Did the author of the Quran understand the Trinity?

by Luke Wayne
1/22/18

The orthodox Muslim doctrine of the Quran is that it is an eternal book written on heavenly tablets which was dictated to Muhammad word for word through the angel Gabriel. As such, it has no human history and is, so they say, the perfect and unadulterated word of an all-knowing god. If this were the case, the Quran would be accurate on absolutely everything to which it speaks. It wouldn't matter what Muhammad or early Muslims knew or didn't know since they were only the recipients of this eternal, unchanging, perfect book. There are a host of problems with this claim, not the least of which is that the Quran's author completely misunderstood the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It might make sense for 7th-century Arabs in distant Mecca to have a misconstrued and erroneous notion of what Christians believed about God, but an all-knowing deity would know exactly what Christians believed and would be able to communicate it accurately. The Quran, however, contains a gross misrepresentation of the Trinity that betrays the author's profound ignorance of what Christians actually believed, proving that the author could not be an omniscient god.

The Quran and the Trinity

The Quran obviously does not affirm any concept of the Trinity. Indeed, it seeks to rebuke Christians for believing in the Trinity. In those rebukes, however, we can see what the author of the Quran thought Christians believed versus what they actually believed. For example, the Quran1 says:

"O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, 'Three'; desist - it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs," (Surah 4:171).

Here, the Quran denies the deity of Christ and rebukes Christians for saying "three." Clearly, the context here is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but what does this rebuke imply? It says that Christians should not say "three" because "Allah is but one God." Thus, the Quran is claiming that Christians believe in three gods and should instead believe in just one. Do not say three. Three what? Three gods. Thus, the author of the Quran falsely believes that Christians were asserting three deities, two gods in addition to the one true God of Abraham.

Some highly periphrastic and loose renderings of the Quran will try to avoid the issues here by translating this verse "do not say 'Trinity.' This is not accurate. The Arabic here is not the word for Trinity, but rather the word for the number three. What's more, even the paraphrase doesn't dodge the problem. Even if the Quran had said, "don't say 'Trinity' because Allah is only one God," it would be making the same error. It would be claiming that, by saying "the Trinity," Christians were asserting three gods, which they are not. We see the same issue elsewhere when the Quran asserts:

"They have certainly disbelieved who say, 'Allah is the third of three.' 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 5:73).

The claim here is that Christians believe that "Allah is the third of three." Again, three what? Three gods. The Quran tries to correct the supposed belief that "Allah is the third of three" by insisting that instead "There is no god except one God." Thus, the author of the Quran mistaken believed that Christians worshiped three gods.

We run into a further problem when the Quran identifies who it believes these three gods are. We read this warning to the Christians:

"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,'" (Surah 5:116).

Jesus and His mother as deities besides Allah? We have seen that the Quran accuses Christians of worshiping two other gods in addition to God. Here we see that the author of the Quran believed that those two gods Christians supposedly worshiped were not the Son and Holy Spirit, but rather Jesus and Mary. The Quran's author mistakenly believed that the Trinity was something like a pagan triad of God, His wife Mary, and their child Jesus. Rather than addressing Christians' actual belief in one God who exists in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Quran instead accuses Christians of believing in three gods; Allah, Mary, and Jesus. We see this mistake evidenced in other arguments made against Christianity in the Quran, for example:

"They have certainly disbelieved who say that Allah is Christ, the son of Mary. Say, 'Then who could prevent Allah at all if He had intended to destroy Christ, the son of Mary, or his mother or everyone on the earth?' And to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth and whatever is between them. He creates what He wills, and Allah is over all things competent," (Surah 5:17).

The argument is that Jesus is just a man and therefore God, if He so chose, could simply destroy Jesus. But then it singles out "or his mother." Why? Again, the author thinks that Christians worship Mary as a deity. Look later in the same chapter and you will find:

"The Messiah, son of Mary, was not but a messenger; [other] messengers have passed on before him. And his mother was a supporter of truth. They both used to eat food. Look how We make clear to them the signs; then look how they are deluded," (Surah 5:75).

Jesus and His mother both used to eat food. Why does this matter? It is supposed to prove that they were mere humans. Not only does this argument about eating food completely miss the Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God in true human flesh, by lumping Mary into the same argument, it betrays the author's misunderstanding. The author is arguing not only against the deity of Jesus but also against the deity of Mary as if that is what Christians believed.

