Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

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janosik
DANIEL JANOSIK: Director of Islamic Studies, Adjunct Professor of Apologetics, Historical Theology, and Islamic Studies at Southern Evangelical Seminary, and the adjunct professor in Apologetics at CIU Columbia International University (A.B., College of William and Mary; M.Div., Columbia International University; M.A., Columbia International University; Ph.D., London School of Theology) Dissertation: John of Damascus, First Apologist to the Muslims.

Introduction

There has been a great deal of confusion brought on by this question, especially in the aftermath of a Wheaton professor’s comment affirming that Muslims and Christians do indeed worship the same God. After all, can there logically be more than one God in the universe? If there is only one God, and Muslims and Christians both worship this one God, then they must, by logic, worship the same God.

On the other hand, Muslims do not accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and by extension the belief in a triune God. For Muslims, this is the greatest sin a person can commit, for God cannot have an associate. Thus, if Christians worship a triune God and believe that Jesus Christ is the second person of this triune God, then Muslims would have to say that Christians do not worship the same God. Is there a way past this theological impasse? I believe there is. As a way to bring clarity and resolution to this question, this chapter will explore what we will call the ontological and theological divide or a comparison of God’s existence with his essence as they refer to Islam and Christianity.

On December 15, 2015, Wheaton College placed one of its professors, Larycia Hawkins, on administrative leave for “theological statements that seemed inconsistent” with the Wheaton doctrinal convictions. Prior to this decision, Larycia Hawkins donned a hijab in protest to how she felt Muslims were being treated and stated on Facebook, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” [1] After a tense time of discussion between Hawkins and the Wheaton leadership team, she agreed to resign and part ways with the school.[2]

Shortly after this, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter, Maureen Fiedler, commented in support of Hawkins.

This week, I interviewed a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam and scholar, and a Methodist minister about this question: “Do Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” All three said, “yes … basically they do.” Now, they recognized some complications, like the Christian belief in the Trinity and that Jesus is called the “Son of God,” but they still came away affirming that God is basically one and the same for all three traditions. If we started to recognize and acknowledge the similarities, we might have much less Islamophobia in our world.[3]

Note that the focus is on the similarities between the religious views and not the differences. She does not seem to realize the logical inconsistency in the gulf of meaning between “some complications” in Christian beliefs, such as the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ, versus “one and the same.”

In his book Allah, Lutheran theologian Miroslav Volf also focuses on the similarities and makes the case that Christians and Muslims agree on six claims about God, and therefore worship the same God. These claims are the following:

  1. There is only one God, the one and only divine being.
  2. God created everything that is not God.
  3. God is radically different from everything that is not God.
  4. God is good.
  5. God commands that we love God with our whole being.
  6. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.[4]

Volf explains, “To the extent the Christians and Muslims strive to love God and neighbor, they worship that same true God.”[5] Earlier, Volf appeals to the First Letter of John and reminds his readers that, “Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love (4.8).”[6]

REASONING WITH OTHER RELIGIONS APOLOGETICS

At one time, Pope John Paul II spoke on this same issue and said, “We Christians joyfully recognize the religious values we have in common with Islam.  Today I would like to repeat what I said to young Muslims some years ago in Casablanca: ‘We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection.’”[7]

This is not a recent view of the Catholic church. In 1076, Pope Gregory VII wrote this to a Muslim leader: “We believe in and confess one God, admittedly, in a different way…”[8] But like many other religious leaders on all sides of the argument, Gregory insisted that his version of the Almighty is the one whom the others are unknowingly and incompletely worshiping.

During his presidency, President Bush told Al Arabiya television, “I believe there is a universal God. I believe the God that the Muslim prays to is the same God that I pray to. After all, we all came from Abraham. I believe in that universality.”[9] As a Christian, President Bush believed that since there is one universal God, and since Muslims pray to one God, then they must pray to the same God as Christians. His words seem to be supported by the Qur’an, which states, “We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. And our God and your God is one; and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him” (Sura 29:46).

Jesus Paul THE EVANGELISM HANDBOOK

In a policy handbook published by the Saudi government, called “Islam: A Global Civilization,” the authors promote the connection back to Abraham to make the point that Muslims worship of the same God as the Jews and the Christians:

One should in fact properly speak of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, for Islam shares with the other Abrahamic religions their sacred history, the basic ethical teachings contained in the Ten Commandments and above all, belief in the One God.

And it renews and repeats the true beliefs of Jews and Christians whose scriptures are mentioned as divinely revealed books in Islam’s own sacred book, the Qur’an.[10]

It seems then, when the similarities are emphasized, that Muslims and Christians must worship the same God. However, the matter is more complicated than this. There are some very important differences between the two religions.

