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Do Christians, Muslims and Jews worship the same God?
September 1st, 2013
03:26 AM ET

Do Christians, Muslims and Jews worship the same God?

Opinion by Jeffrey Weiss, Special to CNN
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(CNN) - Pope Francis surprised Israeli and Palestinian leaders last month when he invited them to a special prayer ceremony at the Vatican this Sunday - not least because religion has often been the source, not the salve, of the region's conflicts.

Still, Pope Francis offered his "home" - the Vatican - as the perfect place to plea for some divine assistance, and Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dutifully agreed to attend.

"The Pope has placed it in this perspective: Prayer is like a force for peace,” Vatican Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin told Vatican Radio.

"We hope that there, where human efforts have so far failed, the Lord offers to all the wisdom and fortitude to carry out a real peace plan."

But Sunday's special ceremony at the Vatican raises an interesting question: When Francis, Peres and Abbas bow their heads in prayer, will they be talking to the same God?

After all, Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace their faiths back to a fellow named Abraham, whom they all claim was chosen for special treatment by the Almighty.

Not academic

The “same God” question is one theologians have hammered at for as long as there have been enough religions for the query to make sense.

The question is hardly academic, though. In fact, a number of politicians, religious leaders and scholars have expressed hope in recent years that a convincing answer on the God question might dampen the violence committed in His name.

Yale Divinity School theologian Miroslav Volf recently edited a book titled “Do We Worship the Same God? Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue.”

In the introduction, Volf explained why the title question matters:

"To ask: ‘Do we have a common God?’ is, among other things, to worry: ‘Can we live together?’ That’s why whether or not a given community worships the same god as does another community has always been a crucial cultural and political question and not just a theological one."

On the other hand, there’s CNN Belief Blog contributor and Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero.

His book on this subject is titled “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World.”

Prothero writes:

“For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world where all gods are one … In fact this naive theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clash of religions that threaten us worldwide.”

In the world of politics, President George W. Bush asserted the unity side of the argument more than once in the years after the 9/11 attacks - often as a way to deflect accusations that America was at war with Islam.

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.”

Pope Francis invites Israeli, Palestinian leaders to Vatican peace talks

Pope John Paul II drew from the same rhetorical well several times.

“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,” he first said in a speech to Muslims in Morocco in 1985.

Looking for a more recent example? Consider the plight of Vatican envoy to Malaysia.

Shortly after he arrived there last year, Archbishop Joseph Marino said that is was fine by him that Christian translations of the Bible into Malay use the word “Allah” for “God.”

“Allah” is, of course, the Arabic word for God and is found in the Quran. The Christian translators explained that since most Malaysians are Muslim, it’s the word they’re most comfortable with and therefore the best choice for the translation.

But many Muslim authorities in Malaysia were furious. They say Christians are slipping in the familiar word as a way to convert Muslims. And conversion of Muslims is all but illegal in Malaysia.

There’s a lawsuit ongoing about the translations. Marino had to apologize for pushing into Malaysian politics.

Points of disagreement

So what do the “Abrahamic” religions disagree about?

Among other things: the purpose of humanity, the relationship of God and humanity, sin, forgiveness, salvation, the afterlife, Jesus, Muhammad, the calendar, and the religious importance of Abraham himself.

Plus the nature of God.

Any summary will leave out enormous nuance. Internal divisions within religions have fueled some of the worst examples of human violence. Consider the long and frequently bloody history of troubles between Catholics and Protestants or the growing death toll of Muslim-on-Muslim attacks.

But there are common elements about God widely accepted in each tradition.

Judaism

Start with Judaism, since it came first and established roots that carried into the other two.

Jewish tradition teaches that there is one and only one God, creator of everything, and He established physical and moral laws. As Judaism’s preeminent prayer says: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

This God walks and talks directly with His creations – for a while.

Eventually, He chooses one particular nomad (Abraham) to father a mighty nation that God sets up as an example to other nations.

