Understanding Tawḥīd through Islamic Decoloniality
The central tenet of Islamic belief – the proclamation of lā ilāha illallāh, or “there is no God but Allah” – forms the underlying consciousness that breathes meaning into the existence of every Muslim. This proclamation, or kalimah, is made up of two seemingly opposing statements – a negation followed by an affirmation. Ostensibly, this might seem contradictory, even irreconcilable. The reality, however, is far from it — a closer look revealing the logically consistent structure underpinning this attestation of faith. The affirmation of illallāh, literally, “but Allah,” comes after a negation, lā ilāha, meaning “there is no God,” or no “fossilized system” — with its own truth claims to a pluriversal metaphysical order, which, at its roots, questions the divine ontologically-grounded hierarchy of differentiation, or, in other words, doubts and disputes the absolute divinity of Allah.1 These other systems with truth claims – whether in the form of a claim to being god themselves, as in the case of the Pharaoh, or in the form of the practice of idolatry – are all products of false ontological consciousnesses which exceed the limits and transgress the boundaries of justice (‘adl), and which create their own socio-economic hierarchies by overpowering and dominating others.
Tawḥīd in Civilisational Historicity
It is this lā ilāha component that all the prophets – from Adam up to Muhammad (peace be upon them) – had to work on amongst their people in order to lay the foundation of the component of illallāh. In other words, they had to first prepare the ground for the establishment of absolute divine oneness by eradicating every other false god and every other false claim to truth from the hearts and minds of their people. Lā ilāha – which is nothing but atheism on its own – was never a problem that threatened the nucleus of human civilization, and hence, never a problem that the prophets specifically addressed, simply because there was always something that people believed in. The primary task of every prophet since the dawn of time, therefore, was to work on dismantling this ‘something’ – both external (for example, idolatry) and internal (for example, takabbur, or arrogance) – from their people. Every prophet, thus, was sent to his people with the same unchanged core message: that God is one and He alone is worthy of worship. For this message to be properly delivered, however, the right ground had to be prepared, which each prophet did by following a divinely ordained systematic process of reforming existing false (bāṭil) ideas and discourses, both by external (yatlū ‘alayhim āyātihī wa yu’allimuhumul kitāba wa al-hikmah – the famous prayer of Abraham as recorded in the Qur’ān: “Our Lord, raise in their midst a Messenger from themselves who will recite to them Your verses and teach them the Book and wisdom…”) and internal (wa yuzakkīhim – literally, “…and purify them,” which is where the Islamic tradition of tazkiyah al-nafs, meaning, to course-correct human nature and psychology, comes from) means.2 A point worthy of note here is that both external and internal guidance (iṣlāh), administered by the external authority of a prophet, was necessary for the complete reformation of the self of mankind each time it went astray. Islam alone, therefore, is the only complete, true religion, the only true philosophy, with the only justifiable ontology, with the only valid truth claim, since the beginning of time, its message unchanged, aptly crystallized in the final revelation by God to man:
And We sent not before you any messenger except that We revealed to him that, “There is no deity except Me, so worship Me.”3
Tawḥīd in the Palestinian Context against Israeli Occupation
If the Jewish faith had provided the last, true way to make sense of the universe, if Jewish monotheism had provided a true framework to understand and accept God’s divinity and oneness, and if the Jewish mystic tradition of Kabbalah – which is a set of ancient Jewish esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between the unchanging, eternal God and the mortal, finite universe – had provided a properly grounded foundation to inwardly engage with God’s beauty and majesty, why, then, did God keep sending prophets to the Children of Israel (Banī Isrā’īl), one after another? Why were the prophets David, Solomon, Zechariah, John, and finally, Jesus (peace be upon them all) sent to them? What was the need for sending Muhammad (peace be upon him), the last of all of them and the seal of prophethood, as a blessing for the worlds?4 The reason is simple – all the prophets of Allah, up until the last, have engaged with, course-corrected, and strived to restore and reconstruct the divinely ordained hierarchy that had been displaced by a turn to the inward self, cutting human beings off from their external connection to the divine, causing great harm and serious corruption (fitnah).5 This corruption materialized in societies due to a denial of the oneness – the quality of being one – of tawḥīd, which translated to an acceptance of the intermingling of it with the attributes of other metaphysical systems, muddying its waters and altering its foundational episteme. Historically, this was the point in time when God would send a prophet to right this wrong, who would then preach to his people to stop this ẓulm, or injustice, that they were doing unto themselves and restore God’s rightful order on the land. This cycle of course-correction continued until the appearance of the last and final Messenger, peace be upon him, upon whose passing it was relegated to his ummah, or anyone in the world until the end of time who believed in his message.
