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Understanding God’s Oneness

The key insight of monotheism is God’s Oneness and unique fitness to be worshipped. In Islam, the understanding of God’s Oneness or Unity is known as Tawhid. Statements of God’s Oneness typically emphasise transcendence – the fact that God cannot be compared to anything within creation. For example, Sura Al-Ikhlas (chapter 112 of the Qur’an) says:

Say, He is God, the One,
God the Eternal,
He neither begets nor is begotten
And there is none like him.

From the point of view of Tawhid it is not advisable to represent God in ways that associate or mix him with created entities. Monotheists object to the visual depiction or representation of God because any picture or statue of God necessarily contradicts God’s Oneness, as many divine characteristics are necessarily excluded from any picture or statue. Also, any picture or statue necessarily associates or mixes God with created entities such as human or animal forms, or even subtle objects like light. On the other hand, verbal descriptions (i.e. names such as ‘Merciful’. ‘Powerful’, ‘Just’, ‘Wrathful’ etc.) do not necessarily exclude other divine characteristics and therefore do not contradict God’s Oneness, nor do they necessarily associate God with created entities. In the Torah the commandment against idolatry (arabic: shirk) reads:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4).

The key words here are ‘make’ and ‘form’, meaning that the commandment relates to pictures and statues, because words are not ‘made forms’, unless we really stretch this phrase. However, the dangers of idolatry do not entirely disappear simply by prohibiting the making of forms of God. When we use words to describe God’s qualities there is the danger that we may overemphasise some at the expense of others, to the point where we even fragment God in our own minds. Perhaps this disease can affect those who greatly overemphasise God’s Wrath because, as a hadith qudsi tells us, the inscription on God’s throne reads: “My Mercy precedes My Wrath”. To deny God’s Mercy is a serious misunderstanding, warped and partial.

Although many names for God are valid, it is preferable not to use names that might associate God with created things. Moreover, certain names belong to God and must be not be used for any other being or entity, for example “Possessing Supreme Power” or “The Lord Who Looks Down In Mercy”. It is not appropriate to use these names to describe or worship any other being. My own spiritual path has led me from a form of polytheistic worship in which I used to mistakenly associate other beings with those names, to a position (Islam) in which I now believe these names just apply to God. However, I believe that I received some blessings even in the earlier stage, because these names always belong to God and, even if we think we are worshipping other beings through these names, we are really worshipping God. Ascribing these names to other beings than God is a form of idolatry and is seriously not recommended, though God in His Mercy may choose to accept the prayers of someone who uses these names in ignorance. However, once this person realises that God is One, and that these names belong to God, he or she must certainly stop worshipping any other being through them.

Some Hindus and Buddhists practise a mystical form of monotheism because they realise that all the apparent manifestations of God are in fact illusions, and that there is only one God. Annemarie Schimmel describes mystical monotheism as

“the secondary monotheism in which, starting from polytheistic tendencies, at last theological speculation comes to understand that one single reality underlies all the varied manifestations which are called deities, and reaches the conclusion to explain the manifold gods and goddesses only as functions of the One Divine Being; this type of monotheism may also result from mystic experiences in which the seeker finds himself united with the profoundest depths of the Divine, and regards, thus, the deities only as emanations from the Most high indivisible Essence; or in prayer man chooses one out of the great number of gods and turns towards him in faith and trust as if only he be effective; or different deities become united for purposes of cult and rite or as a result of the political unification of two peoples with different objects of worship. But this kind of monotheism which is characteristic of the ancient religions of Egypt, Babylon, India, etc., is always deductive; it does not make a clear cut between the One and the many, and admits the existence of deities besides the Highest Being.” Gabriel’s Wing, p87

Schimmel contrasts this mystical, deductive monotheism with prophetic monotheism:

“It was prophetical experience in Israel (plus Christianity) and in Islam which realized the overwhelming uniqueness of God besides whom all those whom man might have adored until then were nothings and which cannot tolerate the worship of any other than that God who reveals Himself in the individual life and in history. Mystic monotheism may include all forms of reality because there is nothing existent but God and everything is a part of His life; but prophetic monotheism is always exclusive . . . . that is why the negation in the beginning of the Muslim creed la ilaha illa Allah—there is no god but God.”  (ibid)

The key characteristic of prophetic monotheism is that it negates deities: “there is no deity but the Deity”. Mystical monotheism proposes a unification of deities but does not negate deities, because they are still regarded as valid objects of worship. For this reason many adherents of prophetic monotheism believe that mystical monotheism is an inadequate understanding of the Deity, whose very existence negates deities.

Tawhid is the profession of the Absolute Oneness of the Deity, the establishment of the Deity as the Absolute who negates deities. One way of understanding the negating function of the Absolute is by studying dialectic reasoning. In dialectics, a thesis gives rise to its reaction, its antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis, and the tension between the two is resolved by means of a third position, the synthesis. The synthesis, however, it not merely a combination of the thesis and antithesis, rather it is a completely new entity which may be utterly different from both thesis and antithesis, but which nevertheless resolves their tensions, so that it utterly negates both thesis and antithesis.

Imagine two religious teachers, both of whom are polytheists, but who disagree about a particular deity in the pantheon: one teacher claims the deity is supremely good; the other believes the deity is supremely evil. How to resolve the tension between them? Sweep away the whole pantheon and realise that there is no god but God. In a sense, God is the inevitable conclusion or ‘synthesis’ arising from the thesis and antithesis set up by the polytheists – but God is not deduced from their premises or their deities, nor does God unite their deities, instead God negates their deities through Absolute Unity.

