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The Predicament of Islamic Monotheism


21 décembre 2018


The predicament of islamic monotheism. As noted in the previous article in this series,1 the term ―Allah was introduced into Islam from the Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians living in the Arab Peninsula as referring to the one and only true God. However, though both Islam and Christianity may believe in the same God as subject, yet they differ widely on what they believe about His nature.

As Zwemer wrote, ―The word Allah is used for God not only by all Moslems, but by all Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians in the Orient. But this does not necessarily mean that the idea expressed by the word is the same in each case.‖2 Of significance for this study is that the reasons for this assertion extend beyond the idea that the Qur‘an rejects the Trinity and the Incarnation. This study focuses on the theological presuppositions behind such a denunciation3 and pursues the issue of the existence and activity of God‘s attributes apart from creation. As will be seen, it is an investigation of God‘s attributes ad intra. In Trinitarian terms it is an inquiry into the immanent Trinity. It is here that Islam has its deepest struggle, which is seen in many facets of its theological system.

A Legitimate Pursuit?

However, is this a legitimate pursuit? Many Islamic and Christian theologians alike have avoided this question, thinking that a probe of God‘s eternal existence and activity apart from creation is outside the realm of human inquiry. Appealing to the ―hiddenness‖ of God as His divine prerogative, Jensen asserted, ―We can honor and obey the divine majesty of God ‗in himself‘ only by refraining from the religious quest for God ‗in himself‘ beyond his temporal revelation, only by truly obeying the Socratic motto ‗Quae supra nos, nihil ad nos‘ (What is above us is none of our business).‖4 Calvin also strongly discouraged such a quest. ―It was a shrewd saying of a good old man, who when someone pertly asked in derision what God did before the world was created, answered: he made a hell for the inquisitive.‘ ‖5 Augustine did not consider the question inappropriate, but, confessing ignorance, he assigned the answer to the deep mysteries, since he viewed the creation of time to coincide with the creation of matter.6

Contrary to the above opinions, however, a quest for understanding the existence and activity of God‘s attributes apart from creation is justifiable. First, whether time was created with matter or not has no bearing on the question of the existence of the eternal attributes of God.

Second, this pursuit is not to question God‘s attributes but rather to strengthen assurance in them. Barth asserts that this matter pertains to what is true and real. ―It is a question of the specificity, distinction, and juxtaposition of the attributes, whether all this takes place in God himself or only in our knowledge of God, whether it is objective or merely subjective, real or unreal. This is no hairsplitting, no purely academic question, but a vital matter.‖7

Third, it is pleasing to God for His people to know Him, and grieving to Him when they do not (Jer. 9:1–3, 23–24).

Fourth, neglecting the immanent Trinity, or the ad intra attributes of God, can lead to pantheistic tendencies. Gunton shows how this happens either for the sake of relevance or for the sake of viewing divine life and human life as one set of communion. Gunton maintains that both tendencies can lead to pantheism and can also jeopardize man‘s freedom as well as creation‘s independence.8 In agreement with Gunton, Toon warns

that while a person may be orthodox in doctrine, he may be pantheistic in mind-set or attitude so that ―it is possible to speak quite sincerely in the manner of a trinitarian theist and really be a pantheist.‖9 That is, there can be no separation between the economic and immanent Trinity.10 

Fifth, a further reason for studying the attributes of God apart from creation is the urgent need to respond to the attack launched by non-Trinitarian monotheists against Trinitarianism. This includes groups such as Judaism, Unitarianism, Mormonism, Oneness Pentecostalism, Jehovah‘s Witnesses, offshoots of Adventism (Armstrongism), the Unification Church, and especially Islam.11 Furthermore, since attention here is focused on Islam‘s intense struggle in relating God‘s essence to His ad intra attributes, this study is highly significant.

Based on these considerations a proper evaluation of Islam‘s concept of God demands an examination of its own understanding of His attributes apart from creation. Islam‘s concept of the oneness of God is referred to in this study as monadic monotheism. This article examines two issues: the problem of Islamic monadic monotheism and the result of Islamic monadic monotheism.

Islamic Monadic Monotheism: The Problem

The dominant teaching of Islam is its adherence to a particular concept of the oneness of God that results in an explicit denial of the Trinity and the Incarnation.12 Preferring the term ―oneness‖ over ―unity,‖ Badawi says, ―For Muslims, monotheism does not mean simply the unity of God, because there can be different persons in unity. Monotheism in Islam is the absolute Oneness and Uniqueness of Allah, which precludes the notion of persons sharing in Godhead.‖13 The opposite of monotheism in Islam is called shirk in Arabic, meaning ―the association of others with Allah.‖ Shirk is said to include polytheism, dualism, pantheism, and ―all forms of God-incarnate philosophies.‖14 Monotheism is taken so seriously in Islam that forgiveness is not possible to those who ascribe partners with God. Surah 4:116 says,―Allah forgiveth not (the sin of) joining other gods with Him; but forgiveth whom He pleaseth other sins than this. One who joins other gods with Allah hath strayed far, far away.‖15

Modern Islamic thought regarding the oneness of God is expressed well in the writings of Muhammad ‗Abduh, who died in 1905 and who is quoted and revered as the father of Muslim thinking in the Arab world.16 Notable among his works is his book The Theology of Unity.17 This book provides the general direction of current Muslim theology, which has the unity of God as its central theme. In defending the simplicity of God as the necessary being, ‗Abduh asserts that God cannot be composed of parts because necessity to the whole must require necessity to the parts, and that would be unacceptable.18 Furthermore God‘s oneness in Islam is represented by His absolute, all-encompassing will. He is seen as alone determining every human act. ―You will observe that we must not say, as analogy might suggest, that no   other being possesses an act like that of Allah. Allah creates us and he creates all that we do, immediately, directly, without secondary causes. The unity of Allah, therefore, is a basis for his essential difference from all other beings, and also for his being absolutely the only real agent in existence. Second causes, the idea of nature, the existence of a power to do this or that created in things, man‘s having by Allah‘s will any part in an action—all these are denied.‖19

Thus the oneness of God may be summarized as ―unity in essence and qualities and acts, both internal and external.‖20 However, this understanding of the oneness of God has caused much difficulty.

