(Text of a lecture given to a group of Christians in Oxford, 1996)
A number of difficulties will beset any presentation of Muslim understandings of the Trinity. Not the least of these is the fact that these Muslim understandings have been almost as diverse and as numerous as those obtaining among Christian scholars themselves. It is true that medieval Islam knew much more about Christian doctrine than the doctors of the Church did about Islam, for the obvious reason that Muslim societies contained literate minorities with whom one could debate, something which was normally not the case in Christendom. Muslim-Christian dialogue, a novelty in the West, has a long history in the Middle East, going back at least as far as the polite debates between St John of Damascus and the Muslim scholars of seventh-century Syria. And yet reading our theologians one usually concludes that most of them never quite ‘got’ the point about the Trinity. Their analysis can usually be faulted on grounds not of unsophistication, but of insufficient familiarity with the complexities of Scholastic or Eastern trinitarian thinking. Often they merely tilt at windmills.
There were, I think, two reasons for this. Firstly, the doctrine of Trinity was the most notorious point at issue between Christianity and Islam, and hence was freighted with fierce passions. For the pre-modern Muslim mind, Christian invaders, crusaders, inquisitors and the rest were primarily obsessed with forcing the doctrine of Trinity on their hapless Muslim enemies. It is recalled even today among Muslims in Russia that when Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan, capital of the Volga Muslims, he told its people that they could escape the sword by ‘praising with us the Most Blessed Trinity for generation unto generation.’ Even today in Bosnia, Serb irregulars use the three-fingered Trinity salute as a gesture of defiance against their Muslim enemies. And so on. Much Muslim theologising about the Trinity has hence been set in a bitterly polemical context of fear and often outright hatred: the Trinity as the very symbol of the unknown but violent other lurking on the barbarous northern shores of the Mediterranean, scene of every kind of demonic wickedness and cruelty.
To this distortion one has to add, I think, some problems posed by the doctrine of the Trinity itself. Islam, while it has produced great thinkers, has nonetheless put fewer of its epistemological eggs in the theological basket than has Christianity. Reading Muslim presentations of the Trinity one cannot help but detect a sense of impatience. One of the virtues of the Semitic type of consciousness is the conviction that ultimate reality must be ultimately simple, and that the Nicene talk of a deity with three persons, one of whom has two natures, but who are all somehow reducible to authentic unity, quite apart from being rationally dubious, seems intuitively wrong. God, the final ground of all being, surely does not need to be so complicated.
These two obstacles to a correct understanding of the Trinity do to some extent persist even today. But a new obstacle has in the past century or so presented itself inasmuch as the old Western Christian consensus on what the Trinity meant, which was always a fragile consensus, no longer seems to obtain among many serious Christian scholars. Surveying the astonishing bulk and vigour of Christian theological output, Muslims can find it difficult to know precisely how most Christians understand the Trinity. It is also our experience that Christians are usually keener to debate other topics; and we tend to conclude that this is because they themselves are uncomfortable with aspects of their Trinitarian theology.
What I will try to do, then, is to set out my own understanding, as a Muslim, of the Trinitarian doctrine. I would start by making the obvious point that I recognise that a lot is at stake here for historic Christian orthodoxy. The fundamental doctrine of Trinity makes no sense unless the doctrines of incarnation and atonement are also accepted. St Anselm, in his Cur Deus Homo, showed that the concept of atonement demanded that Christ had to be God, since only an infinite sacrifice could atone for the limitless evil of humanity, which was, in Augustine’s words, a massa damnata – a damned mass because of Adam’s original sin. Jesus of Nazareth was hence God incarnate walking on earth, distinct from God the Father dwelling in heaven and hearing our prayers. It thus became necessary to think of God as at least two in one, who were at least for a while existing in heaven and on earth, as distinct entities. In early Christianity, the Logos which was the Christ-spirit believed to be active as a divine presence in human life, in time became hypostatized as a third person, and so the Trinity was born. No doubt this process was shaped by the triadic beliefs which hovered in the Near Eastern air of the time, many of which included the belief in a divine atonement figure.
