God, His Word, and the Qur'an in Islam

Clues for a Christian Interpretation
of the Gospel for Muslims

Ernest N. Hahn

Like the message of the Bible, the message of the Qur'an has been formulated in strong opposition to polytheism and idolatry. This is evident in its frequent assertion against the pagan Arabs, who believed in a multitude of gods or divine powers, that "there is no god except He." It is no coincidence that the principal Islamic creed in Arabic begins with a negative: "Not any god except Allah (God)." According to Islam the assertion of God's oneness (tawhid: "making God one") is the heart of the proclamation of every prophet and the basis of all Islamic belief and practice. To associate anything or anyone with God is the unforgivable sin in Islam. Quranically speaking, to suggest the existence of two gods is to invite a conflict of wills, of purposes, of powers. It is theologically, intellectually, and pragmatically ludicrous and disastrous.[2]

Thus Muslims who are familiar with Surah 112 of the Qur'an, where it is declared that God neither begets nor is begotten, view Christian belief in the Sonship of Jesus the Messiah to be a perversion of God's unity and an attack on God's sovereignty. They view the Christian belief that the man Jesus is Immanuel (God with us) as a retreat into that same pagan belief which Jesus Himself rejected. To many Muslims in India and elsewhere the doctrine of the Christian Trinity is simply a variation of the Hindu Trimurthi or some such manifestation of Hindu deities or other foreign deities. It too is a return to polytheism against which Jesus so vehemently protested, they might add. Christian theology in its present form is starkly contrasted with the theology of Islam, which Muslims generally refer to as ‘ilm al-tawhid ("the science of God's Oneness").

Indeed, superficially at least, there is something attractive and inviting about the simplicity of the Muslim creed: the unity of God, His revelation of His will to mankind through His prophets and apostles, the Qur'an in particular as the repository of His guidance for mankind. Even more attractive it is, especially to the Muslim, in comparison with the verbal and intellectual acrobatics which Christians perform (badly?) when discoursing on the Trinity, Its one essence and three persons, the two natures of the Messiah, the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son, etc.[3] And so it is, until the Muslim or Christian or any person ventures to enter into the complexities of the various Islamic conceptions of the unity of God to determine not only what it is not but what it is. Anyone who has even only begun to penetrate this labyrinth might wonder whether more breath and ink have been expended on describing the Muslim doctrine of the unity of God than on the Christian doctrine of the unity of God (i.e., the Trinity).

The General Problem: God and His Attributes

Confronted eventually with developed and complex Christian and other theologies and philosophies, Muslims were compelled to ponder the origin and the meaning of their belief in God. What is the relation between God and man? How does man know about God? Who or what is God? What is the significance of His unity: Is He a unity in Himself or in contrast with all creation or both? And how is this unity to be described?[4]

For their answers Muslims naturally turned to the guidance of the Qur'an and the early fathers of the community. The Qur'an itself offers vital clues to these above questions. It speaks about God's beautiful names by which He is known. Thus God is called the Knower, the Living, and the Mighty One. Since He is called by these names, Muslim theology has concluded that He must possess attributes which accord with these names: i.e., He possesses the attributes of knowledge, life and power. Some theologians spoke of seven attributes, others eight, and still others more.

So far, so good. But sailing was less smooth when such questions as the following arose: 1. What is the relation of these attributes (sifat) to the eternal essence (dhat) of God? Are they to be equated with His essence, or are they somehow different from His essence and yet related to His essence? If they are equated with His essence, then does essence = knowledge = life = power, etc., in reference to Him? 2. If they are as eternal as His essence, yet are different from His essence, is God then a compound of eternals: eternal essence and eternal attributes? Do separate eternals then subsist in the eternal essence? Do His attributes then somehow add something to His essence? 3. Moreover, what is the relation of the attributes of God (who is One and therefore completely different) to their human counterparts?

The Particular Problem: God and His Word

Muslim discussion about God's essence and attributes focused especially on the relation of one of God's attributes, His Word, to God. For many Muslims the issue was not simply academic; at stake was the Qur'an itself, the primary source of Islam and the measure of its integrity and reliability for the faithful.

Here too the Qur'an provided vital information about God's Word and about itself as God's revelation for man. The following passages are some of the key references which have bearing upon the subject:

1. The creative Word of God:

And Our word unto a thing, when We intend it, is only that We say unto it: Be! and it is (16:40; cf. 36:81).[5]

2. The creation and the commandment:

His verily is all creation and commandment (7:54).

3. The pre-existent Qur'an:

. . . . A noble Qur'an
in a Book kept hidden
which none toucheth save the purified.
A revelation from the Lord of the Worlds (56:77-80).

Lo! We have appointed it a Lecture (Qur'an) in Arabic
  that haply ye may understand.
And lo! in the Source of Decrees (literally "the Mother of Book")
  which We possess,
it is indeed sublime, decisive (43:3, 4).

Nay, but it is a glorious Qur'an
On a guarded tablet (85:21, 22).

From these passages it is evident that a prototype of God's Word existed prior to the creation of the world and the revelation of the Qur'an to mankind. How, then, does "the Mother of the Book" relate to God's Word and the Arabic Qur'an with us?

4. The Qur'an speaks about the Word of God:

And if anyone of the idolaters seeketh thy protection (O Muhammad), then protect him so that he may hear the word (Word?) of Allah, and afterward convey him to his place of safety. That is because they are a folk who know not (9:6; cf. 2:75[6]).

5. The Qur'an speaks about the Words of God:

Say: Though the sea became ink for the Words of my Lord, verily the sea would be used up before the Words of my Lord were exhausted, even though We brought the like thereof to help (18:110).

