Why did Christians conceive of a triune God in the first place? Why did they decide to wrestle with the interminable complexities of Trinity when they could have opted for a simple, unproblematic deity? For Iqbal, the answer seems to be obvious, as already quoted.
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.
This way of understanding the Trinity translates the question right back into the Islamic frame of reference. If the doctrine of Trinity represents the Christian attempt to formulate the principle of differentiation within the Absolute Unity that is God, then it cannot be as strange or crazy as it typically appears to many Muslims.
The notion of Trinity is not mentioned in the New Testament. It was formulated in the fourth century by Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Essentially, the doctrine was conceived on the basis of the key distinction between God’s essence (ousia) and God’s actions and operations (energeiai), a distinction first made by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who was a contemporary of Jesus. According to the Christian formulation of this doctrine, God has a single essence (ousia) which is unknowable to creatures (as Philo had postulated), but, according to the Scriptures, God has made himself known to us in three manifestations (hypostases), viz., the Father, the Logos, and the Spirit. These three are divine energeiai that help mediate the ineffable and incomprehensible divine essence to our limited intelligence.
Like Christians, Muslims too have encountered the problem of affirming the reality of diversity within God’s self-expression, and of doing so without compromising the implications of the first shahada, “there is no god but God.” In the Christian tradition, the problem is addressed through the doctrine of the Trinity. In the Islamic tradition, it is addressed through the doctrine of divine names and attributes. When I hear that “God is three persons in one substance,” my response, as a Muslim, is to ask: Why stop at three? If there is one divine “substance,” then on what basis do we limit the self-expression of that One into only three forms? I say this, obviously, due to my Islamic bias.
According to the Qur’anic worldview there is only one God, but this one God happens to have a great many names. A famous hadith enumerates 99 names of God (al-asma al-husna = the most beautiful names) but the tradition insists that divine names are, in fact, countless or innumerable . . . infinite. These names denote divine attributes; to say that God has an infinite number of names is to acknowledge that no creature can identify all of divine attributes. The multiplicity of divine attributes is the key, for it introduces the principle of differentiation within (or alongside) the Absolute oneness of God. This principle does not compromise divine unity, however, which remains true as regards the divine “essence.” The diversity of created forms is then understood as manifestation of the multiplicity of divine attributes in virtually infinite combinations and configurations.
The same principle of differentiation, however, raised the classical issue of contention between the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites, i.e., whether or not the “essential” attributes of God (knowledge, power, life, hearing, sight, will, speech) are co-eternal with God? The Orthodoxy subsequently resolved the problem by insisting that divine attributes are neither the same as divine essence nor are they distinct from it. Before that could happen, however, the most famous controversy in this regard–on the nature of the Qur’an as God’s kalam (speech)–produced the only inquisition in Muslim history. The debate sounds silly from a modern viewpoint, but it was nothing of that sort. As an “essential” attribute of God, “speech” could be understood as co-eternal with God, which somehow made the Qur’an “uncreated” for one group of theologians. The other group, rejecting the plurality of eternal entities, insisted that the Qur’an must be understood as “created” in time. In fact, these two are not the only options, but that’s exactly how the debated was framed.
This is how Farid Esack describes the nature of the controversy in his book The Qur’an: A Short Introduction.
The focal point of Mu’tazilite theology was thier emphasis on the absolute unity of God and on God’s justice . . . . In dealing with the issue of God’s attributes, therefore, and in particular with the attribute of speech, their primary concern was to uphold God’s absolute unity, uniqueness, and immutability. To suggest that anything, even divine revelation, shared in any of these characteristics, they argued, would detract from God’s utter beyondness. Their principle of divine justice resulted in a rejection of notions of God’s arbitrary rule and predestination. If the Qur’an were eternal, they reasoned, it followed that all the events narrated therein were pre-ordained; the players in all of these events would thus allhave had their fates saeled, even before birth.