God is One in a similar way that the universe is one. The universe is the totality of all physical phenomena; God is the Totality, the Whole. God’s Wholeness is the source of all holiness and well-being. God is the Absolute in whom all opposites and contradictions are resolved. God is One because there is no other. God is One because no truth contradicts any other truth – they are all aspects of the Truth. By the same token, no goodness or virtue contradicts any other aspect of goodness or virtue, they are all aspects of the greatest Good. God is the Unity to whom the apparent multiplicity points. Sufis seek the signs of God within multiplicity: everything has a side facing toward God; everything points to the One God, and we delight in that recognition. God is Love.

The goal of Sufism is to know God in this life. All Muslims believe that we will meet God in our future life, especially on the Day of Judgement. However Sufis believe that it is possible to meet and know God in this life. My Sufi friend Abdullah advised me to “make friends with God before you die”. The Sufi saints (awliya) are the friends of God, who have achieved intimacy with God in this life.

The Meaning of Life

February 2009

Dear Friend,

You wrote:

We can apply the Zen debate between sudden and gradual awakening to the question of faith, refuge and salvation. My local vicar in Sussex once told me that there is a difference between salvation and sanctification. Salvation is sudden and occurs the moment you give your life to Jesus. Sanctification is the gradual process that follows. Perhaps the act of faith is necessarily a sudden shift to the objective perspective, whereas the assessment of our faith is part of the gradual subjective process. In this sense, in one moment of pure faith we are already outside samsara. Sure some Pure Land teacher must have said this? And if this moment of pure faith occurs at the point of death, perhaps this means we lock into the objective perspective – forever, or until we freely decide we need to work on our subjective side again.

Your thoughts resonate with some of my recent contemplations. In the film ‘The Meaning of Life’ by Monty Python there is a scene in which a group of corporate executives in the boardroom discuss the meaning of life:

Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: “The Meaning of Life” Now uh, Harry, you’ve had some thoughts on this.

Exec #2: Yeah, I’ve had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we’ve come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren’t wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person’s soul. However, this “soul” does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man’s unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.

Exec #3: What was that about hats again?

This idea of bringing the soul into existence by a process of guided self-observation with the assistance of an outside spiritual energy does indeed seem to me to be the meaning of life. Its relationship to salvation and sanctification might be as follows:

Salvation corresponds to initial baptism / baptism of water. At this point one enters religion and receives the protection of God. However, one has not yet been sanctified. Sanctification corresponds to baptism with the holy spirit. This latter baptism is normally associated with the Pentecost. The Catholic Catechism describes what was granted to the Apostles at Pentecost as the “full Outpouring of the Holy Spirit” (i.e. sanctification).

In between initial baptism (salvation) and baptism with the holy spirit (sanctification) is the baptism of fire. This confusing stage is the process of transforming the soul from its raw to its cooked state or, to use Rumi’s specific form of this of analogy, transforming the wheat of the soul into cooked bread:

The heart’s like grain, and we are like the mill.
Say, does the mill know why it whirls around?
The body’s stone, the waters are the thoughts —
The stone says “Oh the water understands!”
The water says “No, ask the miller, please —
He sent the water downhill — ask him why!”
The miller says: “Bread-eater! — should this cease
To move, say then, what would the baker do?”

Perhaps sanctification is when the baker puts his seal of approval on the cooked bread, before serving it to his customers?

Dear Matthew,

I remember the Monty Python scene about the soul from when I saw it in the cinema. It intrigued me then. They almost certainly got it from Gurdjieff. It was an important idea for me at the time, but graudually I found it reinforcing a type of self-grasping and causing tension. What I like about Mahamudra and the wisdom teachings in general is that our fundamental nature is already pure and in a sense enlightened. We need to relax into our enlightened (and eternal) nature rather than create it through effort. Gurdjieff”s teaching on the soul gave me the feeling that I needed to create my own immortal nature, and thus increased unnecessarily the tension an over emphasis on self power creates. I realize now I misunderstood the teaching. Have you heard of the two types of Buddha lineage which Geshela taught in Great Mother of the Conquerors, the naturally abiding lineage and the developing lineage? As the names suggest, the naturally abiding lineage is something we’ve already got, and refers variously to the emptiness of our mind, the clarity of our mind, or the clear light mind. The developing lineage is what grows through spiritual practice. I like to see soul as a pattern or order that gradually emerges out of our chaotic “uncooked” nature, the fully developed soul being symbolized by the Deity within his mandala that embraces the whole universe, having fully transformed chaos into cosmos. I might have got this idea from you. The development of soul is therefore closely related to the accumulation of merit, which I sometimes see as a song or chant that begins with a lone voice but graudually brings together an entire football crowd.

I think you could argue that until our soul pattern has reached a certain degree of stability there is no individuality within us that can reincarnate. Specific actions have been created which lead to specific effects, and on this causal contiuum we can impute an I linking the two, and therefore speak about rebirth, but this is not the same as a reincarnating soul.

Gurdjieff taught that soul is created through self-remembrance and conscious suffering. Self.remembrance seems to correspond to the mindfulness and alertness of vipassana, and concious suffering to the practice of patience as described in How to Solve our Human Problems. These two practices do seem to me to be the basis of any genuine spiritual practice on the self-power side.