Answered by Ustadh Salman Younas
Question: In a lecture Shaykh Faraz Rabbani has said: "the attributes of Allah are not the essence of Allah, but they are not other than Allah."
How to answer Christians who say that Muslims were influenced by the Trinity in affirming a multiplicity of eternal beings and the Mu'tazila?
Answer: assalamu `alaykum
Thank you for your questions.
Islamic Understanding of God's Attributes
The Qur'an is decisively against the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The difference that Muslim theologians identified between the affirmation of eternal attributes for God and the Trinity was that the latter was viewed as affirming a multitude of entities, namely the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while the former implied no such thing..
According to orthodox Islamic belief, God is a single being/entity who possesses attributes that subsist through His essence. These attributes are not the same as God's essence since they indicate something additional to the essence itself. At the same time, these attributes are not rationally conceivable as being separate from God in the sense of being distinct entities. In other words, God is a self that is capable of knowledge, will, power, and so forth, while attributes are not, and.a multitude of such attributes does not negate the oneness of God that forms the central tenet of Islam. [Taftazani, Sharh al-Maqasid; Bajuri, Sharh al-Jawhara]
The trinitarian conception of God has an admittedly complex history and there have been numerous interpretations forwarded in an attempt to explain it. The doctrine of the trinity that was standardized under the influence of Cappadocian Fathers in the 4th century affirmed three "persons" of the godhead, namely the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. These three persons were said to share one universal nature (i.e. deity) and did so equally but they were still understood as being somehow distinct from each other.
The distinction that orthodox trinitarian doctrine proposed between the persons of the godhead is not similar to what has been described previously regarding the manner in which attributes are distinct from the essence through which they subsist. Thus, in many articulations of the trinity, we find affirmations of three 'persons' who seem to differ causally, statements about persons of the godhead being "begotten" or "generated" [Father --> Son] or there being 'productions' within God, explanations that seem to fall into modalism, and so forth. Clearly, these are not manners of expression one finds in the theological works of Muslims when discussing the nature of Gods attributes.
In fairness, it must be noted that the pro-Nicene consensus that many leading Christian scholars affirmed is essentially mysterian: it does not admit of clarification given the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility and ineffability. Pro-Nicene trinitarianism affirms a metaphysics of God as unique, lacking parts or compositions, and transcendent, but the arguments that Christian theologians have forwarded to defend orthodox conceptions of the trinity have long been seen as inconsistent and unintelligible in a way that negates the aforementioned metaphysics of God.
In conclusion, there is in substance not much in parallel between the manner in which Muslim theologians have explained the divine attributes of God and between Christian conceptions of the trinity. Rather, the monotheism affirmed in our religion is simple and straightforward, our understanding of the nature of God is clear in terms of His essence, attributes, and actions. While there are certainly complicated debates within the Muslim theological tradition, it is a stretch to view the Muslim affirmation of eternal divine attributes as being akin to the Trinity.
Checked & Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani