A Clash of Monotheisms, Pt 4: Af’Al and Divine Activity

When I was a pre-teen, I received my first Swiss Army Knife. Not a Wenger knock-off, but the real deal.

It was a thing of beauty. I loved that knife, and many small saplings were far worse off due to my newfound ability to saw them in two, strip off the bark, gouge a hole, whittle into a spear, and so forth.

I even had a pretty fantastic leather case that I could use to attach said Swiss Army Knife to my olive green Boy Scout shorts.

The ultimate gadget.
The ultimate gadget.

The key thing about a Swiss Army knife—aside from the sheer oddity and uselessness of the tools on the backside of the knife (has any 12 year old ever successfully used the awl, corkscrew, or the strange hooked thing?)—is its division of labor.

You have one knife; one identity; one essence as a perfectly crafted exemplar of Swiss ingenuity.

But each component fulfills a different role that contributes to the greatness of the whole. The knife does one thing; the saw does another; and the bottle opener does yet another.

This very rough analogy, with which I am admittedly violating my prior comment about how there are no sufficient trinitarian analogies, leads us to a final discussion about the difference between the Islamic conception of the works or activities of Allah and the Christian understanding of the Trinity.


In the immediately preceding two posts, I compared two aspects of Islamic monotheism (tawhid) with Christian Trinitarianism:

There remains a final aspect of tawhid: the Islamic teaching of af-al, which pertains to the works or actions of Allah.

(a) Muslim Doctrine of Af-Al

The concept of af-al within Islamic theology pertains to the oneness of the acts of Allah, in the realms of both everyday life and things specific to salvation. Af-al maintains that “none can do that which God has done.”[1] Simply put, all the works of Allah in the known universe are entirely and indivisibly his own; no one shares in what Allah does.

Allah has “no associates in his creation” of all things, and no other divine or human being participates in his immanent works in the creation;[2] in fact, in some cases the Qur’an appears to speak of Allah directly counteracting the ‘free’ acts of men. Taken to its logical extreme (which some Muslims believe, but not all), af-al implies that Allah is more or less completely deterministic: not only is he sovereign, but he literally does everything. In philosophical terms, he is both the First Cause and the Second Cause (and only Cause, for that matter).[3] Allah decrees all things and accomplishes all things without any secondary causes or instrumental agents in the mix.

Put differently, Allah neither “incarnates nor has any Partner or Son or Compeer” in his dealings with mankind.[4]

For instance, not only is it contrary to Dhat for Allah to beget a divine Son,[5] but there is, strictly speaking, no need for such a mediator. According to Islam, the notion that Allah would achieve atonement for sins through, say, a sinless substitute (such as Jesus), is tantamount to a “denial of the quality of forgiveness in God, and this amounts to attributing a defect to Him.”[6] The suggestion that some other agent is part of the unfolding of Allah’s activities/works in the world is, again, shirk (the unforgivable sin).

In sum, per af-al, in the plan of salvation Allah affords no sharing or mutuality in divine activity.

(b) Christian Doctrine of the Economic Trinity

In sharp contrast, Christian theology has historically taught alongside the ontological perspective on the Trinity (which maintains unity in essence/being) a complementary perspective on the “economic” diversity among the persons.[7] In this context, “economic” does not refer to the Econ 101 / social sciences’ understanding of the use of scarce resources, but rather to the biblical teaching that certain works and actions of the one Godhead are distributed among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

That is to say, when we move from talking about the essential unity-and-plurality of essence/being of God (ontological) and the mutual-indwelling and sharing of attributes (perichoresis), we necessarily begin talking about specific works of providence that God accomplishes in his created order. And once we enter that discussion, the Bible does clearly ascribe different actions to the different persons of the one true God. For instance, here are some examples of this distribution of divine activity:

  • Big picture: generally speaking, “creation is ascribed primarily to the Father, redemption to the Son, and sanctification to the Holy Spirit”[8]
  • Creation: God the Father is the first cause of creation (Gen 1:1; Heb 11:3), yet the Son was the pre-existent agent of creation (Col 1:16; John 1:3), and the Spirit, too, was hovering over the primordial earth (Gen 1:2)
  • Covenant: Father decreeing salvation of the elect, the Son covenanting to achieve it, the Spirit being sent to apply it[9]
  • Salvation: Jesus uniquely (not the Father or the Spirit) took on flesh, suffered, and died as a perfect substitute for man (Heb 2:14). The Spirit (not the Father or the Son) is poured out upon believers to apply the benefits of Christ’s saving work to the regenerate sinner (Rom 5:5; Tit 3:5-6).
  • Kingdom: God gives the elect to Jesus; the Spirit calls the elect to Jesus; Jesus rules over his elect, but in turn presents the kingdom to the Father (1 Cor 15:28)

