The Nature of the Qur'an in Early Islamic Theology

 

           The first three centuries of the Muslim era witnessed the development of Islamic theology especially as it concerns the nature of the Qur'an. Much of this development occurred after the conquest of Christian Syria and other formerly Christian lands by Arab armies in the 7th and 8th centuries.  Once these territories were brought under Muslim control, the leaders of the new Islamic Empire organized formal disputations between Christian clergy and Islamic religious scholars.  These debates showed Muslims that the descriptions of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity of God and the Incarnation did not fit their description in the Qur'an.  In fact, these two Christian doctrines had been formulated using certain philosophical and theological categories unfamiliar to Muslims and this initially put the Islamic scholars at a disadvantage in the discussions.  In his book, The Philosophy of Kalam, Dr. Harry Wolfson shows quite clearly that Muslim theologians almost immediately began appropriating the Christian ideas presented in these debates in order to defend their own doctrines against the attacks of their Christian opponents.  As a result of these disputations two areas of Islamic theology developed and moved beyond the original beliefs of the Muslim community.

          The first of these two areas concerned the nature of God and His attributes and by extension the nature of the Qur'an in relation to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  The second area concerned the Qur'an itself, and whether it was to be understood that the printed copies of the Qur'an were the Inlibration of the eternal Qur'an or whether they were merely a created likeness or impression of the original Qur'an that existed in Heaven on the Preserved Tablet.  This doctrine of Inlibration is analogous to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.  In this early period, two different schools of thought arose out of the controversy over God's attributes and whether they were to be understood as distinct beings in God, that is, whether His attributes were really different from His essence, or whether the attributes were merely nominal qualities.  The Ash'arites held that God's attributes must really be distinct from God's essence and as a consequence, that the Qur'an, as an attribute of God, must be eternal and uncreated. In opposition to this view, the Mu'tazilites saw the divine attributes as nominal properties, and so even though the Qur'an pre-existed its revelation to Muhammad, it was not eternal and therefore it was not uncreated.

          The doctrine of Inlibration is a slightly more complex doctrine than that of the attributes.  The Ash'arites were divided over this belief, some of them followed Ahmad ibn Hanbal who held that the eternal Qur'an was contained in each printed copy of the book on earth; while others in the Ash'arite school accepted the position of Abdallah ibn Kullab who said that the printed copies were not the eternal Qur'an itself, but were merely a facsimile of it.  On this issue the Mu'tazilites actually held the doctrine that became identified as the orthodox position.  The Mu'tazilites accepted the doctrine of the inlibration of the Heavenly Qur'an, albeit a created Heavenly Word, in all its man made earthly copies.  But before explaining these two doctrines as they developed in response to Christian ideas about God and the incarnation of Christ, it is important to briefly describe what the early Muslims believed about the nature of the Qur'an.

          The earliest followers of Muhammad held that the Qur'an was pre-existent, but they did not believe that it was eternal and uncreated; instead, they saw it as the first thing created by God.  This belief is most likely related to the Jewish belief that the Torah was the first thing created by God and that it thus pre-exists the Sinai revelation.  The Qur'an, as Wolfson indicates, "describes itself as 'a glorious Koran, on a Preserved (mahfuz) Tablet' . . . [and] as 'an Arabic Koran . . . in the Mother of the Book.'" [1]  These verses deal with the pre-existent Qur'an that was created before the foundation of the world, and this idea is similar to Rabbinic ideas about the Torah.  Specifically the idea that it is the first thing created by God, and that it is used in some way by God as a plan or diagram for the rest of creation.  As it says in the Midrash Rabbah, "God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, 'In the beginning God created,' beginning referring to the Torah, as in the verse, 'The Lord made me as the beginning of His way." [2]  Clearly the idea that the Qur'an pre-existed its revelation to Muhammad has its foundation in Jewish beliefs about the Torah.  So one can see that the original views of the Muslim community about the Qur'an correspond in many ways to Jewish ideas about the Heavenly Torah.  Even though Islam developed along somewhat different lines as time passed, it retained many Jewish ideas, especially in its seeing itself as a religion of orthopraxy and not simply a religion of orthodoxy.  But as far as the doctrine of the Qur'an is concerned, it is clear that the Christian doctrine of the eternity of the Word soon replaced the Jewish idea of a created pre-existent heavenly book.  This change happened because as Islam came into contact with Christianity many of its beliefs came under intense scrutiny, and the doctrines were ultimately revised in order to defend them against the attacks of Christians.

