A Response on The Trinity – Christian Doctrine in Islamic Context

By: Norani Abu Bakar (04/28/2011)

Muslims and Christians have engaged in centuries of polemic on the divinity of one true God. This paper summarizes and reflects on the course reading materials and the content of the lectures that are relevant to the doctrine of Trinity according to Islamic context.

Some scholars, who claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, justify their stance through Quran texts (e.g. 29:46 and 42:15)[i]. Others, like Cumming, reaffirm the claim on this commonality by agreeing with al-Quran texts that refute heretical, sect Christians such as Barbaraniyya and Collyridians, for worshipping Mary (e.g. 5:116)[ii] and for tri-theism (e.g. 4:171 and 5:73).[iii] Cumming also highlights that these texts do not explicitly speak against the doctrine of Trinity, and he justifies this by pointing to the Arabic word used to forbid the worship of a non-monotheist god in 4:171b and 5:73 as “ثلثة” or “three” and not “ثالوث” or “Trinity.” Other Christian polemicists may disagree with him and instead hold to the theory that Muhammad was misinformed and Quran erred. One potential argument is that, the Quran, for example in Surah 29:46, is ambiguous about the divinity of the God of the People of the Book.

This dialectic evokes two questions; first, can Muslims agree that the three persons (hypostases) – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – that subsist in one divine being is monotheist[iv]. Second, can Muslims who acknowledge Isa al-Masih or Jesus as a messenger (e.g. 5:75)[v] agree that Jesus Christ is two distinct natures in a single hypostasis and that his human nature is the exact representation of his divine nature (Hebrew 1:3)?[vi]  In a glance, the former looks like three beings and the latter looks like two.

In understanding the Trinity in Islamic context, Christians need to first clarify what they mean by “God has begotten a son” and the hypostasis natures of the Son. The Muslims prompt response to this is, “Allah does not beget nor is he begotten” (112:3).  “Beget” to the Christians is a metaphor for the begetting of the Word, i.e. Jesus Christ (John 1:14)[vii] and not a physical act between male and female divine beings to birth a divine offspring. Is there any intersection between the Word or logos, as in John 1:1-4, with “Jesus as the word” in the Quran? Cumming’s explanation that, “the Greek term ho logos which is often translated into Arabic as al-kalima, can equally well be translated to al-kalam[viii] will help us in exploring the answer to this question.

Quran indeed says that God created things through His command by saying “lo” or “be” (e.g. 36:81-82)[ix] and that Jesus is His word or al-kalam (3:39, 3:45, 4:171a)[x]. In kitab al-Luma, al-Ashari writes that “God is eternally speaking and that the Word must be either eternal or temporally created, and if it is temporally created, then God would have had to create it in himself or subsisting in itself or in something else.”[xi] Based on these Quran texts and al-Ashari’s doctrine, some scholars purport that Islam agrees on Jesus being created and Jesus as uncreated, i.e. Christian Chalcedon Doctrine on two natures in one hypostasis, as mentioned earlier.

One thing is still ambiguous. Why does Quran in 5:17 say “They indeed disbelieve who say: Surely Allah – He is the Messiah, son of Mary…”? Volf writes that Christians often say “Christ is God” and not “God is Christ” and interprets the surah 5:17 as saying that Allah cannot be the son of Mary, a human, who ate and died. Cumming’s tries to unveil this ambiguity by approaching the reading of the text diachronically. One suggestion, which somewhat echoes various Quran commentaries, says that Islam identifies the two natures of Jesus (Chalcedon doctrine), and not just one nature (Monophysite) due to Muhammad’s interaction with Christians from Yemen who mainly uphold Chalcedon doctrine. Muhammad and the Yemen Christians referred to those who disbelieve the divine nature of Christ as unbelievers. Unlike Cumming some Christian polemicists, such as Richardson (e.g. in his book “The Islamic Anti-Christ”) literally interpret 5:17, 10:68 and 5:73 as “anti-Christ.” What Richardson fails to mention is that the Muslims revere Isa al-Masih and often wish “peace be upon him” whenever Isa or Jesus’s name is mentioned, while some Christians habitually curse in his name.

