A Clash of Monotheisms: Tawhid vs. Trinity, Pt 1

The New Atheist ring-leader Richard Dawkins once described the “cosmic bully” as a god of “maniacal jealousy, bloodthirsty massacres, and xenophobic relish.”[1]

In light of the recent horror of the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Sunni/Wahabi extremist group Boko Haram, we might expect such harsh words from Dawkins—who himself relishes in spreading his theophobism equally among all gods among the world’s religions—to be referring to Allah. Indeed, he regularly lashes out against the chief deity of Islam with just such rancor.

The fact that these words are actually leveled against the Christian God should, however, give us pause. Dawkins looks at things like the Crusades and draws the implication that all Christians today are insane and either militant or, worse, ignorant slaves of a militant God. It’s a horribly narrow-minded caricature, obviously, but it is one shared by countless opponents of Christianity.

It is imperative that we Christians avoid making the same mistake as Dawkins and his entourage: however much we may disagree with Islam as a religion and worldview, let us not base our understanding of it on its worst extremes like Boko Haram. In face of such excessive violence and insanity, it is very tempting to draw conclusions about what all Muslims do/think/etc. But let us remember that there have been plenty of deluded maniacs in Christianity’s own history who have done horrible things because, like the leaders of Boko Haram, “they thought God told them to do it.”

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau defends the kidnapping/sale of the girls on the basis of what he thinks Allah told him to do: "God instructed me to sell them, they are his properties and I will..."
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau defends the kidnapping/sale of the girls on the basis of what he thinks Allah told him to do: “God instructed me to sell them, they are his properties and I will…”

If we want to have an effective Christian witness to the Islamic world, we must try our best to understand it on its own terms, according to its best and most well-articulated forms. Much like we lament that the news media tries to paint all Christians in negative light by picking out Fred Phelps/Westboro Baptist, as opposed to honestly dealing with the Tim Kellers of the world, so also we should try to be fair in how we approach Islam (or, rather, Islams).

In other words, we should be thoughtful to make sure we know who exactly this Allah of Islam really claims to be.

With this post I am beginning a new series dealing with a handful of core teachings of Islam and, in particular, key apologetics issues related to the “clash of monotheisms” of Islam and Christianity.

Obviously there are a ton of resources already available by which one can get educated on Islam, so these posts will not be a broad Islam 101. However, I do hope to help promote some additional clarity around three main topics that I have spent some devoted time researching. They happen to map quite nicely against what are generally considered to be the 3 biggest apologetic barriers in reaching Muslims.

This post will begin by addressing the first apologetic issue pertaining to the Christian view of a God who is both one (monotheism) but also triune (trinitarianism).

Introduction to Tawhid and the Question of Common Ground

On paper, the Qur’an’s conception of Allah and the Bible’s teaching on God share a handful of similarities that should not be overlooked. I ultimately agree with most Christian scholars of Islam that the primary reason for this is the fact that the Qur’an is to a large degree parasitic on the Bible and the Jewish/Christian religions that Allah encountered in Arabia in the 600s. Nevertheless, it is worth stating them so that we have put on the table some of the main affirmations about Allah and how they compare to Christian affirmations about God:

  • Allah / God exists
  • Allah / God is the sole creator of the entire universe
  • Allah / God sovereignly controls all things[2]
  • Allah / God is omnipotent and omniscient
  • Allah / God is perfect in justice, mercy, and love[3]
  • Allah / God has revealed himself to man through special revelation[4]
  • Allah / God is transcendent
  • Allah / God is immanent[5]
  • Allah / God imposes a moral standard upon all humans

These are all important areas of common ground between the two religious worldviews. It’s quite a list, actually, when you consider the other games in town (other than Judaism)—secularism/scientism, Buddhism, Hinduism, New Age mysticism, etc.—which all deny some or all of these assertions.

But beneath the surface of these similarities, there are obviously huge areas of disagreement. One of the central differences, if not the central theological rift, between Islam and Christianity is the concept of the (tri)unity of the deity.

Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 10.54.05 PM

Within Islam, the doctrine of tawhid holds that Allah is “absolute oneness.”[6] He is not constituted of a multiple of persons; he does not share his attributes with others; he is completely single in his essence with no plurality of person or status. Notably, tawhid is no ancillary matter. It is the “sine qua non of Islam, the foundation, the center, … the essence and core.”[7] All central teachings of the Qur’an derive from tawhid; it is not merely a doctrine, but it is the entire basis of the Islamic worldview. 

The oneness of Allah is of such importance that confessing the Unity of God in the chief prayer of the Shahadah is the ultimate dividing line between a Muslim and a kafir (unbeliever).[8Any denial of tawhid – worshipping idols, worshipping men, or supposing that other “beings possess the same attributes as the Divine Being” – is considered shirk, the “gravest of all sins”[9] that will by no means be forgiven by Allah (surah 4:48).[10]

For this reason, Islam has consistently and emphatically denied the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus as shirk,[11] in such surahs as 4:171, 19:35, and 112:3.[12] Tawhid and shirk are Islam’s clearest and most serious teachings. From the Islamic perspective, the Christian Trinity is pure polytheism: there can be no such thing as a God who is both 3 and 1, because Allah is only 1. Thus, the worship of 3 persons = the worship of 3 gods, at least according to the Qur’an.

This is not a trivial difference between Islam and Christianity. While no Christian would say he/she fully “gets” the Trinity—part of the biblical worldview is that there are some things we cannot fully understand in our creaturely limitations—it is without question that the affirmation of the Triune God is core to Christianity. The Bible affirms God’s “absolute oneness” in the shema of Deut 6:4 (“The LORD our God, the LORD is one“), which is reiterated and extended in 1 Cor 8:6 (“there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist“).

Yet the biblical teaching on God’s oneness is further nuanced by the teaching on the Trinity of persons, or hypostases/subsistences (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) who comprise the one Godhead. The confession of God as 3 and 1—which includes the divinity of the second person of the Trinity, the Son, who became incarnate in the flesh—is affirmed in some form or another in all the church’s historical creeds (Apostles‘, Nicene, Athanasian, Chalcedonian, etc.). Nearly all early heresies had to do with some misunderstanding of the Trinity or the status of Jesus Christ with respect to the Godhead. Hence, it is no exaggeration to say that Christianity stands or falls on its affirmation of a God who is both one and three.[13]

Inshort, despite some areas of common ground and the favorable view the Qur’an sometimes takes on Christians as “people of the Book” (surah 2:62, 2:1055:82), the Christian God is, to Muslims, shirk.[14] Likewise, denial of the Second or Third persons of the Trinity is, to Christians, a serious heresy.[15

Hence, when we approach Christian-Islam apologetics, we immediately run into challenges at the very starting point of the entire system of each. In fact, one prominent Muslim scholar has recently argued quite perceptively the following[16]:

This is not so much a cultural conflict as a religious one; that we are not in the midst of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ but rather a ‘clash of monotheisms.’

In the subsequent posts in the series, I will unpack the issue of tawhid further, to provide a deeper analysis of what it entails and how that relates to the Christian doctrine of God. Specifically, I will analyze the three core aspects that Muslim theologians usually delineate within tawhid, and I will relate each to the Christian Trinitarian perspective. I have never seen a similar analysis before, so I hope it is beneficial to some.

  1. Dhat: oneness in essence (versus the ontological view of the Trinity)
  2. Sifat: oneness in attributes (versus the teaching of perichoresis within the Trinity)
  3. Af-al: oneness in actions (versus the economic view of the Trinity)

At the conclusion of the fourth post, I will step back and offer my thoughts on the answer to the difficult question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same basic God (only who is misunderstood by the latter), or are they fundamentally two different Gods (one true, one false)?

Connecting to the Pew

Though this is only an introductory post, I will mention three takeaways:

  • All Christians must deal with Islam. From the 700s to the 1900s AD, the militant advance of the Islamic caliphate(s) was one of the biggest threats to Christendom out there. The fall of Constantinople, the Battle of Tours, the rapid spread of Islam throughout the Christian West, the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire—all these factors and numerous others resulted in a situation in which the Islamic world always lurked in the minds of Christians at some level. Post WWI, when the Ottoman Empire was broken up, it is almost as if Western (and particularly American) Christians hit the snooze button on thinking about Islam. Not until the the Iran hostage crisis, the Ayatollah, and the terrorist attacks of September 11 did Islam finally start making its way back into the collective conscience of Western Christians. In the meantime, Islam has exploded—and not just in the Middle East. There are as many diverse expressions of Islam as their are people groups where Islam is the majority: from hyper-conservative Saudi Arabia, to modernists in Indonesia, to Pakistani enclaves in London, to the Al-Shabaab of Somalia / Janjawid of Sudan/ Boko Haram of Nigeria, to the average central Asian Muslim living in a suburb of Charlotte and working at the bank. Their faith systems and, more importantly, implementations of Islamic law (Sharia) are extremely diverse, to such an extent that it sometimes seems as if tawhid is the only common thread. The point is this: Islam is advancing at a huge rate, currently approaching 1.6 billion people (nearly 25% of the world). We need to emerge from our slumber and understand the major role Islam is playing and will continue to play in all areas of life (not just the radicals/terrorists that dominate the news).
  • A faithful witness requires an un-caricatured understanding. One way to respond to my prior point is to think that we should fear all Muslims, be suspicious, get angry, burn Qur’ans, and so forth. I would argue that that is not necessarily a healthy, productive, or even Christian response (Matt 10:28). A more apologetically effective approach is to understand Islam on its own terms, with all its complexities, and without caricatures that the media (or ill-informed Christian teachers) would like to force upon us. To reach Muslims and to understand the implications of the accelerated growth of Islam on the church and world requires sound comprehension of what Islam really teaches. Moreover, we must be involved somehow in the difficult labor of ministering to the Muslim world, where mission teams can work for decades before seeing their first convert. So I hope these posts contribute in some small way to helping folks do just that.
  • Intricate doctrines matter. For many followers of Christ today, the discussion of the Trinity is esoteric and boring. Why split hairs about ontological this, economic that, perichoresis this, and incarnation. That’s all too academic: just give me Jesus and the gospel. Such a view is theologically short-sighted and historically ill-informed. On the latter: Christians have regularly DIED defending minute points of the Trinity (cf. council of Nicaea). On the former: if God is who he says he is, should we not expect him to reward the hard effort of seeking to understand his person, to probe the deepest depths of the mysteries of the Godhead? Will he not open up amazing new vistas of who he is, what Jesus is like, what the Holy Spirit does in and through us? To say the doctrine of the Trinity is “too academic” is like saying the Grand Canyon is too geological.

