Challenging Muslims regarding the Quran’s teaching on the Trinity

Sam Shamoun

This is the third article in our series of challenges to Muslims (1, 2) that aims to show what happens when the Islamic arguments that are used against Christians are applied against the Muslim scripture. This particular paper will focus on challenging the Quran’s teaching regarding the Trinity and the Incarnation.

This is the challenge:


Explanation of the Challenges

A study of the Quran shows that the Muslim scripture nowhere attacks or even accurately defines the historic Christian understanding of God as Triune and Jesus’ filial relationship to God. The Quran attacks a distorted and grossly inaccurate view of these essential Christian truths.

For instance, the Quran rebukes Christians for claiming that God is the Messiah or that God is the third of three:

They are unbelievers who say, 'God is the Messiah, Mary's son.' Say: 'Who then shall overrule God in any way if He desires to destroy the Messiah, Mary's son, and his mother, and all those who are on earth?' For to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and of the earth, and all that is between them, creating what He will. God is powerful over everything. S. 5:17

They are unbelievers who say, 'God is the Messiah, Mary's son.' For the Messiah said, 'Children of Israel, serve God, my Lord and your Lord. Verily whoso associates with God anything, God shall prohibit him entrance to Paradise, and his refuge shall be the Fire; and wrongdoers shall have no helpers.' 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. S. 5:72-73

O ye who have received the scriptures, exceed not the just bounds in your religion, neither say of God [any other] than the truth. Verily Christ Jesus the son of Mary [is] the apostle of God, and his word, which he conveyed into Mary, and a spirit [proceeding] from him. Believe therefore in God, and his apostles, and say not, [there are] three [Gods]; forbear [this]; it will be better for you. God is but one God. Far be it from him that he should have a son! Unto him [belongeth] whatsoever [is] in heaven and on earth; and God is a sufficient protector. S. 4:171 Sale

There are numerous problems with the above distortions of Christian theology. First, the official position of historic, authentic Christianity is that Jesus is God, not that God is Jesus which is a wrong formulation. As noted Evangelical Christian scholar and author Murray J. Harris says:

Can we, therefore, say that the New Testament teaches that Jesus is "God"? Yes indeed, provided we constantly bear in mind several factors.

First, to say that "Jesus is God" is true to the New Testament thought, but it goes beyond actual New Testament diction. The nearest comparable statements are "the Word was God" (John 1:1), "the Only Son, who is God" (John 1:18), and "the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever" (Rom. 9:5). So we must remember that the theological proposition "Jesus is God" is an inference from the New Testament evidence – a necessary and true inference, but nonetheless an inference.

Second, if we make the statement "Jesus is God" without qualification, we are in danger of failing to do justice to the whole truth about Jesus– that he was the incarnate Word, a human being, and that in his present existence in heaven he retains his humanity, although now it is in a glorified form. Jesus is not simply "man" nor only "God," but the God-man.

Third, given English usage of the word God, the simple affirmation "Jesus is God" may be easily misinterpreted. In common English usage God is a proper name, identifying a particular person, not a common noun designating a class. For us God is the God of the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition, or God the Father of Jesus and of the Christian, or the trinitarian Godhead. So when we make the equation in English, "Jesus is God," we are in danger of suggesting that these two terms, "Jesus" and "God," are interchangeable, that there is a numerical identity between the two. But while Jesus is God, it is not true that God is Jesus. There are others–the Father and the Spirit– of whom the predicate God may be rightfully used. Jesus is all that God is, without being all there is of God. The person of Jesus does not exhaust the category of deity. So then, when we say, "Jesus is God," we must recognize that we are attaching a meaning to the term God – namely, "God in essence" or "God by nature" – that is not its predominate sense in English. (Harris, 3 Crucial Questions About Jesus [Baker Books; Grand Rapids, MI 1994], pp. 101-102; bold emphasis ours)

Neither is this a modern idea, but one that has been believed by Christians even before Muhammad, as noted by Muslim author Neal Robinson. Robinson mentions an ancient Nestorian Christian reference and says that:

… The text which dates from around 550 CE. concludes a discussion of the Trinity with the words ‘The Messiah is God but God is not the Messiah’. The Qur'an echoes ONLY the latter half of the statement. C. Schedl, Muhammad and Jesus (Vienna: Herder, 1978), p. 531. (Neal Robinson, Christ In Islam and Christianity [State University of New York Press, Albany 1991], p. 197; capital and underline emphasis mine)

Second, Christians do not claim that God is the third of three, but that the Trinitarian God is one in essence and Being while existing as three Persons at the same time, i.e. that he is actually three in one.

