Yet another aspect of Christian doctrine that Muslims find scandalous concerns the belief in Jesus Christ as the “Son of God.” The Qur’an seems to be particularly appalled at the very possibility of such a blasphemous notion. The Qur’an acknowledges Jesus as a messenger of God, and as Christ, while emphatically denying the claim that he was/is the “Son of God.” The following verses are probably the strongest expression of that rejection in the entire Scripture.
The translation is by A. J. Arberry.
And they say, “the All-Merciful has taken unto Himself a son.” You have indeed advanced something hideous! The heavens are well nigh rent of it and the earth split asunder, and the mountains well nigh fall down crushing; for they have attributed to the All-Merciful a son! And it behoves not the All-Merciful to take a son. None is there in the heavens and earth but he comes to the All-Merciful as a servant. (Maryam 88-93)
Given the generally mild and conciliatory attitude of the Qur’an toward Christians, the above strongly worded condemnation should make us pause and reflect. There is more here than a simple doctrinal disagreement or religious polemic. Indeed, the Qur’anic rejection is not aimed solely at the notion of God having a son; it extends with equal intensity to the notion of God having a daughter or daughters. The latter was a commonly held pagan belief in pre-Islamic Arabia, one that the Qur’an repeatedly denounces and even ridicules. According to the Qur’an, the belief in God having daughters with a divine status of their own was irrational because it contradicted the Arab pride in male offspring. Typically, an Arab man would proudly celebrate the birth of a son but would feel terribly ashamed among his peers if the newborn were a daughter. Given this patriarchal mindset, in which a son was always better than a daughter, the worship of female deities stood out as a major cultural contradiction.
In the following verses, the Qur’an names the three central goddesses of Arabia, points out the contradiction caused by the patriarchal logic, and asserts that these so-called “daughters of God” are merely names without any referents . . . “names” that have been invented by “fathers,” i.e., by powerful men.
The translation is by Abdel Haleem.
Consider al-Lat and al-‘Uzza, and the third one, Manat — are you to have the male and He the female? That would be a most unjust distribution! — these are nothing but names you have invented yourselves, you and your forefathers. God has sent no authority for them. These people merely follow guesswork and the whims of their souls . . . (Al-Najm 19-23)
The Qur’an seems to reject the very notion of God having an offspring, regardless of whether that offspring is construed as male or female. If the gender of the offspring being attributed to God is not relevant to the Qur’anic argument, then we may conclude that Christians are not being singled out for a polemical attack. Something much more important is at stake.
It may be kept in mind that the Qur’anic view of God had been clearly articulated very early in the process of revelation. Well before any mention of Christians or their beliefs, the revelation had proclaimed in an early surah that God does not give birth.
Here is Arberry’s translation:
Say: “He is God, One; God, the Everlasting Refuge; who has not begotten, and has not been begotten; and equal to Him is not any one.” (Al-Ikhlas 1-4)
The problem with attributing a son or daughter to God in a metaphysical sense is that it compromises God’s absolute singularity. An offspring resembles the parent, and so the parent cannot claim absolute uniqueness after having given birth to a son or daughter. What is at stake here is the “individuality of the Ultimate Ego,” as Iqbal puts it in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (p. 50). What does it mean to be an “individual”? Iqbal quotes Henri Bergson on this issue, noting with approval the latter’s insight that “individuality is a matter of degrees and is not fully realized even in the case of the apparently closed off unity of the human being.” He then goes on to quote from Bergson’s Creative Evolution:
In particular, it may be said of individuality, that while the tendency to individuate is everywhere present in the organized world, it is everywhere opposed by the tendency towards reproduction. For the individuality to be perfect, it would be necessary that no detached part of the organism could live separately. But then reproduction would be impossible. For what is reproduction but the building up of a new organism with a detached fragment of the old? Individuality, therefore, harbours its own enemy at home.
