September 15, 2014
Try to envision the scene: A Christian named Timothy meets with a Muslim named Mahdi for two days of dialogue about their religions. The meeting is cordial, and to us, some of the arguments may be surprising.
Timothy says that Muhammad is worthy of all praise by all reasonable people. He argues that a true prophet is one who speaks of God, his Word and his Spirit, and that since Muhammad did so in the Qur’an, he walked in the path of the prophets. This assertion does not quite come to the point of saying that Muhammad was a true prophet, but it does imply clearly that much of what Muhammad said was in keeping with the message of the prophets. Timothy’s admission that there is truth in the Qur’an may surprise many of us, but the Qur’an does write of both the word of God and the spirit of God. Of course, the Qur’an conceives of word and spirit differently from the Christian Scriptures, and so Timothy’s mention of them leads naturally to a discussion of the Trinity.
Mahdi insists that if Timothy believes that Muhammad is worthy of respect, he should accept his words. Timothy asks which words he is to accept. Mahdi replies, unsurprisingly, with the central tenet of Islam, that there is no god but God (Allah). Timothy asserts that he affirms this, although he has learned it from the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel, not from Muhammad. Then Mahdi claims, of course, that Timothy believes not in one God absolutely, but in one God in three. Timothy replies, “I do not deny that I believe in one God in three, and three in one, but not in three different Godheads, however, but in the persons of God’s Word and His Spirit. I believe that these three constitute one God, not in their person but in their nature.”
Mahdi greets this classic statement of Christian trinitarianism with the expected incredulity, and asks how three persons do not constitute three gods. What follows is a wide-ranging discussion of both the Bible and the Qur’an, in which each man tries to show that not only his own scriptures, but even the other’s scriptures, support his view of God. Timothy quotes famous passages in the Old Testament in which God speaks with plural pronouns (“let us make man…,” etc.), as well as passages in the Qur’an in which Allah speaks with the plural pronoun “we.” He insists that such plurality must be understood as an indication of the Trinity. Mahdi counters this argument by insisting that the plurals in both the Bible and the Qur’an indicate the marks of divine majesty and power, and do not imply that there is actually a distinction of persons in God. Here again is a surprise, because the Muslim is interpreting the plural pronouns in the Old Testament in the way that Christian Old Testament scholars normally do. The Christian, in contrast, insists that such plurals point to the Trinity—even when they are found in the Qur’an.
The conversation wanders on, as Mahdi insists that the Christian belief that God has a Son lowers him to the level of humanity, and even implies that he engaged in sexual relations. Timothy counters that fatherhood and sonship are different in the case of God than in the case of people. We beget sons in time through sexual relations, but God has always had an eternal Son, as incomprehensible as it is to us how that could be the case. Here Mahdi is asking a common question—one that Christians and Muslims alike may wonder about. Timothy responds with a classic Christian answer, one rooted not only in the Bible but in the church’s reflection about God in the fourth-century Trinitarian controversy.
The long dialogue provides not only interesting and surprising exegetical arguments, but also an example of a gracious and fruitful way for Christians to interact with Muslims. It reminds us that many Muslims, like Mahdi, know our Bible and hunger for truth, and that our patient interaction with them and their questions may help remove some of the barriers preventing them from embracing Christ. In a contemporary climate dominated by suspicion and even hatred between the two religions, this dialogue reads like a breath of much-needed fresh air.
So where did this dialogue take place? Chicago? New York? Maybe London? No. It took place in Baghdad. If that is not surprising enough, the even bigger surprise is when it took place. You might have thought it was recent, as a result of “modern” tolerance, the comparative study of religion, or global connectedness. No, the discussion took place in the year 781, one year after Timothy became patriarch of the East Syrian Church, whose patriarchal see was located in, of all places, Baghdad. Mahdi was the Abbasid Caliph headquartered in Baghdad, the leader of all the Arab Muslims in the Levant.
That such a dialogue took place there, and especially then, stands as a reminder that the world has not always been as we imagine it. Christians and Muslims have not always been geographically separate from each other, as we might have thought. They have not always had as little knowledge of each other as we might have imagined. Nor have Muslims always had as little sympathetic interest in Christianity as we might have believed. Come to think of it, it isn’t even true now that Muslims are all separate from us, know nothing of us, and have only hatred for us. Many of them are among us, and willing to talk to us about our God, and theirs. As we try to engage with them, we might do well to remember that Christians have done this before, and we might have much to learn from their past efforts.
Click here for the English translation of this dialogue.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.