What Does God’s Conception as One and Unique Signify?
- By Abdur Rab --
- 11 Mar 2015 --
Featured Contributor Abdur Rab discusses God as One and Unique as well as what it means to be the universe’s creator.
Abstract: The conception of God as One and Unique speaks to His undiluted Individuality, Indivisibility, Independence, and Absoluteness. This conception is significant because it enables us to deduce some important implications for humankind such as that: (1) God is only our Supreme Lord worthy of worship and emulation; (2) God’s Independence means that He does not need anything from us, but it’s we who need spontaneously to worship Him, seeking His help and grace; (3) We as humans all stand before God on an equal footing, with an obligation not to create any discrimination amongst us, except on grounds of pure merit; and (4) As nothing works beyond the God-given Laws of Nature, we need to reevaluate our work and our prayer and rituals in a whole new light. God is best conceived of as Immanent in the universe. His conception as Omnipotent, All-Seeing, All-Hearing, and All-Knowing should be understood in a way that is compatible with His given immutable Laws of Nature as well as with Free Will that He has bestowed upon His creatures out of His own Will.
The central message of the Quran to humankind – the most important and powerful one that sets Islam apart from most other religions – is the idea that God is One and Unique (Al-Ahad or Al-Wahid):
2:163 Your Ilah (God) is One; there is no Ilah but He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. (Also see 13:16, 14:48, 38:65, 39:4, 40:16, 112:4)
Other expressions found in the Quran reinforce this concept of Tawhid:
Naught is as the likeness of God, as in 42:11, 112:4;
He neither begets nor is begotten, as in 112:3; and
He has no partners, as in 6:163, 7:190-198, 9:31.
The Quran strongly denounces the ideas that He has sons and daughters (2:116; 19:34-35; 6:100-101) and that He is the Trinity (5:73, 116). According to the Quran, Jesus was an illustrious prophet, not a Son of God as believed in Catholicism.
The ideas that God neither begets nor is begotten and that He does not have any partners convey the meanings of His undiluted Individuality, Indivisibility, and Independence. The idea that He is Independent is also explicitly affirmed in the Quran as Al-Ghani, Al-Qayyum, or As-Samad (Al-Ghani, as in 2:263, 267, 3:97, 29:6, 31:12; Al-Qayyum, as in 2:225, 3:2, 20:111; and As-Samad, as in 112:2). One important lesson we can learn from this Independence of God idea is that we need God, but He does not need anything from us (35:15). We need to note this important message, which means that whatever we do is for our own benefit. It does not matter in any way to God.
3:97 If any reject faith, God is Independent of any of His creatures.
29:6 And whoever strives, strives only for his own soul (nafs), for God is fully Independent of anything in the universe. (See also 31:12)
It is important for us to translate this fundamental truth in our own behavior. Whatever good we do, we should do spontaneously, keeping our own interest in view in line with what our conscience dictates, and not because God wants us to do it. God does not really want anything from us.
Ironically, however, Muslims generally consider the Quran-prescribed actions and rituals as Ends in themselves to please God, rather than as Means to an End.
The Quran also mentions God as the Light (An-Nur) of the Heavens and the Earth (An-Nur ul-Smawati al-Ardi, as in 24:35):
24:35 God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth. The metaphor of His Light is like a niche wherein is a lamp – the lamp is in a glass – the glass is as it were a shining star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil almost radiates light, though no fire has touched it. Light upon Light. God guides to His Light those whom He pleases.
This metaphor of light used for God would seem to suggest two things. First, it strengthens the idea of the Individuality of God as One. Light is spread throughout the universe and could hence lend itself to a pantheistic interpretation. But in the metaphor given in the verse above, this light is centralized in a lamp and further individualized in a glass, and possessing the special quality that its radiance does not depend on fire. These ideas thus effectively preclude any idea of pantheism. Second, light, according to modern physics, has the highest, unsurpassable velocity that does not change with the movement of observers. This special characteristic, as Muhammad Iqbal aptly notes, makes light the nearest object to the Absolute. Hence, this quality would also suggest the Absoluteness of God. The Quran also explicitly mentions God as the Absolute (As-Samad, as in 112:2), which also vindicates God’s Oneness.
The Quran has its own compelling arguments in defense of the Oneness of God:
If there were other gods besides God, certainly they would have sought a way to the Most Powerful Lord (17:42); and
If there were more than one God, the universe would have been in utter chaos (21:22).
These arguments in turn inevitably lead to the conclusion that God as One and Unique must also be the Most Powerful and that He must also be the One Who is behind the order of the universe.