6. The revealed message:

And it was not (vouchsafed) to any mortal that Allah should speak to him unless (it be) by revelation or from behind a veil, or (that) He sendeth a messenger to reveal what He will by His leave. Lo! He is Exalted, Wise (42:51; cf. 2:253).[7])

7. The Qur'an records the incident of Moses and the burning bush as follows:

  1. Hath there come unto thee the story of Moses?
  2. When he saw a fire and said unto his folk: Wait! Lo! I see a fire afar off. Peradventure I may bring you a brand therefrom or may find guidance at the fire.
  3. And when he reached it, he was called by name: O Moses!
  4. Lo! I, even I, am thy Lord. So take off thy shoes, for lo! thou art in the holy valley of Tuwa.
  5. And I have chosen thee, so hearken unto that which is inspired.
  6. Lo! I, even I, am Allah. There is no God save Me. So serve Me and establish worship for My remembrance.
  7. Lo! the Hour is surely coming. But I will to keep it hidden, that every soul may be rewarded for that which it striveth (to achieve).
  8. Therefore, let not him turn thee aside from (the thought of) it who believeth not therein but followeth his own desire, lest thou perish.
  9. And what is that in thy right hand, O Moses?
  10. He said: This is my staff whereon I lean, and wherewith I beat down branches for my sheep, and wherein I find other uses.
  11. He said: Cast it down, O Moses! (20:9-19; cf. the verses which follow also).

All Muslims naturally agree that this incident also involves the Word of God and all, or certainly most, would agree that God is a speaker, even though this term is never specifically used in the Qur'an and is not listed among God's beautiful names. Nevertheless, it is this kind of incident which gave rise to questions that led to the complex controversy about the Word of God and the word of man and their interrelationship. The following are some of these important questions:

  1. Are the words of Moses at the time of the incident created or uncreated? Are the words of God at the time of the incident created or uncreated?
  2. Are their words, as they are now recorded in the Qur'an, created or uncreated?
  3. What is the relation of their words in both the above cases to the pre-existent Qur'an and to the Word of God?[8]

The Mu‘tazilah

The Mu‘tazilis, Muslims of a rational bent, are often called "the people of unity and justice". They interpreted the Qur'an in the light of philosophy and especially reacted against, in their opinion, the anthropomorphic portrayals of God in the Qur'an.

The Mu‘tazilis sought to preserve strict monotheism. God is uniquely One. He is absolute and pure unity. They denied any form of dualism and any resemblance between God and His creation.

Yet they generally affirmed God's attributes, even if for them these attributes were hardly more than names or descriptives. His attributes are eternal and identical with His essence. Moreover they are not separate entities and cannot be added to His essence. A plurality of entities would mean a plurality of eternals, a plurality of divinities. Through this kind of definition of God's attributes the Mu‘tazilis contended not only against orthodox Muslims but against Christians who, in their opinion, denied the true oneness of God by their assertion of the existence of personified attributes or qualities within the unity of God.

A. God's Word

God is a speaker. He is a speaker not in a sense that He speaks His Word, which eternally subsists in Him as an attribute; rather He speaks His Word, which He creates in a particular place. God's Word for man is thus created. When He spoke to Moses in the burning bush, He created His Word in this bush; the bush really spoke to Moses. For the Mu‘tazilis a material, yet uncreated, manifestation of the eternal Word was impossible.

B. God's Word and the Qur'an

Thus also God spoke His Word by creating it on the Preserved Tablet. Both the Preserved Tablet and His Word were created prior to the creation of the world. His Word, the Qur'an, is in ordered form and is composed of letters and words. Subsequently it was revealed to Muhammad. Thus the Qur'an is the created Word of God.

But exactly what was revealed to Muhammad? Here the Mu‘tazilis seem to differ among themselves. Some say that since the Qur'an itself can exist only in one place, it therefore exists only on the Preserved Tablet where it was originally created. As it is not transferable, therefore the Qur'an revealed to Muhammad is really only an imitation of the real Qur'an on the Preserved Tablet. Others would deny this limitation of place; they would say that by hearing, reciting, memorizing it, the pre-existent Qur'an on the Preserved Tablet is actually with us.[9]

The Orthodox

The Qur'an clearly indicates many names of God which serve as descriptives of Him. Behind some of these names orthodox Muslims detected a number of abstract qualities which they termed "attributes". These attributes are separate identities, eternal and uncreated, subsisting in God's eternal essence. According to a well recognized formulation "they are not He nor are they other than He".

A. God's Word

Likewise orthodox Muslims affirmed the Word of God as an uncreated and eternal attribute of God, subsisting within God's essence as a separate identity along with the other eternal and separate attributes of God. Whenever God willed, He communicated His Word. When God spoke in the burning bush, it was He, not the bush, who spoke to Moses.

B. God's Word and the Qur'an

There are, however, differences among the Orthodox regarding the relation between God's Word and the Qur'an. To render this account more intelligible, we shall limit our discussion to two groups only, though variations within the two groups themselves were also apparent.

1. The Hanbali School

Ibn Hanbal strongly opposed the Mu‘tazilis and their rational interpretation of God's Word. For him God's Word is uncreated, since it is His Word and the Qur'an itself indicates it. Similarly the Hadith (Canonical Tradition) supports it. It is the eternal manifestation of His eternal knowledge. It belongs to the world of command (amr) which is imperishable, not to the world of perishable creation. His creative Word "Be" cannot itself be created. Thus also the Qur'an is the uncreated Word of God, including the letters and words which are recited, heard, memorized and written. "What is between the covers is the Word of God." Said Muhammad: "You cannot return unto God by means of anything more excellent than that which went out from Him."[10]

But what about the utterance of the Qur'an? Are the letters and sounds, as they come from lips, tongues or pens, eternal? The Hanbalis seem to distinguish between the Word of God and the human utterance or acts related to it. Yet they seem to be hesitant in describing the utterance as either created or uncreated.

In any event, it is clear that the various forms of the revealed Qur'an are the eternal Qur'an and the uncreated Word of God, and are not simply expressions or indications of the Qur'an, or "metaphorically" the Qur'an. Somehow the eternal Qur'an itself is connected with the human acts associated with it.

2. The Ash‘ari School

Here it is of no concern whether al-Ash‘ari himself really belonged to this school or to the Hanbali school or vacillated between them. Our concern is to show the essential differences between the two schools.

The Ash‘ari school, too, stated that the Qur'an is the uncreated Word of God and that whoever denies this is an unbeliever. Here they agree with the Hanbali school but differ from the Mu‘tazilah.

