Ismaili Teachings on the Oneness of God (Tawhid): Beyond Personalist Theism and Modern Atheism

Say: He is God, the Unique (al-ahad). God is Absolute (al-samad).
He does not beget nor is He begotten and there is none like unto Him.

– Holy Qur’an Surat al-Ikhlas

The Imam Ma‘add [al-Mu‘izz] summons
to the absolute oneness of God (tawhid), the Absolute (al-samad).

– Fatimid Coin Inscription

Note to Reader: This article presupposes the existence of God according to classical theism. We advise our atheist and agnostic readers, and those unfamiliar with the logical basis for the existence of God, to first read our Proof of God’s Existence article.

The Islamic Shahadah, “there no god except God”, expresses the quintessential metaphysical insight of Islam and all authentic religions – the absolute unity of God. Contrary to popular belief, this statement does not simply mean that “there is one God as opposed to there being many gods.” To reduce the concept of monotheism to “one” God in the numerical sense where God is merely a supreme personal being ruling over other beings – as modern Christian theists and certain Muslim theological schools believe – is little better than professing polytheism except with less gods. For this reason, Brian Davies, a Catholic philosopher of religion, calls this “theistic personalism,” and David Bentley Hart calls it “mono-polytheism” or “monopoly-theism.” This sort of personalist theism, which reduces God to a metaphysical tribal idol made in the image of humans, allows Protestant colleges to claim that Muslims and Christians worship different gods entirely. The late Henry Corbin thus writes that the common exoteric understanding of the Shahadah and monotheism in general as the mere affirmation of a single God against many gods, can only result in metaphysical idolatry:

In its exoteric form, namely the profession of faith that declares La Ilaha illah, monotheism perishes in its triumphant moment, unknowingly obliterating itself by becoming volens nolens metaphysical idolatry.

– Henry Corbin, (The Paradox of Monotheism)

The real meaning of the phrase “God is one” was explained by Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib when, just before the Battle of the Camel, a lowly bedouin approached the Imam and said: “O Commander of the Faithful, do you say that God is one?” As those present admonished the bedouin for asking such an untimely question in the midst of a battle, the Imam said: “Leave him, for surely what the bedouin wishes is what we wish for the people.” In other words, there is never a time when the deep theological and metaphysical question, “what do you mean that God is one?” could be irrelevant or unimportant. The Imam replied by explaining how if the term “one” means numerical oneness, then it is not correct to say “God is (numerically) one” because “that which has no second does not enter into the category of numbers.” 1,300 later years, the 48th hereditary Imam, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, echoed the the first Imam’s words in his public Memoirs when he said that “Islam’s basic principle can only be defined as mono-realism and not as monotheism.” With such profound words, these two Imams invite us to deconstruct our limited ready-made notions about God and orient our thoughts toward the transcendent unity of the Godhead.

The name "Allah" is written on the walls of the Ismaili Centre Toronto Prayer Hall. symbolizing the Qur'anic verse: "Wherever you turn there is the Face of God."
The name “Allah” is written on the walls of the Ismaili Centre Toronto Prayer Hall. symbolizing the Qur’anic verse: “Wherever you turn there is the Face of God.”

In this article we present the Ismaili Muslim concept of tawhid – the absolute oneness of God – and show how Ismaili theology is one of the foremost Islamic discourses in upholding the absolute unity, simplicity, uniqueness, and transcendence of God. This Ismaili theological vision of tawhid was championed by the earliest Ismaili da‘wah, which was called “the Summons” because it summoned humankind to the intellectual and spiritual recognition of God’s absolute unity. One Fatimid Ismaili da‘i has thus written:

Knowledge of the absolute Oneness of God (tawhid) is the goal; it is the most glorious of the sciences and the most illustrious of the religious obligations. All the acts of worship and knowledge are based on it. The soul’s recognition of it is a thing imposed on the human being. By means of it, he attains an understanding of the absolute Oneness of God (tawhid).

