I received today’s question before I even launched the All Our Minds Project in May of last year. This one demanded an understanding of religions outside of my own—and in order to do it justice, I needed to do some digging. Six months later, I think I’ve got something pretty special to share with you all. Here’s the question:
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are known as the three Abrahamic religions because of their shared founder. If they all worship the same god, why do these groups historically not get along?
Quick history lesson: the three Abrahamic religions are named as such because they all find their origin in Abraham the prophet. While all three groups count Abraham as a significant pillar in their history and beliefs, each of them holds to a different account of his life’s narrative.
For instance, Jews and Christians believe that the descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac are God’s chosen people, while Muslims believe that Abraham’s son Ishmael was the child of promise. This may seem like a minor detail, but since Muhammad descended from Ishmael and is hailed as the formal founder of Islam, Ishmael’s status as the child of promise is critical to that tradition (Origin of Islam, pars. 3-5).
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I had a lot of ground to cover for this question. Instead of falling down the deep dark rabbit hole of Internet research, I decided to go straight to the source—or should I say sources.
For the sake of responding to today’s question, I’ve spoken with a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Pastor and a Muslim Imam. These three religious leaders—Rabbi Benjamin Brackman, Reverend Hendrik Shanazarian and Imam Jamal Rahman—each talked with me about their individual views of God, their Abrahamic roots and their thoughts on the historic tensions between these three groups. Here are some of the insights they shared during those three conversations.
Do you believe that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God?
REVEREND SHANAZARIAN: In any religion, there are many, many different thoughts and approaches. Even inside a single religion or faith, there is no harmony. Sometimes inside that one faith, they have fought each other. They have killed each other. Both had the same name, but on special doctrine, they couldn't agree.
Some would argue that no, the God of Christianity is not the God of Islam. They say that, for example, if a religion doesn't believe in Trinity, then the God he believes in is not the God I believe in, so therefore it's not the same God. We can't worship together, because we are not calling or praying to the same God.
My thought is that we can talk about the same thing, but at the same time see from different angles. We can disagree and describe that same thing in completely opposite or different ways. The fact that we do not have the same belief about God does not mean we are each believing in a different God. We may all be trying to know God, but our approaches are from different angles, different experiences, different starting points. That's why each one of us has a different understanding.
IMAM RAHMAN: There’s a verse in the Quran that says, "If all the trees in the universe became pens and all the seven oceans became ink and began to describe who God is, describe his great mystery, you wouldn't come close to describing a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of God's mysteries.”
So basically, our definition of God is a human concept. None of us can really understand what God is. So we as humans struggle to describe God in our own way. Christians go through trinity. Muslims talk about the 99 names of God. The struggle is for the human intelligence or knowledge to really describe this indescribable mystery and it always falls short.
The Quran also says several times in direct revelation for the Muslims to tell Jews and Christians that your God and our God is the same. It says that very clearly. Not only do we worship the same God, but we are cousins of the same Abrahamic family… and that family is a very, very, very dysfunctional family.
But there's a wonderful saying in Islamic spirituality that if my relationship with my religion comes in the way with my relationship with you, it will definitely come in the way of my relationship with God, whatever my understanding of God is.
You believe Jesus is God as a Christian. I believe Jesus is a prophet. That doesn't mean that something has to come in between us. If we do the work of becoming more Christian, more Islamic, more Jewish by actually doing the work of what is called transforming the ego, these differences remain, but they don't pose a threat. The threats remain when we haven't done this work and we have this feeling of separation.
RABBI BRACKMAN: The word “god” would be the best way to describe what we have in common. But really what we share is strong belief. Let’s go back to what it means to be an Abrahamic religion. In the Bible, Abraham identified himself as a Hebrew and, because he was, he chose a very different path in believing in a God and a deity. His generation believed that God had manifested himself in to multiple gods. Each god had the ability to bring about change in the areas of one's life. So if you were looking for love, then you would go to the love god. If you needed rain, you'd go to the rain god. The idea was that God was all too powerful to be involved and engaged in my love life or the rain needed for my field.
Now Abraham realized that God could be all knowing and at the same time still take notice of the minor details of life. He didn't see it as a contradiction. And in fact his belief in God forced him to come to that conclusion because he said, "If you believe that God needs to delegate, then you are basically limiting God.” And since God is not limited by anything, he can do both. So that's where Judaism picked up.
Why do you think that there is such tension between these three groups?
RABBI BRACKMAN: In many cases, Jews, Muslims and Christians do get along. It's not fair to say that we always haven't got along. History has shown many times when the Muslims were very welcoming and hospitable to Jews. There were times when Christians were as well. It goes both ways.
But even in the best of times, it’s probably true to say about all three religions that as much as we get along, we each believe that we’ve got it all right. Each religion believes that they are the superior religion.
Muslims have verses in their texts about commandments to kill Jews and some Muslims have used those verses to justify hurting Jews. The idea that Jesus is a God and Jews killed their God has also been a source of anti-Semitism over the ages.
I do know that in England for example, there are a lot of interfaith relations between Jews and Muslims, primarily because they find themselves both being persecuted in similar ways. This has actually brought Jews and Muslims together to fight and bring a unified voice against these elements.
REVEREND SHANAZARIAN: On some issues, we may come together. For example, if it comes to believing in God and not believing God, all three are in agreement. Monotheism. Belief in creation. Belief in a higher authority. Belief in some kind of reward and punishment. Belief in some form of end days and some form of ethical values.