The Heart of the Problem

Contrary to what might be commonly believed, the history of Islamic theology has by no means been unified or without conflict. At the heart of this conflict was the question of the eternal existence and activity of God‘s ethical and relational attributes. Being unable to deny the existence or the activity of God‘s attributes eternally, Islam was faced with the problem of explaining how this could be. For the attribute of love to exist in God eternally there must be at least the lover and the one loved. Similarly for God to be omniscient demands at least the knower and the known in addition to knowledge itself.

Only four options were available to deal with this problem. The first was to hold that God is compound and not simple. The second was to view God as being in relationship with another like Himself (i.e., polytheism). The third was to view God as being in relation with or in dependence on creation, making creation eternal as God. The fourth was to hold that God is in relationship with Himself, implying at least a duality in His one nature.

However, Islam could not accept any of these options. The first option was rejected at once because of Islam‘s view on God‘s simplicity. Since God is independent of anything outside of Himself, all the elements must exist in Him, a unity existing eternally.21 Islam of course early on also rejected the other options of polytheism, God‘s dependence, and any concept of plurality in God‘s one nature.22 But having done so, it was left with the bigger problem of being unable to relate God‘s eternal attributes to His essence apart from creation.23

Read also: Tawhid

Islam’s Solution to the Problem

Islam‘s solution to the above dilemma is clever. Its commitment to monadic monotheism has forced it to settle with the understanding that the attributes of God stem from His will and not from His nature. In conceiving of God in this way Islam seeks to protect God‘s one attribute of unbounded and free power. Thus His attributes communicate not His personal qualities but rather His limitless might as directed by His will. ―The idea of absolute sovereignty and ruthless omnipotence. .. are at the basis. For the rest his character is impersonal—that of an infinite eternal vast Monad.‖24

The qur‘anic list of God‘s attributes communicates very forcefully that He is able to do everything and anything He chooses. This list of attributes is portrayed in the so-called ninety-nine names of Allah.25 The Qur‘an teaches, ―The most beautiful names belong to Allah: so call on Him by them‖ (Surah 7:180). The Hadith also speaks of these names of God, adding that Muhammad has said that he who recalls these names will enter into paradise.26

The concept of God‘s attributes stemming from His will rather than His nature is reinforced by four primary teachings in the Qur‘an: the conditionality of the attributes; the reinforcement of the attributes; the contrariness of the attributes; and the freedom of the attributes from any restrictions. This fourth aspect represents the grand and climactic contribution of Islam regarding the attributes of God.27

The Freedom of the Attributes

This is evident in several ways. First, no explanation is given in the Qur‘an as to why God issues His commandments and decrees other than that it is His wish. What is good is said to be determined by His fiat rather than by His character. This is evident, for example, in one of the last surahs of the Qur‘an, which contains the strongest attack on the biblical concept of God. Allah‘s fiat is evident in determining what is defiled and what is not (5:1–6), in severe punishment for disobedience (2, 4, 5b, 87, 95), in affirming

that no one escapes (7–8), and in conditional rewards (9–11). It is also said that He is able to destroy Jesus, His mother, and every living creature (17). Jews and Christians are categorized as worshipers of evil for rejecting Islam and are considered only next to those who have incurred the curse and wrath of God, those whom He transformed into apes and swine (60).

Second, the freedom of God to choose which attribute to operate by will is evident in God‘s option to forgive or not forgive, simply on the basis of His wish. Surah 5:40 declares, ―Knowest thou not that to Allah (alone) belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth? He punishes whom He pleaseth, and He forgiveth whom He pleaseth, and God hath power over all things.‖ In verse 118 Jesus is said to tell God that He is free to punish or to forgive His followers who said that Jesus claimed deity.28 Commenting on this verse Al-Razi maintains that the reason Jesus made that statement is to ascribe to God the power and freedom to do whatever He wishes. ―It is possible according to our religion that God may send blasphemers to paradise and the righteous and worshipers to (eternal) fire, because ownership belongs to Him and no one can stop Him!‖29

In the same vein Sayyid Qutub specifies God‘s absolute freedom for these actions so that He is bound by no law or promise. He states, ―Every time the Qur‘an states a definite promise or constant law, it follows it with a statement implying that the Divine will is free of all limitations and restrictions, even those based on a promise from Allah or a law of His. For His will is absolute beyond any promise or law.‖30

While similar statements may be made by some Christian theologians, especially hyper-Calvinists, in the Qur‘an God‘s attributes are a subset of His power as an expression of His free will, whereas in biblical theology all attributes are in balance with each other, without any one attribute taking precedence. As Rudvin comments, will is seen in that disobedience to Him cannot hurt Him, but it results in severe punishment on the disobedient. The Qur‘an declares that those who wage war against God and His apostle (Muhammad) are deserving to be killed, crucified, extremities amputated, and tortured in hell (Surah 5:33). Those who reject the faith cannot be redeemed from the day of judgment or from hell (36–37), for God ―punishes [tortures] whom He pleaseth and forgives whom He pleaseth‖ (40). Muhammad is told not to grieve over those who corrupt their scriptures, for God will not purify their hearts, but will cause them disgrace in this life and great torture in the next (41).33