          The initial disputations, most of them taking place in Syria, centered on the doctrine of the Trinity.  Christians presented their doctrine, and tried to find ways to make the Muslim officials agree with them on some minor points of doctrine in order to pressure them into eventually agreeing with the major conclusions drawn from Christian theological experience.  Muslim scholars were not prepared for the level of technical complexity inherent in the dogmatic formulations of the Church, because their previous experience had been with Christians from somewhat unsophisticated provincial areas, but now they were dealing with the highly organized Byzantine Church and its well-educated clerical elite.  The Orthodox Church officials explained that in Christian theology the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are distinct in relation to each other, because each person has a specific property that both distinguishes it from, and connects it to, the other two persons.  The Father has the property of being unbegotten, while the Son has the property of being eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit has the property of procession, since He eternally proceeds from the Father and rests upon the Son. [3]  In addition to these three properties, other characteristics are at times used in order to distinguish the persons from each other.  They include the property of existence or self-existence, which is applied to the Father; the term knowledge, wisdom, or word, which is normally applied to the Son; and the quality of life or power, which is used in reference to the Holy Spirit.  Some of these terms can be applied to either the Son or the Holy Spirit and that is why they are not as important in Christian theology as the terms, unbegotten, begotten, and procession. But in Islamic theology these additional characteristics become extremely important, because the attributes of God in Islam take on the quality of real beings and are thus analogous to the doctrine of the Trinity in Christianity.

          The properties applied to the second and third persons of the Trinity were seen by Muslims as real subsisting attributes distinct from God's essence.  Under Christian questioning they would agree that these distinct attributes must also be eternal, since God can never be without them.  In the disputations the Christian cleric would ask the Muslim scholar if it is right to apply the properties of knowledge or wisdom and of life or power to God, and the Muslim would respond in the affirmative.  The Muslim could point to the Qur'an itself which "describes God as 'the living' (al-hayy), as 'the knowing' (al'alim), and as 'the powerful.'" [4]  The Christian would then ask if God possesses these properties from all eternity, and again the Muslim would answer in the affirmative.  The Christian would then explain that since these properties are distinct from God's essence, and yet like God they are also eternal, it follows that they must also be God, because anything that is eternal is by definition God.  But this is when the Muslim scholar would interrupt and disagree saying that the Qur'an clearly forbids associating distinct things of any kind with God, and this would include His eternal attributes.  The Christian would reiterate that eternity is only applicable to God, so the eternal attributes of knowledge and life are by definition God.  But in response the Muslim would still insist that even though these attributes are eternal they cannot be called God, and if one called them God he would be committing the sin of associating something with God, which as indicated above the Qur'an forbids. [5]  The Muslim scholar in this case would fall back on certain Qur'anic verses in order to defend his position.

          It is important to note that not all Muslims accepted the idea that God's attributes are eternal.  The Mu'tazilites dissented from the opinion of the majority in this area, because they saw it as an intrusion of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity into the simplicity of God's being.  The Mu'tazilites held that there are no real distinctions in the Godhead and that the attributes are simply nominal qualities.  In other words, they held that the divine attributes are not distinct things in God but are merely descriptions of His activities.  In saying this the Mu'tazilites were actually defending the more ancient Islamic tradition, but to pious ears what they were saying appeared to denigrate the importance of the Qur'an.  How could the Qur'an be the definitive revelation of God to man if it was a created thing?  For many Muslims the answer was that it could not be definitive if it was created; but if it was uncreated, if it was God's eternal Word, then - and only then - could it truly be the culmination of God's revelation of Himself to man. 

