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Islamic Monotheism and the Struggle of Opposites

An essential feature of Arab-Islamic civilization is its straining towards the unification of created reality and the divine. In a world that tends towards contradiction, this ideal translates into a quest for the concordance of opposites that modernity has thrown into crisis

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2018-11-27 10:29:16


The principle of unification is an essential criterion for Arab-Islamic civilization to decide what to accept and what to reject when interacting with other cultures: unification of the divine, of faith, law and religion, of the state and the nation. And yet, in a world that tends towards contradiction, this ideal is hardly achieved and leads to a conflict. The solution has historically been seen in the search for the concordance of opposites. Dialectical modernity has thrown this solution into crisis


Arab-Islamic civilization strives with all its might towards unification (tawhīd):[1] unification of the divine or monotheism, first and foremost, but also unification of faith and law, unification of religion and state, unification of the prophetic messages in one single uninterrupted message, unification of civilizations into one universal civilization, unification of the nations under one single doctrine and unification of the numerous states in one single polity. In short, unification of all the realities in a sole, definitive, eternal and immutable word.[2]


Nevertheless, this world of ours is, by its very nature, founded on contradictions and oppositions. Pure, simple, total unification is difficult to attain and arduous to achieve – in its purified totality – in this world shaped by dualism. It is an ideal to strive for and a goal to aim for but it is never totally achievable.


How, then, are we to bridge the abyss between God and humanity, between the afterlife and the present life and between the transcendent ideal and the reality contaminated by multiplicity and contradiction? Must we, the Unitarians par excellence, surrender to the fact of constant battling and accept dualism?


If our earthly reality prevents us from achieving the ideal of total unification, our response is to seek to approach it, to try to achieve the conciliation that reason and the soul so deeply desire, in order to draw nearer to divine unity.


Conciliation is the ladder that lets us ascend towards unitary monotheism and it is our aspiration. By virtue of conciliation, we take on contradictory realities, bring them together, eliminate opposition (as far as possible) and produce something that expresses our passion for unification and our straining towards it, something that resembles it without becoming identical to it, because the world of men is not the divine world. Thanks to conciliation, we rise above dualism and draw nearer to divine unity. With it we reach beyond multiplicity towards the highlands of Unity. Conciliation remains our worldly, concretely achieved and imperfect expression of our ideal, total, monotheistic faith.



[Oneness of Faith and Universality of Culture]

To the extent that conciliation and harmonization constitute the way to draw nearer to unification and the salvation it embodies, conflict and multiplicity become expressions both of a step backwards towards associationism and the ruin resulting from it. Hence, logically, the insistence on the oneness of divinity, the universality of dogma, the all-encompassing nature of the political system, the consensus of tradition, the unity of the community and the need for a single imam and a single prayer direction.


Multiplicity at the level of divinity is polytheism and unforgiveable unbelief. Multiplicity at the level of dogma is a rejection of and departure from the orthodox tradition.[3] Multiplicity at the level of the state is apostasy or a civil discord (fitna) that threatens the community’s unity.


The principle of unification and conciliation was an essential criterion in deciding what to accept and what to reject when interacting with other civilizations. Islam came into contact with Persian Manichean dualism directly in its lands of origin even before it absorbed Hellenistic influences. Consistently with its aspiration to unification and conciliation, however, it resolutely refused to take on this conflictual dualism or to relate to it positively or even tolerate its echoes in literature and thought.


Dualism became the heresy par excellence, the zandaqa, which was considered the most repugnant form of unbelief.[4] This Persian zandaqa was fought in the same way as pre-Islamic Arab paganism.



[The Encounter with Aristotle]

The efforts made by the caliph al-Mahdī [r. 775-785] to fight zandaqa and eradicate Manichean dualism[5] can only be paralleled by the equally intense efforts that the caliph al-Ma’mūn [r. 813-833] deployed to absorb Hellenistic rationality and encourage the translation of works of Greek wisdom.[6] This happened because such wisdom – in both its Aristotelian-Peripatetic and neo-Platonic illuminationist components – was, like Islam, based on a unitary principle.