Allah is quick to use the strongest language against those who do not do His will. In ascribing deity to Christ, Christians are told that they are forbidden paradise and are bound for eternal fire (72), are blasphemers bound to be greatly tortured (73), and are to beg for His mercy (74). They are said to have been deluded from the truth (75) and have exceeded the bounds in their religion (76). The are said to be cursed by Jesus just as the Jews were by David (78). They do not cease from doing evil (79), they are friends of unbelievers, and are evil in soul so that the wrath of God is on them so that they will remain eternally in hell (80). Therefore ―He [Allah] himself is the only Advantager, the only Injurer.. .. Acts of obedience and rebellion are simply signs of his rewarding and punishing; they, like all acts of good and evil, are by his creation.‖34

Fourth, this concept of God‘s freedom to operate any attribute by will leads to fatalism. The above understanding of God‘s character is the basis for the fatalistic or deterministic system of the Qur‘an.35 Allah has determined man‘s fate. ―Every man‘s fate we have fastened on his neck.‖36 Again man‘s righteousness or sin has no relation to how God treats the person. ―He forgiveth whom He pleaseth, and punisheth whom He pleaseth.‖37   ―Thus doth Allah leave to stray whom He pleaseth, and guide whom He pleaseth.‖38   ―Whom Allah willeth, He leaveth to wander; whom He willeth, He placeth on the way that is straight.‖39   God is said to have inspired man‘s soul, ―its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right.‖40

The Qur‘an further teaches God‘s resolve to fill up hell. ―And for this did He create them: and the word of thy Lord shall be fulfilled: ‗I will fill hell with jinns (spirits) and men all together.‘ ‖41   Another surah declares the same. ―If we had so willed, we could certainly have brought every soul its true guidance, but the word from Me will come true, ‗I will fill hell with jinns and men all together.‘ ‖42 Hell is inescapable. ―There is none of you but shall descend into it (hell). This is a decree from the Lord which must be accomplished.‖43 God is under no obligation to fulfill any duty or right that is said to be appropriate to Him.

This is because, as stated earlier, His attributes are viewed as subject to His will and not to His nature. ‗Abduh says, ―None of His deeds proceed from Him of necessity as He essentially is. All the attributes of His acts, creation, provision, granting and forbidding, chastisement and beneficence, are affirmed of Him by the special option of power. The intelligent mind, in allowing that all God‘s actions are by His knowledge and will, would emphatically never entertain the idea that any of His deeds were essentially necessary of His nature, as is the case for example in respect of the necessary qualities of things or of Divine attributes which have to be necessarily posited of Him.‖44 Macdonald concludes, ―It is next to impossible for us to conceive of a character that is reduced to will as its one characteristic, but that is all there is in Allah.‖45

Islamic Monadic Monotheism: The Result

Several implications of Islam‘s monadic monotheism stand in direct contrast to triune theism.

In defining the Nature of God

Because of Islam‘s struggle in dealing with the existence of God‘s attributes apart from creation, it had to find theological and philosophical answers to how attributes can exist with a non-relational God. Through Islamic history two major theological schools of thought developed, the traditional represented in the Ash‗arites, and the rational represented in the Mu‗tazilites.46 The Ash‗arites came to be recognized as representing orthodox Islam, and the Mu‗tazilites were anathematized around the fifth century A.H.47 This study evaluates the Ash‗arites and current Islamic thinking, which revolves around two areas pertaining to God‘s attributes: anthropomorphisms and the relationship of His attributes to His essence.48

Anthropomorphisms. Anthropomorphisms are found in the Qur‘an. For example God is described as the great repenter (Surah 2:155), as wrathful (4:95), as having eyes (9:39), hands (5:69), and face (2:109), and as the best of crafters (3:54). These anthropomorphic terms created a problem because there was reluctance on the part of interpreters to bring God to the level of man as well as to bring man to the level of God.49

The Ash‗arites took the principle of mukhalafah (―difference‖), that is, God‘s difference from all created things,50 and devised the famous principle of bila kayfa wala tashbih (―without inquiring how and without making comparison‖).51 Allah is different from any created being. This is expressed also by the common rhyme kul ma khatar bibalik fahwa halik wallah bikhilaf thalik (―everything that comes into your mind is perishing, and Allah is different from that‖). That is, ―Allah is different from any thought we can possibly have, for our thoughts are of transitory things.‖52

Thus the Ash‗arites deduced God‘s attributes partly dialectically and partly based on the Qur‘an.53 ―No terms applicable to a created being may be applied to him, or if they are—as so often in the Koran—it must be clearly understood that their meaning as applied to created things is no clue to their meaning when applied to Allah.. .. So, in general, from the anthropomorphic terms in the Koran, we must not draw any

conclusions as to Allah‘s nature. He may be called ‗Most Merciful‘ there, but that does not mean that he has a quality, Mercy, corresponding to anything in man. If he could be so described—that is, in similar terms with man—then he, too, would be a created being.‖54

In the final analysis the Ash‗arite concept calls for the absolute elimination of any anthropomorphism from the concept of deity, and Allah is removed from associating with His creatures. This is orthodox Islam‘s thinking.

The relationship of God’s attributes to His essence.

The problem in Islam was to deduce whether God‘s attributes were separate from His essence or were in His essence.―If they are separate from that essence, then there is multiplicity in Allah, and they may even be hypostatized into persons in Allah‘s essence.‖55

The Ash‗arites, who represent the final orthodox position of Islam, confessed the existence of the attributes of God, in submission to the qur‘anic text.56 They acknowledged the attributes of action but did not consider them as defining the essence or being independent of the essence. To the Ash‗arites, though God‘s attributes are necessary to His essence, they are in addition to His essence so that they are neither He nor other than He.57 The Ash‗arites admitted ignorance as to how the existence of the attributes was possible.58 However, they insisted that these attributes differ from man‘s attributes in both quantity and quality.59 They simply abandoned questioning how this was possible and preferred to submit to the text of the Qur‘an. ‗Abduh places Allah‘s qualities of life, power, will, knowledge, and speech as philosophical attributes that are

supported by reason and necessarily belong to Him. However, ‗Abduh goes a step further in asserting that God‘s moral qualities are supported only from the Qur‘an and are not deduced by reason. ―Among the attributes of which the law tells are those which reason, though able to hold them compatible with the necessary Being, cannot of itself guide us to their recognition. We must acknowledge these attributes to be God‘s, in obedience to the content of the law and in acceptance of its message as true.‖60

In other words, when the Qur‘an mentions God as having moral attributes, these are considered as not essential but accidental to His nature. Islam thus divorces God‘s attributes from His essence and affixes them to His actions with His creation. It is said that the import of the entire Qur‘an is, ―Ponder the creation of God, but do not take your meditations into the Divine essence, or you will perish.‖61   ‗Abduh thus asserts that reason is limited to the study of accidents and their effects and not of essence.

Any right estimate of human reason will agree that the utmost extent of its competence is to bring us to the knowledge of the accidents of the existents that fall within the range of human conception, either by senses, or feeling or intellection [sic], and then from that to the knowledge of their causation and to a classification of their varieties so as to understand some of the principles appertaining to them. But reason quite lacks the competence to penetrate to the essence of things. For the attempt to discern the nature of things, which necessarily belongs with their essential complexity, would have to lead to the pure essence and to this, necessarily, there is no rational access. So the utmost that our rationality can attain is a knowledge of accidents and effects.62

Thus it can be seen that Islam does not believe that God reveals truths about His essence. Rather than wondering whether God did or could reveal something about His essence, ‗Abduh asserts, ―God did not make man with a need to know the essence of things.‖63   He insists on God‘s otherness. ―To turn to the transcendent Being, the ever- eternal, is to be aware not merely of a puzzled wonder but a complete incapacity and otherness.‖64   In fact according to ‗Abduh it is unreasonable, impossible, inconceivable, and utterly disrespectful for man to define God, for a definition implies a limitation. ―Thought on the essence of the creator, or the demand to know the essence—these are interdicted to human reason. For there is, as we know a complete otherness between the two existences, and the Divine Being is immune from all compositeness. To ask to know it is totally to overextend the power man possesses and is a vain and dangerous enterprise. It is in fact a delusion because it essays the inconceivable and a danger because it conduces to an offence against faith, involving a will to definition of the indefinable and blasphemy.66 ―But the final orthodox position, based apparently on human psychology, seems to have been that, while they [attributes] are ‗necessary to his essence,‘ they are, in addition to his essence,‘ so that we cannot say either that they are He, or that they are other than He. There they are in some way, but either statement would carry us into an indefensible position.‖67

In defining Morality

Though Islam speaks of God as having benevolent attributes, because these attributes are subject to His will, they only describe what is possible and not actual.68   The introduction of every qur‘anic surah ―In the Name of God the merciful and compassionate‖ does not describe what God is, but rather what He can do. He can be merciful, if He so chooses, but He can also be the opposite. As Glaser aptly points out, ―The characteristics of holiness and love are not absent from the Islamic concept of God. Both are predicated of him; but I would suggest that the words do not have the same content as they do in a Christian context. Thus God‘s holiness sets him apart, and makes him the judge, but it does not tie him down to morality. In fact, nothing can tie him down. He is free to will as he wishes, and powerful to carry out his will. He can therefore be tied down by no law, not even one that he has made. In this sense, his moral character is secondary. It is subject to his will.‖69

Thus ―Allah can act; but nothing can affect Allah.‖70 His acts are not based on action or reaction of motives and purposes within Him, but are simply by arbitrary will. Macdonald puts it this way: ―And what else could there be in a pure unity, unaffectable from without? If there were within that character the elements of a society, we can see at once how all the emotions, all the affections, all the possibilities of change might there exist, and from there might have their sphere, both of action and reaction, extended to the world; but if we start with a unity, then a change can come only through unconditioned will. Allah can act; but nothing can affect Allah. Then the acting of Allah, being based on

no considerations, can be by nothing but caprice.‖71

This peculiar system of morality expresses itself in some of the statements by Islam‘s most astute theologians. ‗Abduh, who based his whole system of theology on God‘s special option of power, maintains that God is neither frivolous nor deceptive in His deeds because His actions are directed by His wisdom, which has as its aim the―preservation of order or restraining both particular and general corruption.‖72 Based on this, ―the deeds of an intelligent agent are never pointless or idle‖73 because ―an intelligent agent is one who knows in his willing the intended consequence of his action.‖74

However, it is easy to see that ‗Abduh still had to find a fixed attribute of God (wisdom and intelligence) in order for his theology to have foundation, and in doing so he contradicted himself. ‗Abduh did this in order to avoid the logical conclusion that all the actions of Allah are capricious. Macdonald adds, ―But if it be said that for Allah to inflict pain without cause is vile on His part and unfitting His wisdom, it may be said, Is not the vile that which does not agree with an object? Then no action of Allah can be vile because he has no object which he desires to attain, and he need not consider the object desired by anyone else. And as for wisdom, His wisdom is to know the real nature of things and arrange their action according to his will.‖75

With such a system trust in God becomes difficult. Moltmann asserts, ―A God who contradicted himself would be an unreliable God.. .. The true God is the God of truth, whose nature is eternal faithfulness and reliability.‖76 One can easily see that the biblical portrait of God differs from the qur‘anic portrait. In the Bible God‘s attributes are an expression of His unchanging nature and not of an arbitrary will. Therefore the actions and promises of God are never contrary to His character. He always acts consistently with what He is like. He is never capricious. Furthermore in the Bible the activity of God‘s attributes cannot be limited to time and space. Their activity in time and space is an expression of their activity in eternity. Who God is forms the basis for how He acts. If His attributes are active in history, it is because they are active outside of history. His ad extra attributes are the expression of His ad intra attributes.

