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Tawhid is Much More Than Just A Theological Abstraction

700-521089This 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.

The Doors of Faith, Fear & Hope

EagleThe Qur’an says: And call on Him in fear and hope. Indeed God’s mercy is near to the doers of good. [7:56]

In depicting the believers, the Qur’an declares: They hope for His mercy yet fear His torment; the torment of your Lord is something to be avoided. [17:57]

It is said that the heart, in its worship of God, can be likened to that of a bird: love is its head, with hope and fear being its two wings. If the head and wings are sound, the bird flies gracefully. But if the head is severed, the bird dies; and if it looses one of its wings, it becomes a target for every hunter and predator.1

Like all spiritual states, it is knowledge of God that begets fear and hope. Knowledge of God’s might and majesty, and the punishment with which He threatens those who disobey Him, spawns a state of apprehension in the heart. This apprehension is called “fear”. The result is that one forsakes sin and guards against the path leading to divine wrath. For one who truly fears a thing, flees from it.

As for hope, its basis is the heart’s knowledge of God’s vast mercy and forgiveness, the magnitude of His generosity and kindness, and His gracious promise to all those who obey Him.

Ibn Juzayy, jurist and exegesist, wrote the following on the degrees of fear of God and peoples’ relationship to them:

‘Realise that fear (khawf) has three degrees: First, that it is weak. It enters the heart but has no effect, inwardly or outwardly. Its existence is as if it did not exist. Second, that it is strong, in that it awakens a person from heedlessness, helping him to be upright. Third, that it is excessive so as to cause despair or loose all hope: this is impermissible. And the best of affairs is the middle one.

People are at three stations in respect of fear: The fear of the generality is of sins. The fear of the elite is of destiny’s seal. The fear of the elect is of the pre-ordained decree; because destiny’s seal is based on it.’2

Having discussed fear of God, Ibn Juzayy then balances the equation by expounding on the reality of hope in a similar fashion:

‘Hope (raja) also has three degrees: First, to hope in God’s mercy by using the lawful means leading to it, [which are] doing acts of obedience and refraining from sins. This is praiseworthy hope. Second,  hope while infringing God’s limits and acting sinfully: this is sheer delusion. Thirdly, it is where one’s hope becomes so acute that it lulls one into a false sense of safety [from God’s anger]: which is forbidden.

People have three stations with respect to hope: For the masses, it is hoping for God’s reward (thawab). For the elite, it is hoping for God’s acceptance and pleasure (ridwan). And for the elect, it is hoping in the meeting (liqa’) with God, out of love and yearning for Him.’3

Explaining their subliminal peaks of fearing God and hoping in His forgiveness and mercy, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote:

‘The perfect state of fear or hope is when it is attached to God Himself, rather than to created things like Paradise or Hell. The sublimest degree of fear is fear of being made remote from God, or being the object of His anger, or of being veiled from Him. This is why God recounts this punishment to His enemies first, before warning them of the Fire: No! On that Day they will be veiled from their Lord; then they shall be exposed to Hell. [83:15-16] Dhu’l-Nun stated: “Fear of Hell compared to fear of separation from God, is as a droplet of water in an endless ocean.” The sublimest level of hope is also attached to God Himself: to hope for His good pleasure, to behold the beatific vision of Him, to be given to witness Him and to be drawn near to Him.’4

One of the spiritual masters said: If you wish for the doors of hope to be opened to you, look to see how God has been with you. If you wish for the doors of fear to be opened, look to see how you have behaved with God.

1. See: Ibn al-Qayyim, Ilam al-Muwaqqiin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 2:145.

2. At-Tashil li Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-Asriyyah, 2003), 2:69.

3. ibid., 2:69.

4. Al-Takhwif min al-Nar (Beirut: Maktabah al-Mu‘ayyad, 1988), 26-7.

Climbing Mount Taqwa

p010_1_01The Qur’an speaks of God as dhu’l-ma‘arij: Lord of the ascending ways. [Q.70:3] Believers are expected to be climbers, so to speak, in their upward journey to God. The ascent, however, is not that simple and the old saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” must be the watchword. The iradah (“will”, “aspiration”, “spiritual ambition”) to find God is, unarguably, the best start. As such, the Qur’an praises those who aspire to the harvest of the Afterlife, [Q.42:20] and who aspire to the face of God. [Q.6:52]

The believer readily acknowledges it is not by his or her own effort that they ascend, but effort – nonetheless – must be put in. The believer seeks to live life in the awareness that one must climb or ascend: those who turn their backs on the ascent do no more than doom themselves to misery and wretchedness, according to God’s estimation. The Qur’an speaks frequently of this “awareness” by employing the notion of taqwa.

