A Muslim View of Trinity (2)

Perhaps no aspect of the Christian doctrine of Trinity causes more scandal for Muslims than the part about the divinity of Jesus Christ. In Surah Al-Ma’ida 5:17, the Qur’an seems to denounce this belief in categorical terms:

5_17

Here is Abdel Haleem’s translation of this verse:

Those who say, “God is the Messiah, the son of Mary,” are defying the truth.  Say, “If it had been God’s will, could anyone have prevented Him from destroying the Messiah, son of Mary, together with his mother and everyone else on earth?  Control of the heavens and earth and all that is between them belongs to God:  He creates whatever He wills.  God has power over everything.”

Here again, many contemporary Muslims fail to pay adequate attention either to the very nuanced Qur’anic language or to the Christian explanations of the meaning of Trinity, thereby misunderstanding both.

No doubt, there were many Christians during the period of Qur’anic revelation, just as there are today, who have little or no clue as to what it is that the belief in the divinity of Christ is meant to convey.  In the popular Christian imagination God is, indeed, the same as Christ.  According to the Qur’an, this belief is tantamount to denying the truth of the matter.  And so it is.

But then, not all Christians believe that God is Christ.  In fact, this is an oversimplified and distorted version of what they are supposed to believe.

For Muslims, perhaps the best way of approaching this problem is to take a longer, roundabout route.

One of the earliest writings of Muhammad Iqbal include a paper titled “The Doctrine of Absolute Unity as Expounded by Abdul Karim Al-Jilani,” published in the September 1900 issue of Indian Antiquary.  In this paper, Iqbal offers a critical analysis of the theology developed in the treatise Insan Al-Kamil, written by a fourteenth century Sufi scholar who is more commonly known as Al-Jili.

Al-Jili belonged to the school of Ibn Al-Arabi, a twelfth century mystic and sage known for his voluminous writings.  Ibn Al-Arabi stands out most prominently in any survey of the last 700 years of Islamic intellectualal history, both in terms of the quality and sophistication of his writings and the range and depth of his influence.  It is not for any trivial reason that he is recognized as “Shaykh Al-Akbar” or the Grand Master . . . a title that the Muslim ummah has  not conferred upon any other scholar or sage.

Contemporary Muslims tend to be ignorant, and sometimes suspicious, of Shaykh Al-Akbar–much to their own disadvantage.  Up until the nineteenth century, Ibn Al-Arabi was widely recognized, deeply revered, and closely studied throughout the Muslim world.  It is only in the twentieth century that certain political and economic factors led to the popularity of a shallow and negative perspective on Ibn Al-Arabi’s teachings, augmented by a plethora of misunderstandings brought about by the general disconnect between Muslims and their own intellectual heritage.

Growing up in a Sufi family in the late nineteenth century India, Iqbal had come in contact with some of the views of Ibn Al-Arabi as a precocious child of pious parents, particularly through the latter’s well-known treatise Fusus Al-Hikam (The Ringstonesof Wisdom).  However, it appears that Iqbal did not have access to the entire range of the Shaykh’s writings, most of which were not yet available in published forms.

The notion of Insan Al-Kamil, the “Perfect/Whole Person,” goes back to the works of Ibn Al-Arabi.  In the late nineteenth century, Iqbal encountered this notion through the writings of Abdul Karim Al-Jili.  The latter was, in fact, merely explaining the teachings of the Grand Master.

At the risk of oversimplification, the doctrine of Insan Al-Kamil may be summarized as follows:  God has created the human being as a set of potentialities.  The purpose of existence is for the human individual to recognize and develop those potentialities so as to reach “perfection” or “wholness.”  What exist in the human being as mere potentialities are nothing other than the fully and absolutely realized attributes or qualities of the Almighty.  By actualizing these potentialities, the human individual absorbs within himself or herself the attributes or qualities of God–thereby becoming “perfect” or “whole.”

