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The Predicament of Islamic Monotheism

Submitted by Christian Bibollet on Tue, 2013-05-07 12:45

By: Anonymous
Post date: 07/05/2013
Thematic: Study

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 Quran 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 Gods attributes apart from creation. As will
be seen, it is an investigation of Gods 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 Gods 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

Contrary to the above opinions, however, a quest for understanding the existence and activity
of Gods 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 Gods 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. 9:13, 2324).

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 mans freedom as well as
creations 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, Jehovahs Witnesses, offshoots of Adventism (Armstrongism), the Unification
Church, and especially Islam.11 Furthermore, since attention here is focused on Islams
intense struggle in relating Gods essence to His ad intra attributes, this study is highly

Based on these considerations a proper evaluation of Islams concept of God demands an

examination of its own understanding of His attributes apart from creation. Islams 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

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 Gods 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, mans having by Allahs will any part in an actionall 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 Gods ethical and relational attributes. Being unable to deny
the existence or the activity of Gods 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 Islams view on Gods 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, Gods dependence, and any concept of
plurality in Gods one nature.22 But having done so, it was left with the bigger problem of
being unable to relate Gods eternal attributes to His essence apart from creation.23

Islams Solution to the Problem

Islams 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 Gods 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 impersonalthat of an
infinite eternal vast Monad.24

The quranic list of Gods 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 Quran 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 Gods attributes stemming from His will rather than His nature is reinforced by
four primary teachings in the Quran: 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 Quran 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 Quran, which contains the strongest attack on the biblical concept of
God. Allahs fiat is evident in determining what is defiled and what is not (5:16), in severe
punishment for disobedience (2, 4, 5b, 87, 95), in affirmingthat no one escapes (78), and in
conditional rewards (911). 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 Gods
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 Gods absolute freedom for these actions so that He is
bound by no law or promise. He states, Every time the Quran 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 Quran Gods 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, Revelation in Islam deals with the will of
Allah and not Allah himself.31 Again the Muslim thinker, Al-Faruqi, stresses that God does
not reveal Himself but only His will.

According to Islam God does not reveal Himself to anyone in any way. He reveals only His will.
In response to whether Gods will is an expression of His nature, Al-Faruqi wrote the

The will of God is God in percipethe nature of God in so far as I can know anything about
Him. This is Gods will and that is all we haveand we have it in perfection in the Quran. But
Islam does not equate the Quran with the nature or essence of God. It is the Word of God, the
Commandment of God, the Will of God. But God does not reveal Himself to anyone. Christians
talk about the revelation of God Himselfby God of Godbut that is the great difference
between Christianity and Islam. God is transcendent, and once you talk about self- revelation
you have hierophancy and immanence, and then the transcendence of God is compromised.
You may not have complete transcendence and self-revelation at the same time.32

Third, Allahs freedom to choose which attribute to operate by will is seen in that
disobedience to Him cannot hurt Him, but it results in severe punishment on the disobedient.
The Quran 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

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

Fourth, this concept of Gods freedom to operate any attribute by will leads to fatalism. The
above understanding of Gods character is the basis for the fatalistic or deterministic system
of the Quran.35 Allah has determined mans fate. Every mans fate we have fastened on his
neck.36 Again mans 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 mans soul, its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right.40

The Quran further teaches Gods 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 Gods
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 Islams monadic monotheism stand in direct contrast to triune theism.

In defining the Nature of God

Because of Islams struggle in dealing with the existence of Gods 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 Asharites, and the rational represented in the
Mutazilites.46 The Asharites came to be recognized as representing orthodox Islam, and the
Mutazilites were anathematized around the fifth century A.H.47 This study evaluates the
Asharites and current Islamic thinking, which revolves around two areas pertaining to Gods
attributes: anthropomorphisms and the relationship of His attributes to His essence.48

Anthropomorphisms. Anthropomorphisms are found in the Quran. 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 Asharites took the principle of mukhalafah (difference), that is, Gods 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 Asharites deduced Gods attributes partly dialectically and partly based on the
Quran.53 No terms applicable to a created being may be applied to him, or if they areas
so often in the Koranit 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 Allahs 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 describedthat is, in similar terms with
manthen he, too, would be a created being.54

In the final analysis the Asharite 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 Islams thinking. The relationship of Gods attributes to His essence.
The problem in Islam was to deduce whether Gods 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 Allahs essence.55

The Asharites, who represent the final orthodox position of Islam, confessed the existence of
the attributes of God, in submission to the quranic 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 Asharites, though Gods 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 Asharites
admitted ignorance as to how the existence of the attributes was possible.58 However, they
insisted that these attributes differ from mans attributes in both quantity and quality.59 They
simply abandoned questioning how this was possible and preferred to submit to the text of
the Quran. Abduh places Allahs 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 Gods moral qualities are supported
only from the Quran 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
Gods, in obedience to the content of the law and in acceptance of its message as true.60

In other words, when the Quran mentions God as having moral attributes, these are
considered as not essential but accidental to His nature. Islam thus divorces Gods attributes
from His essence and affixes them to His actions with His creation. It is said that the import of
the entire Quran 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
Gods 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 essencethese 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 the limitation of the

In fact all discussions concerning the nature of God are considered 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 quranic 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 Gods 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 Islams most
astute theologians. Abduh, who based his whole system of theology on Gods 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 thepreservation of order or restraining
both particular and general corruption.72 Based on this, the deeds of an intelligent agent
are never pointless or idle73 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 quranic portrait. In the
Bible Gods 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 Islams viewing of Gods 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 Transcendence 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 Gods 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 Gods love in Islam. Gods 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


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 Islams standard theology and an
average Muslims 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

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
Gods triunity or not.