Esack notes that initially this issue remained confined to a narrow circle of scholars, and that most mainstream scholars simply opted to “suspend judgment” rather than take one or the other extreme positions on a matter that was clearly speculative. They would acknowledge that “the Qur’an is God’s speech” but were prudent enough to say nothing further than this fundamental article of faith. The situation changed, of course, when the Abbasid rulers in the early ninth century CE attempted to make the Mu’tazilite view of the “created” nature of the Qur’an into an official doctrine and forced the entire Muslim community to accept it as the only true option–or face persecution. To make a very long story short, the democratic impulse of the community not only rejected the Abbasid inquisition but, partly as a reaction against the extremism of the Mu’tazilite view, went all the way to the other extreme. After the inquisition was over, the orthodox Muslim view emerged in the form of affirming that the Qur’an, as divine speech, was “uncreated.” Soon, “created” was understood as “temporal” while “uncreated” became synonymous with “eternal” or “co-eternal with God.”
The Christian parallel, of course, was the great controversy between Arius and Athanasius on the nature of Christ. While Muslim theologians struggled with the createdness or eternity of the Qur’an in the ninth century, several hundred years ago their Christian counterparts had already experienced a similar struggle with respect to the createdness or eternity of Christ.
The controversy arose in the late third century and extended throughout the fourth. It is fair to say that the aftershocks are still being felt today. It began when Arius posed the question whether Jesus Christ was co-eternal with God the Father, or was he created by God the Father. The resulting doctrine, sometimes called Arianism, is summed by the Encyclopedia Britannica as follows:
It affirmed that Christ is not truly divine but a created being. Arius’ basic premise was the uniqueness of God, who is alone self-existent and immutable; the Son, who is not self-existent, cannot be God. Because the Godhead is unique, it cannot be shared or communicated, so the Son cannot be God. Because the Godhead is immutable, the Son, who is mutable, being represented in the Gospels as subject to growth and change, cannot be God. The Son must, therefore, be deemed a creature who has been called into existence out of nothing and has had a beginning. Moreover, the Son can have no direct knowledge of the Father since the Son is finite and of a different order of existence.
The fact that a prominent leader of the Church was able to make this argument indicates that the Christian community did not yet have a firm, fixed position on this issue. The theological doctrines were still under construction, and it was still very much possible to shape and direct them from within the community. Since there was no orthodox view yet, Arianism was not a heresy. It became a heresy only after this view was officially declared to be so. As Arianism gained followers, Athanasius emerged as the main rival who proposed that Christ was as divine as God the Father, and was begotten, not created in time. The rivalry between these two opposing views on the nature of Christ did not remain limited to the Church hierarchy but soon came to involve laypeople, monks, and members of the Roman imperial family. The Emperor Constantine had to intervene, and the First Council of Nicaea in 325 condemned Arianism as a heresy. The Nicaean Creed declared belief in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father . . . .”
There is much in common between the Mu’tazilite vs. Ash’arite controversy on the nature of the Qur’an in the ninth century, and the Arius vs. Athanasius controversy on the nature of Christ in the fourth century. In both cases, each side had strong theological arguments and support from scriptural texts; in both cases, the matter was resolved not solely on the basis of the strength of arguments but more so according to social and political realities. The outcomes were very similar too. In the end, the Christian community accepted that Christ was co-eternal with God the Father; in the end, the Muslim community accepted that the Qur’an was uncreated divine speech.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a simple, unproblematic deity. Theologians would not allow such a deity to exist! And yet, it would be unfair to place the entire blame on theologians. The issue is inherent in the structure of reality, more specifically in the relationship between the Creator and the creation. To posit a single God who cannot be reduced to any form, image, or place is to de-divine the created universe, to de-sacralize the world of forms. This prevents idolatry, which is an important achievement, but also introduces an infinite distance between the Creator and the creation . . . thereby making God practically inaccessible, removing the mysteries of love and passion from religious life, and reducing the human-divine relationship to a dry, mechanical formality. Both the Christian doctrine of Trinity and the Islamic doctrine of divine names and attributes aim at managing the same dilemma, i.e., how to let God be God (as Martin Luther famously said) while still keeping God easily accessible to thought and imagination, as a friend and a lover? Christians have found a mediating presence in Christ (as well as in the Holy Spirit). Muslims do so through recognizing the reflections of divine names and attributes in all created things.