Islam and the Trinity: A Dialogue Between Muslims and Christians?

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This is an appraisal of a document by K. Dayton Hartman II over at “Answering Islam.”  The notion of “differentiated unity,” and the assessment of the issue of Christian Trinitarianism within the Muslim worldview belong to him.  I have just offered my synthesis here.  {Author’s note: The conclusions I draw from Hartman’s article are different than his conclusions, please take the time to go over to “Answering Islam” and read the article.}

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              The centerpiece of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religion is their shared adherence to monotheism.  While the Jewish and Islamic faiths adhere to a “pure” monotheism, Christianity expresses its monotheism in the doctrine of the Trinity.[1]  Additionally, while the differences between Christianity and Islam may be varied, a good deal of the impasse existing between Christian and Islamic relationships exists over the Christian expression of the Trinity and its doctrinal progeny.[2]  Indeed, within orthodox Christianity, much of the doctrinal formation around Christ has been articulated through the Trinitarian formula.  Consequently, demonstrating how the doctrine of the Trinity maintains the tawhid of God within Islam will become an important element to bridging the gap between the two.  Some feel that answering the Muslim ideal of undifferentiated unity within the Trinity is a necessary first step.

              This type of undifferentiated unity, within observable reality, is the kind that we have come to expect from a rock.  If you break a rock into pieces, you are left with several rocks that exist individually in every aspect as they did when they were one larger rock.  The individual essence of a rock doesn’t change when the rock is broken.  This very rudimentary example analogizes the reasoning behind Islamic contentions that Christians worship three gods.  If you divide the person of God, then what you have is three gods not one.   The tawhid of God demands that he is, in ontological reality, a unity.  However, there are myriad other examples within biological existence that demonstrate the plausibility of a differentiated unity.   The human being for instance begins as an undifferentiated unity (in the embryonic state) that develops into a differentiated unity (in the fetal state and beyond).  Were a human being to be cut into two pieces, no one would claim that two humans existed where previously there was only one (unless the embryo splits, then we have twins, etc – hence the distinction between differentiated and undifferentiated unity).  Therefore, it is logically viable to assert that each member of the body serves a different purpose, yet they come together to form the unified existence of a human being.

              Admittedly, the Islamic notion of God and his transcendence may seem an obstacle for using the created order to explain the nature of God.  However, the Qur’an itself uses anthropomorphisms to shape the essence of God’s attributes and actions (Qur’an 38:71-72, 75; 49:1; 55:27; et al).  The problem of knowledge by way of analogy still exists, though.  Simile and metaphor are useful in communicating the unknown by some known means.  The extent to which the Islamic community will accept the use of analogy to describe the ontological reality of God, even within its demonstrated use in the Qur’an, is debatable.  However, the fact remains that Allah sought to demonstrate himself through what the prophet Muhammad wrote, and an out of hand rejection of understanding the nature of God through his creation would also damage the Islamic adherence to the notion that we can know God at all.  Unfortunately, it leaves this element of the debate firmly within the untenable sphere of degrees.[3]

              The argument for a differentiated unity is not completely worn out, however.  Islamic theology expresses an important eternal relationship between Allah and the Qur’an that demonstrates that the potential for such a notion is already present.  Specifically, the Qur’an self declares that it exists eternally alongside and in essence with God, but distinct from God in written form (Qur’an 85:21-22; 43:4; 4:164; 7:143; 2:253; 42:51).  Thus, perhaps an oversimplification here, the Qur’an is the literal word of God, and, as such, it shares (again, according to the Qur’an) the essence of who God is – including eternality, though it is present with humanity.  Those who understand the Trinitarian theology will immediately wonder what philosophical difference really exists between such an understanding of the relationship between Allah and the Qur’an and an orthodox understanding of the members of the Holy Trinity.  Hartman duly notes, “Undeniably, if the Qur’an is eternal, as the attribute of Allah’s speech, and yet exists distinctly in the ‘preserved tablet,’ this is analogous to the Christian conception of Trinity.”

              How, then, can Christianity and Islam begin reconciling their differences?  There is most certainly an element of stubborn adherence to vocabulary coming from both sides.  The term Trinity has come to be synonymous with polytheism within most Islamic circles, but it is a term that will never be relinquished by Christians.  The conversations, therefore, seemed to be forever doomed to beginning with a careful and diplomatic parsing of theological jargon.  The extent to which the average Christian and Muslim leader or layperson is equipped to enter into such philological sparring is debatable – and disappointing.

