Citation for Tawḥīd

Citation styles are based on the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Ed., and the MLA Style Manual, 2nd Ed..


Sonn, Tamara . "Tawḥīd." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jan 22, 2022. <>.


Sonn, Tamara . "Tawḥīd." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Jan 22, 2022).


An Arabic term meaning literally “making one” or “unifying,” tawḥīd is considered by many twentieth-century Islamic activists to be the axial or defining doctrine of Islam.

Although tawḥīd has traditionally been recognized as a fundamental doctrine of Islam, its popularity as Islam's defining characteristic is a modern development. Indeed, the term is not mentioned in the Qurʿān. Early theologians used it in their interpretations of the relationship between divine essence and divine attributes, as well as in their defense of divine unity against dualists and trinitarians. In the thirteenth century, renowned Ḥanbalī jurist Ibn Taymīyah rehearsed and clarified the early theologians’ positions, adding his own interpretation and shifting the emphasis on tawḥīd from theology to sociomoral issues. In the nineteenth century, tawḥīd gained some attention with the renewed popularity of Ibn Taymīyah among the Wahhābīyah. The modern importance of tawḥīd did not begin to emerge, however, until 1897, when Egyptian reformer Shaykh Muḥammad ʿAbduh published a full discussion of its implications, Risālāt al-tawḥīd (translated as Theology of Unity). Although ʿAbduh's epistle was for the most part an effort to reintroduce the classic issues of Islamic theology, by the mid- to late-twentieth century tawḥīd, as an organizing principle of human society, had become a rallying cry of many Islamic reformers. In the 1960s Sayyid Quṭb proclaimed tawḥīd the underlying principle of all true religion, and in 1982 Ismāʿīl al-Fārūqī claimed that tawḥīd was the core of all Islamic religious knowledge, as well as its history, metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, social order, economic order, and indeed the entire Islamic world order. The term has even been adopted by activist organizations, such as the Shīʿī group Dār al-Tawḥīd (Abode of Tawḥīd) in the Gulf region, and the Sunnī group Ḥarakat al-Tawḥīd (Tawḥīd Movement) in Palestine. Thus, the meaning and implications of tawḥīd have undergone continuous revision, most dramatically so in the contemporary era.

Tawḥīd in Classical References.

The classical religious science of ʿilm al-kalām, usually translated as “theology,” is also known as ʿilm al-tawḥīd wa-al-ṣifāt (science of [divine] unity and the attributes) or simply ʿilm al-tawḥīd. As distinguished from the speculative science of fiqh (jurisprudence), ʿilm al-kalām was considered traditional knowledge (revealed or transmitted through recognized authorities), presented with rational explanations and refutations of contradictory opinions (e.g., al-Jurjānī, pp. i, 2). Its synonymy with ʿilm al-tawḥīd occurred because of the centrality of the question of divine unity in the early disputes among believers.

The early emphasis on divine unity among Muslim rationalists appears to have resulted from the perceived influence of Manichaean dualism on some groups of Shīʿah. But rational arguments for divine unity were more fully developed in the context of arguments over the status of a sinner, made famous by the Qādarīyah, Khawārij, and Murjiʿah, and particularly in debates regarding the status of the Qurʿān as created or not created, and how the multiplicity evident in the world could have proceeded from a creator who is essentially one.

The Muʿtazilah, among the earliest groups of thinkers identified by their rationalist approach to Islamic doctrines, held that the Qurʿān was created. As such, it is to be distinguished from the divine essence, which is unitary (simple), eternal, and unchanging. The Qurʿān is the word of God, created in time for humanity. Opponents of the Muʿtazilah held that the Qurʿān was uncreated, part of the essence of God. To the Muʿtazilah, this position appeared to compromise divine immutability, and thus divine simplicity, and ultimately divine unity itself. Indeed, divine unity (tawḥīd) became, with divine justice, the Muʿtazilah's first principle. They were known as “the people of justice [ʿadl] and unity [tawḥīd].”

Ninth-century ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʿmūn (r. 813–833) gave official sanction to the Muʿtazilī position; belief that the Qurʿān was created was proclaimed an article of faith. However, that position was perceived as a threat to the traditionalists’ position. The divine essence, according to the Muʿtazilah, is beyond human comprehension, whereas the Qurʿān, the divine word, is accessible to human reason. Therefore, the anthropomorphic references to God in the Qurʿān must be considered allegorically. The traditionalists, however, favored a literal interpretation of the Qurʿān and reliance on the practice of the early Islamic community—both without rationalist interpretation—as the model for community leadership. Al-Maʿmūn's position, therefore, sparked a rebellion of sorts among their ranks. Traditionalist Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (780–855) was imprisoned, both for his vocal opposition to the doctrine of the created Qurʿān and for his insistence that human reason and authority are to be resorted to only in the rare instances where the Qurʿān is silent on a subject and there is no precedent to be derived from early Muslim practice.