On the other hand, they agree with the Mu‘tazilis against the Hanbalis that the descent of the Qur'an, its piecemeal revelation, its presence in Arabic and the composition and arrangement of its words and letters are created. It eludes them how the Hanbalis are able to assert the eternity of sounds and letters since these are obviously accidents.

For the Ash‘aris the Qur'an, the Word of God, is an eternal Idea, subsisting in the essence of God. In this sense it is uncreated. In turn, the Qur'an is written, recited, heard and memorized. Yet it does not subsist in books, lips, ears or minds, since it subsists only in God's essence.[11] These created contexts only express or indicate the Idea, like the word "fire" expresses or indicates the real thing.[12]

Nevertheless the Ash‘aris apply the term "Qur'an" to the context also, in that it indicates the Idea, as well as to the Idea itself. It can be described as inseparably connected with created things and with the Eternal. It pertains, in reference to the former, to the expression of the reality and, in reference to the latter, to the reality itself. "So that he may hear the Word of Allah" really means "hearing that which indicates the Word".

Others connected with the school, however, appear to have enunciated more clearly the distinction between the Word of God and the Qur'an. They contrasted the one, simple, indivisible and eternal nature of the Word of God, which is subsisting in God and inseparable from Him, with the complex nature of the created Qur'an present with us in diverse places. For some of them the recital of the Qur'an creates the expression of the Qur'an. According to others this expression of the Qur'an came into existence in the heavenly Qur'an before it was revealed to Muhammad.[13]

The following quotation, in summary form, from Ibn ‘Asakir's Apology, written on behalf of Ash‘ari, offers a later Muslim representation of the differences among the three schools:

In like manner, the Mu‘tazila held that God's speech is created, produced, originated. And the Hashwiyya al-Mujassima held that the separate letters, and the bodies written upon, and the colours in which the writing is executed, and everything between the two covers, are antecedently eternal. But al-Ash‘ari followed a middle course between them and held that the Qur'an is God's speech, eternal, immutable, uncreated, unbegun, and unoriginated; but the separate letters, the bodies, the colours, the sounds, things limited, and all the qualified things of the world are created, originated, produced.[14]


Al-Ghazali, the premier representative of the Ash‘ari school, clearly affirms that God has eternal attributes which are not His essence but are superadded to His essence.[15] According to Ghazali also the term Qur'an has a double meaning: a. "what is read" (maqru') meaning "God's uncreated Word" and b. "reading" (qira'ah) meaning our description of it as chapters (suwar), verses, with beginnings and endings, these non-eternal "expressions that point to the eternal attribute .... If the term (Qur'an) is considered equivocal, the contradiction would no longer exist ...."[16]

Significantly Ghazali affirms the reality of God's attributes against those philosophers (such as Farabi and Ibn Sina) whose position about the attributes resembled the Mu‘tazilah position.[17]

Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi

Like Al-Ghazali, Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi was a Sufi, intent on preserving the theology and law of orthodox Islam. His principal antagonist was the famous Sufi Shaykh Muhyi al-Din ibn al-‘Arabi, who proclaimed the doctrine of One Being (wahdat al-wujud) and opposed traditional Sunni teaching about the reality of God's eternal attributes in addition to God's eternal essence. He castigated Sufis who claimed they had had dialogues with God and quoted words from God, God speaking in a manner that involves order and sequence. The Speech or Word of God has a twofold significance:

In other words, ‘the speech of God’ refers both to the internal speech (kalam nafsi) and the worded speech (kalam lafzi) which God creates without there being anything in between. Hence the worded speech is also the speech of God in reality, and one who denies it is an infidel.[18]

For them (Shaykh Muhyi al-Din) there is nothing out there except the Absolute Unity (Ahadiyat Mujarradah). The eight attributes of God which have an objective existence according to the Ahl 'l-Sunnah wa'l-Jama‘ah do not exist, in their view, except in knowledge.[19]

Muhammad ‘Abduh

Muhammad ‘Abduh, the renowned and highly respected Egyptian scholar of the early part of the 20th century, reaffirms the necessary existence of God, His essence and His attributes.

But as for whether the attributes are other or more than the essence, whether speech is an attribute other than the import of the heavenly books within the Divine knowledge, and whether hearing and seeing in God are other than His knowledge of things heard and seen, and other such controversial issues, of the pundits and the contentions of the schools—all these are questions impenetrable to us, beyond the wit of human mind to attain.[20]

Still he plainly states that the Qur'an recognizes itself to be the Word of God, "eternally of His essence".[21] On the other hand the Qur'an is created in the sense that it is manifest in the world of creation through writings and sounds.[22]

Fazlur Rahman

According to the distinguished twentieth-century Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman:

... the moral law and religious values are God's command, and although they are not identical with God entirely, they are part of Him. The Qur'an is, therefore, purely divine. ... [T]he Word was given with the inspiration itself. The Qur'an is thus pure Divine Word, but, of course, it is equally intimately related to the inmost personality of the Prophet Muhammad whose relationship to it cannot be mechanically conceived like that of a record. The Divine Word flowed through the Prophet's heart.[23]

What interests us here also is Fazlur Rahman's claim that Islamic orthodoxy, while correctly recognizing the divine nature of the Qur'an, did not, or was unable to, reckon with the fact that the Qur'an is also the word of Muhammad. He states:

... the Qur'an is entirely the Word of God and, in an ordinary sense, also entirely the word of Muhammad. The Qur'an obviously holds both, for if it insists that it has come to the ‘heart’ of the Prophet, how can it be external to him?[24]

Nevertheless, he adds, Muhammad cannot be identified with God or a part of Him, since associating a creature with God is shirk ("association" or idolatry).[25]

Mahmoud Ayoub

In his essay "The Word of God in Islam," Mahmoud Ayoub of Temple University continues his efforts to promote dialogue and better understanding between Muslims and Christians. At one point he responds to the first part of the prologue of the Gospel according to John thus:

Muslims have also for the most part affirmed that the Qur'an in its essence is the eternal and uncreated Word of God. John tells us further that the Word was with God, but where we differ is with John's next statement, that is, that the Word is God. The great theological controversy over the Qur'an, a controversy which remains unresolved to this day, concerns the relationship of the Qur'an, as the Word of God, to God Himself. To my knowledge no one has asserted that the Qur'an is God.[26]

He continues a few pages later:

Many have written that what is analogous in the Islamic tradition to the Trinity in Christianity are the divine attributes. From the theological point of view this may be true, because, as al-Ash'ari reminded us, they are "neither he nor are they other than he." Therefore, divine attributes share in that aspect of ministry ....[27]

The Seriousness of the Issue

So serious was the controversy regarding the Qur'an at the time of Ibn Hanbal (A.D. 780-855) that the khalifah al-Ma'mun initiated an inquisition which, among other things, declared that those who held that the Qur'an was uncreated were considered to have abandoned tawhid and to be classified as idolaters and polytheists. Along with others Ibn Hanbal suffered greatly for persisting in this belief. Under a later khalifah the Qur'an was declared to be uncreated.

Some Credal Statements

Generally credal statements in Islam have never attained the status of their counterparts in Christianity. Nevertheless they are important indications of Islamic belief, especially in orthodox circles. The following credal statements are good examples of some of the orthodox statements on the issue of the Word of God:

We hold that God's speech is uncreated; and that God has created nothing without having said to it "Be!", as He said: "When We will a thing our only utterance is that we say to it ‘Be!’, and it is."[28]

We hold that the Qur'an is the uncreated speech of God, and that he who holds the creation of the Qur'an is an unbeliever.[29]

We confess that the Kuran is the speech of Allah, uncreated, His inspiration and revelation, not He, yet not other than He, but His real quality, written in the copies, recited by the tongues, preserved in the breasts, yet not residing there. The ink, the paper, the writing are created, for they are the work of men. The speech of Allah on the other hand is uncreated, for the writing and the letters and the words and the verses are manifestations of the Kuran for the sake of human needs. The speech of Allah on the other hand is self-existing, and its meaning is understood by means of these things. Whoso sayeth that the speech of Allah is created, he is an infidel regarding Allah, the Exalted, whom men serve, who is eternally the same, His speech being recited or written and retained in the heart, yet never dissociated from Him.[30]

The Kuran is the speech of Allah, written in the copies, preserved in the memories, recited by the tongues, revealed to the Prophet. Our pronouncing, writing and reciting the Kuran is created, whereas the Kuran itself is uncreated.

Whatever Allah quotes in the Kuran from Moses or other Prophets, from Pharaoh or from Satan, is the speech of Allah in relation to theirs. The speech of Allah is uncreated, but the speech of Moses and other creatures is created. The Kuran is the speech of Allah and as such from eternity, not theirs. Moses heard the speech of Allah, as the Kuran saith: And Allah spoke with Moses—Allah was speaking indeed before He spoke to Moses. For Allah was creating from eternity ere He had created the creatures; and when He spoke to Moses, He spoke to Him with His speech which is one of His eternal qualities.

All His qualities are different from those of the creatures. He knoweth, but not in the way of our knowledge; He is mighty but not in the way of our power; He seeth, but not in the way of our seeing; He speaketh, but not in the way of our speaking; He heareth, but not in the way of our hearing. We speak by means of organs and letters, Allah speaks without instruments and letters. Letters are created, but the speech of Allah is uncreated.[31]

The Kuran is revealed to the Apostle of Allah and it is written in the copies. The verses of the Kuran, being Allah's speech, are all equal in excellence and greatness. Some, however, have a pre-eminence in regard to recitation or to their contents, e.g. the verse of the Throne, because it deals with Allah's majesty, His greatness and His description. So in it are united excellence in regard to recitation and excellence in regard to its contents. Others possess excellence only in regard to recitation, such as the descriptions of the infidels, whereas those who are mentioned in them, that is, the infidels, have no excellence.[32]

He has attributes from all eternity subsistent in His essence. They are not He nor are they other than He. And they are Knowledge and Power and Life and Might and Hearing and Seeing and Willing and Desiring and Doing and Creating and Sustaining.[33]

And Speech. He speaks with a kind of Speech which is one of His attributes, from all eternity, not of the genus of letters and sounds. It is an attribute incompatible with silence and defect. Allah speaks with this attribute, commanding, prohibiting and narrating. The Qur'an, the Speech of Allah, is uncreated and it is written in our volumes, preserved in our hearts, recited by our tongues, heard by our ears (yet) is not a thing residing in them.[34]

The thirteenth Quality of God is Speech (kalam). It is an eternal quality, subsisting in God's essence, not a word or sound, and far removed from order of preceding and following, from inflection and structure, opposed to the speech of originated beings. And by the Speech that is necessary to God is not meant the Glorious Expressions (lafz) revealed to the Prophet, because these are originated and the quality that subsists in the essence of God eternal. And these embrace preceding and following, inflection and chapters and verses; but the eternal quality is bare of all these things. It has no verses or chapters or inflections, because such belong to the speech, which embraces letters and sounds, and the eternal quality is far removed from letters and sounds, as has preceded. And those Glorious Expressions are not a guide to the eternal quality in the sense that the eternal quality can be understood from them. What is understood from these expressions equals what would be understood from the eternal quality if the veil were removed from us and we could hear it. In short, these expressions are a guide to its meaning, and this meaning equals what would be understood from the eternal Speech, which subsists in the essence of God. So meditate this distinction, for many have erred in it. And both the Glorious Expressions and the eternal quality are called Qur'an and the Word (kalam) of God. But the Glorious Expressions are created and written on the Preserved Tablet (al-lawh-al-mahfuz); Jibril brought them down (i.e., revealed them) to the Prophet after that they had been brought down in the Night of Decree (laylatu-l-qadr; Qur. 97:1) to the Mighty House (baytu-l-izza), a place in the Heaven nearest to the earth; it was written in books (sahifas) and placed in the Mighty House. It is said that it was brought down to the Mighty House all at once and then brought down to the Prophet in twenty years, and some say, in twenty-five. And it is also said that it was brought down to the Mighty House only to the amount that was to be revealed each year and not all at once.

