Trinity and the Qur’an


The belief in the triune God is one of the essential differences in the doctrine about God between Christianity and Islam. That is why we want to deal with the statements of the Qur’an which concern this aspect of Christian doctrine. Our aim is not to give a comprehensive explanation of the Christan doctrine of the Trinity, but we want to examine to which extent the Qur’anic statements concern this Christian teaching at all.

We shall look at the most important passages of the Qur’an concerning this topic and consider them from the point of view of the following aspects:

1 The texts

We find especially the following passages that deal either directly or indirectly with Trinity:

O followers of the Book! do not exceed the limits in your religion, and do not speak (lies) against Allah, but (speak) the truth; the Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only a messenger of Allah and His Word which He communicated to Marium and a spirit from Him; believe therefore in Allah and His messengers, and say not, Three. Desist, it is better for you; Allah is only one Allah; far be It from His glory that He should have a son, whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is His, and Allah is sufficient for a Protector. (Surah 4:171 – Shakir)[1]

They have certainly disbelieved who say, “Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary”, while the Messiah has said, “O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.” Indeed, he who associates others with Allah – Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers. They have certainly disbelieved who say, “Allah is the third of three.” And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment. (Surah 5:72-73)

And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?’” He will say, “Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right. If I had said it, You would have known it. You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself. Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen. I said not to them except what You commanded me – to worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. And I was a witness over them as long as I was among them; but when You took me up, You were the Observer over them, and You are, over all things, Witness.” (Surah 5:116-117)

And they say, “The Most Merciful has taken [for Himself] a son.” You have done an atrocious thing. The heavens almost rupture therefrom and the earth splits open and the mountains collapse in devastation That they attribute to the Most Merciful a son. And it is not appropriate for the Most Merciful that He should take a son. There is no one in the heavens and earth but that he comes to the Most Merciful as a servant. (Surah 19:88-93)

Never did Allah take to Himself a son, and never was there with him any (other) god – in that case would each god have certainly taken away what he created, and some of them would certainly have overpowered others; glory be to Allah above what they describe! (Surah 23:91 – Shakir)

Say, “He is Allah, [who is] One, Allah, the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is born, Nor is there to Him any equivalent.” (Surah 112:1-4)

2 Is God the Third of three?

Surah 5:73 is right in calling people who say, “God is the third of three” unbelievers. For Christians people who call God the first of three are also unbelievers. God is unique and beyond all comparison. He is the Creator, the Only one who is eternal, without beginning and without end.

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me. …Do not tremble and do not be afraid; Have I not long since announced it to you and declared it? And you are My witnesses: Is there any God besides Me, or is there any other Rock? I know of none.” (Isaiah 44:6,8)

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17)

Faith in the triune God is not the belief in three gods among whom God is one of the three, whether the first, second or third. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three separate beings. There is only one eternal God, whose inmost being is love and devotion which is why he revealed himself as the triune God – as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Perhaps a comparison, albeit imperfect, with our created world can help. When we speak of the sun we think of the celestial body around which our planet, Earth, is orbiting. But we might also think of the rays originating from the sun as well as the warmth and light they give us. Does this mean that there are three suns: the celestial body, the rays and the warmth they cause? This image is imperfect because the sun, its rays and the effect caused by them are all something impersonal and created. God, the eternal Creator, however, is not lifeless impersonal matter. He is Life, he is Love. Our belief as Christians in the triune God means that we confess that God is the One whose inmost being is life, love, and overflowing vitality. He expressed the depths of his being through the incarnation of the Eternal God in the person of Jesus Christ, and He shapes and renews our lives through the Holy Spirit. He changes us into holy, God-pleasing people so that his love becomes visible in the love of brothers and sisters, who are one in heart and mind.

Within the triune God, the Father is the origin of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, which is why in the New Testament the term “God” often refers to the Father. The Son and the Holy Spirit receive their eternal divinity from him. This, however, does not mean, that the Father is the first of three gods. Within the one God, he is the origin of godhead in a similar way as the orb of the sun is the origin of the sun rays, sunlight and warmth – without asserting that there are three suns.

When we speak about an “origin” in God we don’t mean a temporal origin, as if at first only the Father existed and later the Son and the Holy Spirit came into existence. In the eternal God there cannot be a temporal “earlier” or “later”. The word “origin” expresses that the Son and the Holy Spirit (through the Son) proceed from the Father in eternity.[2]

We don’t believe in three gods. The teaching refuted in Surah 5:73 is not the Christian doctrine. It raises the question why the teaching which the Qur’an wants to refute was obviously not properly understood.