By the middle of the ninth century, the caliph's authority was severely weakened, and the traditionalists gained dominance in positions of doctrine and jurisprudence. The traditionalists’ position was eventually systematized under the influence and name of its main thinker (who had actually begun his career as a Muʿtazilī), Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī; (d. about 936). According to the Ashʿarī interpretation, the Qurʿān is the uncreated word of God, coeternal with God. But, as noted above, the createdness of the Qurʿān had been asserted in order to protect the unity of God. Therefore, the Ashʿarī thinkers were compelled to demonstrate that their position did not compromise divine unity.

It was for this reason that Ashʿarī thinkers became insistent on divine unity and transcendence. God is one, unique and eternal, and there is no god but the almighty God. They believed that divine unity could be preserved by viewing the divine attributes, including speech and action (or will, power, and knowledge), as additional (zāʿidah) to the divine essence. In this context, they argued that if the divine will is an attribute and is identical with the divine essence, as in the Muʿtazilī position, then God's freedom of choice is called into question. God would be compelled by his very nature (essence) to act. The Muʿtazilah, however, believed that their assertion that the divine will is created would preclude such a conclusion.

Yet ultimately, for the Ashʿarīyah, the divine essence is inaccessible to human reason. God is known to human beings only through revelation; indeed, the verses of the Qurʿān are called āyāt (signs) of God, and revelation should be accepted at face value. Ashʿarī doctrine holds, for example, that God is truly on his throne (according to Qurʿān 20:5) and that God has hands (Qurʿān 38:75 and 5:64). Likewise, God created everything, and nothing that God did not want was created. Thus, not only does God create all human actions, allowing only the occasion for the actions to human beings, but God created even the evil deeds that people do. This position was taken in response to the Muʿtazilī position that God creates with a purpose and that purpose is good. That view, combined with the Muʿtazilī insistence that people have free will (that we create our own acts by virtue of a contingent power created by God within us) allows the Muʿtazilah to make sense of the Qurʿānic promise of reward and threat of punishment. The Ashʿarī position, by contrast, insists that human beings do not have free will and that things are good or evil because God creates them as such, not vice versa. However, the Ashʿarī interpretation continues, in none of these cases (i.e., on the questions of apparent anthropomorphization of God, the lack of free will, and God's creation of evil) are humans to question the modality, or how it is that these things are true. All revelation is to be accepted literally but bilā kayfa (without [asking] how).

Later Ashʿarī thinkers allowed that some things about God are accessible to human reason (ʿaqlīyāt), such as that God's attributes do not compromise divine unity (tawḥīd), but regarding the nature of those attributes, we know only what the prophets taught (samʿīyāt). In this way, Ashʿarism, which dominated Sunnī Islamic orthodoxy from the tenth to the nineteenth century, insisted on divine unity, but it rejected interpretations of revelation that would make that unity accessible to human reason in favor of assertions of ultimate divine transcendence. Other thinkers approached the question of divine unity from different directions. For example, Abū Manṣūr Muḥammad al-Māturīdī of Samarkand (d. 944), in his kalām compendium Kitāb al-tawḥīd, places relatively greater emphasis on creation and free will than on the issue of divine attributes. This approach effectively constitutes a parallel tendency or school of theology.

The Philosophers and Tawḥīd.

The subject of divine unity was addressed by the classical philosophers of the Islamic world in accordance with their rationalist orientation and frequently under the influence of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Neoplatonic influences, particularly in the area of metaphysics. Al-Kindī (d. about 866), for example, rejects the idea that the attributes are superadded to God's essence in order to insist on the absolute oneness of God. In answer to the question of how the One could be responsible for the multiplicity of the world, he claims that indeed, multiplicity could not exist without the One. For him the existence of the One is logically prior to, and necessary to account for, the existence of multiplicity, since the multiplicity (or plurality) is simply a combination of unities.

Al-Fārābī (d. about 950) describes God as pure intellect, superseding the problem of the potential duality of essence and attributes. Yet like al-Kindī, he is then left with the challenge of explaining how the One can be responsible for the multiplicity that characterizes creation. Like many philosophers faced with this problem, al-Kindī and al-Fārābī both rely on versions of the Neoplatonic theory of emanation. Al-Kindī refers to a kind of universal radiation, while al-Fārābī makes use of the more familiar formula wherein the entire universe emanates from God through a succession of nine intellects along with their celestial spheres. The process begins as existence outflows from God, creating the first intelligence, a composite of being (existence) and knowledge (essence). For from the one, only one can come, thus protecting divine simplicity and unity. The emanation proceeds through the ninth intellect, from which emanates a tenth, which is the active intellect that comprises human reason. Accordingly, multiplicity in the universe is only apparent; all existence is unified in God, the source of all.

