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Tawhid - Islam and Divinity

The Divine Unity

The concept of 'Tawhid', which denotes the fundamental, ultimate and irreducible unity of oneness of the Divine Reality, is central to Islam. While all Muslims agree on this, there are profound disagreements on what this implies for God's relationship to creation.

Two verses of the Qur'an are worth noting in this regard: "His amr (command), when He wishes anything, is to say for it: Be! and it is." (Qur'an 36:87) And: "Say: He, Allah, is One. Allah is He on Whom all depend. He begets not nor is He begotten. And none is like Him." (Qur'an 112:1-4)

The Arabic, "Allah," denotes simply, 'The God', or 'The Divinity', intrinsically implying a sense of absolute singularity, and offers no masculine or feminine connotations. The Arabic word, 'Hu' that is often translated as "He", in its original meaning is actually gender neutral. For purposes of ease of reading in English, we will use the term 'He', but with the caveat that we would ask readers to remember that the original, 'Hu', does not imply either male or female. 

The above two verses stress a fundamental difference between God and creation - that the Being of God is not identical with the forms of creation. "Allah is He on Whom all depend." A distinction is implicit here between "Allah" and "all," Allah being the Reality upon Whom "all" depend.

The line, "He begets not, nor is He begotten" adds that He does not give birth to anything, nor is He given birth to. This negates interpretations of incarnation, in the sense of ruling out any possibility that the Divine Reality can ever be reduced to a limited object of His own creation - but it also negates that the Divine is dependent on anything else to exist.

Other verses in the Qur'an state more specifically that Allah is the Independent. In fact, another translation of the above Surah says that "Allah is the Independent Besought-of-all." Another verse says: "Say: Allah is the Creator of all things: He is the One, the Supreme, the Irresistible." (Qur'an 13:16)

Again a definite distinction is made between "Allah", and 'all things'. Allah is the Creator of all things, and is, therefore, in some way existentially 'prior' to all things, Independent of all things. All things therefore depend on Him to exist.

The "Be! and it is" verse, mentioned above, also stresses this, showing how the existence of a thing is dependent on the Will of God, on His existential command, "Be!" What is interesting in this verse is the way that the Qur'an describes how the Divine command takes place. It says that, God says for a thing, "Be!, and it is."

How can God say for something "Be!", given that prior to God having said anything for it, it did not exist in the first place? Here, the Qur'an appears to be making a distinction between the possibility of a thing prior to existence, and the thing as an actual existent, in recognising that once God Wills it, "it is." 

Grades of Being

Before God Wills a particular thing to be, it has no being. However, its existence remains a possibility that is apprehended by God. "All things", before they exist, are therefore nothing but possibilities of being. Here, the word 'possibility' simply denotes something which can happen.

God, as the Creator of all things, is Omnipotent; all that can happen - all possibilities - are within his Power, and His Own Being is the standard of what is possible and impossible. If God decides to create a thing, then via His command ("Be!") the existence of that thing is no longer a mere possibility (i.e. something which can happen) but a necessity (something which must be the case). No possibility will become a necessity without its ultimate cause, that cause being the Will of God. It is in this sense, that we can see that the Qur'an is telling us the following: that all things are nothing but possibilities in themselves (i.e. without the ultimate cause of their existence), but in relation to their ultimate cause (i.e. God's Will for them to exist), these possibilities are actualised, and become necessary. The realm of the possible therefore pertains to a form of existence which is not necessary in itself. Such beings do not provide themselves with their own necessity. The whole basis of their necessity is the Divine Command, "Be!"

Without that Divine authorisation, they are literally nothing. It is impossible that they exist without the Divine Command. 

It is in this sense, that the Qur'an shows us that a created thing in itself is nothing - it is a mere possibility. But possibility without any cause (the Divine Will), equates to non-existence and therefore cannot exist. What is crucial here is that the existence of a thing does not derive from its own nature, but from outside of that nature - the Divine Existence. 

But one must remember that only a possibility-in-itself, in the sense just described, is fit to be Willed by the Divine Existence. For instance, a 'square-triangle' is an impossibility-in-itself, an incoherent notion. Since it is nothing but an incoherent notion, it is not even something that can happen - it does not fall under the category of 'all things.' So from the Qur'anic perspective, the Divine Existence has the Power to do all things, and logical impossibilities such as square-triangles are simply conceptual or linguistic absurdities.

