Early Christian-Muslim Debate on the Unity of God: Three Christian Scholars and Their Engagement With Islamic Thought (9th Century C.E.)

  • Book Title:
 Early Christian Muslim Debate On The Unity Of God
  • Book Author:
Sara Leila Husseini
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  • Introduction 1
  • Part 1
  • Three Arabic-Speaking Christian Theologians and Their Writings on the Doctrine of the Trinity (c. 800–850)
  • Historical and Intellectual Environment 11
  • Christians in the Islamic Empire: Historical Social and Linguistic Contexts 11
  • Historical Context 11
  • Social Context 12
  • Linguistic Environment 17
  • Christian Theologising on the Trinity 21
  • Philoxenus of Mabbug (d. 523) 24
  • John of Damascus (c. 675–c. 754) 26
  • Muslim Theologising on the Nature and Unity of God 30
  • Abū al Hudhayl (c. 750–c. 840) 33
  • Ibn Kullāb (d.c. 855) 35
  • Nature of kalām 37
  • Muslim Criticisms of the Doctrine of the Trinity 40
  • Theodore Abū Qurra (c. 750–c. 830) 47
  • Background 47
  • Biography 47
  • Historical Context 48
  • Intellectual Context 51
  • Works Relating to the Trinity 53
  • Setting the Context 55
  • Relationship between Faith and Reason 55
  • Christianity as the True Religion 56
  • Explanation of the Trinity 58
  • Scriptural Proofs 59
  • Rational Analogies 61
  • Attributes of God 64
  • Response to Muslim Questions 68
  • Theodore Abū Qurra’s Understanding of the Nature of God 74
  • Abū Rāʾia Al-Takrītī (c. 755–c. 835) 77
  • Background 77
  • Biography 77
  • Historical Context 78
  • Intellectual Context 79
  • Works Relating to the Trinity 80
  • Setting the Context 83
  • Agreement that God is One 83
  • Explanation of the Trinity 86
  • Types of Oneness 86
  • Absolute vs. Relative Names 88
  • Response to Muslim Questions 97
  • Abū Rāʾiṭa’s Understanding of the Nature of God 99
  • ʿAmmār al-Barī (d.c. 840) 105
  • Background 105
  • Biography 105
  • Historical Context 105
  • Intellectual Context 107
  • Works Relating to the Trinity 109
  • Setting the Context 112
  • What can be Known about God 112
  • Criticism of the Teaching that God has no ‘Word’ or ‘Life’ 115
  • God’s Relationship to His Word and Life 118
  • Explanation of the Trinity 120
  • Four ‘Categories’ 120
  • ‘One and Three’ is Not a Numerical Issue 123
  • Al-uqnūm and the Relationship Between Substance and Hypostases 124
  • Biblical Proofs 128
  • Response to Muslim Questions 131
  • ʿAmmār’s Understanding of the Nature of God 136
  • contents ix
  • The Role and Function of Christian Explanations of the Trinity in Arabic
  • The Tools of Christian Arabic Apologetic and Polemic 143
  • Analogy and Metaphor 143
  • Scriptural Proofs 154
  • Terminology 161
  • Rational and Logical Proofs 174
  • ‘The Unity of Species’ 174
  • ‘A Question for the Muslims’ 179
  • ‘The Headship of God’ 179
  • ‘Three is the Perfect Number’ 180
  • The “Attribute-Apology” 181
  • Christian Theologians Employing Muslim Theology 187
  • Priorities, Emphases and Engagement with Islamic Thought 187
  • Abū Qurra 187
  • Abū Rāʾia 193
  • ʿAmmār al-Ba198
  • The Role of Christian Arabic Works 203
  • Audience and Purpose 203
  • The Place of Early Christian Theology in Arabic 205
  • Conclusion 212
  • Bibliography 217
  • Bible of Qur’an Citations 228
  • Index of People and Places 229
  • Subject Index 233
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Muslim Тheologising on the Nature and Unity of God

The establishment and development of Islam, as not only a religious faith but a comprehensive world view set alongside older religions with compet-ing claims, brought with it a number of questions for the ‘believing people’ (al-muʾminīn). One of the earliest questions concerned the succession of the Caliphs, which became a matter of dispute immediately following the death of the Prophet Muḥammad in 632, requiring later caliphs and dynasties to find ways of legitimising their authority. From the very outset, religious questions became intricately interwoven with political affairs.71

On a spiritual level, political divisions, turmoil and conflict led some to ques-tion the reasons for this dissension and God’s role in it, triggering some of the earliest debates on free will.72 A number of sects and schools of thought began to emerge as a result of varying positions on such questions, the most famous of whom would come to be known as the Muʿtazila, and who, for a good part of the ninth century, would not only enjoy theological dominance but also politi-cal prominence, particularly during the reign of al-Ma ʾmūn (r. 813–833).

