Christians who dialogue with orthodox Muslims will often encounter appeals to the 112th chapter of the Qur’ān, sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ (also known as sūrat at-Tawḥīd). The Muslim participants in those dialogues will often present the relevant Qur’ānic text as an unambiguous reference to a unipersonal conception of God, and thus at odds with the doctrine of the Trinity.
It will be the contention of the author of this blog entry that the relevant chapter does not obviously contradict classical Christian doctrine, or more generally a multipersonal conception of God. However, it is important to be careful to note, here, that stating that the text does not contradict a multipersonal conception of God is not the same as stating that it therefore affirms a multipersonal conception of God. It is the contention of the author of this blog entry that the text simply leaves the question open, which is to say the text is very clear that there is only one God, but it does not explicitly provide finer details regarding the one God’s ontology.
So what follows below is one lay Christian’s sincere amateur attempt to explore the question of whether the text of sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ contradicts a multipersonal conception of God. This blog entry will cover the entirety of the chapter, while attempting to focus on the features which are popularly understood to be at odds with the classical Christian faith.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”
Here there is no objection. A Christian has no problem with referring to God as merciful and compassionate. However, some Christians, at least those with a mind more towards the possibility of an esoteric reading of the text, might, at the very least, find it interesting that a specifically triadic collection of terms was employed to refer to God.
قل هو اللّه احد
“Say: He is God, One”
Before getting to the word aḥad (احد), which is at the center of most discussion on this chapter, some attention should be paid to the third person singular pronoun, huwa (هو).
Some argue that a singular pronoun implies a unipersonal ontology. However, the reality is that a masculine singular pronoun merely refers to a grammatically masculine singular entity, and such an entity, in reality, can be impersonal, unipersonal or multipersonal.
For an example of the relevant pronoun being employed to refer to an impersonal entity, one can turn to sūrat Al ᶜImrān 3:37, where huwa is used in reference to the sustenance which was provided to Mary.
For an example of said pronoun being employed to refer to a multipersonal entity, consider this ᶜArabic language interview with a professional football/soccer player, who is quoted as stating the following:
مانشستر يونايتد هو النادي المفضل بالنسبة لي وسألعب له حتى نهاية عقدي
“Manchester United is my favorite team, and I will play for it until the end of my contract”
Note that huwa is employed in reference to the team (and, relevant to verse 4, which will be discussed below, so too lahu [له] is employed to refer to the team). There is nothing improper about such, as these constructions are merely employed to refer to entities which are grammatically masculine singular, without requiring that said entities are unipersonal. In short, huwa does not preclude an entity it refers to from possessing multipersonal ontology.
Moving on, one can now turn to the word aḥad (احد), which is central to discussions on this chapter. The popular belief among many is that this word necessitates a unipersonal ontology. However, if one, for example, Googles the phrase aḥad al-qabā’il (احد القبائل), one will get tens of thousands of hits in which aḥad is employed to refer to a particular tribe (and that tribe no doubt comprises multiple persons). Therefore the word can be employed to refer to a multipersonal entity, and thus its use does not by itself preclude an entity it refers to from possessing a multipersonal ontology.
It is worth noting that when Ethiopian Tewaḥedo Orthodox Christians recite the triadic formula, “in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God,” they say the following in Geᶜez:
በስመ አብ ወወልድ ወመንፈስ ቅዱስ አሐዱ አምላክ
be-sime Ab, we-Weld, we-Menfes Qidus, aḥadu Amlak
The Geᶜez word aḥadu (አሐዱ) is identical to the ᶜArabic word aḥad (احد). Some might find interesting the parallel between that Geᶜez phrase and the opening of sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ (i.e. the basmala together with the opening verse), insofar that both begin with a triadic formula and then declare that the God so described is A7D (አሐዱ=احد).
This blog entry will return to the subject of the word aḥad (احد) in the discussion on the last verse of the chapter, below.
“God, the Eternal”
The meaning of the word ṣamad (صمد) is a point of some uncertainty. Many translations render it “eternal,” while others render it “self-sufficient”. Still others have argued that it means “the highest authority”. Those would not be problematic interpretations, as Trinitarians (and proponents of other multipersonal conceptions of God) would happily declare that the one God is indeed eternal, self-sufficient, and/or the highest authority.
However, there are others who have argued that, early on, the term meant “solid,” perhaps with the intention of meaning not comprising divisible parts. While a proponent of a classical Christian conception of God might be uncomfortable describing God as “solid,” they could still agree with the notion of God is indivisible or inseparable.