– Sayyidna Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi, (A Code of Conduct, tr. Verena Klemm & Paul E. Walker, 44)

In academic terms, Ismaili theology is the pre-eminent negative or apophatic theology of Islam because it affirms the absolute Oneness of God (tawhid) through negating all names, descriptions, conceptions and limitations from God. The Ismaili theology of tawhid goes back to the teachings of the early Shi‘a Imams, especially Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 743), and Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 765). Additionally, a number of eminent Ismaili Muslim philosophers – Abu Ya‘qub al-Sjistani (d. 971), Ja‘far ibn Mansur al-Yaman (d. 960), Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. 1021), al-Mu’ayyad al-Din Shirazi (d. 1077), Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088), ‘Abd al-Karim al-Shahrastani (d. 1153), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1273) – consolidated and refined the Ismaili theology of tawhid using the strongest philosophical arguments of their time. Even in the present age, Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV, the present and 49th hereditary Imam of the Shi‘a Ismaili Muslims, continues to stress the absolute and utter transcendence of God. At the 1975 All-Ismailia Paris Conference, the Ismaili Imam endorsed and approved the following resolution concerning the contemporary Ismaili position on the concept of God:

The absolute transcendence of God to be emphasized, and the Ismaili belief in God to be expounded in association with the general stress on the transcendence of God in the Qur’an, as exemplified particularly in the Surat al-Ikhlas.

(Paris Conference Report, ed. Eqbal Rupani, Paris: 1975, 6)

The Imam of the Time today repeatedly uses the term “He who is above all else” in his esoteric teachings to stress the absolute transcendence of God above and beyond all limits and conceptions. The Ismaili scholar Dr. Aziz Esmail explains the meaning of the phrase “He who is above all else” as follows:

This Ultimate Reality is often conceived as ‘transcendent’, or described as ‘He who is above all else’ — not because it is a reality spatially above the human habitat, but because it is above, i.e. goes beyond or transcends, all human categories. Being free from and prior to the dichotomy between subject and object, it is therefore also outside the frame of human discourse.

– Aziz Esmail, (‘Reason and Religion: The Old Argument Revisited’, Ilm, Vol. 7, No. 3, Dec. 1981-Feb. 1982, 32-40)

We now look at several examples of Ismaili Muslim teachings on the absolute unity of God, quoting from the original teachings of the Shi‘a Ismaili Imams, hujjats and da‘is. Alongside these Ismaili teachings, we provide corroborating comments from David Bentley Hart, a contemporary Orthodox Christian theologian, to show how this Ismaili theology is just as relevant for modern times as it was in the past. The Ismaili Muslim teaching on God is a paradigmatic example of “classical theism” – the shared conception of God among classical Hindu, Greek, Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers, theologians and mystics through the ages. These include Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Shankara, Ramanuja, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn al-‘Arabi, Mullah Sadra, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, St. Nicolas of Cusa, St. Gregory of Palamas, St. Anselm, the Catholic Church doctrine, Paul Tillich, and other classical theists.

Shi‘a Ismaili Muslim Theology of Tawhid (Absolute Unity of God) – A Summary:

Here we encounter a second axiom of Ismailian Gnosis:
The supreme Godhead is unknowable, inaccessible, ineffable, unpredicable
— “that to which the boldest thought cannot attain.

Henry Corbin, (Cyclical Times and Ismaili Gnosis, 85)

1. God is beyond all names and attributes (including every name and attribute mentioned in the Qur’an like the Powerful, the Living, the First, the Last, etc.); all the so-called Divine Names and Attributes are created (Read Here); (Click “Read Here” to see logical arguments and primary source quotes from the Ismaili Imams, hujjats and da‘is for each point.)

2. God is beyond matter, energy, space, time and change (Read Here);

3. God is beyond all human conceptions in the imagination and intellect (Read Here);

4. God is beyond both positive and negative qualities, i.e. He is not knowing and not not knowing; He is not powerful and not not powerful (Read Here);

5. God is beyond all philosophical and metaphysical categories: spiritual/material, cause/effect, eternal/temporal, substance/accident, essence/attributes, and existence/essence: God is above existence and non-existence (Read Here);

6. When God is associated with a name or attribute in scripture, ritual or everyday speech, e.g. “God is knowing”, the real meaning of this statement is that God is the source and originator of that power or quality, i.e. God is the originator of all knowledge but He Himself is beyond actually possessing knowledge as an attribute (Read Here);

7. God’s Creative Act is called His Word or Command; this Command is a single, eternal, and continuous act which continually gives existence to and sustains all created or conditioned realities in every moment of their existence (Read Here).

At Issue: Classical Theism vs. Modern Theism

Classical Theism Diagram

The most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God – especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side – is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.

