Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are referred to as the three “Abrahamic religions,” and not without reason. Muslims even claim each of the Jewish (and Christian) prophets for their own, saying these God-inspired men actually preached subservience to Allah. But one of Islam’s central beliefs about Allah actually renders Him very, very different from both the Jewish and the Christian conceptions of God.
“Tawhid teaches that Allah is absolutely one,” and on account of this doctrine, “Allah is a monad; he is not inherently relational,” writes former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi, in his new book No God But One: Allah or Jesus? A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam & Christianity. “Yahweh, on the other hand, is three persons; he is inherently relational.” In other words, Muslims and Christians emphatically do not worship the same God. Qureshi warns that this truth is offensive to Muslims, but he cannot be intellectually honest without admitting it.
Islam emphasizes the transcendence of Allah, a quality that the Christian God the Father certainly has, but which Christianity balances through Jesus Christ, who became human, and the Holy Spirit, whose intimate relationship with each Christian believer would be utterly unthinkable to a Muslim.
The transcendence of Allah.
Qureshi focuses on some of the “Ninety-Nine Names” of Allah which show that he “intentionally keeps himself removed from mankind.” Quran 42.51 says, “It is not for any human being that Allah should speak to him except by revelation, or from behind a partition, or that He sends a messenger to reveal, by His permission, what He wills.”
Some of the names of Allah almost hint at a relationship with humans, but the Arabic meaning of each word again reveals Allah’s distance from mankind. As Qureshi explains:
Some understand al-Wali to mean “the Friend,” but really it means “the Patron,” and it emphasizes the protection of Allah, not a relationship with him. The other word, al-Wadud, is more promising, as it does mean “the Loving” and is used twice in the Quran. But when we look more closely at the word, it seems an expressive idea is in view rather than a relational idea, as in “the Affectionate.” This might seem like splitting hairs, but it is an important distinction. Only one of Allah’s ninety-nine names could imply he wants intimacy with man, and looking carefully at this word yields nothing that necessitates a relationship.
The primary verse many Muslims use to emphasize God’s closeness is 50.16, which says Allah is closer to people than their own jugular veins. Yet “this verse is in the context of an extended threat: Allah is so close to you that he knows your subversive thought very well, and he throws doubters into hell.”
Furthermore, the Quran specifically rejects the idea of a father-child relationship between Allah and humans (112.3 and 5.18). “The Jews and the Christians say, ‘We are the children of Allah and His beloved.’ Say (in response), ‘Then why does He punish you for your sins?’ Rather, you are human beings from among those He has created.” Qureshi points out that this verse “actually does not use the primary and best word for ‘love’ in Arabic, habb, but it uses it to explicitly deny that people are God’s beloved.”
Next Page: The intimacy of Yahweh.
This verse (that Allah is not our father because he punishes us for our sins) stands in stark contrast to Proverbs 3:11-12, which says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”
The author of Hebrews also quotes this passage verbatim, emphasizing the close relationship between the believer and God Himself. This distinction is indeed quite telling, as the very same action the Quran uses to emphasize God’s distance from humanity is used by the Old and New Testaments to underline God’s intimacy with His chosen people.
By contrast, Christians believe that God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are not separate essences, but different persons in one essence — one God, three persons.
Because God has multiple persons, “the eternal love of God is intrinsic to who he is; each person of the Trinity loves the others selflessly,” Qureshi writes. This has tremendous implications for human beings (emphasis his): “Since mankind is made in the image of the triune God, love is woven into our very nature.” One does not need to be a Christian to selflessly care for others, but Christianity provides a uniquely transcendent and intimate justification for selfless love: “Loving others is what makes us truly human.”
Qureshi even argues that this relational difference between Allah and Yahweh causes problems for the self-sufficiency of Allah. The ninety-nine names emphasize Allah’s relation with creation and humanity — he is gracious and merciful. But that implies “that he is gracious to someone and that he is merciful to someone. He might have the potential to be gracious all by himself, but he cannot actually be gracious until there is something else to be gracious toward. … In other words, Allah is dependent upon his creation in order to be Allah.”
The doctrine of the Trinity, however, “teaches that the three persons of God have eternally loved one another with a selfless love,” and therefore God’s “love was never contingent upon mankind’s existence.”
