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Religion and Society

The Vizier and the Bishop Face to Face about the Trinity

The text of the impassioned and no-allowances-made conversation between Abū ’l-Qāsim al-Maghribī and Elias, a monk and bishop of Nisibis, reveals the depth that a dialogue on fundamental theological issues can achieve

This article was published in Oasis 22. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-05-17 09:59:08

The text of the impassioned and no-allowances-made conversation between Abū ’l-Qāsim al-Maghribī and Elias, a monk and bishop of Nisibis, reveals the depth that a dialogue on fundamental theological issues can achieve. And it permits us to understand the precious role played by Christian theologians and philosophers who were able to explain their own faith, also by having recourse to Islam’s categories of thought. A role of mediators that, with the Christians’ exodus from the Middle East, risks being lost forever.[1]

 

 

 

 

 

To him who is sincere in his creed and his religion, to him who expends his earthly life generously in search of the other life, to the great and illustrious brother, favoured by God, Abū ’l-‘Alā’ Sā‘id Ibn Sahl[2] (may God prolong his life and continue to give him strength and support, happiness and success!), from the sinner Elias, servant of Our Lord’s church in Nisibis.

 

 

I greet you in peace, especially remembering you in my prayers and begging the Most High to keep you well and safe from all evil. I had sent you (may God continue to preserve you!) a work of mine in which I recounted to you the conversations that I had in the presence of the vizier Abū l-Qāsim Ibn ‘Alī al-Maghribī – may God have mercy on him.[3] I had noted down for you in general terms what had occurred during each one of them, in order then to explain it to you in detail when it became possible, so that you might acquaint yourself with the details, since I am well aware of your ardent desire to do so. However, since this has not yet occurred, for a reason not unknown to you, I will explain to you now, in this letter, what happened during each conversation, so that you may get acquainted with the facts, in accordance with the will of the Most High.

 

 

 

 

 

FIRST DIALOGUE

 

 

 The vizier – may God have mercy on him – entered Nisibis on Friday 26 Jumādā al-Ūlā of last year, that is to say, of 417 (i.e. 15 July 1026). And I presented myself before him the following Saturday; I had never seen him before.

 

 

He accorded me all the honours and bade me sit beside him. After praying for him and congratulating him on his arrival, I made as if to take my leave. He, however, asked me to stay, saying to me, “You must know that I have long desired to meet you in order to ask you many questions; and now that you have come, it is my will that you leave only when I tell you to.” I replied that he would be obeyed. I prayed for him and sat down. And he, after putting me at my ease, gaining confidence in me and enquiring about my affairs, after recalling the news of wise men and scholars, said to me:

 

 

“Know that my opinion of Christians was, in the past, that of a person who is sure that they are unbelievers and polytheists; now, however, I have doubts about their unbelief and their polytheism, by virtue of a miraculous sign coming from their religion that I have been able to see personally. On the other hand, my suspicions about their polytheism remain, because of some abominable things that they believe and that oblige me to have harbour about their monotheism.”

 

 

I replied, “What has the vizier – may God prolong his life – seen personally that would oblige him to have doubts about their unbelief? And what would they believe that would force him to have doubts about their monotheism?”

 

 

“As for that which I saw personally that would force me to have doubts about their unbelief, it happened that while I was in Diyarbakir for the first time, I set out for Badlīs[4] to see to some important business that had arisen. I was struck by a terrible illness when I arrived there: I lost my strength and my appetite and despaired of recovering. I left the city, wishing to return to Mayyāfāriqīn,[5] so that if the Most High had issued the inevitable Decree in my regard, at least it might be carried out in that city or its environs. I could not tolerate food or drink and riding completely prostrated me and so I had to proceed on foot, covering only a short stretch of road every day, whilst my weakness increased, my strength left me and the illness grew more and more severe.

 

 

Along the road I came to a monastery that is known as the Monastery of Mār Mārī. I was weaker than ever and the illness was worse than ever. Considering my state of starvation, I stopped and asked for something to drink and I took it in the hope it would give me strength. But as soon as it reached my stomach, I threw it back up. My weakness grew even greater, I despaired of my life and all those who were with me were seized by great alarm.