Most would view the second argument – the idea of God being behind the order of the universe – as implying that He is its Creator and Manager. The Quran and other Scriptures also talk of God as the Creator of the universe. However, in the light of development in modern scientific thought, especially in the light of the theory of evolution, we need to treat the Scriptural idea of creation in a figurative sense. God does not really create in the strictly literal sense. His creation of the universe should be understood in the same sense as can be applied to other texts in the Quran that speak of God doing various things such as those that say that He gives life and death (2:258), or that He feeds us (6:14), or that He sends winds, clouds and rain, and thereby brings forth fruits of all kinds (7:57). We know that these things happen when the forces or laws of Nature and human and other agents of God are in action in the universe. The creation idea thus needs to be understood in a way that makes it compatible with the idea of evolution that is also clearly set out in the Quran. The conception of God as a Creator is ruled out on the simple, compelling ground that it begs the question of an infinite regress – who created God, who created the creator of God, who created the creator of the creator of God, and so on. This infinite regress problem cannot simply be brushed aside or assumed away. Philosophers have done that and postulated various theories for the existence of God. But, unfortunately, all such theories are beset with serious problematic issues.
As I have argued elsewhere, “we should conceive [of God] as Immanent in the universe, which means that He is manifest in the very laws of nature and the actions of human and other agents. He has been involved or Immanent in the very process of evolution since the beginning that has brought about everything, or is bringing about, everything in the universe. The Quran reveals this idea, if we read into its relevant texts carefully. The Quran likes us to reflect on the causes that brought the universe and other things into existence and the laws that cause the alternation of the day and the night (3:190-191, 29:20). Recounting the routing of Goliath’s army by David’s one, the Quran states that if “He” does not repel some men by others, this earth would remain corrupt (2:251). Another verse reads, “You did not slay them, God slew them; and when you threw, it’s not you who threw, but God threw…” (8:17). […] All this illustrates how God acts through [Nature and] human agents. God acts through […] other living beings as well.”
Note that this idea of the Immanence of God in the universe should not be taken in a pantheistic sense to mean that everything in the universe is godly or god. While God is everywhere and in everything and every being, nothing or no being is God. The Quran rules out pantheism with a single stroke of the pen: Naught is as the likeness of God (Quran, 42:11, 112:4).
Now we turn to the first argument of the Quran that God as One must also be the Most Powerful or the Supreme Lord to do away with the need for, or the existence of, other gods. The Supreme Lord idea easily lends itself to agreement with our common sense. He epitomizes in Himself the perfection of all conceivable qualities that are worthy of emulation. This is because less than perfect beings have no legitimate basis to command our worship and emulation. It makes a lot of sense for us to take Him as our best Ideal to follow. The Quran itself declares that God is always on the right course – sirat im-mustaqeem (11.56). Hence, to be righteous, we need to emulate and worship God, One Lord. This is the second important lesson we learn from the concept of Tawhid.
Since we should not recognize any living beings as our lords and since we should all serve One God, the idea of Tawhid also sends another powerful message that we, as servants of One God, are all equal in the eyes of God. We can excel one another only in terms of righteousness and not in any other criteria such as color, sex, race, religion, wealth, national, social or geographic origin, political or other opinion, birth or similar status. All men and women are equal in the eyes of God; only virtuousness determines who is nearer to Him (3:195; 4:124; 16:97; 33:35; 49:13). All the children of Adam – all men and women – deserve the same dignity (17:70). Thus a third important lesson we learn from the Islamic concept of Tawhid is that all human beings stand on the same equal footing as servants of God, which in turn means that we are morally obligated to treat all men and women equally.
This, of course, does not mean that we should not accord due respect to those who deserve respect because of their more respectable work and superior knowledge. In fact, following those who walk in the way of God implies the same thing as following God Himself. And not respecting those who are more respectable and knowledgeable than us really amounts to arrogance and disrespecting of God Himself. That is precisely the reason why God urges us to follow the prophets, and those who have authority or justification to be followed (4:59). We need to appreciate the qualities of, show due respect to, and bless and support, superior persons. Such appreciation, blessing, or support has a special spiritual significance. By extending such appreciation and support, we in the process enlist their blessing or support in return.
We turn now to considering the conception of God as the Omnipotent, which takes on various shades of meaning in the Quran such as: Al-Qadir (The Almighty, He Who is Capable of doing Everything as in 2:20, 3:189, 4:149, 6:65, 46:33, 75:40), Al-Aziz (The Almighty, The Honorable as in 2:129,209,220, 3:6, 4:158, 9:40, 48:7, 58,21, 59:23), Al-Jabbar (The Irresistible, The Compeller as in 59:23), Al-Qawi (The Strong as in 8:52, 11:66, 22:40,74, 33:25, 42:19, 57:25), Al-Muqtadir (The All-Prevalent, The Dominant as in 18:45, 43:42, 54:42, 45)), and Al-Mutakabbir (The Majestic, The Supreme as in 59:23). The pertinent question we need to ask here is: Does Omnipotence mean that God could do anything and everything without any limits? If yes, that would imply that God is arbitrary and capricious. However, God could never be conceived of as One Who is arbitrary and capricious. God has His own self-imposed limitations. One such, albeit the most important, limitation is given by his own created fixed laws, the Laws of Nature that govern how all things work in the universe. God subjects Himself to such Laws, as He always acts rationally, which is reflected in the Quranic expression that there is no flaw in His creation or action (67:3-4) as well as in the statement that God never changes His Sunnah or Ways (35:43, 17:77).
