Trinity, Tawhid, and Monotheism
Tawhid (توحيد ) and Trinity (الثالوث), and Monotheistic Belief in One God
If you’re anything like me you’ve struggled to understand Christian and Muslim differences about God. The doctrine of God is hard enough to grasp by itself let alone fathoming the differences between Christians and Muslims.
Maybe you’ve heard that Christians believe 1+1+1=1? Perhaps you aren’t sure about the meaning of tawhid, Shahada or shirk. Or maybe you’re so puzzled that you’ve given up trying to understand the differences and have concluded, “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” or “Allah knows best.”
If you’ve wrestled to understand the differences and why they matter, then read on. They matter eternally!
Christians and Muslims are Monotheists.
At the core of Islam and Christianity is belief in One God. Christians and Muslims are monotheists.
There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
- لا اله الا الله محمد رسول الله (lâ ilâha illallâh, Muḥammadur rasûlullâh) (Shahada in Arabic)
Monotheism is explicitly mentioned more than 260 times in the Muhsin Khan Interpretation of the Meanings of the Quran (For a list of every reference see, “Monotheism in the Quran”).
4Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Jesus affirmed monotheism as part of the first and greatest commandment:
28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:28–30)
Tawhid and Trinity
So if Christians and Muslims are monotheists, what’s the difference?
The difference is:
- Christian monotheism is Trinitarian.
- Muslim monotheism is Unitarian or Tawhid.
Many Muslims do not believe that Trinitarianism is monotheistic but shirk, the unpardonable sin of assigning partners or equals to God (Quran 5:17). The Quran contains strong warnings against shirk.1 Curiously, the Quran’s formal rejection of “Trinity” is not the Trinitarian monotheism historically believed by Christians.2
The Quran’s rejection of “Trinity” and affirmation of Unitarian monotheism is problematic because Unitarian monotheism is foreign to the Christian Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments (see Do You Believe in the One True God?).
How Can We Decide Between Trinitarian Monotheism and Unitarian Monotheism (Tawhid)?
Philosophical arguments could be used for or against either position.3 But Christians are Trinitarian monotheists because of God’s work in history.4 God is not a speculation that originated in our imagination.
Historically, the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus are why Christians are Trinitarian monotheists. In fact, two of the most important rites Jesus handed down to the church highlight both history and Trinitarian monotheism: The Lord’s Supper highlights God’s work in history culminating in Jesus (Luke 22:14–20; see also 1 Corinthians 11:23-26),5 and baptism highlights Jesus’ having fully revealed monotheism as Trinitarian (Matthew 28:18-20).6
Jesus and Muhammad in History
So we are left with this question: Who has the authority to define monotheism: Jesus or Muhammad?
I believe Jesus has the final authority to define monotheism for the following historical reasons:
- The Unitarian monotheism in the Quran, along with its denial of the Fatherhood of God was not taught in Scripture.
- I do not believe Muhammad’s claim that the angel Gabriel spoke to him is historically justified.
- Muhammad’s revelation contradicted previous revelation that is rooted in history (e.g. Jesus’ death on the cross7).
- Historically, Muhammad is dead and buried in Medina. Jesus’ tomb is empty; He lives. This gives Jesus an authority greater than Muhammad to define monotheism.
Why should Muslims believe in the form of monotheism Jesus taught and handed down to the church?
Because Muslims claim to believe in Jesus. Therefore, they should believe what Jesus taught about God and God’s work in history:
- Jesus is “Immanuel,” which means God with us (Matthew 1:23).
- Jesus forgave sin, something only God can do (Mark 2:1-13).
- Jesus taught, “Before Abraham was, I am…” (John 8:58-59 with Exodus 3:14-15).
- Jesus affirmed the unity of God when He taught, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
- Jesus accepted worship from others (Matthew. 8:2; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:17; Mark 5:6).
- Jesus commanded all who believe in Him to remember God and His work in the observance of the Lord’s Supper and baptism.
Christian monotheistic belief is summarized by the following seven points:
1. The Father is God.
2. The Son is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.
4. The Father is not the Son.
5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
7. There is only one God.
When Christians say: (1) The Father is God; (2) The Son is God; and (3) The Holy Spirit is God we are identifying Who God is.
When we say: (4) The Father is not the Son; (5) The Son is not the Holy Spirit; and (6) The Holy Spirit is not the Father we are distinguishing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The seventh and the final statement is the most challenging, “There is only one God”. The Greeks would say, “Zeus is god, “Apollos is god, and Dionysius is god” and there are three gods. Christianity says, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God and there is only one God.
To help clarify the above seven points, please consider the following diagram:
Now, the question boils down to this: Is this what the Bible teaches? Since the Bible teaches this but we can’t fully comprehend it – that is OK. We must leave room for mystery in our theology.
In church history Saint Augustine (354-430) probably thought more about the doctrine of the Trinity than any other uninspired writer, with the possible exception of John Calvin. There is a story about Augustine walking upon the ocean’s shore, greatly perplexed about the doctrine of the Trinity. As he meditated, he observed a little boy with a sea shell, running to the water, filling his shell, and then pouring it into a hole which he had made in the sand.
