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Does the Catholic Church Equate Allah and Yahweh (God)?

Does the Catholic Church Equate Allah and Yahweh (God)?

Editor’s Note: The following article is theologically speculative, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Seton Home Study School. We understand that other interpretations are possible, and invite you to comment. In this, as in all matters, we submit to the authoritative judgment of the Holy See.

Lately this issue has come up again, after Pope Francis met with Muslim leaders. If I had a dime for every time I heard folks expressing alarm and getting worked up about this issue, after ecumenical or diplomatic Catholic-Muslim events occur, I’d be a rich man.

Rest assured, the concern reflected in my rhetorical title is based on a great misunderstanding.

All About Monotheism

When the Church has referred to Muslims worshiping the one God, it is meant in the sense of both Christians and Muslims being monotheists. Monotheism includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, and more vague “philosophical theists” (for example, heretical, anti-trinitarian sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses, with their Arian God, and belief in a created, non-divine Jesus).

Thus, the Second Vatican Council, in its document, Nostra Aetate, states:

Madrid Family

They [Muslims] worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth.

If you read closely, the council isn’t saying that “the Muslim God [Allah] and the Christian God are exactly the same.”

Rather, the common bond is monotheism. Indeed, the document could not possibly be equating Allah and Yahweh, because we Catholics believe God is a Trinity (One God in Three Persons), and Muslims (and Jews) do not.

Vatican II was using “diplomatic language” in its ecumenical statements. It’s an instance where the context of the statement is supremely important in determining the exact meaning intended.

Moreover, one must distinguish between the two notions:

1) A Muslim worshiping the One he believes to be the true God.

and:

2) The recipient of God-directed worship, even if erroneous in some respects, being the God Who Really Is, since Allah does not exist.

The ‘Adoption’ Analogy

As an analogy, imagine a child who was adopted but didn’t yet know it. He or she might say, “I am really thankful that my mother gave me birth.” Now, this person thinks that his or her birth mother is the woman who in reality is the adoptive mother. But nevertheless, the attitude of thankfulness for having been given birth in a sense “transfers” over to the actual birth mother.

In other words, it has to be the birth mother who is truly receiving praise because the person giving it intends it for that person who gave him birth: and that person is who she is whether the child knows this or not. The fact that there is a mistake concerning the actual person regarded as the birth mother does not change the factuality of it.

Likewise, a committed Muslim is worshiping what he sincerely believes to be God. He is mistaken, of course, as to the actual definition and ontological reality, but he is worshiping in common with Christians, insofar as he is also a monotheist.

He is worshiping, for example, the Creator insofar as he understands Who the Creator is. And Yahweh is receiving that praise in reality because He is the true Creator. In that sense the Muslim is indeed worshiping God, but since Allah doesn’t exist, he is really (at bottom) worshiping Yahweh, in relative ignorance.

I believe that God (that is, Yahweh!) takes this into account, and the person gets some credit for what he does know and Who he wants to worship, even though he is mistaken in his theology.

The point is that words have to be read in context and in accordance with an overall worldview. As I have argued many times when this issue comes up: no one seriously maintains that the Catholic Church has stopped believing in the Trinity. Therefore, when the Church says that Muslims and Jews worship the one God, it cannot possibly mean that “Muslims and Jews are trinitarian.”

Ecumenical & Diplomatic

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Therefore, it must mean that “Muslims and Jews are also monotheists, as we are, and worship the one God.” Context (and the writer’s purpose) are supremely important. Many people isolate texts and wrongly assume things.

It sounds a lot better and is infinitely more positive in nature to say:

“Catholics and Muslims both worship the one God of Abraham,” etc.

than to say:

“We believe that Muslims worship a false God, because Allah isn’t trinitarian; therefore, He doesn’t exist at all, so that Muslims worship a figment of their imagination; the only true God is the trinitarian Yahweh of the Bible.”

That would rather defeat the ecumenical, diplomatic purpose, wouldn’t it? That purpose is precisely to find things in common (monotheism being one of these). The language is necessarily different, because the purpose and goals are different.

It is good to do apologetics and defend what one believes to be the truth (I’ve devoted my life and profession to that), and also to build bridges and rejoice in actual common ground (ecumenism), in order to foster peace and better mutual understanding.

The Catholic Church holds that both are good and worthwhile endeavors, and that they are in harmony with each other.