          The Mu'tazilite argument against the reality of the attributes was twofold.  First, if God's attributes are really distinct entities separate from His essence, it follows that God is composed of parts, which compromises His absolute unity.  Second, the Mu'tazilites, like the Christians, held that only God is eternal, and thus if the attributes are eternal while at the same time they are distinct beings, one must hold that more than one being is God, and this is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity that the Qur'an condemns. [6]  In response to the Mu'tazilite attacks on the reality of the attributes, the Ash'arites asserted that God's unity was relative, and not absolute, and so by positing a real distinction between God's attributes and His essence one need not confess that they are God.  But rather than formulate a rational argument in order to support their position, the orthodox Islamic scholars simply referred back to certain Qur'anic texts.  They answered their opponents by saying that, "The Prophet has warned us against [those who associate things with God] by his statement that 'they surely are infidels who say, God is the third of three, for there is no God but one God.'" [7]  This answer to the accusations of the Mu'tazilites satisfied the vast majority of the Muslim community, because it was an argument from tradition and not simply from reason, and it had the added bonus of reflecting popular piety.  The idea that the Qur'an was eternal and uncreated was popular with the masses, who venerated the Qur'an as God's definitive revelation of Himself to man.  Clearly Islamic scholars had adapted the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in order to affirm that the Qur'an is the eternal and uncreated Word of God, and so it can be argued that the Qur'an became for Muslims what Jesus is for Christians.  By the 10th century the Christian doctrine of the Trinity had been successfully Islamicized.

          With the triumph of the real distinction between God's attributes and His essence, a new problem arose.  What is the relationship between the eternal and uncreated Qur'an in Heaven and the earthly copies? [8]  The solution to this theological difficulty involved the adaptation of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of Word, by espousing a belief in the Inlibration of the Word.  The arguments in this area once again parallel the arguments that occurred in the early Church, but this time they centered on Christ rather than on the Trinity.  The Ash'arites were divided on the issue of Inlibration, some holding that the man made earthly copies of the Qur'an actually contained the eternal and uncreated Qur'an, while others denied this.  This opinion is traceable to Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who held that "what is between the covers is the Word (kalam) of God, and what we read and hear and write is the very Word of God.  It therefore follows that the individual words (kalimat) and letters (huruf) are the very Word of God.  But inasmuch as agreement has established that the Word of God is uncreated, it follows that the individual words and letters are eternal and uncreated." [9]  Thus the Ash'arites who followed the Hanbalite teaching held that in each earthly copy of the Qur'an was Inlibrated (i.e., embooked) the eternal and uncreated Qur'an, and thus the earthly Qur'an is composed of two natures.  This doctrine is clearly analogous to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which held that Christ was one person with two natures.  The Mu'tazilites also accepted the doctrine of Inlibration, although as indicated above they denied that the Qur'an is uncreated.

          The other Ash'arites followed the Kullabite school of thought, which denied the doctrine of the Inlibration of the eternal Qur'an in its printed, memorized, or recited earthly copies.  These Ash'arites were following the views of Abdallah ibn Kullab.  Kullab held that the eternal Qur'an was on the Preserved Tablet in Heaven and that it could not be transferred from Heaven to earth, nor could it exist in more than one place at a time.  He is reported to have said, "Gabriel did not bring down the Word of God into the heart of Muhammad; he brought down to him only something else; and that is an expression ('ibarah) used as a substitute for the Word of God.  Of that which we read in copies of the Koran and is written therein nothing is the Word of God." [10]  He goes on to say, "The Word of God . . . does not separate itself (yuzayil) from the Creator, nor does it subsist in something else, nor does it abide in different places, nor is it transferred (yuntakal), nor does it consist of combined words." [11]  The Kullabites thus denied that the eternal Qur'an was embooked in its earthly copies.

          The crux of the dispute between the opposing sides in this debate is similar to the disagreement over the reality of the attributes.  Both centered on whether or not the thing in question possessed an absolute unity, or only a relative unity.  The Kullabites held the former position, which meant that the earthly copies of the Qur'an could not contain the eternal Heavenly Word; instead they were merely an impression or a facsimile of the Heavenly Qur'an.  The Hanbalites held the latter view, thus asserting that the eternal Word of God is really contained in each and every earthly copy of the Qur'an.  In support of their view they quoted a verse from the Qur'an itself that says, "If an idolater seeks asylum with you, give him protection so that he may hear the Word of God, and then convey him to safety." [12]  The Hanbalites, following the teaching of their founder, held that this verse must be read literally, because hearing a facsimile of the real Qur'an would not be the same as hearing the very Word of God. [13]  The simple logic of the Hanbalite position and the fact that some of the things said by those who denied the doctrine of Inlibration sounded impious to the majority of Muslims, accounts for the acceptance of Inlibration as the orthodox position.