Ibn Sīnā (980–1037) attacks the problem of the potential duality of essence (attributes) and existence by affirming it in all existents except God. All creatures’ existence is superadded to their essence; they are composite creatures. But God's very essence is to exist. God, therefore, is the only simple existent. As with al-Fārābī, other existents result from emanation.

The Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126–1198) rejects the emanationists’ doctrine, particularly its fundamental principle that the one can only give rise to one. He stresses that God is ultimately transcendent and therefore should not be described in human terms. There is no basis for assuming that God's creation is anything like the human act of making, or that the divine will is anything like the human act of willing. Ibn Rushd, therefore, rejects the idea that claiming the multiplicity of the universe was created by God compromises God's unity. He likewise rejects the distinction between essence and existence, claiming it is only an analytic tool. In reality, he claims, with Aristotle, that essences (ideas of things) can only come from things that exist; existence must necessarily precede essence. There is, however, such a thing as potentiality, he claims, and the difference between potentiality and actuality is God. God actuates the potential. Thus God is truly the agent of creation, rather than, as in Ibn Sīnā's scheme, the source of automatic emanation.

Tawḥīd in Ṣūfī Thought.

Yet even in the case of Ibn Rushd, the philosophers found themselves caught between the teaching of the Qurʿān, that God created the universe at some point in time, and the results of rational processes. In the case of Neoplatonic emanationists and Aristotelian philosophers alike, the conclusion that the universe is somehow eternal was inevitable, since creation in time implied movement or change in God. Because change or movement is defined philosophically as transition from potentiality to actuality, and potentiality is considered a lack of actuality, change or movement is considered incompatible with divine perfection. Yet the idea of the universe being coeternal with God did not accord with revelation. Ṣūfī thought sought to affirm the unity and primacy of God in a way that transcends such logical conundrums.

As with the theologians and philosophers, the most general meaning of tawḥīd for Ṣūfīs is affirmation of the essential oneness of God. Beyond that, however, tawḥīd reflects the mystical belief in ascending levels of knowledge or proximity to divine unity. Ordinary believers accept divine unity as a matter of faith; intellectuals might accept it as a matter of reason. But true recognition of divine unity in the Ṣūfī context is not accessible to reason alone. Contemplation of the illusory dichotomies in the universe will produce the ultimate goal of Ṣūfī practice: a realization of the ultimate unity of existence that is quite beyond discursive or rational inquiry.

Accordingly, a Ṣūfī interpretation of the first pillar of Islam, the shahādah (bearing witness that there is no god but the One God, Allāh), is that it affirms the ultimate paradox: it first denies divinity and then affirms it in a way that defies categorization and thus knowability by means of the rational faculties. In a non-Ṣūfī context, God's defiance of categorization is known as divine incomparability, as affirmed by the Qurʿān. The implication is thus God's ultimate transcendence: God cannot be known except insofar as he reveals himself. That revelation is contained in sharīʿah (Islamic law); therefore, the proper human response to God is obedience to God alone. In the Ṣūfī context, God's incomparability implies as well God's immanence.

God's immanence was expressed definitively by the Andalusian mystic Ibn al-ʿArabī (1165–1240) in the phrase waḥdat al-wujūd (the unity of all being). Ibn al-ʿArabī claims that there is only one Reality, also known by various other names, such as the one Real, the one Truth, and the one Essence. There is only one Real, by virtue of participation in which everything else exists. Thus God is in all creation, but is not identified with creation. No part contains the totality, nor is the totality simply a sum of the parts. Creation is God's self-manifestation. Employing the Neoplatonic emanationist scheme, Ibn al-ʿArabī claims the First Intelligence represents the perfect individual (al-insān al-kāmil), identified with the inner reality of the prophet Muḥammad. This individual, aware of both divine uniqueness and creaturely multiplicity, is the pivot between the one and the many, between God and creation. The mystic aspires to the sort of awareness represented by al-insān al-kāmil. Similarly, the great Ṣūfī poet Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (c.1207–1273) expresses the belief that the Ṣūfī adept can achieve the level of awareness of God represented by the First Intelligence. He must first, however, transcend the confines of his own limited existence—in effect, passing out of existence—in order to affirm the existence of God.