Now, looking at the evidence for this process, I have to confess I am not a Biblical scholar, armed with the dazzling array of philological qualifications deployed by so many others. But it does seem to me that a consensus has been emerging among serious historians, pre-eminent among whom are figures such as Professor Geza Vermes of Oxford, that Jesus of Nazareth himself never believed, or taught, that he was the second person of a divine trinity. We know that he was intensely conscious of God as a divine and loving Father, and that he dedicated his ministry to proclaiming the imminence of God’s kingdom, and to explaining how human creatures could transform themselves in preparation for that momentous time. He believed himself to be the Messiah, and the ‘son of man’ foretold by the prophets. We know from the study of first-century Judaism, recently made accessible by the Qumran discoveries, that neither of these terms would have been understood as implying divinity: they merely denoted purified servants of God.
The term ‘son of God’, frequently invoked in patristic and medieval thinking to prop up the doctrine of Jesus’s divinity, was in fact similarly unpersuasive: in the Old Testament and in wider Near Eastern usage it can be applied to kings, pharoahs, miracle workers and others. Yet when St Paul carried his version of the Christian message beyond Jewish boundaries into the wider gentile world, this image of Christ’s sonship was interpreted not metaphorically, but metaphysically. The resultant tale of controversies, anathemas and political interventions is complex; but what is clear is that the Hellenized Christ, who in one nature was of one substance with God, and in another nature was of one substance with humanity, bore no significant resemblance to the ascetic prophet who had walked the roads of Galilee some three centuries before.
From the Muslim viewpoint, this desemiticising of Jesus was a catastrophe. Three centuries after Nicea, the Quran stated:
‘The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers the like of whom had passed away before him . . . O people of the Book – stress not in your religion other than the truth, and follow not the vain desires of a people who went astray before you.’ (Surat al-Ma’ida, 75)
‘O people of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion, nor utter anything concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and do not say ‘Three’. Desist, it will be better for you. God is only One God. . . . The Messiah would never have scorned to be a slave of God.’ (Surat al-Nisa, 171-2)
The Qur’anic term for ‘exaggeration’ used here, ghuluww, became a standard term in Muslim heresiography for any tendency, Muslim or otherwise, which attributed divinity to a revered and charismatic figure. We are told that during the life of the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, a few of his devoted followers from Iraq, where Hellenistic and pagan cultures formed the background of many converts, described him as God, or the vehicle of a Divine incarnation – hulul. The claim of course irritated Ali profoundly, and he banished those who made it from his sight; but even today marginal Islamic sectaries like the Kizilbash of Turkey, or the Alawites of the Syrian mountains, maintain an esoteric cosmology which asserts that God became incarnate in Ali, and then in the succession of Imams who descended from him.
Mainstream Islam, however, despite its rapid spread over non-Semitic populations, never succumbed to this temptation. The best-known of all devotional poems about the Blessed Prophet Muhammad: the famous Mantle Ode of al-Busairi, defines the frontier of acceptable veneration:
‘Renounce what the Christians claim concerning their prophet,
Then praise him as you will, and with all your heart.
For although he was of human nature,
He was the best of humanity without exception.’
A few years previously, the twelfth-century theologian Al-Ghazali had summed up the dangers of ghuluww when he wrote that the Christians had been so dazzled by the divine light reflected in the mirror like heart of Jesus, that they mistook the mirror for the light itself, and worshipped it. But what was happening to Jesus was not categorically distinct from what happened, and may continue to happen, to any purified human soul that has attained the rank of sainthood. The presence of divine light in Jesus’ heart does not logically entail a doctrine of Jesus’ primordial existence as a hypostasis in a divine trinity.
There are other implications of Trinitarian doctrine which concern Muslims. Perhaps one should briefly mention our worries about the doctrine of Atonement, which implies that God is only capable of really forgiving us when Jesus has borne our just punishment by dying on the cross. John Hick has remarked that ‘a forgiveness that has to be bought by full payment of the moral debt is not in fact forgiveness at all.’ More coherent, surely, is the teaching of Jesus himself in the parable of the prodigal son, who is fully forgiven by his father despite the absence of a blood sacrifice to appease his sense of justice. The Lord’s Prayer, that superb petition for forgiveness, nowhere implies the need for atonement or redemption.
Jesus’ own doctrine of God’s forgiveness as recorded in the Gospels is in fact entirely intelligible in terms of Old Testament and Islamic conceptions. ‘God can forgive all sins’, says the Quran. And in a well-known hadith of the Prophet we are told:
On the Day of Judgement, a herald angel shall cry out [God’s word] from beneath the Throne, saying: ‘O nation of Muhammad! All that was due to me from you I forgive you now, and only the rights which you owed one another remain. Thus forgive one another, and enter Heaven through My Mercy.’
And in a famous incident:
It is related that a boy was standing under the sun on a hot summer’s day. He was seen by a woman concealed among the people, who made her way forwards vigorously until she took up the child and clutched him to her breast. Then she turned her back to the valley to keep the heat away from him, saying, ‘My son! My son!’ At this the people wept, and were distracted from everything that they were doing. Then the Messenger of God, upon whom be peace, came up. They told him of what had happened, when he was delighted to see their their compassion. Then he gave them glad news, saying: ‘Marvel you at this woman’s compassion for her son?’ and they said that they did. And he declared, ‘Truly, the Exalted God shall be even more compassionate towards you than is this woman towards her son.’ At this, the Muslims went their ways in the greatest rapture and joy.
This same hadith presents an interesting feature of Muslim assumptions about the divine forgiveness: its apparently ‘maternal’ aspect. The term for the Compassionate and Loving God used in these reports, al-Rahman, was said by the Prophet himself to derive from rahim, meaning a womb. Some recent Muslim reflection has seen in this, more or less rightly I think, a reminder that God has attributes which may metaphorically be associated with a ‘feminine, maternal’ character, as well as the more ‘masculine’ predicates such as strength and implacable justice. This point is just beginning to be picked up by our theologians. There is not time to explore the matter fully, but there is a definite and interesting convergence between the Christology of feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther, and that of Muslims.
In a recent work, the Jordanian theologian Hasan al-Saqqaf reaffirms the orthodox belief that God transcends gender, and cannot be spoken of as male or female, although His attributes manifest either male or female properties, with neither appearing to be preponderant. This gender-neutral understanding of the Godhead has figured largely in Karen Armstrong’s various appreciations of Islam, and is beginning to be realised by other feminist thinkers as well. For instance, Maura O’Neill in a recent book observes that ‘Muslims do not use a masculine God as either a conscious or unconscious tool in the construction of gender roles.’
One of Reuther’s own main objections to the Trinity, apart from its historically and Biblically sketchy foundations, is its emphatic attribution of masculine gender to God. She may or may not be exaggerating when she blames this attribution for the indignities suffered by Christian women down the ages. But she is surely being reasonable when she suggests that the male-dominated Trinity is marginalising to women, as it suggests that it was man who was made in the image of God, with woman as a revised and less theomorphic model of himself.
Partly under her influence, American Protestant liturgy has increasingly tried to de-masculinise the Trinity. Inclusive language lectionaries now refer to God as ‘Father and Mother’. The word for Christ’s relationship to God is now not ‘son’ but ‘child’. And so on, often to the point of absurdity or straightforward doctrinal mutilation.
Here in Britain, the feminist bull was grasped by the horns when the BCC Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today issued its report in 1989. The Commission’s response here was as follows:
‘The word Father is to be construed apophatically, that is, by means of a determined ‘thinking away’ of the inappropriate – and in this context that means masculine – connotations of the term. What will remain will be an orientation to personhood, to being in relation involving origination in a personal sense, not maleness.’
Now, one has to say that this is unsatisfactory. The concept of fatherhood, stripped of everything which has male associations, is not fatherhood at all. It is not even parenthood, since parenthood has only two modalities. The Commissioners are simply engaging in the latest exegetical manoeuvres required by the impossible Trinitarian doctrine, which are, as John Biddle, the father of Unitarianism put it, ‘fitter for conjurers than for Christians.’
The final point that occurs to me is that the Trinity, mapped out in awesome detail in the several volumes devoted to it by Aquinas, attempts to presume too much about the inner nature of God. I mentioned earlier that Islam has historically been more sceptical of philosophical theology as a path to God than has Christianity, and in fact the divine unity has been affirmed by Muslims on the basis of two supra-rational sources: the revelation of the Quran, and the unitive experience of the mystics and the saints. That God is ultimately One, and indivisible, is the conclusion of all higher mysticism, and Islam, as a religion of the divine unity par excellence, has linked faith with mystical experience very closely. An eighteenth century Bosnian mystic, Hasan Kaimi, expressed this in a poem which even today is chanted and loved by the people of Sarajevo:
O seeker of truth, it is your heart’s eye you must open.
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.
If you object: ‘I am waiting for my mind to grasp His nature’,
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.Should you wish to behold the visage of God,
Surrender to Him, and invoke His names,
When your soul is clear a light of true joy shall shine.
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.