In my opinion, this shared principle was the cornerstone that allowed for the fruitful historical encounter between Islam and Hellenism. Indeed, the Peripatetic school was based on Aristotle’s formal logic that took the principle of non-contradiction as its foundation and considered all existence to be a logical and coherent whole, entirely derived from a sole prime mover. Neo-Platonism, on the other hand, starts from the idea of the One, from which the cosmos derives by immaterial emanation. […]


In this way, the Islamic and Greek perspectives – one religious and the other logical – came to meet around the need to create a unified vision of the world. This was the element that gave depth to the encounter between Islam, with its principle of unification, and Greek wisdom, with its Aristotelian logic, and it was this same element that kept Islam and Persian Manichaeism mutually estranged. In my opinion, had Greek reason been dualist, or sceptical about divinity and metaphysics, the encounter would not have been so successful. We will see this shortly, when we consider the attitude of neo-concordism towards the dialectical nature of modern European reason.


The encounter between Islam and Hellenism was not limited to philosophy and theology, however. It also had an impact on rhetoric, stylistics, criticism and grammar. Indeed, one can truthfully say that the two most important constituents the Arabs contributed to the edifice of universal Islamic civilization (i.e. religion, in its theological and juridical components, and language, as both stylistics and grammar) were formulated, in the various disciplines, according to Aristotelian logic.[7]


And it is equally significant that Islam neglected the Dionysian, vitalist, tragic and irrational element in the Greek tradition, focusing its interest on the later, more orderly, rational and unitary Apollonian element that began with Socrates. Nietzsche considered it to be the antithesis of the former and the factor that brought dramatics and the era of the tragedy and primitive heroism to an end in Greek civilization.[8]


Perhaps precisely as a result of this one-sided attitude towards existence and this unifying and purifying criterion, it was natural that Arab-Islamic civilization did not pay much attention to the tragic elements in human life or the representation of tragedy at an artistic level and in modes of thought. […] Overshadowed by the spirit of conciliation, which always sets itself the goal of minimizing conflictual elements and emphasizing the points of agreement, tragedy dies or, rather, is not even born. Monologue, the discourse of the unified self, reigns supreme with its monotone song.[9]


Obviously, this phenomenon was not limited to literature. In the field of dogma, for example, theology did not take account of aspects of anguish and tension in the religious experience, preferring to devote itself to formulating the articles of a definitive monotheistic faith that was intellectual in nature. For this reason, Islamic thought had no experience of anything like Augustine’s Confessions. When he wrote Deliverance from Error,[10] al-Ghazālī was not concerned with expounding his own psychological tension or his own experience of doubt but, rather, with providing intellectual guidance to confirm the prescribed faith and to nip in the bud any personal suffering and tension in the area of religious experience.[11] It is true that al-Ghazālī permitted mysticism, but he treated it as a secret not to be divulged, confessed or openly expressed.[12] […]


At the existential level, in any case, the spirit of conciliation, by overcoming lacerating tragedy and psychological splitting in favour of a harmonious unification, becomes an element of progress. Indeed, when conciliation is authentic, true and consistent with the realities of its historical era, it truly manages to triumph over tragic laceration by melting opposites into an organic alloy. It infuses into the individual and the community a condition of balance, tranquillity and interior coherence that relaxes psychological and intellectual tension in people and society. Thus a civilization’s interior constitution becomes harmonious and cases of schizophrenia and intellectual and psychological breakdown become so rare that the phenomenon of suicide disappears altogether, as history shows.


In actual fact, the absence of suicides – so characteristic of the Arab-Islamic civilization – has long attracted the attention of scholars and has received various explanations.[13] Perhaps my emphasis on the centrality of the conciliation principle in this culture could shed additional light on the elements that have protected it from this psychological illness, since when conciliation profoundly penetrates the faculties of the psyche and of reason (and does not simply remain a mental patch covering over a hidden laceration), it wipes out the virus of the death instinct and fills the soul with the bliss of unification.