While there are a myriad of speculations as to what the term might mean, perhaps one can find more insight by making recourse to related terms in other Semitic languages. For example, the Geᶜez zamada (ዘመደ) and ḍamada (ፀመደ), which gave rise to Tigrigna ṣamada (ጸመደ), corresponding to Hebrew and Aramaic ṣamad (צמד). All of these terms have a notion of yoking, joining, binding together. Biblical Hebrew has a noun form which is spelled the same way, which refers to a team (a yoke, a union) of animals. Targum Yonatan to Ezekiel 34:16 employs a verb from that root to refer to the repairing (or binding up) of that which is broken. Though it is not the intention of this blog entry to insist that the relevant Qur’ānic term must be understood along those lines, the aforementioned Christian with an eye towards something more esoteric might wonder if this verse could be understood along the lines of “God, the united”.
Perhaps in closing this section, it is best to say that while the precise meaning of ṣamad is open to speculation, many of the possible meanings are quite compatible with a multipersonal conception of God. Therefore, keeping in mind the formal logical definition of “contradiction,” this would entail that the term does not contradict a multipersonal conception of God (even if some try to insist on specific interpretations which are at odds with such).
لم يلد ولم يولد
“He does not beget and He is not begotten”
While many see this as a particularly explicit jab at classical Christian doctrine, it is arguably not germane to a discussion on whether the chapter is compatible with a multipersonal conception of God. That is to say, while classical Christian doctrine contains references to “begetting,” that need not be an essential part of a multipersonal conception of God in general (i.e. it is at least conceivable to imagine a conception of God which posits that the one God comprises multiple Persons, without insisting that any of those Persons engage in, or were subject to, any sort of “begetting”).
Nonetheless, if the question of whether this contradicts specifically Christian doctrine is to be explored, it will require raising a question about in what sense these verbs are meant.
For example, consider this preliminary question: did the historical Jesus use the word “Father” in reference to God? It seems difficult to deny that the historical Jesus did in fact employ that term, which would entail that God, in some sense, has a “son” or multiple “children”. Many —not all, but many— Muslims have seemed willing to accept that it can be permissible to employ such terminology in some benign, metaphorical sense (consider, for example, the famous line of Ahmed Deedat and many inspired by him, that “in the Bible, God has sons by the tons”). If it is possible for sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ 1:3 to be true and for it to also be the case that certain monotheists in good standing from the past referred to God as Father (or referred to certain believers as sons of God), that would open the door to the possibility that the Qur’ānic objection is intended in a limited sense, which does not encompass those earlier references.
An interesting Biblical passage to consider is Psalm 90:2, which, when referring to the creation of mountains, reads “harīm yuladū” (הרים ילדו). That is often translated “the mountains were brought forth,” but it is from precisely the same root which gives rise to the verb “beget”. In fact, the ᶜArabic yūlad (يولد) and the Hebrew yuladū (ילדו) are basically the same verb, in so far that, in each case, it is the common YLD root (ילד=يلد), in the first verb stem (called faᶜala in ᶜArabic and paᶜal in Hebrew [פעל=فعل]), rendered in the third person passive. The only major difference beyond that is that the term in the Psalm is plural while the term in sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ is singular. In short, the creation of the mountains (presumably an act of God) is described as the mountains being ‘begotten’. This raises a question: if the semantic range of the relevant verb can extend to acts like that, is the intention of the Qur’ānic verse to preclude even acts like that? If the answer is no, then that could be grounds to think the Qur’ānin use of the verb is intended within a limited scope.
Moving away from those perhaps more benign notions of ‘begetting,’ and focusing more specifically on the idea of Jesus being a unique Son of God, it may be helpful to begin with an analogy, which considers the question of whether God has a hand. A believer in the Qur’ān might deny that God has any hands in the sense of the physical hands typically found on human bodies, and yet that same person might infer from the Qur’ān that the text therein does affirm the idea of God having a “yad,” which might be translated “hand,” though it could still be unlike any hand found in creation.
With that sort of approach to terminology in mind, it is likewise possible that the concept of the Son being “begotten before all ages” is referring to a unique sort of “begetting” which is unlike any form of begetting found within creation. That in turn moves one to ask the question: is that necessarily the sort of begetting the Qur’ān is polemicizing against? If the Qur’ānic terms were intended within a limited scope, then it would seem there are no textual indicators in the chapter necessitating the conclusion that this verse must encompass such a unique concept as “begotten before all ages”.
