The Unity of God

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The Unity of God  (1921) 
by Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī, translated by Syed Nawab Ali
The Unity of God[1]

There are four stages in the belief in the unity of God. The first is to utter the words: “There is no God but God” without experiencing any impression in the heart. This is the creed of the hypocrites. The second is to utter the above words and to believe that their meaning is also true. This is the dogma of ordinary Muslims. The third is to perceive by the inward light of the heart the truth of the above Kalima. Through the multiplicity of causes the mind arrives at the conception of the unity of the final cause. This is the stage of the initiates. The fourth is to gaze at the vision of an all-comprehensive, all-absorbing One, losing sight even of the duality of one’s own self. This is the highest stage of the true devotee. It is described by the Sufis as Fanafittauhid (i.e. the effacement of one’s individuality in contemplating the unity of God).[2] To use a simile these four stages may be compared with a walnut which is composed of an external hard rind, an internal skin, the kernel, and oil. The hard rind, which is bitter in taste, has no value except that it serves as a covering for some time. When the kernel is extracted the shell is thrown away. Similarly the hypocrite who, uttering the Kalima, is associated with the Muslims and safely enjoys their privileges, but at death is cut off from the faithful and falls headlong into perdition. The internal skin is more useful than the external in as much as it preserves the kernel and may be used, but is in no way equal to the kernel itself. Similarly the dogmatic belief of the ordinary Muslim is better than the lip service of the hypocrite, but lacks that broad clear insight which is described as “He whose heart Allah has opened to Islam walks in his light”.

The kernel is undoubtedly the desired object, but it contains some substance which is removed when oil is being pressed out. Similarly the conception of an efficient final cause is the aim and object of the devotees, but is inferior to the vision of the all-pervading Holy One, because the conception of causality involves duality.

But the objection may be urged: How can we ignore the diversities and multiplicities of the universe? Man has hands and feet, bones and blood, heart and soul,-all distinct-yet he is one individual. When we are thinking of a dear old friend and suddenly he stands before us, we do not think of any multiplicity of his bodily organs, but are delighted to see him. The simile, though not quite appropriate is-suggestive, especially for beginners. When they reach that stage they will themselves see its truth. Words fail to express the beatitude of that highest stage. It can be enjoyed, but not described.[3]

Let us consider the nature of the third stage. Man finds that God alone is the prime cause of everything. The world, its objects, life, death, happiness, misery,-all have their source in his omnipotence. None is associated with Him in this. When man comes to recognise this, he has no fear of anything, but puts his trust in God alone. But Satan tempts him by misrepresenting the agencies of the inorganic and organic worlds as potent factors independent in the shaping of his destiny.

Think first of the inorganic world. Man thinks that crops depend on rain descending from clouds, and that clouds gather together owing to normal climatic conditions. Similarly his sailing on the sea depends on favourable winds. Without doubt, these are immediate causes, but they are not independent. Man who in the hour of need calls for God’s mysterious help, forgets Him and turns to external causes as soon as he finds himself safe and sound. “So, when they ride in ships, they call upon Allah, being sincerely obedient to Him, but when he brings them safe to land, they associate others with Him. Thus they become ungrateful for what we have given them, so they might enjoy: but they shall soon know”.[4] If a culprit, whose death sentence is revoked by the king, looks to the pen as his deliverer, will it not be sheer ignorance and ingratitude? Surely, the sun, the moon, the stars, the clouds, in fact, the whole universe is like a pen in the hand of an omnipotent dictator. When this kind of belief takes hold of the mind, Satan is disappointed in covertly tempting man, and uses subtle means, insinuating thus: “Do you not see that the king has full power either to kill or favour you, and though the pen, in the above simile, is not your deliverer, the writer certainly is”? As this sort of reflection led to the vexed question of free will, we have dealt with it already at some length.

At the outset, let us point out that just as an ant, owing to its limited sight will see the point of the pen blackening a blank sheet of paper and not the fingers and hand of the writer, so the person whose mental sight is not keen will attribute the actions to the immediate doer only. But there are minds, which, with the searchlight of intuition, expose the lurking danger of wrongly attributing power to any except the all-powerful omniscient being. To them every atom in the universe speaks out the truth of this revelation. They find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones. The worldling will say: Though we have ears, we do not hear them. But asses also having ears do not hear. Verily there are such ears which hear words that have no sound, that are neither Arabic nor any other language, known to man. These words are drops in the boundless unfathomable ocean of divine knowledge: “If the sea were ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would surely be consumed before the words of my Lord are exhausted.”[5]

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Ihya IV 5.
  2. Usually Fana is translated as “annihilation,” but Al Ghazzali here means what is implied in the statement: “To [Editor: illegible word] move, and have our being in Him.”
  3. “And thou shalt one day, if found worthy, so defined. See thy God face to face, as thou dost now.” Byron Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. CLV.
  4. Quran XXIX 65-66.
  5. Quran XVIII 109. Compare Jalal-ud-Din Rumi:-

        * Air, earth, water, and fire are God’s servants.
        * To us they seem lifeless, but to God living.
        * In God’s presence fire ever waits to do its service,
        * Like a submissive lover with no will of its own.
        * When you strike steel on flint fire leaps forth;
        * But ‘tis by God’s command it thus steps forth.
        * Strike not together the flint and steel of wrong,
        * For the pair will generate more, like man and woman.
        * The flint and steel are themselves causes, yet
        * Look higher for the First Cause, O righteous man
        * For that Cause precedes this second cause.
        * How can a cause exist of itself without precedent cause
        * That Cause makes this cause operative,
        * And again helpless and inoperative.
        * That Cause, which is a guiding light to the prophets,
        * That, I say, is higher than these second causes,
        * Man’s minds recognise these second causes,
        * But only prophets perceive the action of the First Cause

    E. Whinfield: Masnavi. 2nd ed. 1898. p. 16

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.