[The Missing Link in Islamic Reformism]

The revolutionary transformation occurred in the conception of reason in the modern era set a double challenge to the two elements of ancient concordism (Aristotelian reason and Semitic faith) and the unifying vision they share. On the one hand, there was a reversal in the way logic is conceived, with the move from the formal Aristotelian logic founded on the principle of internal coherence to the Hegelian dialectical logic that, in one respect, is based on the principle of internal contradiction as the unavoidable condition for achieving both the unity of things and the unity of the cosmos itself.


On the other hand, the concept of reason was itself changing at the metaphysical level, passing from a objective, believing reason that was certain and sure of its powers to an idealistic, wary reason with little faith in its own abilities and sure only of its own existence (Descartes and Kant) or a sensory-based, empiricist and sceptical reason. The relationship between reason and religion was also changing: from a situation of stable, mutual complementarity (as in Averroism and Thomism), such relationship became an open enigma, riddled with tensions that undermined the ancient balance to its core. […] The culmination came when materialistic scientific reason claimed to trace the source of heavenly faith to its corresponding sensible, earthly sources and reduce it to them.


When [at the end of the nineteenth century] Muhammad ‘Abduh and his school reactivated the concordist movement and resumed attempts to reach an agreement between faith and reason, they totally failed to understand the extent of the revolutionary change in the concept of reason from Aristotelian objectivism to Cartesian/Kantian idealism or the qualitative shift in the conception of logic, which now featured among its most important categories the principle of internal contradiction, hidden in the nature of things and their relationships, in the nature of evolution and, in short, in the nature of the whole of being.[14] Christianity did not find this principle an arduous one, thanks to the rational parallel between the dialectical trinity (thesis, antithesis and synthesis) and the mystery of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).[15] On the contrary, it is not at all easy for Islam to accept this principle, unless Islamic thought manages to conceive a positive form of relationship between absolute, transcendent unitarism and the dialectic of opposites that proceeds through itself towards the desired unification.


In my opinion, the failure, so far, to reach this form of positive relationship constitutes the missing link in the chain of communication between neo-concordism and the “logic” of our times. It explains why the various concordist attempts have failed: they aborted because they were incapable of offering even just an acceptable basis for an encounter between the unitary philosophy that underpins them and the phenomenon of dialectics. […]


So here lies the toughest conundrum for contemporary concordism: whereas classical concordism was solidly supported by a naturally believing Greek, philosophical reason, the new concordism is running after a different, revolutionary and sceptical reason. And this explains the difficulty in building an agreement upon solid, stable foundations.


