A Clash of Monotheisms, Pt 2: Dhat and Pluralness in Person

“God is like an egg.” You have a shell, a yolk, and the egg white. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One egg…three parts.

“God is like water.” One oxygen + 1 hydrogen + 1 hydrogen. Or, if you prefer: solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (steam).

“God is like a triangle.” Three sides but one shape.

Screen shot 2014-05-19 at 10.32.18 PM
“God is like a one-man band.” Multiple instrument players all rolled up into one person.

“God is like a business team.” One person leads the team, one person does the work, and one person cheers them others on. One team, three team members.

“God is like the sun.” You have the light-emitting orb, the light itself, and the warmth of the light.

All these so-called analogies that attempt to capture the idea behind the Christian doctrine of the Trinity have been used before and, sadly, fall well short of the mark (almost comically so, in some cases). On the one hand, the spirit is in the right place, for the makers of such analogies want to capture the unity of God and the pluralness in person that exists within the Godhead. On the other hand, such a task turns out to be very hard to do when relying on analogies from our day-to-day experience. In fact, most theologians today suggest that analogies may be helpful in describing certain aspects of the Trinity, but there really is no analogy for the Trinity in its fullness.[1]

What such failed analogies do reveal, however, is the immense challenge of explaining—using limited human reasoning and tangible experience—the intrinsic or essential plurality of God who is eternally one as well. How can one adequately explain such a deep mystery without it sounding like a paradox?

This issue of “paradox” lies at the heart of Muslim-Christian debate concerning how we respectively understand Allah on the one hand, and God on the other. Most Muslims would argue that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is fundamentally an irrational paradox. In the next three posts, I will probe the Islamic conception of Allah and his undifferentiated, non-plural, absolute oneness—and how it relates to the historic teachings of the Christian church regarding the God who is revealed in the Bible.


As I introduced in my last post, the central unifying doctrine of all Islamic teaching is that of “tawhid,” which professes the utter oneness of Allah. While in some sense it bears surface similarities with the monotheistic confession of Christianity (found in the shema in Deut 6 and recapitulated in the NT), I will argue that it is strikingly different in nearly every way.

The doctrine of tawhid has three important facets: Dhat, Sifat, and Af-Al. This threefold division is actually quite logically coherent, in that dhat pertains to intrinsic nature or being, sifat relates to attributes, and af-al relates to actions. (It is not for nothing that Islamic scholars of the Middle Ages, many of whom revered Aristotle, are highly respected as logicians).

In this post, I will address the specific sub-doctrine of dhat and compare it to the Christian idea of the “ontological” Trinity: that is, that there are three persons of the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that they are the same in essence/substance, equal in power and glory, and coeternal.

(a) Muslim Doctrine of Dhat

Dhat (or adhDhat) deals with the metaphysical question of the nature or essence of Allah.[2] What is he like in his fundamental self?

In short, the Islamic concept of dhat is that Allah is totally and perfectly one in person and essence: “There is neither plurality of gods nor plurality of persons in the Godhead.”[3]

To the Muslim mind this unity of Oneness simply is. Muslims “claim to be the only true Unitarians,” in that the essence of Allah and his intrinsic being is pure singular oneness or selfhood (called “ipseity”) that defies description.[4]

In other words, Allah is only one. He has no pluralness in his essence. He is ontologically singular and has no internal partnership, division, plurality, distinctions, or anything of that sort, however defined. The implication of this standard Islamic teaching is that any attempt to articulate Allah as composite, rather than a simple Unity, is contrary to both reason and the Qur’an, violates tawhid, and, thus, is shirk (the unforgivable sin).[5]

Though Islamic scholars generally avoid the term, it is hard to get around the fact that the traditional Muslim doctrine is that Allah is a monad, a unit of pure singularity without division. There are, of course, major philosophical problems in doctrine of absolute unitarianism, of which Islam is the chief example (those not interested in these finer points are justified in skipping down!):

