God, Jesus and Mary: The Trinity?
The Qur’an has its own version of the Christian Trinity:
And when Allah will say: O Jesus, son of Mary, didst thou say to men, Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah? He will say: Glory be to Thee! it was not for me to say what I had no right to (say). If I had said it, Thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy mind. Surely Thou art the great Knower of the unseen.
Note how this strange verse does not mention the Trinity, but has Allah asking Jesus whether he told the people to take him and Mary for gods beside Allah. To which, Jesus replied ‘no, I did not; if I did you would have known about it anyway’.
Why did Allah ask Jesus something he already knew Jesus did not do? Did Allah ask simply for the fun of it? Or was he testing him? If this was a test, why perform it at all, when one already knows the result? The circularity of this verse and its lack of logic is apparent.
A plausible explanation of Muhammad’s need to reconcile the Christian Trinity with Islam’s monotheism is given below.
Analysis of Muslim Apologetics
Muslims claim verse 5:116 is not a difficulty for them, and they give three reasons for this:
1 – The heretical Christian sect of the Collyridians may have existed in Muhammad’s time and the Quran was specifically addressing their understanding of the Trinity.
Lets take a look at who the Collyridians were:
Some claim that the Collyridians were in existence from the fourth century and flourished during the fifth century, although since they have fallen out of the pages of history, nobody knows for sure how long they existed as a sect. Edward Gibbon in ‘the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ [Chapter 50] states that they were still in existence in the seventh century (without providing any corroborating evidence). One explanation is that Gibbon’s simply took the clear parallelism of verse 5:116 with Collyridianism to mean they were present during Muhammad’s day.
Thus, there is clear parallelism between the Qur’an’s version of the Trinity and the Collyridian belief.
As previously stated, Muslims claim that this verse was alluding to the belief of some Christians at the time of Muhammad. This is clearly false, as it specifically states that the belief occurred during the time of Jesus. Remember, Allah asked Jesus whether he had told the people to worship him and Mary besides Allah. Since the Collyridians are post-Jesus (probably originating in the late fourth century, as reported by Epiphanius) the parallelism with the Collyridians is anachronistic. Hence, the Qur’an could not have been alluding to the Collyridians at all, unless of course, Jesus was a Collyridian.
What was the purpose of verse 5:116? The most plausible explanation is Muhammad’s need to explain to his followers the Christian concept of the Trinity in relation to the strict monotheism of Islam. As he claimed Jesus a prophet of Islam, and Allah being the same god to the Christians as the Muslims, and thus Christianity as a predecessor religion to Islam, this perceived inconsistency would have required explanation. So this verse has Jesus denying the concept of the Trinity – implying that the Christians had corrupted his teaching. In doing so, Muhammad had unwittingly exposed his lack of understanding of what the Trinity means. He probably thought Jesus had taught this doctrine, as he thought the Trinity comprised of God, Jesus and Mary.
2 – Some Muslims such as Dr Saifullah of Islamic-awareness claim that it is unreasonable to point out the clear parallelism with Collyridianism as something erroneous as early Christians did not believe in the Trinity.
This is a pseudo-defense. The issue is not if modern Christians view the Collyridians as heretics, but whether the Quranic version of the Trinity has any basis. After all, Allah should know what the Trinity is. But apparently he thought the Collyridian version of the Trinity was the prevailing one during the time of Jesus Christ.
3 – Modern Christians also believe Mary as the Mother of God and prayers are sent to her.
This is a subtle point and one that Muslims fail to address: Neither in the New Testament nor the Qur’an does Jesus claim Mary to be a co-divinity with God. In fact, the Qur’an is specific in Jesus’ denial of this charge. So where does this charge against Jesus come from? Orthodox Christians such as the Catholics do venerate Mary as a saint and the Mother of Jesus, but are very clear in not ascribing divinity to her.
Praying to saints is an Orthodox/Catholic practice. It does not mean that the object of prayer is divine. Catholics do not solely pray to Mary, but to all manners of saints who have passed-away without ascribing divine status on any of them. Thus, it is nonsense to suggest that prayers to Mary absolves the Qur’an from its error about her divinity.
The parallelism between verse 5:116 and the belief of Mary’s divinity by the Collyridians has laid open the charge that Muhammad was mistaken in his understanding of the Trinity. The Qur’an is anachronistic as the doctrine of the Trinity post-dates Jesus. While the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E laid the groundwork by asserting that Christ is the same substance as God, it was the Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E. that laid down the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, Jesus could not have promulgated the idea of the Trinity to the people as it was conceived almost four centuries after his death.
Secondly, the Qur’an’s understanding of the Trinity as three gods is erroneous (see Qur’an 5:73) Thirdly, the Muslim explanation that verse 5:116 was alluding to the Collyridians is erroneous as Jesus was never a Collyridian. Fourthly, Jesus never claimed his mother to be a co-divinity with God, and one wonders why Allah should ask Jesus something he already knew Jesus did not do. Rather pointless, one might gather. Perhaps it was a slow day in Jannah.
Considering all that has been discussed, it is reasonable to suggest that Muhammad heard of the Collyridian version of the Trinity and assumed that it were the standard Christian belief taught by Jesus himself. It probably didn’t occur to him that the Trinity was a doctrinal development of the early church or that the worship of Mary as a divinity long post-dated Jesus himself.