There can be no doubt that the essence of Islamic civilization is Islam; or that the essence of Islam is tawhid, the act of affirming Allah to be the One, absolute, transcendent Creator, Lord and Master of all that is.
These two fundamental premises are self-evident. They have never been in doubt by those belonging to this civilization or participating in it. Only in recent times have missionaries, Orientalists, and other interpreters of Islam subjected these premises to doubt. Whatever their level of education, Muslims are apodictically certain that Islamic civilization does have an essence, that this essence is knowable and capable of analysis or description, that it is tawhid1. Analysis of tawhid as essence, as first determining principle of Islamic civilization, is the object of this document.
Tawhid is that which gives Islamic civilization its identity, which binds all its constituents together and thus makes of them an integral, organic body that we call civilization. In binding disparate elements together, the essence of civilization in this case, tawhid impresses them with its own mold. It recasts them so as to harmonize with and mutually support other elements. Without necessarily changing their natures, the essence transforms the elements making up a civilization, giving them their new character as constitutive of that civilization. The range of transformation may vary from slight to radical, depending on how relevant the essence is to the different elements and their functions. This relevance stood out prominently in the minds of Muslim observers of the phenomena of civilization. That is why they took tawhid as title to their most important works, and they pressed all subjects under its aegis. They regarded tawhid as the most fundamental principle that includes or determines all other principles; and they found in it the fountainhead, the primeval source determining all phenomena of Islamic civilization.
Traditionally and simply expressed, tawhid is the conviction and witnessing that, “there is no God but God.” This negative statement, brief to the utmost limits of brevity, carries the greatest and richest meanings in the whole of Islam. Sometimes, a whole culture, a whole civilization, or a whole history lies compressed in one sentence. This certainly is the case of the kalimah (pronouncement) or shahadah (witnessing) of Islam. All the diversity, wealth and history, culture and learning, wisdom and civilization of Islam is compressed in this shortest of sentences “La ilaha illa Allah.”
Tawhid as Worldview
Tawhid is a general view of reality, of truth, of the world, of space and time, of human history. As such it comprehends the following principles:
Reality is of two generic kinds, God and non-God; Creator and creature. The first order has but one member, Allah, the Absolute and Almighty. He alone is God, eternal, Creator, transcendent. Nothing is like unto Him; He remains forever absolutely unique and devoid of partners or associates. The second is the order of space-time, of experience, of creation. It includes all creatures, the world of things, plants and animals, humans, jinn and angels, heaven and earth, paradise and hell, and all their becoming since they came into being. The two orders of Creator and creation are utterly and absolutely disparate as far as their being, or ontology, as well as their existence and careers are concerned. It is forever impossible that the one be united with, fused, con-fused or diffused into the other. Neither can the Creator be ontologically transformed so as to become the creature, nor can the creature transcend and transfigure itself so as to become in any way or sense the Creator.
The relation between the two orders of reality is ideational in nature. Its point of reference in man is the faculty of understanding. As organ and repository of knowledge, the understanding includes all the gnostic functions of memory, imagination, reasoning, observation, intuition, apprehension, and so on. All humans are endowed with understanding. Their endowment is strong enough to understand the will of God in either or both of the following ways: when that will is expressed in words, directly by God to man, and when the divine will is deducible through observation of creation.
The nature of the cosmos is teleological; that is, purposive, serving a purpose of its Creator, and doing so out of design. The world has not been created in vain, or in sport.2 It is not the work of chance, a happenstance. It was created in perfect condition. Everything that exists does so in a measure proper to it and fulfils a certain universal purpose.
Capacity of Man and Malleability of Nature
Since everything was created for a purpose, the realization of that purpose must be possible in space and time.
Responsibility and Judgment
If man stands under the obligation to change himself, his society, and his environment so as to conform to the divine pattern, and is capable of doing so, and if all that is object of his action is malleable and capable of receiving his action and embodying its purpose, then it follows with necessity that he is responsible. Moral obligation is impossible without responsibility or reckoning. Unless man is responsible, and unless he is accountable for his deeds, cynicism becomes once more inevitable.
Judgment, or the consummation of responsibility, is the necessary condition of moral obligation, of moral imperativeness. It flows from the very nature of being “normative”.
Tawhid as an Essence of Civilization
As the essence of Islamic civilization, tawhid has two aspects or dimensions: the methodology and the content. The former determines the forms of application and implementation of the first principles of the civilization; the latter determines the first principles themselves.
The Methodology Dimension
The methodological dimension includes three principles, namely, unity, rationalism, and tolerance. These determine the form of Islamic civilization, a form that pervades every one of its departments.
