Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reading the Quran: The Unexpected Trinity

Of all of the teachings of the Christian faith, the concept of Trinity is perhaps the most challenging.  It was certainly challenging for me as I began finding my faith-legs in my early twenties.

My own movement from conceptual struggles with faith to faith itself was stirred by several potent experiences of God's presence, all of which  radically deepened my sense of both the actuality of God and God's Oneness.   This left me with something of a conundrum.  How to reconcile that with the idea that there are three "persons" in God?  It just didn't work with my sense of the Creator.

For a while, I considered myself monarchian/modalist, two terms that mean diddly to most folk, but that were early Christian attempts to reconcile the whole Father/Son/Holy Ghost Threefer thing.   But when I actually began to study the early church, and dug into the philosophical underpinnings of the Trinity, I realized there wasn't much space between what I believed and orthodoxy.  Sure, I might not feel totally wedded to the same Aristotelean substantive framework they used.   But I appreciated the intent.  As a way of reconciling the unity of God with three distinct ways of understanding God's self-expression, it worked.

The Quran legendarily makes the Trinity a significant point of theological difference between Christians and Muslims.  Repeatedly and with ferocity, the Quran defends the radical singularity of God against any who would set up "partners" with the Creator.   The condemnation of those who say there are either multiple gods (polytheists) or two gods besides God (Trinitarians) are consistent and ongoing throughout the suras. (Al-Mai'da 73)

But as I explored the critique, it seemed peculiar.

Unlike challenges to that doctrine from within the early Christian church, there seemed no reference to anything specific.  There can't be three, it says.  God is not one of three, it says.  There can be only one, it says, sounding a bit like that movie, you know the one.

There was no reference to the complexities of the philosophical construct, which is one regular avenue of critique.  That's a common line of challenge, for a variety of reasons.  First, because of the use of Aristotelean terms that have little ground in scripture, second because of the use of a Greek cosmological framework that no longer has common acceptance, and third, it just plain ol' confuses most people.   But there was nothing.

It just affirmed that God could not be one of three gods.

In fact, going deeper, there was a particularly significant detail missing.  There was much talk about Jesus, even if that talk was oddly orthodox and in alignment with much of what Christianity says.   There was plenty of talk about God and God's nature.  But outside of saying God can't have a son, and God can't have a partner, (Al Furquan 2) there was no description of the Third Person of the Christian Trinity.  The Holy Spirit just wasn't to be found in the context of that discussion.

So I continued searching, until I found something completely unanticipated.

In one of the sections where Jesus is referenced in Quran, the Quran quotes God as having a conversation on the matter with Jesus.  What it says, specifically, is:
And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, "O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, 'Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?'"  He will say, "Exalted are You!  It was not for me to say that to which I have no right.  If I had said it, You would have known it.  You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself.  Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen."  (Al-Mai'da, 116, Moksin Khan trans.)
This is the only specific reference I could find to a "partner-god" with Jesus in Quran.  And it doesn't challenge the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

It challenges the divinity of Mary.

Clearly, what is being described here is not the Trinity as Christian orthodoxy understands it.   This is the Trinity as it would have been understood from an observation of popular Christian practice in a backwater of sixth and seventh century Catholicism.

Not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but instead Father, Son and Holy Mother.

Suddenly, a confusing earlier sura made sense.  In Al Mai'da 75, the Quran talks about Jesus being a prophet, and Mary being righteous, which it then follows with "And they ate food."  Well, duh, one might say, but what that meant was: "They are not spiritual beings like God."   Historical-critical Bible scholars generally argue that this is why we hear so many stories of Jesus eating and drinking after the resurrection.  He's not a ghost or a Star Trek energy being.  He can eat and drink.  He's real, and alive.  This was a counterargument to the spiritualizing tendencies of Gnosticism.

But including Mary in on the chowing?  It makes little sense if you're only trying to prove Jesus was not God, but a great deal of sense if you're trying to refute a semi-pagan Holy Family tritheism.  By the time of the Quran, Mary had already taken on waaay more emphasis than the narratives of the Bible would seem to justify.  In part, this arose out of highfalutin' theologizing about the necessity of her sinlessness, which yielded her the title Theotokos, or "God-Bearer."   But mostly, she became an expression of the Divine Feminine/Mother Goddess yearning among the you're-Christian-or-else masses.