When the Law of Non-Contradiction is considered, it helps clarify some of the important differences between the two religions in the understanding of the one God. [11]  The Law of Non-Contradiction states that you cannot have two different religions saying the same thing in the same sense at the same time. A corollary of the Law of Non-Contradiction states that if A is true, then B (its opposite) must be false, or if B is true, then A (B’s opposite) must be false. Both cannot be true, though both can be false. Thus, if Christianity is true, Islam must be false, or if Islam is true, then Christianity must be false (because they contradict one another in essential areas). Both cannot be true, though both can be false.

What do I say? Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Yes, and… no! Let me clarify.  First of all, can there logically be more than one omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God in the universe? No. Thus, if there is only one God, and Muslims and Christians both worship this one God, then they must, by logic, worship the same God. On the other hand, Muslims do not accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and by extension the belief in a triune God. For Muslims, this is the greatest sin a person can commit, for God cannot have an associate. Thus, if Christians worship a triune God, and believe that Jesus Christ is the second person of this triune God, then Muslims themselves would have to say that Christians do not worship the same God (and are guilty of idolatry). Is there a way past this theological impasse? I believe there is: the “Yes” and “No” answer, or the way through the ontological and theological divide.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot

The Ontological and Theological Divide[12]

     It is understandable that some scholars want to emphasize the similarities between Yahweh and Allah. They point to a common belief in a monotheistic God who is Creator of all things, omnipotent and merciful. They argue that ontologically there can be only one God in the universe.[13] Therefore, since Jews, Christians, and Muslims seek the one God, they are seeking the same entity. In a philosophical sense, this may be accurate, especially when we consider the similarities (common traits) which deal with “what he does,” or his “doingness,” in contrast with his “beingness,” or “who he is.” Both Christians and Muslims believe there is One God, and that God created the universe. They also believe that God is sovereign and omnipotent and that he will judge the wicked. In addition, they both believe that God has spoken to man through messengers (prophets), angels, and the written word. This is perhaps why Miroslav Volf sums up his views by saying that, “To the extent the Christians and Muslims strive to love God and neighbor, they worship that same true God.”[14] However, is this assessment accurate?

In a debate with the celebrated author and former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi, Volf insisted that “Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God, the only God. They understand God’s character partly differently, but the object of their worship is the same. I reject the idea that Muslims worship a different God than do Jews and Christians.”[15] Volf emphasizes that both Muslims and Christians describe God as loving and just, and therefore, despite their differences, both religions worship the same God. However, knowing “about” is different from “knowing personally.”

When the similarities are emphasized, the ontological nature of God is isolated from the theological nature and therefore the focus is on the ontological existence of God (general revelation). However, theologically Muslims and Christians define “God” very differently.[16] Sam Solomon, a Christian scholar, highlights the differences in his book, Not the Same God, where he argues,

… notwithstanding many apparent similarities, the Allah of Islam as expressed in the Doctrine of Islamic Monotheism (i.e. Tawheed) is the diametric opposite of the Triune Lord God of the Bible – opposite in nature, character, knowability, description, and attributes…. The Qur’an, although seemingly innocent, has as its main objective to undo the message and mission of Christ.[17]

Although both religions claim that God has sent prophets to reveal His will and produce scriptures to guide our lives, Allah and Yahweh cannot be the same for the following reasons: First of all, their natures are fundamentally different. Allah’s nature is based on absolute oneness (Tawhid), which means that there can be no personal relationship with anything or anyone else. The way in which he displays his attributes then, such as his will and his power, are impersonal and often seem capricious to his followers. Also, since his power is more important than his other attributes, there is an unequal emphasis on power over the other characteristics. In the end, a follower of Allah cannot know him or even be sure of consistency in his attributes.

On the other hand, Yahweh is by nature a triune unity, which means that the three persons of the one Godhead have always been in relationship with one another. Therefore, because of this eternal relationship within the Trinity, love is promoted within the Godhead and is extended to his creation. Also, since his attributes are based on his unchanging nature rather than his powerful will, all of his attributes are equal and promote trustworthiness rather than uncertainty. This means that believers can know God and be sure of consistency in his attributes.

Second, Christians understand the nature of God to be triune (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), which is the only way that Jesus Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, could die on the cross to pay for our sins. If Jesus were not God himself, then his death on the cross would be meaningless. However, Muslims deny that Jesus died on the cross and they reject the belief in his resurrection from the dead. Only a triune God, defined as one essence and three persons, could become incarnate and still remain God of the universe, and yet this is the God that Muslims reject. For them, Jesus cannot be God nor can God be a Father, for he cannot have a son. Therefore, if Muslims reject God as the Father of Jesus, then Allah cannot be the same as the God of the Bible.

