Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Book Review - Allah: A Christian Response

You might remember that last year I wrote reviews of books by Nabeel Qureshi. The latter review of No God But One covered a crucial topic for Qureshi: Are Islam and Christianity really all that different?

A friend of mine suggested my next book be Miroslav Volf's Allah: A Christian Response. In fact, he actually bought the book for me; thanks again, friend. 

I think understanding this book starts with understanding the author. Volf's Wikipedia page carries a lot of noteworthy accomplishments and glowing references. Theologian, seminary professor, author, public intellectual, White House advisor . . . the man has a long and reputable résumé. There is a strong theme throughout his work, however, of interfaith engagement, the most relevant work being his crafting of the "Yale Response" to "A Common Word.

This book seems to have been an outgrowth of that work, though in this case, Volf's audience is fellow Christians, or at least that's what he claims in the book. The central question Volf seeks to answer in Allah is, "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" Nabeel Qureshi answered the question in the negative. Volf, in the course of the book, says, "Yes, we do worship the same God." (If you're interested in hearing these two debate the matter, there's audio of just that.)

Volf spends a lot of time laying his groundwork, but his basic argument follows that of "A Common Word," arguing that Muslims and Christians worship the same God because of their common ground, a faith centered in the love of God and the love of neighbor. He spends a great deal of the book unpacking these ideas. 

I really struggled to finish this book. My first inclination while reading it was to call Volf a hack. That isn't fair or charitable, but it was born out of irritation, and a sense, as I worked my way through the chapters, that Volf was not dealing with the topic in an honest manner. I can't know the process by which Volf reached the conclusions he did; I can't unpack the people he's met or the books he's read. However, I can at least respond to the arguments he's made, and they are not convincing, as far as I'm concerned.

Although Volf writes extensively about issues surrounding the topic, he most directly covers the central question of the book in part II, chapters 4-6. The core of Volf's argument comes from addressing the similarities in which Muslims and Christians describe God. If there is only one God, and we both use the same language, pointing to the same reality, to describe the same being, we must, therefore, worship the same God.

I could go step by step through the problems in Volf's arguments throughout the book, but my objections to Volf mainly stem in three parts:


Volf goes through a numbered list describing the various elements that Christians and Muslims use to describe God, and cites passages from both the Bible and the Qur'an to demonstrate these beliefs. They are:
  1. There is only one divine being, God.
  2. God created everything that isn't God.
  3. God is different from everything that isn't God.
  4. God is good.
  5. God commands that we love Him with our whole being.
  6. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves. 
It would be too much to go through the fine details of this section. However, if I find fault with Volf here, it's because, although he does cite scriptural passages, he does so in only the most trite and superficial sense. Many of the Biblical verse he cites are so abbreviated, so stripped of context, that it's difficult to take them seriously, and this coming from someone inclined to agree with Volf on matters of faith. We call it "proof-texting," and if it's a problem when used in defense of specious arguments, it's still a problem in defense of sound doctrine.

For example, to back up point #5, God's command to love Him wholly, Volf cites from the Qur'an, "God, One and Only." (39:45) Now, perhaps Islamic scholars understand that verse to be teaching total devotion to God. Perhaps you can even find such teaching all throughout the Qur'an. All the same, devoid of context, those four words must do an awful lot of work to back up the point. It's difficult to give the arguments any weight when the basis for them is treated so blithely.

Volf's list breaks down for me when thinking about point #6, God's command to love our neighbors. It's a point important enough that Jesus devoted a parable (Luke 10:25-37) to it: Who is my neighbor? This isn't a trivial question; the command becomes a very different thing depending on how you answer the question. Jesus's teaching to "love your enemies" (Luke 6:27-36) encapsulates the Biblical perspective. 

Suffice it to say, the Muslim conception of "loving your neighbor" is not at all similar to the Christian conception.

Selective Examples

This might be evident if Volf went beyond the few Qur'anic verses he cites, but that would work against the point he wishes to make. Islam has additional authoritative sources besides the Qur'an; there is also the Hadith, the collection of sayings and stories about Muhammad. Although these do not carry the same weight as the Qur'an, their authority within Islam is no less important, and their absence when considering Islamic theology is telling.

In one example, Volf raises the question of Jewish worship; that is, do Jews worship the same God as Christians? Most Christians would give a measured assent, along the lines that,although Jews worship the father, they don't know Christ as the Son, thus they worship God, but not in the completeness of truth. What, Volf asks, makes Muslim worship of God so different?

