The Two Big Monotheisms – This ‘Minor’ Difference Will Shock You!

Islam and Christianity are both sometimes referred to as Abrahamic religions.

There are important similarities, of course. Monotheism, some [limited, and largely superficial] similarity in Scriptures, prophets, an afterlife, concern for the poor, and other precepts. Similarly backwards and superstitious, according to the new atheists of internet fame.

There was a fair amount of controversy in Christian circles a while ago over whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In the debate there was a tendency, as I read it, for philosophers to give a nuanced ‘yes’ response, and evangelical theologians to usually give a quite strong ‘no’. Generally the two seemed to be talking past each other.  My own take is that Muslims and Christians and other theists in general do recognise the same creator God. I take this to be the teaching of Psalm 19, and Romans 1, for instance. Similarly, all humans have shared access to a moral intuition, as seen in Romans 2. These twin shared pillars in our understanding of the world can be a basis for respectful discussion, I believe.

But, different religions don’t worship the same God, because different religions pack in many other attributes regarding what they worship.

Let’s say I have a next-door-neighbour, Bob. Bob is recognised as an interesting figure in the neighbourhood, and everyone knows his address, next to me. But other details are disagreed upon. Some say he’s a retired musician, others that he’s a spy for the Russian government, others that he works from home as a programmer. If Bob has come and chatted with Zoe and given her evidence of who he is and what he’s like, Zoe is in a privileged position regarding who Bob is. The others, including me, still know Bob exists, but are mistaken about who he really is. Perhaps one day we all find reason to praise Bob in the local newspaper, referring to our own conflicting beliefs about Bob’s awesome history. I take it that we are all in a sense referencing the same Bob [as picked out by a character such as ‘Zach’s next door neighbour’, but not praising the same Bob. I think this is analogous to the situation world religions are in regarding God. The challenge is, as Jesus puts it, to worship God in spirit and in truth – i.e. to worship the God revealed by God’s spirit, and worship God for who God really, truly, is. But, this was an aside – on to the substance!

There’s much more to say of course. Two diverse divergences that I am interested in and may write about later are different stories concerning Abraham (in the Old Testament, Abraham and Isaac point towards salvation through faith in a final completed substitutionary sacrifice, while in Islamic teaching, Abraham and Ishmael are used, it seems, to point towards merit earned by works) and different dominant concepts of natural law.

But, for now, a difference that may seem quite minor that I stumbled across today: In Islamic law, adoption, in the full sense we are familiar with in the West, is not permissible. In Christianity, adoption, in the full sense, gets to the very heart of the gospel.


In Islam, the care of orphans is encouraged, and the care of other children not one’s own is permitted, but full adoption is not permitted. I have kept to what I believe to be orthodox Sunni Islamic sources online in briefly preparing this – I welcome any corrections.

According to the Islamic faith:
Inheritance to adopted children is limited under divine law (to a maximum of 1/3 of the total inheritance):
“Those related by blood are more entitled to (inherit from) each other in the Book of Allah.” (Qur’an: 8:75)

Taking of the adoptive father’s name is forbidden:
“Nor has He (Allâh) made your adopted sons your sons. Such is (only) your (manner of) speech by your mouths. But God tells the truth, and He shows the way. Call them by (the names of) their fathers, that is better in the sight of God”. (Qur’an 33:5)

One of the main reasons for this ruling seems to have been laws around marriage by the adoptive father to an adopted son’s wife, that became part of the Qur’an thanks to a situation involving Muhammed and the wife of an adopted son of his. (Qur’an 33:37). My focus here is not on Muhammed however, so investigate this if you wish.

The accepted wisdom also seems to be that ‘adopted’ children in Muslim families should be asked to leave or somehow separated out from the rest of the family at the age of puberty, but this is a bit less clear than the rules on names and inheritance.


According to the Christian faith:
God has adopted people who trust in Jesus, by something like a legal decree (interestingly, this language of a legal decree is exactly what I saw decried regarding ‘Western’ adoption in Islamic sources). We are made full children of God, with full inheritance, and God’s full love.