David Bentley Hart, (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 32)

Most modern theists – among Jews, protestant Christians, Muslims, analytical Christian philosophers (William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne), deists, new agers, and the like – conceive God as a personal, intelligent, omnipotent, omnipresent, all-good, all-loving, supreme and maximally perfect being. In other words, such people believe that God is a “person without a body”, a personal consciousness, who possesses a series of personal properties and attributes. Atheists cannot be blamed for rejecting this personalist theism, since it amounts to nothing more than anthropomorphism and metaphysical idolatry. As David Bentley Hart explains, the biggest problem in contemporary discussions on religion is that modern theists and atheists alike conceive of God in a wholly deficient way:

Many Anglophone theistic philosophers who deal with these issues today, however, reared as they have been in a post-Fregean intellectual environment, have effectively broken with classical theistic tradition altogether, adopting a style of thinking that the Dominican philosopher Brian Davies calls theistic personalism. I prefer to call it monopolytheism myself (or perhaps “monopoly-theism”), since it seems to me to involve a view of God not conspicuously different from the polytheistic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far as I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being. It is a way of thinking that suggests that God, since he is only a particular instantiation of various concepts and properties, is logically dependent on some more comprehensive reality embracing both him and other beings.

David Bentley Hart, (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 125)

Ismaili Muslim theology, as an apophatic form of classical theism, greatly differs from both modern Christian Anglo-American theism and the Sunni Ash‘ari-Maturidi doctrine in the following ways:

Ismailis and classical theists regard God as absolutely simple without any parts;
modern Christian theists (William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne) regard God as instantiating and possessing several different properties (personhood, omniscience, omnipotence, goodness, etc.) – thus making Him multiple and not absolutely one.
Ismailis and classical theists regard God as absolutely beyond time and space;
modern Christian theists (William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne) regard God as having direct relationships with temporal things, acting within time, and in some sense existing while subject to time.
Ismailis and classical theists regard God as absolutely beyond all names and attributes;
Sunni Ash‘ari theologians believe that God’s Essence (dhat) is attached to seven eternal names (asma’), accidents (‘arad) or attributes (sifat) – Life, Knowledge, Power, Will, Eternity, Hearing, Seeing – while Sunni Hanbali theologians regard God as possessing 99 eternal Names;
Ismailis hold that God is beyond both cause and effect;
Modern Christian theists, classical Islamic philosophers and Sunni Ash‘ari theologians regard God as the first cause in the series of causes and effects, or view God as the cause of each and every single object and event (occasionalism).
Ismailis and classical theists exalted God beyond the class of existing things and beyond existence itself;
modern Christian theists (William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne) regard God as the supreme existent among other existents and as the instantiation of several properties; Sunni Ash‘ari theologians regard God as the supreme being or existent.

1. Divine Simplicity: God Transcends All Names and Attributes


But any rational person knows that anyone who has ninety-nine names cannot be a single person, for each one of the ninety-nine must have its own essence.

Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw

We begin with a passage from the First Sermon of Imam ‘Ali’s sermons in the Nahj al-Balaghah which is also quoted in earlier Shi‘a sources. In this sermon, Imam ‘Ali explains that the pure recognition of God, referring to Surat al-Ikhlas of the Qur’an, means negating all attributes from God. This is because every attribute is different from that to which it is attributed, so if God actually possesses attributes – like knowledge, power, life, mercy, wisdom, etc, – then that would make God composed of multiple things (His Essence + Attributes). This is because attributes are different from the essence to which they are attributed, i.e. a person is different from his power, his knowledge, or his compassion. Thus, if God has attributes, then He is made up of multiple parts and He is no longer absolutely one. Whatever has parts is caused by the confluence of those parts and cannot be God.

Foremost in religion is recognition (ma‘rifah) of Him,
and the perfection of this recognition is affirmation (tasdiq) of Him,
and the perfection of this belief is affirming His absolute Oneness (tawhid),
and the perfection of this affirmation is pure sincerity (ikhlas) toward Him,
and the perfection of this purification is to negate all attributes from Him,

due to the testimony of every attribute that it is other than the attributed object,
and because of the testimony of every such object that it is other than the attribute.
So whoever ascribes an attribute to God has conjoined Him [to something],
and whoever so conjoins Him has made Him twofold,
and whoever makes Him twofold has fragmented Him,
and whoever thus fragments Him is ignorant of Him.

– Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib,
(Tr. William C. Chittick, A Shi‘ite Anthology by Allamah Husayn Tabatabtai)

Imam ‘Ali explains above that any God who has attributes is composed of multiple parts. But anything which is composed of parts is a created or conditioned reality because it depends on and is caused by those parts. Therefore, God must be utterly simple – He is necessarily without any parts and without any attributes:

If God is to be understood as the unconditioned source of all things, rather than merely some very powerful but still ontologically dependent being, then any denial of divine simplicity is equivalent to a denial of God’s Reality. This is obvious if one remembers what the argument from creaturely contingency to divine necessity implies. To be the first cause of the whole universal chain of per se causality, God must be wholly unconditioned in every sense. He cannot be composed of and so dependent upon severable constituents, physical or metaphysical, as then He would Himself be conditional.