Unity. There is no civilization without unity. Unless the elements constituting a civilization are united, woven, and harmonized with one another, they constitute not a civilization but a hodgepodge conglomeration. A principle unifying the various elements and comprehending them within its framework is essential. Such a principle would transform the mixture of relations of the elements with one another into an orderly structure in which levels of priority or degrees of importance are perceivable. The civilization of Islam places elements in an orderly structure and governs their existence and relations according to a uniform pattern. In themselves, the elements can be of either native or foreign provenance. Indeed, there is no civilization that has not adopted some elements foreign to it. What is important is that the civilization should digest those elements, that is, it should recast their forms and relations and thus integrate them into its own system. To “in form” them with its own form is in fact to transform them into a new reality where they exist no more in themselves or in their former dependency, but as integral components of the new civilization in which they have been integrated. It is not an argument against any civilization that it contains such elements; but it is a devastating argument against any civilization when it has merely added foreign elements; when it has done so in disjointed manner, without re formation, in formation, or integration. As such, these elements merely co exist with civilization. They do not belong organically to it. But if the civilization has succeeded in transforming them and integrating them into its system, the integrating process becomes its index of vitality, of its dynamism and creativity. In any integral civilization, and certainly in Islam, the constitutive elements, whether material, structural, or relational, are all bound by one supreme principle. In Islamic civilization, this supreme principle is tawhid. It is the ultimate measuring rod of the Muslim, his guide and criterion in his encounter with other religions and civilizations, with new facts or situations. What accords with it is accepted and integrated. What does not is rejected and condemned.
Tawhid, or the doctrine of absolute unity, transcendence, and ultimacy of God, implies that only He is worthy of worship, of service. The obedient person lives his life under this principle. He seeks to have all his acts to conform to the pattern, to actualize the divine purpose. His life must therefore show the unity of his mind and will, the unique object of his service. His life will not be a series of events put together helter skelter, but will be related to a single overarching principle, bound by a single frame that integrates them together into a single unity. His life thus has a single style, an integral form in short, Islam.
Rationalism. As methodological principle, rationalism is constitutive of the essence of Islamic civilization. It consists of three rules or laws: first, rejection of all that does not correspond with reality; second, denial of ultimate contradictories; third, openness to new and/or contrary evidence. The first rule protects the Muslim against opinion, that is, against making any untested, unconfirmed claims to knowledge. The unconfirmed claim, the Qur’an declares, is an instance of zann, or deceptive knowledge, and is prohibited by God, however slight is its object.
The third rule, openness to new or contrary evidence, protects the Muslim against literalism, fanaticism, and stagnation causing conservatism. It inclines him to intellectual humility. It forces him to append to his affirmations and denials the phrase “Allahu a’lam“(Allah knows better!). For he is convinced that the truth is bigger than can be totally mastered by him.
As the affirmation of the absolute unity of God, tawhid is the affirmation of the unity of truth. For God, in Islam, is the truth. His unity is the unity of the sources of truth. God is the Creator of nature whence man derives his knowledge. The objects of knowledge are the patterns of nature that are the work of God. Certainly God knows them since He is their author; and equally certainly, He is the source of revelation. He gives man of His knowledge; and His knowledge is absolute and universal. God is no trickster, no malevolent agent whose purpose is to misguide and mislead. Nor does He change His judgment as men do when they correct their knowledge, their will, or their decision. God is perfect and omniscient. He makes no mistakes. Otherwise, He would not be the transcendent God of Islam.
Tolerance. As methodological principle, tolerance is the acceptance of the present until its falsehood has been established. Thus, it is relevant to epistemology. It is equally relevant to ethics as the principle of accepting the desired until its undesirability has been established.
As methodological principle within the essence of Islamic civilization, tolerance is the conviction that God did not leave people without sending them a messenger from among themselves to teach them that there is no God but God and that they owe Him worship and service,
In religion and there can hardly be anything more important in human relations tolerance transforms confrontation and reciprocal condemnations between the religions into a cooperative scholarly investigation of the genesis and development of the religions with a view to separating the historical accretions from the original given of revelation. In ethics, the next all-important field, yusr immunizes the Muslim against any life denying tendencies and assures him the minimum measure of optimism required to maintain health, balance, and a sense of proportion, despite all the tragedies and afflictions that befall human life. God has assured His creatures that “with hardship, We have ordained ease [yusr]. “
Both sa’ah and yusr devolve directly from tawhid as a principle of the metaphysic of ethics. God, who created man that he may prove himself worthy in the deed, has made him free and capable of positive action and affirmative movement in the world. To do so, Islam holds, is indeed man’s raison d’tre.
