Tawhid - The Oneness and Unity of God

The Oneness and Unity of God is the most important belief in Islam.

It is the first part of the declaration of faith (Shahada), which people must recite to become Muslim. The Oneness and Unity of Allah (s.w.t) means that, there is no God but Allah (s.w.t), there is nothing like Allah (s.w.t), and that Allah (s.w.t) is not made up of parts. 

The belief that there is no God but Allah (s.w.t) and that there is nothing like Him is easy to understand. However, the belief that he is indivisible, and not made up of parts needs some explanation.

Understanding Tawhid – The Oneness of God

For example, if we were to look at a motorcar, we find that it is made up from different parts, and only when those parts come together, can we call it a car. So a wheel on its own is not a car, and the same goes for the doors and the mirrors. So we can understand that a car needs an engine, wheels, doors and other parts for it to be a car and for it to work.

However, when we think of God we understand that He is not in need of anything to complete Him, that He is not made up of parts.

Understanding the Oneness of God is an important first step towards understanding God’s attributes such as knowledge, power and others.

Therefore, the attributes of God, such as the power and knowledge of God, are not separate from his essence, but are part of his nature and are intrinsic qualities.  

Tawhid - The Oneness and Unity of God

Tawhid is the Islamic belief in the Oneness of God.

It forms the first part of the testimony of faith (Shahada), and is the most important tenet of Islamic belief.

The Shi'a commonly understand Tawhid as being categorised into three equally important parts that make up the whole concept of the Oneness of God.

The three parts of Tawhid:
  1. The Oneness of God’s existence, meaning that there is no God but Allah (s.w.t).
  2. The Oneness of God’s essence, meaning that He is indivisble and not compound.
  3. The Oneness (in terms of the uniqueness) of God’s attributes, meaning that there is nothing like him.
1. The Oneness of God’s Existence:

Scholastic theologians (Mutakallimun) argue that existence is either necessary or contingent.

By necessary, Muslim theologians mean something that is existent in its essence, which does not need for anything in order to exist. The contingent, however, is that which needs the necessary existent and from which its own existence is derived.

Muslim theologians agree that only God is a necessary existent, and all other things that have ever or will ever exist in this world are contingent. To substantiate this they point to the limitedness and changing nature of everything in this world as proof of their contingency, whereas the necessary existent is constant and without limit. Further, theologians and philosophers agree that it is a logical impossibility for there to be more than one necessary existent from which all contingent beings derive their existence, and that one necessary existent is God.

2. The Oneness of God’s Essence:

The Oneness of God’s essence is the term used to describe the indivisble nature of God’s essence, which is to say that His essence is not compound in any way.

Muslim theologians use the following arguments to assert the indivisble nature of God's essence. Anything that is compound is in need of the elements that form its composition, and a necessary existent transcends need, and therefore God cannot be compound. Furthermore, if the essence of God was indeed compound, that would necessitate the existence of another higher causer or creator that has caused the existence of the components of which God’s essence is composed. This assumption is contrary to the original assumption that God is a necessary existent.

3. The Oneness of God’s Attributes:

Theologians have divided the attributes of God into two parts, affirmed attributes (al-sifat al-thubutiyya) and negated attributes (al-sifat al-salbiyya).

The negated attributes are those that have to be negated from God’s essence, because they are contrary to a necessary existent. The most important of these attributes that need to be negated in regard to God’s essence is that He has a form. The affirmed attributes of Allah are those that are not contrary to Him being a necessary existent. Theologians have in turn divided them into two categories, which are the attributes of the essence and the attributes of action.

A-The Attributes of the Essence:

They are the attributes that are essential to God, such as knowledge and power, and whose opposites, such as ignorance and inability, cannot be logically attributed to Him.