  • The One and Many Problem: Any good theology must account for the fact that the universe includes both unity (universal natural laws, features shared by members of a species, universal virtues like goodness and love) and plurality (different outworkings of the same natural laws in everday events, differentiation among members of a species, different expressions of virtues). Which is more primary? Which “came first,” so to speak? Islam holds that unity came first, for Allah is ONE. However, here arises a huge philosophical problem: if Allah is pure unity, how can he create a world in which plurality is a major factor? How can there be both good and bad people? How can there be both light and dark (and shades between)? Only a worldview in which both unity and plurality are equally ultimate, and not one or the other, can explain both. And only Christian Trinitarianism offers that.
  • The “Love” Problem: Islam holds that Allah has always existed, even before the world was created. It also holds that Allah is intrinsically loving; that is, his nature/being is that of perfect love. However, love, by definition, requires an object of the love, not just self-love. If Allah is pure unity, with no differentiation in personal(ity), how could he manifest perfect love before he created man? Whom would he love? There is no “whom” if Allah is a pure monad. Thus, pre-creation Allah could not have exhibited “love,” for there was no object. But if that is true, then his love was not perfect, since expressed love is superior to unexpressed love. Hence, contradiction.[6]

In sum, Islam categorically rejects any formulation of the Christian Trinity at the outset as polytheism that impugns the absolute oneness of Allah’s being or essence. In fact, it almost seems as though the formulation of dhat by Islamic scholars is a direct response to the Nicene formulation.

(b) Christian Doctrine of the Ontological Trinity

The Islamic doctrine of dhat runs contrary to one perspective (of three that I will discuss during these posts) of the Christian Trinity. Orthodox Christianity has maintained from the very beginning—though, of course, it took some time to work out the language to express this truth—that God is not only one and not only three, but rather that the Godhead is both three and one. There is both diversity of person and unity of essence within God. This doctrine is often called the “ontological” view of the Trinity, as it deals with the being or essence of God.

Traditional triangle diagram showing the inner-Trinitarian relationships.
Traditional triangle diagram showing the inner-Trinitarian relationships.

On the one hand, God has revealed himself as one undivided, simple essence: “God is one in his essential being and constitutional nature.”[7] See, for instance, Jas 2:19; 1 Cor 8:6; Eph 4:6; 1 Tim 2:5, in addition to the traditional OT declarations of the unity of God.

On the other hand, Christianity has always maintained based on Scripture’s teaching that there are three distinct persons (denoted by theologians as hypostasis, persona, substantia, subsistentia, etc.) within the single Godhead. These are not separate and competing gods, as Muslims often assume. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not “three individuals alongside of, and separate from, one another, but only personal self-distinctions within the Divine essence.”[8]

Ontologically—that is, with respect to their intrinsic being, existence, or nature—the three persons of the Trinity are equally eternal and equal in divine-ness. One is not inferior to any of the other. The Father is ungenerated and unbegotten (Exod 3:14). The Logos or Son is eternally begotten of the Father (John 3:16; Acts 13:33Heb 1:5). The Spirit eternally proceeds from both the Father and the Son (Gen 1:2; John 14:16; 16:7; Rom 8:9). Though their origination differs, they are eternally equal in their divine being. The ancient equation runs: Father = God, Jesus=God, Spirit=God … but Father≠Jesus, Jesus≠Spirit, and Father≠Spirit.

In other words, respective to the fundamental existence and essence of the Divine Being, Christianity upholds absolute oneness and unity of God while simultaneously maintaining the coeternality, coauthority, and coequality among the distinct subsistencias (First, Second, and Third Persons) that are presented in both the OT (in shadow) and the NT (in fullness).

(c) Interim conclusions

This variance between dhat and the ontological distinctions affirmed by Christian Trinitarianism is no mere matter of semantics.

  • Muslims affirm that God could not exist other than as a single Essence and Person (surah 16:51). That is a huge claim.
  • Christians affirm essentially the opposite, that God “could not exist in any other than the tri-personal form,” because the love and self- disclosure of God require both personality and relationality.[9] That is also a huge claim.