Certain aspects of these themes, echoed throughout Ṣūfī thought, are also evident in philosophical works. Ibn Ṣūfī, for example, believes there is a level of knowledge beyond the discursive. For just as creatures’ existence results from an outflowing from God, so there is the possibility of ascent of levels of knowledge. Al- Ghazālī (1058–1111) is given credit for reconciling mystical and logical claims with revealed doctrine and condemning those conclusions at odds with true belief. He retains belief in the mystic's journey but denies that the adept achieves direct recognition of God. For him, the adept draws near to the divine attributes, which, as an Ashʿarī, he believes are not identical with the divine essence.

Ibn Taymīyah.

Even this effort to avoid compromising God's transcendence was considered insufficient by Ḥanbalī jurisprudent Taqī al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Taymīyah (1263–1328). He believed the key issue was tawḥīd and attempted to settle the question once and for all. Ibn Taymīyah was convinced that the efforts of Muslim thinkers influenced by Greek philosophy (Islamic philosophy [falsafah] and rational theology [kalām]) were as misguided as those of the Ṣūfīs, who blurred the distinction between the divine and the mundane, in Ibn Taymīyah's view. Ibn Taymīyah rejected the rationalists’ denial of the attributes’ reality (tanzīh and taʿṭīl), positions taken in efforts to preserve divine simplicity and therefore unity. He also rejected the method of considering the divine attributes allegorically and the traditionalists’ literalist or anthropomorphic interpretation of the attributes (tashbīh). His approach to the divine essence and attributes was simply to accept them and leave their true meaning a mystery (tafwīḍ). Likewise, he rejected the philosophers’ distinction between the divine essence and existence, and their efforts to demonstrate God's necessary existence.

Ibn Taymīyah believed that God's self-characterization in revelation was sufficient and, indeed, the only understanding of God accessible to humans. That self-characterization, he believed, was epitomized in the brief passage in the Qurʿān, sūrah112, entitled “Al-ikhlāṣ” (“The Sincere [Faith]” or “The Pure [Faith]”): “In the name of Allāh, the compassionate, the merciful, Say Allāh is one, the eternal God. He begot none, nor was he begotten. None is equal to him.” Beyond that we need not and should not seek. It was in this context that Ibn Taymīyah focused his insistence on the absolute unity of God (tawḥīd). People are created with a natural or instinctive recognition (    fiṭrah) of God, Ibn Taymīyah believed. Moreover, God's existence is everywhere reflected in creation. The world is full of testimony (āyāt) to God's existence. These realities themselves are an aspect of tawḥīd for Ibn Taymīyah: God as sole creator, ruler, and judge of the world is everywhere reflected in creation.

However, by the time of Ibn Taymīyah, the controversy over the metaphysical status of the divine attributes had lost its implications for political authority. Indeed, by the thirteenth century, the caliphate as the single, central religio-political power in Islam was a thing of the past. For Ibn Taymīyah, the critical issue was no longer the validity of the caliphate but the nature of faith. Accordingly, having established absolute divine unity (tawḥīd) as the cornerstone of Islam, albeit incomprehensible, Ibn Taymīyah went on to focus on what actually was within the scope of human activity, and that, he believed, was the response to tawḥīd: submission (taslīm) to the will of God as revealed in the Qurʿān and sunnah. For Ibn Taymīyah this is the essence of faith. It was not mere intellectual assent but included as well expression through religious practice or ritual and, most importantly, actions. True faith is expressed in virtuous behavior, he believed, on both the individual and the collective levels. Indeed, the two levels (personal and public, or religious and political) were inextricably linked. Human beings require social organization, and that organization must be guided by religion. Furthermore, he shifted emphasis from community leadership to individual piety, stressing that everyone must contribute to the well-being of the state.

Thus, for Ibn Taymīyah tawḥīd remains central in Islam but for reasons different from those of the early commentators. Tawḥīd precludes both rational understanding of God (the focus of Ashʿarī arguments) and the kind of mystical awareness of God that had become popular among Ṣūfī expositors by the time of Ibn Taymīyah. He believed that rather than attempting to prove the existence of God, or describe God, or to achieve mystical awareness of or communion with the divine, the sole obligation of human beings is to submit to God's revealed will and participate in carrying it out. This is the orientation toward tawḥīd's importance, rather than that of the Muʿtazilah or Ashʿarīyah, that forms the legacy for the early modern and modern commentators.

The Wahhābīyah.

In the eighteenth century, Arabian reformer Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1703–1792) drew inspiration from Ibn Taymīyah. In the face of what he considered spiritual stagnation and continuing Ṣūfī excesses, he sought to reassert the radical oneness of God. As with Ibn Taymīyah, God is simply one and beyond comparison, as proclaimed in revelation. It is innovation (bidʿah, both unnecessary and irreligious) to attempt to determine the modality of tawḥīd. As a Ḥanbalī, he denounced those schools of thought traditionally criticized by Ḥanābilah as compromising Islamic unity, including the Shīʿah and Muʿtazilah, as well as what he considered excessive rationalism on the part of the mutakallimūn (scholastic theologians) and excessive spirituality on the part of the Ṣūfīs. In particular he denounced the Ṣūfī and Shīʿī practice of praying to saints. Only God, he asserted, is worthy of praise and to God is due all praise. He considered the belief that saints or angels or even prophets could intercede with God sheer polytheism. Moreover, he believed it utter heresy to claim knowledge based on any source beyond the Qurʿān, the sunnah, and the results of logical processes.

Furthermore, Islamic unity is a central feature of tawḥīd for ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. He therefore rejected sectarianism of any kind and even sought to establish a state based on divine and Islamic unity. In the mid-eighteenth century he formed an alliance with Muḥammad ibn Saʿūd (d. 1765) devoted to the task of purifying Islamic practice and making God's word prevail. Basing themselves on what they considered the prophet Muḥammad's model, they sought to replace tribal solidarity with religious solidarity, purifying the religion from what they considered extraneous practices. When ʿAbd al-Wahhāb and Ibn Saʿūd died, their movement continued and gained strength under Ibn Saʿūd's grandson, Saʿūd ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (r. 1803–1814). Wahhābī-Saʿūdī influence was eventually spread as far as Karbala, Mecca, and Medina, accompanied by the destruction of saints’ tombs and imposition of strict Ḥanbalī-based order. Although the movement was repulsed when it spread into Syria and Iraq, it survived and became the basis of the modern state of Saudi Arabia.

Muḥammad ʿAbduh.

Popular Egyptian reformer Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) transmitted to the modern era both the early theological discussions of tawḥīd and the later refocusing of its importance toward the ethical imperative human responsibility to obey the revealed word of God. In the process, he effectively, though subtly, modifies some key positions of the formerly dominant Ashʿarī position, particularly with regard to the role of free will and reason. He begins his Risālāt al-tawḥīd (Epistle on Divine Unity, 1897) by noting that the study of tawḥīd is the study of “the being and attributes of God, the essential and the possible affirmations about Him, as well as the negations that are necessary to make relating to Him,” although he also claims that Islamic theology is named for the most important of its parts, “namely the demonstration of the unity of God in Himself and in the act of creation” (ʿAbduh, p. 29). He believes it is beyond question that God is omnipotent and omniscient, but that it is likewise self-evident that people have free will (in contradistinction to the Ashʿarī position). Attempts at rational explanation of these seemingly conflicting truths are not only doomed to failure but misguided in the first place. Revealing the influence of Ibn Taymīyah, ʿAbduh asserts that people should occupy themselves with responding to God through obedience rather than intellectual inquiry into matters beyond their ability to grasp.

ʿAbduh asserts that although the Qurʿān gives all the information about God that is permitted to human beings, it does not ask us to believe blindly. On the contrary, it validates reason and thus gave rise to the earliest schools of theology. ʿAbduh outlines the development of early Islamic rationalism, noting that it was experimental at first. This is how he explains Ashʿarism; it was a compromise among extremist interpretations and must be considered in historical context. The same holds true for the work of the later philosophers who criticized al- Ashʿarī's apparent anti-intellectualism. The upshot of the early efforts to meet the intellectual challenge raised by the Qurʿān yet at the same time protect God's transcendence, ʿAbduh concludes, was such confusion that further rational inquiry was effectively precluded, and the Islamic world forfeited its position at the forefront of significant human inquiry. For that reason he takes it on himself to resurrect the rationality of religion.

Formulating the approach that became popular in twentieth-century Islamic activism, ʿAbduh justifies his own rational inquiries through tawḥīd. Islam “is a religion of unity throughout,” he explains (ʿAbduh, p. 39). There can be no conflict between reason and revelation, otherwise God would have created rationality in people in vain. Indeed, ʿAbduh goes on to place tawḥīd squarely at the center of the prophet Muḥammad's mission. The most important knowledge for Muslims, he says, is that God is one in himself and that creation was a single act. Then, in perhaps his most direct attack on traditionalism, ʿAbduh concludes, “The purpose of this discipline, theology, is… to know God most high and His attributes… to acknowledge His messengers…, relying therein upon proof and not taking things merely upon tradition” (p. 39). Returning to the traditional assertion of tawḥīd, affirming that God is therefore simple or noncomposite, the sole necessary existent on which all other beings are contingent, ʿAbduh affirms that both our reason and revelation tell us that God exists. Nevertheless, now echoing Ibn Taymīyah, ʿAbduh asserts that the nature of God's existence is beyond our comprehension.

