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Interview on Tawhid (Islamic Monotheism) with Dr. Ja`far Sheikh Idris

Dr. Ja`far Sheikh Idris
Interview with Dr. Jaafar Sheikh Idris
From "Faces of Islam - Conversations on Contemporary Issues"
Edited by Z.Sardar and M.W. Davies; Berita Publ, Malaysia [1989]

Z.SERDAR: Over 200 years of colonisation, and four decades of modernisation have cut Muslim societies from their traditional roots, and what society is perfect? Therefore, in contemporary times the significance of these Islamic ideas and concepts is not always clear to us. In these conversations we are trying to develop a fresh perspective on these ideas. Here we'll be discussing the concept of Tawhid, which is normally translated as the unity of God. Dr. Idris, let me start off by asking you how do we define Tawhid?

DR. JAAFAR SHEIKH IDRIS: It comes from the Arabic word Wahid, or Ahad, which means one, and it refers to what is for us the most fundamental, the most important fact and that is that there is only one God. Tawhid has three aspects: we acknowledge the fact that it is this God who creates, who sustains everything, who preserves the world. This much is acknowledged by many people, whether they be Muslims or non-Muslims, in fact some people who don't even belong to any religion acknowledge this fact that there is a power behind the world and it is this power which was responsible for creation and it is responsible for the sustaining of the world. The other aspect is that this God has attributes which are very unique, attributes which are not shared by anything else. That doesn't mean that we don't say, for example, we say that "God knows", this doesn't mean that we don't say that a human being knows. But rather it means that when this attribute applies to God it applies to Him in a way in which it does not apply to human beings. The third aspect which is the most important is that it is only this God who deserves to be worshipped. And this is why some people think, and I agree with them, that it is wrong to, to translate La ilaha ill Allah as "There is no God", because there are many gods.

Z.S.: This in fact is the basic tenet of Muslim belief: "La ilaha ill Allah."

J.S.I.: Yes. La ilaha ill Allah , the basic tenet of belief whose real meaning is that there is no God worthy of being worshipped except the one true God whom we call in Arabic, Allah.

Z.S.: If the attributes of God are unique how do we know them?

J.S.I.: This point was explained very nicely by one of the Muslim theologians. He said that these attributes are not unique in the sense that there is no relationship between them and the attributes of created things, there is a common meaning. When I s ay, again the example of knowing: if I say to you so, Zia knows" and I say "Allah knows". So there is a common meaning here -- a core which is common to both. But the difference is about what Imam Malik called the form. You see, when this attribute applies to you, Zia, it takes a different form than when it applies to Allah, Suhhaanahu wa ta`aala , because all His attributes are interconnected. If Allah is everlasting, if He is eternal then the knowledge of an eternal being cannot be like the knowledge of someone like you, who is not...

Z.S.: Not very knowledgeable...

J.S.I.: Not eternal. So we know the attributes of Allah through His creation. So from creation we go to Creator. But, of course another very important source is Revelation, that is when Allah Himself tells us about Himself. We have to know what are the ba sic attributes. especially in relation to His creation. The basic attributes are those we find in Surah al Fatihah.

Z.S.: The opening chapter of the Quran.

J.S.I.: Yes, in the opening chapter we read "Alhamdulillah Rabbil-`Aalamin". Praise be to God, Lord of the World, Rabb. So this is the first attribute, He is Rabb and Rabb in Arabic is a very rich word. It means that He is the Creator, He is the Sustainer , it is He who looks after things. Rabb also comes, the word is related to Tarbiya, which means education. So "Alhamdulillah Rabbil-`Alamin, Ar Rahman ir Rahim: The Compassionate, The Merciful. And then we say, "Maliki Yawm min din": He's the Lord also in the Hereafter. So these are the basic attributes of God. When we talk of or when we say that God becomes angry or He is vengeful also then we have to be careful and not to think of Him as being angry in the way human beings are angry. In fact there is a Tradition of the Prophet which says that Allah's mercy ov ercomes His anger.

Z.S.: So in fact Mercy is the basic attribute of God?

J.S.I.: Yes it is. And one theologian also said that these are the positive attributes.

Z.S.: I'm not quite sure about one or two things. You are drawing a rather human picture of the Muslim God are you not?

J.S.I.: No. No, this is what I am saying and I think this is a very important point. You see there are two extremes here: to run away from likening God to human beings or to creatures. some people have gone to the extreme of likening Him just to an idea. 'they don't want to, attribute to Him anything because they fear that if they say He is angry or He is merciful or whatever, then they are likening Him to a human being. So they end up by, as one Muslim theologian again said, by likening Him to nothing, because it is only non-existent things which don't have any attributes -- anything which exists must have some positive attributes. The correct attitude is to say yes God is a being, He exists. He is not just an idea in our minds -- He is outside there so He must have attributes. But then because His nature is not like, or He's not of the same nature as things around us, things which are created then these attributes apply to Him in a way which is different from that in which they apply to human beings. Ho w, the nature of that difference, we don't know.