 

 


[1] Before any of you start in on me about how Trinitarian theology constitutes real or “pure” monotheism; allow me to say that I mean Christians, of the three (Islam, Judaism, Christianity), are the only group that puts qualification on God’s existence as a “differentiated unity,” whereas the other two do not.

[2] I am here thinking of all the Christological doctrines that come out of the Christian notion that Jesus is divine: the incarnation, the sinless life, the atoning sacrifice, et al.

[3] Some may accept this premise, but only “to the degree” that the human mind requires things like anthropomorphisms to accurately understand God’s transcendence.  That, presumably, would be the exact extent to which the Qur’an utilizes such methodology.  How one could begin to justify such a claim is currently beyond me, however.

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26 Comments

  1. Shawn:

    I’m not sure whether you’re presenting your own thoughts here, summarizing K. Dayton Hartman’s, or accepting Hartman’s argument as your own. So, I’ll proceed as if these are your own thoughts; if they’re not, just let me know.

    I’ll just parse with your last paragraph sentence by sentence for the sake of brevity:

    “How, then, can Christianity and Islam begin reconciling their differences?” For me, the really interesting question is, “Why should they recognize their differences?”

    “There is most certainly an element of stubborn adherence to vocabulary coming from both sides. The term Trinity has come to be synonymous with polytheism within most Islamic circles, but it is a term that will never be relinquished by Christians. The conversations, therefore, seemed to be forever doomed to beginning with a careful and diplomatic parsing of theological jargon.” But perhaps the debates persist not because of “stubborn adherence to vocabulary” but because their respective vocabularies reflect irreconcilable ontological differences. If a man who believes human beings are mammals disagrees with a man who says they are amphibians, no amount of parsing the difference in how they use “human” are going to settle the real problem of the difference between mammals and amphibians. Similarly, discussions about the unity of God cannot be resolved between Christianity and Islam for the simple reason that they disagree over what kind of being Jesus Christ is.

    “The extent to which the average Christian and Muslim leader or layperson is equipped to enter into such philological sparring is debatable – and disappointing.” But again, if the issue is ontological and not merely verbal, then arguing about vocabulary is beside the point.

    George

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  2. The issue will not always be only Trinitrian, but Christ within the “hypostatic union”…the God-Man. This will always be “the” stumbing block for both the Jew and the Muslim. “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense..” (1 Peter 2:8) See also,St.Mk. 12:10 / St.Lk. 2:34.

    Fr. Robert (Anglican)

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  3. There really is nothing post-evangelical (postmodern, yes), the good Anglican, is both Catholic and Reformed, and stands squarely on the Judeo-Christian covenants of grace – both Old and NT, as Calvin. – Fr. R. (D.Phil.,Th.D.)

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  4. Another well-put-together piece Shawn. I enjoy learning more about Islam and hope to come to a better understanding.

    At the end of the road though, I am with George and Fr. R. here (despite his deconstructing our blog subtitle) in that at the bottom level I believe there are fundamentally irreconcilable differences between our two faiths.

    Understanding Islam more enables us all to relate to and understand our new Muslim neighbors more, which aids in compassion and the overcoming of bigotry, but our witness is to an immanent Trinity as much as a Transcendent Trinity, and this is indeed an offense to Islam and the modern naturalist.

    But by all means, keep writing these great papers.

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  5. George,

    The introduction and conclusion are mine, the body is a summary of Hartman’s essential argument. I agree that the more interesting (perhaps more important) question is “Why should they reconcile their differences?”

    So, back at you – why should they? (though, I am suspicious that you think they should not – so, maybe why shouldn’t they then?) :0)

    You wrote:

    “because their respective vocabularies reflect irreconcilable ontological differences”

    I am certainly open to discussing this, but I wonder how irreconcilable the difference between ontological realities can be. I mean simply (keep in mind you are better versed in Philosophy than I) even if their statements about the one true God are incomplete, aren’t they still statements about the same God? Does our ability to make accurate statements about God change the reality of his nature? Are the Jewish and Islamic perceptions of monotheism not partially accurate?

    Now, to avoid pussyfooting around (I know it is off-putting to you). Both Islam and Christianity are “missionary” religions. One must presume that any dialogue that occurs between the two is ultimately an attempt by the other to proselytize. If it can be demonstrated to Muslims that Muslims already incorporate the kind of philosophical apparatus to express their beliefs in the Qur’an, wouldn’t it be beneficial to temporarily abandon language they are already biased against? I don’t suggest abandoning Trinitarian theology. I suggest that there has to be another way to deal with the topic without starting the conversation somewhere they “know” they disagree.

