This short read explains what tawhid is, and why it is the central theological concept of Islam. Without understanding tawhid, one simply cannot understand Islam in any real or significance sense. It also explains that tawhid isn’t meant to be a theological abstraction we merely write or academically talk about. Instead, it is meant to be a living, vibrant reality that colours the whole of a believer’s life, living, character and conduct. So what is tawhid; what is its reality; and what are its degrees?
Explaining the essence of Islam and its main pillars, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: testifying that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, establishing prayers, paying zakat, pilgrimage to the House; and fasting in Ramadan.’ [Muslim, no.21]
It is also related in these words: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: worshiping God and rejecting whatever else is beside Him, performing the prayers …’ [Muslim, no.20]
In another wording: ‘Islam is built on five: ‘To single out God (an yuwahhadu’Llah) …’ [Muslim, no.19]
Scholars have noted that the above three hadiths, despite their variant wordings, are synonomous with one another. That is to say, they each convey the same meaning. Thus, to testify or bear witness that there is no deity but God is the same as worshiping God and none other than Him, which, in turn, is the same as singling-out God. It is this convicion of singling-out God for worship which, above all else, lies at the heart of the Islamic faith.
The Qur’an proclaims: Worship God and ascribe not any partner to Him. [4:36] Another verse has it: We raised in every nation a messenger [saying]: ‘Worship God and shun false gods!’ [16:36] Yet another of its passages insists: We sent no messenger before you except that We revealed to him: ‘There is no god but I, so worship Me.’ [21:25]
This, then, is the doctrine to which every Muslim submits, and around which the life of the community of believers revolves; captured in Islam’s Declaration of Faith: la ilaha illa’Llah – “There is no deity [worthy of worship] save the One true God: Allah.” This declaration, which in Islam’s view is the core assertion of all the divinely-sent prophets, is a summons, as it were, to live an attentive and godly life.
La ilaha illa’Llah is also called the statement of tawhid – a word which can be rendered into English as “divine unity” or [Abrahamic] “monotheism”; although a more technical translation would be: to assert “God’s oneness.”
This idea of tawhid – that God is inevitably and utterly one, perfect and unique – is the cardinal tenet of a Muslim’s belief. Now since it is the nature of theologians to try and dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, precise theological definitions of this all-important term have been offered down the ages. Among them all, the following has received widespread acceptance. Tawhid is:
‘To single-out God for worship (ifrad al-ma‘bud bi’l-‘ibadah), accompanied by believing in His unity and affirming this for His Essence, Attributes and Acts.’1
Definitions like the above reflect the dual concern of Muslim theologians: to assert the absolute transcendence or “otherness” of God, and to affirm that God alone deserves to be singled-out for worship: Lord of the heavens and earth and all that is between them. So worship Him and be steadfast in His worship. Do you know anyone similar to Him? [19:65]
But Islam’s goal is God, not some theological abstraction written down on some piece of paper. To this end the Qur’an repeatedly enjoins on us all a constant awareness of God, even in the midst of our worldly lives and activities. This awareness is expressed by two words which the Qur’an frequently employs. The first is taqwa – often glossed as “fear of God,” “God-consciousness” or “piety”. To have true taqwa of God, then, is to obey Him wholeheartedly, while being conscious of His gaze and scrutiny of us. In other words, it is to be profoundly aware of God, and to mould our lives around such an awareness.
Ihsan is the second word, and is commonly translated as “goodness” and “excellence”. The Prophet, peace be upon him, explained ihsan as: ‘To worship God as though you see Him; and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.8] The first level scholars call the Station of Spiritual Witnessing (maqam al-mushahadah); the next degree; the Station of Spiritual Vigilance (maqam al-muraqabah).
Revelation’s insistance on taqwa and on ihsan is precisely so that tawhid may be made into a living, experiential reality and for faith to be deepened and be made profound. In explaining the verse, Your God is One God; there is no God but He. [2:163], Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi outlines for us the three ascending degrees of tawhid: the sublimest degree being to witness God with the eye of the heart, because of the heart being illumined and flooded with faith – witnessing everything is from God, not that everything is God. He writes:
‘Know that peoples’ tawhid of God is of three degrees: First, that which the generality of Muslims affirm, by which their lives are protected in this world and by which they are delivered from residing in Hell eternally in the world to come: which is to reject partners, rivals, spouses, children, likenesses or equals with God.
The second degree is the tawhid of the elite. It is to perceive that all acts emanate from God alone, and to witness this through spiritual unveiling (mukashafah), not by way of formal dialectical proofs that are accessible to every Muslim. This station of tawhid of the elect enriches the heart with imperative knowledge (‘ilm daruri) and hence has no need for formal proofs. The fruits of such knowledge are a wholehearted devotion to God, putting one’s trust in Him alone, and a turning away from all creation; so that he does not hope in anyone save God, nor fear anyone but Him. For he sees no Doer save Him and that all people are in His overwhelming grasp; none of the matter is in their hand. Thus he dispenses with [depending upon] all secondary causes and earthly lords.
[The person at] the third degree does not see anything in existence except God alone. He is absent from looking at people; until, for him, it is as if they did not exist. This is what sufis term the Station of Annihilation (maqam al-fana); which means becoming “absent” from people until one is lost from oneself and from one’s tawhid – that is to say, being absent due to being immersed in witnessing God.’2
1. Al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:57; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 38.
2. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:164.