Accordingly, ʿAbduh establishes three traditionally recognized aspects of tawḥīd. There is only one God, God is essentially one and noncomposite, and God is unique in the sense of being totally transcendent and beyond human comprehension. He then proceeds to direct tawḥīd to a modern issue, religious pluralism. At the time ʿAbduh worked, Egypt was facing the challenge of reorganizing as a state independent of both Turkish and European overlords. In that context, the question of the basis of citizenship became central. Thus ʿAbduh developed a fourth dimension of tawḥīd, the unity of religion. Relying on Qurʿānic references (sūrahs 3:67 and 42:13), he claims that diversity in religion, even in the true religion, is not in itself troublesome. God chose to reveal incrementally, “to proceed by stages in the nurture” of humanity (p. 130). “Islam taught that the sole aim of outward forms of worship was to renew the inward recollection of God and that God looks not on the form but on the heart” (p. 134).

Another dimension of tawḥīd for ʿAbduh has to do with God's work, creation. Just as perfection must be predicated of God, so must it be of what God has done. Therefore, not only must truth be attributed to God's threats and promises, resulting in the necessity of free will, but purpose must be attributed to God's will. Again, ʿAbduh quotes the Qurʿān, affirming that everything was created with a purpose, a goal of perfection in accordance with God's will (sūrah21:16–18). ʿAbduh thus rejects both the traditionally accepted fatalism of predestination and the complete freedom of human beings. Instead, he claims that people have free will, but it does not compromise divine omnipotence. He concludes by returning to the two themes of his work that influence subsequent twentieth-century commentators on tawḥīd-centered Islamic activism. First, to believe human behavior is predetermined, he says, is to fall into “the disease” of taqlīd, blind adherence to precedent or failure to exercise the proper role of the human intellect. Recognition of tawḥīd thus requires revival of the spirit of intelligent initiative (ijtihād) after centuries of dormancy. Second, rather than focusing on the nature of the divine essence and attributes, as did early kalām, that initiative must be directed toward the pursuit of practical Islamic goals, the creation of an Islamic society.

Tawḥīd as the Focus of Contemporary Activism.

ʿAbduh's orientation toward the centrality of tawḥīd in directing human pursuits became more important as the Islamic world continued to suffer political setbacks. It is reflected, for example, in the work of Sayyid Quṭb (1909–1966), ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood. Quṭb's viewpoint reflects the frustration felt by many Egyptians who were disappointed by Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 revolution. Continued European control in the Islamic world, despite Allied victory over former Ottoman suzerains, had created the conditions that prompted enthusiastic support for the military coup among secularists and Muslim Brothers alike. But when Nasser's government failed to achieve its lofty goals of independence, prosperity, and unity throughout the Arab-Islamic world, Sayyid Quṭb's strident and seemingly definitive articulation of a uniquely righteous Islamic worldview (in clear distinction from the weakness of either the Western capitalist or Eastern socialist models) struck a responsive chord.

Tawḥīd is the central feature of this worldview, and the central feature of tawḥīd is human response to God. As in previous formulations, tawḥīd is the ultimate basis of Islam for Sayyid Quṭb. “The unity of God is such that there is no reality and no true and permanent existence except His.… This is the belief that should be entrenched in us. It is a full explanation of human existence” (Quṭb, In the Shade, vol. 30, p. 350). The erstwhile concern for the metaphysical status of divine attributes has been replaced by the insistence that society reflect divine unity through unanimous submission to God's revealed will. Gone also is the tolerance of religious diversity expressed by ʿAbduh. For Quṭb, tawḥīd implies that only specifically Islamic revelation is legitimate, earlier forms of revelation having been corrupted by their followers. And all of those deviations are the result of deviation from the doctrine of tawḥīd. The uniquely Islamic insistence on the absolute unity of God is expressed in “its being considered a foundation for the realistic and practical system of human life with its effects clearly appearing in legislation as well as in belief” (p. 353). Thus, for Quṭb, tawḥīd implies not merely that people should submit to the will of God, but that governments should be based on Islamic law (Quṭb, KhaṢāʿis, p. 45).

This insistence on unanimous submission to God's revealed will is likewise reflected in the work of Palestinian scholar Ismāʿīl Rājī al-Fārūqī (1921–1986). In Al-Tawḥīd: Its Implications for Thought and Life, following Sayyid Quṭb's approach, al-Fārūqī devotes his entire treatment of tawḥīd to its practical implications. Indeed, he ignores completely the metaphysical aspects of divine unity so prevalent in traditional kalām and instead declares that the traditional meaning of Islam is that there is only one God. But, he continues, the implications of this assertion include every aspect of human life.