Z.S.: You say God is out there. Does it mean that He is not in here, within our hearts, or around here, within the world around us?

J.S.I.: No, according to the Quran, and this is very clear in the Quran, He is here only by His knowledge. When we say that God is everywhere -- we don't mean that He is in person everywhere. And you know there is a famous anecdote that one priest was tel ling some children that God is everywhere. So one child said, "Is he here?" Pointing to a glass of water. The priest said, "Yes." So the child said, "I caught Him", by placing its hand on top of the glass. So He is not everywhere in person, according to t he Quran He is everywhere by His knowledge, by His Mercy, the fact that He is Rabb that He is looking after everything. But He is -not part of the world, He is distinct from it.

Z.S.: Does the idea of Tawhid only include the idea of unity of God, does nor Tawhid have other notions of unity contained within it, like the unity of man and nature and the unity of man and man?

J.S.I.: Tawhid, you can say, it is like the premise from which all the details of Islam are deduced, everything in Islam is related to Tawhid. Because according to Islam every human being is born a Muslim, so Tawhid is the essence of human beings. Every h uman being is born with Tauwhid and when he deviates from Tawhid he is alienated. If he becomes a Muslim, in fact he returns to the religion of his human nature, he becomes himself. And this Tawhid is linked with the best that is in human beings.

Z.S.: What is the distinction between Tawhid and the conception of nature. I mean, does Tawhid also mean that Muslims can dominate nature or could dominate other creations of God?

J.S.I.: No, no. And I'm glad to say that some people in the West now are criticising this attitude towards nature. I read recently that one of them said it was a by-product of capitalism to think of nature as something to be conquered. But in the Quran it is stated that nature is made by Allah to serve human beings. So it is not we who conquer nature and make it subservient to our purposes, it is made for our service So nature serves us, and it serves us the better, the better Muslims we are. The more we abide by the moral laws, nature serves us If we deviate from them then whatever we do we cannot conquer nature and it has a way of punishing us, I mean even in this world, before we go to the Hereaf ter. And this is one of the very basic concepts of the Quran where we read "(Since they have become oblivious of God), corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as an outcome of what man's hands have wrought" (Surah ar-Rum 30:41). Pollution, for example, is a result of moral corruption. So we don't think of nature as something that is to be conquered. It is, you can say, a creature of Allah and our feeling towards nature is the feeling of brotherhood.

Z.S.: What kind of society is Tawhid trying to create?

J.S.I.: You can say that it is a society of true human beings. Human beings who are intellectually very good, who are morally upright, whose society is organised in a way that fosters whatever is good in them as human beings, a society in which people live as brothers, a society in which the relationshilp between the ruler and the ruled is not one of oppression or dictatorship. Even the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims: we treat them as brothers in humanity, I mean so long as they are ready to co-exist with us. So whether it be in the political or economic or social aspect Tawhid helps us to organise our society in a way that is very consonant with our true human nature as human beings. But the problem of the Muslims nowadays is that in fact their behaviour, whether it be personal behaviour or the way they organise their society and so on, is not very much related to what they read in the Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet. It has bee n influenced by many non-Islamic ideologists, and this has been for a very long time, even before the time to which you referred at the beginning of imperialism and so on.

Z.S.: I'm glad you brought in the idea of a contemporary Muslim society. Now when we look at Muslim society today -- we numerous ills. Some of them, as you describe, are moral but others are very physical. malnutrition; lack of sanitation; lack of housing - and so on and so forth. Can anything be done from the perspective of Tawhid to solve soe of these problems?

J.S.I.: I think perhaps the logical point is, the first start is to tell people what Tawhid is. Because, 1 hope I will not be pessimistic if I tell you that I think that the majority of the Muslims, though they say that they believe in Tawhid, I don't think they do.

Z.S.: Is this not a very harsh judgment?

J.S.I.: Tawhid is not just to say that there is only one God. Sometimes a person says this but in his behaviour, he doesn't show this. He behaves in a way which shows that he really thinks that there are powers beside God who are responsible for running the Universe, or who can change the course of Nature. Or if he believes that what some people say is always right. You see, the early Muslims were very, very careful about this. For example, again Imam Malik, he used to say, you have to tell people from every human being we take and we reject, we take from them things and we reject other things - except from the man that lies in that grave, and here he refers to the Prophet. Not because the Prophet is divine, but because Allah made him Infallible as far a s conveying the Message is concerned, and that doesn't apply to anyone after the Prophet. It doesn't apply to the Companions of the Prophet, it doesn't apply to any Imam, it doesn't apply to any Sheikh, to any saint. That doesn't apply to anyone. Everyone his. to be judged by what the Quran says and what the Prophet Mohammad says. Can you tell me how many Muslims abide by this?