“What are you doing, my little man?” asked Augustine.
“Oh,” replied the boy, “I am trying to put the ocean in this hole.”
Augustine had learned his lesson, and as he passed on, exclaimed, “That is what I am trying to do; I see it now. Standing on the shores of time I am trying to get into this little finite mind things which are infinite.”8
It should come as no surprise that the Christian belief in the Triune God involves mysteries that transcend the human mind.
Bassam Madany, a former Arabic broadcast minister, tells of a time when he received a letter from a Muslim merchant residing in London, England. After commenting, in an irenical spirit, on Bassam’s use of the Arabic language, this Muslim wondered how an intelligent person could believe in the Trinity. Bassam responded:
I am not surprised that you have a great difficulty in understanding this biblical teaching about the Trinity. The reason I believe in the triune God is the fact it is part and parcel of God’s revelation. I trust that you will agree with me that when we deal with such doctrines as the attributes of God, and his nature, we cannot fully comprehend them. As believers in God, we are summoned to receive what his revelation teaches. So, we should not be surprised if in a revealed (Muslims consider Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as heavenly [or revealed] religions) religion, there are mysteries that transcend the human mind.
There were some Muslim theologians who were supported in their views by the ruling caliphs, who propounded the doctrine that the Qur’an was created; that it came into existence at the time of its revelation to Muhammad, (between A.D. 610-632) They believed that it was necessary to safeguard the unity of Allah, by not allowing for the pre-existence of the Qur’an. However, an influential theologian and expert in the Law, Imam Hanbal, refused to accept this formulation and declared that the Qur’an was eternal. He was persecuted and imprisoned by the caliph. As you well know, that event in your history is known as “The Ordeal of the Qur’an.” Several years later, it was the Hanbalite view that prevailed. To this day, it continues to be the official teaching of Sunni Islam.
Muslims believe that Allah is eternal, but they confess that the Qur’an is also eternal. While I do know that this is your own belief, I do not jump to the conclusion that you confess the existence of two gods. I realize that there are mysteries in all faiths that do transcend our capacity to comprehend. Should you not treat me in the same way, and not charge me with believing in three gods? (“The Trinity and Christian Missions to Muslims” in Reformation and Revival; [Summer 2001], pp.129-130) 9
Can the Quran be the Word of God if it denies Trinitarian monotheism?
Is the Quran the Word of the One True God?
The Christian answer must be: No. The Quran cannot be the Word of the One True God because the Quran does not affirm the One True God revealed in the Bible,
O people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians)! Do not exceed the limits in your religion, nor say of Allah aught but the truth. The Messiah ‘Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah and His Word, (“Be!” – and he was) which He bestowed on Maryam (Mary) and a spirit (Ruh) created by Him; so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not: “Three (trinity)!” Cease! (it is) better for you. For Allah is (the only) One Ilah (God), Glory be to Him (Far Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is All-Sufficient as a Disposer of affairs. (Quran 4:171, Muhsin Khan).
Surely, disbelievers are those who said: “Allah is the third of the three (in a Trinity).” But there is no ilah (god) (none who has the right to be worshipped) but One Ilah (God -Allah). And if they cease not from what they say, verily, a painful torment will befall the disbelievers among them. (Quran 5:73, Muhsin Khan).
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- Quran 34:20-24,
20And indeed Iblis (Satan) did prove true his thought about them, and they followed him, all except a group of true believers (in the Oneness of Allah). 21And he (Iblis Satan) had no authority over them, except that We might test him, who believes in the Hereafter from him who is in doubt about it. And your Lord is a Hafiz over everything. (All Knower of everything i.e. He keeps record of each and every person as regards deeds, and then He will reward them accordingly). 22Say: (O Muhammad SAW to those polytheists, pagans, etc.) “Call upon those whom you assert (to be associate gods) besides Allah, they possess not even the weight of an atom (or a small ant), either in the heavens or on the earth, nor have they any share in either, nor there is for Him any supporter from among them. 23Intercession with Him profits not, except for him whom He permits. Until when fear is banished from their (angels’) hearts, they (angels) say: “What is it that your Lord has said?” They say: “The truth. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.” 24Say (O Muhammad SAW to these polytheists, pagans, etc.) “Who gives you provision from the heavens and the earth?” Say: “Allah, And verily, (either) we or you are rightly guided or in a plain error.” (Muhsin Khan).
Say (O Muhammad SAW): “Tell me or inform me (what) do you think about your (so called) partner gods to whom you call upon besides Allah, show me, what they have created of the earth? Or have they any share in the heavens? Or have We given them a Book, so that they act on clear proof there from? Nay, the Zalimun (polytheists and wrongdoers, etc.) promise one another nothing but delusions.” (Muhsin Khan).
