Review of “Allah: a Christian Response” by Miroslav Volf

Struggles between the Christians and Muslims have lasted for centuries. The struggles are both theological and political in nature. There have been efforts in reconciling Christians and Muslims, and even form governments over regions where both peoples coexist. How it goes is still questionable. Moreover, since the 911 attack on Ground Zero and Pentagon, people are exploring this question further into the theological aspect: is the God in the Bible and Quran the same god? Miroslav Volf attempted to answer these questions in his book Allah: a Christian Response.

Miroslav Volf is currently the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, and the Director of the Yale Center for Truth and Faith. Born in the Balkan Peninsula, at the time under the rule of an officially Communist and atheist state (Yugoslavia), he managed to remain to be a proclaimed Christian; living with various other religious groups, he witnessed the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, and how these conflicts affect their private and public life. According to him, the Balkans do not argue who the true god is, but “[the issue] is… that the two religious communities give ultimate allegiance to two rival versions of the Master of the Universe.” (page 13) His background is one of the reasons of his interests in political theology and interfaith dialogues. He was the lead author of the Christian response to “A Common Word Between Us and You” written by a group of Muslim scholars.[1]

This book explores two important questions. The first question is: is Christian god and Muslim god the same God?[2] He argued for the same-God position by proving, according to the God described in Scripture and Quran, there are more similarities than differences. The second is: is it possible for Christians and Muslims to live together in harmony and form a government? His answer is yes.

The author first reviewed the history of the conversation between Christians and Muslims about the same-God question. Under the several failed attempts of the Crusades, and the strong new threat posed by Ottoman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church sought to have dialogues with the Muslims. (chapter 2) The author reviewed the work of Nicholas of Cusa, who argued Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God. He also argued if Muslims read the Quran carefully, they would have concluded God is triune despite their denial. On the other hand, the author also reviewed the viewpoints of Martin Luther, the Reformer, who did not say yes or no to the same-God question, but admitted that all monotheistic peoples “believe in the one true God.” (chapter 3)

The author then spent a significant portion of the book stating his stance about the same-God question. He examined the verses in Scripture and Quran for the description of God, and compared the practices of both Christians and Muslims. He showed that there are so many similarities that he would conclude they are describing the same God. (chapters 4-6) He then discussed the most controversial topic: the Trinity, which the Muslims declared heretical and polytheistic. (chapter 7) He tried to show that a lot of Muslims’ objections are not really what Christians claimed. (“Christians deny what Muslims deny… Christians affirm what Muslims affirm.” (page 143)) While the author rightly asserted that the doctrine of Trinity is “not an add-on” in Christianity (page 145), he is yet to prove God in the Quran is triune. He resorted to God’s incomprehensibility. He confessed that the Trinity can only be seen from God’s special revelation, which “has a trinitarian structure.” (page 147) In addition, the author compared the nature of love in both religions. (chapter 8) While both Christians and Muslims believe God is loving, only Christians believe God is love, which requires a triune God. The author attempted to show the levels of “unconditional-ness” of love are similar. He gave an example of Muslims’ loving their enemies, something commanded in the Christian Bible, although Quran teaches “teeth-for-teeth, eye-for-eye.”

In the last part of the book, the author dealt with the possibility of Christians and Muslims living together in harmony, and forming a single government. (chapters 10-13) Based on the author’s same-God thesis and the existence of the common ground, he proposed a rough government system that allows both groups to participate in a nation’s politics. He argued that political pluralism is feasible even if peoples are religiously exclusive. He lastly proposed “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of political wisdom in a multi-religious state,” (page 241) which, he thinks, is something people nowadays lack.

I appreciate the author’s effort in laying out the structure of the democratic government that tolerates both Christians and Muslims. Like other variants of the Christian religions such as Mormonism, Islam can also be seen as a variant of Christianity. Protestants have not fought a war with the Mormons despite the theological differences, they have been fighting against the Catholics in Northern Ireland, or the Muslims in the Middle East. All these struggles are more political and historical, rather than theological, in nature.

