Several years ago, I was speaking to a small group in an Islamic Center when the topic of Trinity came up, almost out of nowhere. I was speaking on an altogether different subject when I casually mentioned that “monotheist” is a term used for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. One gentleman immediately objected: “But Christians are not monotheists!”
I was taken aback, mainly because this issue was too far from my mind at that moment. I asked, “How so?” He went on to explain that Christians believed in the Trinity, and that, to him, meant they believed in three deities rather than a single one.
I remember making some vague comments, for I wanted to get back to the original subject as soon as possible instead of getting sidetracked.
Today, however, I have no idea what the talk was about; the only thing that stands out now is the particular claim I heard from one audience member: Christians are not monotheists because they believe in three gods.
If we were to take a random sampling of lay Muslims and ask them what Trinity means, I suspect that a substantial proportion–if not the majority–will say something to the effect that Trinity is the belief that there are three gods. Given the emphasis that the Islamic tradition places on the oneness of God, this view of Trinity can, and does, introduce a significant wedge between Christians and Muslims.
The question, then, is two fold; first, we need to figure out whether this Muslim take on the Trinity is in accordance with the Qur’an, and, second, we need to figure out if Christians really believe in three gods.
Let’s start with the Qur’an. Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:73 categorically declares:
One of the most commonly used translations of the Qur’an is by Abdullah Yousuf Ali, whose version reads:
They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them.
According to The Message of the Qur’an, an English translation and interpretation by Muhammad Asad, the verse means:
Indeed, the truth deny they who say, “Behold, God is the third of a trinity” — seeing that there is no deity whatever save the One God. And unless they desist from this their assertion, grievous suffering is bound to befall such of them as are bent on denying the truth.
The Noble Qur’an, a popular English translation by Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali Muhammad Muhsin Khan, provides the following translation/interpretation:
Surely, disbelievers are those who said: “Allâh is the third of the three (in a Trinity).” But there is no ilâh (god) (none who has the right to be worshipped) but One Ilâh (God -Allâh). And if they cease not from what they say, verily, a painful torment will befall the disbelievers among them.
Muhammad Marmaduke Pikthall, in his The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, renders this verse as follows:
They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no God save the One God. If they desist not from so saying a painful doom will fall on those of them who disbelieve.
A. J. Arberry, in his The Koran Interpreted, gives the following meaning:
They are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Third of Three.’ No god is there but One God. If they refrain not from what they say, there shall afflict those of them that disbelieve a painful chastisement.
According to Abdel Haleem’s English translation, the verse means:
Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God. If they persist in what they are saying, a painful punishment will afflict those of them who persist.
Finally, here is Alan Jones’ translation of the same verse:
Unbelievers are those who say, ‘God is the third of the three.’ There is no god but One God. If they do not desist from what they are saying, the unbelievers amongst them will be touched by a painful torment.
These translations may appear virtually identical, but notice how the first two translations differ from the subsequent ones. Yusuf Ali and Asad introduce the word “Trinity” in their respective translations. It also appears in the translation by Al-Hilali and Khan, except that they put parentheses around it, as in “Allah is the third of the three (in a Trinity).” The rest of the translations quoted above do not use the word “Trinity” at all.
What is going on? It turns out that the Arabic word for Trinity is تثليث (tathlith), which does not appear anywhere in the Qur’an. The word that Yusuf Ali and Asad translate as “trinity” is actually ثلاثه (thalathah) which means, simply, the number “three,” so rendered by the rest of our translators. Surely “three” is not synonymous with “trinity” by any stretch of the imagination. To a reader unfamiliar with Arabic, the first two translations give the impression that the Qur’an is criticising the Christian doctrine of Trinity, even though this word never appears in the Qur’anic text. Al-Hilali and Khan’s translation is potentially misleading too, but they deserve the credit at least for putting parentheses around the word “trinity” to indicate that this is not part of the Qur’anic text.
The difference is stark between saying “God is the third of three” and “God is the third of Trinity.” To equate “three” with “Trinity” is a major mistake in translation/interpretation of the Qur’an, a mistake that misleads the lay readers into believing not only that the Qur’an is criticizing the doctrine of Trinity but also, more importantly, that Trinity means a belief in three deities. The Qur’an is categorically denouncing the belief that there are three divine beings and that God is only one of those three; that belief, however, has nothing to do with the official Christian position on the meaning of Trinity, which is much too sophisticated to be synonymous with a naive belief in “three gods.”
Just as most Muslims do not understand the subtle points of Islamic theology, most Christians have little grasp of the subtle points of Christian theology. This is to be expected, since theology has never been a popular indulgence for the masses of ordinary, faithful men and women in either of these traditions. Most modern people do not understand the intricacies of the Theory of Relativity, or of Quantum Mechanics, or even how their cell phones or computers work. Advanced physics, like advanced theology, is a matter of specialization. It is perfectly OK if the majority of us have no clue about such matters . . . particularly because they do not affect our day to day living. Exceptwhen a difficult-to-grasp theological issue becomes a weapon in the hands of ignorant polemicists.
If we were to conduct another survey, this time asking Christians to explain the meaning of Trinity, I suspect that the results will confirm the above contention. There will be a stark contrast between the answers given by the majority of lay Christians and the answers given by academically trained theologians at Yale or Oxford.
In light of this, it is fairly obvious that the Qur’anic criticism is not directed at the sophisticated explanations of Trinity that have been developed by the top Christian theologians over several hundred years of reflection and argumentation. The Qur’anic criticism is directed at the popular misunderstanding of Trinity as “three gods.” This misunderstanding or corruption must have been common among the Christians of seventh century CE who lived in and around the Arabian Peninsula, just as it is not uncommon to meet Christians today who are inclined to think this way, usually without conscious awareness. And yet, the actual Christian position is too subtle and extremely difficult to formulate in words without raising the possibility of such misunderstandings. The doctrine of Trinity does not teach that God is “third of the three.” Instead, it teaches that God is one and three at the same time. If some Christians misunderstand this by ignoring the first half (God is one) and emphasizing the second half (God is three) then this is their error.
Whether we look at the matter from a Christian perspective or an Islamic one, it is indeed a denial of truth to say that God is “third of the three.” I think Muslims and Christians could easily agree on this point.
This resolution of the problem, however, raises another, more interesting, question. If the verse quoted above is not a criticism of the Christian doctrine of Trinity, what, in fact, is the Qur’anic position vis-a-vis this doctrine?