Parallelism: Quranic Version of Trinity

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Parallelism Between the Qur'an
and Judeo-Christian Scriptures
Talking Baby Jesus
Sanhedrin 37a
The Raven & the Burial of Abel
The Quranic Version of Trinity‎
Jesus Christ & the Clay Birds
Mary & Zachariah
Mary, Jesus & the Palm Tree
Satan & His Refusal to Prostrate
The Queen of Sheba
Abraham & the Idols
The Wealth of Korah

For the full article with many more examples than are included in this series, see

God, Jesus and Mary: The Trinity?

In Surah 5 al-Ma'idah, the Qur'an apparently responds to a strange version of the Christian Trinity:

They indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary. Say: Who then can do aught against Allah, if He had willed to destroy the Messiah son of Mary, and his mother and everyone on earth? Allah's is the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them. He createth what He will. And Allah is Able to do all things.
And behold! Allah will say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah'?" He will say: "Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, Thou I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden

This alternative formulation of the trinity is present even more clearly in Quran 5:72-75, which makes no mention of the holy spirit and takes measure to disprove the divinity of Jesus and his mother by pointing out that they, like normal human beings, also ate food.

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary" while the Messiah has said, "O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord." Indeed, he who associates others with Allah - Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers. They have certainly disbelieved who say, "Allah is the third of three." And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment. So will they not repent to Allah and seek His forgiveness? And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. The Messiah, son of Mary, was not but a messenger; [other] messengers have passed on before him. And his mother was a supporter of truth. They both used to eat food. Look how We make clear to them the signs; then look how they are deluded. Say, "Do you worship besides Allah that which holds for you no [power of] harm or benefit while it is Allah who is the Hearing, the Knowing?" Say, "O People of the Scripture, do not exceed limits in your religion beyond the truth and do not follow the inclinations of a people who had gone astray before and misled many and have strayed from the soundness of the way."

This seeming mistake about the Christian trinity, a well established doctrine for centuries by this point, has long been one of the great riddles of the Qur'an (though in 2022 an interesting solution was proposed by Klaus von Stosch, discussed further below).

Muslim Apologetics about the Collyridians

Orthodox Muslim scholars tend to explain these verses by appearling to the heretical Arab Christian sect of the Collyridians, which were described in the 4th century CE and possibly may have survived into Muhammad’s time, so the Quran was specifically addressing their understanding of the Trinity.

Gabriel Said Reynolds in his 2018 academic commentary on the Quran notes that Epiphanius (d. 403 CE) in his Panerion refers briefly to a group of women in the Arabian desert who worship Mary as a godess and offer her cakes (in Greek, collyrida; hence they were known as Collyridians).[1] Epiphanius of Salamis (a saint in both the Nicaean Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church) was a 4th-century Christian arch-heresy hunter and defender of Christian orthodoxy. This is what he has to say about them:

1,1 < Another > sect has come to public notice after this, and I have already mentioned a few things about it in the Sect preceding, in the letter about Mary which I wrote to Arabia. (2) This one, again, was also brought to Arabia from Thrace and upper Scythia, and word of it has reached me; it too is ridiculous and, in the opinion of the wise, wholly absurd...For as, long ago, those who, from an insolent attitude towards Mary, have seen fit to suspect these things were sowing damaging suspicions in people’s minds, so these persons who lean in the other direction are guilty of doing the worst sort of harm. In them too the maxim of certain pagan philosophers, “Extremes are equal,” will be exemplified. (5) For the harm done by both of these sects is equal, since one belittles the holy Virgin while the other, in its turn, glorifies her to excess. For certain women decorate a barber’s chair or a square seat, spread a cloth on it, set out bread and offer it in Mary’s name on a certain day of the year, and all partake of the bread–as I partially discussed in my same letter to Arabia. Now, however, I shall speak plainly of it and, with prayer to God, give the best refutations of it that I can, so as to grub out the roots of this idolatrous sect and with God’s help, be able to cure certain people of this madness...As Maker and Master of the thing [to be made] he formed himself from a virgin as though from earth—God come from heaven, the Word who had assumed flesh from a holy Virgin. But certainly not from a virgin who is worshiped, or to make her God, or to have us make offerings in her name, or, again, to make women priestesses after so many generations. (3) It was not God’s pleasure that this be done with Salome, or with Mary herself. He did not permit her to administer baptism or bless disciples, or tell her to rule on earth, but only to be a sacred shrine and be deemed worthy of his kingdom. (4) He did not order the woman called the mother of Rufus to advance < to* > this rank22 or the women who followed Christ from Galilee, or Martha the sister of Lazarus and [her sister] Mary, or any of the holy women who were privileged to be saved by his advent < and > who assisted him with their own possessions—or the woman of Canaan, or the woman who was healed of the issue of blood, or any woman on earth.