Is it possible, however, that Muslims worship the same God as Christians, but they simply misunderstand the God of the Bible? Some would say that the difference is only a matter of degree. For example, David Greenlee, in the EMS Occasional Paper, related the response of a Central Asian Muslim who converted to Christianity: “Of course I didn’t switch gods when I trusted in Jesus Christ. Why would you even think something like that?” Greenlee then adds, “Among Muslims I know who have turned to faith in Jesus Christ, most—but not all—would say more or less the same thing.[18]

The idea here is that most Muslims who come to Christ would not say that when they became a Christian the God, they now worship is different than the God they were seeking before. Most would say that God became real to them, or personal in a way that He was not when they were Muslims. I would answer this by saying that when they were Muslims, they only knew the ontological God and not the theological one. They only knew God from a distance, and not personally. In addition, the god that they “knew” was quite different than the true God who has revealed himself.

This is similar to the contrast between General Revelation and Special Revelation. Through General Revelation (Rom. 1:18-20) we can know that God exists, and we can determine some of his general attributes. However, we can only know God relationally when He reveals Himself to us, and that is the purpose of His Special Revelation. We know of His love for us not only because He revealed this love in the Bible, but even more so because the Word of God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Ontologically, then, God reveals his existence through General Revelation; it is through his Special Revelation that He reveals His nature as Theos (and this is the study matter of theology).

In the same journal, Fred Farrokh, who is a Christian missionary from a Muslim background, said the following:

The “Same God Question” appears to me to be a theological optical illusion: “Christians worship one God; Muslims worship one God; physical creation itself points to One Creator. Therefore, Christians and Muslims must indeed worship the same God.”

The question I pose to those who argue that Christians and Muslims wor­ship the same God is: Since the Bible teaches that Jesus is God and since Islam teaches that Jesus is not God, then how is it possible that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

 I have never been able to reconcile this “Underlying Question.” So, while I can concede that Christians and Mus­lims both seek to worship God, I believe it is impossible that they are worship­ping the same God.[19]

Farrokh states that he has not been able to reconcile the “underlying question” as to how Muslims and Christians can seek to worship the one God. I agree with him that since Islam rejects the deity of Jesus Christ it is impossible that Muslims are worshipping the same God. However, I believe that this conclusion can be reconciled when it is understood that when someone says that both Christians and Muslims must be worshipping the same God since there is only one God, this is only on an ontological basis and not a theological one. What I mean by this is that ontologically, since there is only one God, any religion that seeks to worship the one God would be doing so in the sphere of General Revelation. If there is a rejection of the revealed nature (essence) of God, which is in the realm of Special Revelation, then I would say that particular religion is following after a false god or at least a distortion of the True God. Thus, when Islam rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, the fatherhood of God, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the resurrection, this clearly demonstrates that the theological understanding of God is not at all the same as it is for Christianity. The divide between the two religions, I believe, becomes insurmountable.

But wait a minute, some will say. What about the Arabic Christians who call the God of the Bible “Allah”? Doesn’t this illustrate the fact that Allah and Yahweh are referring to the same God? Actually, when the Arabic Christians refer to “Allah” in their translation of the Bible, they believe that “Allah” is the Father of Jesus and they believe that “Allah” is triune. Therefore, the Allah of the Arabic Christians cannot be the same Allah of the Muslims! This semantic enigma can be cleared up if we remember that words have both a denotative and a connotative meaning. Denotation refers to a dictionary definition so it would be correct to say that Yahweh and Allah both refer to the concept of God (ontologically), especially for their respective language groups. However, the connotation is determined by what a person conceives about the object of that word (theologically). For example, an Arab Christian may still use the word “Allah” to denote God, but his understanding of that term would be starkly different from a Muslim, for the Christian would recognize that Jesus Christ is God (Allah) whereas the Muslim would never consider that connotation. Thus, denotatively the word “allah” merely refers to “god, deity, etc.” (ontology). However, we understand the denotative use by our connotative presuppositions (theology). Therefore, “Allah” for the Muslim cannot be reconciled with the “Jesus is Allah” of the Arabic Christians. There is still a world of difference between the content of the word (connotation), even if the denotation is the same. Without this very important distinction made when we refer to “Allah” and “God” (Yahweh), a lot of Christians will be confused.

Some Muslims may still question this reasoning and emphasize the verses in the Qur’an that relate that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. For example, in Surah 29:46 the Qur’an tells Muslims to say to the Jews and Christians, “Our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender.” According to Muslims, this should settle the matter. However, as we have noted, since Muslims believe that God is a singularity instead of a Trinity, that Jesus is just a human messenger instead of the Word of God and God himself, and that Jesus was not even crucified on the cross, let alone resurrected from the dead, then there is no place for concluding that superficial assent to General Revelation is enough to claim Theological equality. Ontological similarities do not necessitate theological compatibility.