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About Dave Armstrong

Dave Armstrong
Dave Armstrong has been a full-time Catholic apologist since December 2001. He was received into the Church in 1991. His blog has been online since February 1997 and contains over 2,500 papers or web pages. Dave has been happily married to Judy since October 1984, and their four children have all been homeschooled. His books (that provide most of his modest income) can be purchased on his website: Biblical Catholicism. See full author page.
  • Stephen Korsman

    Allah is a name derived from the Arabic word for God, i.e. like our English name “God”. If we want to claim that the Muslims worship something other than the one true God simply because they’re not Trinitarians, then we need to say the same of the Jews, and that would be very difficult indeed. It would also be problematic to say that Allah, when used by a Muslim, denotes a non-existent entity, but when used by Arabic-speaking Christians it refers to Yahweh.

    • God1stAlways1st

      It would not be difficult to say that Jews don’t worship the One True God. God is a Trinity, the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, if they don’t believe that God is that than it is easy to say the Jews do not worship the one true God. It’s really not complicated. The recent popes have made it complicated in order to be “politically correct”. The early popes and martyrs made no excuses and people KNEW what they meant when they said what they said. They were willing to DIE for God rather than water down by words (or lack of words) what they truly believed.

      • Dave Armstrong

        Did Abraham worship the true God? Did he fully understand that God was triune? How about Moses, Noah, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, and Ruth?

        One can look at this issue from several different angles. Nothing has been watered down or “complicated” in recent times. It’s simply a deeper and additional analysis, incorporating the notion that other religions have partial truth along with error, too.

  • Rachel

    Dave Armstrong, I am very appreciative of your apologetic parsing of this issue. I’ve had harrowing personal experiences that have left me in real fear and confusion regarding this subject and the Church’s renewed diplomacy towards Muslims. This article makes a great deal more sense than the bland Vatican II statement that sounds like we are supposed to believe we all believe in the same God… I am curious though, clearly they incorporated the multi-theistic desert “moon god” Sin (grammatical change over “i”). I realize that they have created their Allah from scratch. I’d be curious to see your take on how they went from God to the bloody Allah. Thank You and God Bless

    • Dave Armstrong

      I don’t know enough about the development of Islamic theology to make an informed comment on that, Rachel. I’ve studied Islam relatiovely little among the many topics I have dealt with as an apologist.

  • http://www.homeschoolingcatholic.com/ Draper

    I have to very strongly disagree. This article contends that “Allah does not exist”–arguing in essence that Christians and Muslims do not really worship the same God, but are only similar insofar as we are both monotheists. Then with the “Adoption Analogy” the claim is made that even though Muslims are praying to a non-existent figment of their imaginations, that worship is still somehow getting transferred to God.

    It seems strange to me to quote Nostra Aetate and glance over the arguably more authoritative Lumen Gentium on this topic: “In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” I think the argument of this article clearly disagrees with Vatican II and the theological consensus on this topic.

    As another commenter noted, “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God. Arabic-speaking Catholics pray to Allah. I have no problem denouncing the Koran as false scripture and Islam as a false religion, but the question of whether or not the God Muslims worship is identical (in the sense of having the same identity) with God is largely a philosophical question, and comes down to attributes, and not scripture.
    The question is whether or not Christians and Muslims hold God to have the same attributes. If they do, then they are recognizing the same reality. It is a question of God’s Nature more than it is a question of revelation. Do Muslims believe God is One, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Love, Mercy, Immense, Simple, Just, Immutable, Good, Truth, etc? The answer is yes. Muslims are not, contrary to the assertion of this article, incorrect about the ontological reality of God.

    It is true Muslims do not accept the Trinity and parts of the Sacred Scriptures, but that does not change the identity of the God they worship, no more than it does for the Jews (who of course also agree with all of God’s attributes, while not accepting the Trinity or New Testament). Muslims hold incorrect beliefs concerning the ways that God has acted in history and how He has revealed Himself, but using some kind of “Adoption Analogy” gives a terribly wrong impression. In that analogy, there is a case of mistaken identity. In reality, a better analogy would be saying “I am really thankful for my mother who loves me so much, who never drinks wine and was born in England.” when in reality your mother does sometimes drink wine when you are not looking and was born in Scotland. It isn’t a case of mistaken identity, it is simply a case of incorrect historical data and even incorrect accidental qualities, but you are clearly talking about the same person.

    Allah does in fact exist. Indeed, He is Existence Itself.

    • Dave Armstrong

      “The question is whether or not Christians and Muslims hold God to have
      the same attributes. If they do, then they are recognizing the same
      reality.”

      They clearly do not. In Christian theology, God is Three persons, and One of them became a Man. Islam doesn’t believe in anything remotely approaching that. Therefore, to say that those of both faiths are worshiping the same God must mean in the sense of common denominators between the two views: i.e., monotheism.

      If I’m not mistaken, I don’t believe that Islam would say that “Allah is love” as we say about God.