Other suras chimed in, reinforcing a Mary-issue.

The Quran dedicates the entire 16th sura to Mary.  Elsewhere, she's considered the ideal model for the chaste, humble woman.  (At-Tahrim 12) When referring to Jesus, he is occasionally called Messiah, but generally, he's referred to as the "son of Mary."  When talking about why Jesus existed, the Quran says God gave the world Jesus and Mary as a sign. (Al-Mu'minun 50)

I was a bit baffled.  This blew a big Trinity-shaped hole in what I'd expected to see.  The Quran is a critique of seventh century lumpen-Mariology?  Why didn't I ever heard this?  Was I misreading this?

Some quick searching showed the usual mess of net-opinions, many just the usual cranks lobbing insults and invective.  But there were serious scholars in there too, enough to suggest that I wasn't imagining it.

In later Islamic writings, and throughout Islamic culture, there is no question that the Trinity as correctly understood is not considered a viable view of God.   And there is also no question, despite the Quran's bizarrely orthodox description of Jesus, that Islam does not view Jesus as divine.

But read straight up, across a half-dozen scholarly translations, the Quranic Trinity as Father/Jesus/Mary is just too clear to ignore.  This perspective is consistently rejected in Islam, because there is the fear it might make it seem as if the Quran completely misunderstands an essential feature of Christianity.   I think this is unfortunate.

Because if the Prophet Muhammad was in fact challenging what he self-evidently appears to have been challenging, I'd be first in line to agree with him.


  1. Thanks for this analysis. You may already be familiar with them, but I want to point out two helpful resources: Miroslav Volf's "Allah" goes into some detail about how the version of the Trinity the Quran rejects is not necessarily the orthodox Christian one. Much of what the Quran rejects we would also. And "The Three Testaments" is a book that looks for some common threads connecting Torah, Gospel, and Quran. (The commonality it finds is Zoroastrian monotheism, but that's another issue.)

  2. Thanks, Paul! I've heard of the "Three Testaments," and Volf's work sounds useful.

  3. I have no problem with the idea that the Quran challenges Mariology---and that this trinity is not the modern-day Christian version of the Trinity----however, the main principle is that God does NOT incarnate. When Muslims speak of "God as One" they are not referring to a numerical One---rather it refers to an aspect of the Divine---that of Uniqueness---there is none like him in creation.....which therefore means God does not "become like" (incarnate) creation. Hinduism also has this concept that God incarnates into various forms---some human-like, others pretty far-out.....the concept is called "avatar".....Whether it is one incarnation or many---Islam completely rejects the idea of Divine incarnation.

    Holy Spirit---In Judaism it is called "Ruach" and it is created (it is not God) and understood as "God's breath" that he blew into Adam---Islam/Quran pretty much follows the Jewish understanding--though the Quran specifically declares it will not explain about the "Ruh" (Arabic) because this will cause misunderstanding.----however, all human beings are made up of 3 components---the bio-chemistry of the body ("clay"), the "Nafs" which is the "self/consciousness and the "ruh" the spirit (that animates, brings to life) (equivalent concepts in Judasim are "Nefesh" and "Ruach")

    Islam, like Judaism, does not have "original sin" therefore all human beings are created inherently good.
    ---which is why neither religion has much use for the concept of salvation through incarnation/crucifixion......

  4. I'm not sure why you post anything from anonymous people, but it's your site.

    There is no original sin, in the Augustinian/Calvinist sense, in the New Testament either. Neither does it feature penal-substitutionary atonement, which was invented by Anselm in what, the 10th century? The Eastern Church and the early Fathers (except Augustine) know nothing of either original sin or p-s atonement.

  5. @ Paul: It depends on the tone. Anonymous trollery I either mock or delete. But if someone is respectful and willing to engage in actual conversation, I've so far left the option open. I may change that at some point.

    And perhaps. I think you can sorta-kinda get to something resembling original sin from the Apostle Paul, although I read him as talking more about an ontological condition rather than something we inherit genetically.