On The Unity of Allah (1)

On The Unity of Allah (1)

A follower of the Islamic religion must first accept the testimony of faith: "There is no god but Allah" (la ilaha illa-llah). This profession of God's Unity is Islam's first pillar (rukn). All else depends upon it and derives from it. But what does it mean to say that there is no god but Allah? For Islam, the manner in which the believer answers this question displays the depth to which he understands his religion. And, paraphrasing a hadith of the Prophet often quoted in Sufi texts, one might say that there are as many ways of understanding the meaning of this profession as there are believers. [1] Islamic intellectual history can be understood as a gradual unfolding of the manner in which successive generations of men have understood the meaning and implications of professing God's Unity. Theology, jurisprudence, philosophy, Sufism, even to some degree the natural sciences, all seek to explain at some level the principle of unity, "To profess that God is One." Some of the most productive of the intellectual schools which have attempted to explain the meaning of unity have flourished among Shia.
Many historians have looked outside of Islam to find the inspiration for Islam's philosophical and metaphysical expositions of the nature of God's Unity. Such scholars tend to relegate anything more than what could derive-that is, in their view from a "simple Bedouin faith" to outside influence. Invariably they ignore the rich treasuries of wisdom contained in the vast corpus of Shia hadith literature pertaining to Islam's first centuries, i.e., the sayings of the Imams who were the acknowledged authorities in the religious sciences not only by the Shias but also by the Sunnis. Even certain sayings of the Prophet which provide inspiration for the Imams have been ignored. In particular, the great watershed of Islamic metaphysical teachings, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law and the Shias' first Imam, has been largely overlooked.

In the following selections from Bihar al-anwar, fifteen out of hundreds that can be found in Shia sources; the reader will see the seeds for much of later Islamic metaphysical speculation. It will be noticed that the style of the hadiths varies little from the Prophet himself to the eighth Imam, the last from whom large numbers of such sayings have been handed down. The most important sources for such hadiths, i.e., the Prophet, the first, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth Imams, are all represented.

The basic themes of the selections remain largely constant. The Prophet and the Imams all emphasize God's transcendence, or His "incomparability" (tanzih) with the creatures. We may speak of God-although only on the authority of His own words, i.e., the Quran-but the expressions we employ are not to be understood as they are when we use the same words to describe the creatures. At the same time, the very fact that words can properly be employed to refer to God show that in some respect He is indeed "comparable" or "similar" (tasbih) to His creation, if only in the sense that His creation is somehow "similar" to Him because created by Him. Otherwise, the words employed to speak about Him would all be meaningless, or each one would be equivalent to every other.

But, this second dimension of God's Reality-one more emphasized in Sufism-is relatively ignored in favor of His incomparability. Another theme of the selections is man's inability to grasp God through such things as the powers of his reason and his senses. The constant emphasis upon this point underlines God's incomparability and illustrates the particular errors to which the polytheistic and anthropomorphic thinking and imagination of the "Age of Ignorance" (al-jahiliyyah) before Islam was prone.

In order to clarify the meaning of the selections, I have tried to supply a sufficient number of annotations. To comment upon the sayings in detail has been the task of much of Shia speculation throughout the centuries. Every word and every sentence have provided numerous scholars with ample opportunity to display their erudition. But for a Western audience, one can only hope to point out the most important references to the Quran and the prophetic hadith literature-references which are largely obvious for the Arabic speaking Muslim. Then I have tried to illustrate the manner in which later commentators have elaborated upon the hadiths by quoting a number of explanatory passages, in Part I mostly from Majlisi, the compiler of the Bihar al-anwar. Some of these commentaries are necessary to understand the bearing of the text, but others may seem to obscure an apparently obvious sentence. In the latter case, this is largely because the commentators usually try to explain the text by referring to theological and philosophical concepts familiar to their readers, but not so to the average Westerner. However that may be, such notes illustrate the manner in which later speculation has expanded and developed an aphoristic mode of expression into a complex metaphysical system.

A. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH&HP)

Profession of Faith

Abu Abdallah (the sixth Imam) has related from his father’s that the Prophet of God-God bless him and his household [2] said in one of his sermons, "Praise belongs to God, who in His firstness (awwaliyyah) was solitary and in His beginninglessness (azaliyyah) was tremendously exalted through divinity and supremely great through His magnificence and power. [3]

He originated that which He produced and brought into being that which He created without a model (mithal) preceding anything that He created. Our Lord, the eternal (al-qadim), unstitched (the heavens and the earth) [4]

 through the subtlety (lutf) of His lordship and the knowledge within His omniscience, created all that He created through the laws of His power (qudrah), and split (the sky) through the light of dawn. [5]

So none changes His creation, none alters His handiwork, 'none repels His law' (XIII,45), [6] none rejects His command. There is no place of rest away from His call (dawah), [7] no cessation to His dominion and no interruption of His term. He is the truly existent (al-kaynun) from the first and the truly enduring (al-daymum) forever. He is veiled from His creatures by His light in the high horizon, in the towering might, and in the lofty dominion. He is above all things and below all things. So He manifested Himself (tajalla) to His creation without being seen, and He transcends being gazed upon. He wanted to be distinguished by the profession of Unity (unity) when He withdrew behind the veil of His light, rose high in His exaltation and concealed Himself from His creation." [8] "He sent to them messengers so they might be His conclusive argument against His creatures [9] and so His messengers to them might be witnesses against them. [10] He sent among them prophets bearing good tidings and warning, 'that whosoever perished might perish by a clear sign, and by a clear sign he might live who lived' (VIII, 42) and that the servants might understand of their Lord that of which they had been ignorant, recognize Him in His Lordship after they had denied (it) and profess His Unity in His divinity after they had stubbornly resisted."
CONTINUE IN ARTICLE: ( On The Unity of Allah (2) )



[1] The Prophet said, "The number of paths to God is equal to the number of human souls."
[2] Throughout these texts, as in all traditional Muslim writings, whenever the name of the Prophet or a pronoun referring to him is mentioned, phrases like "Upon whom be blessings and peace" are added. In the same way for the Imams "Upon whom be peace" is added. For the most part these phrases have been dropped in translation.
[3] According to Majlisi the meaning is that God's exaltation, magnificence and divinity are not dependent upon creation, but existed before it (p. 288). i.e., although these terms logically imply duality (exalted in relation to the debased, divine in relation to creatures, etc.), they express qualities which God possessed in His eternal nature "before" any creature existed. The same can be said about His solitariness.
[4] Cf. Quran XXI, 30: "The heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, and then we unstitched them."
[5] Reference to Quran VI, 97: "He splits the sky into dawn".
[6] Chapter and verse of Quranic quotations will be indicated in the text in this manner. I have relied largely on the Arberry and Pickthall translations.
[7] Cf. for example Quran XIV, 44: "And warn mankind of the day when the chastisement comes on them, and those who did evil shall say, 'Our Lord, defer us to a near term, and we will answer Thy call, and follow the Messengers'."
[8] Majlisi offers several explanations for this passage, and he comments as follows on the interpretation followed here: "He wished that creatures profess His Unity alone, without associating any others with Him. For if He were apparent to minds and the senses, He would be associated with possible beings in unreal unity (al-wahdat al-i'tibariyyah). Then the unity which pertained to Him would not belong to Him alone" (p. 289).
[9] Cf. Quran IV, I65: "Messengers bearing good tidings, and warning, so that mankind might have no argument against God, after the Messengers"; and VI, I50: "To God belongs the argument conclusive."
[10] Cf for example, Quran XXII, 78: "That the Messenger might be a witness against you .... "