Another limitation is given by the free options exercised by humankind and other living species. Various passages in the Quran unequivocally uphold the freedom of human choice: “The Truth (has now come) from your Lord; let then, him who wills believe (in it), and let him who wills reject (it)” (18:29); “You are responsible for your own selves” (5:105); and “Spend in God’s cause, let not your hands cause you to ruin” (2:195). A key passage of the Quran states that God does not change the condition of people until they change their own nafs or selves (13:11). Still another says that there is nothing for man except with effort (53:39, 20:15, 2:286). All this convincingly proves man’s ability to freely decide and do his action. As Muhammad Iqbal beautifully puts it, “No doubt, the emergence of egos endowed with the power of spontaneous and hence unforeseen action is, in a sense, a limitation on the freedom of the all-inclusive Ego [i.e., God]. But this limitation is not externally imposed. It is borne out of His creative freedom whereby He has chosen finite egos to be participators of His life, power, and freedom.”
The perception of God as All-Seeing (Al-Basir as in 2:96,110, 4:58, 134, 8:72, 17:1,18, 42:11, 27), All-Hearing (As-Sami as in 2:127,137,224, 256, 3:34, 4:58, 8:17, 49:1), and All-Knowing (Al-Hakim as in 2:32,129,209, 220,228,240, 31:27, 46:2, 57:1, 66:2, or All-Aware (Al-Khabir as in 2:234, 271, 3:153,180, 6:18, 103, 17:30, 49:13, 59:18) also needs to be understood in a proper perspective. What needs to be recognized is that what is not visible cannot be seen also by God, although nothing is hidden from Him. Likewise, what is not audible is not amenable to hearing also by God. In other words, God sees only the visible and He hears only the audible. Thus God’s knowledge encompasses all that can be known and foreknown. It will be wrong to assume, as many do, that God knows all future events. Knowing all future events amounts to predetermination of all such events. But God does not predetermine all future events, for if He does, that would amount to negating free will to human beings. If He negates free will to human beings, he cannot legitimately hold them accountable for their actions. This very fact, as discussed above, acts as a limitation of God’s power. But this is a limitation chosen by God Himself. To quote Iqbal again, “The future certainly pre-exists in the organic whole of God’s creative life, but it pre-exists as an open possibility, not as a fixed order of events with definite outlines.”
Finally – a fourth, albeit a very important, lesson we can draw from the unchanging character of the Laws of Nature is that – we are bound by these Laws just as God has bound Himself to such Laws out of His own volition and that it is because of these Laws that we know what works and what does not work for us. These Laws form the essential foundation of all scientific progress. At the same time exploring, and working in conformity with, these Laws, along with striving to reflect God’s attributes or qualities in our life, is the greatest salat or prayer we can perform. And importantly, the Laws also imply the extent or limit to which our prayer can work, since we cannot make God deviate an inch from His Laws. This suggests that there can be no miracles in the sense of defying the Laws of Nature.
Contrary to how most people seem to visualize God, there are various nuances attached to the Oneness and Uniqueness of God that provide some clarity to the conception of God and leads to various lessons we can draw. Keeping in view this new understanding of God, we need to see our work, our conduct with others, and our prayer and rituals in a whole new light. None can bypass God’s Laws, which are nothing but the Laws of Nature, which form the essential backbone of all scientific and human progress. We cannot expect to hear our prayers heard when such prayers go beyond what is possible within the ambit of God’s Laws. At the same time, we need to be aware of what we need to do for our own sake and we need to do such things out of our own spontaneity, not simply because God wants us to do them nor just believing that the doing of such things could only please Him.
 Iqbal, Muhammad, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Adam Publishers and Distributors, Delhi, 1997, p. 51 (also published earlier (in 1934) by the Oxford University Press).
 See author’s article “How God Exists: What Can We Glean from the Quran?” Available at https://www.academia.edu/2902541/How_God_Exists_What_Can_We_Glean_from_the_Quran.
 We should also note that the freedom of human choice could be constrained by hereditary and environmental factors, which are, so to say, God-given. For a synthesized view of Divine will and human freedom, see the author’s article here: http://www.aslanmedia.com/arts-culture/mideast-culture/9352-divine-will-and-human-freedom.
 Iqbal, Muhammad, op. cit., pp. 63-64.
 Ibid, p. 63.