With the reasoning given earlier, it is hard not to be convinced that the Quran and the Bible are consistent in their perception of the person of Jesus. In the Quran, the fully human Jesus is described as; created of dust (3:59), ate (5:75) and died (3:55)[xii] and the fully divine Jesus is al-kalam, (4:171) i.e. uncreated. Acts 2:36[xiii] affirms surah 3:59 that God made Jesus, i.e. his human person, but the Bible goes another step toward unveiling the human nature of Jesus who submit to the will of the divine, i.e. “not my will but thy will’ (Luke 22:42, Matt 26:42)[xiv]. The predicates shared between the created human Jesus with the uncreated divine Jesus are listed in the Communicatio Idiomatum. The correlation of Communicatio Idiomatum, kalam nafsi and kalam lafzi and Jesus Christ, one person who is fully human and fully divine is difficult to comprehend and thus require further explanation.

Briefly, one can agree with Cumming that Luke 22:42 and Matt 26:42 are coherent to 3:49 and 5:110[xv], i.e. Jesus only creates by God’s divine permission. However, in both verses Jesus is conversing with the Father. What is unclear in his analogy whether “God” in these two biblical texts is the divine Jesus or the Father? If they are subsistent to one another, does this mean that the divine Jesus is also “without confusion … without separation” with the Father as much as human and divine Jesus being one person “without confusion … without separation”? If we say that the relationship of Jesus to the Father in Luke 22:42 is the same as Isa and Allah in surah 3:49, can we also equate the Father to “Allah” in the Quran? It will be interesting to explore this question as “Allah” was used even before Islam was founded, perhaps since around 1250 B.C. when the Arab was mentioned as a clan of Judah (Joshua 15:52). The other question is if the exposure to Elohim and YHYW affects the Arab tribes’ and later the Muslims’ perception on Allah as having similar essence to YHYW and to the person of the Father in the Trinity?

This paper does not discuss on the Holy Spirit or ruh al-kudus in the Islamic context as the topic is not covered yet in the lecture, but one can find many relevant verses in Quran such as 2:87 “We supported Jesus with ruh al-kudus..,” and 4:171, 5:110, etc. Up to this point, this writing focuses on the commonalities on the three natures of Trinity, the Father as the godhead, the Son begotten from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. In his writing on sifat al-dhat in Al-Ashari doctrine of God, Cumming attempts to relate seven eternal predicate of sifat al-dhat of Allah; knowledge, power, life, speech, will, sight and hearing, to the hypostases of Trinity God, predicated as the power, will and knowledge. While this analogy seems bridgeable, it is hard to comprehend how the seven sifat of Allah, each is equal and uncreated can be parallel with three mode of Trinity, especially when the human part of Jesus is created.

The last question for this reflection exercise is, if the academic work on Trinity in Islamic context will change the global Muslims misunderstanding? My personal answer to this is, “no.”  Unlike Christians whose problem solving often depended upon reason, most regional Muslim cultures tend to form conclusions based on observation of social action or human behavior. The act of praying to Mary instead of directly to God and bowing to statues will continue to stump most Muslims. This misperception exists ever since the day Prophet Muhammad demolished the statues in Mecca. Ironically, Christian inter-religious discourse on this issue seems silence. One can agree that the framework for organizing knowledge and a search for a common ground through scriptural reading and reasoning will enhance understanding and peace. However, the verbal communication and proactive action from the Christians’ side has to happen in order to affirm the observation that Trinity is not tri-theism.


[i] Al-Ankabut 29:46And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): But say, “We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our God and your God is One; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).” And Al-Shura 42: 15b “.. Allah is our Lord and your Lord. For us are our deeds and for you your deeds. There is no contention between us and you. Allah will gather us together, and to Him is the eventual coming.” Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Holy Quran with English Translation and Commentary, (Ohio:Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore Inc., 2002), 793.

[ii] Al-Maidah 5:116And behold! Allah will say: O Jesus, the son of Mary, didst thou say to men, take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah?’ He will say: ‘Glory to Thee! It was not for me to say what I had no right to (say). If I had said it, Thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy mind. Surely Thou art the great knower of the unseen.” M.Ali, 282.