As it was, there were a number of prophets and messengers sent to the Banī Isrā’īl, or the children of Israel, named so because they were the progeny of the prophet Jacob, one of whose names was Isrā’īl (peace be upon him). These prophets and messengers all followed the same God – the God who sent down the Torāh, the Injīl, the Psalms, and, lastly, the Qur’ān. All throughout history, then, the God does not change, and neither does the core message. The message acted as a test for the people who heard and received it, just like it was a test for the people of Moses (peace be upon him). The test lay in whether the people who heard the message chose to hold on to it and implement it in their own lives, whether they established justice or corruption, and whether they relayed the message onwards to the best of their ability.
And so it was with the people of Moses (peace be upon him). They, however, instead of choosing to uphold God’s covenant with them, broke it multiple times, changing and contaminating the message that Moses and his brother Aaron (peace be upon them) brought to them. In short, they refused to trust either of these prophets, as well as the subsequent prophets after them, prioritizing instead what they themselves thought was best for them. In some cases, this even took the shape of conspiring against, blaming, and even murdering the prophets whom they were supposed to obey and follow. The present-day Torāh, for example, has been so diluted and tampered with that its original form has been lost to the aeons.6 In another famous instance, which is also corroborated by the Qur’ān, they refused to enter and fight for the holy land (arḍ-al-quds) that was promised to them as a part of their first covenant with God, bidding Moses and Aaron to go and fight in their place, “with their lord.”7 As we see later, it is this very promise that formed the theological foundations of the modern Zionist project that began in the late nineteenth century.8
Among the Banī Isrā’īl, however, were also the people who believed in the message of the prophets, and strove to uphold and implement it in God’s land. These believers were good and righteous people, who had accepted and surrendered to the message, or who, in other words, were Muslim (literally, those who had submitted). It was these people who fought and entered this holy land during the time of Saul (Ṭālūt) and the prophet David (peace be upon him). As discussed before, there would not have been much difference between these people and the true believers of today, both of them united under the single unchanged banner of tawḥīd that had been cast and recast, each time in its sole, authentic form, throughout the ages. This can be easily proven by the fact that if the original, unchanged books that God had sent down upon these people were to materialize amongst the believers (Muslims) of today, they would have no choice but to believe in them, as they would contain the same message that is presently contained within the Qur’ān. The Qur’ān, thus, does not contain a new message or a new religion. It is a reiteration and reconfirmation of the facts that were blotted out from earlier scriptures that were sent down by God to the people and which were, for all purposes, lost to mankind.
In the Islamic episteme, a group of people do not become “special” or “chosen” by virtue of birth alone. God does not give any kind of preference – be it land, wealth, or honour – to a people just because of their bloodline.9 Where a person comes from is entirely arbitrary, and it, along with other accidents attached to that person, form the content of the test that he or she is to undergo as a being with consciousness and free will functioning in a social, material world. The Islamic model of life does not prop up rigid bifurcations between believers and non-believers, neatly and irreversibly dividing the world into these two categories. The boundary between belief and non-belief in the Islamic framework is, in fact, tremendously fluid, with any individual possessing the immediate capability, based on his/her own free will, to enter (or exit) the fold of Islam at any point in their lifetimes. Islam, therefore, does not depend on the materiality of the human body in order to subsist. Its ‘being’ is rooted instead in a core, stable, and unchanging ‘essence’ which ensures that the foundational, metaphysical bond that holds all Muslim peoples together is present in its original form across time and space. As such, it is not housed in or bound by any materially constructed notion of human thought.