After a critical examination of Al-Jili’s view of Insan Al-Kamil, Iqbal notes the similarity between this, very much Islamic, doctrine on the one hand, and that of the Christian doctrine of Trinity on the other.

We now have the doctrine of the perfect man [sic] complete.  All through the author [Abdul Karim Al-Jili] has maintained his argument by an appeal to different verses of the Qur’an, and to the several traditions of the Prophet the authenticity of which he never doubts.  Although he reproduces the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, except that his god-man is Muhammad instead of Christ, he never alludes to his having been influenced by Christian theology.  He looks upon the doctrine as something common between the two forms of religion and accuses Christianity of a blasphemous interpretation of the doctrine–of regarding the Personality of God as split up into three distinct personalities.

In the above passage, Iqbal is making several points: (1) Al-Jili’s doctrine of the “Perfect/Whole Person” is an authentic Islamic perspective due to its grounding in the Qur’an and Hadith; (2) Al-Jili is in agreement with the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ, even though he himself does not recognize this agreement, nor does he seem to be directly influenced by Christian theology; (3) the only significant difference between Al-Jili’s view of Insan Al-Kamil and the Christian view of the divinity of Christ is in the identity of the man who is looked upon as the supreme realization of human potentialities, viz., Muhammad of Arabia and Jesus of Nazareth, respectively (peace be upon them); (4) Al-Jili rejects the doctrine of Trinity, for in his (erroneous) view Trinity implies the splitting up of God into three distinct personalities.

There is already a great deal of food for thought in what I have quoted above.  But Iqbal has more to say.

Our own belief, however, is that this splendid doctrine [i.e., Trinity] has not been well understood by the majority of Islamic and Christian thinkers.  The doctrine is another way of stating that the Absolute Unity must have in itself a principle of difference in order to evolve diversity out of itself.  Almost all the attacks of Muhammadan [sic] theologians are directed against vulgar beliefs while the truth of real Christianity has not sufficiently been recognized.  I believe no Islamic thinker will object to the deep meaning of the Trinity as explained by this author [i.e. Al-Jili] . . . .  Shaikh Muhy al-Din Ibn Arabi says that the error of Christianity does not lie in making Christ God but in making God Christ.

If your jaw didn’t drop, read the last sentence again!

At this time I do not have the actual passages before me where Shaykh Al-Akbar makes this remark.  However, even as Iqbal has quoted it, the meaning of Ibn Al-Arabi’s powerful insight can be appreciated easily, especially when we notice that it is an exegetical comment on the Qur’anic verse quoted above.

The Qur’an is as clear as it is categorical regarding what is wrong with the popular Christian distortion of Trinity.  Let me quote the translation again:

Those who say, “God is the Messiah, the son of Mary,” are defying the truth.  Say, “If it had been God’s will, could anyone have prevented Him from destroying the Messiah, son of Mary, together with his mother and everyone else on earth?  Control of the heavens and earth and all that is between them belongs to God:  He creates whatever He wills.  God has power over everything.”

Try to notice with an objective, unbiased mind exactly what it is that the Qur’an is criticizing.  According to the Qur’anic text, it is wrong to say that “God is Christ.”  As Shaykh Al-Akbar points out with the extraordinary perspicacity that is the hallmark of his interpretations, the Qur’an condemns the belief “God is Christ” but it does not disallow the belief that “Christ is God.”  If Christians are mistaken, then their mistake lies in making the former statement.  If they were to make the latter statement, they would not be deemed truth-deniers according to the Qur’an.

“God is Christ” versus “Christ is God”?  Aren’t we splitting hair?

No, says Ibn Al-Arabi, and Iqbal agrees with him wholeheartedly.  There is a tremendous difference between the two statements, a difference that is so stark that the first statement is tantamount to disbelief and the denial of truth, while no negative judgment can be made of the second statement.

In short, the belief “God is Christ” leads to religious exclusivism, but the belief “Christ is God” does not necessarily entail that consequence.