[1] [For a clearer understanding of the text, it should be borne in mind that in Arabic “tawhīd” has the etymological meaning of “unification” but historically means “monotheism”. Save in the cases where the context clearly suggested a religious reference, we have preferred to maintain the etymological sense in our translation. As regards the multiple meanings of the term, see the following footnote. Ed.]
[2] In Arab culture, the word “unification” (tawhīd) has a semantic range that is exceptional both in its fecundity and its scope, having been invoked by numerous divergent currents. After Islam devoted itself, right from the outset, to preaching monotheism (tawhīd), the Mu‘tazilites gave themselves the name of “people of justice and tawhīd”, because of their philosophical, rational doctrine that stripped the divine essence of any plurality of attributes. But also their Wahhabi and Salafi opponents called themselves the “tawhīd movement”, because of their rigorist return to the tawhīd’s primitive nature and their rejection of both innovations and the intercession of saints. On the other hand, the Druze, too, call themselves “Unitarians” (muwahhidūn) and when Shiblī Shumayyil, the leader of secular Arab Darwinism, embraced scientific materialism unifying all individual realities and beings in the concept of Nature, he summarized his doctrine in the same, eternal word, tawhīd (see Shumayyil, Falsafat al-nushū’ wa l-irtiqā’, p. 30). These are just four examples but they suffice to show the breadth and the persistence of the drive towards unification in Arab thought.
[3] [“Rejectionists” is the term used by Sunni polemicists to designate the Shī‘ites, whilst the Kharijites are, precisely, those who have “departed from” the community. Ed.]
[4] See the entry “zindīq” in the Encyclopaedia of Islam.
[5] Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs, pp. 430-431.
[6] Ibid., pp. 310-312.
[7] Ahmad Amīn writes, “The logic that reached the Arabs was Aristotle’s logic, updated, enriched and illustrated by Stoic and Alexandrian logic. The Arabs did not add anything worth noting” (Duhā al-Islām, vol. 1, pp. 274-275). See, also, ‘Abd al-Rahmān Badawī, Aristū ‘ind al-‘arab. Dirāsa wa-nusūs ghayr manshūra, pp. 6-66.
[8] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, pp. 76-79.
[9] Perhaps this concordist approach partly explains why ancient and medieval Arab literature had no tragic art.
[10] [A famous autobiographical text by the theologian, jurist and mystic al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), Deliverance from Error is the Islamic work that best lends itself to comparisons with Augustine’s Confessions. Integral English translation: al-Ghazali, Deliverance from Error, translated and annotated by R.J. McCarthy (Fons Vitae, Louisville, 2004). An excerpt was published in Oasis 21, pp. 104-107, Ed.].
[11] Al-Ghazālī wrote Deliverance from Error after recovering his faith. […] But of his experience of psychological suffering linked to scepticism, he only gave echoes and faint allusions. Indeed, al-Ghazālī sums up this decisive psychological experience in only two lines: “This malady was mysterious and it lasted for nearly two months. During that time I was a sceptic in fact, but not in utterance and doctrine. At length God Most High cured me of that sickness. My soul regained its health and equilibrium” (Al-Ghazālī, Al-Munqidh, ed. Jabre, p. 13). It is clear that al-Ghazālī is here describing the experience in a summarized form and from the outside, without revealing its interior development.
[12] Al-Munqidh, pp. 39-40. For al-Ghazālī, the mystical condition is “ineffable. As soon as one tries to express it in words, he falls into manifest error.”
[13] See Issawi, Egypt in Revolution, p. 15. Issawi alludes to this historical phenomenon and substantiates it vis-à-vis our own times with statistics demonstrating how Islamic countries stand out from the other third-world states in terms of their extremely limited number of suicides. See, also, Sāmī al-Jundī, ʿArab wa-Yahūd, p. 180, for the statement that the suicide of the [Egyptian] general, ‘Abd al-Hakīm ‘Āmir [at the end of the Six-Day War], was an exceptional occurrence and the herald of a mental upheaval quite unprecedented in the Middle East region.
[14] Muhammad ‘Abduh’s Theology of Unity (which inaugurated neo-concordism) is based on the principle of the absence of contradiction and on the rejection of an oppositional relationship between positive and negative in the same extant. ‘Abduh states that “a thing’s self-negation is impossible by evidence,” thereby denying the possibility of a dialectic contradiction between the positive and negative in the same extant being. On the other hand, he maintains that, by virtue of pure tawhīd, it is impossible for a thing to have different forms of existence; only that this statement makes it absolutely impossible – from a philosophical point of view – to find a convincing intellectual formula to explain the relationship between one and multiplicity and between the unity of being and its simultaneous plurality. Likewise, Muhammad ‘Abduh follows the Mu‘tazilites regarding the question of the created Qur’an because “to support the opposite argument would be to go against the evidence (the evidence of which logic?) and attack the concept of eternity by introducing the concept of change and mutation into it.” See Muhammad ‘Abduh, Risālat al-tawhīd, pp. 38, 49, 51. Thus monotheistic thought was renewed without directly confronting the dialectics of the era.
[15] It is worth observing that the man who conceived the idea of a dialectical trinity (Hegel) came to philosophy from theology. It therefore cannot be excluded that the roots of the dialectical trinity lie – consciously or instinctively – in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. And all the more so in that Hegel “rationalized” revelation, dogma and the absolute.

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