Bi ismillahir rahmanir raheem
Trinity a Muslim Perspective
© Sh. Abdal-Hakim
(Text of a lecture given recently to a group of Christians in
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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 centuries before.
Muslim viewpoint, this desemiticising of Jesus was a catastrophe. Three
centuries after Nicea, the Quran stated:
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)
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
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.
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:
what the Christians claim concerning their prophet,
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.
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.'
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.
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 are told:
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
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.
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
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
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:
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.'
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:
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.
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.