      For you to say that disbelief in the Trinity “does not change the identity of the God they worship” makes no sense to me. Of course it changes things. It’s an ontological reality. This is why I stated that Allah (i.e., all the attributes of Allah in Muslim theology) doesn’t exist.

      All analogies are imperfect; especially those having to do with God. There is certainly no perfect analogy of the Trinity. So that is a given, and I know that. But they still have use as teaching tools.

      • http://www.homeschoolingcatholic.com/ Draper

        Attributes apply to a thing’s nature. God’s Nature is One. The Trinity applies to the Persons of God, not the Divine Nature. The Trinity is not an “attribute” of God. St. Thomas in the Prima Pars, or New Advent have a decent treatment on the Divine Attributes, but suffice it to say for now that they are limited to what is naturally knowable, and not what requires revelation (as does the Holy Trinity).

        Whether Islam considers God to be Love or all-loving is a fair question, but the answer is, yes, it does. In Islam, “Al-Wadud” or “All-Loving” is considered one of the names and attributes of God.

        The Surat al-Fatiha is the prayer all Muslims say to begin their prayers, and it is literally the first words of the Koran. It begins, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”
        You mention having a hard time seeing how disbelief in the Trinity would not necessitate a difference of identity. The problem is that the logical conclusion would be that none of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets would have believed in the right God. Abraham worshipped a figment of his imagination. Clearly knowledge of the Trinity is not required to be able to identify God in at least a limited way. Sure, they don’t understand the full reality of God (then again, neither do we being of limited intellect), but they have sufficient knowledge to be able to identify Him.
        If you couldn’t identify God without accepting the Trinity, God wouldn’t be knowable through reason alone (which as I am sure you know, is doctrine).
        I can sympathize. I grew up doing internet apologetics and was firmly convinced that Muslims and Christians did not pray to the same God, precisely because they denied the Trinity (though I also held that modern Jews didn’t either). It wasn’t until going to Christendom College and learning about the Attributes of God in Theology 101 and getting the philosophical background of St. Thomas Aquinas that I was able to see that Vatican II wasn’t wrong after all.

        • Dave Armstrong

          1. “All -Loving” is logically distinct from “being love.” As you probably know, the argument has been made that the Holy Trinity makes possible love for all eternity, since the three persons love each other.

          2. I don’t think that directly comparing Jewish OT belief to Islamic belief about God works, because the OT is merely a less developed notion of God. It’s pre-Trinity, whereas Islam is post-Trinity and has specifically rejected the Trinity. So did formal Judaism, of course, but before Jesus the argument can be made that it is a less developed view; thus, many Jews (including most of the early Apostles) accepted trinitarianism as a legitimate development of the theology of God, whereas Islam rejects it outright.

          3. I generally don’t think and analyze in fine-tuned scholastic / Thomistic categories (even though one of my books is The Quotable Summa Theologica), so you may have some legitimate points there.

          • http://www.homeschoolingcatholic.com/ Draper

            1. To be honest, I am not sure there really is a difference in saying that God is Love and saying that God is All-Loving. I could easily say that God is Power and that God is All-Powerful. God is Truth and God is all-truthful. Typically we don’t go around saying that God is Power, but it is true nevertheless.

            Muslim philosophers generally agree, or so it is my understanding, that God’s attributes are essential to Him, much the same way that we recognize that God is identical with His Attributes. I don’t see any real difference in the two positions.

            2. Just as a matter of clarity for others, when you say “pre-Trinity” I understand you to mean before the revelation of the Trinity, because God’s triune reality never changed. God was just as much Trinity during the time of Moses as He is now.

            The fact is that someone’s opinion before or after the revelation of some truth would affect their culpability, but wouldn’t radically change the nature or identity of intellectual concepts. When some of the Jews refused to recognize Our Lord as God, they were culpable for their rejection, but that rejection didn’t mean that they ceased believing in the same God, it is just that they failed to recognize Him when He came to them in flesh.

            It is really not impossible to imagine that if we went up to Moses thousands of years ago and asked him if he believed that God was really Three Persons in One Divine Nature that he would deny it. He certainly wouldn’t be culpable for denying it since it hadn’t been revealed yet, but more to the point, the denial wouldn’t have fundamentally changed the object of his worship.

            You can argue that the Jews still have a less-developed sense of God, and that the Muslims do too. They have part of the truth, but not the whole truth. The question is whether or not the part of the truth that they do have is sufficient for them to correctly identify God, and to have Him as the real object of their intellect and prayers.

            4. That is a little puzzling to me. Monotheism simply means that they worship one god. If a tribe erected a statue to a horned bird and called it their one god, they would technically be monotheists, but they sure wouldn’t be worshipping the same God. Monotheism itself does not mean someone is worshipping the same god.

            Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate are not simply saying that we are both monotheists. They are going further in saying that we acknowledge the same God.