Say (O Muhammad SAW to these pagans): “Think! All that you invoke besides Allah show me! What have they created of the earth? Or have they a share in (the creation of) the heavens? Bring me a Book (revealed before this), or some trace of knowledge (in support of your claims), if you are truthful!” (Muhsin Khan). [↩]
- “[T]he Kur’an formally rejects any doctrine of the Trinity. It should however be pointed out that the Trinity as understood and rejected is not the same as that which is taught by Christian dogma, and defined by the councils which were held before the revelation of the Kur’an. The Kur’anic Trinity seems to be a triad composed of Allah, of Mary his consort and of Jesus their child (cf. V, 116); a concept which is reminiscent on the one hand of the stellar triads of the pre-Islamic Pantheon, and on the other hand of the cult of Mary verging on idolatry practised by certain Christian sects of Arabia, the Mariamites and the Collyridians. It is important to note that the formal denials of the Kur’an are directed towards these views, which are “heretical” from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy itself” (Anawati, G.C. “ʿĪsā.”, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. P. Bearman et al. [Leiden: Brill, 1986-2004], CD-ROM version; available online at the Internet Archive). [↩]
- “Its doctrine of God is the major weakness of Islam…Only a God who is triune can be personal. Only the Holy Trinity can be love. Human love cannot possibly reflect the nature of God unless God is a Trinity of persons in union and communion. A solitary monad cannot love and, since it cannot love, neither can it be a person…Trinitarian theology asserts that love is ultimate because God is love, because he is three persons of undivided loving communion” (Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, 446). [↩]
- See the chapter in my e-book, “History, Doctrine, and Muslim Agnosticism.”
The relationship between Christian beliefs in monotheism (doctrine) and history is found in the Nicene Creed (AD 381),
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty (doctrine), Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible (history).
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation (doctrine), came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. (history)
And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified (doctrine), who spake by the prophets (history). In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins (doctrine); we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. (history) Amen. [↩]
- “…in all churches in all lands, there exists a rite, performed, usually, on the first day of the week, in which, amid innumerable variation of detail, one point is fixed and central, viz, that bread is broken, and that the fruit of the vine is poured out and drunk; and that he who breaks the bread and pours forth the wine says that he does so in obedience to an express command given by the Saviour on the night before the day on which He died; for that He, on that night, Himself took bread, broke it, and gave it to be eaten, poured wine, and gave it to be drunk, saying, that the bread was His body broken, and that the fruit of the vine was His blood shed for man, concluding, “This do in remembrance of Me.” (William Henry Temple Gairdner, The Eucharist as Historical Evidence, The Nile Mission Press, Cairo, Egypt). [↩]
- “Christian baptism is administered “in the name of” not three Gods, not two creatures plus one God, not three parts of God, and not three stages of God, but one God who is eternally Father, Son, and Spirit (Gregory of Nyssa, On “Not Three Gods,” NPNF [A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. 1st Series, 14 vols. 2nd series, 14 vols. Edited by H. Wace and P. Schaff] 2 V, pp. 331–37)…Its liturgical importance, its strategic location in the Gospel of Matthew as the final command of the Lord, and the fact that it has been so frequently referred to by early Christian writers make this text the centerpiece of triune teaching. It implicitly affirms the divinity, the distinctness, the equality, and the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit. It assumes and calls for an act of adoration and profession of faith in the triune God (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures. XVI.4, NPNF 2 VII, p.116)” (Thomas Oden, The Living God: Systematic Theology, Vol. I:202). [↩]
- Quran 4:156-158,
156And because of their (Jews) disbelief and uttering against Maryam (Mary) a grave false charge (that she has committed illegal sexual intercourse); 157And because of their saying (in boast), “We killed Messiah ‘Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), the Messenger of Allah,” – but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but the resemblance of ‘Iesa (Jesus) was put over another man (and they killed that man), and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no (certain) knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely; they killed him not [i.e. 'Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary)]: 158But Allah raised him ['Iesa (Jesus)] up (with his body and soul) unto Himself (and he is in the heavens). And Allah is Ever All-Powerful, All-Wise. (Quran 4:156-158, Muhsin Khan [↩]
- Sandro Botticelli did a painting reflecting this story c.1488. It is entitled “The Vision of Saint Augustine.”
The story may be legendary, but is given to illustrate the greatness of God. A similar version is related by Alister McGrath who says, “For Augustine, the point was simple: Si comprehendis non est Deus. If you can get your mind around it, it cannot be God. Our thoughts about God are bound to seem illogical and muddled, precisely because what they refer to lies beyond our full knowledge and understanding” (Christian Theology: An Introduction, fifth edition [Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011], 235.). [↩]
- While many Muslims believe the Qur’an is “uncreated”, they do not all conclude that the Qur’an is therefore eternal. Nevertheless, some Muslims have come to this conclusion, “The thesis of the Kuran as the Word of God, eternal and uncreated, was forcefully proclaimed in the professions of faith of al-Ash`ari (Ibana, ed. Cairo 1348, 10; Makalat al-Islamiyyin, ed. Cairo 1369/1950, i, 321); and also in the Wasiyyat Abi Hanifa (article 9) and the Fikh Akbar II (article 3) and III (article 16). Al-Ash`ari cites the authority of Ibn Hanbal. Throughout the centuries, the schools remained faithful to this total affirmation” (L. Gardet, “Kalam” in Encyclopaedia of Islam; IV:470b). See Richard C. Martin, “Createdness of the Qurʾān”, Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Brill [Leiden and Boston], 2005. CD-ROM version. [↩]