To say “God is Christ” means that one man, Jesus of Nazareth, fully and exclusively encompasses the entirety of the essence and all the attributes of God.  It implies that divinity is found in Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ.  This, in effect, seriously limits God’s ability to manifest and the human ability to find God.  It limits the self-disclosure of divine attributes to a single locus, whereas, according to the Qur’an, there are infinite loci of divine manifestation.

On the other hand, to say “Christ is God” means that Jesus of Nazareth displays through himself many of the attributes of God; that what is present in each one of us as mere potentialities are fully actualized in Jesus; that it is possible to know something of God by knowing something of Jesus; that, in Islamic terms, Jesus is a “Perfect/Whole Person,” an Insan Al-Kamil, a man who acts as a mirror and therefore reflects God’s attributes to the rest of God’s creation.

The notion of the “Perfect/Whole Person” as a mirror that reflects divine attributes is a common Islamic metaphor.  And a very useful one if Christians and Muslims are to understand each other.

From a Muslim viewpoint, there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying that the attributes of God are reflected in the life and personality of Jesus Christ–just as they are reflected in the lives and personalities of all the prophets and other pious human beings.  Some may wish to argue whether those attributes are reflected more fully in Jesus or in Muhammad; such a question, however, cannot be rationally debated by human beings who are, by definition, less perfect/whole than the men they wish to judge!

More to the point is the issue of identity.  A human individual can become perfect/whole to varying degrees, but he or she can attain that status only as a human being.  We remain servants and creatures, no matter how close we get to the Divine Presence.  A mirror that is reflecting a very strong source of light will itself be illuminated strongly, but it will remain a mirror.  The moon reflects the light of the sun, and therefore has a very special relationship with the sun, but in the final analysis the moon does not become the sun.  Note in this context the strong emphasis on the humanity and humility of Jesus and Mary, and of all other creatures, in the later part of the Qur’anic verse quoted above.

And yet, it is not entirely wrong to say that a mirror reflecting a strong light–at least for most practical purposes–is itself light.  Strictly speaking, it is true that the mirror is not the same as the source of light; but it is also true that the mirror is not really separate from that source either.  As such, Ibn Al-Arabi allows the statement “Christ is God” because this is exactly what it means–a mirror reflecting light may seem to shine almost as brightly as the source of light itself.  But he would caution in the same breath that if we were to say “Christ is God” we should also say “Christ is not God.”  While it is true that the mirror is the light, it is equally true that the mirror is not the light.

It is this insight that forms the core of the Christian doctrine of Trinity–where Christ is both fully divine and fully human–an insight that is so subtle as to be routinely misunderstood and misinterpreted by both Muslims and Christians.

In reality, then, the Qur’an’s so-called “critique” of Trinity, as found in Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:17, is not even addressing the doctrine of Trinity.  Instead, it seems to be directed against Docetism, an early Christian heresy that proclaimed Jesus’ divinity but refused to accept his humanity.  It appears that ramnents of Docetism have survived in the popular imagination throughout Christian history, despite its rejection by Church leaders as a heretical doctrine.  Alternatively, this Qur’anic verse could be seen as a critique of some variant of Monophysite Christianity, in which Jesus was understood as having only a divine nature.  Either way, the above discussion shows that on this issue both mainstream Christianity and the Qur’an have essentially the same position.

16 Comments on “A Muslim View of Trinity (2)

  1. Not so different than the divinity of Muhammad and the divinity of Ali; divinity with a small d, of course. And then we can also say that the Christian term Father doesn’t mean biological father, but Father as in Creator of all things. Yes?

    • Muslims do not like the word “divinity” being used for creatures, for the Qur’an emphasizes God’s transcendence much more than immanence. The uuper and lower case distinction makes sense in English, but not in traditional Muslim languages like Arabic, Urdu, Persian, or Ottoman Turkish. And yet, there is a profound similarity between these Christian and Muslim insights, a similarity that is usually missed if one is unable to see behind and beyond the words.

  2. And then also with respect to this idea the verse in the Qur’an which seemingly gives an almost wholesale news of glad tidings to Jews Christians and Sabeans…does it give it more meaning?

