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Tawhid (Unity)

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism-2

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Tawhid, derived from wahda (oneness), means unifying, regarding as one, believing in God's Oneness or Unity, and sincerely accepting the reality that there is no deity but God. The Sufis add to these meanings the ideas of seeing only He Who is the One, and knowing, mentioning, desiring, and calling Him alone, and conducting relations with others than Him only because of Him.

The beginning of unity is admitting that the Divine Being is beyond and above all concepts that occur to the mind concerning Him, the result of this being that there is no room for anything else save Him in one's heart, according to the depth of the spiritual state and pleasures, and fixing one's eyes on Him alone. In this meaning, unity is both the foundation of Islam and its fruit. Sufism has considered unity with respect to both its beginning and end. Those who are not included in the fold of Sufism have regarded it slightly differently.

According to such people, unity means recognizing the Almighty as the Lord of all creation, and responding to His Divinity with servanthood or worshipping, and acting with a feeling of responsibility. In other words, unity is something that we must admit to with both our words and our actions, and our attitude should be that God has absolute authority over the whole of creation and disposes as He wills, and He is absolutely above having a like, a rival or an equal. In addition, since He is the One Who absolutely deserves to be worshipped and to be desired, we must serve Him perfectly in a way that contains the meanings of glorifying, exalting and praising Him, and by declaring that He is the All-Holy. To sum up these definitions, we can say that unity has three types or degrees: unity based on knowledge and belief, unity based on spiritual discovery and pleasures, and unity based on the Divine Being's bearing witness to Himself. Being aware of the last one is a special gift granted by the Almighty to His chosen servants.

  • Unity based on belief and knowledge is the kind or degree of unity which is acquired through observation, inference or reasoning. Those who have acquired this degree of unity are free from associating any kind of partners to God and spend their lives thinking about God's Oneness, mentioning Him and feeling Him in the depths of their hearts.
  • Unity based on spiritual discovery and pleasures means feeling the knowledge of God which has been acquired through observation and reasoning in one's conscious nature, sipping the pleasures originating in this knowledge, and experiencing it in the heart and daily life.
  • Unity based on the Divine Being's bearing witness to Himself is so profound that only those whom God has favored with it can feel it, and those who can feel it either become dumbfounded or can express it to those around them only to the extent to which He allows them. In the sight of the initiates who can feel such a degree of unity, all proofs and indications of the Almighty fade away, things turn into a mirage, all existence is reduced to relativity, and the attitude of modesty which initiates must adopt before God tells them to keep silent. For this station is that where an initiate must keep silent and this degree or kind of unity is the unity that brings about silence.

Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says concerning the unity of this degree:

O brother, keep aloof from those
who are busy with discussion among the scholars,
So that the Almighty may cause knowledge
from His presence to rise in your heart.
When speech comes to this point,
lips are no longer able to move or close;
And the pen breaks when it reaches the same point.
This is not the station where eloquent words will be uttered;
So, come and give up talking about things; God knows best the truth.

This station, where knowledge from God's Presence has turned into knowledge of God from His Presence, where the consciousness has been awarded special favors, and where travelers to God feel that they are being attracted toward Him by Himself, is the station of being a mirror to God where a drop has become like an ocean, an atom like the whole universe, and things that do not exist are honored with existence. In his introduction to Harabat, Ziya Pasha,[1] in his deep appreciation of poetry, describes the state of an initiate in this station as follows:

O You Who exist, and Who have brought existence into existence,
There is nothing which does not exist;
how can it be possible to claim Your non-existence!

Those who are the foremost in this degree of unity, which has allowed an atom to become an ocean, which has caused that which does not exist to gain existence, which has encompassed both the beginning and the end of the journey, and which is a degree that is possible for everybody to attain, are the Prophets. They begin their speeches with unity, and stop where they must stop because unity requires them to do so. The first platform for the travelers to God on their way to God is also this objective consideration of unity, where the beginning and end of the journey are united. All the Messengers and Prophets of God, from the first to the last, who carried out their responsibilities on the way of wakefulness, preached this greatest pillar of belief first, declaring: Worship God alone: you have no deity other than Him (7:59, 65, 73, 85 ). Then they went on to communicate other principles and commandments to explain its meaning and content and to establish these in this world.

This consideration of unity is the first door to entering Islam and is the means to feeling and experiencing Islam with a certainty based on knowledge, and a certainty based on observation, and a certainty based on experience. This is also the first call of God to know Him-according to the individual's capacity-as He makes Himself known. One enters the fold of Islam with such a concept of unity, and those who have the potential to advance, advance by means of it. Studies and mental endeavors gain profundity through this concept, and it is again through it that what lies beyond the relative truths appears. The difference between eternity and what is eternal and what is contained in time can be discerned within this concept. One perceives through this concept the nature of the relation between God as the Creator and the Sole Object of Worship with other beings as the created and those responsible for worshipping and servanthood. Again, it is through this concept that one understands that the Creator is not of the same kind as the created, and that His Attributes are perfect, universal and essential to Him, while the attributes of the created are imperfect, particular, relative and borrowed. This concept of unity causes one to base all one's views on the principles taught by the Prophets. Starting from these principles, one is saved from falling into errors such as, while arguing (in the name of unity) that He is absolutely free of any imperfections that belong to the created, going to the extreme of denying God any Attributes; or (another extreme) assuming that God takes on bodily form (incarnation) or that a created being can be united with God and become God (union). One is also saved, while observing His manifestations, from likening God in any respect to the creation, or, while interpreting His Attributes, likening Him to the created or attributing to Him a body and being that are contained in time and space. Thus one displays the worthiness (and need) to be counted among the people of the Straight Way, when one prays at least forty times a day (in the daily prayers) to God to guide one on this Way.

That conception of unity also serves to guide travelers to God so that they can perceive the sole source and nature of the Divine Destiny and Decree. Turning to Him, they do not waste their lives in the philosophical deviations of the Mu'tazila (the Muslim theologians who maintain that human beings will and create their actions) and the Jabriya (who deny human free will). They serve God sincerely, and feel a deep respect for Him because of His every commandment. Without denying that they have been endowed with free will, they believe that God is the Creator and the eternal origin or cause of everything, and expect from Him the attainment of all their purposes. They always rely on Him, and implore Him for happiness in both this world and the next.

* * *

Philosophers such as Aristotle,[2] Abu 'Ali ibn Sina (Avicenna)[3] and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi,[4] who considered unity as the Existence alone with no identity or Attributes, opened the door to the deviation of monism, which would later evolve as a philosophical system, in turn giving rise to many other falsehoods. Those who have strayed into incarnation and union-which can be said to have been smeared onto the belief-system of Islam by Neo-platonism-have fallen into associating partners with God by seeing existence as the constant appearance or externalization of the Necessarily Existent One, and therefore as being (in some measure) identifiable with Him. Among other groups or movements, the Qadariya and Jahmiya, which deny God any Attributes, have attributed to God impotence and to human will absolute power. On the other hand, the attitude of the Jabriya, who deny human free will and regard humans as if they were dried leaves blown about by winds, is totally contrary to the most rational realities and is a great slander against God. What is true for all such movements, even if there were a grain of truth in them, is that their early followers were not able to save themselves from going to extremes and they prepared many points from which those who followed them and the ideas they promoted might stray.

As for the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who have accepted the truth of the Messenger and his Companions, they have learned unity (as well as other aspects of Islam), from, once more, the expressions, attitudes, visions, and spiritual discoveries of the true successors of the Messenger and the Companions, experiencing it in their inner and outer worlds. According to them, unity is the bedrock of Islam, a fact which the Qur'an and the Sunna give the greatest importance to with respect to the Creator's Lordship and recognition of our being His servants who must recognize and worship Him. The Qur'an and God's Messenger frequently refer to the Divine Being and His Attributes, Names, and acts, including the establishment of Himself on the Throne-the nature of which is unknown to us-His speaking to the Messengers and Prophets, and honoring whomever He wills with speaking to Himself, and reminding us of His absolute, unconditioned Life, Knowledge, Hearing, Seeing, Power, Will, and Speech. They also teach us that God is the Creator and the One Who takes life and revives after death, and that He is the All-Providing. All these Attributes and acts of God have a close connection with God's being One and Unique.