 

 

At that moment, the monk in charge of the monastery’s hospitality, came to me and prayed for me. Then he brought a pomegranate and asked the servants to prepare it and give it to me to eat. They pointed out that, by then, I could neither pronounce nor understand a word, that I could not tolerate any form of food and that my stomach would not hold down any drink, to say nothing of the rest. However, he insisted, “I would like you to take it to him so that he may take even only a little: I am sure that he will benefit from it by virtue of this place’s Blessing.”

 

 

So, clinging to the hope of health, I signalled to a servant to follow the monk’s instruction and took a little of the pomegranate. It remained in my stomach and I managed to tolerate it. I continued to take a little bit at a time, until my appetite and strength returned. The monk had cooked lentils for my servants and had brought them to them. Seeing them eating, I asked for some as well and ate them with a good appetite. And, reviving, I got up there and then, began to walk on the terrace and returned to health. And I was amazed and I marvelled – I and everyone who was with me – at what had happened. Even now, when I remember it, I am surprised and think that it was a miraculous sign and I talk about it with everyone, at every opportunity. This is what forces me to believe that Christians are not unbelievers or polytheists.

 

 

However, the fact that they believe that God is a substance in three hypostases obliges me to think that they are polytheists: thus they adore three gods and confess three lords. Moreover, they believe that Jesus (who is, according to them, the man assumed by Mary) is eternal and not created.”

 

 

I replied, “Christians do not adore three gods and do not believe that the humanity assumed by Mary is eternal and not created.” “Do they not say that God is a substance in three hypostases, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” “Yes! They say just that!” “And do they not accept the Creed that the 318[6] established and wrote down?” “But of course! We accept it and extol it.” “Then your words, by which God is three hypostases, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are unbelief and mere associationism and the Creed that the 318 have established contains the statement that Jesus[7] (who is, according to you, the man assumed by Mary) is the eternal Lord, creator and not created!”

 

 

Then I replied as follows: “If the aim of the vizier – may God prolong his life – in asking me these questions is to come to know our religion and to make sure that it is innocent of the horrible things that have been attributed to it, I will expound all that I know on the subject; but if his aim is to argue for the fun of arguing I would ask him to excuse me and do me the favour of dropping the subject and passing to other matters not linked to religion and faith.”

 

 

He then said, “By God, the Greatest One, my intention in this conversation of mine with you is none other than to know your creed and to clear the field of all the things wrongly attributed to you that, repugnant from the outside, are perhaps beautiful in their deeper reality. And I will rejoice in the arguments that you advance for the purposes of removing from yourselves any suspicion of polytheism, just as I would rejoice over a great benefit obtained. Indeed, I believe that every monotheist Christian is worthy of praise and final victory, even if they do not recognise Muhammad, son of ‘Abd Allāh –peace be upon him – as a prophet. Only, one cannot understand without going to the heart of problems, asking questions and raising objections. Therefore, do not consider the questions that I will ask you to be aimed at anything other than understanding. There is no other purpose within me.” So I thanked him and began.

 

 

[First of all, Elias tackles a purely terminological problem: Christians state that God is substance but, for Muslims, the concept of substance implies being circumscribed in a place and subject to accidents, two characteristics that one cannot predicate of God. Elias explains that, for Christians, the term substance is synonymous with self-subsisting, without implying any corporeity in God. The linguistic misunderstanding is dispelled and the vizier states, “We will allow you to say that God is substance in the sense of self-subsisting”]

 

 

Then the vizier asked, “But what is the meaning of your statement that God is three hypostases, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” I replied, “At this point we are in agreement about the fact that the Creator Most High is one substance, in the sense of “subsisting in Himself”. Now, this subsisting in Himself can only be either living or not living, because there does not exist any subsisting in itself that is not either living or not living. But it is impossible that the Creator of Life and He Who makes every thing could be not living. Well then, since it is impossible for Him to be not living, it remains established that He is living. We therefore say that the Creator Most High is subsisting in Himself and living.