Additionally, a possibility can be defined as something which, not being a complete conceptual or linguistic absurdity, falls within the category of 'all things' which Absolute Being has the Power to manifest and bring into being. In themselves, such things cannot be said to intrinsically have existence (necessity) or non-existence (impossibility), because both their necessity and impossibility are conditional upon Absolute Existence.

The Transcendent

It is in this sense that one can call 'all things' possibilities-in-themselves. But in relation to their Cause, they are necessary-through-that-cause, and in relation to the lack of their Cause, they are impossible-without-that-cause. We might also suggest that in the Consciousness of God, 'all things' are apprehended as possibilities, which God can freely choose to actualise. 

In this vein, numerous Qur'anic verses underscore that the Divine Reality is utterly distinct and Supreme over His creation:

"And none is like unto Him" (112:4); "God is High above all, He is the Truth." (20:114); "In things which are manifest, Allah has shown His signs." (24:46); "It is He Who created all things, and ordered them in due proportions." (25:2)

God is described as the Absolute Cause of all things (such that the entire network of universal causes and effects, laws and norms, depends completely on His Will, which is ontologically, not temporally, prior to creation) and thus Transcendent over the realm of His manifestation.

The Immanent

However, He is not merely 'outside' Creation. Other verses imply omnipresence:

"His Throne extends over and includes the Heavens and the Earth; the preservation of them does not burden Him; He is the High, the Great." (2:255); "He is with you wherever you are." (57:4); "We are nearer to him than his jugular vein." (50:16)

These verses, in contrast, stress the Immanence or Presence of Allah in some way 'in' Creation. Another verse, for instance, describes creation as the "habit (sunnah) of God" (33:62) - implying specifically that the created world is the action of God. Another verse says:

"... and wherever you turn, there is Allah's Countenance. Lo! Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing" and further still:

"Everything that is thereon will pass away; there remains but the Countenance of your Lord, Majestic and Splendid." (Qur'an 55:26-27)

Such verses suggest that the realm of creation or manifestation is, in a sense beyond our conception, the activity of God. A single possibility constitutes a single way in which a being can deploy itself - because of that, a thing's possibilities will naturally be limited by its own being. In other words, a possibility is a single mode of deployment of some already existing reality. The nature and number of possibilities is, therefore, defined by the nature of the reality to which those possibilities pertain. More importantly, it is nonsense to talk of possibilities, without recognising that those possibilities belong to some actuality and define the way in which that actuality can behave. It is in this sense that we can deduce that the Qur'an appears to be informing us that the physical Universe is a manifestation of the Absolute Reality which is the Divine Existence.

Absolute and Relative Existence

The Qur'an tells us that creation is the sunnah (habit, way of acting) of God, which on the one hand shows that God Himself is the One Absolute Reality, and on the other suggests that it is the 'activity' of this Reality that manifests in the movement consisting of the created cosmos. One might say that 'God is Existence', indeed, the Supreme Existence, and being infinite, within Himself contains unlimited ways or 'forms' ('all things') in which He can deploy Himself through the act of creation which, in the Qur'an, is described as a form of God's 'speech.' This act of the Divine Reality's Self-deployment through Divine speech is the act of creation or manifestation.

Together, these Qur'anic verses suggest a profound concept of Divinity: God is unconditioned Being, or Absolute Existence, which then deploys Itself in a multiplicity of relative forms constituting the universe, which are therefore utterly distinct from and dependent on Him, but do not limit Him while still being inherently interconnected with Him. All forms in the universe, derive their very being from the Being of God, according to the Will of God. Therefore, God is not 'far away' from His creation, but literally is All-Encompassing, All-Embracing. 'All things' constitute the multiplicity of possible forms, through which Allah can deploy His Being. But those forms are still distinct from God, in that in themselves, they are nothing. In relation to God, they are literally signs expressing the Absolute Reality, existing only as relative, delimited aspects of the activity of the Absolute Reality: 

"In things which are manifest, Allah has shown His signs." (24:46)