3 Is Jesus a god besides God?

Surah 5:116 presupposes that Christians worship both Jesus and Mary as two gods besides God. We will deal with the position of Mary in section 7 of this article. Concerning Jesus, we Christians believe that he is God who became man for us. But we do NOT believe that Jesus is a second God besides the eternal Creator of the universe, as supposed in Surah 23:91 which draws the conclusion that if God had a son, his son would be his rival.

Jesus is not a god besides the Father. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God in inseparable unity. Jesus expressed the inseparable closeness between the Father and the Son in the following words:

He who has seen Me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

This does not mean that Jesus is the Father. But the bond between Jesus and the Father is so strong that in encountering Jesus we encounter God in his fullness.

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form. (Colossians 2:9)

This was not only Paul’s doctrine – Jesus himself testified:

All things that the Father has are Mine. (John 16:15)

A mere man would never be able to possess God’s fullness (all things that the Father has) as his own. Thus Jesus expresses that he bears God’s fullness within himself.

That is why Jesus was able to claim the honour that is due only to God:

…that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him. (John 5:23)

When Jesus claimed this honour for himself, it was not because he was flagrantly making himself out to be God, but because by virtue of his eternal divine nature this honour belongs to him. This becomes visible through the fact that the Father confirmed the words of Jesus through numerous miracles.

We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him. (John 9:31)

The clearest confirmation of Jesus claim on divinity was his resurrection. Even the disciples understood this clearly. For instance Thomas, when Jesus appeared to him as the resurrected Lord, said to Jesus:

My Lord and my God! (John 20:28)

Jesus did not reject this divine homage. Just the opposite. He accepted it and considered it a sign of the faith of the formerly disbelieving disciple:

Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (John 20:29)

In the book of Revelation we can read how John wanted to pay homage to an angel whose glory he was allowed to behold. The angel strictly rejected this, as this honour belongs only to God.

Then I fell at his feet to worship[3] him. But he said to me, “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Revelation 19:10)

Jesus accepted it and approved of Thomas calling him his Lord and his God. He reacted in a different way than the angel. He did this because this honour is due to him. Nevertheless he is not a second god besides God. He is the Word of the only God who became man for us:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

More on this question in section 5.

4 Is there a begotten God?

He begets not, nor is He begotten. And none is like Him.

Such is the drift of Surah 112[4]. Even if some western scholars emphasize that this surah is not directed against Christianity but against pagan polytheism which ascribed a partner and children to Allah, there are many Muslims who use this text in order to accuse Christians of polytheism. Christians, too, consider the thought of God taking a wife with whom he begets children – or even Jesus – blasphemy against the holy God. It is unfortunate that many Muslims still hold such a view on the Christian belief in Jesus’ divine sonship. But a love for truth – without which we cannot be saved – leads all who follow it to pursue an objective view, even of a teaching that he rejects.

God does not beget a third god together with a godess! God does not beget a god outside of himself! There is and can be only one God!

When the Gospel calls Jesus the “only begotten God” (John 1:18)[5], it is not speaking of a different god. We do not believe that God was first alone and then he begot a son. We believe that within the one inseparable godhead the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are equally eternal, equally almighty, equally omniscient. The term “beget” expresses that the Son has the same divine nature as the Father. When a human begets, another human comes into existence. What is begotten by God is God. But this is not a different God. This “begetting” means the eternal proceeding of the Son from the Father. This does not mean a process within time. God is eternal. What “happens” in God is eternal, without beginning, without end. Within the one divine being the Son exists only because of the Father. But the Father was never without the Son although the Son proceeds from Him. If we return to the image of the sun: The sun never existed without its rays. It shone from the very first moment of its existence. In a similar way the Son proceeds from the Father from all eternity to all eternity.

As Christians we wholeheartedly agree with the deep indignation expressed in Surah 19:88-93 at the thought that God “has taken for himself a son”, such that even “the heavens almost rupture therefrom and the earth splits open and the mountains collapse in devastation”. God did not “take a son for himself”. He himself came to us in Jesus, God’s word in person.

5 Jesus, the Word of God

In Surah 4:171 we read the following remarkable statement about Jesus:

The Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only a messenger of Allah and His Word which He communicated to Marium and a spirit from Him.[6]

Here we find three descriptions of Jesus: the messenger of God, his Word, a spirit from him. Let us turn our attention to the term “Word”. God “communicated” his Word to Mary. This Word is Jesus.