 “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”” (Romans 8:15)

In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:5)

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12)

As summarised by JI Packer, “Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption… If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.”  (in Knowing God)

A short video from JI Packer:

Of course, adoption is a difficult and sensitive issue, not without sensitivity on my part too, but I find the essential truth of having been adopted as a child of God as a fellow heir with Jesus to be a remarkable encouragement.


3 thoughts on “The Two Big Monotheisms – This ‘Minor’ Difference Will Shock You!

  1. Fascinating stuff. I have been thinking in recent says that Christian evangelism should spend more time studying the differences between it an other religions and focusing on that. Bayesian probability and the fine tuned universe along are enough to make a reasonable person take monotheism seriously. So the next step is, why Jesus? Why Christianity? Why not Islam? And here goes Zach… Well done!

  2. Hi Zach, interesting reflections thanks – and a helpful insight on adoption wrt Islam and Christianity which I wasn’t aware of; nicely observed. Two quick responses on what might follow. Firstly, the key thrust of our doctrine of adoption is something quite scandalous: that God does what God does in accepting us through Christ. However, this is so much a work of unmerited favour (grace) and love that we should be wary of ever reflecting on it in such a way that presumes to set boundaries and limits on the very idea and action of God’s saving and adopting… in other words, whilst it is something we hold to and treasure as a ‘doctrine’ (=right thinking or orthodoxy), it cannot be expressed in such a way that then becomes a hoop to go through, a means of defining the grounds of God’s radical acceptance in Christ and a boundary delineating ‘our (correct) belief’ vs ‘others’ (incorrect) beliefs’. That would be contrary to the basis of its rightness or efficacy. Jesus’ action on our behalf was God’s decisive, complete and unexpected redefining of doctrinal orthodoxies which had became points of human control. Secondly, can you see the tricky piece in that quote of Packer’s? for me, Packer’s understanding of the Trinity is woefully constrained by his patriarchal reading, and his unmitigated masculine language rings a warning bell about his grasp of the breadth and scope of God’s saving love in Christ. ‘Adoption’ per se is often more touted by men than women, and I suspect there’s a gendered insight there to take notice of.

    • Hi Anonymous (I can guess w/ confidence, but doesn’t matter!)
      I think doctrine requires a belief that it is constraining right belief. If it’s not constraining, I don’t see the point of teaching it – truth always is constraining in a sense, but truth in Christ is also freeing, in its constraint and overthrow of evil. I don’t think its having come through unmerited revelation shows it doesn’t constrain, though of course we must be humble – open to teaching – in our application of the point revealed.

      I really don’t see what’s problematic in Packer’s quote. Perhaps it was exaggerated, but I don’t think it says anything that Christians over the centuries wouldn’t assent to. The language described as masculine, if the use regarding humans is meant, is just the traditional English singular unisex pronoun (I forget the accurate term) – note the book was written in the 70s – and regarding God, it is the standard biblical language. It may be deemed to have patriarchal overtones, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the author’s fault in this case.

      Packer may be right in this while wrong on other issues – what I suspect to be true on those perhaps you have guessed, but I won’t dive in to that today. I’m sure I have more to learn.

      You may not be aware I am adopted, so it’s a concept I care about and am loathe to dismiss as patriarchal or using it being a hint of having nefarious patriarchal motives when it is not used with that intention. Adoption is a term found explicitly in the New Testament as of course you know, but I think we see the same basic idea of a ‘legal-type declaration resulting in full transfer’ (my clumsy summary) in various concepts and metaphors through Scripture – transfer from kingdom of light to darkness, transfer of land/location (Abraham), a new/transferred inheritance (Jacob & Esau), appointment to a high place by God’s grace (Joseph, Daniel), adoption {again} (Moses), grafting of the wild olive, the prodigal son re-accepted, freedom from slavery, and probably more. In my view adoption by a loving Father is a particularly powerful summation of a point taught through various other means in Scripture.

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