Z.S.: I'm afraid very few.

J.S.I.: And by the way, when I say this about the Muslims -- I'm not saying that everyone who demonstrates these attitudes automatically becomes a non-Muslim. But he is not the Muslim that is following what is demanded by Tawhid, and so his behaviour does not reflect Tawhid. The behaviour of Muslims, whether they be individuals or societies does not reflect Tauwhid at all. Of course, it's influenced by it, in some respects.

Z.S.: You have talked about degeneration of Muslim society. Now how about regeneration of Muslim society -- how can Tawhid help us regenerate Muslim society and bring our intellectual tradition alive?

J.S.I.: As I said earlier I think the first thing we have to do is to invite people to Tawhid again. I think we also have to make it relevant to the ideologies that are prevailing in the world today. It seems to me that we Muslim intellectuals have ? v ery big role to play. From my contacts with some Western intellectuals I think that it is only we, the Muslim intellectuals, who can invite people to religion again. Many other theologians who belong to other religions, many of them, I think t hey are very sincere people but the problem is that the religion, or the kind of concept of God that they have cannot be at al accepted by someone whose mind is shaped by science, or someone who demands, who looks for evidence, for reasoning. Man y people as a function of their religions, I mean they are very intellectual people, but it's because of their religion they have to say that there is no contact between reason and religion, or that we have to keep science and religion apart. They say religion, but, in fact, they should have said Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism, or whatever, because we Muslims don't think so, we do not agree with this separation of religion from science. We can argue even with the atheist, with the m aterialist, because, again I discover, that the kind of God that they reject is not the . . .

Z.S.: The kind of God of Islam?

J.S.I.: The God whom we believe in. I sometimes tell them that if this is the kind of God that you re rejecting, so I am also an atheist because I also reject that kind of God. This is one thing that we should do. The other thing is to make this Tawhid our philosophical frame- work, I mean a philosophical framework for all our sciences. I am sure, though many people might dispute this, that the prevailing philosophical framework of all the sciences is materialistic and atheistic one. Even people who believe in God whether they be Christians or Jews or even sometimes Muslims, they assume this philosophical atheistic, materialistic framework when they are practising their sciences, or they remember their religion only when they leave this science and go to the mosque or the church. You see this has to be changed, but this demands a lot from us. We have to give people good reason for believing that there is a God, and that this God is One and that belief, that fact, has to form the philosophical; framework for all the sciences. Now this brings me to another very important question. Many people now are talking about the Islamisation of the sciences. But then I discovered, to my astonishment, that when they talk say about Islamic sociology, they think of a sociology that applies only to Muslim society, as if Islam has nothing to say about non-Muslim society. Of course, if we think in that way then we can never be scientists because to be a scientist you have to look for th e laws which apply to all nature, or if you are a social scientist you have also to look for the laws which apply to all human societies. So our concept of science is an universal one, it is not sectarian -- it is not nationalistic, it does not apply just to a particular group of people. When the Quran says in the verse which I quoted earlier that corruption, material corruption, appears in the world as a result of moral corruption it is not talking about the Muslims, this applies to everyone. And also, I realise that some Muslims confuse Islam with the Muslims. They think that to defend Islam they have also to defend whatever happened in Islamic history, or whoever was called a Muslim theologian or Muslim scientist, or sometimes that they have even to defend the status quo of Muslim society. Of course, if we do that we will be betraying our Islamic ideals. No, we should be very scientific minded, we should be fair, we should look for the truth and acknowledge the truth. We should be very courageous in this, even if it doesn't please some Muslims, even if it is against ourselves, we should do this because as Muslims, we uphold truth. It is not our job just to defend people because they am Muslims or because they are brothers, in fact, the Quran tells us not even to defend our fathers if they do something wrong.

Z.S.: Do you think that our approach to Tawhid should be such that it makes us more humble and more appreciative, and perhaps should help us recognise the problems that we face today in our own society?

J.S.I.: Of course, and I like very much what one of the Hadith which was reported by a Companion of the Prophet states. He said something to the effect that the more you are conscious of God the more you become humble, and the more you find excuses for people. You see sometimes, of course, if one has a wrong attitude to religion, then you tend to become arrogant: you say "O, Alhamdulillah, I pray, I don't drink wine, I don't commit this and that, so I am better than other people." But in fact the attitude should be just the opposite. You say "Alhamdulillah I would have been a bad person had it not been for the mercy of Allah and I hope that people who do this and that and that will stop doing it, and who knows, perhaps Allah knows that there is something in their hearts which makes them better than myself," - because Allah is not interested in appearances.

Z.S.: This has been a very, very enlightening discussion and you've shown that from Tawhid, from the concept of the unity of God emerges a whole brotherhood between men and nature. And that Tawhid seeks to promote a very enlightened society, a very democ ratic society, a society where mercy and beneficence and that mercy. Professor Idris, thank you very much.

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