B- The Attributes of Action:

They are those attributes that are not essential to God, and it would be appropriate to attribute their opposites to God. Examples of these attributes are that He is the creator and He is the giver of life, but it would be true to state that God was not the creator before he actually caused creation, and He was not the giver of life before He gave life to creation. Therefore, it is clear that these attributes of action are not essential to God, and only come about after God causes an action to happen. However some theologians argue that despite not having a need to practise such attributes as creation before he created anything he nonetheless was a creator prior to the existence of any creatures.

Tawhid - The Oneness and Unity of God

Tawhid is the Islamic belief in the Oneness or Unity of God.

It forms the first part of the testimony of faith (Shahada), and is the most important tenet of Islamic belief. There have been centuries of scholarly discourses dedicated to the explanation of Tawhid, and yet this essential Islamic belief is still being debated and re-articulated in various ways.

The Imami Shi'a commonly understand Tawhid as being categorised into three equally important parts or degrees that make up the whole concept.

The three parts of Tawhid:
  1. The Oneness of God’s existence, meaning that there is no God but Allah (s.w.t).
  2. The Oneness of God’s essence, meaning that He is indivisble and not compound.
  3. The Oneness (in terms of the uniqueness) of God’s attributes, meaning that there is nothing like him.

The Qur’an speaks about the existence of God as a universal belief and also rationally proves his existence. It speaks of an innate knowledge that exists within humans that is cognisant of his creator, which the Qur’an refers to as the Fitra. The Qur’an asks rhetorically;

 “Can there be doubt concerning God, the creator of the heavens and the earth?”[1]

However, there are numerous occasions in the Qur’an where it unequivocally affirms the Oneness of God and refutes the multiplicity of Gods.

it says;

 “So know that there is no god but Allah, and ask forgiveness for your sin”[2]

And;

“Surely Allah does not forgive that any partners should be ascribed to Him. He forgives what is besides that to whomsoever He pleases; and whoever ascribes partners to Allah, has surely devised a great sin.”[3]

As a result, the first pillar of Islam is not only the belief in the existence of God, but also the belief in his Unity and Oneness.

The Oneness of God’s Existence:

Scholastic theologians (Mutakallimun) argue that existent is either necessary or contingent.  By necessary existent, the theologians mean something that is existent in its essence, which does not need anything in order to exist. The contingent, however, is that which needs the necessary existent, and from which its own existence is derived. Muslim theologians agree that only God is a necessary existent, and all other things that have or will ever exist in this world are contingent. To substantiate this, they point to the limitlessness and changing nature of everything in this world as proof of their contingency, whereas the necessary existent is constant and without limit.

Furthermore, in their attempt to prove that there is only one necessary existent, i.e. only one God, Muslim theologians argue that if there were two necessary existents, there must be a difference between the two in order to indicate multiplicity, whereas if they were the same in every manner, it woudl be impossible to differentiate between them.

If we suppose that there are differences between these two necessary existents, it begs the question of how that difference came about? The answer will obviously be either that the difference was due to the essence of one of the necessary existents, or that it was caused by some external factor, which influenced the difference. If we suppose that the difference was part of the essence, then we would also have to automatically assume that each one of the necessary existents is made of two parts, one part that is equal between them, which in this case is being a necessary existent, and the second part is the cause of the difference to each other.

Further, this assumption would render them both as requiring an essence that is made up from at least two components, thus making neither of them necessary on account of their need. On the other hand, if we were to assume that the difference was due to an external factor, it would mean that our supposed necessary existent is in need of something else, thus that external factor would be more deserving of the classification of necessity than what it affects.

Another question that would be raised if we supposed the existence of two gods is: do these gods have the independent ability to cause creation? If the answer to this question is yes, then both gods have an independent ability to cause creation then we would conclude that the existence of one of the gods is useless, as what possible benefit is there to his existence? If the answer to the question was no, and that only one of the gods is able to cause creation that would certainly mean that the second, who is not able to cause creation is not necessary due to his lack of power and ability. Through these and other logical deductions, Muslim theologians prove the Oneness of God’s existence.