Characterised by the seemingly contradictory attitudes of the promotion of intellectual freedom and a love of foreign learning in contrast to an almost tyrannical demand of allegiance to a particular doctrine, al-Maʾ mūn forms a fascinating figure. Amongst other things, the ʿAbbāsid caliph is known for hosting debates between Muslims and representatives of other faiths at his court and for strongly supporting the translation of Greek works into Arabic. Yet his notoriety stems from his initiation of the so-called miḥna (inquisition) in 833.73

 The miḥna was carried out to ensure that all Muslim scholars pro-fessed the doctrine of the created, as opposed to uncreated and eternal, nature of the Qur’an, a Muʿtazilī doctrine which arose from the desire to protect God as the only divine and eternal being. Those who refused to comply were either imprisoned or exiled, most famously Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal (780–855), a respected hadith scholar and founder of the Ḥanbalī legal school, who actively opposed Muʿtazilite doctrine.

The reasons for, and aims of, the miḥna remain an issue of debate.74 Whatever the definitive motivation, it is probable that al-Ma ʾmūn was looking to establish himself firmly as the unchallenged authority on spiritual affairs as well as secular matters. What is particularly noteworthy for the purposes of this study, however, is that the favour bestowed upon the Muʿtazila and the policy which required all Muslims to accept their notion of a ‘created Qur’an’, meant that for a short time at least, the Muʿtazila enjoyed a ‘golden period’ of theological and political dominance, which had implications for the nature of Christian-Muslim debate during this period.

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For Muslims striving to know something about the nature of God, early ques-tions emerged as a result of the apparent contradiction of a God who is tran-scendent and incomparable,75 whilst at the same time one who is described in the Qur’an by a number of positive names (asmāʾ) or attributes (ṣifāt) sug-gesting something about His divine nature. These names are given as a list of adjectival epithets, such as ‘The Compassionate’, ‘The Merciful’, ‘The Wise’ and so on.76 The ensuing debate concerned the ontological and semantic status of these attributes and was a debate which Christian authors would utilise to defend the Trinity in Arabic.

Among the Muslims, those who confirmed the divine attributes to be real, incorporeal and eternal entities alongside God came to be known as ‘Attributists’, and those who opposed this view, suggesting that God’s attributes were identical with His essence were ‘Antiattributists’. Each faced a differ-ent problem. For the former mostly traditionalist group, such as followers of Ibn Ḥanbal, reading the Qur’an literally gave rise to the question of how the attributes could be eternal alongside God when the Qur’an clearly states that: “nothing can be compared with Him [God]”.’77

For the latter group, of which the Muʿtazilites came to be at the forefront, the supreme uniqueness of God led to the inability to ‘know’ anything real about Him and subsequently to the question of what these terms or attributes actually meant.78

As with the representatives of the Christian tradition highlighted previ-ously, considering two key figures involved in the attributes debate and their various ideas concerning the nature and unity of God will provide a useful insight into the Islamic context of this period. The first is the great leader of the Basra school of the Muʿtazila, Abū al-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf (d.c. 840) and the second is the rather more elusive theologian, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh Ibn Kullāb (d.c. 855).

Born around 750 C.E., Abū al-Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf is classed as one of the earliest and most influential Muʿtazilite scholars, whose teachings formed the basis for much of the school. He succeeded Ḍirār ibn ʿAmr as chair of the Basrian School, before settling in Baghdad towards the end of his life.

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 Unfortunately, none of Abū al-Hudhayl’s works have survived, although there does exist a record of titles of many works written by him, which, along with contemporary works, both of his opponents and students, offer an insight into his teachings and beliefs. From the titles of his works, and works written about him, it can be seen that he also acted as an early apologist for Islam, debating with or writing against groups including dualists, Jews and Christians, including, most signifi-cantly for this study, ʿAmmār al-Baṣrī.

Although Abū al-Hudhayl wrote on many interrelated subjects, it is his con-ception of God which is the most pertinent to this study, and indeed one of his major concerns, being perhaps the first person to carry out a systematic analysis of the Qur’anic passages relating to God’s attributes.79 In his thinking, we are told, “the unity, the spirituality and transcendence of God . . . are car-ried to the highest degree of abstraction. God is one; He does not resemble his creatures in any respect . . .”.80 For Abū al-Hudhayl these qualities of God were absolute and irrefutable, and formed the starting point from which he strived to ‘know’ God.

Abū al-Hudhayl therefore set out to explain how God’s attributes, such as knowledge, power and life, could be identical to His essence, as if they were somehow differentiated from His essence then that would imply plurality in the divine being. God’s attributes must be eternal, whilst simultaneously remaining ‘one’. The formulation he constructed ran as follows:…..

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