On a more controversial note, it might be worthwhile to consider the nuance that can be possible with a multipersonal conception of God: to say that one or more of the Persons “within” the one God engaged in an action need not necessarily entail affirming that the one God (in the sense of the “entirety” of the Persons “therein”) engaged in that action. For example, one might think of the term “God” (or Allah) as referring to a “union” of Persons, and borrow the Biblical Hebrew term ṣemed (צמד) to refer to that “union” [or “team,” or “yoke”]. Within such a conceptual paradigm, a declaration that God the Ṣemed neither begets nor was begotten need not necessarily entail that this must mean no person “within” God the Ṣemed has or was begotten. For a soft analogy, as was noted earlier, the Hebrew Bible uses the word ṣemed to refer to a yoked together team of animals, but the individual animals engaging in or having been the result of procreative begetting need not force us to say the ṣemed as a whole begets or was begotten.
To summarize, it is possible for the relevant Qur’ānic text to be limited in scope. Moreover, if it is limited in scope, it is unclear that it includes the relevant Christian notions of ‘begetting’. Therefore the relevant Qur’ānic text and Christian concepts are potentially reconcilable, which means they do not constitute a formal contradiction. In short, it is many readers’ interpretations of sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ which are at odds with the relevant Christian concepts, not necessarily sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ itself.
ولم يكن له كفوا احد
“And there is nothing equal to Him”
When looking at this final part of the chapter, a Christian can simply say they agree: nothing is equal to God.
However, similar to the discussion on huwa (هو), above, here too one might to wish to note that the combination of preposition and pronomial suffix, lahu (له) is masculine singular, and thus allege that it must entail a unipersonal ontology. The reality, however, is that a pronomial suffix works basically the same as a pronoun: just as the latter does not necessitate that which it refers to be unipersonal, neither does the former. And this has already been illustrated with the quote from the football/soccer player, which appeared above. Both huwa (هو) and lahu (له) were employed to refer to the team.
Now, attention can return to the scope of the word aḥad (احد), and whether or not it can be employed in reference to multipersonal entities. It is interesting that while many claim that aḥad at the start of sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ must mean unipersonal, an objection to that assertion might be found at the end of the very same chapter.
To understand why, consider this question: what does the last verse of the chapter encompass? The verse is stating that there is no single thing which is equal to God, but who would claim the verse is limiting itself only to unipersonal entities? For example, can we agree that the verse means that neither the U.S. military, nor the Chinese government, nor the entire unified Germany is equal to God? If so, then that would mean that the verse can include entities which comprise multiple persons, which would mean the use of aḥad there is not limited to unipersonal entities.
Conclusion and Closing Remarks
In formal logic, the definition of a contradiction is that two (or more) propositions contradict if, and only if, it is impossible for them to be true simultaneously. To explore whether a contradiction is present, one can draw up a truth table, to explore the different scenarios. Such a table explores logical space, which is to say it maps out what is possible. The different possibilities referred to therein do not have to be actual. If it is possible for two propositions being conjoined on a truth table to be true simultaneously (i.e. if there is some possible line on the truth table in which both are true), then they do not actually contradict each other.
With that in mind, this blog entry has discussed possible ways to understand the text of sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ. It seems clear that there are plausible ways to understand the text in which it would be possible for the both the text and Christian doctrine to be true simultaneously. That would mean sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ does not formally contradict classical Christian doctrine, despite very popular assumptions to the contrary.
That said, it may be worthwhile to repeat a disclaimer made towards the beginning of this blog entry: saying that the text does not contradict Christian doctrine is not the same as saying it therefore affirms Christian doctrine. If one attempts to critique this blog entry by accusing it of arguing that, for example, sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ affirms the Trinity, they will be attacking a straw man. While the blog entry did make passing references to triadic groupings of terms, that was within the scope of discussing possibilities, and was not intended as a positive declaration regarding what the text intended to affirm.
(1) The idea is not unheard of among professed believers in the Qu’rān. Meir M. Bar-Asher and Arieh Kofsky, The Nuṣayrī-ʻAlawī Religion: An Enquiry Into Its Theology and Liturgy, (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 38, n. 146, states the following: “The application of the Nuṣayrī trinity to the basmala formula is a recurrent motif in Nuṣayrī literature, both early and late.” Another line from the same book (p. 172, n. 38) reads similarly: “Interpretation of the basmala formula as referring to the three persons of the trinity is common in Nuṣayrī writings.”