According to Epiphanius, the Collyridians seem to merge pagan goddess-worship with Christian Mariolatry. They had female priests and, interestingly for purposes of this study, seem to have been found in Arabia. It's important to remember that this is one of dozens of heresies mentioned by Epiphanius, and this is the only mention extant of them. Epiphanius doesn't give any indication of how many people actually followed this heresy, and it's not possible to know how long after his time they lasted exactly. It's also not possible for us to know how accurately this section actually describes their beliefs, since we have no extant writings from them; it is possible that Epiphanius is exaggerating here and they did not actually worship Mary as a god.

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.

As to the purpose of verse 5:116, the most plausible explanation is clearly that it was a polemic against real or imagined Christian belief in the trinity. Whether or not the Collyridians still existed at Muhammad's time or before is not knowable from the extant evidence, but if it is a reference to this sect, either by mistake or over-generalization the Qur'an does seem to apply this polemic to all Christians as a whole, whereas at most this belief was extremely marginal within Chrisitanity.

See also the sirah quoted in the article in this series about Jesus and the Clay birds.

Byzantine theological debates and war propaganda

Klaus von Stosch proposed at the 2022 conference "Unlocking the Byzantine Qur'an" an explanation for the hitherto unexplained and unusual Quranic phrases regarding Mary and the Christian trinity in Surah 5 al-Ma'idah, which are not found in earlier surahs but make a late appearance here in the Quran. Regarding the perculiar formulation "They have certainly disbelieved who say, 'Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary'" (verses 17 and 72), Stosch points out that a hot theological debate in 6th century CE Byzantine Christianity was whether it was correct to not only say Christ is God, but also that God is Christ.

Regarding "They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three" (verse 73), Stosch points out that a liturgy propogated across the empire by the emperor Justinian had introduced the phrase "One of the Holy Trinity" (albeit applied to Jesus, not God) in order to smooth over the differences in the above mentioned debate, and was in use as a creedal formula in Alexandria even during Muhammad's prophetic career.

Regarding the argument that he and his mother "both used to eat (earthly) food" (verse 75), some Byzantine theologians had proposed that because Christ was without sin, his body was incorruptible and he had no need for food. Moreover, relics relating to Jesus and Mary had recently been credited as saving Constantinople from a seige by Khosrow in 626 CE and were therefore considered indestructable (surah al Ma'idah dates to 630 CE or after the conquest of Mecca). Another phrase in verse 17 also appears to be a response to this imperial propaganda: "Say, 'Then who could prevent Allah at all if He had intended to destroy Christ, the son of Mary, or his mother or everyone on the earth?'". A letter had been sent throughout the empire by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius blaming Khosrow's defeat on his opposition to Christ and Mary. Stosch argues that "O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah'?" (verse 116) is a Quranic critique of what it sees as the Byzantines turning Mary into a Godess of war.[2]

However, this last proposal seems somewhat insufficient since the verses (especially 5:72-75) very much read as though the author believed Mary was being worshipped as part of the Christian trinity, not a godess alongside it. It could be that the imperial news and propaganda had become corrupted by the time it penetrated Arabia, giving the impression that Mary was now being worshipped as part of the trinity by the Byzantine Christians.


  1. Gabriel Said Reynolds, "The Quran and Bible:Text and Commentary", New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018, p. 218
  2. Klaus von Stosch, Jesus and Mary in Q5 - An anti-imperial discourse in the Qur'an as a critique of Byzantine misuse of Christology at the 2022 conference "Unlocking the Byzantine Qur'an"

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