The Oneness of God’s Essence:

The Oneness of God’s essence is the term used to describe the indivisble nature of God’s essence, which is to say that His essence is not compound in any way. Muslim theologians use the following arguments to assert the simplicity of Allah’s essence. Anything that is compound is in need of the elements that form its composition, and a necessary existent transcends need, therefore God cannot be compound. Further, if the essence of God was indeed compound, that would necessitate the existence of another higher causer or creator that has caused the existence of the components of which God’s essence is composed.

Another argument states that if the essence of God were indeed compound, then each component of His essence would fall under one of the following categories:

A-   Each component of the essence is a necessary existent, which once again would raise the question of a multiplicity of necessary existents as discussed in the section above regarding the Oneness of God’s existence, which is a logical impossibility.

B-   Each component of the essence is a contingent existent, thus making God a contingent existent because anything that is composed of contingent components cannot be a necessary existent.

C-   Some components of the essence are necessary and others are contingent, which once again is a logical impossibility, as the contingent component would have to have been caused which once again is contrary to the necessity of God’s existence.

In light of the arguments mentioned above, Muslim theologians conclude the Oneness of Allah’s essence and that it is simple and not compound.

The Oneness of God’s Attributes:

Theologians have divided the attributes of God into two parts, affirmed attributes (al-sifatal-thubutiyya) and negated attributes (al-sifatal-salbiyya). The negated attributes are those that have to be negated from God’s essence, because they are contrary to a necessary existent. The most important of these attributes that need to be negated in regards to God’s essence is that He has a form. This attribute is the opposite of an affirmed attribute, which is the indivisible nature of God. However, Muslim theologians are not unanimous in negating a form in regards to God, as some early Ash‘arites and Hanbalis ascribed a human form to God and believe He will be seen in the afterlife.[4]

The affirmed attributes of Allah are those that are not contrary to God being a necessary existent. Theologians have in turn divided them into two categories, which are the attributes of the essence and the attributes of action.

A-The Attributes of the Essence:

They are the attributes that are essential to God, such as knowledge and power, and whose opposites, such as ignorance and inability, cannot be logically attributed to Him.

B- The Attributes of Action:

They are those attributes that are not essential to God, and it would be appropriate to attribute their opposites to God. Examples of these attributes are that He is the creator and He is the giver of life, but it would be true to state that God was not the creator before he actually caused creation, and He was not the giver of life before He gave life to creation. Therefore, it is clear that these attributes of action are not essential to God, and only come about after God causes an action to happen.

The most important debate regarding the affirmed attributes of God is the debate surrounding the knowledge of God as theologians have raised three important questions:

1-    Does the knowledge of God cover both generalities and particulars or is His knowledge limited to particulars?

2-    Does God’s knowledge extend to His essence or is His knowledge limited to creation?

3-    Does God have knowledge of things before their occurrence?  The Shi‘a and the Mu‘tazilites agree that the knowledge of God encompasses both generalities and particulars, and that He has knowledge of His essence as well as knowledge of creation, and further He has knowledge of things before and after their occurrence.[5]

Another important point to be clarified with regard to the attributes of action is their relation to the essence of God, as we have established those attributes are not essential to God. Thus, does this contradict the necessity of God’s being? The answer would be no it does not, because attributes such as God being the creator and Him being the giver of life emanate from the essential attributes of God such as power and knowledge.

al-Tawhid Bibliography:
  • Al-Hilli, Hassan b. al-Mutahhar, kashf al-murad fi sharh tajrid al-i'tiqad (Qum, 2004)
  • Al-Hilli, Hassan b. al-Mutahhar, al-bab al-hadi ashar (Tehran, 2006)
  • Al-Mudhaffar, Mohammed Rida, ʿaqaʼid al-imamiyyah (Beirut, 1994)
  • Al-Mufid, Mohammed b. al-Nuʿman, Awaʼil al-maqalat (Tehran, 1993)
  • Al-Shubbar, ʿAbd Allah, haqq al-yaqin fi ma'rifat usul al-Din (Beirut, 1983)

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