But of course we all have very different beliefs about and around these things. When I talk with some of my Muslim friends, they say, "We believe in Christ. Why don't you believe in Muhammad?" But then I ask, "Okay, what do you believe about Christ?" For them, Christ is a prophet, and they love him, and they revere him—but ask any devout Christian, Christ is not a prophet only. He's the Son of God. He's a person in the trinity. Do we have the same belief? No.
In Christianity, we believe that we can know God only because God has revealed Himself. Our knowledge of God is limited to God's revelation. In Islam, they say that we know God only through Quran. Quran is God's revelation. Then, in Christianity, we say that the Bible is the revelation.
If these two revelations are contradictory in some areas—one revelation says it's Ishmael, and the other one says it's Isaac—then how can you bring both together? Each one is ultimately believed by each side to be God's revelation. From there, you see differences. If we sincerely talk about coming together, our books do not let us do that. That is, if the starting point is our books.
And it's not only belief and theology that make it difficult for us to come together. Over history, the major encounters between Christians and Muslims were to prove that the other is wrong. Because of those encounters, the relationship has gone wrong. They have killed each other. Who is the right follower of God? Now, it's not only the doctrine. It's the history. It's the politics.
IMAM RAHMAN: We are so focused on the theology, but the main problem is the untamed human ego. It's a lack of work of becoming more Christ-like, more Allah-like, more Elohim-like. So when we haven't done that spiritual work, we want to be superior to the others. We have tension with the other. We have a holier than thou attitude. We engage in exclusivity.
I would say the main reason for conflict is that religious institutions by their nature are inclined to want to become exclusive. The Quran says it accepts the divine revelations sent to Jews and Christians, but that some of them corrupted the revelations. In other words, it says we finally found the correct answer or the better way.
So there tends to be a focus in each of the traditions on exclusivity and being better than the other. That really is not a reflection of religion. It's a reflection of the human ego. That’s actually what makes one feel that their god is different or superior to the other.
The other level is, of course, politics. Historically, the Christians were upset when Mohammad came into the picture. People were converting to Islam. That was a threat. Then later in modern times when Israel was established, politics came in the way of that relationship. So that’s not so much religion. It's really politics and not doing the work of becoming a more complete and developed human being.
Do you think, are there opportunities for unity between these three faith traditions without compromising our own core beliefs?
IMAM RAHMAN: This is the main work I do. I work with a pastor and a rabbi and this is the main question we are asked all over the country. Even when we go overseas, we're asked the same question and as a Muslim, I can tell you there are several verses in the Quran that have become like a mantra for us.
The verses say, "If Allah wanted, Allah could have made all of us one single community. But Allah chose to create diversity in languages, in colors, men and women, religions for one primary reason that you might come to know the other." The best way to overcome polarization no matter what the difference is by coming to know the other on a human level. That's very important. It becomes difficult to dehumanize or demonize the other when we have a human connection.
RABBI BRACKMAN: I think there's a lot of unity already. There are many denominations amongst Christians who work hand-in-hand with Jews, and the same thing is to be said about Muslims.
I'll say two things here. As in all cases, the more understanding, more teaching of tolerance across the board will bring these religions closer together. That needs to be done on every level and all three religions need to promote that. I’m part of a group of faith leaders here in Colorado and they get together to achieve a level of understanding and unity. So that's going on all over the place.
The other thing is that ultimately, these religions are different. That's why they are what they are. That's why they're not one religion. That's why there isn't such a thing as one Abraham religion. And when there are differences amongst people, there will be disagreements. There will be arguments. There will be clashes. And that is the bottom line.
We are different. We just are. Judaism is very different than Christianity. It's very different than Islam and vice versa. And each one feels, "Why should we dilute our faith and our core beliefs?” We're not going to. I think that would be dishonest to each of those religions respectively. So I think it's important to just all be different because that’s what we are.
REVEREND SHANAZARIAN: It depends what you mean by unity. I think it is possible to hold firmly to our beliefs while also being respectful of each other. But there is a difference between unity and love, respect, care. I would actually say that unity is not the best goal. For me, the hope is that we all try to see each other as people created in God's image. As a Christian pastor, I can definitely say that that is Biblical. It is true to the Bible. It is true to the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is the way I teach my people. Toward that goal. We are in God's image, and we are called to love our enemies, to care for them. If there is opportunity, I share my belief and at the same time, I must be able to change myself. It's not one-sided. To me, a God-fearing Christian is someone who is always willing to learn and adjust his beliefs based on his new understanding of Jesus and the Bible.
So now what?
As I consider the perspectives of these three religious leaders, I notice a few common threads. They all mention the role that history and politics play in the tensions between us. Generations of violence seem to have poisoned the water for better relationships. Sadly, that violence continues to this day.
Beyond history and politics, I find it valuable that they each emphasize respecting and loving one another without compromising our unique faith doctrines. At the end of the day, these three religions have vastly different beliefs about who God is, how we relate to Him and what He requires of us. As Rabbi Brackman said, diluting those differences in the name of unity would be dishonest and—I would add—pointless.
Love and respect, on the other hand, should be the common denominator of any human relationship—even within what Imam Rahman called our “very, very, very dysfunctional” Abrahamic family.
When I first received this question, my knee jerk reaction was to say, “There’s no way we all worship the same God.” Six months, three interviews, many prayers and hours of research later, I will at least say that the answer is far from black and white. For proof, see the 2,000+ words above.
Brackman, Benjamin (2018, December 7). Phone interview.
Rahman, Jamal (2018, November 27). Phone interview.
Shanazarian, Hendrik (2018, November 25). Phone interview.