God's Lordship and the lights of His Existence and Lordship which shine on things and events are stressed in many verses of the Qur'an such as: God, there is no deity but He; the All-Living, the Self-Subsisting (by Whom all subsist.), Slumber seizes Him not, nor sleep. (2:255); Alif-Lam-Mim. God, there is no deity but He; the All-Living, the Self-Subsisting (by Whom all subsist.) (3:1-2); Say (O Messenger): "O God, Master of all dominion! You give dominion to whom You will, and take away dominion from whom You will " (3:26); (He) the All-Merciful, established Himself on the Throne (20:5); And say: "All praise be to God Who has neither taken to Him a son, nor has He any partner in His dominion (of the whole creation); nor does He need, out of weakness, anyone to own and protect Him; and exalt Him with all His limitless greatness." (17:111), and Say: "He is God, the One; God is the Eternally-Besought-of-All. He has not begotten, nor been begotten. There is nothing equal to Him." (112:1-5). A consciousness that discerns this majesty of the Divine Lordship, feels deeply and eagerly the necessity to worship Him in the face of this all-encompassing scene or in these concentric scenes of Lordship, and responds with: All praise and gratitude is for God, the Lord of the Worlds. The All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate. The Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone do We worship and from You alone do we seek help. (1:1-4) It demonstrate its readiness to serve Him in response to the Divine proclamation, O humankind, worship your Lord (2:21); receives from the warning, Worship your Lord until certainty (death) comes to you (15:99), the message that His eternal Lordship requires perpetual servanthood; and understands from the declaration, Worship God, devoted to Him alone in all your religious practices (39:2), that we must fix our eyes on Him exclusively.

The banner of the declaration, "O unbelievers! I do not worship what you worship" (109:1-2) undulates over our head, and determines the nature of our position with all else save Him. We demonstrate the purpose for our creation by proclaiming, You alone do we worship (1:5), and we acknowledge with utter modesty and a feeling of insignificance that We rely on Him alone in order to realize this purpose, declaring, And You alone do we ask for help (1:5). In order to fulfill the task that is required by nearness to Him and to reach the rank of speaking to Him directly, we reinforce our acknowledgment of His being the sole Deity in the two above declarations, with the prayer: Guide us to the Straight Way, the way of those whom You have favored! (1:6-7). Following this, we exhibit our care and sincerity in this petition, continuing: Not (the way) of those who have incurred (Your) wrath (severe punishment and condemnation), nor of those who are astray (1:7). Thus, traveling at least forty times a day from our acknowledgment of God's Unity in Lordship to His Unity in Divinity, and thence to His Unity in being the Sole Object of Worship, we try to fulfill what is required by our having been created as the best pattern of creation.

In short, the Qur'an is extremely clear and precise concerning the matter of unity. It orders that we should admit that God is both the sole Lord of creation-the One Who creates, maintains, protects and provides-and the sole Deity. In all its chapters, from the longest (Surat al-Baqara, 2) to the shortest (Surat al-Ikhlas, 112), the Qur'an declares, teaches and reiterates unity explicitly or implicitly. In Surat al-Ikhlas, in addition to emphatically teaching that God is the sole Lord of creation, it is also emphasized that He has Attributes of Perfection and is above having any imperfections. Surat al-Kafirun (109) warns us that only God is to be worshipped, and calls on us to turn only to Him in our beliefs, lives, and expectations. A careful study of the Qur'an will show that it turns on the axis of unity. All the verses mentioning God and His Names, Attributes and acts are proclamations of His being the sole Deity, while the declarations referring to worshipping the Absolute Object of Worship, Who has no equals, opposites or rivals, and which forbid the worship of any thing or being other than Him, are indications of His being the One and Only Lord.

From another perspective, believing in God's being the sole Lord of creation, which is also called "unity in knowledge" with respect to our position with unity, means confirming all the truths pronounced by the master of creation, upon him be peace and blessings. As for believing in God's being the one and only Deity, which is also known as "unity in practice," this denotes doing the religious commandments as they should be done, avoiding those things that have been prohibited. Unity in knowledge is perfected by knowing the All-Holy One as One Who has Attributes of Perfection and in believing that He is above all imperfections. Unity in practice can be realized by worshipping and loving the All-Majestic, All-Exalted One, by being sincere toward Him, and by preserving the balance between fear of and expectations from Him.

Travelers to God who are at the beginning of the journey, a journey of which they are expected to reach the end, advance in the company of proofs, indications, and observations of their inner world and the world around them. These are the strongest groundings of unity. At every stage of their journey, travelers feel and sense the signs that come to them according to the rank and capacity of each, and review them. To the extent that they reach deeper perceptions and experiences, they can feel or see in the proofs and indications the One indicated by them. They reach through witnesses to the One Witnessed. Then, in the broad atmosphere of spiritual discoveries, pleasures and feelings, they begin to feel, see and hear the messages brought by the Prophets beyond the normal scope of the senses and feelings. They experience delight in observing the truths that are demonstrated by proofs and indications, but without needing them any longer, for they have passed beyond all concepts of quality and recognition through examples, and beyond the normal scope of perception.