The Early Muslim Sources

That this was the Quran's intention is made further clear by reading the earliest Muslim commentaries on the subject. In the words of Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Muhammad, we read:

"They argue that he is the third of three in that God says: We have done, We have commanded, We have created and We have decreed, and they say, If He were one he would have said I have done, I have created, and so on, but He is He and Jesus and Mary. Concerning all these assertions the Quran came down."2

Thus, according to Ibn Ishaq, the reason the Quran was sent down was to correct the supposed Christian assertions that God is but one of three deities alongside Jesus and Mary.

Muqātil ibn Sulaymān's mid-eighth-century tafsir is considered by scholars to be the earliest complete commentary on the Quran to have survived in good condition.3 In it, Sulaymān claims that Christians "say that Allāh, powerful and exalted, is the third of three—he is a god, ‘Īsā [Jesus] is a god, and Maryam [Mary] is a god, making Allāh weak.”4

In another early tafsir, or commentary on the Quran, we read:

"Allah then revealed about the Nestorian Christians of Najran who claimed that Jesus was the son of Allah and that Jesus and the Lord are partners, saying: (O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate) do not be extreme (in your religion) for this is not the right course (nor utter aught concerning Allah save the Truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary) and through His word he became a created being, (and a spirit from Him) and through His command, Jesus became a son without a father. (So believe in Allah and His messengers) all the messengers including Jesus, (and say not “Three”) a son, father and wife. (Cease!) from making such a claim and repent (( it is) better for you!) than such a claim. (Allah is only One God) without a son or partner. (Far is it removed from His Transcendent Majesty that he should have a son. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth) are His servants. (And Allah is sufficient as Defender) as Lord of all created beings and He is witness of what He says about Jesus," (Tanwīr al-Miqbās min Tafsīr Ibn ’Abbās).5

And even on into the middle ages, we read:

"So believe in God and His messengers and do not say that the gods are ‘Three;’ God, Jesus, and his mother. Refrain from this and say what it is better for you to say which is the profession of His Oneness. Verily God is but One God," (Tafsir al-Jalalayn on Surah 4:171).6

Other examples could be given, but this is enough to see that even the early Muslim scholars understood the Quran to claim that Christians believed in a triad of three separate gods and that Mary was one of those gods; wife of Allah and mother of Jesus.

What did early Christians actually believe?

We can know that the Quran was wrong about the beliefs of early Christians because early Christian beliefs about the Trinity are widespread and well documented. The early church was born out of Jesus Trinitarian command:

"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit," (Matthew 28:19).

And even within the first century AD, we have Christians writing to one another in phrases like:

"For as God lives, and the Lord Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Spirit, who are the faith and the hope of the elect," (Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 58).

Such references proliferate the writings of the early church. Long before the church councils, we see familiar descriptions of the doctrine of the Trinity fully laid out succinctly as one God in three distinct persons, such as when Hippolytus of Rome wrote in the early third century:

"We accordingly see the Word incarnate, and we know the Father by Him, and we worship the Holy Spirit," (Hippolytus, "Against the Heresy of one Noetus" section 12).

And then elaborated:

"These things, brethren, are declared by the scriptures. And the Blessed John, in the Testimony of his Gospel, gives us an account of this economy and acknowledges this Word as God when he says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." If, then, the Word was with God and was also God, what follows? Would one say that he speaks of two gods? I shall not indeed speak of two gods, but of one; of two persons, however, and of a third; the grace of the Holy Ghost. For the Father indeed is one, but there are two persons, for there is also the Son; and then there is the third, the Holy Spirit. The Father decrees, the Word executes and the Son is manifested, through whom the Father is believed on. The economy of harmony is led back to one God, for God is one. It is the Father who commands, and the Son who obeys, and the Holy Spirit who gives understanding: The father is above all, the Son is through all, and the Spirit is in all. And we cannot otherwise think of one God but by believing in the truth of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit," (Hippolytus, "Against the Heresy of one Noetus" section 14).

Later in the third century, we read in the confession of another prominent Christian leader:

"There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and Power and Eternal Image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son. There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal and Eternal of Eternal. And there is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son, to wit to men: Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of the living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier, or Leader, of Sanctification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all. There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced. And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abideth ever," (Gregory Thaumaturgus, A Declaration of Faith).

Thus, it comes as no surprise when, in 325 AD, the leaders of the churches gather together and affirm:

"We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.  With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets," (Nicene Creed).

And further clarified in the widely popular Creed of Athanasius:

"That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.  But the godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.  The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.  The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one Uncreated, and one Incomprehensible.  So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty.  And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  And yet they are not three gods, but one God," (Athanasian Creed).