And that which was brought down to the Prophet was expression and meaning. And it is said also that only the meaning was brought down to him. There is a conflict of opinion on this; some say that the Prophet clothed the meaning with expressions of his own, and others, that he who so clothed the meaning, was Jibril. But the truth is that it was sent down in expressions and meaning. In short, the quality subsisting in the essence of God is not a letter nor a sound. And the Mu‘tazilites called in doubt the existence of a kind of Speech without letters. But the People of the Sunna answered that because thoughts in the mind (hadith an-nafs), a kind of speech with which an individual speaks to himself, are without letter or sound, there exists a kind of speech without letters or words. By this the People of the Sunna do not wish to institute a comparison between the Speech of God and thoughts in the mind; for the Speech of God is eternal and thoughts in the mind are originated. They wished to disprove the contention of the Mu‘tazilites when they urged that speech cannot exist without letter or sound.

The proof of the necessity of Speech in God is His saying (Qur. 4: 162): "and God spoke to Moses." So He has established Speech for Himself. And Speech connects with that with which Knowledge connects, of necessary and possible and impossible. But the connection of Knowledge with these is a connection of revealing, in the sense that they are revealed to God by His Knowledge; and the connection of Speech with them is a connection of proof, in the sense that if the veil were taken away from us and we heard the eternal Speech we would understand these things from it.[35]

Clues for Christian Interpretation of God and His Word for Muslims

It is, of course, no mere coincidence that Muslim concerns regarding God, His eternal Word and the Qur'an were analogous to Christian concerns about God and the nature of the Messiah. That there was an extensive interchange of theological and philosophical thought among Muslims and Christians is a fact. Whether or not there was borrowing does not interest us here.[36] What does interest us are the clues which Muslim formulations on these subjects have furnished and continue to furnish the Christian who seeks to interpret Christian beliefs about God, the Messiah and the Trinity to Muslims. Some of these are as follows:

1. The Mu‘tazilis steadfastly rejected the orthodox Muslim belief in the existence of eternal attributes as separate identities residing in the eternal essence of God. The orthodox belief, they said, was analogous to the Christian belief in a plurality of eternals and, like Christian beliefs, was a denial of God's unity and even idolatrous.

Given the validity of the Mu‘tazilah premise that God's unity allows for no internal plurality, it is difficult to refute the Mu‘tazilah claim against both orthodox Muslims and Christians. On the other hand, there is a distinct analogy, however imperfect, between orthodox Muslim and Christian beliefs about the existence of plurality and relationship within God's unity.[37]

2. Most Muslims accepted the pre-existent Qur'an on the Preserved Tablet. But was the pre-existent Preserved Tablet created or uncreated? The Mu‘tazilah conception of a pre-existent created Tablet resembled Hebrew faith in the pre-existent created Torah ("a preserved treasure", "hidden with God") and perhaps also the Christian faith of those who believed in a pre-existent created Messiah. On the other hand, the orthodox Muslim conception of an uncreated Preserved Tablet resembled orthodox Christian belief in the uncreated Word. In any case it plays a mediating role between God and man.

Historically, the idea of a created pre-existent Preserved Tablet probably preceded the idea of an uncreated one, if the matter was at all a concern to the community.[38] Probably the later idea of the co-eternal attributes of God gave rise to the uncreated Preserved Tablet.

3. Does the orthodox Hanbali school, which believes that the Qur'an with its letters, words and all is the eternal and uncreated Word of God, resemble in a sense Christian Docetic belief that the Messiah with us, who appears enfleshed but really is not, is eternal and uncreated only? This would be the case if the Hanbalis totally dissociated the revealed or recited Qur'an from any created element. But it seems that they have not gone to this extreme. On the other hand, when orthodox Muslims believe that both the Infinite and the finite are associated with the Qur'an, does their belief about the Qur'an resemble Christian belief that both the Infinite and the finite are associated with Jesus as the Word of God? Stated otherwise, is it possible to speak of the existence of "two natures", functionally and even ontologically, of the revealed Qur'an, as it is possible to speak of the two natures of the revealed Messiah?

An alternative would be to speak of two Qur'ans, which some orthodox Muslims appear to have done: the Word of God or the Qur'an as eternal Idea and the revealed Qur'an as an expression of the eternal Word of God or the Qur'an, or the eternal Qur'an (on the Preserved Tablet?) of the same being as the eternal Word of God and the revealed Qur'an like the eternal Word of God; in other words, an eternal and uncreated Qur'an and a temporal and created Qur'an, each ontologically separate from the other despite their functional similarity.[39] In any case, if the Qur'an as both eternal Idea and as an expression of the eternal Idea can be called the Qur'an, then the Qur'an has two natures.

4. For orthodox Muslims God's eternal attributes, and hence also His Word, "are not He nor other than He". At the same time they assert that the revealed Qur'an is the Word of God. If, then, the Qur'an is God's eternal Word and "is not other than He", it is possible to conclude that the revealed Qur'an is also divine, even though it "is not He". In this sense at least, the Qur'an serves as a mediator between God and man, where the Infinite and finite interconnect and where the Creator and creation meet. As already noted, orthodox Muslims based their contention that the revealed Qur'an is the eternal Word of God on the authority of the Qur'an itself. On this and similar issues about the nature of God they are content with this authority, "without knowing how and without comparison".[40]

What the Islamic formulation "nor is the Word other than He" states negatively, the Bible states positively: "the Word was with God and was God" (John 1:1). This Word, the Gospel account continues, became flesh and dwelt among us. Again, if the Word can become a book, cannot the Word become a human? Christians, of course, rest their claim on the authority of the Holy Bible. They too are content with this authority, "without knowing how and without comparison".

Thus both Muslims and Christians believe that God is one, that God is eternal, that God's Word is eternal and that God has revealed His eternal Word to mankind. Consider the statement of Uthman Yahya:

Muslim theology teaches that Divine revelation, contained in the sacred books of monotheism, finds its completion in the Qur'an which is the substantial Word, uncreated, subsisting eternally in God. Truly the spiritual implications of this conception are immense. It allows the human being to enter into direct communication with God. The Qur'an in our very hands is not some exterior act of God, but precisely the Divine presence itself in His eternity. The Muslim who ponders the Qur'an and who conforms his life to the light of the Divine wisdom has veritably a real experience of the Eternal.

