A number of difficulties will beset any presentation of Muslim understandings
of the Trinity. Not the least of these is the fact that these Muslim understandings
have been almost as diverse and as numerous as those obtaining among Christian scholars
themselves. It is true that medieval Islam knew much more about Christian doctrine
than the doctors of the Church did about Islam, for the obvious reason that Muslim
societies contained literate minorities with whom one could debate, something which
was normally not the case in Christendom. Muslim-Christian dialogue, a novelty in
the West, has a long history in the Middle East, going back at least as far as the
polite debates between St John of Damascus and the Muslim scholars of seventh-century
Syria. And yet reading our theologians one usually concludes that most of them never
quite 'got' the point about the Trinity. Their analysis can usually be faulted on
grounds not of unsophistication, but of insufficient familiarity with the complexities
of Scholastic or Eastern trinitarian thinking. Often they merely tilt at windmills.
There were, I think, two reasons for this. Firstly, the doctrine of Trinity was
the most notorious point at issue between Christianity and Islam, and hence was
freighted with fierce passions. For the pre-modern Muslim mind, Christian invaders,
crusaders, inquisitors and the rest were primarily obsessed with forcing the doctrine
of Trinity on their hapless Muslim enemies. It is recalled even today among Muslims
in Russia that when Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan, capital of the Volga Muslims,
he told its people that they could escape the sword by 'praising with us the Most
Blessed Trinity for generation unto generation.' Even today in Bosnia, Serb irregulars
use the three-fingered Trinity salute as a gesture of defiance against their Muslim
enemies. And so on. Much Muslim theologising about the Trinity has hence been set
in a bitterly polemical context of fear and often outright hatred: the Trinity as
the very symbol of the unknown but violent other lurking on the barbarous northern
shores of the Mediterranean, scene of every kind of demonic wickedness and cruelty.
To this distortion one has to add, I think, some problems posed by the doctrine
of the Trinity itself. Islam, while it has produced great thinkers, has nonetheless
put fewer of its epistemological eggs in the theological basket than has Christianity.
Reading Muslim presentations of the Trinity one cannot help but detect a sense of
impatience. One of the virtues of the Semitic type of consciousness is the conviction
that ultimate reality must be ultimately simple, and that the Nicene talk of a deity
with three persons, one of whom has two natures, but who are all somehow reducible
to authentic unity, quite apart from being rationally dubious, seems intuitively
wrong. God, the final ground of all being, surely does not need to be so complicated.
These two obstacles to a correct understanding of the Trinity do to some extent
persist even today. But a new obstacle has in the past century or so presented itself
inasmuch as the old Western Christian consensus on what the Trinity meant, which
was always a fragile consensus, no longer seems to obtain among many serious Christian
scholars. Surveying the astonishing bulk and vigour of Christian theological output,
Muslims can find it difficult to know precisely how most Christians understand the
Trinity. It is also our experience that Christians are usually keener to debate
other topics; and we tend to conclude that this is because they themselves are uncomfortable
with aspects of their Trinitarian theology.
What I will try to do, then, is to set out my own understanding, as a Muslim,
of the Trinitarian doctrine. I would start by making the obvious point that I recognise
that a lot is at stake here for historic Christian orthodoxy. The fundamental doctrine
of Trinity makes no sense unless the doctrines of incarnation and atonement are
also accepted. St Anselm, in his Cur Deus Homo, showed that the concept of atonement
demanded that Christ had to be God, since only an infinite sacrifice could atone
for the limitless evil of humanity, which was, in Augustine's words, a massa damnata
– a damned mass because of Adam's original sin. Jesus of Nazareth was hence God
incarnate walking on earth, distinct from God the Father dwelling in heaven and
hearing our prayers. It thus became necessary to think of God as at least two in
one, who were at least for a while existing in heaven and on earth, as distinct
entities. In early Christianity, the Logos which was the Christ-spirit believed
to be active as a divine presence in human life, in time became hypostatized as
a third person, and so the Trinity was born. No doubt this process was shaped by
the triadic beliefs which hovered in the Near Eastern air of the time, many of which
included the belief in a divine atonement figure.
Now, looking at the evidence for this process, I have to confess I am not a Biblical
scholar, armed with the dazzling array of philological qualifications deployed by
so many others. But it does seem to me that a consensus has been emerging among
serious historians, pre-eminent among whom are figures such as Professor Geza Vermes
of Oxford, that Jesus of Nazareth himself never believed, or taught, that he was
the second person of a divine trinity. We know that he was intensely conscious of
God as a divine and loving Father, and that he dedicated his ministry to proclaiming
the imminence of God's kingdom, and to explaining how human creatures could transform
themselves in preparation for that momentous time. He believed himself to be the
Messiah, and the 'son of man' foretold by the prophets. We know from the study of
first-century Judaism, recently made accessible by the Qumran discoveries, that
neither of these terms would have been understood as implying divinity: they merely
denoted purified servants of God.