 

 

This living subsisting-in-Himself can only be either rational or not rational because there does not exist a living being that is not either rational or not rational. But it is impossible that the Creator of rational beings and He Who makes reason exist could be not rational. Well then, since it is to be excluded that He could be not rational, it remains established that He is rational.

 

 

We therefore say that the Creator Most High is subsisting in Himself, living and rational. But since He is not living if not by virtue of a life and He is not rational if not by virtue of a reason, we can therefore say: the Creator Most High is subsisting in Himself, living by virtue of a life and rational by virtue of a reason.”

 

 

[At this point, Elias introduces a digression on the term reason-logos, “Nutq” in Arab Christian vocabulary]

 

 

The vizier objected, “Your statement that God is living and rational, in the sense of wise, is acceptable. But your statement that He is living by virtue of a life and rational by virtue of a reason leads to polytheism, because you are placing two other eternal realities, namely, Life and Reason, alongside God.”

 

 

I replied, “But the statement of the person who says that God is living without a life or rational without a reason leads one to maintain that God is neither alive nor rational, because there is no living being if not by virtue of a life, nor a rational one if not by virtue of a reason, just as there is no grammarian if not by virtue of a grammar and no geometer if not by virtue of a geometry. Indeed, derived names are created from existing meanings, so as to apply them to the things to be named with the derived names, according to the needs of languages and the laws of logic. Now, living is derived from life and rational from reason. Therefore every living being will only be such by virtue of a life and every rational being by virtue of a reason.

 

 

Furthermore, the vizier – may God prolong his existence – surely knows that Sunni Muslims believe that God is living by virtue of a life, wise by virtue of a wisdom, powerful by virtue of a power, willing by virtue of a will, speaking by virtue of a word, hearing by virtue of a hearing and seeing by virtue of a sight. If Christians are polytheists because they say that God has a life and a reason which are both essential and substantial, then Sunni Muslims will deserve to be accused of polytheism all the more so, because they believe that God has a life and a knowledge and a power and a word and a will and a sight and a hearing. If, conversely, Sunni Muslims are monotheists, although they attribute such things to God, then Christians, too, are monotheists, although they attribute a life and a reason to God.

 

 

[There follows a further linguistic proof relating to the fact that the terms “existing in itself”, “rational” and “living” convey three distinct notions].

 

 

Well then, we call reason “Word”, since there is no reason without Word nor Word without reason and we call life “Spirit”, since there is no life without Spirit nor Spirit without life.

 

 

Since the essence of the Creator Most High is subject neither to accidents nor to composition, it is to be excluded that His reason and His life (that is to say, His Word and His Spirit) could be two accidents or two composed potentialities, like the whiteness in snow or the heat in fire. And since it is to be excluded that His reason and His life could be two accidents, or two composed potentialities, it remains established that they are substantial, and are equal to the essence in terms of substantiality and in terms of eternity. This having been thus established, it is to be excluded that accidents can relate to them, as they can to the reason and life of created beings. It therefore follows that essence, in itself, is neither an accident nor subject to accidents and that reason (i.e. the Word) is neither an accident nor subject to accidents and that life (i.e. the Spirit) is neither an accident nor subject to accidents.

 

 

Every being that is not an accident is necessarily either general substance or particular hypostasis, according to what Aristotle has explained in his Categories, where he speaks of substance and accidents. And since it has been excluded that Essence, Word and Spirit could be three accidents or three substances, it remains established that they are hypostases.

