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What do we mean when we say that ‘God is one’?  Or that ’there is only one Allah’?  What is the meaning of ‘mono’ in monotheism?


Well, first of all the word one in this context cannot be an alternative to two or three.  ‘God is one’ or ‘there is only one Allah’ is not an answer to the question: how many gods are there? - for God is not a god.[1]  He makes all the kinds of things there are, and this would include gods if there were any.  For only things of the same kind can be counted, whether apples, oranges, gods or whatever; and since Allah is the maker of all these kinds He cannot be counted a member of any of them.  This means that He is not, for example, ‘an omnipotent being’, as idolatrously-inclined atheists like Richard Dawkins suppose.  For ‘an omnipotent being’ is still a kind of being, whereas it follows from not being a member of any kind that God Himself is not ‘a being’ at all.  He is not ens but esse, as Aquinas used to insist.


So to say that there is only one Allah is just another way of saying that God exists but is not in any kind, or genus.  This is all that ‘monotheism’ means.  It follows from this that when we hear somebody contrasting Islamic monotheism with Christian trinitarianism, by insisting on Islam’s ‘absolute’ or ‘uncompromising’ monotheism, we need to recognise that such extra terms are empty and add nothing to what is said.[2]  They do no logical work at all.  If God/Allah is one (as both faiths agree) He can’t be made any more ‘one’ by being labelled ‘absolutely’ or ‘uncompromisingly’ so.  It follows that if, after all, somebody still tries to insist on the ‘absoluteness’ of Islamic monotheism, against that of Christianity, this can only mean that the term ‘Allah/God’ is being illicitly used for a kind of being of which there can be only one member (like ‘living Queen of England’), and that people who suggest otherwise are not ‘absolute’ monotheists.  But as we have seen, monotheism amounts only to recognising that God/Allah is not a being of any kind.  So an ‘absolute’ or ‘uncompromising’ monotheism is no more than monotheism tout court. 


To hint that Christianity (say) is less wholeheartedly monotheistic than Islam seems to suggest that Christianity harbours vestiges of polytheism.  But this is just what the creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon repudiated.  The Nicene creed begins with ‘I believe in One God, the Father Almighty’, and the subsequent trinitarian formulae about Jesus Christ in no way modify this opening declaration.  There is no hint of polytheism here.  And of course the debates leading to Nicea and Chalcedon were not about polytheism at all.  They were about the meaning of various mysterious things said by, to or about Jesus of Nazareth, and recorded in the New Testament.  It was these, and not any suggestion of a plurality of gods, that prompted the development of Christian doctrine about the trinity.  It is true, of course, that some of the disputants held to various forms of unacceptable doctrine, mostly along the lines of saying either that Christ was not quite a man or that he was not quite God.  It was these mistakes which Chalcedon confronted and resolved, by insisting that he was both a man and God.  Of course, it couldn’t explain the mystery of this dark saying.  Nobody could.  But what it did establish is that the true doctrine was not a logical self-contradiction.


Just as trinitarianism is sometimes (wrongly) thought of as compromising Christianity’s monotheism, Islam’s monotheism has sometimes been thought of (I presume wrongly) as being compromised by its beliefs about the Qur’an.  According to majority Sunni belief, as I understand it, the Qur’an is the uncreated word of Allah.  That is to say, it is His eternal word, delivered to Muhammad at a certain moment in human history, but existing from all eternity. The problem then arises that if something is eternal it must itself be divine; for only Allah, the Creator of all that exists, is eternal.  But if the Qur’an is divine, ‘alongside’ Allah, this appears to compromise Allah’s oneness.  Anyhow, how could the Qur’an itself be divine? – it is, after all, only a message from Allah.  It didn’t make the universe.  And a message is a certain kind of entity.  As such it cannot be divine, or eternal in the way that Allah is divine and eternal.  This is one of the problems that the Mutazils tried to solve by saying that the Qur’an is only ‘metaphorically’ eternal, or uncreated.  But this would not do either, for the Qur’an’s authority as that of Allah himself would then be devalued.  How the Qur’an, or the divine message, relates to Allah Himself, that is to divinity as such, is a puzzle somewhat parallel to the puzzle in Christianity about the relation of the man Jesus to God the Father.  The Christian trinitarian doctrine is an attempt to state what the puzzle is without committing itself to self-contradiction.  A similar doctrine has to be found in Islam for the relation of the Qur’an to Allah.  I would like to know what it is. 


A further related problem arises about translations of the Qur’an.  For, if I am right, only the Arabic text is regarded as the message from Allah.  Translations of the Qur’an are not quite the real thing, because the real thing is not a humanly-written text at all, but is ‘of Allah’.  But a problem arises here.  Is it the Arabic text as such, or is it the meaning of this text, that is said to be the revealed word of Allah?  And how are we to distinguish the two?  Of course, Allah can send a message to humanity in any language he likes. But this is just the difficulty.  After all, an English translation of (say) the Critique of Pure Reason is still the same book as Kant’s German original.  That is, it is not a different book; it is still the Critique of Pure Reason.  However, if the meaning of a translation is subtly different from that of the original, this suggests that the ‘meaning’ of the message is something distinct from the message itself.  Does this not suggest that it is only the meaning of the Arabic Qur’an that is uncreated and eternal?  But then what is this meaning, other than what we can understand in the Arabic?  For meaning is necessarily the meaning of some words or other. Belief in the eternity, that is divinity, of the meaning in Arabic of the Qur’anic message cannot easily escape being snared in the fallacy of holding that ‘because every meaning is contained in some language there must be some language (i.e. the Arabic) which contains every meaning’. 


Finally, the question arises of how far the Qur’an commits Muslims to believing that the doctrine of the Trinity somehow ‘compromises’ monotheism.  As I have argued, allegations of such ‘compromise’ can only arise out of logical muddle about the meaning of Allah’s oneness.  Doubtless there are substantial objections to Christian doctrine, but this is not one of them.  Why then does the Qur’an spend so much time and effort on it?  And what exactly does it commit Muslims to thinking about the unquestionably monotheistic Christian belief in the three persons of God? 


Brian Wicker

January 2005


[1] In this paper I take it that ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ are logically equivalent to each other,

in that each answers to the most basic question of all: ‘how come there is anything rather than nothing?’  For this reason I use them interchangeably.

[2] John Esposito makes this mistake at the very beginning of his otherwise excellent study of Islam, The Straight Path (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition 1994) p. 3