    • Here it is:

      The believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians—all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good—will have their rewards with their Lord. No fear for them, nor will they grieve. (Al-Baqara 2:62)

      The lesson of this verse is important enough to be repeated, with only a slight difference in wording:

      For the believers, the Jews, the Sabians, and the Christians—those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds—there is no fear and they will not grieve. (Al-Ma’ida 5:69)

      Those Muslims who insist on a literal interpretation of the Qur’anic verses dealing with law, miracles, history, and so on . . . also insist that this particular verse should not be undersood literally!

  3. I very much enjoyed reading your blog entry and agree with most of what you have to say. I was reminded of the fact that at least one messianic text in the Dead Sea Scrolls refers to the Messiah figure as “the son of God,” but it certainly is not meant as an ontological statement about the identity of the messianic figure but a common Semitic way of referring to one’s character. The Messiah will in some way be like God, and this usage is probably how it was applied to Jesus originally, before later Greek theologians got all hung up on whether Jesus was the same substance or like substance with the Father.

    I was also reminded that most Eastern Christians (Syriac and Arabic speaking Christians) were monophysites who did not believe that Jesus was God in any ontological sense. We tend to treat the Western Latin tradition as if its the whole of Christianity, but this is certainly not the case. So your statement that not all Christians believe Jesus and God are one is right on target.

    That the Qur’anic text is referring specifically to docetists is an interesting idea that may have real merit.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  4. What is being referenced in Ibn Arabi’s work is that Jesus is just another manifestation (of Allah’s inifinate manifestations), just like everything else. Or more accurately, he is just another suraa(image/form) realised through Al Haqq. Christians are completely oblivious to this primarily because they are relying on a translation and thus the deeper levels of knowledge are not present. They SEE christ AS God and this is their shirk. Why ? Because (1) They have limited Allah and (2) They don’t see the one behind the image, they only SEE the image and they dont stop there, they also assume the IMAGE to be God ! This is expected because they are only exposed to Ar Rahamic tawheed and not Allahic tawheed which is what is professed in the Qur’aan and MUCH higher at that.

    Anyway, there is a very fine line between such issues and shirk/kufr so muslims need tread EXTREMELY carefully. If none of this makes sense then the reader is not obliged to it. As long as you adhere to the shariAAh and sunnah you will be fine.

    • Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate that you took the time to make these remarks!

      You have identified an important “fine line,” and I would like to add something to what you have said. There is another fine line that we need to be aware of. This is the line that separates a particular belief as it exists in theory, and the actual, flesh-and-blood human beings who are supposed to hold that belief.

      It is one thing to say that a particular belief is wrong, or that it amounts to shirk or kufr. It is an altogether different matter to say a large group of people holds that view and is, as a result, guilty of shirk and kufr.

      The first judgment is relatively easy to make, because in doing so we are dealing with ideas that can be clearly stated and circumscribed as such. The latter judgment, on the other hand, is extremely difficult to make, for it requires a huge amount of reliable empirical data that we cannot possible have.

      There are two billion Christians in the world today. Apart from God Almighty, no one can possibly know exactly what each of them actually believes in any given moment. This means that any statement that begins with “Christians believe that . . . ” is likely to be problematic, if not outright inaccurate.

      Muslims face the same problem of over-generalizations about their faith. We have every right to become upset when we hear someone say “Muslims believe that . . . ,” followed by some wild accusation! There are almost one and a half billion Muslims in the world today; how can anyone claim to know with any amount of accuracy what “Muslims” believe?

      I think that, as Muslims, we should be careful in accusing any group of shirk and kufr, including (and especially) non-Muslims. We can still fulfill our duty to say the truth as we see it, but this can be done by objective critiques aimed at particular beliefs only. Our critiques of particular beliefs should not extend to groups of people, however, for such generalizations are rarely, if ever, accurate.

      In short, what we don’t like being done to us we should avoid doing to others as well.

