A good start would be with John of Damascus, who lived in the 8th century during the time of Islam's rise to power in the Middle East. He wrote regarding the Trinity:
We believe, then, in One God...one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, one energy, one beginning, one authority, one dominion, one sovereignty, made known in three perfect subsistences and adored with one adoration...John Damascene outlines several key realities of the Trinity: 1) Christians are monotheists who believe in one God who exists in a Trinity; 2) the Trinity is made up of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; 3) these three Persons are distinguished yet separate from one another, but are still equal in Essence.
The holy catholic and apostolic Church, then, teaches the existence at once of a Father: and of His Only-begotten Son, born of Him without time and flux and passion, in a manner incomprehensible and perceived by the God of the universe alone...the Only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father without separation and difference and ever abiding in Him, has a proper subsistence of its own distinct from that of the Father...Likewise we believe also in one Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life: Who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son: the object of equal adoration and glorification with the Father and Son, since He is co-essential and co-eternal... [John Damascene, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book I, Chapter 8]
Yet we can go even further back, to the fourth century some 300 years before the time of Mohammad, to Basil the Great, who also wrote on the Trinitarian God.
They have abandoned what they professed when they entered God's household. What did they profess? Faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit...I swear to every man who confesses Christ but denies the Father: Christ will profit him nothing. If a man calls upon God, but rejects the Son, his faith is empty. If someone rejects the Spirit, his faith in the Father and the Son is made useless; it is impossible to believe in the Father and the Son without the presence of the Spirit. He who rejects the Spirit rejects the Son, and he who rejects the Son rejects the Father. [Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 27]Basil was writing against those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and speaks of the unity of the Persons within the Trinity. Those who deny the Son deny the Father, and those who deny the Spirit deny the Father and the Son, for all are equal and represent the fullness of God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not separate gods, but are Persons within the Trinitarian God, of whom there is only one.
Still we can go further back to the time of the original apostles of Christ, and the writings of Ignatius of Antioch and his genuine epistles.
Since, also, there is but one unbegotten Being, God, even the Father; and one only-begotten Son, God, the Word and man; and one Comforter, the Spirit of truth... [Ignatius, Epistle to the Philadelphians, Chapter 4]Ignatius, disciple to the beloved apostle John and writing in the first century, does something important here: he identifies one Being of God, and then identifies the Father, Son and Holy Spirit within that Being of God.
Therefore we know that up to the time of Mohammad there was a clear understanding of what the Trinity was: one Being of God revealed in three distinct but united Persons, who are united in their Essence. It is not three gods, yet those Persons are distinguished from one another - the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is not the Son, etc. Again, this is not three gods, nor are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit separate entirely from one another. These are not three Beings but Persons, and they are all one in Essence and act accordingly to their means.
With the doctrine of the Trinity properly define and discussed, let us now ask the question: did Mohammad fully understand this Christian belief? Let's begin with two samples from the Quran:
...Say not "Trinity" : desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is one Allah: Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs. [S. 4:171; Yusuf Ali]Note the phraseology here: do not say "Allah is one of three in a Trinity...there is no god except One Allah." The assumption here seems to be that the Trinity is three gods, a common battle cry by many Muslims against Christians. Many times I've been on Christian forums where a Muslim signs on and asks the Christians, "Why do you worship three gods?", which results in their being laughed at. Why? They are laughed at because this is not what the Trinity is. It makes about as much sense as going to a Muslim forum and asking, "Why do you worship Mohammad as God?"
They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them. [S. 5:73; Yusuf Ali]
The Trinity is not three gods - that contradicts the very term trinity, which is a combination of the words "tri" (meaning three) and "unity" (which is self-explanatory) to form the concept of "unity in three." The Trinity, as we already defined earlier, is one Being of God revealed in three Divine Persons. Within the one Being of God coexists the coeternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are distinguished from one another both in scripture and within this very definition. Therefore, for one to argue that Christians believe God is one in three is simply incorrect.
It's interesting to note that while the Quran admits at times that Christians believe Christ is God, it does not seem to understand what this means. It seems to still believe that it is a pagan form of deity worship. To view those passages in context:
In blasphemy indeed are those that say that Allah is Christ the son of Mary. Say: "Who then hath the least power against Allah, if His will were to destroy Christ the son of Mary, his mother, and all every - one that is on the earth? For to Allah belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and all that is between. He createth what He pleaseth. For Allah hath power over all things." [S. 5:17; Yusuf Ali]These passages seem to suggest that Mohammad believed that Christ and God were one and the same, hence the phraseology "Allah is Christ," or at the very least that Christ was put on equal with God in a bitheism, hence the follow up warning against "whoever joins other gods with Allah."