This God likes the smell of burning meat and demands other extremely specific physical offerings as evidence of obedience and repentance. And He gives His chosen people a particular set of laws – but doesn’t mind discussion and even argument about those laws.

A famous rabbinic saying implies that every word in Judaism’s sacred texts can be understood in 70 correct (but related) ways. And human reasoning can even trump divine intention. (No kidding. It’s in the Talmud)

This God judges His people every year. Tradition says he’s willing to accept imperfection, as long as it comes with repentance.

He’s big on obedience, not so much on faith. He’s not nearly as attentive to the behaviors of non-Jews. (There’s a famous Jewish joke with the punch line “Would you mind choosing somebody else once in a while?”)

Tradition holds that there’s a World To Come after death where moral accounts will somehow be settled. But this God is vague on details.

Christianity

The most obvious differences in the Christian God are the traditional teachings about the Trinity and Jesus. God is three separate persons who are also one. How? Christianity says the Trinity is a “mystery” of faith.

According to Christian tradition, God begets a son who is somehow also Him but not Him to atone for Original Sin. He sacrifices that son though a brutal death and thus achieves humanity's salvation.

But the son, who also is God, rises from the dead. And that sacrifice redeems eternally all who accept and believe in it. Faith, not behavior, is the essential measure of salvation.

This God is willing to vastly expand what it means to be among His “chosen people.” He’s also willing to cancel many of the laws that had applied to that chosen group for this expanded membership.

Orthodox Jews say that God prohibits them from eating a cheeseburger; Christians say God has no problem with them wolfing down Big Macs.

Unlike the Jewish God, whose instructions are almost all about this world, the Christian God is focused more on eternal salvation: heaven and hell.

Finally, for this God, much of the Jewish scriptures (which are all God’s word) are actually about foreshadowing Jesus. Including Abraham.

Islam

The Muslim God is a bit more like the Jewish God.

There is no Trinity in Muslim tradition. Jesus was a prophet, but no more divine than other prophets.

God has never has had anything like physical attributes and has no gender. (Some Muslim commentators say that the noun “Allah” is masculine, but only in the way that all nouns in some languages include gender.)

Muslim tradition holds that God wants one thing from humans: Submission. The word “Islam” is defined as “submission to the will of God.”

For Muslims, all true prophets in Jewish and Christian traditions were actually Muslim because they knew to submit correctly to God. Differences between Muslim, Jewish and Christian interpretations of God are due to errors that crept into the other two faiths, Islam teaches.

The Muslim God, like the other two, initially demanded that Abraham sacrifice a son. But the Muslim God wanted Abraham’s son Ishmael, not Isaac, who Jewish tradition holds was offered as a the sacrifice.

The Muslim God also designated, from before the world began, a perfect man to be his final prophet: Muhammad. God’s perfect truths are found only in the Quran and in the sayings of Muhammad, the hadiths.

And the Muslim God, like the Christian God but unlike the Jewish God, will welcome believers to paradise and condemn many non-Muslims - exactly which ones is a matter of much discussion - to eternal torment.

Final answer

So do Christians Muslims, and Jews, really all worship the same God?

In two major volumes on the subject recently published by scholars from various faiths and traditions, including Volf’s, the most inclusive response from these scholars is basically: Yes, and it’s our God.

This is not a new way of answering the question.

In 1076, Pope Gregory VII wrote this to a Muslim leader: “We believe in and confess one God, admittedly, in a different way…”

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.

A less exclusivist set of religions might shrug off the differences. But all three claim to have the only “True Faith.”

So do all three faiths actually worship the same deity, whether they call him God or Allah or Adonai?

God only knows.

Jeffrey Weiss is an award-winning religion reporter in Dallas.The views expressed in this column belong to Weiss. A version of this story first ran in September 2013. 

CNN's Daniel Burke contributed to this article. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • History • Islam • Judaism • Muslim • Religious violence • Torah • Vatican

soundoff (7,438 Responses)
  1. joegeoff

    Interesting that some Muslims are taking offense to the use of the word Allah for God in the Bible. I think perhaps they are just angry and frustrated and finding a place to vent. Could it not also be seen as being used to converts Christians to Islam? I am sure some among the Christian right are just as upset as these conservative Muslims.

