The Quran on the Trinity: The View of Classical Sunni Scholars

It is common knowledge to all serious students of the Quran that the Muslim scripture gets the Trinity wrong. There is not a single statement in the entire Quran which accurately defines and rejects the orthodox Christian definition of God being Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What the Muslim scripture attacks is the belief that Allah is the third of three gods, something that historic Christianity outright rejects:  

They are unbelievers who say, ‘Allah is the third of three (thalithu thalathatin).’ No god is there but One Allah. If they refrain not from what they say, there shall afflict those of them that disbelieve a painful chastisement. Will they not turn to Allah and pray His forgiveness? Allah is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a Messenger; Messengers before him passed away; his mother was a just woman; they both ate food. Behold, how We make clear the signs to them; then behold, how they perverted are! S. 5:73-75

It is apparent from the context that the passage is attacking the belief in three gods consisting of Allah, Mary and Jesus, with Allah being the third of these three. After all, why bother to mention that Mary and Jesus ate food unless the intention is to show that they could not be divine since eating is something that Allah doesn’t do? 

This is further substantiated by the following verses:

And when Allah said, ‘O Jesus son of Mary, didst thou say unto men, “Take me and my mother as gods, apart from Allah”?‘ He said, ‘To Thee be glory! It is not mine to say what I have no right to. If I indeed said it, Thou knowest it, knowing what is within my soul, and I know not what is within Thy soul; Thou knowest the things unseen I only said to them what Thou didst command me: “Serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord.” And I was a witness over them, while I remained among them; but when Thou didst take me to Thyself, Thou wast Thyself the watcher over them; Thou Thyself art witness of everything. S. 5:116-117

Furthermore the Arabic word for third (thalith) is used in two other places of the Quran and in both instances it refers to someone or something that comes third in time, position or order:   

when We sent unto them two men, but they cried them lies, so We sent a third (thalithin) as reinforcement. They said, ‘We are assuredly Envoys unto you.’ S. 36:14

Here, thalith refers to an envoy that was chronologically the third one that Allah sent.

Have you considered al-Lat and al-‘Uzza and Manat the third (al-thalithata), the other? S. 53:19-20

In this text Manat is mentioned third, which again shows that thalith in Quranic usage refers to someone or something that comes third in order, rank, position, time etc.

Thus, by saying that Allah is the third of three this means that Allah comes in third place and therefore holds the third order or position, i.e. Jesus and Mary are two gods with Allah coming in as the third god, much like Manat is third in respect to al-Lat and al-Uzza.

Lest a Muslim try to deny that the phrase “third of three” or “three” refers to three gods, namely Allah, Jesus and Mary, notice the following Muslim explanations. All bold and/or capital emphasis will be mine.

Ibn ‘Abbas

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. (Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘AbbâsQ. 4:171)

(The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger) sent to people, (messengers (the like of whom) had passed away before him. And his mother was a saintly woman. And they both used to eat (earthly) food) they were both servants who used to eat food. (See) O Muhammad (how we make the revelations) the signs that Jesus and his mother were not gods (clear for them, and see) O Muhammad (how they are turned away) through lies! (Q. 5:75)

Ibn Ishaq

The names of the fourteen principal men among the sixty riders were: ‘Abdu’l-Masih the ‘Aqib, al-Ayham the Sayyid; Abu Haritha b. ‘Alqama brother of B. Bakr b. Wa’il; Aus; al-Harith; Zayd; Qays; Yazid; Nubayh; Khuwaylid; ‘Amr; Khalid; ‘Amr; Khalid; ‘Abdullah; Johannes; of these the first three named above spoke to the apostle. They were Christians according to the Byzantine rite, though they differed among themselves in some points, saying He is God; and He is the son of God; and He is the third person of the Trinity, which is the doctrine of Christianity. They argue that he is God because he used to raise the dead, and heal the sick, and declare the unseen; and make clay birds and then breathe into them, so that they flew away; and all this was by the command of God Almighty, ‘We will make him a sign to men.’ They argue that he is son of God in that they say he had no known father; and he spoke in the cradle and this is something that no child of Adam has ever done. 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. (The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, Tenth impression 1995], pp. 271-272)

Muqātil ibn Sulaymān

[…] the Nasṭūriyya say, “‘Īsā is the son of Allāh”; and the Mār Ya’qūbiyya say: “Allāh is the Messiah son of Maryam”; and the ‘Ibādat al-Malik [Byzantines] say that Allāh, powerful and exalted, is the third of three—he is a god, ‘Īsā is a god, and Maryam is a god, making Allāh weak (fatara IV), blessed and almighty. On the contrary, Allāh is one God, and ‘Īsā is a servant of Allāh and his prophet as Allāh, praise him, described himself: “One, ṣamad, he does not give birth, he is not born, and no one is equal to him.” (Tafsīr Muqātil ibn Sulaymān, Q. 5:15, Volume I, pp. 462-463, translated by Gordon Nickel)

Al-Zamakhshari

The (word) three is the predicate to an understood subject. If one accepts the Christian view that God exists in one nature (jauhar) with three divine persons, namely the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and (if one accept) the opinion that the person of the Father represents (God’s) being (dhat), the person of the Son represents (his) knowledge (‘ilm), and the person of the Holy Spirit represents (his) life (hayat), then one must supply the subject as follows: ‘God is three(fold).’ Otherwise, one must supply (the subject) thus: ‘The gods are three.’ ACCORDING TO THE EVIDENCE OF THE QUR’AN, the Christians maintain that God, Christ, and Mary are three gods, and that Christ is the child of God by Mary, AS GOD SAYS (in the Qur’an): ‘O Jesus son of Mary, didst thou say unto men: “Take me and my mother as gods, apart from God”?’ (Sura 5:116), or: ‘The Christians say: “The Messiah is the Son of God”’ (Sura 9:30). Moreover, it is well known that the Christians maintain that in Jesus are (combined) a divine nature derived from the Father and a human nature derived from his mother… At the same time these words exclude (the Christian view) that Jesus had with God the usual relationship between sons and (their) fathers… (Helmut Gätje, The Qur’an and its Exegesis [Oneworld Publications, 1996], pp. 126-127)