They do blaspheme who say: "Allah is Christ the son of Mary." But said Christ: "O Children of Israel! worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord." Whoever joins other gods with Allah,- Allah will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrong-doers be no one to help. [S. 5:72; Yusuf Ali]
I have heard some Muslim objections to this argumentation, in an attempt to make the Quran seem orthodox in its Trinitarian understanding. It is argued that the Quran is not wrong, since Christians believe Christ is God, or "Allah," and that the "joining other gods" refers to the Persons in the Trinity - in other words, "Allah" refers to God the Father. The problem with this argument is that it is self defeating for three reasons: 1) the Persons in the Trinity are not "ascribing partners" or "joining other gods" because the individual Persons are not individual Beings, and therefore not gods - in fact, the Persons are all one in Essence with each another, and when one acts independently the other two act according to their individual means; 2) nowhere does the Quran say "Persons," nor does it distinguish terminology that could be applicable to the definition of "Person" as it is used in the Trinity; 3) if "Allah" refers to God the Father, then the Quran is still in error, because it therefore claims that Christians believe Jesus is the Father, which is completely incorrect - only the Father is the Father; Jesus is the Son. To suggest Jesus is the Father is to suggest Modalism, which would be a heresy even to Christians.
It would indeed seem that Mohammad still believed that the Trinity was three gods, and Jesus was merely one besides Allah.
And when Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Didst thou say unto mankind: Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah? he saith: Be glorified! It was not mine to utter that to which I had no right. If I used to say it, then Thou knewest it. Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy Mind. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Knower of Things Hidden? [S. 5:116; M. Pickthall; emphasis mine]Jesus here tells God that He never told people to take Him or His mother as gods besides Allah. This has led some to claim that Mohammad believed the Trinity was God, Jesus and Mary, but I don't think there is substantial evidence besides this passage to prove that. In any case, the assumption here is two-fold: 1) Jesus is placed as another god besides Allah; 2) even the Virgin Mary is made a god besides Allah. As already stated, Christ is not another god placed alongside God. Furthermore, no one except extreme Marian sects worship the Virgin Mary as a separate deity, which goes into the issue of veneration versus worship which Islam seems incapable of discerning.
There are also hadith sources that display this misunderstanding of the Trinity. One example:
Narrated Nafi':Again, it is described that Christians are placing partners besides Allah. It is even stated that Muslim men cannot marry Christian women simply because of this. A pity that such a ban is placed on Christian women for something that Christian women do not even do!
Whenever Ibn 'Umar was asked about marrying a Christian lady or a Jewess, he would say: "Allah has made it unlawful for the believers to marry ladies who ascribe partners in worship to Allah, and I do not know of a greater thing, as regards to ascribing partners in worship, etc. to Allah, than that a lady should say that Jesus is her Lord although he is just one of Allah's slaves." [Sahih Bukhari Volume 7, Book 63, Number 209]
One final note as I close my post: many Muslims, when this subject comes up, seem to present a kind of willful ignorance. They simply refuse to understand the Trinity as Christians have understood it. No matter how many times you may explain it in detail and as patiently as possible, they seem unable or unwilling to listen. Hence my use of the phraseology "willful ignorance": they have the explanation in front of them, but they seem unwilling to acknowledge it. I cannot be the judge of every Muslim's heart as only God is aware of the nature of their being, however I am certain this is sometimes out of stubbornness, if not many times out of a gross unwillingness to review their own beliefs.
I know many Muslims will object to my constant usage of "Mohammad's opinion" or "Mohammad said this" when I am quoting only the Quran. Muslims, after all, believe that the Quran is the product of God. However, if a book or revelation is given to you that grossly distorts the belief system of another belief...can you really call such a revelation to have come from God? One of the 99 names of Allah is Al Haqq or "The Truth," therefore why would something dishonest - intentional or unintentional - be in the words of God? If a book came along that claimed to be a revelation in line with Islam, yet it claimed that Muslims worshiped Mohammad when this is not the case, would Muslims not question the authenticity of that book and whether or not it came from God? One can continue to accuse Christians of paganism, but if you are being forced to ignore argumentation because of your religion, then isn't your religion forcing you to lie?
Therefore, one must ask themselves honestly and openly: if the Quran is wrong on the doctrine of another faith, is that the fault of that other faith...or is that the fault of the Quran? If the Quran is found at fault and yet is believed to have come from God, can that claim therefore be substantial, or can we assume that God is in error? Since we know God cannot be in error, does that mean the Quran is man-made or God-made? And if it is man-made, is Mohammad receiving his source from God...or something else? I would ask that the discerning mind ponder on this and all we have discussed.