The notion of the eternal activity of God‘s attributes is based on the theological assertion that God must be relational in His being. ―Being a person. .. means existing-in- relationship.‖77 ―The constitution of the Persons and their manifestation through their relations are two sides of the same thing.‖78 God loves not because He can love, but because He is love, and He is love because He loves from eternity, and He does so

because He is in relationship.79

This is fair and sound reason. There is no other option. Boyd argues, ―If one agrees that God always does what is best (and what believer doubts this?), and yet if one agrees that it is better that interpersonal relationships and interpersonal love exist as opposed to their being absent (and who would doubt this?), one must accept one of two conclusions: Either God has always been in a loving relationship with something other than himself, or God has always been in a loving interpersonal relationship within himself. If we

accept the former, we deny that God is self-sufficient and posit the eternal existence of some sort of nondivine world.‖80

Thus the triune portrait of God and His attributes relates to the matter of trust. People can fully trust Him, His attributes, His promises, and His unchanging nature. As John declared, ―This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all‖ (1 John 1:5). It can thus be affirmed that the basis of all praise in the Bible is the relational nature of God, whose triune nature guarantees the activity of His attributes apart from creation, and whose oneness guarantees the perfection of these attributes. Whether one is conscious or unconscious of the doctrine of the Trinity, praise to the biblical God necessarily demands Trinitarian monotheism.

In Defining The Knowability of God

Another result of Islam‘s viewing of God‘s attributes as stemming from His will is that He cannot be known or experienced personally by humans. For to claim a promise from God would be, according to Islam, to bind Him to a course of action. Yet as already noted, God in Islam is viewed as never bound by anything, not even law or promise. This, as Macdonald notes, makes God dangerously unknowable. ―But in the God of the formal theology of Islam, removed from all kindly influences of love, sympathy, interest, we have an iron force, unaffectable, unchangeable, which has not even the one safeguard which goes with the forces of nature, that they are calculable and foretellable. He, rather, has in him an element which makes him incalculable; no one can reckon on him, for nobody has the right to say that he must, or will, do this or that.‖81

Therefore in this concept of monadic oneness God cannot be personal. Boyd aptly points to this. ―The notion that God is in his essence alone, that apart from and before creation God exists in total solitude, is completely incompatible with the Christian understanding that God is essentially love or even essentially personal. A God who existed throughout eternity in his own unrelated ‗oneliness‘. .. a God who eternally existed in ‗relationship‘ only to the utter blackness of nothingness, would be a God who could not be eternally personal, could not be a God who was eternally social, and thus could not be a God who was eternally loving. This, rather, is a God whose essence is solitude.‖82

Consequently a relationship with such a God lacks assurance. ―The forbidding inaccessibility of the divine nature is resolutely maintained; God, omniscient and ‗near,‘ can be known only by His Word, by the Names, the attributes and acts of His paramount Sovereignty, which He Himself reveals.. .. Ought one to describe God of this preaching as a personal God? This question has no place emong [sic] the problems of Muslim theologians.‖83

Similarly Barth points out that ―if everything is only one in God, he is unknowable. Where we can see only one color, we can see nothing. Where we can hear only one sound, it is as if we were deaf.‖84   Boyd adds, ― ‗Pure unity‘ is equivalent to ‗nothingness,‘ and is therefore neither picturable nor conceivable. It is, in short, meaningless.‖85

In Defining the Transcendece of God

In Islam, God is transcendent in essence and also in presence. He is wholly other, but He is also wholly apart. The distance is so great that there is no hope of any person having a relationship with God. Also people are not made in the image of God. For God to reach down to humans in an incarnational sense is unthinkable. Thus in Islam God‘s love for His creatures lacks fellowship, and the relationship is more like that between potentate and subject than that between father and son. ―Closeness between man and God is described in terms of knowledge rather than likeness, and the ultimate in relationship is willing submission rather than interaction.‖86 Glaser also comments on God‘s love in Islam. ―God‘s love may cause him to have mercy on his creatures, even to the extent of communicating with them; but it is a love that condescends in beneficence rather than a love that shares in relationship. God may love us if he so chooses, but his relationship with the objects of his love is very different from that envisaged in the Christian faith.‖87

In contrast the Bible presents God as desiring to be known by His people, but known accurately and experientially. Though He is transcendent in essence, He is also immanent. Though He is wholly other, yet He is never wholly apart. His immanence is dependent on His transcendence.88   As Weinandy asserts, ―It is precisely his otherness, as the one and only God distinct from all else, which allowed Yahweh to choose to bind the Hebrew nation to himself, and so to live in intimacy with it.‖89   Weinandy adds the following.