    Just some thoughts

    Shawn

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  6. Fr. Robert,

    I appreciate your comments. In fact, I hint at the fact that Christ IS the ultimate stumbling block for Muslims. I merely want to explore whether demonstrating that Muslims already utilize the same kind of reasoning that Christians use for Trinitarian theology has any benefit in alleviating that stumbling block. It seems to me that if they already view the OT and NT as sacred books, and accept Jesus as prophet (an honorific that carries a bit more weight than in Christian circles), they are far closer to orthodoxy than those who adhere to other world religions. Then again, I could just be wrong – but that is why I post, I want to work out things I am thinking about with the community of Christ (it’s the Anglican way). Welcome to our site!

    Tony,

    “there are fundamentally irreconcilable differences between our two faiths.”

    I don’t disagree per se; I am just probing how many of those differences actually belong to the “orthodoxy” on either side of the debate and how much of it belongs to the bigotry that you also mention.

    Thanks guys!

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  7. This was my point, if we are really Judeo-Christian, we can never include the Muslim doctrines, even their doctrine of monotheism is suspect to my mind. The Jews at least have some reality of the covenants of God, and their Scripture, which is ours also. Note, John 4:22. And the doctrine of the Trinity of God, both ontological, comes from God’s unity and His Immanence but always within a fallen world. It is here that we must stay close and only really think in Scripture. We simply must realize that postmodern and also deconstruction cannot but Christianized! My thoughts at least. But I am Reformed.
    Fr. R.

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  8. Consequently, demonstrating how the doctrine of the Trinity maintains the tawhid of God within Islam will become an important element to bridging the gap between the two.

    Shawn, I touched on this in another post of yours, let me see if I can say it more clearly.

    (a) Why do you want to “bridge the gap between Islam and Christianity” ?

    (b) To do this, you want to reassure them that you are a true monotheist. But why not also try to convince them that you feel Mohammed was also the last prophet ! You can disagree on who Jesus was, but you could embrace Mohammed. The Hindus embraced Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu and now Buddhism is virtually gone from its place of birth. You could keep embracing things of Islam until Muslims felt they could be Muslim-Christians.

    (c) Why don’t you feel the same compulsion to “bridge the gap between Atheism and Christianity” or “Buddhism and Christianity”? or am I mistaken and that you want to bridge all these “gaps”?
    Serious question, but I still feel I may have asked it poorly. Perhaps you can transform it into something more meaningful while meeting the theme of this post. (Maybe I am asking Tony’s question but from another angle)

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  9. Also mates, we cannot get Muslims to think about noted distinctions made with respect to God’s being considered apart from His activites in the world (ab intra) and distictions made with respect to God’s activity or operations (oikonomia, gk.) in the world. The terms “essential” or “immanent” are simply foreign to them.We are dealing with presuppositions here also.
    Fr. R.

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  10. Sabio (and I guess, Tony),

    (a) Ultimately, the reason is evangelistic. However, (and I’m worried you won’t be able to see past that first statement) I think the conflict that arises between religious factions is abhorrent. I think that there is a serious breach in conversation between Muslims and Christians largely because of the atrocities that each have perpetrated on one another – and, frankly, I grieve over it.

    b) I think my answer to your first question demonstrates why I cannot assent to your second proposition, which is probably why my cohorts are asking the same questions you are. Why bother, huh?

    c) Honestly, I feel the same compulsion to have open and meaningful interaction with everyone. Sometimes I care more about understanding a person than I care about agreeing with them. I know plenty of people I vehemently disagree with, but love to be around. I guess when it comes down to it; I am just a piss-poor evangelical. I honestly believe that if someone comes to know Christ, it is because they have chosen to respond to his call. I just want to be the best possible human being (Christian) I can be to all of those people in the mean time. I seek dialogue, because I value people – even those I disagree with. People are invaluable – Christian, Atheist, Muslim – it matters not.

    I hope I didn’t miss the gist of your questions. If so, I’ll try again. :0)

    Shawn

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  11. Shawn:

    I ask why we should work to reconcile Christianity and Islam because I don’t think they can be, any more than one can square Ptolemaism and Copernicanism. They are mutually incompatible systemic explanations of God, creation, and salvation.

    Now, I acknowledge that a religion is much more than its creed, but what I refuse to concede is that it is any less than its creed. So when we find two religions with mutually exclusive creeds, the only way to reconcile them is by doing damage to one of them or both at the level of their truth claims.

    Take, for example, the Christian creed–i.e., the Nicene, which is much longer than the Muslim Shahada. It is trinitarian, incarnational, and ecclesial. Although it does not directly address the issue of canon–as the Shahada does–it implicitly assumes a Christian canon.