This same clear confession can be traced through the writings of Christians in the late ancient, medieval, and on into the modern world. This is clearly what Christians believed in the time of Muhammad and early Islam. Indeed, we have a response to the Quran's accusations preserved in the early apologetic writings of a Christian named Al-Kindi, who wrote:

"Of course when you protest that God never took Him a wife, [be] gat a son, or had a peer, you say what is absolutely true. Such candor becomes you; it is worthy of you. You protest solemnly, and indeed you speak truly and argue logically when you affirm that he who imposes on God the necessity for friend or fellow, blasphemes Him and virtually imposes on Him the necessity of taking a wife, begetting a son and having a peer. But, God bless you, we do not say that God has a wife, or has [be] gotten a son; we do not impute to the Deity such puerilities and vanities, predicating of God what is true of man. . . . Whereas you, who have read the scriptures, know that such things are never named in them. They are not imposed on our reason; nothing of the sort is hinted at. It is in the Qur’an that these profanities are multiplied against us. . . . Certainly we have never said, nor will ever say, that God, ever Blessed and most High, took a wife or [be] gat a son. . . . As to that which touches His essence, we believe that, co-essential and co-eternal with Him are His Word and Spirit, alike transcendent, exalted above all attribute and predicate" 7

Christological Heresies

The Muslim might argue that this is only one stream of Christian thought and the ancient world was filled with all kinds of other ideas which the Quran might have been addressing, but this is not really the case. By Muhammad's day, the divisions within professing Christianity were mostly over matters related to exactly how the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, became man. There were differing ideas about the relationship between Jesus' divine and human natures, but all of these groups still affirmed that there was only one God and that He existed in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The primary controversy at the dawn of Islam, for example, was over "Monothelitism," the claim that Jesus had only a divine will rather than both a divine and a human will. These issues led to great division, but neither side were polytheists. Neither side made Mary the divine wife of God or defined Jesus' Sonship in terms of carnal, pagan procreation. Both sides affirmed the Trinity; one God eternally existing as three distinct persons. This is true also of the Nestorians, Monophysites, and other major sects of the day as well. In fact, we have preserved for us the words of a Nestorian Patriarch named Timothy I, the leader of just such a sect, who stated his Muslim objector's argument and then answered it, saying:

"[It was said to me] 'O Catholicos, a man like you who possesses all this knowledge and utters sublime words concerning God is not justified in saying about God that He married a woman from whom He begat a son.'— And I replied to his Majesty: 'And who, O God-loving King, who has ever uttered such a blasphemy concerning God?'”8

The earlier heresy of Arianism could, in a sense, be said to have practically reduced Jesus to a second, lesser, created god, but even the Arians did not promote three gods nor worship Mary as a deity, and while they believed the Son had come into existence at a point in time, they believed so on the Greek philosophical model of the "logos" or "word" as a divine emanation of God's perfect nature. The Arian concept was horribly wrong, but it was nothing like the crass Quranic accusation of a triad where God has a child with a goddess Mary who gives birth to Jesus as a third god. Plus, the Arians generally moved north and west. There is no evidence that they were a significant presence in Arabia so that the Quran would have been addressing them anyway.

Collyridians and "Marianites"

Some Muslims have tried to point to an obscure group in the late 4th century known as the Collyridians and claimed that those Quranic passages were addressing them rather than orthodox Christians. The Collyridians were a small group of women in Arabia who, according to one contemporary source, worshiped Mary as a goddess and offered her cakes as a form of worship.9 There is no reason to think that they saw Mary as part of a Triad or Trinity, nor that they held her to be the sexual consort of God by which Jesus was born, so even these do not fit the Quran's accusations.

The group was insignificant in its day and there is absolutely no evidence that it continued on into future generations. By the seventh century and the rise of Islam, there was no such thing as Collyridianism. Plus, the clear reading of the text of the Quran is that it is addressing mainstream Christians, not some tiny, irrelevant sect. As we saw, even the early commentators saw it that way, and early Christians had to answer these accusations. Further, even if the Quran was addressing only this obscure group of women from hundreds of years before Muhammad, that would mean that the Quran does not anywhere condemn the actual Trinitarian perspective of the mainstream Christians!