While there is some weight to this, Volf is not fair in his application. He gives only the briefest mentions of Islamic violence; it's enough for him to say that the vast majority of the Muslim world does not participate in terrorism or violence against others. That may not be as compelling a factoid as he'd like to think, but I think the bigger question comes from his outright dismissal of those terrorists. Do they worship the same God as the non-violent Muslims? I think that's a question worthy of consideration, but it would require asking questions Volf would rather not address, such as why some Muslims think there's theological justification for violence against non-believers, or how other Muslims resolve such justifications into a life of non-violence. By excluding the examples of the Hadith, Volf avoids these sticky questions.

The Missing Prophet

Those are important questions to ask, and given the conclusion Volf has reached, it's understandable why he would avoid them. Their absence, however, only highlights a glaring omission in the book: Muhammad. In all this talk of Islam, where is its high prophet?

This is not a trivial point. Muhammad's position within Islam is of supreme importance. He's not just considered a messenger of God; he is the messenger, the greatest and final prophet in a line of prophets stretching back to Biblical origins. He is the primary example for how any Muslim should conduct his life, govern his people, and relate to both believers and non-believers alike. This is why the Hadith were collected; Muhammad's life is explored in exquisite detail to sort out principles for Sharia and Muslim practice.

All of which is to say, Muhammad's absence is felt.

Volf argues that it's not enough to find similarities between Christian and Muslim descriptions of God; significant differences or deviations in the nature and character of God will disprove the notion that we worship the same God. To this end, he spends a long time on the major differences in Christian and Muslim theology, such as the nature of God's love or the Trinity. He argues to show that the two faiths are basically saying the same things in those areas, or at least aren't mutually exclusive; either way, the differences are not so significant as to violate the rule from chapter 4.

In this light, his exclusion of Muhammad is understandable. Muhammad was not a good man. He was a warlord, and an aggressive one at that. He commanded his men to take subjugated women as sex slaves. He abolished adoption so that he could marry his adopted son's wife. He sent assassins after his critics. He told his followers that those who died in battle would not have their souls judged, but be admitted straight into paradise.

Muhammad's absence is critical because it speaks to the very nature of the God Muslims worship. What does it say about God that he would declare this man to be His greatest servant? That He would put such words in his mouth, order such deeds, and bless such iniquity? It greatly speaks to who that God is.

To what end?

Suffice it to say that I find Volf's argument that Christians and Muslims worship the same God unconvincing. This is not to say I disagree with him in every way. One way of phrasing this I've heard is that Islam is much like Mormonism, theologically; a heretical variant on the Christian faith. It may profess similar things and bear similar structures, but the differences are enough to invalidate it as holding to the truths revealed in scriptures.

Which returns me to the same questions that pestered me as I read the book:  Why write this book? Why make these arguments? Is Volf trying to get his readers to agree to arguments he won't explicitly state?

In Volf's words, the book is written to Christians, to argue that we worship the same God as Muslims, in order to foster better relations and more productive dialog between the faiths. I have no quarrel with bridge building and peace making; blessed are the peace makers, after all.

However, much of the time I was reading the book, I wondered if Volf doesn't believe that salvation can be found in Islam. Of course, Volf gets coy on this question; claiming it beyond the purpose of the book, he leaves it at the "quick and inadequate" answer of, "Not necessarily." He then goes on to explain why fussing about differences in theology aren't nearly so important as the fruit of faith and the similarities of practice. This is an odd enough thing coming from a theologian, but he goes on to approvingly cite examples of people who consider themselves both Muslim and Christian, going on to talk about the best ways to blend the faiths

Volf, of all people, ought to understand just how convoluted that is. The very definition of a Muslim is someone who professes the shahada, the statement that there is but one God and Muhammad is his messenger. No Christian could, or should, ever accept Muhammad's claim of prophethood.

What, then, does Volf sees as the mission of Christians? How should evangelism be handled if we accept Volf's arguments? Once again, Volf plays coy on this. Though he spends a chapter on the idea, he never seems to stand for his faith to say, "Yes, the Great Commission is always in effect." He does allow a friend to state that Christian evangelism is explicitly violence against Muslims and should be regarded as such. Volf seems much more interested that we stand together against post-modernism and doing good works.

Valuable as those things might be, they will not save a man's soul. All the good works in the world will not earn anyone a place in heaven. Standing against post-modernism means nothing if we are not standing for something, and a flowery ecumenism with Islam offers nothing of substance to this end.