Al-Fārūqī's lengthy discussion of the practical implications of tawḥīd begins with the principle of tolerance. For al-Fārūqī, however, it is not the same kind of tolerance reflected in ʿAbduh's support for pluralism in Egypt; the implications of tawḥīd are much broader. Muslims, as beneficiaries of the perfect and complete revelation concerning tawḥīd, are responsible for all humanity and for the entire cosmos. This universal or cosmic responsibility shared by all Muslims to fashion the world according to the will of God is the essence of sharīʿah. The purpose of Islamic law, based on revelation, is to order human life in the service of God. Since tawḥīd dictates that all life must be ordered according to divine will, then Islamic law must both legislate concerning every aspect of life and be the dominant legal system throughout the world. It need not be the only legal system, since tawḥīd also dictates respect for other religions, including their legal systems. Indeed, protection of other religions is itself part of tawḥīd-based Islamic law. This is part of the Islamic world order, that must ultimately prevail.

Of paramount importance in al-Fārūqī's discussion of the implications of tawḥīd is the public nature of human responsibility, which characterizes the Islamic world order, or pax Islamica, as he calls it. Whereas Christianity, according to al-Fārūqī, had to stress spirituality in its capacity as a corrective to Judaism's excessive materialism and legalism, Islam places human activity squarely in the public sphere of social action. This means, first of all, that the Islamic community is a single community, wherein all believers are equal and subject to Islamic law. “In Islam all this is worship: the actual transformation of the earth and men for the sake of which the Qurʿān itself was revealed, the concrete service of the tenant-farmer in the manor of God which is the earth” (pp. 147–148).

Tawḥīd in Shīʿī Discourse.

The modern emphasis on practical tawḥīd so evident in the work of the above-mentioned Sunnī writers is evident in the Shīʿī community as well. Iranian ideologue of the Islamic resurgence, ʿAlī Sharīʿatī (1933–1977), popularized the theme in his lecturing to Iran's disaffected youth. Sharīʿatī criticized those Iranians educated in the Western mode for their spiritual shallowness. Human beings are two-dimensional, he believed, both spiritual and material. But both are directed toward the singular human purpose of khilāfah (vicegerency). Just as in the work of Pakistani philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), and that of al-Fārūqī, Sharīʿatī stresses the purposefulness of human existence, tracing it to a primordial agreement (or “trust” [amānah]) between God and creation. That agreement gives human beings superiority over all other creatures but, at the same time, responsibility for them. Indeed, human beings are responsible for perfecting their environment.

This special relationship between God and humanity is at the core of tawḥīd for Sharīʿatī. Although al-Fārūqī believes that tawḥīd is the unique contribution of Islam to the monotheistic tradition, Sharīʿatī believes that it has been in the tradition from the beginning of human existence. Islam simply perfected our understanding of tawḥīd, showing it to be the foundation of all other values. Thus, all social organization should be based on tawḥīd (niẓām-i tawḥīd). Again, like al-Fārūqī, Sharīʿatī believes that only Islam and its social organization enables people to carry out their sacred trust. Islam's teaching on God's unity and the unity of the universe as a reflection of God's unity is a worldview essential to human perfection. It is a “universal philosophy of sociology” (Sharīʿatī, On the Sociology, p. 33). Reflecting a distinctively Shīʿī orientation, Sharīʿatī explains this universalism by defining tawḥīd as “regarding the whole of existence as a single form, a single living and conscious organism, possessing will, intelligence, feeling and purpose,” for the relationship between God and creation is “the same as that of light with the lamp that emits it.” Yet he warns against monism or the pantheism of the Ṣūfīs: “It is not a question of waḥdat al-wujūd [unity of existence] of the Ṣūfīs, but a tawḥīd al-wujūd, scientific and analytical” (pp. 82–85). That is, all creation must be oriented toward the Creator, and this conviction becomes the basis of social action. A tawḥīd-based worldview rejects “legal, class, social, political, racial, national, territorial, genetic or even economic contradictions” and therefore requires believers to work for justice in all its forms. Tawḥīd, therefore, transforms “the religion of deceit, stupefaction and justification of the status quo” into the “religion of awareness, activism and revolution” (p. 109).

Similarly, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) places tawḥīd at the center of Islamic spiritual and material life. Islam, he says, is indeed the school of tawḥīd, which calls for the unity of all Muslims. Stressing political unity more than Sharīʿatī did, he claims, “The ultimate reason for all the troubles that afflict the Muslim countries is their disunity and lack of harmony.… I beseech God Almighty that He exalt Islam and the Muslims and grant unity to all Muslims in the world” (Khomeini, p. 277). Indeed, tawḥīd was at the root of Ayatollah Khomeini's political views. The “Great Satan” of Westernism is trying to control the Islamic world by sowing disunity among them, he warned. Islamic Iran therefore had to wage “a determined struggle to ensure the unity of all Muslims in the world on the basis of tawḥīd and true Islam” (p. 301).