  5. Salaam Ahmed,

    What if I said all muslims believe in Allah ? Bearing in mind that believing in Allah is a core aspect of being muslim. Trinity is central to christian doctine, there may be some exceptions and they can be addressed individually. I only ever came across one chrisitian who was wavering in that respect but in the end she became muslim.
    We need to understand how christians understand it and not apply our own understanding to their theology to deduce conclusions. For example, almost every christian believes ‘God came to earth and died for their sins’. The Kufr is limiting Allah and presuming the image is a God. Allah contains EVERYTHING but nothing can contain Allah. This is the mistake this make when they say God came to earth. Regarding the trinity, the christians believe in the Holy Spirit, God and Jesus (Son of God). The question isnt HOW these three unify, it is WHO is the source. In Islam Allah is the source of everything in existance (Al Ruh Al Qudus). How does this apply to the trinity ? Who started everything ? Who is the source of everything ? Is it God ? Or the spirit ? Or Jesus ? Do you see my point ?

    The verse you quoted says La Qad kafara allatheena kaalu In Allah huwa Al Masih Ibn Maryam (Indeed those who say Allah is Masih Ibn Maryam have commited kufr/disbelief). Its saying that IF you limit Allah to Jesus or say that the image is Allah THEN you have committed kufr. What it should be is Isa is just a manifestation, just like you and me. In other words, All of us are from Allah and Allah is the faa’il of everything. He is the cause of causes. This is how we know Allah, through his attributes. If you want to go a little deeper then the kufr is the veil which is preventing them from seeing Allah.

    • Peace and Greetings!

      I suggest you do the following experiment. Take a voice recorder with you and visit some parks, businesses, churches, schools, restaurants, etc. As you meet total strangers, say that you are doing an anonymous survey and if they would be kind enough to answer some questions. If the person agrees, ask them if he or she is a Christian. If the response is “no,” move on to another random individaul. If the response is “yes,” ask them to explain the meaning of the Trinity. Don’t give them any hints or suggestions; simply listen and record their responses. After you have talked with about 20-25 people, compile your observations and tabulate them according to any patterns that may emerge.

      I don’t know what the results will be, but there is no harm in performing the experiment. Plus, I feel that we may learn something useful, insha Allah. After all, when it comes to learning about what people believe, there is no substitute for empirical data.

      Good Luck!

  6. Sorry I don’t speak and read english very well….
    I have one question please, is true that ibn Arabî in Fusus Al-Hikam says The Word is God revealed ? Or a different manifestation of God ? Or something like that. Because Jesus is a word of god according to the Quran isn’t it ?
    Sorry again for my errors et thanks you brothers.

  7. Beautiful article ! Masha Allah ! As the Christian King An-Najashi said about the Message of Christ and Prophet Mohammad (‘alayhim salam), “They are two Divine Lights emanating from the same Divine Source.” The forms of these two religions may differ, as well as their languages and expressions, as each was revealed in a specific historical context, the essential reality of all revelation is one and the same. This reminds me of the famous hadith qudsi where Allah ta’ala says at the end, “When I love my servant, I become his hands through which he strikes, his ears through which he hears, his eyes through which he sees, and his feet through which he walks.” (Bukhari) This summarizes the esoteric inwards truth and reality of all revealed religions, which is the Absolute Principle (ie Allah/God) expresses Himself through the creative realm, and especially through humanity, so that through that, humanity can re-ascend back to it’s source and re-align itself with the Principle through clothing itself with the Divine Qualities. Hence the meaning of God becoming our ears, eyes, hands and feet. This is identical to the message of Christ and the Gospel. Christianity has the same esoteric truth as Islam. The problem is people externalized it and confused the manifestation with the principle. Which is why Allah sent the Islamic revelation to remind mankind of Transcendence.

  8. I think this is wonderful! I would so love Christians and Muslims (even the Jews one day) to understand each other and see that misinterpretation has played a major part in the schisms between our religious leaders and thus also of believers on either side.

    Thank you for this!

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