 

 

Since the Essence is the cause of the generation of the Word and of the procession of the Spirit, and since the Word is generated by the Essence just as reason is by the soul and light is by the sun, and since the Spirit proceeds from the Essence just as life proceeds from the soul and heat from the sun, the Essence was called “Father”, the Word “Son” and the Life “Spirit”. And as the essence of the soul, its reason and its life are all one soul, and the essence of the sun, its light and its heat are all one sun, so too the Divine Essence and the Word and the Spirit are all one God. And we therefore say that the Most High is one substance and three hypostases: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

 

 

[After the vizier has raised a further objection, which offers Elias the opportunity to recapitulate the reasoning expounded, the discussion moves to the subject of language]

 

 

The vizier asked, “If Christians truly believe, as regards the Creator, that He is one, as you have described, what on earth has led them to say that He is three hypostases, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and thus lead those who listen to them to think that God the Most High is three individuals, or three gods or three parts? And what on earth has led them to say that “He has a Son”, so that those who do not know about their faith think that, by that, they mean a son who is the fruit of coupling and procreation? Indeed, they draw down upon themselves a charge of which they are innocent!”

 

 

But I replied, “And since the Muslims – may God protect them – believe, as regards the Creator – hallowed be His name – that He has neither a body, nor organs, nor members and that He is not circumscribed in a place, what on earth has led them to say that God has two eyes with which He sees (Q. 11:37 et al.) and two hands that He extends (Q. 5:64) and a leg that He uncovers (Q. 68:42)[8] and a face that He turns in all directions (Q. 2:115) and that He will come “in the clouds’ shadows” (Q. 2:210) and thus lead those who listen to them to think that the Most High is a body, with members and organs, that moves from one place to another? Those who do not know about their faith will think that they give the Creator Most High a body, and all the more so in that a group of them really believes these things and has taken them as their doctrine. Thus, those who do not personally verify their belief will accuse them of things of which they are innocent.”

 

 

He replied, “The reason why Muslims say that God has two eyes, two hands, a face and a leg and that He will come in the clouds’ shadows is that the Qur’an has expressly said so, but what is meant by these words is not the apparent meaning; and they curse anyone who takes these words literally and believes that God has two eyes, two hands, a face and a leg as organs and members, or that His essence moves from one place to another, or every other statement that contains the idea of giving God a body and making Him similar to man and they declare that person to be an unbeliever.”

 

 

I added, “And in the same way, the reason why Christians say that God is three hypostases, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is that the Gospel explicitly says so but what is meant by these words is God, His Word and His Spirit; and they curse anyone who believes that the three hypostases are three gods or three bodies or three parts or three accidents or three composed faculties or any other thing that contains the idea of giving companions to God or making Him similar to man or dividing Him into parts or portions, or that what is meant when one says Father and Son is a paternity and a sonhood through marriage or an instance of reproduction through coupling and copulation, or a generation coming from a bride or from a body or from an angel or from a created being, and they curse him and consider him to be an unbeliever and excommunicate him.”

 

 

“By God, I rejoice for the Christians, because of the explanations you have given me about them, even if they contain points that are debatable or contestable according to those Muslims who reject the affirmation of attributes to God. Moreover, everything you have told me is close to what I had come to believe about them.”

 

 

[The discussion moves at this point to Christology. The exposition is strongly influenced by Nestorian theology]

 

 

And since the time had come for the sunset prayer, he said, “Do go, now, under God’s protection! It is time to pray. But it is my will that you continue coming to see me; I will call you as soon as I have a moment free.” And, after invoking God for him, I went out. This is what took place during the first conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

FIFTH DIALOGUE

 

 

On Saturday, 5 Jumādā al-Ākhira (i.e. 24 July 1026)[9] I [once again] made my way to the vizier and he said to me: “You must know that I reported to the qadi Abū Ya‘lā, who is an expert in Islamic theology,[10] how our conversations have gone and what I have heard from you about monotheism but he rejected it, saying that the Christians do not believe any of all that and that you would have argued your points only in order to remove the opprobrium[11] and the outrage that surrounds Christianity. And he declared that Christians are not able to confess the existence of a single Lord; nor can they say that God is one and unique, without companions. And you, what do you have to say about his statements?”