Within the Hebrew scriptures, to say that Yahweh is One, Savior, Creator and All Holy is to say, at one and the same time, within the same concepts, that he is present and active as the Wholly Other, and that he is present and active in time and history, as the Wholly Other without jeopardizing his total otherness in so doing.. .. To state this mystery more philosophically: While God, in his complete otherness, is ontologically distinct from the created order, and thus from all other beings, yet he is able to bring into existence, be present to, and act within the created order as one who is ontologically distinct from the created order, and he is able to do so only because he is ontologically distinct. Moreover, he is able to do so, in his wholly otherness, without forfeiting his wholly otherness in so doing.90


Belief in monotheism is not sufficient. Barth notes that adherence to the concept of monotheism can be cultic. ―It was not a good moment when the discovery was made that Christianity and Islam at least have monotheism in common as compared with other religions.. .. If by the uniqueness of God what is meant is so-called monotheism, the religiously clarified and embellished idea of the ‗one,‘ the cult of the number 1, then the uniqueness of God is certainly not meant. Anything ending with ‗ism‘ has little or nothing to do with God. Note that!‖91 Barth asserts further that the unity of God is a predicate of Him, known only by revelation.92 Revelation declares that it is God who is simple and not that the simple is God. As Barth put it, ―Not that God is one but that God is one.‖93

How do these concepts of God and His attributes affect the average Muslim? Macdonald makes the important observation that variance exists between Islam‘s standard theology and an average Muslim‘s religious attitude.94 When dealing with knowing God, Muslims have difficulty. Tisdall asserts,

―The Creed of Unity or Simplicity of Essence presents no difficulty to the thoughtless

Moslem.. .. But when a Moslem sets himself to consider what he really knows about the God in Whom he believes, and how to attain to a true knowledge of his Creator, then he finds himself at a loss.‖95

This is why Muslims today can paint a picture of a peaceful, benevolent, and tolerant religion, and yet never find a unifying authority behind the precepts to which they hold. When discussing the nature of God, the average Muslim would quickly find refuge in many proverbial expressions, such as ―Without how, without comparison,‖ or ―Whatever comes to mind is perishing and God is different than that.‖ They would assert that any discussion of the nature of Allah is Kufr (―blasphemy‖).96

The two systems of monadic monotheism and Trinitarian theism are theological concepts in opposition to one another. They represent two parallel lines that can never meet. The monadic oneness concept of God means that He does not exist in relationship within Himself. This means that His attributes stem from His will and not from His nature. It then means that He is essentially capricious. Thus in the final analysis a monadic God cannot be known or trusted.

On the other hand the triune concept of God means that He exists in relationship within Himself. This means that His attributes stem from His nature, which points to His holiness and faithfulness. This in turn means that only a triune God can be known and trusted. This is the basis for the praise to God found throughout the Scriptures, whether people were conscious of God‘s triunity or not.

The third article of this series deals with the reasons for Islam’s rejection of biblical christology.

See: Reasons for Islam’s Rejection of Biblical Christology


  • Imad Shehadeh, “Do Muslims and Christians Believe in the Same God?”

Bibliotheca Sacra 161 (January-March 2004): 14-26.

  • (2) Samuel Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God (New York: American Tract Society, 1905), 18.
  • (3) In answer to the question of whether Muslims and Christians believe in the same

God, Timothy George gives both a yes and a no answer. However, though he is correct, what needs further exploration are the underlying presuppositions of Islam

that cause it to reject the Trinity (Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?

[Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], 69–70).

(4) Robert Jensen, The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 27

(5) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (London: James Clarke, 1953), 1.xiv.1.

(6) Augustine, Confessions, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), xi.xii.167.

(7) Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, ed. Hannoelotte Reiffen, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 378.

(8) Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: Clark, 1997), xvii.

(9) Peter Toon, Our Trinue God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1996), 20. See also Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, xvii-xviii.

(10) See similar statements made by Christoph Schwöbel, Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act (Edinburgh: Clark, 1995), 6–7.

(11) Theodore W. Jennings expresses well how the doctrine of the Trinity emerged in the face of various forces of theological and philosophical thought (Beyond Theism

[New York: Oxford University Press, 1985], 14).

(12) See Mohammed Sadiq, “A Moslem on the Trinity,” Moslem World 10 (1920): 410- 11; and William Shepard, “Conversations in Cairo: Some Contemporary Muslim

Views of Other Religions,” Muslim World 70 (1980): 175-77.

(13) Jamal Badawi, Bridgebuilding between Christian and Muslim (Halifax, NS: Islamic Information Foundation, n.d.), 4.

(14) Ibid.

(15) See also Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World

(Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1969), 220.

(16) See C. C. Adams, “Mohammed ‘Abduh, the Reformer,” Moslem World 19 (1929): 264-73; Osman Amin, “Mohammed ‘Abduh, the Reformer,” Moslem World 36 (1946): 153-55; Suhail Ibn Salim Hanna, “Biographical Scholarship and Muhammad ‘Abduh,” Muslim World 59 (1969): 300-307; Assad Nimer Busool, “Shahkh Muhammad

Rashid Rida’s Relations with Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh,” Muslim World 66 (1976): 272-86; and Nabeeh A. Khoury, “Muhammad ‘Abduh: An Ideology of Development,” Muslim World 69 (1979): 42-52.

(17) Muhammad ‘Abduh, The Theology of Unity, trans. Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966).

(18) Ibid., 45-46, 51. This in fact is the point in affirming the Trinity: the persons of the Godhead share in the quality of necessity of the one God.

(19) Duncan Black Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity?” Moslem World 3 (1913): 16.

(20) Ibid.

(21) Or, as Macdonald puts it, to say that God is knower must mean that He either knows something within Himself, implying duality, or that He knows something outside Himself, implying dependence (ibid., 13).