          In conclusion, it is evident that Islam in its primitive beginnings held that the Qur'an was created by God, but that this created Word pre-existed its revelation to Muhammad, and that it existed on a Preserved Tablet in Heaven.  It is also clear that this idea was based in some sense on Jewish beliefs about the pre-existence of the Torah, and how this Heavenly prototype of the revealed book is then used by God as a plan or diagram for creating the universe.  The influence of Christianity on early Islam was minor at this stage, but as Islam expanded beyond the primitive Christian communities of the Arabian Peninsula into the highly developed Christian culture of the eastern Mediterranean, Christian influence in Islamic theology expanded greatly.  Dr. Wolfson has clearly demonstrated that the doctrine of the reality of the distinction between God's attributes (as subsistent qualities) and His essence in Islam is an adaptation of the Orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity of persons in the Godhead.  The idea that God is somehow composed of three really distinct persons, becomes in Islam a doctrine that says that God is composed of many really distinct attributes.  The only difference between the Christian doctrine and the orthodox Muslim one is that Christians call these distinct persons or things God, while Muslims refuse to call God's distinct attributes by that name.  Wolfson also demonstrates that the doctrine of the Inlibration of the eternal Qur'an in its earthly copies is connected to, and clearly reflects, the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of the eternal Word in Christ.  Thus, in Islamic theology the Qur'an is held to possess two natures, an earthly nature and a heavenly nature; just as Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, possesses a human nature and a divine nature.  That said, the development of these two doctrines in Islam clearly parallels the development of Trinitarian and Christological theology in early Christianity, and as Wolfson indicates, this shows the extent of the interaction between these two religions during the formative period of Islamic theology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Francisco State University

History 604:  Islamic World I

Dr. Fred Astren

13 December 2001

 

Homepage:  The Taboric Light

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Primary Source:

 

Wolfson, Harry Austryn.  The Philosophy of Kalam.  (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1976).

 

 

Additional Sources:

 

Abrahamov, Binyamin.  Islamic Theology:  Traditionalism and Rationalism.  (Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 1998).

 

Arberry, A. J.  Revelation and Reason in Islam.  (London:  George Allen and Unwin, 1965).

 

Martin, Richard C.  Defenders of Reason in Islam.  (Oxford:  Oneworld Publications, 1997).

 

Schaff, Philip.  The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  (Peabody:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1994).

 

Watt, Montgomery.  The Formative Period of Islamic Thought.  (Oxford:  Oneworld Publications, 1998).

 

Watt, Montgomery.  Islamic Creeds:  A Selection.  (Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 1994).

 

 

 

 

 

 

END NOTES:

  [1]  Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of Kalam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,

1976), p. 238.

  [2]  Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman, editor, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis (New York: The Soncino Press, 1983), 1:1.

  [3]  See (NPNF) St. John Damascene, De Fide Orthodoxa, Book I, Chapters 7 and 8.

  [4]  Wolfson, p. 129.

  [5]  On this issue Muslim scholars are not consistent, because the Ash’arite school (along with several other Orthodox Sunni schools) confessed that the attributes of God are “neither God nor other than God" (p. 208); and moreover, that they in some sense subsist in Him.  See Wolfson, pgs. 205-234.

  [6]  Ibid., p. 133.

  [7]  Ibid., p. 131.

  [8]  A. J. Arberry, Revelation and Reason in Islam (London:  George Allen and Unwin, 1965), p. 26; as A. J. Arberry explains:  “Once it had been established that the Koran was God’s speech and uncreated there still remained to be determined whether the copies of the Koran in men’s hands, and its pronunciation upon men’s lips, were also eternal.”

  [9]  Wolfson, p. 251.

[10]  Ibid., p. 255.

[11]  Ibid., p. 255.

[12]  N. J. Dawood, translator, The Koran (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 134 (Surah 9:6).

[13]  Wolfson, p. 253.

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