________________

[1] The God Delusion (2008), 279-280.

[2] See Seyyed Nasr’s discussion on the similarities between the Islamic and Christian views of sovereignty, predestination, and free will in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations (New York, 1997), pp. 311-323. Though there are some nominal similarities, the Islamic view of Allah is clearly fatalistic or deterministic, which is emphatically not the Christian view.

[3] Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Religion of Islam (sixth ed.; Columbus: The Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam, 1990), 124. In defense of Allah, he writes, “It will be seen that the attributes of God given above have nothing to do with autocracy, inexorability, vengeance and cruelty which European writers have generally associated with the picture of Him as drawn in the Qur’an. On the contrary, the qualities of love and mercy in God are emphasized in the Qur’an more than in any other sacred book.”

[4] Ali notes, “it is only [special] revelation that discloses God in … full splendor” (Religion of Islam, 102).

[5] Typically, Christians understand the Islamic view of Allah as ONLY transcendent: he is an impersonal monad. While the dogmas of Islam seem to suggest this, surah 50:16 (“We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein”) is the classical text Muslims use to portray Allah as immanent in creation.

[6] C. T. R. Hewer, Understanding Islam: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 75.

[7] James E. Royster, “Configurations of Tawhid in Islam,” Muslim World 77/1 (1987), 28.

[8] Ali, Religion of Islam, 94.

[9] Ali, Religion of Islam, 109.

[10] Interestingly, the “unforgivable sin” in Islam relates to blaspheming Allah by, for instance, acknowledging the Holy Spirit, while the “unforgivable sin” in Christianity is blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:31).

[11] Ali, Religion of Islam., 112-113. Ali helpfully clarifies the misconception among Christians that Islam simply confuses the Trinity as “Father, Jesus, and Mary.” He writes, “That Mary was worshipped [Mariolatry] is a fact … but it should be noted that neither the Qur’an nor the Prophet has anywhere said that Mary was the third person of the Trinity. Where the Qur’an denounces the Trinity, it speaks of the doctrine of the sonship but does not speak of the worship of Mary at all.”

[12] Respectively: “And do not say, ‘Three’; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God.” “It is not befitting to Allah that He should beget a son.” And, “They take as their Lord Christ the son of Mary; yet they were commanded to worship but One Allah: there is no god but He.”

[13] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume I (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers), 442-443. He writes, “[Trinitarianism] underlies the whole plan of salvation. … The Church has always refused to recognize as Christians those who reject this doctrine.”

[14] In sum, “The Trinity has not been revealed by God; it ends in tri-theism; and … it is positively irrational” (Jon Hoover, “Islamic Monotheism and the Trinity,” The Conrad Grebel Review 27/1 [2009], 63).

[15] e.g., Arianism, Modalism, Docetism, Apollinarianism, Eutychianism, Socinianism, and Nestorianism of the past and Unitarianism, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses of the present day.

[16] Reza Aslan, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House, 2006), xxiii. Aslan’s thesis is that what appears simply to be jihad against the West is also “the result of the civil war raging in Islam” on the “moderate, pluralistic Islam that is anathema” to the extremist wings (xiv).

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9 thoughts on “A Clash of Monotheisms: Tawhid vs. Trinity, Pt 1”

  1. An oxymoron is a rhetoric image that creates an apparent contradiction… “trinitarian monotheism”… sounds very eloquent, too bad it’s TRULY contradictory. Nice try though! 🙂

    MONOTHEISM is MONO… HENCE ONE. It takes at least two to clash. God gave you a mind, use it. Blessings.

  2. Greg, we hope that you will combine your writings in a book upon finishing your degree. I think it would be a best seller. We need to think of a name for it. Love mom

  3. wow. props to you for attempting to delve into this very difficult topic. great start! d

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