So, this concept of unity-unity which becomes visible as God's special stamp on things and events by means of the proofs and indications that are observed and experienced in the inner world of people and in the outer world-is an objective concept, and an observatory from which everyone can attain certain knowledge of God. One who admits of it can, if possessed of the necessary capacity, advance as far as being able to perceive the true nature of apparent causes (in nature) and the means of knowing the Almighty. One sees that all those causes and means are lost before their Creator, Who is the real agent beyond them, and one witnesses that all proofs and indications end in an inner perception beyond the scope of the senses. The deeper the state one gets into and the greater the pleasure one feels, the more profound and vivid the degree of the concept of unity one can reach. Travelers to God who have reached this point live immersed in the special favors that come as a reward for their inner perception and the insight they have attained by starting from the proofs and indications. Because of the light which the Eternal Witness has placed in them, all their thoughts, speeches and acts become "light." They walk intoxicated by the manifestations of the "Face" of Him Who has created the light. When proofs and indications have developed into the voice of their state, they no longer need them, nor do they seek an apparent cause to rely on the Creator of all causes, nor run after other means. Rather, they begin to see, know, and love by Him, and to transform whatever they see and hear into knowledge and love of God, and into attraction and the feeling of being attracted by Him. They spend their life in the tides of absorption and distinguishing.

At this point, where the initiates feel as if they are seeing the Necessarily Existent Being in everything with their eyes, apparent, external causes fade away and lose the ability to be a means for happiness or salvation, although they continue to exist as mere causes. Whereas the internal causes of belief, confirmation, and the knowledge and love of God are felt more deeply. It is for this reason that, so long as the travelers to the Truth advance on the spiritual journey, they feel an increasing passion for worship and other acts of obedience to God. As they grow in the knowledge and love of God, they feel that they are overflowing with prayers and invocations and they become like a nightingale singing ceaselessly in the court of God. They always mention Him with the voice of their heart. In addition, neither their being able to observe from here the worlds beyond, nor crossing distances by flying through the heavens, can harm the self-possession that they maintain in their humble servanthood to God.

As for the unity the Necessarily Existent Being has assigned to Himself-a unity based on His bearing witness to Himself-it is an attainment belonging, first, to the Prophets, and then to their true successors. It is not possible for us to perfectly perceive such a horizon of knowing and feeling God. It is an extremely great favor from Him by which He endows the perfectly pure hearts with the necessary capacity to feel that perfect conception of unity, which He expresses in verses such as:

God, there is no deity but He, the All-Living, the Self-Subsisting (by Whom all subsist) (2:255).
God bears witness that surely there is no deity but He (3:18).
Surely, I am God, there is no deity but I, so worship Me (20:14).
He is God: there is no deity but He (59:22).

It is a great favor that He grants, enabling those so favored to voice this perfect conception of unity with their hearts, and causing them to understand and express their poverty and helplessness before Him and the fact that whatever they have is from Him, with confessions such as follows:

We have not been able to know You as knowing You requires, O Known One.
We have not been able to worship You as worshipping You requires, O Worshipped One.
We have not been able to mention You as mentioning You requires, O Mentioned One.
We have not been able to thank You, as thanking You requires, O Thanked One.

He makes them express this favor in consideration of the requirement to know Him as He must be known, and with a consciousness of servanthood, and an attitude of helplessness and poverty, and with a yearning for thankfulness and praise. It is not possible for others to perceive this. How can it be possible, seeing that this is a special gift from the Giver of Gifts, no matter how it was prompted or if prompted at all? Only those who can bear the weight of His gifts are loaded with them.

Only the Prophets and their true, pure successors can feel this degree of unity in the perfect form, and they can reveal to others only the part of it that they are allowed to reveal. The pure, perfected scholars, who are the true successors of the Prophets, run  in the spacious field of this unity and try to breathe it out with certain ambiguous symbols according to their capacity. Saints who follow them whisper it to themselves when they deem it necessary, but none of them reveal the state they are in nor the pleasures they feel. They consider its revelation to be a grave error committed against the honor of Divinity, and tremble with fear at giving away the secrets with which they have been entrusted.

