the essence of Islamic civilization
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the essence of Islamic civilization: tawhid
Ismail Farouqi

There can be no doubt that the essence of Islamic civilization is Islam; or that the essence of Islam is tawhid, the act of affirming Allah to be the One, absolute, transcendent Creator, Lord and Master of all that is.
These two fundamental premises are self-evident. They have never been in doubt by those belonging to this civilization or participating in it. Only in recent times have missionaries, Orientalists, and other interpreters of Islam subjected these premises to doubt. Whatever their level of education, Muslims are apodictically certain that Islamic civilization does have an essence, that this essence is knowable and capable of analysis or description, that it is tawhid1. Analysis of tawhid as essence, as first determining principle of Islamic civilization, is the object of this document.
Tawhid is that which gives Islamic civilization its identity, which binds all its constituents together and thus makes of them an integral, organic body that we call civilization. In binding disparate elements together, the essence of civilization in this case, tawhid impresses them with its own mold. It recasts them so as to harmonize with and mutually support other elements. Without necessarily changing their natures, the essence transforms the elements making up a civilization, giving them their new character as constitutive of that civilization. The range of transformation may vary from slight to radical, depending on how relevant the essence is to the different elements and their functions. This relevance stood out prominently in the minds of Muslim observers of the phenomena of civilization. That is why they took tawhid as title to their most important works, and they pressed all subjects under its aegis. They regarded tawhid as the most fundamental principle that includes or determines all other principles; and they found in it the fountainhead, the primeval source determining all phenomena of Islamic civilization.
Traditionally and simply expressed, tawhid is the conviction and witnessing that, “there is no God but God.” This negative statement, brief to the utmost limits of brevity, carries the greatest and richest meanings in the whole of Islam. Sometimes, a whole culture, a whole civilization, or a whole history lies compressed in one sentence. This certainly is the case of the kalimah (pronouncement) or shahadah (witnessing) of Islam. All the diversity, wealth and history, culture and learning, wisdom and civilization of Islam is compressed in this shortest of sentences “La ilaha illa Allah.”
Tawhid as Worldview
Tawhid is a general view of reality, of truth, of the world, of space and time, of human history. As such it comprehends the following principles:
Reality is of two generic kinds, God and non-God; Creator and creature. The first order has but one member, Allah, the Absolute and Almighty. He alone is God, eternal, Creator, transcendent. Nothing is like unto Him; He remains forever absolutely unique and devoid of partners or associates. The second is the order of space-time, of experience, of creation. It includes all creatures, the world of things, plants and animals, humans, jinn and angels, heaven and earth, paradise and hell, and all their becoming since they came into being. The two orders of Creator and creation are utterly and absolutely disparate as far as their being, or ontology, as well as their existence and careers are concerned. It is forever impossible that the one be united with, fused, con-fused or diffused into the other. Neither can the Creator be ontologically transformed so as to become the creature, nor can the creature transcend and transfigure itself so as to become in any way or sense the Creator.2
The relation between the two orders of reality is ideational in nature. Its point of reference in man is the faculty of understanding. As organ and repository of knowledge, the understanding includes all the gnostic functions of memory, imagination, reasoning, observation, intuition, apprehension, and so on. All humans are endowed with understanding. Their endowment is strong enough to understand the will of God in either or both of the following ways: when that will is expressed in words, directly by God to man, and when the divine will is deducible through observation of creation.3
The nature of the cosmos is teleological; that is, purposive, serving a purpose of its Creator, and doing so out of design. The world has not been created in vain, or in sport.4 It is not the work of chance, a happenstance. It was created in perfect condition. Everything that exists does so in a measure proper to it and fulfills a certain universal purpose.5 The world is indeed a “cosmos,” an orderly creation, not “chaos.” In it, the will of the Creator is always realized. His patterns are fulfilled with the necessity of natural law. For they are innate in the very nature of things. No creature other than man acts or exists in a way other than what the Creator has ordained for it.6 Man is the only creature in which the will of God is actualized not necessarily, but with man’s own personal consent. The physical and psychic functions of man are integral to nature, and as such they obey the laws pertinent to them with the same necessity as all other creatures. But the spiritual functions – namely, understanding and moral action – fall outside the realm of determined nature. They depend upon their subject and follow his determination. Actualization of the divine will by them is of a qualitatively different value than necessary actualization by other creatures. Necessary fulfillment applies only to elemental or utilitarian values; free fulfillment applies to the moral. However, the moral purposes of God, His commandments to man, do have a base in the physical world, and hence there is a utilitarian aspect to them. But this is not what gives them their distinctive quality, that of being moral. It is precisely the commandments’ aspect of being fulfillable in freedom -– that is, with the possibility of being violated – that provides the special dignity we ascribe to things “moral.”7
Capacity of Man and Malleability of Nature
