Lots of people believe in “God”. Equally, lots of people don’t believe in “God”. I put “God” in quotes because the word itself doesn’t tell us very much. Presumably we mean some kind of Supreme Being, but what is he/she/it like? What kind of God are we talking about?
A new book by Andy Bannister explores that question in the specific case of Christian and Islamic views of what God is like. There is a widespread belief that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. But is that true? What do Islam and Christianity really say about the character of God?
Andy Bannister is unusual in being both a Christian and a scholar of the Qur’an (Islam’s holy book). His new book examines what the Bible and the Qur’an say about the character of God. It is a highly readable and sometimes unexpectedly witty book (not least because it is sprinkled with jokes). He interrogates the Bible and the Qur’an, asking what answers each gives to four fundamental questions:
- Is there a God (and what is God like)?
- Who and what are human beings?
- What is wrong with the world?
- What’s the solution?
I don’t have space to do justice to the answers he comes up with, but here is a brief summary of his conclusions about the different views of Christianity and Islam about the character of God:
- The God of the Bible is relational.
- The God of the Bible invites people to know him.
- The God of the Bible is holy.
- The God of the Bible is love.
- The God of the Bible has suffered.
- Allah (the God of the Qur’an) is portrayed primarily as transcendent and distant rather that relational.
- The Qur’an emphasizes knowledge about Allah but never invites humans to know him.
- The Qur’an focuses not on the holiness of Allah but on his power.
- The Qur’an focuses on people Allah does not love and otherwise offers only conditional love – it does not say that Allah loves all people.
- The Qur’an calls Allah “the Compassionate”. Compassion implies “suffering with or alongside” but Allah is not grieved or saddened by human suffering or the state of the world.
Bannister quotes Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Burkawi:
What makes this book specially valuable is that the author draws his conclusions from three sources:
- What the Qur’an says about God
- What the Qur’an does with Bible stories (particularly stories from the Old Testament), editing them to fit a different view of God
- Quotes from Muslim scholars about the Qur’an’s view of God. (In other words, he is not projecting on to the Qur’an a distorted view of its teaching but presenting a view backed up by Islamic scholars.)
By this time some readers will be either puzzled or annoyed: is this really an accurate portrayal of the God worshipped by Muslims? What about the Saudi Princess whose story I told in an earlier post?
Bannister is clear about the answer to this question:
This is a controversial book because some people believe that pointing out the difference between Islamic and Christian views of God is not the way to achieve harmony between religions. Don’t we have enough conflict already? Isn’t it better sometimes to suppress inconvenient truths? Maybe… but don’t we owe each other the truth? Did not Jesus say that the truth sets people free?
 He is referring particularly to Paul’s speech to the philosophers of Athens recounted in Acts 17.