(22) See William Thomson, “Al-Ash‘ari and His Al-ibanah,” Moslem World 32 (1942):248.

(23) For a good discussion of the difficulty in holding that Allah has attributes see ibid., 247–50.

(24) Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God, 30.

(25) Ibid., 10. Muslims have classified God’s attributes in different ways. See Daud Rahbar, “Relation of Muslim Theology to the Qur’an” Muslim World 51 (1961): 46; L. Gardet, “Allah,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed., 1:411; and ‘Abduh, The Theology of Unity, 45, 53. However, it is interesting that the parties involved in this debate classified God’s attributes into those relating to His essence and those relating to His actions. This refers to the Mu‘tazilites and the Ash‘arites who were in debate over the attributes of God for centuries. See Kamal Al-Yaziji, Highlights of the Arab Thought in the Middle Ages (Beirut: Dar Al-Ilm Lilmalayin, 1966), 161–62; and J. Windrow Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology: A Study of the Interpretation of Theological Ideas in the Two Religions (London: Lutterworth, 1967), 2:19–23.

(26) Bukhari, Sahih of Bukhari (Istanbul: Al-Maktabah Al-Islamiyah, n.d.), 164:97:8; 169:97:8. However, the lists of these names varies greatly, so that the number ninety-nine does not define the limit of God’s attributes (Arthur Jeffrey, Islam, Muhammad and His Religion [New York: Liberal Arts, 1958], 93). Abd Al-Mughni Saeed emphasizes that the list of ninety-nine names is only an exemplary collection, and is not exhaustive (A New Treatment of the Most Beautiful Names of God [Beirut: Dar Al-Shuruq, 1980], 7). He believes that Muhammad only selected these names to praise God and that he never implied that they be limited to this number (ibid., 9). In support of this, Saeed points also to the fact that the Hadith does not mention all ninety-nine names (ibid., 10).

(27) For a treatment of the conditionality, reinforcement, and contrariness of Allah’s attributes in the ninety-nine names see Imad N. Shehadeh, “A Comparison and a

Contrast between the Prologue of John’s Gospel and Qur’anic Surah 5” (Th.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1990), 220–33.

(28) Al-Razi says that since God cannot forgive anyone who ascribes deity to Jesus, Jesus’ statement referred to those of His followers who lied by saying that He

demanded people to worship Him and His mother. This lie may be forgiven. Furthermore Al-Razi also states that the forgiveness spoken of may refer only to this. In other words God can act in benevolence so long as He is not compelled to do so (Al Fakhr Al-Razi, The Commentary of Al-Razi [Damascus: Dar-Al Fikr, 1981], 12:144).

(29) Ibid., 12:144 (author’s translation).

(30) Sayid Qutub, In the Shadow of the Qur’an (Jeddah: Dar-al-‘Elm, 1986), 6:30:3889.

(31) Arne Rudvin, “Islam—An Absolutely Different Ethos?” International Review of Mission 71 (1982): 59.

(32)  Isma‘il Al-Faruqi, “On the Nature of Islamic Da‘wah,” International Review of Missions 65 (1976): 405-6 (italics his).

(33) he Jews who are said to say, “If ye are given this, take it, but if not, beware” (Surah 5:41), is explained by Al-Razi to refer to the alteration of Moses’ commandment of stoning the adulterer, and changing it to only whipping (see Al- Razi, The Commentary of Al-Razi, 11: 240–41).

The Jews’ coming to Muhammad (Surah 5:43) is said to be for insincere motives, because they come to him whom they refused prophethood, and they only seek watered down interpretations of their commandments. See Al-Baydawi, The Lights

of Revelation and the Secrets of Explanation (Beirut: Dar Al-Kashaf, 1965), 150; and

Al-Sabzawari, The New in the Explanation of the Glorious Quran [Beirut: Dar Al-taaruf Lilmatbuat, n.d.], 2: 471).

(34) Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity?” 17.

(35) See Surahs 6:123, 125; 7:177, 185; 10:99; 11:120; 13:27, 30; 16:39, 95; 18:16; 32:17; 126:29–30; 131:28–29.

(36) Surah 17:13. The word “Tair” literally means “a bird,” hence an evil omen. See Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Quran (Brentwood, MD: Amana, 1989), 677 n. 2187.

(37) Surah 2:284.

(38) Surah 74:31.

(39) Surah 6:39.

(40) Surah 91:8.

(41) Surah 11:119.

(42) Surah 32:13.

(43) Surah 19:71 (author’s translation). To avoid the obvious implications of this qur’anic declaration Muslim commentators propose various interpretations. Ali maintains that the verb “warada,” which is translated by Arberry as “go down to it,”may mean “pass through, or by or over the Fire,” or may refer to a “Bridge over Hell” (Ali, The Holy Quran, 759 n. 2518). Al-Sabzawari admits that the meaning could be “to enter in” but prefers the meaning of “to pass by so as to overlook” (The New in the Explanation of the Glorious Quran, 4:406–7). Qutub does the same but emphasizes the frightening experience which every person will go through as he or she comes near and passes by hell (Sayid Qutub, In the Shadow of the Quran, 4:2318). However, all these commentators adopt the meaning “to enter in” in another context where it clearly speaks of unbelievers as “entering in” hell (Ali, The Holy Quran, 816– 17; Sayid Qutub, In the Shadow of the Quran, 4:2399; and Al-Sabzawari, The New in the Explanation of the Glorious Quran, 4:525). Surah 21:98–100 states, “Surely you, and that you were serving apart from God, are fuel for Gehenna; you shall go down [warada] to it. If those had been gods, they would never have gone down [warada] yet every one of them shall therein abide forever; there shall be sighing from them therein, and naught they shall hear.” Nevertheless, even if the meaning “to enter” is adopted, as it is the case with Al-Jalalayn (see Jalal Al-Din Muhammad Bin Al-Mahali and Jalal Al-Din Abi Bakr Al-Suyuti, The Commentary of the Jalalayn [Beirut: Dar Al-Wifaq, n.d.], 410), Muslim commentators appeal to other qur’anic verses that indicate that God’s decision as to who remains in hell is made in a split second, and that believers would be saved from it (Ali, The Holy Quran, 817 n. 2756). Surah 16:77 declares, “And the decision of the hour (of judgment) is as the twinkling of any eye or even quicker: for Allah hath power over all things.” Surah 21:101 also