 

 

“I will write out in my own hand a declaration that I will show to the vizier – may God sustain him – so that His Excellency may know that we believe only in one God and that there is no other god but Him, and that what I have argued in your presence, I truly believe, I and the people who follow my confession.” Then, after conversing and discussing other issues that had nothing to do with religion, I left the vizier’s palace and when I reached my cell in the monastery, I wrote the declaration that I shall copy out again here.

 

 

[Elias’s profession of faith]

 

 

Elias, Metropolitan of Nisibis, says:

 

 

“We, the family[12] of Christian monotheists (muwahhidūn), believe in one Lord, there is no other god but Him. He has no associate as regards eternity, no like as regards essence and no equal as regards lordship. He has no companion who can help Him, no opponent who can resist Him and no rival who can oppose Him. He is incorporeal, not composed nor aggregate, imperceptible to the senses and unlimited, indivisible and immutable. He does not occupy a space and is not subject to accidents. No place contains Him, no time confines Him. Eternal without beginning, lasting without end. Concealed in His essence, manifest in His actions. Singular in His power and perfection, unique in His greatness and majesty. The origin of graces and the fount of wisdom. Creator of every thing, not out of something; originator of all things existing, not out of matter. Crafting the creation at His own command, giving existence to creatures at His will. Knowing of things before they are, informed about thoughts before they arise. Ever-living without dying, ever-subsisting without ceasing. Stronger than any impediment, more powerful than any obstacle. Close to each person, attentive to those who pray to Him, rescuer of those who invoke Him. Sufficient for those who trust in Him, shelter of those who take their refuge in Him. He extends graces if they are received with gratitude and cancels them if they are received with ingratitude. He helps the pious and fulfils those who obey Him. Enemy of the obstinate, quick to welcome those who repent, aid of those who turn to Him. Merciful God, generous Lord, wise Creator. He created the world when He wanted and as He wanted and He will annihilate it when He wants and as He wants. Then He will call all those who are in their tombs to rise again and He will bring them to life again. The good He will reward with paradise and the wicked with hell forever. One single God, one single Creator, one single Lord, one single object of adoration. There is no god before Him or after Him, nor creator other than Him, nor lord different from Him, nor object of adoration other than Him.

 

 

And we believe that the Essence of this Lord, to whom these properties belong – may His names be held holy! –, and His Reason and His Life, that is to say His Word and His Spirit, are one single substance in three hypostases, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, before Him – may His majesty be magnified – we repudiate anyone who believes that this substance is like created substances and that these three hypostases are three substances or three divergent or concordant gods, or three aggregated bodies or three parts or three supervening accidents or three composed potentialities or any other thing that implies associationism, partition or division. And we repudiate anyone who believes that the Reason of the Creator Most High and His Life, that is to say, His Word and His Spirit, are two accidents or two powers like the reason of creatures and their life. And we repudiate anyone who believes that this Sole God has an equal or an opposite or that He is an aggregate or composed body. And anyone who believes that He occupies a space or is subject to accidents. And anyone who believes that He moves from one place to another or that He is in one direction rather than in another or that He has ever been seen or ever will be.[13] And anyone who believes that He has had or will have carnal knowledge or has procreated or will procreate or that He has taken a wife. And anyone who believes that He can create a god similar to Himself or commit a wicked or ugly action. And anyone who believes that He has a beginning or an end or that He has created creatures from an element or from matter. And anyone who believes that He does not know of things before they are or that He is a nature that rules the world by His imprint. And anyone who denies the prophecies and the miracles that have been made manifest through the prophets and the pious messengers. And anyone who believes that the world is eternal and not created and denies the final resurrection and the other life.[14] And if there is a Christian who believes that our faith accepts these doctrines that I have declared alien to my faith or that we have permission to believe any of them, then may I be ashamed of myself.”

