A Muslim View of Trinity (4)

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.

A Muslim View of Trinity (3)

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.

Maryam

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.

Najm

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.

Ikhlas

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.

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.

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