This is the second article in a four-part series The Triune God and the Islamic God. See

1 Samuel M. Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God (New York: American Tract Society, 1905), 18.

2 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], 6970).

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

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

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

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

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

8 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.

9 See similar statements made by Christoph Schwbel, Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and
Act (Edinburgh: Clark, 1995), 67.

10 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).

11 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.

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

13 Ibid.

14 See also Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1969), 220.

15 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 Ridas 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.

16 Muhammad Abduh, The Theology of Unity, trans. Ishaq Musaad and Kenneth Cragg (London: George Allen
and Unwin, 1966).

17 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.

18 Duncan Black Macdonald, GodA Unit or a Unity? Moslem World 3 (1913): 16.

19 Ibid.

20 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).

21 See William Thomson, Al-Ashari and His Al-ibanah, Moslem World 32 (1942): 248.

22 For a good discussion of the difficulty in holding that Allah has attributes see ibid., 24750.

23 Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God, 30.

24 Ibid., 10. Muslims have classified Gods attributes in different ways. See Daud Rahbar, Relation of Muslim
Theology to the Quran 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 Gods attributes into those relating to His essence and those relating to His actions. This refers to the
Mutazilites and the Asharites 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), 16162; and J. Windrow
Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology: A Study of the Interpretation of Theological Ideas in the Two Religions
(London: Lutterworth, 1967), 2:1923.

25 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 Gods 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).

26 For a treatment of the conditionality, reinforcement, and contrariness of Allahs attributes in the ninety-nine
names see Imad N. Shehadeh, A Comparison and a Contrast between the Prologue of Johns Gospel and Quranic
Surah 5 (Th.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1990), 22033.

27 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 those who abandon
their claims. 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).

28 Ibid., 12:144 (authors translation).

29 Sayid Qutub, In the Shadow of the Quran (Jeddah: Dar-al-Elm, 1986), 6:30:3889.

30 Arne Rudvin, IslamAn Absolutely Different Ethos? International Review of Mission 71 (1982): 59.

31 Ismail Al-Faruqi, On the Nature of Islamic Dawah, International Review of Missions 65 (1976): 405-6 (italics

32 The 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: 24041). 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).

33 Macdonald, GodA 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; 126:2930; 131:2829.

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 (authors translation). To avoid the obvious implications of this quranic 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, 4:4067). 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 21:98100 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 quranic verses that indicate
that Gods 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, GodA 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, 3740; and Dilasi Olari, Arab Thought and Its Role in History [Beirut: Dar Al-Kitab Al-
Lubnani, 1972], 15577).

47 For a discussion of the Mutazilites see Shehadeh, A Comparison and a Contrast between the Prologue of
Johns Gospel and Quranic Surah 5, 24054. 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 Shiites,
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 L. Massignon,
Hulul, in Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, 141).

48 The issue of immanence was also part of the controversy regarding the attributes of God. This led to
polytheistic expressions of Sufism, which therefore came to be seen as a heretical sect.

49 Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology, 2:33.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid., 2:29; Gardet, Allah, 1:411; and Macdonald, Allah, 37.

52 Macdonald, Allah, 38.

53 Macdonald, GodA Unit or a Unity? 13.

54 Ibid., 15-16.

55 Ibid., 13.

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

57 Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology, 2:105.

58 Al-Yaziji, Highlights of the Arab Thought in the Middle Ages, 162.

59 Ibid.

60 Abduh, The Theology of Unity, 53.

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid., 53-54 (italics added)

63 Ibid., 54.

64 Ibid., 55.

65 Ibid. (italics added).

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

67 Macdonald, GodA Unit or a Unity? 14.

68 Ibid., 16.

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

70 Macdonald, GodA Unit or a Unity? 15.

71 Abduh, The Theology of Unity, 1415.

72 Ibid., 58.

73 Ibid., 59.

74 Ibid.

75 Macdonald, GodA Unit or a Unity? 17.

76 Jrgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 15354.

77 Ibid., 172.

78 Ibid., 173.

79 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 ones 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.

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

81 Macdonald, GodA Unit or a Unity, 1516.

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

83 Gardet, Allah, 1:409.

84 Barth, The Gttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, 378.

85 Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity, 191.

86 Glaser, The Concept of Relationship as a Key to the Comparative Understanding of Christianity and Islam,

87 Ibid., 58.

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

89 Ibid., 44.

90 Ibid., 53.

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

92 Ibid., 431.

93 Ibid., 432 (italics his).

94 Macdonald, GodA Unit or a Unity? 1820.

95 Tisdall, Islamic Substitutes for the Incarnation, 255 (italics his).

96 Ibid

Muslims, Comparison between Islam and Christianity