The Christian-Muslim Debates: The Nature of God & The Doctrine of Trinity

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Following the initial contacts with the Muslims, the Christians began their attempts to understand the novel religion of Islam. The Muslims mainly criticized Christianity for not being a pure monotheistic religion, and that which worshipped the created. Hence, no later than the mid-seventh century, the Christians began to develop strategies to respond to these criticisms. In his major work, Anastasios of Sinai (d. 700) instructed Christians to avoid uttering incorrect notions such as, the existence of “two Gods” or that “God carnally begot a son” in their debates with Muslims.[1]Therefore, it can be assumed that the Christians became aware of Muslims ideas during this period; but, they had no satisfying response to the Muslims.

Clues on the theological arguments used by Christians can be found in the work of John of Damascus (d. 753). In the ‘Controversy between a Saracen and a Christian’, John focuses on the “uncreatedness” of the Spirit and the word of God. Since Muslims accept the Qur’an as the word of God, and that which is not created, John suggests that they must accept Jesus as uncreated too, as is God’s word.[2]What could be understood from John’s suggestions was that Christians finally began to realize the manner in which the Muslims’ questions about God’s oneness should be answered. Yet, the explanation was unsatisfactory to the Muslims because it was clear that the “uncreatedness” of the Qur’an was completely different from Jesus’ situation. Firstly, in the Muslims’ understanding, what is accepted as eternal denotes the meaning of the Qur’anic verses, and not the material objects such as paper or ink that is used to make the Qur’an or the sounds that are heard when it is recited. Specifically, the uncreated Qur’an is the word spoken by God in eternity. When these words take the form of a book or sounds in this world, they are not eternal anymore because they became limited. Secondly, the uncreated Qur’an is not God Himself, nor is it a part of God. For example, Muslims never worship the Qur’an although they show profound respect to it. Moving on to John’s ideas, it can be concluded that John of Damascus brought a new perspective on the discussions about Jesus; but the above-mentioned points of criticism should be kept in mind. Furthermore, the fact that the Mu’tazila School of Thought completely rejected the idea about the uncreated Qur’an makes one rethink their efforts on defending Islamic principles. However, their rejection is not only related to their defensive concerns, but also to their unique understanding of God’s attributes mentioned in the first principle (Al-Tawhid).

In the conversation between Timothy I and Caliph Al-Mahdi (775-785), the same disagreement can be seen. When the Caliph asked: “You believe in one God but in three?” Timothy replied, “I believe that these three constitute one God, not in their person but in their nature.”[3]  It is apparent that there is a repetition of the Christian belief in Timothy’s answer, but no additional explanation.

Another debate in the presence of the Caliph, al-Ma’mun (786-833), took place between Muslim scholars and Abu Qurra, the Greek Orthodox Bishop. Abu Qurra was the disciple of John of Damascus and was able to quote from the Qur’an. Although several issues were held in this debate, the most explosive theme was the one about Jesus’s personality. Abu Qurra insisted that Jesus was not created quoting a Qur’anic verse stating that Jesus was the word of God and a spirit from God. It is worthy to notice that the Caliph patronized Abu Qurra when Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Hashimi, one of the Muslim participants, opposed Abu Qurra because of his assertions.[4]As it is seen, heated theological discussions were held in the scholarly circles in the patronage of the Muslim rulers. These examples were of importance in terms of religious liberalism and freedom of expression during that time. Furthermore, it should be noted that the Mu’tazili scholars were a part of these discussions. Therefore, it is not inappropriate to assume that the debates influenced Mu’tazila to shape their principles.

The work of Al-Kindi appears as a more theologically developed explanation of the Trinity. He attempted to clarify the issue in the light of God’s attributes.[5]According to Al-Kindi, there are two types of attributes: first, the absoluteattributes which are independent and do not need any reference when they are spoken, such as fire or water; the second are the relativeattributes which refer to ‘another’—for example, knowledge entails a knower and wisdom entails a wise. With this distinction, Al-Kindi pointed out God’s two natures: His essence and His major attributes which are inseparable from His essence.