In the Jewish episteme, however, Jews are the “chosen people,” with very rigid notions of who exactly is (or ‘can be’) a Jew and who is not. Thus, with a major aspect of the entire ‘being’ of Jewishness concentrated on the outer, physical self of the individual, Judaism has to fixate on the material aspect of being (that is most visibly manifested in the significance that is accorded to bloodline) to ensure its continuity through time and space. We are able to see the manifestation of this principle1011 in real time in the ethnonationalism of the state of Israel, which holds that ethnic nationalism is indeed based on “inherited elements such as innate religion, descent, language, territory, etc., that are not subject to the individual’s free choice.”12 In any case, Judaism is a material, temporal, and social construction that first came into being with the passing of King Solomon, with his kingdom splitting into two factions. One of these factions was the kingdom of Judah, named so after one of the sons of Jacob. It is from this kingdom of Judah – or Judea – that the name ‘Jew’ comes from, and it is also only after the passing of Solomon that Judaism became an institutionalised faith. This fact of Judaism being a construct is also very clearly alluded to in the Qur’ān, where God, when addressing the Jews specifically, does not use the term Banī Isrā’īl, instead calling them by the name Hād, or Hādū, literally, “those who became Jews.”13
Judaism came into being, thus, not from within, but from without the centrefold of prophethood to guide and nurture it, which would have fashioned a community of believers by bringing a people back to their primaeval mode of being by removing a (previous) contamination wrought by their hands upon themselves. In other words, it was founded on a betrayal – a betrayal of God’s word and promise – external to the authority of any prophet or messenger, and, as such, incorporating all kinds of oppression and injustice within itself. The biggest of these injustices was the altering of the word – and thus, changing the original purpose – of God, which directed mankind to uphold the covenant and establish the law of God upon God’s land, which is the truest expression and the ultimate consummation of justice. The creation of Zionist doctrine, even though it began as a purely political project, is strongly mandated upon the pattern of the erstwhile construction of Judaism as an organised religion. Zionism, although emerging as a secular movement, was more of a project based on political identity, albeit with vague religious undertones, gaining currency in a post-Enlightenment world which had already imbibed within itself the separation between nation and religion. The ‘secular’ element (in the sense of displacing God from the centre) in the Zionist project was central to it, and, as propounded by various scholars of secularism, now wholly circumscribes the notion of the ‘religious’ within itself, shifting its boundaries by shaping, reshaping, and thus redefining the Jewish identity in whichever way it sees most advantageous to itself.14
The construction of a ‘holy land’ within this Zionist philosophy, thus, is based entirely upon memory, recalled in daily acts of secularised ritual faith – most notably prayer – calling upon God to restore Jews to this holy land at the end of history.15 Within the Islamic paradigm, however, the concept of the holy land is based on a completely diametrically opposing notion to the secularised Zionist conception. The Islamic worldview is wholly concerned with regulating the power dynamics between the ruling elite and the common people, by breaking the takabbur (arrogance) and the ṭughyān (transgression) of the former, eradicating all forms of fitnah that emerge when justice (‘adl) and the law of God is not established upon the land. The conquest of Makkah by Muhammad (peace be upon him), his establishment of the polity of Madinah, and the Muslim expeditions of Jerusalem and beyond all stand in testimony to the fact that in Islamic ontology, ‘sacred’ does not imply a mere spiritual attachment to the idealization of physical land. Instead, it transcends both material and spiritual realms into the unified realm of the divine – which can only be reached through the prophetic blueprint of establishing God’s law upon God’s land (‘adl), thereby challenging all false temporal hierarchies.
The establishment of Israel as the new ṭāghūt (idol) after the second World War, the takabbur exhibited by the neo-pharaohs of the world in helping to prop it up, and consequent Muslim attempts to unseat these forces in order to establish justice (‘adl) demonstrate that the issue of Palestine, therefore, is very much an Islamic issue with a strong grounding in the Qur’ānic paradigm of Truth (haq) and falsehood (bāṭil), its roots deep in tawḥīdic ontology. The logic of domination that is inherent in the very foundations of the Zionist state – from its strong surveillance network that pervades the fabric of life within its colonial boundaries and the impregnable, almost mythic Iron Dome defense system,16 to its powerful overseas network of lobbies, especially in the United States17 — only serves to crystallize an image of an all-powerful state that is on par with the God of Israel. The Islamic paradigm of negation of all false, material hierarchies of power is, therefore, the only logical antidote to this claim to sovereignty and supremacy that exists within the very fabric of being of the Zionist philosophy.
In addition, even the historicity of the Zionist claim to Palestine is revealed to be nothing but a spectre, a hallucination, if you will, of constructed memory, when Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), in a statement issued on July 27, 1937, responded to the claim that Muslims had colonized the land of Palestine time and again, forcefully wresting it from the Jews, by calling the (Palestine) issue “purely a Muslim problem,” based on the tawḥīdic philosophy of the prophets who were sent to the Jews in order to bring them back to the submission of Islam.18 Iqbal further established a historical case for Palestine in the Islamic context:
The problem, studied in its historical perspective, is purely a Muslim problem…Palestine ceased to be a Jewish problem long before the entry of Caliph Umar into Jerusalem more than 1300 years ago. Their dispersion, as Professor Hockings has pointed out, was perfectly voluntary and their scriptures were for the most part written outside Palestine.19
As Muslims, our engagement with the Jews, therefore, has to be a reiteration of the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings be upon him) mission that was reflected in both the conquest of Makkah and the establishment of the polity of Madinah. His policy involved simultaneously breaking the might and power of the arrogant ruling elite to establish the law of Allah – reflected in ‘adl (justice) – while at the same time showing mercy and benevolence to the common people, as guided by the injunctions within the Qur’ān. This has been the blueprint followed by Muslim conquerors ever since – by Caliph Umar when he conquered Jerusalem, by Saladin when he defeated the Crusaders, by the Berbers in Muslim Spain, and by the Ottomans after the fall of Muslim Spain and the subsequent Muslim and Jewish expulsion from its lands.