(2) For those interested, a longer discussion on pronouns in Semitic languages can be found here.
(3) The same is the case with the Hebrew word eḥad (אחד), which is spelled the same (in the corresponding Hebrew characters) as the ᶜArabic word aḥad (احد). Some readers may find the author’s previous blog entry, Cosmic Tefillin and the Oneness of God, of interest, as it touches on Rabbinic texts which state that while Israel declares that God is eḥad (אחד), so too God declares that Israel is eḥad (אחד).
(4) Some may find it interesting to employ the South ᶜArabian script as a sort of bridge between the Geᶜez and ᶜArabic scripts, as if one transcribes the Geᶜez word aḥadu (አሐዱ) and the ᶜArabic word aḥad (احد) into the corresponding characters of the South ᶜArabian script, in both cases one arrives at the same string of characters (𐩱𐩢𐩵).
(5) Some might find interesting that the Sh’maᶜ, the Jewish creed of faith at Deuteronomy 6:4, likewise employs a triad of terms and then declares the God so described to be eḥad (אחד). Within more esoteric parts of the Rabbinic corpora, the three terms are treated as referring to three distinct entities.
(6) A very interesting discussion on some of the early understanding of the term can be found in Christos Simelidis, “The Byzantine Understanding of the Qur’anic Term ‘al-Șamad’ and the Greek Translation of the Qur’an,” Speculum, Vol. 86, No. 4 (October, 2011), pp. 887-913.
(7) It is interesting that even William Lane Craig, who openly flirted with heterodox (or non-classical) understandings of the Trinity which explicitly referred to a part-whole relationship, felt the need to declare that “obviously the persons are not parts of God in the sense in which a skeleton is part of a cat”. He also declared that the Trinity “does not involve separable parts.” Moreover, he conceded that “the church fathers frequently insisted that the expression ‘from the substance of the Father’ should not be understood to imply that the Son is formed by division or separation of the Father’s substance” and that “the concern here was clearly to avoid imagining the divine substance as a sort of ‘stuff’ which could be parceled out into smaller pieces.” All quotes in this end note can be found in James Porter Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), p. 591.
(8) Perhaps the most curious instance being the suggestion of a connection with ṣald (صلد), in Michael B. Schub, “True Belief – a New Translation and Commentary on Sūra 112,” Zeitschrift für Arabische Linguistik, No. 22 (1990), p. 82.
(9) Christian Friedrich August Dillmann, Lexicon Linguae Aethiopicae, (Leipzig: T.O. Weigel, 1865) p. 1043. Anticipating that one might wish to reflexively object that Geᶜez ḍamada (ፀመደ) can only be related to ᶜArabic ḍamada (ضمد), it is important to note the subsequent Tigrigna term, as well as the Hebrew and Aramaic terms.
(10) Wolf Leslau, Comparative Dictionary of Geᶜez, (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1991), p. 149.
(11) Much of this may sound quite different from the popular understanding of the ᶜArabic root, but perhaps a connection is retained (or hinted at) in the root giving rise to a verb meaning repair. Cf. J. Milton Cowan (ed.), A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, (Ithaca NY: Spoken Language Services, 1971), p. 525.
(12) Perhaps it is worth musing on the alternative name for the chapter, mentioned at the start of this blog entry: sūrat at-Tawḥīd. It turns out that the word tawḥīd (توحيد) can itself refer to a sort of unification. It also corresponds to the Geᶜez term tewaḥedo (ተዋሕዶ), which means union, and, interestingly, the Ethiopian Church which bears that term as part of its name is called Kanisat at-Tawḥīd in ᶜArabic.
(13) If one wishes to object that there can be non-literal sons without begetting, 1 Corinthians 4:15 might be of interest, as there can also be a concept of producing non-literal (or non-biological) sons via a non-literal (or non-biological) mode of “begetting”.
(14) Fun side note: the ᶜArabic Wikipedia entry on German reunification calls such iᶜādatu tawḥīd Almāniyā (إعادة توحيد ألمانيا), “return to [the] unification of Germany,” or more literally return to tawḥīd of Germany, as in that context, tawḥīd means unification (a union which, in that case, not only comprises the two halves of the state, but also persons).