Tawhid: The Islamic Concept of God

By far, the most important aspect of Islam, the aspect from which every other aspect ultimately is derived, the aspect from which all things emanate, is that of Tawhid. The word Tawhid comes from the w-h-d root in ‘Arabic, which refers to Oneness. One of God’s names listed in the Qur’an is al-Wahid, “the One”, “the Unique”. Tawhid thus means, the Oneness of God. God says in the Qur’an, Surah Al Ikhlas (112):

Say: God is One. God, whom all depend.
He gave birth to none and none gave birth to Him.
And nothing is comparable to Him.

To further expound, “God is One. There is none besides God, and hence God is the only One on which it is possible to depend. There is none other to depend on, because God is the One and Only, the Originator of all Creation. God does not “beget”, or create “outside” of Himself, or create a being which is not dependent on God. God is not begotten, as God has always been and always will be the Only. Nothing is comparable to God, for God is All.”

Truly, if Islam were to be summed up in one short statement, it would, without doubt, be, “La ilaha ila Allah”. The most common translation is “There is no god but the God”. It is of utmost importance to understand this sentence, which is so simple, and yet which has such depth, and such a wealth of connotations for our daily lives. “La” means “No”. It is worth noting that the shape of the word La in ‘Arabic is identical to the Hebrew ‘Ayn. There are signs in this. The concept of the ‘Ayn Sof will be explained more in depth later, but the miracle is that while there is no linguistic relation between these two words, both express the same concept. ‘Ayn Sof means “Boundlessness”, “Nothingness”, “Endlessness”, also called the “Lo”, a direct cognate of La, “the Not”. It is interesting that the concept of zero comes from contributions to mathematics from Indian Sufi’s, as the Oneness of God is indeed, in ways, like the concept of Zero. Zero is neither positively nor negatively existent, both of which imply limitations. But likewise, as all the infinite positive and negative possibilities emanate from Zero, all those things which “do exist” and “do not exist” ultimately emanate from God. “Ilah” means a god, or perhaps more accurately, an independently existent “Being”.

“Ilah” is related to the Hebrew Eloh, which is pluralized out of respect as Elohim, and both forms are commonly found in the Hebrew scriptures. “Ila” means “Only”, as God is indeed the Only. Allah is a combination of “al”, the definitive in ‘Arabic, and “ilah” as discussed above. The meaning of the term Allah is “the only possible independently existent One”. The meaning of the sentence can be read “Not; independently existent One; Only the only possible independently existent One”. God is the “la”, the “ilaha”, the “ila” AND the “Allah”.

The opposite of Tawhid is Shirk (literally, attributing of partners, or in this case, other independent beings, with God). God has explained, in an appeal to our logic, our ‘aql, a gift which he has granted mankind:

If there had been in them any gods except God, they would both have certainly been in a state of disorder; therefore glory be to God, the Lord of the dominion, above what they attribute (to God).” Qur’an (21:22)

Indeed, if there were two, independently willed, independently existent beings, who were all-powerful, they would limit one another’s power. There could not possibly then, be “Gods” at all. The most obvious form of Shirk is idolatry, by which an object is worshipped as a sort of god, or as a representative of the form of God. Shirk can also be a conception of there being multiple independent beings. One of the most subtle forms of Shirk is that of Self-Shirk, by which one serves only one’s self, or thinks of one’s self, one’s ego/self, as the highest thing to be served, or as an independent being. This is a mentality commonly found among religious people who lay claim to monotheism, among open polytheists and especially among atheists. Imam ‘Ali explains the doctrine of Tawhid in the first sermon of the Nahjul Balaghah (The Peak of Eloquence) as follows:

“The foremost in religion is the acknowledgement of God, the perfection of acknowledging God is to testify to God, the perfection of testifying to God is to believe in God’s Oneness, the perfection of believing in God’s Oneness is to regard God as Pure, and the perfection of God’s purity is to deny God attributes, because every attribute is a proof that it is different from that to which it is attributed and everything to which something is attributed is different from the attribute. Thus whoever attaches ‘attributes’ to God recognises God’s like, and who recognises God’s like regards God as two; and who regards God as two recognises only parts of God; and who recognises only parts of God mistook God; and who mistook God points to God; and who points to God admitted limitations for God; and who admitted limitations for God accounts for God.

Whoever said in what is God, held that God is contained; and whoever said on what is God held, God is not on something else. God is a Being but not through the phenomenon of coming into being. God exists but not from non-existence. God is with everything, but not in physical nearness. God is different from everything, but not in physical separation. God acts but without connotation of movements and instruments. God sees even when there is none to be looked at from among God’s creation. God is One, such that there is none with whom God may keep company or whom He may miss in his absence.”

We find written in the Ancient Sanskrit scripture the Rig Veda, a sacred text of Hinduism 1:164:46, “There is one Truth, though the Sages know It by many names.” Likewise, the Qur’an says, “Say: Call upon God (Allah) or call upon, the Beneficent (ar-Rahman); whichever you call upon, God has the best names…” In Islam, we see that God has more than one hundred attributes, but these are all just words. The words all point to the same Thing, the Divine. If I say, the Just, and I say, the Merciful, am I speaking of two gods? No. All these attributes point to the same Truth.