The orthodox Islamic doctrine as to the uncreatedness of the Qur'an has affinities with the dogma of the Incarnation in Christianity. According to Christian faith, the Divine nature co-exists mysteriously with the human nature of Christ. The different perspective of the doctrine of the uncreated Qur'an from that of the Incarnation lies solely, according to our view, in the fact of the different modes of manifestation of the Word. In the Christian view the Word was made flesh in the person of Christ: whereas the Word was made expressive (se fait expression) in the descent of the Qur'an.[41]

No doubt, as Uthman Yahya infers, both Muslims and Christians recognize a difference also in their understanding of the nature and function of the unmediated and mediated Word. For Christians Jesus is Mediator in the fullest sense: as the eternal Word of God and as a human being, He reveals God's eternal Word in space and time and encompasses both.[42]

5. Likewise in reference to the Trinity the Christian might also confess (rightly understood, though incompletely) that the eternal Word is not He (the one God who is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, each distinct from the other as each eternal attribute is distinct) nor other than He (God's essence). No doubt the relation of three "persons" within the unity of God is a mystery; for the Muslim so is the relation of the eternal attributes with the eternal essence within the unity of God; even for the Mu‘tazilah so is the simplicity of His unity. Here also, may not the Christian, like the Muslim, appeal to God's uniqueness and his own finite limitation in understanding the infinite God, even the uniqueness and incomparability of God's oneness and the common acknowledgement that God alone fully understands God and therefore He alone understands the nature of this unity?[43]

Let it be added that many Muslims consider Christian confession of the Bible as the Word of God and the word of man to confirm their contention that the Bible is inferior to the Qur'an and even corrupted. Yet, as already noted, clearly, Fazlur Rahman also speaks about the Qur'an as both—though it may be asked how many other Muslims agree with him or are even aware of his argument.


In this article our intention has been only to show that:

1. Muslims, too, have engaged in serious controversy among themselves in their attempts to define the unity of God.

2. This controversy has focussed primarily upon the nature of the revealed Qur'an and its relation to the Qur'an on the Preserved Tablet, to the eternal Word of God and to God, as well as upon the interrelationship of them all.

3. Generally the difficulties which Muslims detect in Christian thought about the person of the Messiah and the Trinity have distinct analogies within Muslim thought about God, His Word, the Qur'an and their interrelationship, analogies which they generally do not know or understand, or ignore.

The Christian who recognizes these analogies is in a better position to explain the Christian understanding of the person of the Messiah and the Trinity in a more intelligible manner to his Muslim friend. He will strive to focus his discussion with Muslims not simply on God, or on the Qur'an or Jesus, or on humanity, but on God, humanity and the Word of God to humanity as a total context. For both Muslims and Christians it is finally from the Word of God to humanity that they derive their understanding not only of the nature of the Word of God but of the nature of God and of the nature of man.

Yet, even given the Christian's ability to interpret the person of Christ and the Trinity in terms which are more congenial and intelligible to Muslims, there remains the fundamental difference between the Muslim and Christian understanding of God's rationale in addressing mankind through His eternal Word. For Muslims, God's eternal Word, the Qur'an, spells God's guidance; for Christians, God's eternal Word, the Messiah, spells God's redemption.[44]

Ernest N. Hahn continues to work with Philoxenia/Hospitality Ministry and is Associate Pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church, Toronto.


1 This paper was originally presented in a brief and simpler form at the Reformed Bible College in Grand Rapids in 1982. Recently I have edited the text and made considerable additions.

2 See the comments on Qur'an 21:22 of Muhammed ‘Abduh, The Theology of Unity, trans. Ishaq Musa‘ad and K. Cragg (London: Allen Unwin Ltd., 1966) 51, 52.

3 "Sometimes they say of Christ that He is the Son of God, and sometimes Son of Joseph, Son of David, Son of Man; sometimes He is God the Preserver and Creator, sometimes Lamb of God .... They say that He was God, although they assert that there is no other God but Allah ...." Ibn Hazm as quoted by J. W. Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology (London: Lutterworth Press, 1955) Part 2, Vol. 1:247.

4 Cf. Daud Rahbar, "Relation of Muslim Theology to the Qur'an" in The Muslim World 51.1 (Hartford: The Hartford Seminary Foundation, l96l): 45, where he notes: "The only theology in Islam is the Hellenized one" and "Hellenized Islamic theology differs from the simple Semitic atmosphere of the worldview of the Qur'an". This article offers insight for anyone interested in understanding the development of Islamic theology, the tensions within this development, and, by implication, even the response of Islamic theology to Christian faith and theology. For a helpful reference to the influence of Greek philosophy on the interpretation of the Bible and the Qur'an and to early Muslim and Christian theological debate regarding the Word of God and the Trinity as reflected by John of Damascus, see H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Kalam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976) 720-725.

5 Quranic quotations are taken from M. M. Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: The New American Library, n.d.). Pickthall was an English convert to Islam. The passages cited here are especially meaningful to orthodox Muslims. But the Mu'tazilis also have a favourite selection. For the Mu‘tazilah, an early Islamic theological school, see " Mu‘tazila", Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1953). Must "We" in 16:40 be construed as a plural of majesty? Could it suggest plurality within unity?

6 Here (Qur'an 2:75) the reference is probably to the Tawrat (Torah). Quranically, while the Qur'an is the Word of God, it is evident from this reference also that the Word of God is more than the Qur'an. While many Muslims readily recognise this fact in theory, too often they ignore, unQuranically, the other revelations, or even reject them as being textually corrupted or abrogated, thereby virtually making the other revelations (the Bible) hostage to the Qur'an and the ultimate meaning of these revelations dependent upon the Qur'an, i.e., the Qur'an, not the Bible, is the ultimate interpreter of the Bible.

7 God's address to mankind is variously called a saying, a speech, a guidance, a reminder, a revelation, a warning, a good news, etc. In contrast to the idol, which neither speaks nor guides (7:148), God speaks and thereby shows His favour (2:174; 3:77).