What should be done here, in this respect, is to regard the messages of the Prophets as sufficient, and by admitting that acknowledging the inability to perceive is perception itself, attribute to God the knowledge of truth and the concept of unity that belong to the most distinguished among the elect.

It is essential that while thinking of unity as viewed by the elect, either with respect to creed or as an expression of the spiritual state and pleasures, one should strictly follow the guidance of the master of creation, upon him be peace and blessings. For it is always probable that even the lights brightest in appearance, and the deepest pleasures and any knowledge of God not found within the Prophet's guidance are no more than carnal pleasures and ostentation.

It would be appropriate to end our article on unity with a verse from Calabizade Abdulaziz Efendi[5] found in Gulshan-i Niyaz, which resembles the poem of Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum concerning the Islamic creed, which begins "My Deity, my Lord; my Prophet is God's Messenger:"

I have a conviction that the Divine Being is one,
And I confirm that He has Attributes.
Knowledge, Power, Life, Hearing, and Seeing,
Are concealed in His All-Holy Being.
Though the Attributes eternally exist in the Being,
They are neither the Being Himself nor separate from Him.
Those who attempt to qualify You are unable to understand Your Attributes.
We have not been able to know You as knowing You requires.
He has no equals nor likes in His Oneness,
And He needs no assistants in His sovereignty.
You are not a substance or a body;
Nor are You composed nor shaped.
You are the All-Holy Being from nowhere.
Your Attributes are not of the kind of those of the created;
You have no eyes, nor ears, nor any other organs;
You are One without number; and You have no limits;
You are not composed, or separable or dissolvable.
Neither time nor space, O Exalted One,
Has any meaning in relation to You.
It is also inconceivable that You have any relation with
Eating, drinking, getting dressed, or sleeping.
He is All-Majestic and absolutely pure in His Majesty;
He is absolutely above all desires and lusts.
The verses, "He has not begotten nor been begotten,"
Have put an insurmountable barrier before His having parents and children.
You have undoubtedly no beginning or end.
He is the First without a beginning,
And the Last without an end.
He is the Eternal Being Who brought the universe into existence,
And each of His creatures is a ray from His all-comprehensive Grace.
His work is the universe and Adamhumankind;
Existence and non-existence are according to His command.
All creation, including the heavens with all the celestial bodies, and the earth
Have come into existence by His command, "Be!"
If He had not given existence to the universe,
We could not have known Him or known how to bear witness to Him.
He it is Who creates both good and evil;
He it is Who is the origin of all deeds.
He has established what is right and what is wrong.
And it is He Who will reward or punish.

O God! Show us the truth as the truth and enable us with the observance of it, and show us the falsehood as falsehood and enable us with the avoidance of it. And let God's blessings be upon our master Muhammad, who is the means for attaining unity, and on his brothers among the Prophets and Messengers, who had strong self-possession.


[1] Ziya Pasha (1825-1880) was one of the influential political and literary figures of the 19th-century Ottoman Turkey. He published Hurriya (Freedom) newspaper (Trans.)
[2] Aristotle, Greek philosopher, (384-322 BC) was not primarily a mathematician but made important contributions to some other sciences. He systematized deductive logic. He also wrote on physical subjects: some parts of his Analytica posteriora show an unusual grasp of the mathematical method. Primarily, however, he is important in the development of all knowledge. (Trans.)
[3] Abu 'Ali ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037) was one of the foremost philosophers, mathematicians, and physicians of the golden age of Islamic tradition. In the west he is also known as the "Prince of Physicians" for his famous medical text al-Qanun "Canon." In Latin translations, his works influenced many Christian philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas. (Trans.)
[4] Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1280) was one of the greatest scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, theologians and physicians of the time and was a prolific writer. He also wrote poetry in Persian. He was born in Tus near the present Mashhad. The observatory at Maragheh which he built became operational in 1262. His influence on sciences was immense. He wrote one or several treatises on different sciences and subjects including those on geometry, algebra, arithmetic, trigonometry, medicine, metaphysics, logic, ethics and theology. (Trans.)
[5] Karacalabizade Abdulaziz Effendi (1591-1658) was one of the Shaykh al-Islams (the highest religious authority) in the Ottoman State. His Gulshan-i Niyaz ("Rose-Garden of Invocations") and Rawdatu'l-Abrar ("The Garden of the Godly") are famous. (Trans.)