    I have a neighbor who is a Christian from Kazakhstan. He has told me that among many Christians there, it is common to use Allah interchangeable with God.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  2. Indyhoosier

    Obviously they do not worship the same god. Each religion has its own idea of what the imaginary being they worship is. And since it is imaginary and personal, has no physical form, has no demonstrable ability to make its presence known outside the neural firings of a believer, the gods perceived are all unique for every person that imagines them.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • ImIrish

      God is not an imaginary being. Just because you can't see Him does not mean He does not exist. Read "Proof of Heaven" written by Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon. And, there are millions of other experiences like his. Debunk them all you want – ignorance must be bliss.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  3. JustTheFacts

    Short Answer: No, they do NOT all worship the same God. Although most think they do. Anyone who is not worshipping the true and living God is worshipping Lucifer...

    To know the truth to such a question you have to get it from a true source. And the only true source of info is the Word of God, the scriptures. Ephesians 4:5 clearly states, there is only "one Lord (Jesus), one Faith (the Apostle's Doctrine), and one Baptism (the Baptism in Jesus Name). All others are false. Either you have the one Lord, the one Faith, and the one Baptism, or you do not. If you do not, then your religion is false and of the devil and you're worshipping Lucifer. And on Judgment Day, you will be among those to whom Jesus will say, "I know you not. Depart from me ye Workers of Iniquity."…

    September 1, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • snowboarder

      @just, there are no "words of gods". only the words of men. no god has ever written a single word.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:40 am |
      • JustTheFacts

        Snowborder... Big words and not a shred of proof to back it up. What you say don't mean a thing...

        September 1, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
        • Damocles

          How, exactly, does one judge whether or not someone is divinely inspired to do something? If it's something you agree with, it's divine and if it's something you don't agree with, it isn't? How's it work?

          September 1, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
      • Just Saying

        Well that's not exactly true, but you have to be a believer... Moses was given the 10 commandments by God he didn't think them up on his own... so there goes your theory.

        September 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
        • Damocles

          So it's only true if you believe it to be true?

          September 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  4. Shiite Muslim

    This is exactly the issue that we are all at odds with each other – especially Observant Shiites and Secular Zionists. The God is the same, even in Hinduism, and other religions that are not directly linked to Abrahamic ones. It is the tradition that varies in each group. Looking at Islam actually answers how time makes the chinese whisper evolve in each group that emerged from division. There was Mohammad unifying his message, then immediately after his death the two main camps are formed, Sunni and Shiite. The Sunnis (affiliated tribes) come to arrest the Shiites (Mohammad's family members) right afterwards and so officially begins the divide. The amazing thing is how the Druze, who were originally Ismaili Shiites, split off from the declining Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt and became something totally different and how the Ahmaddiyyah formed in India in reaction to Muslim-Christian debates, or how Salafism/Wahhabism came into being as a reaction to the eventual defeat of the Muslim world to the Western imperial powers. The universal invisible being doesn't change. It is us that live in continuous evolution.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • bostontola

      It's funny to listen to people who think they know about unknowable things.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:44 am |
      • Shiite Muslim

        I absolutely agree. God is unknowable. Let Him do his Judgement when the time comes. Why burden ourselves?

        September 1, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  5. Scott

    Well-written and thought-
    provoking for those who hold to any of these three faiths.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  6. GDFG

    TRIBUNALES8 MONSTRUOS8.

    JUICIOS CANINICOS AGENCIAS EUROPEAS NORTE AMERICANAS CANADIENSES Y ASIATICAS.