(c) Interim Conclusions

To summarize, essential to the Christian conception of the plan of redemption is both the unity of divine working (God is One) and the differentiation of salvific works within the economic Trinity. Without this, there is no mediator between God and man, no blood shed and brought into the true tabernacle, no washing of regeneration, no indwelling of the Spirit (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 9:11ff.; Tit 3:5).

In contrast, af-al puts the Muslim in quite a predicament. Allah (like Yahweh) demands perfect holiness. Islam teaches that man is, however, fallen in sin and unholy. To remedy this problem, Islam’s teaching of af-al requires that only Allah as a purely transcendent monad can undertake any sort of salvific action. But how can he do that?  What are his options? (a) He can die for sins, but that would require him to contradict his own character. (b) He can forgive certain people and not others, but on what basis would he do that if atonement via a mediator is categorically excluded? His apparent forgiveness must either be arbitrary (which some forms of Islam teach), or it must be based on accumulation of merit outweighing sins. But where is such a line drawn? At what point does the Muslim go from “not enough on the positive side of the ledger” to “just enough” so that he might be saved?

Sadly, af-al, the third aspect of Islam’s tawhid, yields a god who cannot actually work redemption in the first place.

In the next post, I will summarize the tawhid vs. Trinity discussion by offering thoughts on the question, “Are Allah and Yahweh the same God?” (or, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?”)

Connecting to the pew

This detailed analysis of Islam’s central teaching of tawhid reveals an important truth to consider when comparing the two systems: every aspect of tawhid is a perversion of a central biblical teaching concerning the Triune God. It is not just that Islam maintains 1 and Christianity maintains 3-in-1. The differences are much deeper:

  • Dhat contradicts the ontological view of the unity and plurality of the persons of the Godhead
  • Sifat contradicts the sharing in attributes by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • Af-al contradicts the division of providential and redemptive activities among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

It is almost as if Islamic monism—which, recall, developed in the 600s AD long after the Christian creeds were codified—was defined explicitly as a reaction to the central teachings of Christian trinitarianism. In other words, at its very core, Islam (like all non-Christian worldviews) is merely a reverse parasite on Christianity: it depends upon and reacts to Christianity, but reverses/contradicts it at major points.

This reverse parasitism has two broad implications. (a) First, we need to be aware that false teachings, even those that spring up in the church, often sound so appealing because they are parasitic on the “true truth.” They sound and look similar because they are starting at the same place. But at some point there is a reversal or contradiction that renders this parasitism fatal. (b) Second, recognizing how the central teachings of tawhid line up with (and contradict) central teachings of Christianity can provide helpful apologetic pathways, whereby fruitful questions pertaining to the essence, attributes, and works of God can be asked.


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

[2] Jon Hoover, “Islamic Monotheism and the Trinity,” The Conrad Grebel Review 27/1 (2009), 65.

[3] Obviously, such absolute determinism is impossible to maintain in practice, and few Muslims would actually admit that, say, Allah is the sole efficient cause of his/her picking an item off a menu, or brushing teeth, or avoiding a puddle while walking. However, the Qur’an’s emphasis on Allah’s total causality is quite strong.

[4] Phil Parshall, The Cross and the Crescent (Waynesboro: Authentic Media, 2002), 30.

[5] Space does not permit a full treatment of the critical issue of Islam’s rejection of the Father / Son concept in the Bible, which, though closely related to tawhid, stems more from (a) misunderstanding the incarnation and Virgin Birth and (b) the (purported) lack of a category for non-biological “adoption” or “sonship” within Arabic or Islamic theology.

[6] Ali, Religion of Islam, 113.

[7] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 89. He elucidates, “This ontological Trinity and its inherent order is the metaphysical basis of the economical Trinity.”

[8] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 89; see also Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology I, 549.

[9] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume II (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 359ff. Hodge, with many theologians, distinguishes the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace; for the present purposes, it is sufficient to note the economy of roles within the pre-temporal and temporal dimensions of the Covenant, broadly speaking.

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