Christ or Allah: What’s the difference?

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The question is sometimes posed by people who think that since Christians and Muslims both believe there is only one God, they must worship the same God, only in different ways.

The simple answer is no. It is true there is only one God, but how we worship God says everything about who our God is. That Christians and Muslims worship God very differently is easily seen in the pronouncements of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which Orthodox Christians will commemorate this year on October 14 (October 21 for those on the old calendar).

Held in 787, in the city of Nicaea, the Seventh Ecumenical Council was the first and only ecumenical council to deal with theological issues raised by the aggressive presence of Islam in the ancient world. It was called by the empress Irene to settle the issue of man-made images used in worship. The Church had made icons of our Lord and the saints for centuries, but only after the appearance of Islam in seventh century did icons become controversial among Christians.

Muslims condemned the veneration of icons as idolatry, the only unforgivable sin in Islam. The ancient Arabs’ worship of different tribal deities had kept them divided and powerless; Mohammed’s doctrine of “no god but Allah” brought Arabs together as a force to be reckoned with. Muslims therefore insisted that only Allah be worshipped, basing everything in Islam on Allah’s tawheed — his transcendent oneness and uniqueness. They believed Allah to be utterly unlike any other god or man, and they derided the Christian worship of the incarnate Christ and the veneration of saints in icons as barely above the polytheism of the ancient Greeks.

When Islam was still just an Arab religion on the fringes of the empire, Christians could ignore what Muslims thought about icons. But by the early eighth century, Muslims had amassed an empire stretching from Spain to India and including many Christians, while the Byzantine Empire had shrunk to just Greece, parts of Italy, Anatolia (modern Turkey), and the larger islands in the Mediterranean.

Daunted by the steady rise of Islam, some worldly Christians in the imperial government lost confidence in their own religion and began to feel embarrassed by icons and to argue against them. Since the divine nature of Christ could not be depicted visually, they said the depiction of Christ’s human body either denied His dual nature (Monophysitism) or separated His divine nature from His human nature (Nestorianism). As for icons of the saints, they said venerating saints using icons was a pagan custom violating the commandment given to Moses against the making and worshipping “graven images” (Gen. 20:4-5).

The first official action against icons was taken around 730 by the emperor Leo III, who had a large icon of Christ removed from the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace in Constantinople. Leo was from the east and had direct dealings with Muslims through his diplomatic service. As emperor, he pursued several policies that struck contemporaries as Muslim-inspired: He outlawed the lending of money at interest; he forced Jews and heretics to convert to Christianity; he revised the penal code to substitute mutilation for fines; and he banned the veneration of religious icons. Such policies caused him to be called “the Saracen-minded” (σαρακηνóφρων).

Despite popular resistance throughout the empire, Leo’s successors pursued the same iconoclastic (“icon-smashing”) policy until the empress Irene came to power in 780 as regent to her young son Constantine VI. In 787, Irene convened the council now known as both the Second Council of Nicaea (II Nicaea) and the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The Patriarch of Constantinople presided; all of the other patriarchs sent representatives, including the Pope of Rome; and the decisions of the council were approved unanimously by the 350 bishops present.

Vindication of the veneration of icons topped the council’s agenda. The council declared that Orthodox Christians may depict Christ visually because He was of course visible to men in the flesh; that visual depictions of Christ in no way threaten Orthodox belief in His divinity and humanity; that the honor shown icons “passes over” to the person depicted in the icon; and that venerating icons does not mean worshipping them. In making the last point, the council distinguished two Greek words the same way English-speaking Orthodox Christians often distinguish veneration and worship: It used proskynēsis (προσκύνησις) to mean any show of honor to icons, relics, or human persons, and latreia (λατρεία) to mean the worship, adoration, or service we owe only to God. This distinction was not new, for the standard Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint, also reserved latreia for God alone.

The key difference in this defense of icons between the Muslim god and the Christian God is the Incarnation: The Christian God “so loved the world the He gave His only begotten Son,” (John 3:16) who, though “being in the form of God, . . . took upon him the form of a servant  . . . and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death.” (Phil. 2:6-8) In humbling Himself and giving His life for us, Christ demonstrated that humility, obedience, and self-giving are not for men alone but are in fact divine, that what is good in God is also good in man, and that by loving each other as God loves us we too can be divine: We can be like God.

The Allah of Islam is not such a god. Allah does not give himself for us, as Christ did, neither does he die for what is good and true, as Christ did. Unlike Christ, Allah rewards those who kill in his cause and who cheat and lie to get the better of unbelievers (taqiyya). The god of Islam is a distant, inhuman, and arbitrary god. What is good in man is not good in Allah. There is no humility in Allah — and no true compassion. Allah does not suffer along with anyone. He hands down laws for men to obey, expecting things from them that they can never expect from him, demanding obedience but never demonstrating it. He doesn’t set an example for others to follow; he creates creatures and expects them to suffer and die for him, but he never returns the favor. What he wants from us is not love for each other in imitation of him; what he wants from us is submission. Indeed, that’s what the word islam means: submission.

Thus those who worship the transcendent Allah fix themselves on a very different standard of goodness than those who worship the incarnate Christ. To fix ourselves on Christ’s standard, Orthodox Christians venerate His icon as an image of His goodness and each year celebrate, not only the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent, but also the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council on the Sunday closest to October 11, when they sing this kondak in tone 6:

The Son who shone forth from the Father
Was ineffably born, two-fold in nature, of a woman!
Having beheld Him, we do not deny the image of His form
But depict it piously and revere it faithfully. 
Thus, keeping the True Faith,
The Church venerates the icon of Christ Incarnate. 
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