    FISCALIAS, JUECES Y ORGANIZACIONES DE ESTUDIOS DE LA RAZA HUMANA PAGANDO DINERO PARA SECUESTRAR ROBAR VIOLAR ASESINAR A HABITANTES CASOS DE ESTUDIOS DE LA RAZA HUMANA.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  7. rahmat

    Yes Buddha Moses Jesus Mohammad and Bahaullah are the progressive revelation of one God, God had revealed to them teachings that has been in accordance to the understanding of the people at the time of their appearance . One God and One Book, that book has many chapters, one on Buddhism one on Judaism one on Christianity one on Islam one on bahai faith .....

    September 1, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • bostontola

      Human rationalization unbounded by logic can explain anything. At that point it loses all its value.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • snowboarder

      of course, the most likely conclusion is that there are no gods and the writings are simply of men.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • Damocles

      So people being at each other's throats over various interpretations of the one true deity is all according to plan?

      I'd think that a supposedly kind and loving deity would want to pull people out of the mud and stop them from fighting over stupid crap, but I'm silly that way.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  8. JJwhatt

    Do major religions? I'm pretty sure they are missing Hinduism and Buddhism from this article, way to be CNN, way to be.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  9. GDFG

    TRIBUNALES8 MONSTRUOS8.
    FISCALIAS, JUECES Y ORGANIZACIONES DE ESTUDIOS DE LA RAZA HUMANA PAGANDO DINERO PARA ROBAR VIOLAR ASESINAR A HABITANTES CASOS DE ESTUDIOS DE LA RAZA HUMANA.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  10. waterman

    It is essential for the religious authorities for each religion (except Hinduism and Buddism) to claim that their god is the right one, and the gods of other religions are false. This is important because that's what you need to keep, convert, and expand the follower base. If you can get same benefit by praying to allah that to jesus, then why bother with conversion? A muslim doesn't have to believe any of the jesus stories and can still go to heaven. This is devastating for church. Same way, if a christian doesn't believe in any of the Mohammed and allah stories and still goes to heaven, it is bad for the mullahs. So it becomes terribly important not only that their god is the right one, but that all others are wrong.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  11. Seyedibar

    Your gods never existed. You fools are worshiping long-dead pharoahs and kings.
    And no, they aren't the same gods. For one thing, Christians and Jews worship several gods because their holy book mashed a bunch of different gods' stories together. Yahweh was the evil SON of the creator of the garden at Eden, not the actual creator himself. Btw, your precious creator of Eden? Dead of a wild boar attack, according to the Uguritic legends the Hebrews stole it from.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  12. geckopelli

    A difference which makes no difference is no difference.
    And since they all mistake mythology for Reality, yes, they all "worship" the same thing.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  13. voiceoftruthusa

    "Start with Judaism, since it came first and established roots that carried into the other two."

    Nah, Jesus existed before the foundation of the world and is the reason God said, "Let us make man in OUR image." But what else can we expect from a secular writer on a CNN "Religion" blog?

    September 1, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • bostontola

      Even if you believe Jesus existed prior, Christianity didn't. Christian belief doesn't have to be illogical does it?

      September 1, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Seyedibar

      The god at Eden didn't make anyone. In the oldest versions of the tale, he and his family flee to Eden after losing a naval battle and set up camp in a valley. They dam a river and build a temple with their hands. El has 2 wives and over 70 children, but his two main sons are A-Baal and Cay-yah-wen. When El dies, those two sons fought over his throne. This became the tale of Genesis, and the rivalry of the sons became the tale of Cain and Abel. El was only ever a king, hinted to have been one of the parliament members in the Epic of Gilgamesh, or possibly a refugee chieftain from Jiroft.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  14. Birdyboyz

    Religion is the dumbest thing in the world.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Harry Cline

      Agree ! I wish they would have pick something else besides a God.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  15. Carolyn

    You can search the bible and find verses claiming by faith you are saved and by good deeds you are judged. Is faith enough? My belief is if you have faith in God you do good deeds, you try to emulate that which is good whether it is for your salvation or your love and compassion for God's creation or it's the right thi g to do. As Christians we try to live a Christ like life, however we struggle we can't be perfect as Jesus or God if you do not recognize Jesus as Lord. The great thing is God knows this! As the tower of Babel and language confounded, we must work harder to find common ground and respect for eac other, so that we may glorify God each in our own belief, that we hold true. I believe we are all right, that we all have a piece of the truth and God is watching what we do with it.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • jungleboo

      Please don't tell me you actually believe the Tower of Babel story. Please.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • snowboarder

      lol! the tower of babel. how do people fall for this nonsense?