– David Bentley Hart, (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 131)

All of this means that whatever is describable in names and attributes cannot be God. God transcends all descriptions, even the meanings of the Divine Names mentioned in the Qur’an, including the word “God” (Allah), as Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq explains:

The name of God is other than God, and everything that can be called by the name of a ‘thing’ (shay’) is created, except God. Therefore all that tongues express or is worked by hands is created. God is the goal of him who sets Him as his goal, but the determined goal (al-mughayya, i.e., in the mind of man) is other than the (real) goal. The goal possesses attributes (mawsuf), and all that possesses attributes has been fashioned (masnu‘). But the Fashioner (sani‘) of things does not possess the attributes of any stated limit (hadd musamma). He has not come into being that His Being (kaynunah) should be known through fashioning (sun) (carried out) by other than He. He does not terminate at a limit unless it be other than He. Whoso understands this principle (hukm) will never fall into error. It is the unadulterated profession of the Oneness of God (al-tawhid al-khalis), so believe in it, confirm it, and understand it well.

– Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq,
(Tr. William C. Chittick, A Shi‘ite Anthology by Allamah Husayn Tabatabtai)

On the basis of the teachings of Imam ‘Ali and Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq, Nasir-i Khusraw concludes that literally ascribing any names to God, including the famous 99 Names, amounts to polytheism:

They state that God has ninety-nine names, each of which has its distinct meaning. But any rational person knows that anyone who has ninety-nine names cannot be a single person, for each one of the ninety-nine must have its own essence. Polytheism, not monotheism, underlies this group’s teachings.

– Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Jami‘ al-hikmatayn, tr. Ormsby, Between Reason and Revelation,tr. Ormsby, 51)

2. God Transcends Matter, Space, Time, Motion, and Change:

He has not come into being that change or removal should be possible in Him. He is not affected in His Essence by recurrence of states, and aeons of nights and days differ not for Him. (It is He) who originated creation with no model (mithal) to copy or measure (miqdar) to imitate from a deity (ma‘bud) who should have existed before Him. Attributes encompass Him not, lest He be defined by limits (hudud) (resulting) from their having attained Him. He – like Him there is naught (Qur’an 42:11) – never ceases to transcend the attributes of creatures.

– Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib,
(Tr. William C. Chittick, A Shi‘ite Anthology by Allamah Husayn Tabatabtai)

God cannot change over time, moreover, as He would then be dependent upon the relation between some unrealized potentiality within Himself and some fuller actuality somehow “beyond” Himself into which He may yet evolve; again, He would then be a conditional being. He also must possess no limitations of any kind, intrinsic or extrinsic, that would exclude anything real from Him…The principle of divine simplicity, moreover, carries with it certain inevitable metaphysical implications. One is that God is eternal, not in the sense of possessing limitless duration but in the sense of transcending time altogether. Time is the measure of finitude, of change, of the passage from potentiality to actuality…God is in some sense impassible: that is, being beyond change, He also cannot be affected — or, to be more precise, modified — by anything outside Himself. For one thing, as He is the infinite sustaining source of all things, nothing could be “outside” of Him in that sense to begin with.

– David Bentley Hart, (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 135-136)

3. God Cannot Be Apprehended by the Senses, Imagination or Intellect:

God is completely different to whatever you imagine; He neither resembles anything nor can imagination [ever] attain Him, for how could imagination ever attain Him while He is totally different to what is bound by intellect and [also] different from what can be pictured in the imagination? He can be imagined only as an entity beyond reason and beyond [any] limitation.

– Imam Muhammad al-Baqir,
(Arzina Lalani, Early Shi’i Thought: The Teachings of Muhammad al-Baqir, 94)

Whoso maintains that he knows God by means of a veil (hijab) or a form (surah) or a likeness (mithal) is an associator (mushrik), for the veil, the likeness and the form are other than He. He is utterly and only One. So how should he who maintains that he knows Him by means of other than Him be professing Unity? Surely He alone knows God who knows Him by means of God (bi’llah).

– Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq,
(Tr. William C. Chittick, A Shi‘ite Anthology by Allamah Husayn Tabatabtai)

4. God Transcends Both Positive Attributes and Negative Attributes:

The Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq was asked,
Does the truth lie in anthropomorphism (tashbih) or in denial (ta‘til) of attributes?‘.
He replied, ‘[There is] a position between the two positions.

Some philosophers negate all positive attributes from God, saying that He is not corporeal, not temporal, not knowing, not living, not powerful, not personal, not compassionate, etc. The first negation – of positive attributes – is necessary because any positive attribute makes God similar to His creatures and results in anthropomorphism (tashbih). But the negation of only positive attributes is not enough because this reduces God to an inert entity, like an inanimate object, or to non-existence – amounting to agnosticism (ta’til). The lack of an attribute is still a created conception, so positing that God is merely devoid of all positive attributes amounts to a form of subtle anthropomorphism (tashbih) where God is likened to His creation.

Whoever removes from his Creator descriptions, definitions and characteristics, falls into a hidden anthropomorphism (tashbih), just as one who describes Him and characterises Him falls into overt anthropomorphism (tashbih).

– Sayyidna Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani, (The Book of Keys, tr. Faquir Hunzai, 69)

Therefore, as Sijistani and Nasir-i Khusraw explain, the proper affirmation of the absolute Oneness of God requires two negations: the negation of the positive attributes and the negation of the negative attributes. This dialect of dual-negation is the most appropriate use of human language when speaking of God.

There does not exist a discourse of divine transcendence (tanzih) more brilliant and more noble than the one by which we establish the transcendence of our Originator (mubdi‘) by using these words in which two negations—negation and a negation of negation—oppose each other.

– Sayyidna Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani, (The Book of Keys, tr. Faquir Hunzai, 70)

It is wrong to describe God by such attributes as ‘ignorance’ and ‘powerlessness’ – not because they are unseemly but because they are attributes of creatures – as well as that it is also wrong to ascribe the opposites of such attributes, such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘power’, to Him on the grounds that these too are creaturely qualities. The so-called theologians of this community have plunged into a grievous error in their inquiry, in ascribing their own fine qualities to God and in declaring Him devoid of their bad qualities. And for this very reason, they have fallen into polytheism.

– Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Jami‘ al-hikmatayn, tr. Ormsby, Between Reason and Revelation, 55)

All human language is limited and whenever one makes an affirmation about God, one is placing limits upon Him. Similarly, whenever one negates something of God, one is still placing restrictions and limits upon Him. The only solution is to perform a dual-negation – first negate the positive attribute and then negate its opposite immediately after. This technique of double negation is also found in the mystical thought of Shankara (called neti neti), Ibn al-‘Arabi (called tanzih), and Meister Echart (called “the negation of negation”).

This is why all the major theistic traditions insist at some point that our language about God consists mostly in conceptual restrictions and fruitful negations. “Cataphatic” (or affirmative) theology must always be chastened and corrected by “apophatic” (or negative) theology. We cannot speak of God in His own nature directly, but only at best analogously, and even then only in such a way that the conceptual content of our analogies consists largely in our knowledge of all the things that God is not. This is the via negativa of Christianity, the lahoot salbi (negative theology) of Islam, Hinduism’s “neti, neti” (“not this, not this”). For those who take the extreme line in this regard, such as Moses Maimonides, anything said truly of the Divine Essence has only a negative meaning for us. And for the contemplatives of various traditions, the negation of all those limited concepts that delude us that God is just another being among beings, within our intellectual grasp, is an indispensable discipline of the mind and will.

– David Bentley Hart, (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 141)

5. God Transcends All Metaphysical and Logical Categories:

It is not befitting for God to be either the cause or the effect, and it therefore not appropriate to say that God is an existent…His Ipseity transcends existence [and] its opposite which is non-existence.

Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw

Even while negating all positive and negative qualities from God, some philosophers and theologians define God in terms of metaphysical and logical categories. Some people define God as the “first mover” (Aristotle) “first cause” (Al-Farabi), “universal substance” (Spinoza), “maximally great being” (Plantinga), “supreme being”, or “necessary existent” (Ibn Sina). The problem with all of these definitions is that they place limitations on God and restrict him to the realm of created things:
• If God is the “first mover” (al-mutaharrik al-awwal), then He is essentially defined by His relation to and acting upon movable objects which He must move out of necessity.
• If God is the “first cause” (al-‘illat al-awwal), then He must create an effect (His creation) by a necessity to produce effects that is externally imposed upon Him and this limits God. [Note: Ismailis used the term “cause” – ‘illa or sabab – to refer to contingent beings that are directed to produce their effects; the preferred term to describe God in reference to His creative activity is “Causer” (mu‘ill, ‘all, musabbib) – He who bestows causal powers upon all causes and directs them to their effects.
• If God is the “universal substance” (jawhar mutlaq) then each and every genus and species is composed of God plus some other differentia where God is merely a finite bounded concept.
• If God is a “maximally great being” (al-mawjud al-‘azm) it means God is nothing more than a combination of “maximally great properties.” It also means that God belongs to the same level or class of existence as other beings – like trees, cats, or ants – and only differs from these in degree, but not ontologically.
• If God is the “necessary existent” (wajib al-wujud) it means that God is composed of “existence” plus the attribute of “necessity” and this would make God a composite being and therefore a conditioned or created reality.

The categories of cause and effect, property and being in possession of property, definition and being defined, attribute and attributed, cannot neither be attributed to Him nor denied to Him, nor have any likeness to Him.

– Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, Shish Fasl or Six Chapters, tr. Ivanow, 31)

It is not befitting for God to be either the cause or the effect, and it therefore not appropriate to say that God is an existent. It should be known that the Absolute Existence (hast-i mutlaq) is originated by Him, and His ipseity transcends existence [and] its opposite which is non-existence.

– Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Knowledge and Liberation, tr. Faquir Muhammad Hunzai, 42)

To say and affirm that “God exists” means that God is a “something” that happens “to exist” – where “God” and “existence” are two distinct concepts fused together. “God exists” means that this existent God is composed of both essence and existence. But whatever is composed of parts, even metaphysical parts like essence and existence, is caused by those parts and cannot be unconditioned and absolute. Therefore, one cannot literally affirm that “God exists” if it means “God is an existent” or “God is a being”; as Nasir-i Khusraw says above, God is above and beyond existence and non-existence.

One of the more provocatively counter-intuitive ways of expressing the difference between God and every contingent reality is to say that God, as the source of all being, is, properly speaking, not Himself a being — or, if one prefer, not a being among other beingsThe precise sense in which God is not a being, or indeed the sense in which He could even be said not to “exist,” is as some discrete object, essentially distinct from all others, “standing forth” (which is what “exist” means, etymologically speaking) from being as such. A being of that kind — one to which the indefinite article properly attaches — possesses a certain determinate number of attributes, a certain quantity of potentialities, a certain degree of actuality, and so on, and is at once both intrinsically composite and extrinsically enumerable: that is, every particular being is made up of a collection of parts and is also itself a discrete item within the sum total of existing things. All of this is precisely what classical metaphysical theism says God is not. He is instead the infinite to which nothing can add and from which nothing can subtract, and He Himself is not some object in addition to other objects. He is the source and fullness of all being, the actuality in which all finite things live, move, and have their being, or in which all things hold together; and so He is also the reality that is present in all things as the very act of their existence. God, in short, is not a being but is at once “beyond being” (in the sense that he transcends the totality of existing things) and also absolute “Being itself” (in the sense that he is the source and ground of all things).

– David Bentley Hart, (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 107-108)

6. All Statements and Predications of God Must Be Understood Esoterically:

The Name “Allah” encircled by the 99 Names. Image Courtesy IsmailiMail

Verily, my Lord is subtle in subtlety (latif al-latafah),
but He is not described by subtleness (lutf);
He is tremendous in tremendousness (‘azim al-‘azamah),
but not described by tremendousness (‘izam);
He is grand in grandeur (kabir al-kibriya’),
but not described by grandness (kibr);
and He is majestic in majesty (jalil al-jalalah),
but not described by greatness (ghilaz).

Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib,
(tr. William C. Chittick, A Shi’ite Anthology by Allamah Tabatabai)

At this point, a person may say that the various scriptures like the Bible and Qur’an speak of God in many ways and describe Him with names and attributes. Even if one interprets specific verses allegorically, the scriptures still describe God as the Good, the Wise, the Loving, the Merciful, Knowing, the Eternal, the Powerful, the Living, the One, the Truth, and philosophers speak of God as “existing” or as the “Necessary of Existence.” The only logical solution is to interpret ALL statements about God found in the scriptures, rituals, poetry, and all human discourse in an esoteric, symbolic and philosophical manner. This means interpreting every “God is X” statement in the following way:
“God is Merciful” means God is the source, ground and originator of the mercy of all the merciful ones, yet He is not described by mercy.
“God is Powerful” means God is the source, ground and originator of the power of all those who have power, yet He is not described by power.
“God is Knowing” means God is the source, ground and originator of the knowledge of all possessors of knowledge, yet He is not described by knowledge.