The author proposed political pluralism for a multi-religious state. To me, it is feasible, and there are examples. Malaysia, though officially a Muslim state, have Indians that practice Hinduism, and Chinese that practice Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, under a constitutional monarchy.[3] Lebanon has been a religiously diverse country too, having Muslims, Christians, and Druze people, running a parliamentary republic.[4] They are not free of conflicts, but it is possible if certain factors, such as the quality of citizens, the tolerance, the level of their God-fearing, are present. However, as Thomas Schelling pointed out from his agent-based model of segregation, while they can be neighbors, moderate segregation is avoidable when stability is achieved.[5] There is not a need to completely integrate different groups of people in one community.

The author held a very controversial, or “hot and spicy” (page 13), viewpoint on the same-God question. The same viewpoint led to the resignation of Larycia Hawkins in Wheaton College recently.[6] His analysis on the similarities about God’s description by Christians and Muslims is excellent, but he did not convincingly reconcile the differences, particularly on the Trinity. It is not surprising that he cannot reconcile the differences regarding the Trinity as “we owe our knowledge of this doctrine (Trinity) solely to God’s special revelation.”[7] He did not even discuss the discrepancies in their historical narratives (for example, whether Abraham sacrificed Isaac or Ishmael). Moreover, even if he were able to prove the same-God proposition, it would not mean the Muslims are eternally saved. And political pluralism, which he envisioned, does not depend on this proposition. In fact, it is very reasonable for the author to be able to discover so many similarities because through the truths about God are revealed to men through nature, (Ps. 19:1, Rom. 1:19) even though the knowledge is distorted by human finitude and fallenness.

Exploring the same-God question, the author did not state that Muslims are actually saved. Nor did he state any “techniques” or “tricks” to proselyte in Muslim communities. The author’s interest is on politics rather than evangelism. But it does not mean his discussion is not useful for evangelism. Whether the same-God question is relevant, or has a positive answer, it is a good gap-bridging dialogue for any evangelistic effort. His ideas regarding political pluralism are applicable outside politics.

Throughout the whole book, the author put an emphasis on the similarities between Christianity and Islam. He did not overlook the differences, but a more balanced view can be achieved by adding more weights to them. Knowing the similarities and differences help reducing the conflicts, which is one of the themes that the author tried to bring out. As J. D. Greear said, “we need to know our Muslim neighbors in order to love our Muslim neighbors. That includes having a clear picture of what they believe.”[8]

No matter what the best answers to the questions that the author raised are, “[loving] the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” (Deut. 6:5) and “[loving] your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39) are the two most important commandments. In the parable of the good Samaritans, Jesus implied that the neighbor can be even “foreigners” or people of other faiths. These biblical principles are not based on any possible answers to the questions discussed by the author.

[1] “Miroslav Volf,” Yale Center for Faith & Culture, accessed Apr 2, 2016, http://faith.yale.edu/people/miroslav-volf.

[2] Or more technically, as the author quoted Keith DeRose, “whether the thoughts and utterances of Muslims that are expressed in terms of being about ‘God’… have the God that Christians worship as their object.” (page 84)

[3] Malaysia,” the World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, accessed March 30, 2016, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/my.html.

[4] François Massoulié, Crisis in the Middle East: a century in focus (Witney, UK: Windrush Press, 1999), 134-151.

[5] Thomas Schelling, “Dynamic Models of Segregation,” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (1971), 143-145.

[6] The author wrote an article in response to Larycia Hawkins’ resignation, reasserting his position in this book: Miroslav Volf, “Wheaton professor’s suspension is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology,” Washington Post, December 17, 2015, accessed April 2, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/17/wheaton-professors-suspension-is-about-anti-muslim-bigotry-not-theology/.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 329.

[8] J. D. Greear, “Theologies Compared and Contrasted,” Tabletalk Magazine, April 2016, 19.

  • Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. [Amazon]
  • Greear, J. D. “Theologies Compared and Contrasted.” Tabletalk Magazine, April 2016. [Ligonier Ministries]
  • Massoulié, François. Crisis in the Middle East: a century in focus. Witney, UK: Windrush Press, 1999. [Amazon]
  • Schelling, Thomas. “Dynamic Models of Segregation.” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (1971): 143-186. [link]
  • Volf, Miroslav. Allah: a Christian Response. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2012. [Amazon]
  • Volf, Miroslav. “Wheaton professor’s suspension is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology.” Washington Post, December 17, 2015. [link]
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