Moreover, if by God the Quran means the Person of the Father then this is still wrong since in Christian theology the Father is the first Person of three, not the third one. The Holy Spirit is the third of three Divine Persons who eternally exist as one God. Murray Harris, while commenting on the reason the NT rarely applies the noun God to Jesus, notes that in both the Christian Scriptures and Trinitarianism God is used primarily for the Father since it almost functions as his proper name:

But you may ask, why are there so few examples of this usage in the New Testament? If Jesus really is God, why is he not called "God" more often? After all, there are over 1,300 uses of the Greek theos in the New Testament. Several reasons may be given to explain this apparently strange usage.

First, in all strands of the New Testament the term theos usually refers to the Father. We often find the expression God the Father, which implies that God is the Father. Also, in trinitarian formulas "God" ALWAYS denotes the Father, never the Son or the Spirit. For example, 2 Corinthians 13:14 reads, "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." What is more, in the salutations at the beginning of many New Testament letters, "God" is distinguished from "the Lord Jesus Christ." So Paul’s letters regularly begin, "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." As a result of all this, in the New Testament the term theos in the singular has become virtually a proper name, referring to the trinitarian Father… (Harris, p. 99; capital emphasis ours)

Thus, to say that Christians believe that God is the third of three is equivalent to claiming that Christians actually believe that the Father is the third of three Persons, which is a gross distortion!

It is clear from the Quran itself that Christians are being accused of believing in three gods, of which God is the third. The Quran even mentions who these two other gods supposedly are:

And when God said, 'O Jesus son of Mary, didst thou say unto men, "Take me and my mother as gods, apart from God"?' He said, 'To Thee be glory! It is not mine to say what I have no right to. If I indeed said it, Thou knowest it, knowing what is within my soul, and I know not what is within Thy soul; Thou knowest the things unseen I only said to them what Thou didst command me: "Serve God, my Lord and your Lord." And I was a witness over them, while I remained among them; but when Thou didst take me to Thyself, Thou wast Thyself the watcher over them; Thou Thyself art witness of everything S. 5:116-117

Jesus and Mary are supposed to be these other gods! This explains the following statement that Jesus and Mary both ate food:

The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a Messenger; Messengers before him passed away; his mother was a just woman; they both ate food. Behold, how We make clear the signs to them; then behold, how they perverted are! S. 5:75

The logic here is that since Jesus and Mary ate they could not have been divine, with the implication being that Christians actually believe that there are literally three gods consisting of Father, mother and son!

This fact was not lost on some of the Muslim expositors. The two renowned Muslim exegetes, al-Jalalayn, state in reference to Sura 5:73:

They are indeed disbelievers those who say, 'God is the third of three', gods, that is, He is one of them, the other two being Jesus and his mother, and they [who claim this] are a Christian sect; when there is no god but the One God. If they do not desist from what they say, when they declare a trinity, and profess His Oneness, those of them who disbelieve, that is, [those] who are fixed upon unbelief, shall suffer a painful chastisement, namely, the Fire. (Tafsir al-Jalalayn; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

Another commentary, one attributed to Ibn Abbas, says regarding Sura 5:75:

(The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger) sent to people, (messengers (the like of whom) had passed away before him. And his mother was a saintly woman. And they both used to eat (earthly) food) they were both servants who used to eat food. (See) O Muhammad (how we make the revelations) the signs that Jesus and his mother were not gods (clear for them, and see) O Muhammad (how they are turned away) through lies! (Tanwr al-Miqbs min Tafsr Ibn ‘Abbs; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