    How does this creed contrast with the Shahada? “There is no god but God,” the Muslim creed states, “and Muhammad is his prophet.” Simple, direct, and utterly contradictory to the Nicene Creed, as Christians and Muslims have known for centuries.

    Why? Two basic reasons:

    (1) Their views of Christ differ. In the Nicene Creed, Christ is God the Son, eternally with God the Father but never identical to him, or to the Holy Spirit. Moreover, this God the Son became human at a point of time “for us and our salvation.” In Islam, God has no associates, and salvation does not require sacrificial mediation. Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock states this in its architecture, with the Koranic statements that God has no associate or son being written over the entrance that faces the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

    (2)Christianity and Islam have different canons. That is obvious to the point of being trite, but I want to push for a deeper difference, for Islam claims to include the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek New Testament. This is where the canonical issue comes in. For Muslims, Muhammad–or rather, the revelation God gave Muhammad through Gabriel–is the yardstick by which all religions’ prophecies are judged, for these prophecies have been corrupted over the years. For Christians, Christ is the yardstick, for it is in him that the fullness of divinity dwells. For Muslims, if a statement contradicts Muhammad in the Koran, it is false. For Christians, if a statement denies Jesus’ incarnation, it is false.

    Since Muslims deny that Jesus is God Incarnate, and since Christians affirm that he is, we have a straightforward logical contradiction. The only way to “resolve” the contradiction is for Muslims to give up their denial of Jesus’ divinity or for Christians to give up their affirmation of it. Everything about Christianity–its concept of creation, revelation, salvation, and manner of life–hinges on Jesus Christ. Islam accepts Jesus as a prophet, the second greatest prophet to Muhammad; and in some Muslim traditions, Jesus’ second coming also plays a role. But–and this is crucial–one does not need Jesus to be a good Muslim. One only needs the revelation God gave Muhammad.

    Now, none of this entails that Christians and Muslims shouldn’t work toward peaceful interreligious relationships. Nor does it entail that they shouldn’t work together to refute misperceptions about the other.

    But let’s be serious, if religions make truth claims, and if those truth claims are mutually contradictory, then one religion or both are false, but they are not so near the truth of each other that they can be reconciled.

    George

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  12. Shawn,

    Good post. I have never heard of the Qu’ran being of the same essence as Allah thing. That’s interesting.

    I don’t know that we as Christians have to agree with Muslims or visa-versa, but I think that dialogue about these things is very, very important, if for no other reason than it may prevent some violence in the world. We have a whole lot of very misguided Christians in America who think all Muslims are terrorists and who endorse the Michael Savage approach to foreign policy (‘nuke the the entire middle east except for Israel, etc, etc,). We also have a faction of Muslims who are are very misguided about Christianity and Americanism and Zionism (i.e. they think they are the same religion), and base their foreign policy accordingly. When we get together and talk, even if we disagree, it’s a lot harder to hate/kill each other.

    Reply

    1. brother,calling me a terrorist because am a muslim strengthens my faith because am not one,Allah is always happy seeing his servant worshipping him when everyone around is against him,never be moved always work for a God fearing world.

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  13. George,

    I don’t disagree, but want to focus on one thing you said…

    “Now, none of this entails that Christians and Muslims shouldn’t work toward peaceful interreligious relationships. Nor does it entail that they shouldn’t work together to refute misperceptions about the other.”

    I really am concerned with how the topic of my post helps/hinders this peaceful interreligious relationship, and how understanding their use of the Qur’an opens the door for evangelization.

    Shawn

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  14. I do appreciate Theophiliacs appraising my article! However, I would like to clarify that if one reads this specific article or any of my other articles on the Trinity and Islam, one would see that I am not attempting to “reconcile” us or to diminish clear lines of theological separation. My intent is to point out that we TRULY do have qualitative differences theologically and yet the Muslim cannot consistently maintain their rejection of the Trinity while remaining consistent within their own theological system. That is not to say we are “really saying the same thing” while utilizing a different vocabulary…no, we are saying two entirely different things about the nature of God. However, certain elements central to the Islamic doctrine of the Qur’an borrow heavily from Trinitarian constructs. So, for the Muslim (Sunni) to object to the Trinity based upon differentiated unity is not only inconsistent, it destroys the “miracle of the Qur’an” which strikes a death blow to Islamic theology.

    Thank you again for reading my article!

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  15. Dayton,

    Thanks for visiting our site – I apologize that I was sloppy in differentiating your opinion from my own in the post. Thank you for clearing things up. I have added a note to the beginning of the post stating the difference.