8 Arabic, of course, does not distinguish between capital and small letters. Here an English translation may refine (or complicate?) the issue: "Our word" (qaul: 16: 40): could it or should it be "Our Word"? Compare "the Word of Allah" (kalam: 2:75) and "the Words (kalimat) of my Lord" (18:110) with "the word (kalam) of Allah" (9: 6). Do the words of Moses become the words of God or the Words of God or the Word of God as Moses' words are represented in the Qur'an? In brief, four factors are involved: God's attribute, the Preserved Tablet, the Speech (of God and man) at a particular place and time, the revealed Qur'an.

9 In general, the Shi‘ah, like the Mu‘tazilah (vs. the Orthodox), are represented as the zealous advocates of God's unity and justice and thus as teaching that the Qur'an is created. Nevertheless, according to a Shi‘ah tradition, Ja‘far al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam, stated: "The Qur'an is neither Creator nor created; it is the Word of the Creator." Daud Rahbar, "The Relation of Shi‘a Theology to the Qur'an" in The Muslim World 51.2 (Hartford: The Hartford Seminary Foundation, 1961): 93. According to Sweetman, the Murji‘ah differed in their opinion about the Qur'an, some saying: "We do not say that it is created and we do not say that it is not created" (Sweetman 117). On the whole topic see 115-122.

10 W. M. Patton, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal and the Mihna (Leiden: Brill, 1897) 160. For an affirmation of the Hanbali position of the Word of God as the Qur'an in Arabic, consisting of chapters, verses, letters and words, see lbn Qudama, Censure of Speculative Theology, trans. George Makdisi (London: Luzac, 1962) 37. See also Ibn Taymiyya's defence of Ibn Hanbal's understanding of the Qur'an noting his emphasis on the fine distinction between "uncreated" and "eternal". Victor E. Malzari, Ibn Taymiyya 's Ethics: The Social Factor (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1983) 52-56.

11 But compare Ash‘ari's statement in al-Ibanah: "The Qur'an (the Word of God) is really written in our books, really preserved in our breasts, really read by our tongues, and really heard by us (as He has said: ‘grant hirn an asylum, that he may hear the word of God')." W. C. Klein, Al-Ibanah ‘an Usul ad-Diyanah (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1940) 81.

12 Sa‘d al-Din al-Taftazani, A Commentary on the Creed of Islam, trans. E. E. Elder (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950) 64.

13 H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Kalam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976) 255-257.

14 R. J. McCarthy, The Theology of al-Ash‘ari (Beirut: Imprirnerie Catholique, 1953) 173. Here the group dividing lines are clear. Yet, even if it is possible to speak of three groups, their differences on this issue do not always appear to be so neat, tidy, and convenient. Ibn Hanbal does not seem to consider every representation of the Qur'an as simply uncreated. He hardly represents the Hashwiyya al-Mujassima.

15 Abdu-r-Rahman Abu Zayd, Al-Ghazali on Divine Predicates and Their Properties (Lahore: Ashraf, 1970) xix.

16 Abdu-r-Rahman Abu Zayd 60, 61. Cf. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddima, Vol. 3, trans. Franz Rosenthal (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958) who also relates how the Ash‘ari school understood the Qur'an to have a double meaning, i.e., to be uncreated and created (64). For a brief history of the whole conflict between the Mu‘tazilah and the Orthodox, see Ibn Khaldun 3:34-69. For a host of comments on the nature of God's Word and its relation to the Qur'an, in chronological sequence and beginning with the relatively early Muslim theologians, see A. S. Tritton, "The Speech of God", Studia Islamica 33 (1971): 5-21. One early and more precise statement: "The Qur'an is neither creator nor uncreated but is originated," i.e., what is created is outside God; what is uncreated is within Him (Tritton 5). For this reference to Tritton's essay I am indebted to Shabbir Akhtar, A Faith for All Seasons (London: Bellow Publishing, 1990) 223.

17 Abdu-r-Rahman Abu Zayd xix.

18 M. A. H. Ansari, Sufism and Shariah, (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1986) 91.

19 Ansari 269, 270. For Shaykh Muhyi al-Din "Ahadiyah refers to Absolute or Pure Unity beyond all distinctions; Wahdah ("Unicity") refers to unity which is qualified with ideal distinctions, or ideas/ideal prototypes of things to emerge in the world; and Wahidiyah ("Oneness") refers to unity that manifests in the multiplicity of things in the outer world without undergoing division or rarification" (323).

20 Muhammad ‘Abduh 56.

21 Muhammad ‘Abduh 53.

22 L. Gardet, "Kalam," EI 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1981). Elsewhere Gardet notes that ‘Abduh considered Ibn Hanbal too distinguished a figure "to believe that the Qur'an is uncreated while reading it each night with his mouth and thus reproducing it by his voice." L. Gardet and M. M. Anawati, Introduction la theologie musulmane (Paris: J. Vrin, 1948) 86. In footnote 4 Gardet states that the French translation preserves this statement of ‘Abduh about Ibn Hanbal, but at ‘Abduh's request it does not appear in the second edition of the Arabic work. Nor does it appear in the English translation. Obviously the whole issue was delicate in more than one way.

23 Fazlur Rahman, Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 32, 33.

24 Rahman 31.

25 Rahman 33.

26 Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub, "The Word of God in Islam", Greek Orthodox Theological Review 31.1-2 (1986): 73. One would like to ask Ayoub why he considers the controversy to be still unresolved. Would orthodox Muslims agree? Further, when he notes that he knows no Muslim who states that the Qur'an is God, why does he (conveniently?) omit the second part of the classical orthodox definition of God's attribute: "nor is it other than He (God)"? Asking the Muslim whether the Qur'an is created or uncreated may be as misleading or wrong as asking the Christian whether Jesus as the Word of God is created or uncreated. In both orthodox Islam and Christianity the answer is "both... and", not "either... or".