            Muslims and Jews don’t have the fullness of truth. They cannot worship God as triune. They do not have that special insight into the inner life of God. We are both looking at the same God, but we Christians have a clearer picture, and theirs is more obscured. They reject revelation, but they do not (completely) reject God Himself, at least not intellectually.

          • Dave Armstrong

            We agree a lot more than we disagree. It’s simply a matter of different perspectives in approaching the same thing. On my Facebook page, I called the two ways “theological” vs. what might be called “spiritual psychology”. I applied both in my paper, and so that may be the cause for some confusion.

        • Dave Armstrong

          Attributes apply to a thing’s nature. God’s Nature is One. The Trinity applies to the Persons of God, not the Divine Nature. The Trinity is not an “attribute” of God.

          Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J. (my mentor, who received me into the Church and wrote the Preface for my first book) did a retreat in December 1988, entitled:

          “The Divine Attributes Retreat

          “The Attributes of God

          “The Holy Trinity (Part 1)”

          http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/God/God_019.htm

    • Dave Armstrong

      “you are clearly talking about the same person.”

      Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? Muslims talk about “a person.” We talk about God in Three Persons. Yet you don’t see that this makes the two concepts quite different (though not totally).

      • http://www.homeschoolingcatholic.com/ Draper

        They talk about One Divine Nature, and we talk about One Divine Nature. Identity, in this context, is a matter of nature. Perhaps me using the term person in the analogy made things more complicated. I should have said, “you are clearly talking about the same human being.”

  • Terri Castles

    From answering-islam.org:

    Allah does not “beget” meaning that Allah has no children either in a spiritual or carnal sense. Thus, Allah can never be the Father. Nor does he allow himself to be “begotten”, i.e. does not take on human nature such as God the Son did when he became man for our salvation. Finally, in orthodox Islam the Holy Spirit is not God, but the angel Gabriel. This fact separates Allah from ever possibly being the same God that Christians worship.

    If revelation can be viewed as linear, with revealed Truth from the one, true God beginning with the Jews and coming to full bloom with Catholicism, Jews and Catholics without question worship the same God. However a full examination of islam reveals a much different branch of revelation. Their revelation is counterfeit, from what I believe is a completely different supernatural source. Allah does indeed exist, but he is certainly not God.

    “professing to hold the faith of Abraham” is not in truth, the same as holding the faith of Abraham, and relies on the good faith of those doing the professing.

  • Robin

    There is no salvation outside the True Church…the Catholic Church period.

    • Dave Armstrong

      This is correct. Whoever is saved is saved by virtue of Jesus Christ and through the Church, whether they are aware of it or not. That is the position of the Church (including Vatican II) and my article.

  • Fr. Michael

    We do not worship the same God, our God is not some ancient form of the Mom God.

  • Fr. Michael

    Ancient form of the moon God

  • Dave Armstrong

    I make many clarifying or explanatory comments on my (public) Facebook cross-posting of this article (and several others chime in with great comments, too):

    https://www.facebook.com/dave.armstrong.798/posts/800947066606947

  • Dave Armstrong

    Comment from my Facebook page:

    We can say of the Jew and the Muslim, that they truly do worship God, with
    incomplete knowledge, just like the Athenians in some ways (the “unknown god”).

    On the other hand, if we analyze the nature of God, it’s true to say that only Yahweh exists. Monotheism excludes the possibility of more than one “version” of God. In actuality there is one.

    I had to make it clear that I wasn’t arguing from a liberal, inclusivistic indifferentist) position, so I made the strong statement that Allah doesn’t exist. If I hadn’t done
    that, then I’d be accused of being a modernist, etc. by “traditionalists.”

    It’s two different perspectives of the same thing: the difference between theology and what we might call “spiritual psychology” or the sincerity of a religious believer who holds to some incorrect theology. The latter is more applicable to the Church’s inter-faith dialogue statements.

    In my paper, I utilize both categories, which is probably what has some folks
    confused as to my meaning and intent. Both things are in play. As an apologist I have to get into the theology, where it is necessary to say someone is wrong or that “Allah [i.e., God in the full Islamic conception] doesn’t exist.”

    The theology has to be brought into it because critics of Vatican II are accusing the Church of watering-down the very doctrine of God. I am trying to show how this is not the case at all, but that one has to interpret within the inter-faith / diplomatic framework of the document and how it was intended.

    It’s an instance of “talking differently” according to context, or (I would say) the Pauline “I have become all things to all people.” St. Paul didn’t essentially change according to his hearers. He only changed in how he presented the truth; what he highlighted or emphasized.

    The Church didn’t “endorse” Islam. We seek common ground where it is present. Monotheism is one such common ground.