 

 

***

 

 

The following day I took this declaration to the vizier and showed it to him. When he had finished reading it, I asked him, “In your opinion, could someone possibly sign this declaration whilst he and his people believed something different?” “No.” “In that case, the statement of the person who recounted in the presence of the vizier – may God sustain him – that Christians are not monotheists and that the points I have argued on their behalf would differ from what their doctrine actually involves and that I would only have wanted to remove the opprobrium that surrounds them is disproved.” “Just so. And I believe that whoever holds this opinion and is of this confession is a monotheist and that the only divergence between them and Muslims is the prophecy of Muhammad, son of ‘Abd Allāh.” Then he added, “It is my will that, when I have left Nisibis, you draw up a treatise on monotheism in which you include everything that you have expounded to me during these conversations. You are to put this declaration at the top and at the end and you are to add everything you know to be useful, even if it was not mentioned during these conversations of ours.” I then replied that he would be obeyed and after his departure I complied with his command. Thus I wrote the treatise on monotheism, as he had enjoined and ordered me to and I sent you a copy of it – may God continue to protect you.

 

 

And this is the last conversation in which I talked about religious matters with him. Peace be with you.

 

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

 

 


 

[1] A critical edition of the whole Book of Dialogues does not yet exist. For the introduction and the first conversation, the critical Arabic text established by Samir Khalil Samir, “Entretien d’Élie de Nisibe avec le vizir Ibn ‘Alī al-Maġribī sur l’Unité et la Trinité,” Islamochristiana, 5 (1979), pp. 31-117, has been followed. For the fifth dialogue, on the other hand, reference has been made to the non-critical edition by Louis Cheikho, Al-Mashriq, 20 (1922), pp. 270-272. As Samir has demonstrated, Cheikho based his edition on some late Melchite manuscripts that have been reworked in several places for stylistic and theological reasons. The translation is by Martino Diez.

 

 

[2] This is Elias’s older brother.

 

 

[3] This formula is generally used in relation to the dead and, in fact, the vizier was already dead when Elias wrote this introduction to his brother.

 

 

[4] Nowadays Bitlis, in Turkey.

 

 

[5] Nowadays Silvan, also in Turkey.

 

 

[6] The vizier is referring to the 318 Fathers of the Council of Nicaea.

 

 

[7] Rather well informed about Christian doctrines, the vizier is here calling Jesus by the Christian name Yasū‘, instead of the Qur’anic name Īsā.

 

 

[8] This interpretation of the Qur’anic passage does not seem to be supported by the verse’s wording.

 

 

[9] In reality, 24 July 1026 fell on a Sunday.

 

 

[10] This was the important Hanbali judge (qādī), Abū Ya‘lā Muhammad Ibn al-Husayn al-Farrā’ (990-1066), author of a treatise on Islamic public law (al-ahkām al-sultāniyya). Also an expert on Islamic theology (kalām), he composed a refutation of the Ash‘ari doctrine on the divine attributes.

 

 

[11] The text edited by Cheikho has “shubha” (suspicion) at this point, but in Elias’s final recapitulation, one reads shun‘a, “opprobrium”, which seems more appropriate in the context.

 

 

[12] With this singular expression, Elias seems to want to overcome the traditional division between Nestorians, Jacobites and Melchites, in order to unite in one denomination all the Christians who agree on the Nicene Creed.

 

 

[13] Through these last specific statements regarding God’s incorporeity, Elias is implicitly attacking the cadi’s Hanbali creed. As regards the subject of the vision of God, Elias in fact argues, in the part of the first conversation dedicated to Christology and in accordance with a dogmatic pronunciation that he attributes to Patriarch Timothy I (780-823), that such vision is precluded even to Jesus the man. See on this Samir Khalil Samir, “Entretien d’Élie de Nisibe,” pp. 38-39.

 

 

[14] These rebuttals, on the other hand, are aimed at the doctrines professed by the Arab philosophers, particularly those regarding the world’s eternity and God’s ignorance of the particulars.

To cite this article


Printed version:
Text by Elia di Nisibi, “The Vizier and the Bishop Face to Face about the Trinity”, Oasis, year XI, n. 22, November 2015, pp. 101-111.


Online version:
Text by Elia di Nisibi, “The Vizier and the Bishop Face to Face about the Trinity”, Oasis [online], published on 27th January 2016, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/vizier-and-bishop-face-face-about-trinity.

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