For Christians, a God without inner personhood is not only unscriptural but no god at all. For Muslims, the reverse holds. This raises huge questions about whether the God of Islam is ontologically the same as the God of Christianity, or if we are dealing with two different Gods altogether.

I will probe this issue further in the next post, when I shift to discus the Muslim doctrine of sifat and how it relates to the intrinsic attributes of God.

Connecting to the pew

Clarity on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is both hard to come by and immensely important. Wrapping one’s head around the unity-and-pluralness of the true God of the universe makes one’s head hurt, for sure. But failing to try because it is too hard (or too esoteric) is also not right: “And this is eternal life,  that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

In our day-to-day lives, it is easy to think casually about God in such a way that denies the ontological unity/plurality of God. In particular, we should guard against two risks:

  • Risk #1: Practical Unitarianism: Do we tend to absolutize one person of the Trinity over against the others? Do we neglect one of the persons? Non-charismatics often forget about the Holy Spirit and are functional binitarians, speaking only of “God and Jesus.” This can easily turn into unitarianism if you tend to think about Jesus as merely the human sacrifice whose work is complete (and forget that he sustains the whole universe, intercedes for us, and will return in glory). In other words, it is easy for some Protestants to be unitarians in the sense that we focuses almost exclusively on the Father, only occasionally tacking on “in Jesus’ name” to our prayers. This is exacerbated when we talk exclusively about “God” in the abstract in our conversations—remember, that’s what non-Christians do too!—rather than being a little more precise about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Other Protestant traditions may absolutize Jesus to the neglect of the Father and the Spirit. Yet other, particularly charismatic, groups focus almost all their attention on the Holy Spirit to the neglect of the Father and the Son.
  • Risk #2: Practical Polytheism: The other risk is to treat Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit as separate gods altogether. This pops up in certain contexts where we set Jesus and his teachings against, say, the OT; that is, the common “God of the OT” versus “God of the NT” position that sees Jesus as the NT God who is nice and loving, and the Father as the OT God who is mean and demanding. We might not say it in precisely these terms, but under the surface is a ontological differentiation between two (which, if nothing else, ignores how Jesus worshipped the so-called God of the OT!). There is also a related problem whereby modern evangelicals (of the non-charismatic stripe) make a big deal about the Father and Jesus, but implicitly treat the Holy Spirit as a lesser deity or just a life-force or power, rather than a full and coequal person of the Trinity. The net result is a practical kind of polytheism, and in such a context it is not surprising that Muslims actually accuse us of being polytheists. On the one hand, as I aim to prove in these posts, they have misunderstood Christian claims, which are far from polytheism. But on the other hand, it is undeniable that many Christians, often unknowingly, fall into certain ways of talking about the deity in such terms that do, honestly, suggest that there are three separate Gods.


[1] See Frame’s helpful article on this at http://www.frame-poythress.org/trinitarian-analogies/

[2] Cyril Glasse, “Dhat,” Page 116 in The New Encylopedia of Islam, 2003.

[3] Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Religion of Islam (sixth ed.; Columbus: The Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam, 1990), 109.

[4] Bassam Chedid, Islam: What Every Christian Should Know (New York: Evangelical Press, 2009), 114; also Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “God,” in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1997), 318. There is some irony that Islamic scholars argue that the dhat of Allah is a deep and indescribable mystery, yet they accuse Christians of hiding behind “mystery and paradox” when we defend the Trinity. It seems we are both appealing to something higher than our human comprehension…as well we should.

[5] Hoover notes that all Muslims, both Shi’a and Sunni, agree at this level of dhat (Jon Hoover, “Islamic Monotheism and the Trinity,” The Conrad Grebel Review 27/1 [2009], 64).

[6] Many thanks to Dr. James Anderson for covering the apologetic and philosophical problems with unitarian theism in his many RTS-Charlotte courses. It is still reaping dividends!

[7] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Combined Edition; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 87.

[8] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 87.

[9] Douglas F. Kelly, Systematic Theology, Volume One (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2008), 273-274; “for God ‘to be’ is ‘to be in relationship’ within Himself.” See also Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 84-85.

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