Taqwa is culled from the word wiqayah, which implies: “erecting a barrier to ward-off harm from oneself.” In its religious sense, taqwa is to shield oneself against sinfulness, disobedience and divine anger, by doing works of faith and acts of obedience.1

The essence of taqwa lies in obeying God wholeheartedly, whilst being keenly aware of His abiding presence and watchful gaze. No single word in English can adequately capture the full meaning of taqwa – although words like “piety”, “fear of God”, “God-consciousness”, “mindfulness of God” or “guarding against evil” are the usual ways translators have attempted to give life to it.

Moulding one’s life in the light of this awareness of God’s presence; that is, striving to become muttaqi (one who embodies taqwa), is of huge merit. In the Qur’an, we read: God is with those who fear Him. [Q.16:128] And: God loves those who are conscious of Him. [Q.9:4] Also: Whoever fears God, He shall appoint a way out for him, and will provide for him from whence he never expected. [Q.65:2-3] And: For the God-fearing are gardens of delight with their Lord. [Q.68:34]

Having cited these, and other verses on taqwa; and having explained the motivations for it (listed as: fear of divine punishment in this world and in the next, hope of being rewarded in both worlds, fear of accountability, modesty and a sense of shyness because of God’s watchful gaze, gratitude for the divine favours, and knowledge which begets reverent awe of God), Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi furnishes us with a delightful summary that distill the levels of taqwa – which, he says, are of five ascending degrees:

دَرَجَاتُ التَّقْوَى خَمْسٌ:

أَنْ يَتَّقِيَ الْعَبْدُ الْكُفْرَ، وَذَلِكَ مَقَامَ الْإِسْلَامِ، وَأَنْ يَتَّقِيَ الْمَعَاصِيَ وَالْحُرُمَاتِ وَهُوَ مَقَامُ التَّوْبَةِ، وَأَنْ يَتَّقِيَ الشُّبُهَاتِ، وَهُوَ مَقَامُ الْوَرَعِ، وَأَنْ يَتَّقِيَ الْمُبَاحَاتِ وَهُوَ مَقَامُ الزُّهْدِ، وَأَنْ يَتَّقِيَ حُضُورَ غَيْرِ اللَّهِ عَلَى قَلْبِهِ، وَهُوَ مَقَامُ الْمُشَاهَدَةِ.

‘The degrees of taqwa are five:

‘[1] That a person guard against disbelief; this is the station of Islam. [2] That one guard against sin and forbidden acts; this is the station of repentance. [3] That one guards against doubtful matters; this is the station of scrupulousness. [4] That one guard against what is lawful [but superfluous]; which is the station of worldly detachment. [5] That one guards the heart against other than God being present in it; this is the station of spiritually witnessing God.’2

1. Haytami, al-Fath al-Mubin Sharh al-Arba‘in, (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 350.

2. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:98.

Don’t Confuse Being Patient With Being Complacent!

bauernfeind-gustav-08aShakespeare put these words in the mouth of one of his most complicated characters, Iago, in the tragedy of Othello: ‘How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees? ‘ Indeed!

In Islam’s teachings, patience, or sabr, is one of the great demands required of each and every believer. The Qur’an mentions sabr in ninety places, like when it says: And be patient, for God is with those who are patient. [8:46]

Sabr is defined as: al-imsak fi diq – “restraint in [times of] adversity,” as well as habs al-nafs – “keeping one’s soul in check.” In this sense, sabr does not just translate itself as patience, but also as: restraint, tolerance, resoluteness, endurance, perseverance, and steadfastness.

One needs sabr, in the sense of being steadfast, to carry out the duties demanded by faith. We need sabrrestraining the soul, to resist falling into temptations and those things that are prohibited. We are informed in a hadith that ‘Hell is veiled by enticing desires, while heaven is veiled by hardships.’1 Most traditional faiths view many of the West’s liberal freedoms – in terms of morals, music, art and popular culture – not as freedoms, but as temptations that degrade the Spirit of Man. Sabr, then, is a much needed virtue; necessary in order to resist the assault on the spirit and on the senses, and to live in liberal societies with some modicum of integrity.

Along with sabr in regards to fulfilling obligations and avoiding prohibitions, sabr – in this case, patience and restraint – is required when faced with tragedy or adversity. In this context, God states in the Qur’an: We shall surely test you with fear and hunger, and loss of property and lives and trade; but give glad-tidings to the patient who, when struck by misfortune, say: ‘We belong to God, and to Him shall we return.’ On such are blessings from their Lord and mercy; and such are the rightly-guided. [2:155-7]

In all of this, we must not confuse patience with complacency. Patience isn’t passive resignation. Neither is it a refusal to act responsibly because of our fears, our grief, or because of the seemingly unsurmountable hurdles. Rather, patience is active waiting. It is enduring something, along with doing all that we can – acting, hoping, exercising faith, bearing hardships with endurance, stoicism and fortitude; even when the hopes of our heart are delayed. But patience is not just enduring; it is enduring well: For me, beautiful patience is most fitting. [12:18]

In his characteristic manner, the accomplished linguist and jurist of Muslim Spain, Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi, sums up Islam’s teachings on this delicate yet essential virtue of patience (previous Ibn Juzayy posts can be read here and here):

‘Those showing patience are of four types: (1) Patience in trials and adversities (bala’); by restraining the soul from being agitated, impatient or resentful. (2) Patience in the midst of blessings (ni‘am); by securing them through gratitude, and not transgressing the limits or being boastful with them. (3) Patience in undertaking acts of obedience (ta‘ah); by constantly persevering in their performance. (4) Patience from sins (ma‘asi); by preventing the soul from falling into them.

Above [the virtue of] patience is that of stoicism (taslim): outwardly to not complain or act resentfully, while inwardly not being agitated.

Above the virtue of stoicism is that of contentment with God’s decree (rida’ bi’l-qada’). This is where there is cheerful optimism (surur al-nafs) with all that God does; arising, as it does, from a profound love of Him – for all that the Beloved does is loved [by the lover].’2

1. Al-Bukhari, no.6487; Muslim, no.2822.

2. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:162-3.

Dhikr: To Be in the Presence of the One

GlassesMasters of the inward life say that remembrance of God, or dhikr, is the cornerstone of the spiritual path, the key to sanctification (wilayah) and the weapon of the seeker. In fact, it is the goal behind all acts of worship, as the Qur’an itself teaches: Establish prayer for My remembrance. [20:14]

Dhikr is for the heart to feel the presence of the One being remembered, by freeing it of distractions, maintaining its constant attentiveness and making it aware of what the tongue is uttering. For the best dhikr, and the one yielding the greatest fruit, is one that involves the heart and tongue together; if not, then the heart; and then just the tongue.

In his customary minimalist fashion, Ibn Juzayy (whom we encountered in a previous post which can be read here) distils for us the reality of dhikr. While commenting on God’s words: Remember Me and I shall remember you [2:152], he wrote:


‘Know that remembrance of God (dhikr) is the best of all works in general, even if in some hadiths other acts, like the prayer, are given superiority. For this is only due to what they contain of the meaning of dhikr and of being present (hudur) with God. The proof for the superiority of God’s remembrance can be seen from the following three angles:

Firstly, the texts that are related about its merits over all other works. The Messenger of God ﷺ said: ‘Should I not inform you which of your deeds is best? Which purifies you most before your Sovereign? Which raises you higher in rank and is better for you than giving away gold and silver; better than facing your enemies that you might slay them or be slayed by them?’ They said: O Messenger of God, inform us! He replied: ‘The remembrance of God.” [Tirmidhi, no.3377]

The Messenger of God ﷺ was asked: Which deed is best? He replied: ‘Remembrance of God.’ It was said: Is remembrance better even than jihad in God’s path? He said: ‘Even if he should smite the non-believers until his sword breaks and blood flows, the one who remembers God is of a loftier rank.’ [Tirmidhi, no.3376]

Secondly, God, exalted is He, wherever He instructs us with remembrance, or extols it, stipulates that it be done profusely and abundantly: Remember God abundantly. [33:41] Those who remember God abundantly. [33:35] This is not the case for any other deed.

Thirdly, remembrance has a quality particular to it and it alone: being present in the loftiest Presence (hudur fi’l-hadrat al-‘aliyyah) and arriving at closeness – expressed in hadiths that speak of “sitting” and “being with” God. God says: ‘I sit with the one who remembers Me.’ Also: ‘I am as my servant thinks Me to be, and I am with him when he remembers Me.’ [Bukhari, no.7536]

People intend by their dhikr one of two stations. For the general Muslims, it is to earn rewards (iktisab al-‘ujur); for the elite, it is to draw near to God and be in His presence (al-qurb wa’l-hudur). What a tremendous gulf there is between the two stations. What a difference there is between one who takes his reward from behind a veil, and one who is drawn close and becomes of the elite lovers!’1

1. At-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:159-60

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