The term 'son of God', frequently invoked in patristic and medieval thinking
to prop up the doctrine of Jesus's divinity, was in fact similarly unpersuasive:
in the Old Testament and in wider Near Eastern usage it can be applied to kings,
pharoahs, miracle workers and others. Yet when St Paul carried his version of the
Christian message beyond Jewish boundaries into the wider gentile world, this image
of Christ's sonship was interpreted not metaphorically, but metaphysically. The
resultant tale of controversies, anathemas and political interventions is complex;
but what is clear is that the Hellenized Christ, who in one nature was of one substance
with God, and in another nature was of one substance with humanity, bore no significant
resemblance to the ascetic prophet who had walked the roads of Galilee some three
From the Muslim viewpoint, this desemiticising of Jesus was a catastrophe. Three
centuries after Nicea, the Quran stated:
'The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers the like
of whom had passed away before him… O people of the Book – stress not in your
religion other than the truth, and follow not the vain desires of a people who went
astray before you.' (Surat al-Ma'ida, 75)
'O people of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion, nor utter anything
concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger
of God, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe
in God and His messengers, and do not say 'Three'. Desist, it will be better for
you. God is only One God. . . . The Messiah would never have scorned to be a slave
of God.' (Surat al-Nisa, 171-2)
The Qur'anic term for 'exaggeration' used here, ghuluww, became a standard term
in Muslim heresiography for any tendency, Muslim or otherwise, which attributed
divinity to a revered and charismatic figure. We are told that during the life of
the Prophet's son-in-law Ali, a few of his devoted followers from Iraq, where Hellenistic
and pagan cultures formed the background of many converts, described him as God,
or the vehicle of a Divine incarnation – hulul. The claim of course irritated Ali
profoundly, and he banished those who made it from his sight; but even today marginal
Islamic sectaries like the Kizilbash of Turkey, or the Alawites of the Syrian mountains,
maintain an esoteric cosmology which asserts that God became incarnate in Ali, and
then in the succession of Imams who descended from him.
Mainstream Islam, however, despite its rapid spread over non-Semitic populations,
never succumbed to this temptation. The best-known of all devotional poems about
the Blessed Prophet Muhammad: the famous Mantle Ode of al-Busairi, defines the frontier
of acceptable veneration:
'Renounce what the Christians claim concerning their prophet, Then praise him
as you will, and with all your heart. For although he was of human nature, He was
the best of humanity without exception.'
A few years previously, the twelfth-century theologian Al-Ghazali had summed
up the dangers of ghuluww when he wrote that the Christians had been so dazzled
by the divine light reflected in the mirror like heart of Jesus, that they mistook
the mirror for the light itself, and worshipped it. But what was happening to Jesus
was not categorically distinct from what happened, and may continue to happen, to
any purified human soul that has attained the rank of sainthood. The presence of
divine light in Jesus' heart does not logically entail a doctrine of Jesus' primordial
existence as a hypostasis in a divine trinity.
There are other implications of Trinitarian doctrine which concern Muslims. Perhaps
one should briefly mention our worries about the doctrine of Atonement, which implies
that God is only capable of really forgiving us when Jesus has borne our just punishment
by dying on the cross. John Hick has remarked that 'a forgiveness that has to be
bought by full payment of the moral debt is not in fact forgiveness at all.' More
coherent, surely, is the teaching of Jesus himself in the parable of the prodigal
son, who is fully forgiven by his father despite the absence of a blood sacrifice
to appease his sense of justice. The Lord's Prayer, that superb petition for forgiveness,
nowhere implies the need for atonement or redemption.
Jesus' own doctrine of God's forgiveness as recorded in the Gospels is in fact
entirely intelligible in terms of Old Testament and Islamic conceptions. 'God can
forgive all sins', says the Quran. And in a well-known hadith of the Prophet we
On the Day of Judgement, a herald angel shall cry out [God's word] from beneath
the Throne, saying: 'O nation of Muhammad! All that was due to me from you I forgive
you now, and only the rights which you owed one another remain. Thus forgive one
another, and enter Heaven through My Mercy.'
And in a famous incident:
It is related that a boy was standing under the sun on a hot summer's day. He
was seen by a woman concealed among the people, who made her way forwards vigorously
until she took up the child and clutched him to her breast. Then she turned her
back to the valley to keep the heat away from him, saying, 'My son! My son!' At
this the people wept, and were distracted from everything that they were doing.
Then the Messenger of God, upon whom be peace, came up. They told him of what had
happened, when he was delighted to see their their compassion. Then he gave them
glad news, saying: 'Marvel you at this woman's compassion for her son?' and they
said that they did. And he declared, 'Truly, the Exalted God shall be even more
compassionate towards you than is this woman towards her son.' At this, the Muslims
went their ways in the greatest rapture and joy.
