God expounded by the Qur’an and historic, orthodox Islamic theology.

I would like to start with an analogy. I am not very musically minded, but I can imagine that if one immerses himself or herself in the musical style of a great composer, one can tell which pieces belong to the genuine composition of this great musician and which pieces are not genuine. One begins to develop a “feel” for what a composer sounds like. I guess that same thing can be true of great painters or the great poets. Some of you might know the “feel” of the poetry of Hafiz or Rumi so well, that you can immediately tell if a piece of poetry is written by them or not.

In a same way, when I pay close attention to the character of God portrayed for us through the biblical narratives and then I compare it with the Qur’an, I get the strong sense that the Qur’an plays a different tune, that it does not exactly match the God of the Bible, even though the Qur’an claims to be from the same God.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I would like to bring to your attention, five areas of disagreement between these two portraits of God. These areas concern the issues of THE INTIMCAY OF GOD (with his people), THE SUFFERING OF GOD, THE LOVE OF GOD, THE KNOWABILITY OF GOD (the question regarding whether we can know the character of God, what God is like), and THE HOLINESS OF GOD.

The reason that I would like to focus on these fundamental characteristics is that they provide the foundational basis for such distinctive Christian concepts as the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation and the atonement. Oftentimes, Muslims and Christians argue ad infinitum about these specific Christian doctrines and don’t come to any better understanding of each other, because they have not realized that their disagreement about the nature of God is even more foundational than they had thought. There is no use talking about more advanced concepts, if we don’t even have the basics down, no use arguing about the complex formulas of advanced calculus, if we have not understood the simple principles of arithmetic.

So, let me now elaborate on what I mean by these areas of disagreement that I have highlighted.

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