In the work of Ayatollah Khomeini, therefore, tawḥīd came to represent revolutionary Islam. His calls for the elimination of specific leaders in the name of true Islam understandably engendered political insecurity among other Muslim leaders in the Middle East. His inflammatory speeches were received negatively in the Arab press. Indeed, in 1987 the Arab League issued a statement to the effect that the greatest source of instability in their region was the threat of Islamic revolution emanating from Iran. The ayatollah's supporters, however, found inspiration to organize and act against what they considered the undue influence of the United States and European political powers among them.

Even by 1936 the modern popularity of tawḥīd was not sufficiently developed to warrant more than a scant few paragraphs in the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1913). In the second edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1960–), Louis Gardet pondered the demise of ʿilm al-kalām or ʿilm al-tawḥīd. Even by the twentieth century, he noted, Muḥammad ʿAbduh for the most part simply reiterated classical theories in his Risālāt al-tawḥīd. He suggests that the reason for the dearth of original thinking on the subject since the time of the controversies over divine essence and attributes is that the arguments of such disputants as the Muʿtazilah were so successfully refuted that the question of God's unity is no longer an issue. The major issues of today, he observed, lay elsewhere. Indeed, he closes his comments wondering if anything more practical than the intensely speculative kind of thinking that characterized discussions of tawḥīd until the twentieth century would again gain Muslim thinkers’ attention. It appears that the modern development of concern with ʿilm al-tawḥīd answers Gardet's question. It seems true, as he noted, that “Ashʿarism no longer appears to be necessitated by the demands of the faith” (Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 3, p. 1150). Concern with the practical manifestations of Islamic unity in a world fragmented by colonialism and nationalism has become today's central issue. As the fragmentation resulting from the colonial period continues throughout the postcolonial era, tawḥīd has emerged as a powerful symbol of unity—divine, spiritual, and sociopolitical.



  • ʿAbduh, Muḥammad. Risālāt al-tawḥīd (Theology of Unity). Translated by I. Musaʿad and K. Cragg. London, 1966.
  • Ashʿarī, Abū al-ḥasan al-. The Theology of al-Ashʿarī. Translated by Richard J. McCarthy. Beirut, 1953.
  • Averroës [Ibn Rushd]. Averroes’ Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence). 2 vols. Translated by Simon van den Bergh. London, 1969.
  • Fārūqī, Ismāʿīl Rājī al-. Al-Tawḥīd: Its Implications for Thought and Life. Herndon, Va., 1982.
  • Gardet, Louis. “ʿIlm al-kalām.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed.Vol. 3, p. 1150. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960.
  • Ghazālī, Abū Hāmid al-. The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazālī. Translated by W. Montgomery Watt. London, 1953.
  • Goichon, Amélie-Marie. La distinction de l’essence et de l’existence d’après Ibn Sīnā (Avicenne). Paris, 1937.
  • Jurjānī, ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad al-. Sharh al-Mawāqif fī ʿilm al-kalām. Cairo, 1977. Last third of the work deals with the divine essence and tawḥīd.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution. Translated by Hamid Algar. London, 1985.
  • Kindī, Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq al-. Al-Kindī's Metaphysics. Translated by Alfred L. Ivry. Albany, N.Y., 1974.
  • Laoust, Henri. Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politiques de Takī-d-Dīn Ahmad b. Taimīya. Cairo, 1939.
  • Marmura, Michael E., and J. M. Rist. “Al-Kindī's Discussion of Divine Existence and Oneness.”Medieval Studies25 (1963):338–354.
  • Māturīdī, Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-. Kitāb al-tawḥīd. Edited by Fatḥ Allāh Khulayf. Beirut, 1970.
  • Quṭb, Sayyid. In the Shade of the Qurʿān. Translated by M. A. Salahi and A. A. Shamis. London, 1979.
  • Quṭb, Sayyid. Khaṣāʿiṣ al-taṣawwur al-Islāmī wa- muqawwamātuh. Cairo, 1962.
  • Ramadan, Tariq. Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. New York, 2004.
  • Sharīʿatī, ʿAlī. Islām shināsī. Mashhad, 1347/1978.
  • Sharīʿatī, ʿAlī. On the Sociology of Islam. Translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, Calif., 1979.

© Oxford University Press 2007-2008. All Rights Reserved