27 Ayoub 76.

28 McCarthy 238 from the creed al-Ibanah.

29 McCarthy 241 from the creed al-Ibanah.

30 A. J. Wensinck, The Muslim Creed (Cambridge: The University Press, 1932) 127; taken from the Wasiyat Abi Hanifa.

31 Wensinck 189 from Fiqh Akbar II.

32 Wensinck 196 from Fiqh Akbar II.

33 Taftazani 49.

34 Taftazani 58.

35 D. B. Macdonald, Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903) 335, 336, from a creed by Muhammad al-Fadali.

36 Abdu-r-Rahman Abu Zayd vii and footnote 1. All Western scholarship, he says, claims that "all the sects of Islam were influenced in this respect by Judaic and Christian thinking."

37 "They are, thus, like the Christians when they claim that ‘Isa Ibn Maryam was not created because he was the Word of God. But God says, 'Verily we have made it a Koran in the Arabic language'; and the explanation of that is, 'Verily we have created it'." Patton 67. A possible Sunni response: To say that the revealed Qur'an is the divine and eternal Word of God is not to say that it is God or to imitate the error of Christians who claim that Jesus is God. This Sunni response, however, hardly obviates the objection that God alone is eternal and that, therefore, the revealed Qur'an cannot be eternal. On Ibn Hanbal's response to "the made" = "the created" Qur'an, see M. S. Seale, Muslim Theology (London: Luzac, 1964) 99-102.

38 The question of the created vs. the uncreated Qur'an probably had not even arisen. W. M. Watt, Islamic Revelation in the Modern World (Edinburgh: University Press, 1969) 73.

39 This thought is reminiscent of Arianism, however imperfect the analogy. See footnote 42.

40 As a translation of bila kayf wa'l tashbih, an expression to which orthodox Muslims, especially the Hanbalis, continually appeal. For them the Qur'an spoke of God as hearing, seeing, knowing, speaking, etc., that He had hands, sat on a throne, etc., yet at the same time said that nothing resembled Him. They therefore affirmed these things of God on the basis of the Qur'an and sound Tradition, conceding their ignorance of how this could (bila kayf.) Through their doctrine of tanzih (transcendence: these things characterize God "in their most exalted sense") they steered a middle course between tashbih (anthropomorphism) and ta‘til (divested of all qualities).

41 Uthman Yahya, "Man and His Perfection in Muslim Theology", The Muslim World (Hartford: January, 1959): 24. Yet previous to the above quotation the author writes: "... God is essentially in Himself pure and absolutely transcendent unity, in all His magnificent fulness... The Divine nature admits of neither division, nor multiplicity, nor sonship ..." (21). However, cf. Muzammil H. Siddiqui, "God: A Muslim View" in Three Faiths—One God, A Jewish, Christian and Muslim Encounter, ed. John Hick and Edmund Melzer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989) 73: "there is no analogy between the Christian concept of Christ and the Islamic concept of the Qur'an." He also writes: "It is the basic assertion of Islam that the doctrine of the Trinity is the offence of Christianity against the transcendence of God. The Qur'an has severely judged both doctrines of the Church: Incarnation and the Trinity" (70). Yet, we may wonder, how does the Qur'an judge the Incarnation and the Trinity when it does not really address these Christian doctrines.

42 Christians, of course, speak of the eternal Word becoming flesh as incarnation. In the sense that the eternal Word is truly divine and was born into our finite world through the Virgin Mary, Jesus is called the God-Man. Seen from a Christian perspective at least, this is not to say that the divine simply indwells (hulul) Jesus, as some Muslims seem to have understood this Christian belief. Suffice it to say that Jesus' incarnation is unique; yet God's Spirit indwells believers. On the other hand those Muslims who believe the revealed Qur'an to be God's eternal Word seem to really accept what they reject in Christian thought and valiantly strive to avoid in general as un-Islamic: the indwelling (hulul) of the Infinite within the finite. For those Muslims who reject this indwelling as totally alien to the Islamic conception of God, the Qur'an is simply created; or else there are two Qur'ans: the created and the uncreated. In the latter case their conception is somewhat akin to a semi-Arian conception of Christ: He is of like being (homoiousios) but not of the same being (homoousios) as the Divine. It is no coincidence that Muslims who are more concerned with the Quranic than with the philosophical data have rejected a "two-Qur'an" theory. Nor is it coincidental that Christians more concerned with Biblical than philosophical data have rejected Arianism. Biblically, by establishing the Messiah as a being like God, Arianism not only destroys the unity of God, which it seeks to defend; even more, it fails to reckon with the self-giving nature of God and His love. Biblically, the Messiah is God's empirical evidence for its philosophical assertion that God, the one God, is love. Seen in this light, God's love manifested in the Messiah serves as the basis for the Christian's understanding of the Trinity and, in turn, for his understanding of the Trinity (Tri-Unity) as a defence of God's unity. "The deepest conception we can form of the divine nature is of a being who in Himself carries the Subject and the Object of an eternal love, which we speak of in the deep emblem of 'the Word', and the God with whom He eternally 'was'." Alexander McLaren, Exposition of Holy Scripture, St. John chapters 15-21 (New York: George H. Doran Co., n.d.) 217.

43 Yet one should not assume that all Muslims know and understand orthodox Islam's doctrines about God's essence and attributes and the two natures of the Qur'an, not to speak about the controversy within the Muslim community over these doctrines. Suffice it to add, however, that greater Muslim awareness of the complexity of these orthodox Muslim doctrines might evoke increased Muslim sympathy for the complexities of the Christian doctrines of the two natures of Jesus and the Trinity. The Christian should encourage his Muslim friend to study the Bible seriously before engaging in serious discussion about the Trinity, i.e., one studies simple mathematics before engaging in the more difficult mathematical disciplines.

44 From the Qur'an Muslims know Jesus as the Word of God (kalimat-ullah), though not in its full Biblical sense. On the other hand Jesus as the Son of God or God are alien, often odious, concepts for many Muslims. In discussion with Muslims, initially at least, Christians will do well to speak of Jesus as the Word of God, God's Message (Injil, Evangel) in word and deed for mankind. For Jesus, the Word of God as the Son of God and God's interpretation of Himself to humanity, see John 1:14.

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