Tawhid as First Principle of Metaphysics
To witness that there is no God but God is to hold that He alone is the Creator Who gave to everything its being, Who is the ultimate Cause of every event, and the final End of all that is, that He is the First and the Last. To enter into such witnessing in freedom and conviction, in conscious understanding of its content, is to realize that all that surrounds us, whether things or events, all that takes place in the natural, social, or psychic fields, is the action of God, the fulfillment of one or another of His purposes. Once made, such realization becomes second nature to man, inseparable from him during all his waking hours. One then lives all the moments of one’s life under its shadow. And where man recognizes God’s commandment and action in every object and event, he follows the divine initiative because it is God’s. To observe it in nature is to do natural science.
Of necessity, then, tawhid means the elimination of any power operative in nature beside God, whose eternal initiative are the immutable laws of nature. But this is tantamount to denying any initiative in nature by any power other than that which is innate in nature, such as magic, sorcery, spirits, and any theurgical notion of arbitrary interference into the processes of nature by any agency. Therefore, tawhid means the profaning of the realms of nature, their secularization. And that is the absolutely first condition of a science of nature. Through tawhid, therefore, nature was separated from the gods and spirits of primitive religion. Tawhid for the first time made it possible for the religio-mythopoeic mind to outgrow itself, for the sciences of nature and civilization to develop with the blessing of a religious worldview that renounced once and for all any association of the sacred with nature. Tawhid is the opposite of superstition or myth, the enemies of natural science and civilization. Tawhid gathers all the threads of causality and returns them to God rather than to occult forces. In so doing, the causal force operative in any event or object is organized so as to make a continuous thread whose parts are causally — and hence empirically — related to one another. That the thread ultimately refers to God demands that no force outside of it interferes with the discharge of its causal power or efficacy. This in turn presupposes the linkages between the parts to be causal, and subjects them to empirical investigation and establishment. That the laws of nature are the inimitable patterns of God means that God operates the threads of nature through causes. Only causation by another cause that is always the same constitutes a pattern. This constancy of causation is precisely what makes its examination and discovery — and hence, science — possible. Science is none other than the search for such repeated causation in nature, for the causal linkages constitutive of the causal thread are repeated in other threads. Their establishment is the establishment of the laws of nature. It is the prerequisite for subjecting the causal forces of nature to control and engineering, the necessary condition for man’s usufruct of nature.
Tawhid as First Principle of Ethics
Tawhid affirms that the unique God created man in the best of forms to the end of worshipping and serving Him.
Tawhid affirms that God, being beneficent and purposive, did not create man in sport, or in vain. He endowed him with the senses, with reason and understanding, made him perfect ? indeed, breathed into him of His spirit
Such great duty is the cause for the creation of man. It is the final end of human existence, man’s definition, and the meaning of his life and existence on earth. By virtue of it, man assumes a cosmic function of tremendous importance. The cosmos would not be itself without that higher part of the divine will which is the object of human moral endeavor. And no other creature in the cosmos can substitute for man in this function. Man is the only cosmic bridge by which the moral ? and hence higher ? part of the divine will may enter the realm of space?time and become history.
The responsibility or obligation (taklif) laid down upon man exclusively knows no bounds. It comprehends the whole universe. All mankind is object of man’s moral action; all earth and sky are his theater, his material. He is responsible for all that takes place in the universe, in every one of its remotest corners. For man’s taklif or obligation is universal, cosmic. It comes to end only on the Day of Judgment.
Taklif, Islam affirms, is the basis of man’s humanity, its meaning, and its content. Man’s acceptance of this burden puts him on a higher level than the rest of creation, indeed, than the angels. For, only he is capable of accepting responsibility. It constitutes his cosmic significance. A world of difference separates this humanism of Islam from other humanisms. Greek civilization, for instance, developed a strong humanism which the West has taken as a model since the Renaissance. Founded upon an exaggerated naturalism, Greek humanism deified man, as well as his vices. That is why the Greek was not offended by representing his gods as cheating and plotting against one another, as committing adultery, theft, incest, aggression, jealousy and revenge, and other acts of brutality. Being part of the very stuff of which human life is made, such acts and passions were claimed to be as natural as the perfections and virtues. As nature, both were thought to be equally divine, worthy of contemplation in their aesthetic form, of adoration — and of emulation by man of whom the gods were the apotheosis. Christianity, on the other hand, was in its formative years reacting to this very Greco-Roman humanism. It went to the opposite extreme of debasing man through “original sin” and declaring him a “fallen creature,” a “massa peccata“.