Qureshi sums up the difference simply (emphasis his): “Because of tawhid, Allah depends on mankind in order to be Allah. Because of his triune nature, Yahweh is truly independent and self-sufficient.”
Even if the doctrine of the Trinity makes the Christian God superior, does the Bible actually support the idea? What about the Jews? Don’t they deny the three persons of God?
Next Page: Biblical support for the Trinity — in the OLD TESTAMENT, and among first-century JEWS.
Perhaps more surprising than Qureshi’s differentiation between Trinity and Tawhid is the biblical evidence for the Trinity — in the Old Testament as well as the New.
The New Testament passages should not be all that surprising to Christians. Qureshi notes that the Bible has five key elements that are best interpreted through the doctrine of the Trinity:
1. There is only one God (e.g., Rom. 3:30)
2. The Father is God (e.g., John 6:27)
3. Jesus is God (e.g., John 20:28; Rom. 9:5; 2 Peter 1:1)
4. The Holy Spirit is God (e.g., Acts 5:3-5)
5. These three are distinct persons (e.g., John 14:16-17)
Matthew 28:19 also calls Christians to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These verses — especially as interpreted in their context — emphasize the triune nature of God. Nowhere does the New Testament explicitly say, “God is a Trinity,” but the best explanation of the verses in context yields that conclusion.
The Old Testament also hints at the triune nature of Yahweh, however. Qureshi points out that when Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the word for God is Elohim, which is plural. Even though the subject is plural, however, the verb in the sentence is singular — so in the very first verse of the Bible we have a plural deity acting as one. “This fits the model of the Trinity perfectly: God is in one sense plural in terms of his persons, but in another sense singular in terms of his being,” Qureshi explains.
In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our own image,” referring to himself in the plural. Similarly, in the next verse, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Creating man in the image of God, the creator gave his inherent plurality to humanity. “That’s not to say God has genders, but to say that there is plurality in his image.”
Some have argued that God is using the “royal we,” the plural of majesty, as when the king might refer to himself as “we.” The problem with this interpretation is simple — that literary device hadn’t been invented yet.
Furthermore, when God describes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he refers to himself as being in two places (Genesis 19:24), and refers to God in the third person (Amos 4:11).
The clearest suggestion of the Trinity is found in Isaiah 48:12-16, where God says, “I am he; I am the first and the last. Indeed, my own hand established the earth … and now the Lord God and his Spirit have sent me.” As Qureshi explains, “in this passage, Yahweh is sent by Yahweh and the Spirit of Yahweh, and this makes little sense unless read through the lens of the Trinity.”
But don’t Jews deny the Trinity? Interestingly, there is some evidence that Jews in the first century did not. While the clearest scripture declaring Jewish monotheism, the shema, states, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD Your God, the LORD is one,” the word it uses for “one” is echad, which often means a composite unity. For instance, Genesis 1:5 refers to the evening and morning making one day as echad, and in Numbers 13:23 a cluster of grapes is referred to as echad, one cluster composed of many grapes. When the Bible says man and woman become one in marriage, it uses the word echad.
Far from denoting the emphatic oneness and separation of Allah in tawhid, the shema leaves a great deal of room for plurality in Yahweh.
As a result, some first century Jews proclaimed a vision of Yahweh not dissimilar from the Trinity. The Zohar, a famous and highly revered Jewish mystical text, explains the shema this way: “These three are one … So it is with the mystery of the threefold Divine manifestations designated by ‘the Lord, our God, the Lord’ — three modes which yet form one unity.”
Qureshi also refers to Jewish scholar Alan Segal, who argues that some first-century Jews held a “binitarian” notion of God. Daniel Boyarin, an orthodox Jewish scholar, said that rabbis declared such notions heretical “only in response to Christian theology, not before.”
As a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, Qureshi has a unique perspective on the two faiths that proves inspiring and enlightening. As a Muslim, he argued vociferously against the Trinity, but when he embraced Christianity he grew to understand it as central to the very nature of God. His emphatic transition underscores the argument that Christians and Muslims do not pray to the same God, and his reasons are ironclad. I highly recommend his book, and even as a lifelong Christian, I learned new things about my own faith through his words.