And here is how they all explained Sura 4:171:

Allah then revealed about the Nestorian Christians of Najran who claimed that Jesus was the son of Allah and that Jesus and the Lord are partners, saying: (O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate) do not be extreme (in your religion) for this is not the right course (nor utter aught concerning Allah save the Truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary) and through His word he became a created being, (and a spirit from Him) and through His command, Jesus became a son without a father. (So believe in Allah and His messengers) all the messengers including Jesus, (and say not "Three") a son, father and wife. (Cease!) from making such a claim and repent ((it is) better for you!) than such a claim. (Allah is only One God) without a son or partner. (Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty that he should have a son. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth) are His servants. (And Allah is sufficient as Defender) as Lord of all created beings and He is witness of what He says about Jesus. (Tanwr al-Miqbs min Tafsr Ibn ‘Abbs; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

O People of the Scripture, the Gospel, do not go to extremes, do not go beyond the bounds, in your religion and do not say about God except, the saying of, the truth, such as exalting Him above any associations with a partner or a child: the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word which He cast to, [which] He conveyed to, Mary, and a spirit, that is, one whose spirit is, from Him: he [Jesus] is here attached to God, exalted be He, as an honouring for him, and not as you claim, that he is the son of God, or a god alongside Him, or one of three, because one that possesses a spirit is compound, while God transcends being compound and the attribution of compounds to Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and do not say, that the gods are, 'Three', God, Jesus and his mother. Refrain, from this and say what, it is better for you, [to say], which is the profession of His Oneness. Verily, God is but One God. Glory be to Him, transcending [the possibility], that He should have a son! To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth, as possessions, creatures and servants, and such sovereignty is not compatible with [that] prophethood [of Jesus]. God suffices as a Guardian, a Witness to this. (Tafsir al-Jalalayn; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

Moreover, the Quran’s rejection of Jesus’ Sonship is based on a similarly erroneous view that this type of relationship somehow implies that God had sex:

Yet they ascribe to God, as associates, the jinn, though He created them; and they impute to Him sons and daughters without any knowledge. Glory be to Him! High be He exalted above what they describe! The Creator of the heavens and the earth -- how should He have a son, seeing that He has no consort, and He created all things, and He has knowledge of everything? S. 6:100-101

He -- exalted be our Lord's majesty! has not taken to Himself either consort or a son. S. 72:3

The foregoing assumes that for God to take a son he has to have a consort, and presupposes that the only way God could have a son is by engaging in sexual relations with a woman!

Needless to say, this is not what Christians believe or have taught historically. The Quran, therefore, nowhere attacks and/or rejects the historic formulation of the Trinity or Jesus’ relationship to God as his eternal Son, a relationship that is purely spiritual in nature and has absolutely no sexual implications whatsoever. It is just as blasphemous to the Christian, as it is to the Muslim, to claim that Jesus is God’s Son through a sexual union between God and a woman, specifically Mary, or that there are three gods consisting of the Father, Mary the mother, and Jesus their Son.(1)

A Muslim may argue that the foregoing Quranic texts were not intended to address the historic orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but specific heretical Christian sects that were flourishing at the time of Muhammad. Apart from there being a lack of corroborating evidence that such groups existed during this period, this claim (if it were true) only further proves that the Quran nowhere addresses and/or challenges the historic Christian understanding of God's Triunity and Christ's Deity!

Finally, the Quran asserts that God is able to do all things:

The lightning almost snatcheth away their sight from them. As often as it flasheth forth for them they walk therein, and when it darkeneth against them they stand still. If Allah willed, He could destroy their hearing and their sight. Lo! Allah is able to do all things. S. 2:20 Pickthall

It also says that God’s own spirit and his angels are able to take on human appearance:

And had We made him an angel, yet assuredly We would have made him a man, and confused for them the thing which they themselves are confusing. S. 6:9