    For the record, I utilized an article by K. Dayton Hartmon II – borrowing his critique of Trinitarian constructs within Islam to make my own case ultimately that dialogue about Jesus (who is a prophet of Islam) can be developed further through these kinds of philosophical similarities. This is a different conclusion than Dayton’s – again, I’m sorry it was such a sloppy post.

    Dayton, if you don’t mind sticking around for conversation, what do you believe is going to be the most useful tool in creating interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians?

    Shawn

    Reply

  16. There are “trinities,” of sorts, in various religions. This summarizes five:

    Mahayana and Vajrayana vehicles of Buddhism speak of Trikaya, or three bodies: Nirmanakaya is the Buddha in human form, Sambhogakaya is celestial Buddha and Dharmakaya is the formless essence, or Buddha-nature. The Theravada primarily addresses the historic Buddha. The “Three Jewels” are the Buddha, the dharma (his teachings) and the sangha (the community of monks and nuns).

    Christianity has its Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit referring to God, Jesus Christ and their spiritual bond of unity (some say the Godhead). Interpretation of the essential nature of each, and their relationship, differed among the churches. In Christian mysticism, the three ways of the spiritual life are the purgative in being purified from sin, the illuminative in true understanding of created things, and the unitive in which the soul unites with God by love.

    Hinduism’s trimurti are the threefold activities of Brahman: in Brahma as creator, in Vishnu as sustainer and in Shiva as destroyer. Saccidananda are the triune attributes or essence of Brahman: sat, being, cit, consciousness and ananda, bliss. The three major schools of yoga are bhakti, devotion, and jnana, knowledge and karma, the way of selfless action. Raja yoga can apply to, and integrate, all three in mental and spiritual concentration.

    In Islam, nafs is the ego-soul, qalb is heart and ruh is spirit. Heart is the inner self [soul], hardened when it is turned toward ego and softened when it is polished by dhikr, remembrance of the spirit of Allah. This is a three-part foundation for Sufi psychology. Initiation guides them from shari`a, religious law, along tariqa, the spiritual path, to haqiqa, interior reality. It is a gradual unveiling of the Real.

    In the Kabbalah of Judaism, sefirot – sparks from the divine – have three fulcrums to balance the horizontal levels of the Tree of Life: Da`at (a pseudo-sefirot) is knowledge combining understanding and wisdom; Tiferet is beauty, the midpoint of judgment and loving kindness; Yesod is the foundation for empathy and endurance. They also vertically connect, through the supreme crown, the infinite and transcendent Ein Sof with its kingdom in the immanent Shekhinah.

    (quoted from “the greatest achievement in life,” my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org )

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  17. God can never exist in fractions,any way Jesus himself denied he was not God nor part of God(luke18:18-he answered,”why do you call me good,NO ONE[not even himself]is good EXCEPT GOD).Jesus also stated that the God who alone deserve worship is GREATER THAN HIM(John14:28),in this respect,believing in a trinity as a unity would also mean that one can be greater than one,IMPOSSIBLE.

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  18. i really wonder how weak God would be if he was only able to forgive the world by letting himself die,total blasphemy and God forbid.it’s better for the wise xtian to think twice about whatever they impart in his mind claiming its of divine origin.

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  19. there is a serious problem emanating from the minds of most christians today.To them; >every Arab is a muslim >to be a muslim you must be a terrorist can you please start distinguishing Arab culture and Islam.you can only succeed by seeking knowledge from muslim intellects.Wish you well in your efforts to reach the truth.

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    1. Aibindiye Abdul Razak,

      I have enjoyed reading and appreciate your comments on this thread. Allow me to respond in a very general way to your comments.

      1) I respect the Muslim faith in much the same way that I respect the Jewish faith. As I have understood the teachings of Islam, I am quite in agreement with the Quran that we ought to honor “people of the book.” I don’t think all three are the same, but we have much in common.

      2) I am continually striving to learn humility. I do not know everything about Christianity, about Islam, and certainly not about God. He is transcendent, he is other, and I cannot know him as he knows himself. I do not believe that Christianity “equals” God anymore so than I believe the United States “equals” democracy or freedom (there’s a can of worms!). Nonetheless, the New Testament proclaims that in Christ we have the fullness of God revealed in flesh. He is my best shot at living the life God expects me to live.

      3) You are right on a number of things, most notably for me, you are right to call down American Christians that cannot distinguish between Muslim, Arab, terrorists, and a myriad of things that seem “other” to us.

      Peace to you

      Reply

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