This same hadith presents an interesting feature of Muslim assumptions about
the divine forgiveness: its apparently 'maternal' aspect. The term for the Compassionate
and Loving God used in these reports, al-Rahman, was said by the Prophet himself
to derive from rahim, meaning a womb. Some recent Muslim reflection has seen in
this, more or less rightly I think, a reminder that God has attributes which may
metaphorically be associated with a 'feminine, maternal' character, as well as the
more 'masculine' predicates such as strength and implacable justice. This point
is just beginning to be picked up by our theologians. There is not time to explore
the matter fully, but there is a definite and interesting convergence between the
Christology of feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther, and that of Muslims.
In a recent work, the Jordanian theologian Hasan al-Saqqaf reaffirms the orthodox
belief that God transcends gender, and cannot be spoken of as male or female, although
His attributes manifest either male or female properties, with neither appearing
to be preponderant. This gender-neutral understanding of the Godhead has figured
largely in Karen Armstrong's various appreciations of Islam, and is beginning to
be realised by other feminist thinkers as well. For instance, Maura O'Neill in a
recent book observes that 'Muslims do not use a masculine God as either a conscious
or unconscious tool in the construction of gender roles.'
One of Reuther's own main objections to the Trinity, apart from its historically
and Biblically sketchy foundations, is its emphatic attribution of masculine gender
to God. She may or may not be exaggerating when she blames this attribution for
the indignities suffered by Christian women down the ages. But she is surely being
reasonable when she suggests that the male-dominated Trinity is marginalising to
women, as it suggests that it was man who was made in the image of God, with woman
as a revised and less theomorphic model of himself.
Partly under her influence, American Protestant liturgy has increasingly tried
to de-masculinise the Trinity. Inclusive language lectionaries now refer to God
as 'Father and Mother'. The word for Christ's relationship to God is now not 'son'
but 'child'. And so on, often to the point of absurdity or straightforward doctrinal
Here in Britain, the feminist bull was grasped by the horns when the BCC Study
Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today issued its report in 1989. The Commission's
response here was as follows:
'The word Father is to be construed apophatically, that is, by means of a determined
'thinking away' of the inappropriate – and in this context that means masculine
connotations of the term. What will remain will be an orientation to personhood,
to being in relation involving origination in a personal sense, not maleness.'
Now, one has to say that this is unsatisfactory. The concept of fatherhood, stripped
of everything which has male associations, is not fatherhood at all. It is not even
parenthood, since parenthood has only two modalities. The Commissioners are simply
engaging in the latest exegetical manoeuvres required by the impossible Trinitarian
doctrine, which are, as John Biddle, the father of Unitarianism put it, 'fitter
for conjurers than for Christians.'
The final point that occurs to me is that the Trinity, mapped out in awesome
detail in the several volumes devoted to it by Aquinas, attempts to presume too
much about the inner nature of God. I mentioned earlier that Islam has historically
been more sceptical of philosophical theology as a path to God than has Christianity,
and in fact the divine unity has been affirmed by Muslims on the basis of two supra-rational
sources: the revelation of the Quran, and the unitive experience of the mystics
and the saints. That God is ultimately One, and indivisible, is the conclusion of
all higher mysticism, and Islam, as a religion of the divine unity par excellence,
has linked faith with mystical experience very closely. An eighteenth century Bosnian
mystic, Hasan Kaimi, expressed this in a poem which even today is chanted and loved
by the people of Sarajevo:
O seeker of truth, it is your heart's eye you must open.
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.
If you object: 'I am waiting for my mind to grasp His nature',
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.
Should you wish to behold the visage of God,
Surrender to Him, and invoke His names,
When your soul is clear a light of true joy shall shine.
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.
This article discusses the belief of trinity from the Muslim point of view.
The Muslims discussed trinity in various and different ways as Christian scholars
did. The Christian-Muslim dialogue which is a recent phenomenon in the West has
a long tradition in the Middle East. In spite of this, if someone reads the works
of our theologians, he will decide then that most of them could not understand the
belief of trinity. The analysis by these scholars is basically mistaken due to their
insufficient familiarity with the complexity of the trinity thought in the scholastic
or Eastern world, not due to their incapability.
I think that there are two reasons for this. First, the teaching of trinity has
for long time the worst reputation among the debated subjects between Islam and
Christianity, and therefore was full of impetuous rage. Trinity became a symbol
of the other which has been inhabited in the northern coasts of the Mediterranean
Sea where every kind of evil has been existed, and which was not known sufficiently,
but has been definitely wild/barbarous.
Secondly, some problems emerging from the trinity itself should be contributed
to this. The decision of the Nicene Creed in which the God was described as three
personalities one of which had two natures and then reducing those to one seems
to be wrong intuitively as well as rationally suspicious.
Key Words: Christianity, Muslim, Christian, God, incarnation, expiation
* Text of a lecture given recently to a group of Christians in Oxford