Nabeel Qureshi:

When Nabeel Qureshi first became a Christian, he believed that Muslims worshiped the same God as Christians, but simply misunderstood the God of the Bible. However, as he studied the Bible more deeply, he came to realize that Muslims could not believe in the same God because they rejected the very nature of the God of the Bible.[20] The crucial difference, then, is determined by the essence rather than mere existence. Both Islam and Christianity believe that God is one and that He exists. However, when Muslims reject the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the fatherhood of God, and the resurrection, then they have rejected the God of the Bible, and therefore cannot worship the same God as Christians. In the end, Qureshi concluded, “I am confident of my position: Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.” [21]

If only Dr. Hawkins had understood that Muslims and Christians worship the same God on an ontological level, and not a theological one, then perhaps the outcome would have been much different. Thus, she might have said something like this: “Since Muslims and Christians both believe in One God, who alone created the universe, they at least share an ontological similarity. However, unless Muslims also accept the doctrine of the Trinity, the fatherhood of God, the deity of Christ, and the actual resurrection of Jesus, then these theological differences will preclude us from acknowledging that they believe in the same God.”

Young Christians

After comparing the Allah of the Qur’an and the Yahweh of the Bible, it should be apparent that they could not be referring to the same God. As Nabeel Qureshi states,

Christians worship a Triune God: a Father who loves unconditionally, an incarnate Son who is willing to die for us so that we may be forgiven, and an immanent Holy Spirit who lives in us. This is not what the Muslim God is; it is not who the Muslim God is; and it is not what the Muslim God does. Truly, the Trinity is antithetical to Tawhid, fundamentally incompatible and only similar superficially and semantically. Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.[22]

Either the Muslim Allah is the true God, or the Christian Yahweh is the true God, or neither is true. As the Law of Non-Contradiction teaches, they both cannot be true. Therefore, how can we continue saying that “the Allah of Muhammad is also the Father of Jesus”?

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[1] Nabeel Qureshi, “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?” RZIM, December 27, 2015. https://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god/ (accessed 7/25/2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maureen Fiedler, “Do Christians, Muslims and Jews Worship the Same God?” National Catholic Reporter (January 22, 2016). https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/do-christians-muslims-and-jews-worship-same-god (accessed 7/25/2018).

[4] Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (Harper One, 2011), 110.

[5] Volf, Allah, 123.

[6] Volf, Allah, 120.

[7] John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday 5 May 1999. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_05051999.html (accessed 7/25/2018).

[8] Douglas Pratt, The Church and Other Faiths: The World Council of Churches, the Vatican, and Interreligious Dialogue (Peter Lang, 2010), 281.

[9] http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/09/01/do-christians-muslims-and-jews-worship-the-same-god/ (accessed 7/25/2018).

[10] Published by the Islamic Affairs Department of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Washington, D.C. From The Truth About Islam, The Noble Qur’an’s Teachings in Light of the Holy Bible, Anees Zaka, Diane Coleman, 2004.

[11] See Norman Geisler, An Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (Baker Academic, 1987).

[12] Although ontology refers to the “study of being,” which may include both existence and essence, I am, for the sake of clarity and consistency, restricting my use of “ontology” to the act of existence, and focusing the term “theology” on the essential nature of God, or, simply put, his essence. Thus, connotatively, “ontology” here refers to God’s existence, and “theology” refers to God’s essence (or nature).

[13] See Gerald McDermott and Harold Netland, A Trinitarian Theology of Religions: An Evangelical Proposal (Oxford University Press, 2014), 69.

[14] Volf, Allah, 123.

[15] Ibid., 14.

[16] It may help if one thinks of ontology, as used here, as “general revelation” (there is a god) and theology as “special revelation” (this is what God is like).

[17] Sam Solomon and Atif Debs, Not the Same God: Is the Qur’anic Allah the Lord God of the Bible? (Wilberforce Publications, 2016), 20, 21.

[18] David Greenlee, “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? Missiological Implications of Answering a Divisive Question,” (EMS Occasional Bulletin, Special Edition, 2016), 13.

[19] Fred Farrokh, “The Question Underlying the ‘Same God Question,’ with Missiological Implications Thereof.” (EMS Occasional Bulletin, Special Edition, 2016), 11. [emphasis in the original]

[20] http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god. See also Nabeel Qureshi, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, (Zondervan, 2016), 109-116.

[21] http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god

[22] http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god. See also Nabeel Qureshi, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, (Zondervan, 2016), 116.

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