While we may perceive these attributes differently, they are actually the same. These words are like fingers, pointing toward the moon. The letters or the sounds are NOT God. The finger is NOT the moon. If several fingers are pointing to the same moon, these are not different moons. Imam Ja’far Sadiq said:

“God is the Lord. God is the One Who is worshipped. When I say Allah, it does not mean establishing the proof for these letters (of the alphabet) like Alif, Lam, Ha (as in Allah), Ra or Ba (as in Rabb, Lord) but I intend thereby the meaning of a Thing and a Thing that is the Creator of all things and the Designer of all things. These letters only refer to the meaning that is called Allah, ar-Rahman (the Beneficent), al-Raheem (the Merciful), al-‘Azeez (the Majestic) etc., of the other such names and God is the One Who is worshipped, the Majestic, the Glorious One.”

Likewise, God has many names, in many languages, but there is only one God. “God” is an English word with Germanic roots similar to “Good”, as God is “the Good One”. In the Atharva Veda, another sacred text of Hindusim, 13:5:20, we find: “God is One and the One forever remaineth alone; Believe it. There is no second in God.” “Vishnu” means “the all-Pervading one”. Brahma means, “the Risen”, or “the High”, or “the Eminent One”. Shiva means, “the Kind”, or “the Friendly”, or “the Auspicious”. There is no problem with these names. They all apply to God. But they all apply to One God. They are not different personalities.

Nor does God have human attributes or anthropomorphic shape (or indeed “shape” at all), for example as he has been portrayed in idols. According to Islam this is an inaccuracy as it limits God to a physical body, and limits God to a time and place, when time and space are but creations of God. As Imam ‘Ali explained in the above passage from Nahjul Balaghah, God is all pervasive, and physical separation from (or physical nearness to) God is not possible. To return also to Surat Al Ikhlas, “…nothing is comparable to God.”

While many Christians believe that Jesus is a “part” of God,  Jesus denies these things in the Bible. Matthew 19:16-17: “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments”, and in John, 13:16, he says “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent, greater than he that sent him.” And in Matthew 15:8-9, “…people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

In John 8:50, Jesus says, “And I seek not mine own glory: there is One that seeketh and judgeth.” The term “Son of God”, has to be understood from a Hebrew background. References to sons of God are mentioned many, many times in the Old Testament. In Job 1:6, the angels are called the sons of God: “Now there was a day when the ‘sons of God’ came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.” Similar uses are found in Genesis 6:2 and 6:4. Even in the New Testament, at the end of Jesus’ genealogy, in Luke 3:38, the text says: “Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.”

Consider the similarity in the Qur’an’s assertion in 3:59, that “Surely the likeness of Jesus is to God as the likeness of Adam; God created him from dust, then said to him, Be, and he was.” Remember that Arabic is a much more literal language than Hebrew, and the Qur’an’s denial of God having a son is not inconsistent with the Biblical metaphors which refer to those closest to God as his children. The Qur’an even denies that relationship with one’s adopted father, in 33:4: “…nor has He made those whom you assert to be your sons your real sons. These are (but) the words of your mouths…”

In Hebrew, however, father can also refer to the chief of a tribe, one’s master, or military superior, as well as an adopted father: To speak of God as our Father is only a metaphor to express that God is our Principal, our Master, our Lord, and He who cares for and protects us.

Contrary to the Christian ideas of the Trinity, we find in the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 23:19: “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the Son of Man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it?”. Isaiah 43:10-11 says, “Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am God: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. I am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour.”

The Torah contains the equivalent of “la ilaha ila Allah”, in the following form:  “Shema (Hear) Yisra’el Israel) YHWH (a name of God) Elohenu (your God/ilah) YHWH echad (one)”, “Hear, Israel! YHWH your God is ONE!”. Jesus rightly says that this is the most important commandment.

In truth, we find that Tawhid is a universal and obvious truth, and that attempts to deny it do not hold up to the scrutiny of reason and logic. Islam, as a religion of truth, challenges us all to use our reason to seek out truth, not just to follow the ways of our fathers. We find that God does not require of us that we follow the religion we were born into, nor that we pick at random a religion, and follow it out of “blind faith”. We have been given the ability to find out the Truth with our Reason, as did the Prophet Abraham:

And when Ibrahim said to his sire, Azar: Do you take idols for gods? Surely I see you and your people in manifest error. And thus did We show Ibrahim the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and that he might be of those who are sure. So when the night over-shadowed him, he saw a star; said he: Is this my Lord? So when it set, he said: I do not love the setting ones. Then when he saw the moon rising, he said: Is this my Lord? So when it set, he said: If my Lord had not guided me I should certainly be of the erring people. Then when he saw the sun rising, he said: Is this my Lord? Is this the greatest? So when it set, he said: O my people! surely I am clear of what you set up (with God). Surely I have turned myself, being upright, wholly to Him Who originated the heavens and the earth, and I am not of the polytheists.” (6:74-79)

As Jesus says in Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”, amen.

By Bilal McDaniel