By Dr. Eren Tatari
Tawhid is usually translated as “oneness of God.” However, its literal meaning is “unifying God.” Take note that it is a continuous verb! It is not just a belief but is a state of certainty (the literal meaning of iman/belief) that we need to strive to achieve continuously. It is not information stating that there are not two gods but just The One. Rather, it is a reality we are to live by every day. Belief becomes certainty (iman) and a means to witnessing God’s oneness (shahadah), if and when it is lived in daily life. This is what the Qur’an is about: teaching us how to live tawhid. All the divine scriptures revealed before the Qur’an also stated that there is one God. Then why was there a need for the revelation of the Qur’an and the 23 years of learning and practicing Islam (submission) by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions?
Most of the Meccan chapters (those revealed in the early years of Qur’anic revelation in Mecca) do not talk about social conduct or the dos and don’ts. They talked about existence, how to perceive creation and life. They sought to shatter the attitude that plagues many of us today: “I believe in one God, but I am very busy with other things.” These Meccan verses are about transforming all our actions into worship, acquiring a consciousness of tawhid, and living in accordance with that consciousness. They explain what tawhid is in different contexts and stages of our life. The Qur’an is not only saying there is one as opposed to two gods. Saying “there is no deity but God” is only the beginning. By saying it, we enroll in a life-long school where we will learn and practice tawhid…
“There is no deity but God” has been understood in Islamic tradition as: “There is no Provider but God; there is no Healer but God.”
It covers all contexts of life. For instance, who brings a baby into life; who takes care of her and raises her from a clueless being one day to a conscious, functioning adult the next? Is it the mother, society, or the Creator of all? Indeed, observing creation of a baby in the mother’s womb and after birth is one of the most unveiled, clear signs that there is no Rab (Lord, Care-taker) but God. However, in today’s world, positivist science that leaves out God, who is “The Cause of All the Causes,” is prevalent.
Yet, we need to probe deeper to see if scientific explanations and religion are contradictory. Science claims to explain how a seed grows into a tree and then gives fruit as if it is all happening mechanically, but it cannot adequately explain how and why. God says in the Qur’an that creation of everything is a sign/ayah of God, so we must reflect how it is happening. If we look at how photosynthesis happens, we can write pages of reactions. Scientists claim that the cells are doing all these reactions and get a Nobel Prize for this. If these cells perform photosynthesis on their own, then each of them deserves more than a Noble Prize! The cells require knowledge and power to be able to carry out photosynthesis. Where did they learn how to photosynthesize? Especially given that the many chemical formulas making up photosynthesis took scientists thousands of years to master. Yet, how are they all doing the same thing, in different locations, like a cell in New Zealand and another one in Norway?
Basically, what we observe is that: Seed + Sun + Soil + Water ≠ Tomato. Each “cause” is also caused by another Cause, which has knowledge about and power on every other cause. Hence, we call God, The Cause of All the Causes. In the Qur’an, God teaches us that the cell is being created together with photosynthesis. Cells do not create anything because they, themselves are being made. Cells do not have any power or knowledge, but rather, God is the All-Knowing and All-Powerful who creates the cells, the reactions, and all the processes of photosynthesis.
The greatest falsehood of positivist science is its claim to objectivity. Taking God out of the picture is an interpretation, and interpretation is subjective! So despite its claim to being neutral and objective, science is interpreting. In any explanation of the world, there is always an interpretation. The way science presents what is happening renders each of the factors (cells, sun, water, etc.) as a small deity in itself. Therefore, in the Qur’an, God is calling us to question positivist science and what we do in our daily life. Our mistake is that we often talk of events as if they happen on their own and don’t look at them as signs/ayah. To believe that there is a Creator is the beginning of tawhid; only then do we feel the need to be taught by the Qur’an and how to apply it to our daily lives. Even if we might come to the conclusion that there is one God, it is only through the Qur’an that we learn who this Creator is.
We cannot overemphasize the importance of tawhid because this is the focus of the Qur’an. Only about 5% of the Qur’an (~ 360 verses) talks about the dos and don’ts (mu’amalat). What does the rest talk about then? We see that hundreds of verses talk about water, trees, the heavens and earth as signs/ayah, so that we reflect on them. Whatever the subject of a verse is, the aim is tawhid. Hence, if we claim that our teacher is the Qur’an, then we should follow its guidance and focus on tawhid. The Qu’ran teaches us the process of unifying God in everything we think and do by asking: where is the cause? This Qur’anic education of tawhid (unifying God) shall continue until it becomes automatic when we see things as signs manifesting God’s Attributes. If we attain this consciousness and see everything as a sign, then practice (praying, fasting, etc.) naturally follows. We would be disciplining our egos through the awe of God rather than the fear of hell.
For instance, where is tawhid in our understanding of death? God does not say in the Qur’an that we will return to Him one day; we are returning to Him continuously. For instance, where is my yesterday, where is my last year? Every moment has returned to Him. When we die at 80, it is only that moment that is returning to Him. All the past has already died and returned to Him. In a sense, this life and the next are parallel. It is not linear (life followed by afterlife).