We can read similar statements in Surah 3:45:

[And mention] when the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah].”

and in Surah 19:34:

That is Jesus, the son of Mary – the word of truth about which they are in dispute.

Muslims often try to explain these verses in a way that it is not Jesus who is the word, but that these verses speak about the creative word of Allah which brought Jesus into being. In Surahs 4 and 3, however, it seems to be clear that Jesus is the one who is called the Word. The Qur’an thus continues a tradition that leads back to God’s revelation in the New Testament. There John writes in the beginning of his Gospel about the eternal Word of God that became man:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. …There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:1-5,9-18)

We know that not all statements of John’s gospel about the Word are comprehensible for Muslims, especially the statement that the Word was God. But even for Muslims it is clear that God created the world by his word, as it is expressed for instance in Surah 2:117:

Originator of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, “Be”, and it is.

If God is eternal, then so is his word. That is why many Muslims believe that the Qur’an is eternal, that the “mother of the book” is kept with God without beginning and without end, without calling this eternal book God.[7] The inevitable consequence of this statement is that there are two absolutely eternal beings without beginning and without end: God and the “mother of the book”.

We Christians believe that God’s word cannot be separated from God and that his word participates in his eternal being. His word is not something he created, nor “something” outside of God. It is the expression of his infinite unchangeable being. It is not a book consisting of letters, but it is just as alive as He who speaks the word is alive. God did not send his eternal unchangeable word to earth in the form of a book. His word became man and brought God’s glory, his grace and his truth very close to us. We do not associate Jesus, the incarnated word of God, with God. When we worship him, we are worshipping the one indivisable, eternal God, the only Creator of the universe.

6 Rebellion or love?

Never did Allah take to Himself a son, and never was there with him any (other) god – in that case would each god have certainly taken away what he created, and some of them would certainly have overpowered others; glory be to Allah above what they describe! (Surah 23:91 – Shakir)

According to the Qur’an the belief in a son of God amounts to the belief in two rival gods. One god would overpower the other. If God had a son there would be rebellion in God’s house. A power struggle dominates.

In the Bible God revealed himself as the one who is Love:

We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)

Because God’s very nature is love, so too the relationship between the divine persons is nothing other than pure love.

The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. (John 3:35)

In the triune God there is no rivalry in which each takes hold of that which is his, instead:

…and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine…. (John 17:10a)

God’s nature, love, is reflected in the lives of all who believe in the God of love, in all who follow Jesus:

And We placed in the hearts of those who followed him (i.e. Jesus) compassion and mercy … (from Surah 57:27)

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

…that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:21)

And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. (Acts 4:32)

7 Is Mary a part of the Trinity?

And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?’” He will say, “Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right. If I had said it, You would have known it. You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself. Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen. I said not to them except what You commanded me – to worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. And I was a witness over them as long as I was among them; but when You took me up, You were the Observer over them, and You are, over all things, Witness.” (Surah 5:116-117)

It is a sad fact that in the course of “church history” people who called themselves “Christians” deviated increasingly from the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles. By mixing Christian and pagan elements the “Cult of the Virgin Mary” came into existence. Jesus’ mother, who is a great example for us, was exalted to the position of a cult object. This “veneration” of Mary does not have anything to do with the Mary we know from the Bible. “Mary” became the person people addressed their prayers to. She received titles that are not due to her in spite of her obedience and holiness. But even the most ardent “Mary” venerators do not claim that she is a goddess or a part of the Trinity. At least in theory they distinguish between creator and creature. As false and impious as it is, the “veneration” of Mary is nevertheless distinguished, even by “Mary” venerators, from the worship of God and Jesus Christ. The question posed in Surah 5:116 is without any base and presupposes an understanding of Christianity that does not accord with reality. It is quite possible that a superficial observer living in the seventh (or even the 21st) century might have concluded from the practice of some “Christians” that they had exalted Mary to a divine being. But this is not, and has never been the content of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which is obviously being targeted by this verse.

8 The Holy Spirit

It is interesting that the Christian doctrine on the Holy Spirit is obviously not reflected in the Qur’an. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Muhammad and the early Muslims only came into contact with heretical forms of Christianity. The “Spirit of God” is indeed mentioned in the Qur’an, albeit with various meanings.