Al-Kindi continued his explanations mentioning that God has two kinds of attributes: the Natural Essential Attribute (sifa tabiiyya dhatiyya) and the Attribute of Action (sifa al-fi’l). The first emerges from eternity with His essence; whilst the second emerges later by acquisition. For instance, the attribute of creating appeared later than His existence when He created. If we describe Him as an eternal creator, it will result the eternity of the creation. Being forgiving and merciful are like creating. However, He has two natural essential attributes which are life and knowledge. It means He was alive and knowing eternally. These are the two legs of the Trinity. Namely, there are three essential attributes in Godhead: His essence (Father), His knowledge (the Word or the Son), and His life (the Spirit). Al-Kindi presents some verses from the Bible as evidence for his argument emphasizing the usage of the plural form for God (Elohim which means literally “Gods” and the first common plural pronouns referring to God).

As it is readily seen, Al-Kindi’s explanations have some drawbacks. First, his attempts to limit God’s natural essential attributes to two seem inappropriate; what about the attributes of power and will? Can God be described without His will and power in eternity?[6]Second, what al-Kindi thinks about creating which is not eternal is entirely valid about knowledge. The created and creating must emerge later than the Creator. Likewise, the known and knowledge must be later than the Knower. Third, even if Muslims accept the limitation of the attributes to these two, they will not approve interpreting them as Jesus and the Holy Spirit because according to the central Muslim belief, God cannot be perceived in this world in any form but through His work. God does not reveal himself; He reveals His guidance and His words. Fourth, Al-Kindi has no sufficient Biblical evidence for his ideas. The usage of plural forms in the Bible does not entail the Trinity necessarily. Although al-Kindi’s work has these drawbacks, it is still important as it shows the point at which the theological discussions between Christians and Muslims reached. So, it can be surmised that the theologians who lived in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries debated on the attributes of God in their conversations. This information makes Mu’tazila’s attempts and ideas much more meaningful as their main emphasis was on the interpretation of God’s attributes. As mentioned below, Mu’tazila’s Tawhid understanding did not allow the interpretation of God’s attributes as the elements which are independent and separate from God Himself.

Thus, the points of disagreement between Christian and Muslim scholars from the emergence of Islam to the 9thcentury when the Mu’tazila ideas were the most effective were covered. The most significant aspect of these debates was the manner in which both sides defended their points of view. When the Christians tried to make explanations about God’s attributes in order to justify the Trinity, the Mu’tazila scholars, the “missionaries of Islam”, stood defensively. Fazlur Rahman considers that Mu’tazila’s denial of attributes was influenced by the Trinitarian doctrine. Moreover, the whole controversy and the conclusions of Mu’tazila, according to him, were wrong.[7]At this point, the theological approaches should be examined further.

Questions

  1. How did John of Damascus contribute to the Christian-Muslim debates?
  2. What was the significance of the findings of John of Damascus to the Christian-Muslim debates?
  3. According to Al-Kindi, what are the 2 attributes of God?
  4. What are the drawbacks of Al-Kindi’s attributes of God?
  5. What is the significance of these debates to the Mu’tazila School of Thought?

[1]Alan M. Guenther, “The Christian Experience and Interpretation of the Early Muslim Conquest and Rule.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 1999, 369.

[2]Jean-Marie Gaudeul, Encounters and Clashes, (Rome: PICAI, 1984) 2: 9-13.

[3]Ibid., 2: 244.

[4]Hugh Goddard, A History of Christian-Muslim Relations, (Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, 2000), 53. Goddard quotes this historical debate from A. Guillaume, “Theodore Abu Qurra as Apologst”, Muslim World 15, (1925), 46.

[5]Gaudeul, 2: 56-60.

[6]These questions are also asked by al-Qadi Abd al-Jabbar, not to al-Kindi but in terms of criticism to Christianity. See: al-Qadi Abd al-Jabbar ibn Ahmad, Sharh al-Usul al-Khamsah, (Cairo: Maktaba Wahba, 1965), 697-738.

[7]See the 4thfootnote.


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