 [iii] Surah al-Nisa 4:171 “ولاتقولواثلثة…, ” in English, “and say not, Three Desist.” Surah al-Maidah 5:73 “certainly they disbelieve those who say” Allah is the third of the three..” or “..  “لقدكفرالذين قا لوا ان اللة ثالث ثلثة  M.Ali, 241, 270

 [iv] James Carmody, Thomas Clarke, Word and Redeemer – Christology and the Fathers (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1966), 3

 [v] Al-Maidah 5:75The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. And his mother was a truthful woman. They both used to eat food. See how We make the messages clear to them! Then behold, how they have turned away!” M.Ali, 271

 [vi] Hebrew 1:3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by powerful word. After he has provided for purification of sins, he sat down at the majesty in heaven.” NIV

 [vii] John 1:14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” NIV

 [viii] Refer to footnote “x” below, the Arabic words used are kalima and not kalam. Cumming explains that al-kalima can be equally translated to al-kalam, the same word used to describe the uncreated Quran. Cumming, Kalam Allah in Islam and in Christianity, (Yale: REL 649 Course Material, 2011), 1

 [ix] In these three surah, the “command” uses “ya kula” and not the word kalima or kalam . Other surah are Al-Rum 30:25, 16:40.

Yasin 36:81-82 “إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُ إِذَا أَرَادَ شَيْئًا أَنْ يَقُولَ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ . أَوَلَيْسَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ بِقَادِرٍ عَلَى أَنْ يَخْلُقَ مِثْلَهُم بَلَى وَهُوَ الْخَلَّاقُ الْعَلِيم” Translation, “Is not He who created the heavens and the earth able to create the like of them? Yea! And He is the creator (of all), the Knower. His command, when He intends anything, is only to say to it, Be, and it is.” M.Ali, 876

[x] Al-Imran 3:39, “فَنَادَتْهُ الْمَلآئِكَةُ وَهُوَ قَائِمٌ يُصَلِّي فِي الْمِحْرَابِ أَنَّ اللّهَ يُبَشِّرُكَ بِيَحْيَى مُصَدِّقًا بِكَلِمَةٍ مِّنَ اللّهِ وَسَيِّدًا وَحَصُورًا وَنَبِيًّا مِّنَ الصَّالِحِينَ”Translation, “So the angels called to him as he stood praying in the sanctuary: Allah gives thee the good news of John, verifying a word from Allah, and honorable and chaste and a prophet from among the good ones.”  The Arabic word used for “a word” is “كَلِمَةorkalima”.

Al-Imran 3:45, “إِذْ قَالَتِ الْمَلآئِكَةُ يَا مَرْيَمُ إِنَّ اللّهَ يُبَشِّرُكِ بِكَلِمَةٍ مِّنْهُ اسْمُهُ الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ وَجِيهًا فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالآخِرَةِ وَمِنَ الْمُقَرَّبِينَ” Translation “When the angels said” O Mary, surely Allah gives thee good news with a word from Him (of one) whose name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, worthy of regard in this world and the Hereafter, and of those who are drawn nigh (to Allah,”) The Arabic word used for “a word” is “كَلِمَةor kalima”.

Al-Nisa 4:171a, “يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ لاَ تَغْلُواْ فِي دِينِكُمْ وَلاَ تَقُولُواْ عَلَى اللّهِ إِلاَّ الْحَقِّ إِنَّمَا الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولُ اللّهِ وَكَلِمَتُهُ أَلْقَاهَا إِلَى مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِّنْهُ فَآمِنُواْ بِاللّهِ وَرُسُلِه” Translation  “O People of the Book, exceed not the limits in your religion nor speak anything about Allah, but the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only a messenger of Allah and His word which He communicated to Mary and a mercy from Him.” The Arabic word used here is “كَلِمَتُهُ” for “a word” or kalimatuhu.” M.Ali,148, 241.

