Friday , September 25 2020

Monism and monotheism

Department: Orientation and Facilitation Centre

Course: Comparative religion (مقارنة الادیان)

Date: July 30th, 2020

Lesson: Monism and Monotheism

Recently, I received an eye-opener on Twitter. I am posting the whole conversation here, then I will summarise it in a few words afterwards:


Here is a summary of the Twitter exchange:

1. Shankaracharya travelled the length and breadth of India preaching Advaita – the message of Oneness and Unity.

2. Oneness and Unity is also the basis of Islam (Tauhid).

3. But there is a world of difference between Advaita and Tauhid: ‘Advaita doesn’t say there is only one God, it says we all have god in ourselves.’

The third suggestion, that we all have god in ourselves, is what is known as monism, or more commonly pantheism – the belief that god is in everything. Far from being the same as Tauhid, as my Twitter correspondent noted, this is the opposite of Tauhid.

The first thing to emphasise here is that Islam holds the Creator to be separate, and creation to be separate. This belief is fundamental to Islam. All creation sings the praises of the Creator:

تُسَبِّحُ لَهُ السَّمَاوَاتُ السَّبْعُ وَالْأَرْضُ وَمَنْ فِيهِنَّ ۚ وَإِنْ مِنْ شَيْءٍ إِلَّا يُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِهِ وَلَٰكِنْ لَا تَفْقَهُونَ تَسْبِيحَهُمْ ۗ إِنَّهُ كَانَ حَلِيمًا غَفُورًا

(اسراء، ٤٤)

The seven heavens and the earth and all who dwell therein glorify Him. There is not a single thing but glorifies him with His praise, only you do not understand their glorification. Truly, He is Forebearing, Forgiving.

(Al-Quran, 17:44)

For man to do so willingly, of his own volition, that is the very purpose of the creation of man:

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ


I created jinn and mankind only so that they might worship me.

(Al-Quran, 51:56)

Creation is attached to the Creator by the act of prostration. The more one lowers oneself before the Creator, the more one touches the ground from which He created us, the more one becomes close to Him:

 عن أبى هريرة قال رسول الله صلّى الله عليه و سلّم: أقرب ما يكون العبد من ربه و هو ساجد فأكثروا الدعاء

(رواه  مسلم)

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: The nearest a servant comes to his Lord is when he is prostrating himself, so make supplication often. 


It was in order to maintain the clarity of this distinction  between creation and the Creator that Imam Ibn Taimiyya refuted, in no uncertain terms, belief in the Oneness of Being (وحدة الوجود), attributed to Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi:

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ ۖ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ ۗ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِنْ عِنْدِ رَبِّنَا ۗ

(آل عمران، ۷)

It is He who has sent down the Book to you. Some of its verses are clear and precise in meaning – they are the basis of the Book – while others are allegorical. Those with deviation in their hearts pursue the allegorical, in order to create dissension by seeking to explain it: but no one knows its meaning except for Allah. Those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it: it is all from Our Lord.’

(Al Imran, 2:7)

To Ibn Taimiyya’s black-and-white way of thinking, any suggestion of Oneness of Being could lead one down the slippery slope to pantheism. He had no time for it.

At the same time, it is easy to see how Muhiyuddin ibn Arabi arrived at a Oneness of Being conclusion. Everything in this world is so fleeting, so transitional, that it one can be forgiven for only seeing Allah:

کلُّ مَنْ عَلیها فَان وَ یبقَی وَجْهُ رَبَّک ذوالجلالِ والاکرامِ

(الرّحمان، ۲۶-۲۷)

All that is on this earth is doomed to perish, while Your Lord’s Own Self will remain in all its power and glory. 

(Al-Quran, 26-27)

Imam Rabbani Sirhindi (1564-1624) was more accommodating, though he also took issue, albeit more reverentially than Ibn Taimiyya, with the idea of Oneness of Being. Rather, he relabelled it as Oneness of Appearance – وحدة الشّهود: what appears as Oneness of Being is in fact just a trick of the senses, an optical illusion. It seems like that, but ‘appearances are always deceptive’.

The khanqah of Imam Sirhindi in Punjab, India

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytoon Institute in California has given a very good example of Oneness of Manifestation. It’s like a film, he said in one talk. It seems like one continuous roll, but in fact each frame is separate. So you need vision to be able to see in between each separate frame:

وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

Only the wise take heed.

(Al Imran, 2:7)

For those who understand Urdu, the clip below from a talk of Dr Israr Ahmad Sahib is very edifying on the subject of Oneness of Being, Oneness of Manifestation:

In our next lesson, we will Inshallah look at the verse of Surah Al Imran (verse 7), quoted above, in the context of the belief of Christians, regarding Jesus the son of Mary.

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