Al-Tabari

The saying in the understanding of His word: {they do blaspheme who say Allah is the third of three} and this is also news from Allah concerning another group of the Israelites whom (Allah) described their character in the forgoing verses when he (Allah) sent them a problem after they believed that they would not have problems and no harm when they blasphemed their Lord and associated (with him): Allah is the third of three. And this is a saying of many Christians before the splitting into Jacobites and Melkites and Nestorians, and they used to say as we have been told: The eternal God is one in essence who exists in three persons: Father begetter but is not begotten, and Son begotten but not begetter, and a wife following between them. And folks from among the interpreters said concerning our saying that he (Allah) intended with the verse the Christians. Reference to those who said that:

9596 – Muhammad bin al-Hussain told us, he said: Ahmad bin al-Mufaddal transmitted, he said: Isbat transmitted, from al-Suddi: {they do blaspheme who say Allah is the third of three} He said: The Christians said: He is the Messiah and his mother, just like the saying of Allah the exalted: {did you say to humanity take me and my mother as gods besides Allah?} (5:116)… (Tafsir al-Tabari, Q. 5:73)

Ibn Kathir

<Say not: “Three!”> do not elevate `Isa and his mother to be gods with Allah. Allah is far holier than what they attribute to Him. In Surat Al-Ma’idah (chapter 5), Allah said…

<Surely, disbelievers are those who said: “Allah is the third of the three.” But there is none who has the right to be worshipped but One God.> Allah said by the end of the same Surah…

<And (remember) when Allah will say (on the Day of Resurrection): “O `Isa, son of Maryam! Did you say unto men: ‘Worship me’”> and in its beginning…

<Surely, in disbelief are they who say that Allah is the Messiah, son of Maryam.> The Christians, may Allah curse them, have no limit to their disbelief because of their ignorance, so their deviant statements and their misguidance grows. Some of them believe that `Isa is Allah, some believe that he is one in a trinity and some believe that he is the son of Allah. Their beliefs and creeds are numerous and contradict each other, prompting some people to say that if ten Christians meet, they would end up with eleven sects! (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Q. 4:171 https://www.alim.org/quran/tafsir/ibn-kathir/surah/4/171)

<Surely, they have disbelieved who say: “Allah is the third of three.”> Mujahid and several others said that this Ayah was revealed about the Christians in particular. As-Suddi and others said that this Ayah was revealed about taking `Isa and his mother as gods besides Allah, thus making Allah the third in a trinity. As-Suddi said, “This is similar to Allah’s statement towards the end of the Surah…

<And (remember) when Allah will say: “O `Isa, son of Maryam! Did you say unto men: `Worship me and my mother as two gods besides Allah’ He will say, “Glory be to You!”> [5:116]. Allah replied…

<But there is no god but One God.> meaning there are not many worthy of worship but there is only One God without partners, and He is the Lord of all creation and all that exists… (Ibid., Q. 5:73 https://www.alim.org/quran/tafsir/ibn-kathir/surah/5/72)

`Isa is Allah’s Servant and His Mother is a Truthful Believer

Allah said…

<The Messiah, son of Maryam, was no more than a Messenger; many were the Messengers that passed away before him.> `Isa is just like the previous Prophets, and he is one of the servants of Allah and one of His honorable Messengers. Allah said in another Ayah…

<He [`Isa] was not more than a servant. We granted Our favor to him, and We made him an example for the Children of Israel.> Allah said next…

<His mother was a Siddiqah> for she believed in Allah with complete trust in Him. This is the highest rank she was given, which proves that she was not a Prophet. Allah said next…

<They both used to eat food> needing nourishment and to relieve the call of nature. Therefore, they are just servants like other servants, not gods as ignorant Christian sects claim, may Allah’s continued curses cover them until the Day of Resurrection… (Ibid., Q. 5:75)

Al-Jalalayn

O People of the Scripture, the Gospel, do not go to extremes, do not go beyond the bounds, in your religion and do not say about God except, the saying of, the truth, such as exalting Him above any associations with a partner or a child: the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word which He cast to, [which] He conveyed to, Mary, and a spirit, that is, one whose spirit is, from Him: he [Jesus] is here attached to God, exalted be He, as an honouring for him, and not as you claim, that he is the son of God, or a god alongside Him, or one of three, because one that possesses a spirit is compound, while God transcends being compound and the attribution of compounds to Him. 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. Glory be to Him, transcending [the possibility], that He should have a son! To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth, as possessions, creatures and servants, and such sovereignty is not compatible with [that] prophethood [of Jesus]. God suffices as a Guardian, a Witness to this. (Tafsir al-JalalaynQ. 4:171)

They are indeed disbelievers those who say, ‘God is the third of three’, gods, that is, He is one of them, the other two being Jesus and his mother, and they [who claim this] are a Christian sect; when there is no god but the One God. If they do not desist from what they say, when they declare a trinity, and profess His Oneness, those of them who disbelieve, that is, [those] who are fixed upon unbelief, shall suffer a painful chastisement, namely, the Fire. (Ibid., Q. 5:73)

FURTHER READING

DEBATE CHALLENGE TO MUSLIM METAPHYSICIAN PT. 1

DEBATE CHALLENGE TO MUSLIM METAPHYSICIAN PT. 1B

DEBATE CHALLENGE TO MUSLIM METAPHYSICIAN PT. 2

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