Muslim monotheism is vulnerable to many
criticisms, particularly from a Christian perspective. Crucial is
their rigid idea of absolute unity.
The Problem of
Islamic monotheism is rigid and
inflexible. Its view of God’s unity is so strong that it allows for
no plurality at all in God. Hence, it sees nothing between monotheism
and tritheism (three gods), and Christians are placed in the latter
category. There are several reasons for this misunderstanding. For one
thing there appears to be a misunderstanding of the biblical text
related to God. Muslims also have a rather grossly anthropomorphic
view of what it means for Christ to be a "Son" of God. This
often seems to demand some kind of sexual generation, according to
their thinking. But the terms "Father" and "Son"
no more necessitate physical generation than the term alma mater
implies that the school from which we were graduated was our physical
womb. Paternity can be understood in more than a biological sense.
There is a deeper and more basic
philosophical problem. In the final analysis God has no (knowable)
essence or nature from which one can distinguish his three persons or
centers of consciousness. This position is known as nominalism. God is
absolute will, and absolute will must be absolutely one. A plurality
of wills (persons) would make it impossible to have any absolute
unity. And Muslims believe God is absolutely one (both from revelation
and by reason). Reason informed Muhammad that unity is prior to
plurality. As Plotinus put it several centuries earlier (205-70), all
plurality is made up of unities. Thus unity is the most ultimate of
all. Accepting this neoplatonic way of thinking leads logically to a
denial of the possibility for any plurality of persons in God. Hence,
by the very nature of his philosophical commitment to the kind of
neo-Platonism prevalent in the Middle Ages, Islamic thought about God
was solidified into an intractable singularity which allowed no form
This rigid monotheism is not entirely
consistent with some of Islam’s own distinctions. Muslim scholars,
consistent with certain teachings in the Qur’an, have made
distinctions within God’s unity. For example, they believe the Qur’an
is the eternal Word of God. Sura 85:21-22 declares, "Nay, this is
a Glorious Qur’an, (Inscribed) in a Tablet Preserved! [in
heaven]" And in sura 43:3-4, we read, "We have made it a Qur’an
in Arabic, that ye may able to understand (and learn wisdom). And
verily, it is in the Mother of the Book, in Our Presence, high (in
dignity), full of wisdom" (cf. sura 13:39). This eternal original
is the template of the earthly book we know as the Qur’an.
Muslims insist the true Qur’an
in heaven is uncreated, and perfectly expresses the mind of God. Yet
they acknowledge that the Qur’an is not identical to the
essence of God. Some Muslim scholars even liken the Qur’an to
the divine Logos view of Christ, held by orthodox Christians. As
Professor Yusuf K. Ibish stated of the Qur’an, "It is
not a book in the ordinary sense, nor is it comparable to the Bible,
either the Old or New Testaments. It is an expression of Divine Will.
If you want to compare it with anything in Christianity, you must
compare it with Christ Himself." He adds, "Christ was the
expression of the Divine among men, the revelation of the Divine Will.
That is what the Qur’an is" (Waddy, 14).
Orthodox Islam describes the relation
between God and the Qur’an by noting that speech is an
eternal attribute of God, which as such is without beginning or
intermission, exactly like His knowledge, His might, and other
characteristics of His infinite being (see Golziher, 97). But if
speech is an eternal attribute of God that is not identical to God but
is somehow distinguishable from him, then does not this allow the very
kind of plurality within unity which Christians claim for the Trinity?
Thus, it would seem that the Islamic view of God’s absolute unity
is, by their own distinction, not incompatible with Christian
trinitarianism. The basic Muslim logic of either monotheism or
polytheism is invalid. They themselves allow that something can be an
eternal expression of God without being numerically identical to him.
Thus, to use their own illustration, why can’t Christ be the eternal
"expression of Divine Will" without being the same person as
this Divine Will?
The Problem of
At the very basis of the Islamic view
of God is a radical voluntarism and nominalism. For traditional Islam,
properly speaking, God does not have an essence, at least not a
knowable one. Rather he is Will. True enough, God is said to be just
and loving, but he is not essentially just or loving. And he is
merciful only because "He has imposed the law of mercy upon
Himself" (sura 6:12). But since God is Absolute Will, had he
chosen to be otherwise he would not be merciful. There is no nature or
essence in God according to which he must act.
There are two basic problems with this
radical nominalism: one metaphysical and one moral.
The metaphysical problem.
The orthodox Islamic view of God claims, as we have seen, that God is
an absolutely Necessary Being. He is self-existent, and he cannot not
exist. But if God is by nature a necessary kind of being, then it is
of his nature to exist. He must have a nature. Orthodox Islam believes
that there are other essential attributes of God, such as,
self-existence, uncreatedness, and eternality. But if these are all
essential characteristics of God, then God must have an essence.
Otherwise the attributes could not be essential. This is precisely how
essence is defined, namely, as the essential attributes or
characteristics of a being.
The moral problem.
Islamic voluntarism poses a serious moral problem. If God is only
will, without an essence, then he does not do things because they are
right; rather they are right because he does them. God is arbitrary
about what is right and wrong. He does not have to do good. He does
not have to be loving to all; he could hate, if he chose to do so.
Indeed, in sura 3:32 we read, "God will love you.... God is
Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful," but verse 33 says that "God
loveth not those Who reject Faith." So love and mercy are not of
the essence of God. God could choose not to be loving. This is why
Muslim scholars have such difficulty with the question of God’s
(To be continued)