      September 1, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Harry Cline

      Good deeds mean nothing if it is done in ceremony before mankind. Going to church means nothing to Gos either.
      Anything done in front of mankind to promote a God is false teachings. A God only hears the prayers done in private away from the sanctimonious glorifies.

      Faith is Gods rewards. You can only ever experience a God on a personal level. Less then 1% who claim belief in a God will ever truly understand. The non believer doesn't have a chance to understanding.

      The interesting thing is the correlation between science and the 'intelligent design'. For if one says they believe in either is to say they believe in both, even if they can't comprehend it.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • JustTheFacts

      Carolyn… You have many misunderstandings of the scriptures. First, the scriptures clearly state: 1 Corinthians 12:3 – …no man can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Ghost. Meaning, if you don't have the Holy Ghost (see Acts 2:38), then Jesus is not your Lord no matter what you say. Secondly, many of those same scriptures you're referring to is talking to people who are already saved, who already have the Holy Ghost. Those scriptures are not talking to people who are not saved. For example, you say we are saved by "faith". That verse is talking to people who are already saved. An unsaved person cannot just have faith and do good deeds and expect to be saved. They won't be saved. They'll go straight to hell. To be saved, you must follow the scriptures. To be saved you must do what Acts 2:38 says. You also state we can't be perfect. It's true, you cannot be perfect without the Holy Ghost. But with the Holy Ghost, you can. That is why Jesus himself stated: Matthew 5:48 – Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Jesus would never have said that if you cannot be perfect…

      September 1, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  16. Donald

    There has always been a common theme to the major religions of the world. U=The Universe and the beginning then a change with the arrival of U'=Mankind (collectively or individually) being a subset of U and the final change, the arrival of Ubiquity: U'=U. This same ordered relationship is the one that so many have fought over, agreed and disagreed about for so many thousands of years. It can be written as a simple relationship using set notation. It is the same theme repeating itself over and over in all of our languages and cultures. It doesn't take a long article on any blog to describe it. It can be written out in a simple relationship.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • bostontola

      Good model.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  17. allenwoll

    ONE and ONLY one agency created the Universe ! - END of story ! !

    September 1, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Lori

      Nothing as complex as the universe is that cut and dried.

      September 1, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      So, it's an "agency" now? Are the members mutant turtles who are also teenagers with ninja skills?

      September 1, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  18. gary cheek

    Every religion is based on a lie.They all lead to lucifer.There are many "gods".but only ONE CREATOR AND HIS NAME IS ONE! YAHUWAH! His SON"S NAME IS YAHUSHUA!END OF LIES!TRUTH IS HERE!

    September 1, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • snowboarder

      @gary, you are simply brainwashed. why is it that everyone claims the one true god is their own?

      September 1, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  19. Tomi Roshi

    I put my faith in reason and science for answers not what some "authority" says I need to believe. It seems to me and correct me if I am wrong but aren't all Christians and Muslims basically Jews? How come they act like in-laws who hate each other because their god is better than everyone elses? It's disgraceful that religions of peace are actually imperialist forcing beliefs at the end of a sword. Submit or die you heathens.

    September 1, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  20. Shah

    The "Muslim God" does not condemn people who are non-Muslim to a life of torment after death. In fact: Jews and Christians are given special status in the Quran, referred to as the "People of the Books".

    September 1, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • alan

      One wishes that Muslims would accord Christians the same status as the Koran. But if you view current events in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria and Sudan, Christians are marked for killing based on the Koran with the encouragement and blessing of Muslim leaders.

      September 3, 2013 at 8:06 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.