Since everything was created for a purpose, the realization of that purpose must be possible in space and time.8 Otherwise, there is no escape from cynicism. Creation itself and the processes of space and time would lose their meaning and significance. Without this possibility, taklif, or moral obligation, falls to the ground; and with its fall, either God’s purposiveness or His might is destroyed. Realization of the absolute, namely, the divine raison d’etre of creation must be possible in history; that is, within the process of time between creation and the Day of Judgment. As the subject of moral action, man must therefore be capable of changing himself, his fellows or society, nature or his environment, so as to actualize the divine pattern, or commandment, in him as well as in them.9 As the object of moral action, man as well as his fellows and environment must all be capable of receiving the efficacious action of man, the subject. This capacity is the converse of man’s moral capacity for action as subject. Without it, man’s capacity for moral action would be impossible and the purposive nature of the universe would collapse. Again, there would be no recourse from cynicism. For creation to have a purpose — and this is a necessary assumption if God is God and His work is not a meaningless travail de singe — creation must be malleable, transformable, capable of changing its substance, structure, conditions, and relations so as to embody or concretize the human pattern or purpose. This is true of all creation, including man’s physical, psychic, and spiritual nature. All creation is capable of realization of the ought-to-be, the will or pattern of God, the absolute in this space and in this time.10
Responsibility and Judgment
If man stands under the obligation to change himself, his society, and his environment so as to conform to the divine pattern, and is capable of doing so, and if all that is object of his action is malleable and capable of receiving his action and embodying its purpose, then it follows with necessity that he is responsible. Moral obligation is impossible without responsibility or reckoning. Unless man is responsible, and unless he is accountable for his deeds, cynicism becomes once more inevitable.
Judgment, or the consummation of responsibility, is the necessary condition of moral obligation, of moral imperativeness. It flows from the very nature of being “normative”.11 It is immaterial whether reckoning takes place in space-time or at the end of it or both, but it must take place. To obey God, that is, to realize His commandments and actualize His pattern, is to achieve falah or success, happiness, and ease. Not to do so, to disobey Him, is to incur punishment, suffering, unhappiness, and the agonies of failure.
Tawhid as an Essence of Civilization
As the essence of Islamic civilization, tawhid has two aspects or dimensions: the methodology and the content. The former determines the forms of application and implementation of the first principles of the civilization; the latter determines the first principles themselves.
The Methodology Dimension
The methodological dimension includes three principles, namely, unity, rationalism, and tolerance. These determine the form of Islamic civilization, a form that pervades every one of its departments.
Unity. There is no civilization without unity. Unless the elements constituting a civilization are united, woven, and harmonized with one another, they constitute not a civilization but a hodgepodge conglomeration. A principle unifying the various elements and comprehending them within its framework is essential. Such a principle would transform the mixture of relations of the elements with one another into an orderly structure in which levels of priority or degrees of importance are perceivable. The civilization of Islam places elements in an orderly structure and governs their existence and relations according to a uniform pattern. In themselves, the elements can be of either native or foreign provenance. Indeed, there is no civilization that has not adopted some elements foreign to it. What is important is that the civilization should digest those elements, that is, it should recast their forms and relations and thus integrate them into its own system. To “in form” them with its own form is in fact to transform them into a new reality where they exist no more in themselves or in their former dependency, but as integral components of the new civilization in which they have been integrated. It is not an argument against any civilization that it contains such elements; but it is a devastating argument against any civilization when it has merely added foreign elements; when it has done so in disjointed manner, without re formation, in formation, or integration. As such, these elements merely co exist with civilization. They do not belong organically to it. But if the civilization has succeeded in transforming them and integrating them into its system, the integrating process becomes its index of vitality, of its dynamism and creativity. In any integral civilization, and certainly in Islam, the constitutive elements, whether material, structural, or relational, are all bound by one supreme principle. In Islamic civilization, this supreme principle is tawhid. It is the ultimate measuring rod of the Muslim, his guide and criterion in his encounter with other religions and civilizations, with new facts or situations. What accords with it is accepted and integrated. What does not is rejected and condemned.
Tawhid, or the doctrine of absolute unity, transcendence, and ultimacy of God, implies that only He is worthy of worship, of service. The obedient person lives his life under this principle. He seeks to have all his acts to conform to the pattern, to actualize the divine purpose. His life must therefore show the unity of his mind and will, the unique object of his service. His life will not be a series of events put together helter skelter, but will be related to a single overarching principle, bound by a single frame that integrates them together into a single unity. His life thus has a single style, an integral form in short, Islam.

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