And mention in the Book Mary when she withdrew from her people to an eastern place, and she took a veil apart from them; then We sent unto her Our Spirit that presented himself to her a man without fault. She said, ‘I take refuge in the All-merciful from thee! If thou fearest God’ … He said, ‘I am but a messenger come from thy Lord, to give thee a boy most pure. She said, ‘How shall I have a son whom no mortal has touched, neither have I been unchaste?’ He said, ‘Even so thy Lord has said: "Easy is that for Me; and that We may appoint him a sign unto men and a mercy from Us; it is a thing decreed."’ S. 19:16-21

If these beings are capable of appearing in the form of men without ceasing to be what they are, or causing their natures to change or be affected by it, then why can’t Allah do the same? Moreover, if Allah cannot appear or become a man without ceasing to be God then does this mean that his spirit and angels are more powerful than he since they are capable of doing something that he himself cannot do?

Where does the Quran say that it is beneath the dignity of Allah to appear as a man to his creatures?

And if it is beneath his dignity then does this imply that Allah’s spirit and his angels are less dignified then he? Does it mean that Allah actually permits them to do something that is less than honorable?

If the Muslims say Allah cannot simply do all things since he cannot cease to exist, cease to be in control etc., then we simply repeat our challenge to them to show us a single Quranic verse which says that one of the things that Allah cannot do is appear as or become a human being.

All Quranic references taken from Arthur J. Arberry unless stated otherwise.


Further Reading

http://answering-islam.org/Quran/Tafsir/005.072.html
http://answering-islam.org/Why-not/13trinity.html
http://answering-islam.org/Shamoun/filial_terms.htm
http://answering-islam.org/Quran/Contra/without_consort.html
http://answering-islam.org/Shamoun/eternal_quran.htm
http://answering-islam.org/Responses/Saifullah/t5_73.htm


Endnotes

(1) It is truly amusing and rather interesting that it is the Quran which implicitly portrays Allah as part of a triad of father, mother and offspring. The Quran claims that it has a mother:

God doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth: with Him is the Mother of the Book. S. 13:39 Y. Ali

We have made it a Qur'an in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand (and learn wisdom). And verily, it is in the Mother of the Book, in Our Presence, high (in dignity), full of wisdom. S. 43:3-4 Y. Ali

Moreover, the Quran is believed to be the eternal speech of Allah which means that Allah fathered the Quran in the sense that he spoke it out of himself, and can therefore be likened to a spiritual begetting or birthing. Thus, Allah can be considered the father of the Quran which means that the Quran’s mother, which is said to be "with Him" and "in Our Presence", can be viewed as his wife! This means that the Quran has essentially blasphemed Allah by making him the third of three, and for claiming that it has a mother implying that both it and its mother are the other two gods. We can therefore paraphrase the Quran’s repudiation of what Christians supposedly believe and apply it against its own teachings and Muslim beliefs:

Muslims are unbelievers who say, 'God is the Third of Three (namely Allah, the Preserved Tablet, and the Quran). 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.

The Quran, the offspring of the Preserved Tablet, was only Allah’s message; messages of which have been erased, burned or destroyed before; its mother was a pure table; they both were written down or recited, which means that they can be erased or forgotten. Behold, how We make clear the signs to them; then behold, how they are perverted!

And when God said, 'O Quran, offspring of the Preserved Tablet, did you say unto men, "Take me and my mother as gods apart from God"?' The Book will say, 'Glory be to you! It is not mine to say what I have no right to. If I indeed said it, You know it, knowing what is within my pages, and I know not what is within Your soul; You know the things unseen I only said to them what You did command me: "Serve God, my Lord and your Lord." And I was a witness over them, while I remained among them; but when You did take me to Yourself, You, yourself, were the watcher over them; You, yourself, are witness of everything.

O people of the Quran, exceed not the just bounds in your religion, neither say of God [any other] than the truth. Verily the Quran, the offspring of the Preserved Tablet [is] simply the message of Allah, his word which he conveyed to Muhammad, and a spiritual revelation [proceeding] from him. Believe therefore in God, and his messages, and say not, [there are] three [Gods]; forbear [this]; it will be better for you. God is but one God. Far be it from him that he should have a book as a son! Unto him [belongs] whatsoever [is] in heaven and on earth; and God is a sufficient protector.


Articles by Sam Shamoun
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