(a) concerning all people:

– at creation God breathed his Spirit into man:

So when I have made him complete and breathed into him of My spirit…. (Surah 15:29 – Shakir)

– the believers are strengthened by the Spirit:

…Those – He has decreed within their hearts faith and supported them with spirit from Him…. (from Surah 58:22)

(b) concerning Jesus

– the Spirit of God (Gabriel) was sent to Mary:

So she took a veil (to screen herself) from them; then We sent to her Our spirit, and there appeared to her a well-made man. (Surah 19:17 – Shakir)

– God breathed his Spirit into Mary:

And (remember) her who guarded her chastity: We breathed into her of Our spirit, and We made her and her son a sign for all peoples. (Surah 21:91 – Yusuf Ali)

And Mary the daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her chastity; and We breathed into (her body) of Our spirit; and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of His Revelations, and was one of the devout (servants). (Surah 66:12 – Yusuf Ali)

– Jesus is God’s Spirit:

O followers of the Book! do not exceed the limits in your religion, and do not speak (lies) against Allah, but (speak) the truth; the Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only a messenger of Allah and His Word which He communicated to Marium and a spirit from Him; (Surah 4:171 – Shakir)

– Jesus was strengthened with the Holy Spirit, e.g. in Surah 2:87:

…We gave Jesus the son of Mary clear (Signs) and strengthened him with the holy spirit….[8]

Similar passages can be found in Surah 2:253[9] and 5:110[10];

Furthermore there are also passages mentioning the Spirit in the context of the sending of the Qur’an.

Among the passages mentioning God’s Spirit in connection with Jesus we cannot find a uniform concept of God’s Spirit. On the one hand he is identified with Gabriel (19:17), on the other hand Jesus’ conception is described as resulting from God’s Spirit being breathed into Mary (21:91; 66:12). Here the Spirit can obviously not mean Gabriel. Finally Surah 4:171 calls Jesus himself a “spirit from Him” (parallel to the term “Word” – see above). There are obviously still some remnants of the biblical revelation that speaks about the conception of the man Jesus by the Spirit of God (Matthew 1:18,20[11]; Luke 1:35[12]), but also traces of the Christian doctrine about the divine nature of Jesus, when he is called “Word of God and Spirit from him”. In contrast to the Qur’an, however, the Bible and the biblically based doctrine of the Trinity, always distinguish clearly between Jesus and the Holy Spirit, although both participate in the same divine nature. Thus the fullness of the work of the one and only God is visible in the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

9 Conclusions

We observe that, in a certain way, the Qur’an reacts to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity – and this reaction is one of rejection. When we take a closer look at this rejection, it becomes visible that there is a clear lack of knowledge of the doctrine being rejected. Especially the charge of polytheism, or that Christianity condones the divine worship of other beings beside the only God, misses the mark completely. The Christian faith is monotheistic. The belief in the triune God does not associate other beings with the only God and Creator, but points to the innermost being of God, who from eternity to eternity is a sole, infinite, unchangeable, indivisible God. We Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God. In him God himself came to us in order to call us in his love out of our sins and to transform us into people whose lives glorify him. Jesus is God’s Word for all people. That is why we also want to invite Muslims to get to know this Word of God, whose words are recorded in the scriptures of the New Testament, and through getting to know him, also to get to know and love the only God more deeply.

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the defense of my life; Whom shall I dread? (Ps 27:1)

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” (John 8:12)

And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming that which came before him in the Torah; and We gave him the Gospel, in which was guidance and light and confirming that which preceded it of the Torah as guidance and instruction for the righteous. (Surah 5:46)

Let us follow this light!


Footnotes:

  1. Unless otherwise indicated the Qur’an quotations are taken from Saheeh International. []
  2. See 4. Is there a begotten God? []
  3. In this context the Greek word “proskyneo” has the meaning “to render homage”, and not “to adore”. John was a monotheist and did not have the intention of revering the angel in a way that is due only to God. But even this kind of veneration was rejected by the angel. []
  4. Quoted according to Shakir. []
  5. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. John 1:18. []
  6. quoted according to Shakir. []
  7. This is the position of the Sunnites, compare: The Uncreatednes of the Divine Speech – The Glorious Qur’an. []
  8. Yusuf Ali. []
  9. …to Jesus the son of Mary We gave clear (Signs), and strengthened him with the holy spirit…. – acc. to Yusuf Ali. []
  10. Then will Allah say: O Jesus the son of Mary! Recount My favour to thee and to thy mother. Behold! I strengthened thee with the holy spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity….” – acc. to Yusuf Ali. []
  11. Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit… But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” []
  12. The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” []