[xi] Abu Hassan al-Ashari, “Kitab al-Luma fi’-l-Radd ‘ala Ahl al-Zaygh wa-l-Bida”, edited by Abd al-Aziz Azz al-Din al-Sirwan, (Beirut: Dar Lubnan li-l-Tiba’a wa-l-Nashr, 1987), 99.  See Cumming, Kalam Allah in Islam and in Christianity, (Yale: REL 649 Course Material, 2011), 3

 [xii] Surah about Jesus Christ made of dust Al-Imran 3:59, “The likeness of Jesus with Allah is truly as the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust, then said to him, Be, and he was,” Surah about Jesus Christ ate Al-Maidah 5:75The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. And his mother was a truthful woman. They both used to eat food. See how we make the messages clear to them! Then behold how they are turned away.” And the surah about Jesus Christ died Al-Imran 3:55, “When Allah said: O Jesus, I will cause thee to die and exalt thee in My presence and clear thee of those who disbelieve and make those who follow thee above those who disbelieve the day of resurrection. Then to Me is your return, so I shall decide between you concerning that wherein you differ.” There are several interpretations on “cause thee to die” in this surah, but one of it is physical death. M.Ali, 154, 271.

 [xiii] Acts 2:36Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” NIV

 [xiv] Luke 22:42Father if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  And Matt 26:42 “He (Jesus) went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” NIV

 [xv] Al-Imran 3:49And (make him) a messenger to the Children of Israel (saying): I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, that I determine for you out of dust the form of a bird, then I breathe into it and it becomes a bird with Allah’s permission, and I heal the blind and the leprous…”  and Al-Maidah 5:110, “When Allah will say: O Jesus, son of Mary, remember my favor to thee and to thy mother, when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit; thou spokest to people in the cradle and in old age, and when I taught thee the Book and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel, and when thou didst determine out of clay a thing like the form of a bird by my permission, then thou didst breath into it and it became a bir by my permission…heal the leprous by my permission, …raise the dead by my permission..but those of them who disbelieved said: this is nothing but clear enchantment.” M.Ali, 150, 381

 Bibliographyُ

Carmody, Clarke. Word and Redeemer – Christology and the Fathers. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1966.

Cumming, Joseph. Sifat al-Dhat in Al-Ash‘ari’s Doctrine of God. Yale: REL 649 Course Material, 2011.

Cumming, Joseph. Kalam Allah in Islam and in Christianity. Yale: REL 649 Course Material, 2011.

Cumming, Joseph. What is the Meaning of the Expression “Son of God”. Yale: REL 649 Course Material, 2011.

Cumming, Joseph. Quranic Verses on Christian Doctrine. Yale: REL 649 Course Material, 2011.

Cumming, Joseph. Christology Chart (Adapted from Sebastian Brock). Yale: REL 649 Course Material, 2011.

Cumming, Joseph. Communicatio Idiomatum. Yale: REL 649 Course Material, 2011.

Muhammad Ali, Maulana. The Holy Quran with English Translation and Commentary. Ohio:Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore Inc., 2002.

Richardson, Joel. The Islamic Anti-Christ. California: WND Books, 2009.

Said, Funk. “The Role of Faith in Cross-Cultural Conflict Resolution,” In Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Building, Edited by Smock, David Ed. United States: Peace Institute, 2007.

Volf, Miroslav. A Christian Response to the Muslims – Allah and the Trinity. USA: Christian Century, 8th March 2011.

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3 thoughts on “A Response on The Trinity – Christian Doctrine in Islamic Context

  1. Adam ibrahim says:

    Did he died?

  2. Dave says:

    I like this exploration. I appreciated the question about who is Allah in the Qur’an is it YHYW or is it Father? I would suggest that Allah and YHYW could be linked. Allah does have some charactaristics that could be linked to The Father i.e. Mawla – Allah is your protector, and He is the best of helpers 2:150. Mainly though, Allah seems to be the word that discribes The One Being – God i.e. 3:2 Allah! There is no god but He—the Living, the Self-Subsisting, Eternal. I think it interesting that you suggest that it is possible to see the two natures of Jesus in the Qur’an, though it is clear that the Qur’an focuses on the humanity of Jesus but ‘The Word from Allah’ is seen as uncreated and so logicly divine.
    The issue is rooted in our understanding of the problem of sin. If sinners need a mediator to bridge the gap between God and humanity than Jesus needs to be both God and man to be able to hold both sides. If sinners only need to be warned and shown the right way then Jesus only needs to be a human messenger as were the prophets before him.

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