states, “Those for whom the good (record) from Us has gone before, will be removed far therefrom.” Nevertheless no Muslim has assurance in this life.

(44) Abduh, The Theology of Unity, 57 (italics added).

(45) Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity?” 14.

(46) The sufi mystical school of thought represents a minority development (D. B. Macdonald, “Allah,” in Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, 37–40; and Dilasi Olari, Arab

Thought and Its Role in History [Beirut: Dar Al-Kitab Al-Lubnani, 1972], 155–77).

(47) For a discussion of the Mu‘tazilites see Shehadeh, “A Comparison and a Contrast between the Prologue of John’s Gospel and Qur’anic Surah 5, ” 240–54. Other

controversies involved the rise of forgeries of traditions and interpretations because

of conflict over the caliphate, which in turn gave rise to the Khawarij and the Shi‘ites, resulting in the loss of many Muslim lives. Other controversies related to determinism and free will, the role of reason, the role of science and Greek ideas, the balance between the literal and imaginary interpretations, the concept of the substantial union of the body and the soul (‘Abduh, The Theology of Unity, 34 ff.; and

  1. Massignon, “Hulul,” in Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, 141).

(48) Ibid.

(49) Ibid., 2:29; Gardet, “Allah,” 1:411; and Macdonald, “Allah,” 37.

(50) Macdonald, “Allah,” 38.

(51) Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity?” 13.

(52) Ibid., 15-16.

(53) Ibid., 13.

(54) Al-Yaziji, Highlights of the Arab Thought in the Middle Ages, 162.

(55) Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology, 2:105.

(56) Al-Yaziji, Highlights of the Arab Thought in the Middle Ages, 162.

(57) Ibid.

(58) Abduh, The Theology of Unity, 53.

(59) Ibid.

(60) Ibid., 53-54 (italics added).

(61) Ibid., 54.

(62) Ibid., 55.

(63) Ibid. (italics added).

(64) See William St. Clair Tisdall, “Islamic Substitutes for the Incarnation,” Moslem World 1 (1911): 255.

(65) Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity?” 14.

(66) Ibid., 16.

(67) Ida Glaser, “The Concept of Relationship as a Key to the Comparative Understanding of Christianity and Islam,” Themelios 11 (1986): 58.

(68) Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity?” 15.

(69) Abduh, The Theology of Unity, 14–15.

(70) Ibid., 58.

(71) Ibid., 59.

(72) Ibid.

(73) Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity?” 17.

(74) Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 153–54.

(75) Ibid., 172.

(76) Ibid., 173.

(77) For an excellent article on the concept of relationship in God, see Glaser, “The Concept of Relationship as a Key to the Comparative Understanding of Christianity and Islam,” 58.

However, philosophy has not always supported such a notion. The view that attributes do not necessarily require a relationship was held early on. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) seemed to think that God existed in time past without necessarily being in activity. He maintained that no activity implied contemplation, and in the

latter resided true happiness. “Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does” (Aristotle II, in Great Books of the Western World [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], 9 [Nicomachean Ethics, 10.8.433]). Similarly Epictetus (98-55 B.C.) believed that attributes existed in self-sufficiency and in one’s own companionship. He maintained that people ought to pattern their lives after God without the need for communion or mutual love. He stated, “For as Zeus dwells with himself, and is tranquil by himself, and thinks of his own administration and of its nature suitable to himself; so ought we also to be able to talk with ourselves, not to feel the want of others also, not to be unprovided with the means of passing our time; to observe the divine administration, and the relation of ourselves to everything else; to consider how we formerly were affected toward things that happen and how at present; what are still the things which give us pain; how these also can be cured and how removed; if any things require improvement, to improve them according to reason” (The Discourses of Epictetus, 3.13.188, in Great Books of the Western World 12 [italics added]). However, though some attributes can exist in self-sufficiency, this cannot apply to all attributes. Furthermore it is unimaginable that some attributes can be inactive in

God such as love, knowledge, will, and so forth. Even Islam itself recognized that to have attributes from eternity past God either existed in relationship (which Muslims reject), or there must be another answer known only to God and must not be pondered.

(78) Gregory A. Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 192.

(79) Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity,” 15–16.

(80) Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity, 191 (italics his).

(81) Gardet, “Allah,” 1:409.

(82) Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, 378.

(83) Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity, 191.

(84) Glaser, “The Concept of Relationship as a Key to the Comparative Understanding of Christianity and Islam,” 59.

(85) Ibid., 58.

(86) Thomas G. Weinandy, Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 42.

(87) Ibid., 44.

(88) Ibid., 53.

(89) Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, 430 (italics his).

(90) Ibid., 431.

(91) Ibid., 432 (italics his).

(92) Macdonald, “God—A Unit or a Unity?” 18–20.

(93) Tisdall, “Islamic Substitutes for the Incarnation,” 255 (italics his).

(94) Ibid.


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