He is ‘existent’ in the [only] sense that He existentialises every existence, He is ‘Necessary of Existence’ [only] in the sense that He necessitates every existent, He is ‘Knowing’ [only] in the sense that He causes whatever is knowing to know, and He is ‘Powerful’ [only] in the sense that He empowers whatever is powerful… The application of ‘Unity’ and ‘the One’ to Him (Exalted is He!) and to other than Him is by way of pure equivocity. And likewise is ‘the truth’ and ‘the good’ for He is Truth [only] in the sense that He makes the truth true and He makes the false false, and He is Necessary in His existence [only] in the sense that He necessitates the existence of other than Him, and annihilates, and He is living [only] in the sense that He gives life and death.

– Sayyidna ‘Abd al-Karim al-Shahrastani, (Struggling with the Philosopher, tr. T. Mayer & W. Madelung, 43-48)

When we speak of the goodness or wisdom of God, for instance, we cannot imagine that He is good or wise in the same manner as a finite person, who naturally possesses such attributes in an inconstant and imperfect way; in fact, according to most traditional schools, we really should not think of God as having plural attributes at all, but should rather think of words like “goodness” and “wisdom,” when applied to God, only as appropriate ways of naming the single undifferentiated divine reality upon which goodness and wisdom in us are dependent.

– David Bentley Hart, (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 107-108)

7. God’s Creative Act is Eternal and Continuous Creation:

The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His will and His thought.

Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III

The Creative Act of God is not like a human act of designing, constructing or making something. The word “creation” in classical theology means that God – Unconditioned Reality – bestows being (wujud) upon all conditioned realities. In other words, something being “created” means that it depends upon God for its existence at any given moment. Since God is eternal and beyond change, it necessarily follows that God’s creative act is also eternal and not in time – otherwise this would entail a real change in God; furthermore, from God there only proceeds a single act. If multiple acts proceed from God, this would entail multiple modalities or aspects in God’s Essence – rendering Him composite and conditioned. But since God is absolutely simple, His act of bestowing existence – which we call “creation” – is single and eternal. The Qur’an refers to God’s creative act as the Word (kalimah) and Command (amr) of God and says “Our Command is but one, like the twinkling of an eye” (Holy Qur’an 54:50). In their explanation of the meaning of creation, the contemporary Ismaili Imams have explained how God sustains all created beings by His Command – which, in laymen terms, can be called “His Will” or “His Thought”:

Thus Islam’s basic principle can only be defined as monorealism and not as monotheism. Consider, for example, the opening declaration of every Islamic prayer: “Allahu-Akbar”. What does that mean? There can be no doubt that the second word of the declaration likens the character of Allah to a matrix which contains all and gives existence to the infinite, to space, to time, to the Universe, to all active and passive forces imaginable, to life and to the soul… The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His Will and His Thought. Outside His Will, outside His Thought, all is nothing, even the things which seem to us absolutely self-evident such as space and time. Allah alone wishes: the Universe exists; and all manifestations are as a witness of the Divine Will.

– Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III,
(Memoirs of the Aga Khan, Chapter – Islam: The Religion of My Ancestors)

The Command of God is manifested by the different qualities, attributes and powers within the Cosmos. When people describe God using a name or attribute, it is really in reference to a specific feature of created beings that reveals God’s Command. For example, one considers the finite existence of created beings, God’s Command is described as “creation.” When one considers the certain features in the Cosmos like life, power, or knowledge, God’s act is described accordingly. Yet, it is one Command with multiple manifestations. Everything in existence, every created being, is a limited manifestation of God’s Command.

The fact that in relation to Him people speak of Necessity, Unity, Simplicity, Will, Knowledge and Power, and likewise of [His] other attributes, is all because His exalted Command is one pure light, one uncontaminated emanation, one bounty and one generousity…the fact that Necessity, Unity, Existence, Simplicity, Will, Knowledge, Power and other attributes are manifested differently, although in essence all are one, follows necessarily because the one making the description is a human being whose descriptions accord with created things.

– Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, (The Paradise of Submission, tr. S.J. Badakhchani, 19-20)

If God is the infinite and unconditioned source of all things, then His creative intention — whether He creates only one world, or many, or infinitely many — can be understood as an Eternal Act that involves no temporal change within Him…And His timeless donation of being to creatures need not be conceived as involving a mechanistic determinism but can be thought of as the creation of a contingent reality containing truly free secondary causes (creation from nothingness, after all, is not a kind of causation like any of which we are capable)…God’s knowledge of something created is not something separate from His Eternal Act of creating that thing; so He is not modified by that knowledge in the way that we are necessarily modified when we encounter things outside ourselves.

– David Bentley Hart, (The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, 136)

Conclusion: Worhipping God through the Intellect

None of the adherents of the other sects, nor any of their leaders, except the Instructor (Imam) of this group [the Ismailis], has been able to go to the extend of unveiling this secret.

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi

At the level of human rational thought, tawhidmeans exalting God above all names, attributes, descriptions, and concepts. But whatever can be said about tawhid is in the form of human language and still cannot capture the fullness of tawhid. Human discourse is the product of the human mind, which is created by God and therefore cannot encompass Him, as Nasir-i Khusraw reminds us:

We are saying all this metaphorically, not discussing the reality (ḥaqīqat) because human rational discourse (nuṭq) cannot deal with matters concerned with tawḥīd – it cannot deal with them directly. Discourse is powerless, unable to penetrate the true realities and understanding of His Ipseity. This is because, as we have already said, speech and the speaker are both below the Intellect, and therefore they cannot define anything except what is also under it.

– Sayyidna Nasir-i Khusraw, (Six Chapters or Shish Fasl, tr. W. Ivanow, 33)

The full recognition of tawhid, in a mode beyond human rational discourse, is a spiritual and mystical realization in the human soul and intellect called ma‘rifah. In the Ismaili tariqah of Islam, the ma‘rifah of the tawhid of God is attained through the Imam of the Time. The famous Muslim philosopher, theologian, and astronomer, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, found that the Ismaili concept of tawhid stood out among all other Muslim schools and branches as the foremost expression of the transcendent oneness of God. This is due to the presence of the living Imams who guide the Ismaili Muslims toward the proper understanding of tawhid:

He is beyond any attribute by which something could be qualified, whether it be non-existent or existent, negative or positive, relative or absolute, verbal or in meaning. He is beyond all this, and also beyond the beyond and so forth. There is no doubt that no one maintains such pure unity (tawhid-i sirf) except the Ta‘limiyan (the Ismaili Muslims); and none of the adherents of the other sects, nor any of their leaders, except the Instructor (Imam) of this group [the Ismailis], has been able to go to the extend of unveiling this secret. This is because others talk about possibilities, whereas he speaks from the position of “I recognize You through You, and You are my Guide to Yourself.”

– Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, (Contemplation and Action, tr. S.J. Badakhshani, 37-38)

The perfect soul of the Imam of the Time always experiences the fullness of the ma‘rifah of God and his murids reach that recognition through the recognition (ma‘rifah) of the Imam. This is the essential role of the Imam of the time and embodied in the Ismaili Muslim daily prayer called Du‘a’. The Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah also alluded to this when he said that the “real miracle of Hazrat Ali is that he brought people to the Truth.” This is why one of the Ismaili Imams has said:

Everyone must know God through knowing me, since a person becomes a knower (‘ārif) through my knowledge and becomes a unifier (muwaḥḥid) through my tawḥīd. Then the reality of ma‘rifat, union (ittiḥād), and unity (waḥdat) comes completely into existence, and the reality of worship becomes evident.

– Imam Hasan ‘ala-dhikrihi al-salām,
(Nasīr al-Din al-Tusi, tr. S.J. Badakhshani, Contemplation and Action, 44)

The human soul who realizes tawhidat both the rational and the spiritual level is then able to worship God through an intellectual or gnostic worship (al-‘ibadat al-‘ilmiyyah) in which human beings find ultimate awe and felicity:


All scripture has a double meaning – an exoteric and an esoteric.
In the sphere of the former, worship is literal and symbolic.
An Ismaili however is privy to a hidden, esoteric truth in addition.
As he worships with exoteric symbols
and formulae in conformity with Islamic law,
he takes cognizance of the True Deity –
the remote, awesome, unknowable, ineffable, Neoplatonic One,
stripped, both physically and spiritually,
of all attributes and of all description and limit.
This is, for them, the real God behind the symbols and beyond all illusions.

– Paul Walker, (An Ismaili Answer to the Problem of Worshipping the Unknowable Neoplatonic God, Ilm Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 1)

2 thoughts on “Ismaili Teachings on the Oneness of God (Tawhid): Beyond Personalist Theism and Modern Atheism

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