The degrading of man to the level of an absolute, universal, innate, and necessary state of sin from which it is impossible for any human ever to pull himself up by his own effort was the logical prerequisite if God on High was to incarnate Himself, to suffer, and die in atonement for man’s sinfulness. In other words, if a redemption has to take place by God, there must be a predicament so absolute that only God could pull man out of it. Thus human sinfulness was absolutized in order to make it “worthy” of the Crucifixion of God. Hinduism classified mankind into castes, and assigned the majority of mankind to the nethermost classes — of “untouchables” if they are native to India, or malitcha, the religiously unclean or contaminated of the rest of the world. For the lowest as well as for the others, there is no rise to the superior, privileged caste of Brahmins in this life; such mobility is possible only after death through the transmigration of souls. In this life, man necessarily belongs to the caste in which he is born. Ethical striving is of no consequence whatever to its subject as long as he is alive in this world. Finally, Buddhism judged all human and other life in creation as endless suffering and misery. Existence itself, it held, is evil and man’s only meaningful duty is to seek release from it through discipline and mental effort.
The humanism of tawhid alone is genuine. It alone respects man as man and creature, without either deification or vilification. It alone defines the worth of man in terms of his virtues, and begins its assessment of him with a positive mark for the innate endowment God has given all men in preparation for their noble task. It alone defines the virtues and ideals of human life in terms of the very contents of natural life, rather than denying them, thus making its humanism life-affirmative as well as moral.
Tawhid as First Principle of Axiology
Tawhid affirms that God has created mankind that men may prove themselves morally worthy by their deeds.
Such world affirmation is truly creative of civilization. It generates the elements out of which civilizations are made, as well as the social forces necessary for its growth and progress. Tawhid is anti-monkery, anti-isolation, anti-world-denial, and anti-asceticism.
The guarantee of world-affirmation, which secures it to produce a balanced, permanent, self-redressing civilization, is morality. Indeed, true civilization is nothing but world-affirmation disciplined by an a priori, or supernatural, morality whose inner content or values are not inimical to life and the world, to time and history, to reason. Such morality is furnished by tawhid alone among the ideologies known to man.
Tawhid as First Principle of Societism
Tawhid asserts that “this ummah of yours is a single ummah whose Lord is God. Therefore, worship and serve Him.
The vision of the ummah is one; so is the feeling or will, as well as the action. The ummah is an order of humans consisting of a tripartite consensus of mind, heart, and arm. There is consensus in their thought, in their decision, in their attitude and character, and in their arms. It is a universal brotherhood that knows neither color nor ethnic identity. In its purview, all men are one, measurable only in terms of piety.
There is hence no tawhid without the ummah. The ummah is the medium of knowledge, of ethics, of the caliphate (vicegerency) of man, of world-affirmation. The ummah is a universal order comprehending even those who are not believers. It is an order of peace, a Pax Islamica, forever open to all those individuals and groups who accept the principle of the freedom to convince and to be convinced of the truth, who seek a world order in which ideas, goods, wealth, or human bodies are free to move. The Pax Islamica is an international order far surpassing the United Nations, that child of yesteryear, aborted and warped by the principles of the nation-state and the dominion of the “big powers,” both of which are constitutive of it. These principles are, in turn, based upon “national sovereignty” as it has evolved in the ideological history of Europe since the Reformation and the demise of the ideal of the universal community the Church had so far half-heartedly carried. But national sovereignty is ultimately based on axiological and ethical relativism.
The United Nations is successful if it fulfils the negative role of preventing or stopping war between the members. Even then, it is an impotent order since it has no army except when the Security Council’s “big power” members agree to provide it ad hoc. Per contra, the Pax Islamica was laid down in a permanent constitution by the Prophet in Madinah in the first days of the Hijrah. He made it inclusive of Jews of Madinah and the Christians of Najran, guaranteeing to them their identity and their religious, social, and cultural institutions. History knows of no other written constitution that has honored the minorities as the constitution of the Islamic state has done. The constitution of Madinah has been in force in the various Islamic states for fourteen centuries and has resisted dictators and revolutions of all kinds — including Genghis Khan and Hulagu!
The ummah then is a world order in addition to being a social order. It is the basis of Islamic civilization, its sine qua non. In their representation of human reason in the person and career of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, philosophers had discovered that Hayy had by his own effort grown to the point of discovering the truth of Islam, and of tawhid, its essence. But having done so, Hayy had to invent or discover the ummah. He therefore made for himself a canoe out of a hollowed trunk and set forth on the unknown ocean, to discover the ummah without which all of his knowledge would not cohere with the truth. Tawhid is, in short, ummatism.
- See our refutation of the Orientalists who raise doubt that Islam has an essence or that it is known or knowable, in “The Essence of Religious Experience in Islam,” Numen, 20 (1973), pp. 186 – 201. ??
As the verses of the Qur’an 3:191 and 23:116 indicate.?? As Surah Al ‘Asr (103) indicates. See also 49:10.?? ibid., 3:110; 5:82; 9:113; 20:54, 128.?? As God has commanded in the verses 3:32, 132; 4:58; 5:95; 24:54; 47:33; 64:12.??