In the Qur’an, God emphasizes prayer (salat) as the culmination of worship (ibadah). Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says that the prescribed prayer (salat) is the ascension of the believer. Not everyone; just the believer! So if we live all day as a believer (mu’min), confirming that everything we encounter is a sign from God, only then our prayer (salat) will be the culmination of that state of mind and heart. The gist of salat is shukr (thanksgiving), so we are to see His signs, His grace and blessings everywhere and be filled with the desire to thank Him through prayer. If and when we are not living that iman in our lives and experience manifestations of God’s Attributes, then prayer will not be very spiritual for us. We may still pray out of fear of hell (which is still better than not praying at all) but we will not seize the full transformative potential of prayer. To achieve this, we need to go through the iman education of the Qur’an and work on transforming our mind and heart.
For instance, the period of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions is referred to as the Golden Age of Islam. The companions who were with him in Mecca are called arkan (pillars). If there are no pillars, buildings collapse. They received Qur’anic education from the Prophet (pbuh) for 23 years. This Qur’anic education was the essence of their value: why and how they became the stars of humanity. Without undergoing this Qur’anic education to train and humble our egos, any talk of politics or economic development of predominantly Muslim countries is empty. The Qur’an directs everyone to find and live the truth. It does not only address certain people who happen to be born in a geographic location and call themselves Muslims. For example, in pre-Islamic Arabia, one characteristic of ignorance (jahiliyyah) was to help your friends even if they were wrong. What if those who call themselves Muslim are not right or just? Instead of siding with them solely because they are part of a group we identify with, we should focus on what is haqq (truth) and seek to implement it in our life. Talking about politics may be an attractive subject, but we cannot build a house before building the pillars! The Qur’an first established the arkan (pillars) through years of Qur’anic iman education and then went on to building the social dynamics on these pillars. Likewise, we can see that exhausting all efforts to advance scientific innovation is desirable because it serves humanity in a material sense (such as prolonging life spans through breakthroughs in the medical sciences), yet these innovations make sense only after adequate importance is given to improving humanity’s understanding of life, reality of tawhid, etc. Otherwise, we end up having very prosperous nations with people sunk in depression and frustration, as is the case with the highest suicide rates today seen in the “advanced” Scandinavian states. Without Godly principles in our lives, we can only find temporary happiness.
Another example of applying the principle of unifying God in our daily lives has to do with love: love of God and love of people around us. When we hear love of God, it might seem like something imaginary and intangible. Or from another perspective, if we do not feel that kind of a strong love for God, we might feel that we have to love God. However, love of God is neither imaginary nor intangible if we take the Qur’anic perspective of knowing God and coming to love Him as our knowledge of Him increases. And we come to that point by getting to know the manifestations of God’s Attributes (Asma al-Husna) in created things, including other people. Rumi has put it brilliantly:
“We love the created because of the Creator. We come to love God through love of people and other created things. Loving created beings with the right attitude (aka. Because of the Creator) makes them more valuable in our eyes. We think of them as mirrors reflecting God’s attributes, and thus we fear to break such mirrors!”
Yet at the same time, loving people because of the Creator helps us not to get stuck at these mirrors, but be able to look beyond them to the actual source of light. They are only pointing to the actual source. So if anything were to happen to one of these mirrors, say when a flower or a friend dies, we say that it came from Him and returns to Him. It was a temporary reminder of Eternal Divine Beauty; hence, having learned that the source of its beauty is eternal, we do not despair. Likewise, all the good qualities we see in people (or any other creation) are manifestations of God’s Divine Attributes (Asma al-Husna). So our love for people is automatically directed to God. If the postman gives us a very valuable gift, knowing that someone else sent it to us, we do not necessarily focus too much on the postman (i.e. Flower=postman; flower’s beauty=the valuable gift brought by the postman; sender of the valuable gift=God). This does not mean though we will disrespect or not thank the postman.
So what is the source of hatred then? The ability to hate is also given to us by God. We did not learn to hate on our own. We were taught (programmed if you will) to hate dirt or bad smell. And thank God for this! So everything is given to us, and it is up to us what we do with it. This is where our partial-freewill comes in, and this is why we need the tarbiyah (education, training) of the scriptures.
Thankfulness is directly linked to tawhid; whereas kufr (disbelief; literally meaning to cover up) is a state of ungratefulness that originates from disbelief and results in more disbelief. Can we be thankful for anything if we do not acknowledge that it is from God? If we think that we are the source of our achievements or things that “happen to come our way,” to whom or to what would we be thankful? In a sense, this is where everything loses meaning. Even if we achieve what we seek, a feeling of “so what?!” dawns on us. Yet, on the other hand, when we see that it is given to us, a peaceful thankfulness fills our heart. Even when we are cooking: we mix eggs, flour, sugar, etc., put it in the oven and something completely different and delicious comes out. We are surprised and thankful for this act of creation. Anything else would be shirk (associating partners with God). So to all those great cooks out there: don’t forget to give a heartfelt and mindful “Praise is due only to the Creator” each time J
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age (Tughra Publications, December 2012). She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.