Other Muslim apologists look to a few 19th-century historians who say things like:

"This notion of the divinity of the Virgin Mary was also believed by some at the Council of Nice, who said there were two gods besides the Father, viz., Christ and the Virgin Mary, and were thence named Mariamites."10

Now that sounds more like what the Quran is talking about, right? But there is a problem. This alleged group is unknown to ancient history. The only source cited by those asserting the existence of these "Marianites" who supposedly believed in Mary and Jesus as two additional gods alongside the Father is the 10th-Century annals of Eutychius of Alexandria,11 a medieval source from long after the rise of Islam. Like much of the legendary material in these annals, the brief account of this group is unknown to history prior to Eutychius' late story. It is far more likely that the idea of these "Marianites" was invented after the rise of Islam as a response to the Quran and Muslim teachings. There is no reason to suppose that these so-called "Marianites" were a true, historical movement at all, much less that they were present at the council of Nicea. Even early scholars like Isaac de Beausobre pointed out that there is no historical evidence that the "Marianites" actually existed.12

Some will point out that the trusted protestant historian, Phillip Schaff, includes a group called the "Marianites" in a list of heresies alongside Arians, Sabelians, Monophysites, etc. It should be noted, however, that he makes no commentary on who they were or what they believed (though in the same list he describes the Collyridians as "those who worship Mary," which would seem to indicate that this descriptor was unique to the Collyridians and did not equally apply to Schaff's "Marianites").13 In Schaff's section on "Mariolotry," he makes reference to the Collyridians but makes no mention of the Marianites,14 which would seem quite relevant to his case had he believed them to be a movement that included Mary in the Trinity and was prominent enough to be represented at Nicea. More importantly, even if Schaff did have such supposed Marianites in mind, he would still have had to rely on Eutychius as his only source, and thus would be subject to the same criticism above. Eutychius isn't a reliable source on this matter, and there are no other sources. The "Marianites" did not exist. They are medieval, post-Islamic myth.

Conclusion

The author of the Quran did not understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. He thought he Christians believed in three separate gods rather than one. He misunderstood Christian claims about Jesus as the Son of God and interpreted them in a pagan, carnal sense. Perhaps he was confused by the increasing problem of the veneration of Mary or the widespread use of the language of Mary as the "mother of God." Perhaps he even heard from those who used the Apocryphal "Gospel According to the Hebrews" that Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit figuratively as His mother15 and, misunderstanding, conflated the Spirit with Mary. It is not hard to understand how a pagan Arab might make these kinds of mistakes based on second-hand stories, hearsay, and uninformed observations and thus end up with the Quran's erroneous conception of Christian belief. But to say that God Himself might get so confused as to what Christians believe is ludicrous. The unchanging and eternal word of an all-knowing God would not contain so flagrant and obvious an error.

  • 1. Citations of the Quran in this article are from the Sahih Internation Version
  • 2. Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, trans. Alfred Guillaume, (Oxford: University Press, 2006), 272
  • 3. Gordon Nickel, We Will Make Peace With You: The Christians of Najran in Muqatil's Tafsir, (Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 3, 2006) 173; http://www.uco.es/investiga/grupos/hum380/collectanea/sites/default/files/Nickel.pdf (Accessed 12/1/17).
  • 4. ibid, 176
  • 5. Tanwīr al-Miqbās min Tafsīr Ibn ’Abbās, trans. Mokrane Guezzou, (Amman: Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2007), 109, as quoted in James White, What every Christian Needs to Know About the Quran (Baker Publishing Group) Kindle Locations 980-990
  • 6. http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=1&tTafsirNo=74&tSoraNo=4&tAyahNo=171&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageId=2 (Accessed 1/12/2018)
  • 7. N.A. Newman, The Early Christian-Muslim Dialogue (Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1994) 418– 419; as quoted in James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur'an (Baker Publishing Group, 2013) Kindle Location 4004-4009, Chapter 4, footnote 73
  • 8. Ibid, as quoted in White, Kindle Location 3998, Chapter 4, footnote 72
  • 9. Epiphianus of Salamis, Panarion, Section 79
  • 10. Rev. E. M. Wherry, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Quran (Trubner and Co., 1882) 64
  • 11. Eutychius of Alexandria, Book 1, Chapter 11; http://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2015/02/11/the-annals-of-eutychius-of-alexandria-10th-c-ad-chapter-11-part-4/ (Accessed 11/30/17).
  • 12. Isaac de Beausobre, Histoire critique de Manichée et du manicheisme, Book I (J. Frederic Bernard, 1739) 532
  • 13. Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 4 (Hendrickson Publishing, 1907) Chapter 3, Section 41; http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc4.i.iii.iv.html (Accessed 11/30/17)
  • 14. Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, (Hendrickson Publishing, 1907) Chapter 7, Section 82
  • 15. A reference to this is preserved by Origen in Commentary on John, Chapter 2