The existing decolonial turn that has emerged as a counteracting movement to decentre the Western hegemon is contrarily laden with philosophical anomalies. It, despite being in opposition to Western modes of being and Western theories of knowledge, remains stuck inside the overarching secular, humanist Western episteme that stops all thought and conceptualization against it from even imagining a world beyond its confines. Any decolonial exercise rooted in a metaphysical disobedience rather than an epistemological one is canceled and labelled as orthodox, extremist and organized. The works of the likes of Frantz Fanon,20 Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe (on Palestine) are taken as the gospel truth, with little questioning of the very philosophical foundations on which these authors have built their critique and ‘resistance’ to the West.21Their engagement with the West is, in fact, rooted in the same Enlightenment framework whose imperialistic repercussions we seek to resist by turning to the tawḥīdic paradigm. Muslim academia, especially in the West today, faces the same challenge – how does one go about conceptualizing a decoloniality that is rooted in the tawḥīdic framework and that operates under a tawḥīdic paradigm, rather than remaining hopelessly stuck inside a secular humanist ontology?
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.Endnotes
- Davutoglu, Ahmet. Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory. University Press of America, 1993.
- The Holy Qur’an, 2:129.
- The Holy Qur’an, 21:25.
- Facchine, Tom. “Are All Religions the Same? Islam and the False Promise of Perennialism.” Yaqeen Institute, 13 September 2023, https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/are-all-religions-the-same-islam-and-the-false-promise-of-perennialism.
- Anjum, Ovamir. “Islam as a Discursive Tradition: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 27 no. 3, 2007, p. 656-672. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/224569.
- Berlin, Adele, et al., editors. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford University Press, 2004.
- The Holy Qur’an, 5:24.
- Alam, M. Shahid. Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
- This point is not mutually exclusive to the sharaf of Ahl al-Bayt, may Allah be pleased with them. The point here is that the question of salvation in Islam is not tied to bloodline or race, unlike in Hinduism, for example, where the superiority of some castes are established from birth, with nothing being able to take this superiority away.
- Paz, Reut Yael. “The Stubborn Subversiveness of Judaism’s Matrilineal Principle.” Verfassungsblog, 29 September 2021, https://verfassungsblog.de/the-stubborn-subversiveness-of-judaisms-matrilineal-principle/
- Cohen, Shaye J. D. “The Origins of the Matrilineal Principle in Rabbinic Law.” AJS Review, vol. 10, no. 1, 1985, pp. 19-53. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0364009400001185.
- Fisher, Netanel. “Dynamic Ethnonationalism: The Ongoing Changes in the Ethnonational Borders—Israel in a Global Perspective.” Religions, vol. 13, no. 12, Nov. 2022, p. 1130. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13121130.
- The Holy Qur’an, 4:160.
- Stanislawski, Michael. Zionism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2017.
- Herzl, Theodor. Der Judenstaat. English. Bod Third Party Titles, 2012.
- Weizman, Eyal. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. Verso, 2012.
- Mearsheimer, John J., and Stephen M. Walt. The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. Penguin Adult, 2008.
- Malik, Hafeez. Iqbal in Politics. Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2009.
- Harfouch, Ali. “Hegel, Fanon, and the Problem of Recognition.” Frantz Fanon and Emancipatory Social Theory (2019): 139-151. https://www.academia.edu/66147963/Hegel_Fanon_and_the_Problem_of_Recognition?email_work_card=view-paper&li=0.
- Hallaq, Wael B. Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge. Columbia University Press, 2018.
Juveria Asif is a graduate student at Aligarh Muslim University. She is interested in investigating the role of language in the production of selves, debates around the secularisation of the current world, and the rise, formation, and de-formation of the nation-state paradigm. She is also interested in debates around the intersection between the nature of the self and the nature of society.
Shafa'at Wani is a research scholar focusing on South Asian Muslim intellectual traditions.