In nature, Bergson seems to be saying, there is an inherent tendency to achieve uniqueness, singularity, individuality. Even though the disposition is there, creatures do not, in fact, reach perfect individuation because the species’ need for reproduction allows a part of each creature to survive independent of the source. After quoting Bergosn, Iqbal goes on to offer his own remarks:
In the light of this passage it is clear that the perfect individual, closed off as an ego, peerless and unique, cannot be conceived as harboring its own enemy at home. It must be conceived as superior to the antagonistic tendency of reproduction. This characteristic of the perfect ego is one of the most essential characteristics of the Qur’anic conception of God; and the Qur’an mentions it over and over again, not so much with a view to attack the current Christian conception as to accentuate its own view of a perfect individual. (pp. 50-51)
If God is to be conceived as the Ultimate Ego who is absolutely and unconditionally unique–as the Qur’an does, in fact, suggest–then the belief in an offspring of that God would rupture the principle of divine individuality from within. We can see why the Qur’an uses unusually strong language to drive this point home. Iqbal’s interpretation helps us to move beyond religious polemics and apologetics, allowing us to appreciate the deeper significance of the Qur’anic assertion that God does not give birth. The main purpose of the Qur’anic arguement is not to refute any given formulation of religious doctrine in a limited polemical context; rather, its main purpose is to convey with maximum emphasis that the Ultimate Ego is a unique individual in every sense of the word. God does not beget, nor is God begotten!
At the same time, it is important to remember that there are two overlapping ways in which religious language functions. A religious utterance may take the form of a metaphysical assertion, or it may be a metaphorical expression of a deeply experienced conviction, intuition, or feeling. If a divine son or a divine daughter is posited as a metaphysical principle, i.e., as a being who is capable of existing apart from, and independent of, the parent—as a human offspring does- then this clearly negates and compromises the integrity of God’s own individuality. It brings God down to the level of imperfectly individuated creatures. Such a notion is unacceptable from a Qur’anic viewpoint.
And yet, in many contexts people may use phrases like “children of God” merely to indicate the close and intimate connection between God and the human race, without intending to make any metaphysical claims. This is an example of metaphorical language, which must not be taken literally, i.e., in a metaphysical sense. Generally speaking, Muslims do not like to use this language, mainly out of their concern for preserving God’s transcendence and, above all, for maintaining God’s individuality. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. In a hadith, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is reported to have said: Al-khalq ayal Allah, which means, literally, “all creation is God’s family,” or even “all creation is God’s progeny.” This is obviously a metaphorical use of the word “family” or “progeny,” not to be taken in a literal sense! The hadith does constitute an example of how a religious utterance can be metaphorically structured with no metaphysical implications.
There is considerable evidence that the phrase “Son of God” was used in classical Jewish culture merely as a metaphor denoting a man’s exalted status; it wasn’t until much later in Christian history that the phrase acquired some of its metaphysical connotations. The Qur’anic critique of the notion of God having an offspring is clearly aimed at preserving God’s individuality; it does not negate the possibility that some human beings may be quite exalted in God’s eyes. A close study of the phrase “Son of God” as found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament does not reveal the same range of metaphysical meanings as were developed later by Christian theologians; and yet, the metaphorical meaning of this phrase has not been completely eclipsed.
Muslims cannot decide on their own what Christians believe; only Christians can say what they believe, and what their beliefs mean to them. Whether the word “begotten,” as used in the Nicene Creed, is intended to be a metaphysical principle or a metaphorical one is obviously a very important question . . . for Christians. As far as I have been able to understand as an outsider, the best explanations of the Trinity do not seem to posit Christ as the “Son of God” in the sense in which this belief–according to Iqbal’s interpretation–would jeopardize God’s individuality. After all, the doctrine of Trinity does not assert three deities, each of which would be capable of existing apart from the other two! It actually asserts a single God with three distinct manifestations. This does not mean, of course, that all Christians actually understand this subtle theological point.
The Latin version of the Nicean Creeds begins as follows: “Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipoténtem, Factórem cæli et terræ, Visibílium ómnium et invisibílium.” Translation: “We believe in one God, Almighty Father, Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” If we assume that “Father” is intended metaphorically rather than metaphysically–and we may make that assumption simply by giving the benefit of the doubt to those who composed this wording–then I cannot think of any reason why a Muslim would not recognize this statement as accurately representing his/her own belief.
There is, of course, much more to the Nicean Creed then the sentence quoted here, some of which we may not find as compatible with Islamic beliefs as the opening sentence. The point I am making in this post, however, is simply this: Words do not have simple, straightforward meanings. Words that have hundreds of years of theological controversies behind them cannot be assumed as representing single, obvious, and uncontested meanings. Case in point: the phrase “Son of God” and the range of beliefs that are associated with it. Regardless of what Christians do or do not believe, Muslims ought to appreciate the difference between the sense in which certain phrases/beliefs would clearly compromise the Qur’anic conception of God, and the sense in which the same phrases/beliefs may not necessarily have that effect.
God knows best.