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What is the criterion for distinguishing monotheism or the Unity of God [tawḥīd] from polytheism [shirk]?

What is the criterion for distinguishing monotheism or the Unity of God [tawḥīd] from polytheism [shirk]?

What is the criterion for distinguishing monotheism or the Unity of God [tawīd] from polytheism [shirk]?





Reply: The most important issue in the study of monotheism [tawīd] and polytheism [shirk] is discerning what their criterion is, and if this issue is not decisively settled, part of the secondary issues will remain unsolved. Along this line, we shall discuss the issue of monotheism and polytheism in different dimensions albeit in concise manner.

1. The unity of the Divine Essence [dhāt]

The discussion of the unity of the Divine Essence may be in two ways:

a. God, whom scholastic theologians [mutakallimūn] define as the “Necessary Being” [wājib al-wujūd]), is One; He has no partner and nothing can be compared to Him. This meaning of monotheism is the same as that which God mentions in various ways in the Glorious Qur’an, such as: شَيْءٌ كَمِثْلِهِ لَيْسَ ﴿ “Nothing is like him.”[1]

Elsewhere, it says: أَحَدُ كُفُوًا لّهُ يَكُنْ لَمْ وَ ﴿ “Nor has He any equal.”[2]

Of course sometimes, this kind of monotheism is vulgarly interpreted in another way and more attention is given to the numerical sense of monotheism and that is, God is One and not two.

It is quite obvious that this way of defining monotheism is incompatible with the Divine Station.

b. The Divine Essence is simple and not compound because a being’s being constitution [tarakkub] of mental or external parts indicates that it is in need of its component parts and the “need” implies that there is “possibility” [imkān] and the possibility, in turn, necessarily mean that there is a need for a cause [‘illat],[3] and all these are discordant with the station of the Necessary Being.

2. The unity of the Divine creative power [khāliqiyyah]

The unity of the Divine creative power is one of the degrees of monotheism which is acknowledged by both reason [‘aql] and revelation [naql].

In the parlance of reason, we in relation to God represent a ‘contingent’ [imkānī] order which is devoid of any sort of perfection [kamāl] and beauty [jamāl], and whatever a thing possesses originally emanates from the fountain of the grace of the Essentially Sufficient [ghanī bi’dh-dhāt]. Thus, any manifestation of perfection and beauty that we see in the world belongs to Him.

 When we consider the Qur’anic viewpoint, we see that the Qur’an contains numerous verses which stress the idea of the unity of the Divine creative power. Here is an example:

الْقَهَّارُ الْواحِدُ وَهُوَ شَيْءٍ كُلِّ خالِقُ اللهُ قُلِ ﴿

“Say, ‘Allah is the creator of all things, and He is the One, the All-paramount’.”[4]

Therefore, the question of the unity of the Divine creative power in general is not disputed by theologians. What needs to be clarified here is that the unity of the Divine creative power has two interpretations, which are as follows:

a. If there exists any kind of causal system and causal relations among the creatures they all stem from the Cause of causes [‘illat ’l-‘ilal] and the Source of effects [musabbab al-asbāb]. In reality, the Independent and Principal Creator is God and the effect of any other than God on all that occurs is ascribed to God and through the permission and will of God.

In this view, the system of cause and effect in the world, which contributes to unveiling the human knowledge, has been acknowledged. Meanwhile, this system belongs to God Who has brought into being this system and originated the effects and causality, causes and causation, and the agents.

b. There is only One Creator in the world and that is God, and in the order of the universe, there exists nothing that can affect or be affected among the things, and God is the Principal[5] Creator of all natural phenomena and human power has also no effect on His deeds.

Therefore, there is only One Cause in the world and He is the “substitute” of all that which is known as “natural causes”.

Of course, this interpretation of the unity of the Divine creative power is endorsed by a group of ‘Ash‘arī scholars, but some figures such as Imām al-aramayn,[6] and recently, Shaykh Muammad ‘Abduh in his book on monotheism, reject this interpretation and adopt the first interpretation.

3. The unity of the Divine design [tadbīr]

Since creation belongs exclusively to God, the design of the order of being also belongs to Him. There is only One Designer in the world, and by means of the rational proof [dalīl al-‘aqlī] that affirms the idea of the unity of the Divine creative power the unity of the Divine design is proved.

In numerous verses, the Glorious Qur’an states that God is the Only Designer of the world, as in the following:

شَيْءٍ كُلِّ رَبُّ وَهُوَ رَبًّا أَبْغِي اللهِ أَغَيْرَ قُلْ ﴿

“Say, ‘Shall I seek a Lord other than Allah, while He is the Lord of all things?’”[7]

Of course, the same two ways of interpreting the unity of the Divine creative power are used for interpreting the unity of the Divine design, and what is meant by the unity of the Divine design is to believe that independent design belongs to no one other than God.

On this basis, all the sorts of subordinate designing among the creatures in the order of universe take place by the will and permission of God. The Holy Qur’an also points to this Divine design, stating: أَمْرًا فَالْمُدَبِّرٰتِ ﴿ “By those who direct the affairs [of creatures].”[8]

[1] Sūrah ash-Shūrā 42:11.

[2] Sūrah al-Ikhlās 112:4.

[3] In the parlance of philosophy, whatever is possible [mumkin] is an effect [sabāb] and needs a cause [‘illat]. In the language of ‘ilm al-kalām [scholastic theology], whatever is created in time is an effect and needs a cause. [Trans.]

[4] Sūrah ar-Ra‘d 13:16.

[5] The original word used here is bilā wāsiah, which means “without any medium or agency”. [Trans.]

[6] See Shahristānī, Al-Milal wa’n-Nal, vol. 1.

[7] Sūrah al-An‘ām 6:164.

[8] Sūrah an-Nāzi‘āt 79:5.

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