Tawhid is the defining doctrine of Islam. It declares absolute monotheism—the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe. Used by Islamic reformers and activists as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic, and world order.
During the classical period, discussions of tawhid focused on philosophical considerations about God's essence and attributes and the validity of the political institution of the caliphate. The thirteenth-century Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah shifted the emphasis of tawhid to sociomoral issues. He interpreted tawhid as a declaration that God is the sole creator, ruler, and judge of the world, rendering human beings responsible for submitting to and carrying out His revealed will through religious practice, ritual, and actions. True faith is expressed in both individual and collective virtuous behavior, linking the private and public (i.e., spiritual and political) spheres. Social organization is to be guided by religion.
The eighteenth-century Arabian reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792 ) reasserted tawhid as a remedy for spiritual stagnation and excesses. He denounced those who compromised Islamic unity by promoting sectarianism; by praying to saints and requesting intercession by saints, angels, and prophets; and by claiming knowledge based on sources other than the Quran, Sunnah, and results of logical processes. He sought to establish a state based on divine and Islamic unity, replacing tribal solidarity with religious solidarity and purifying Islam from extraneous and popular practices. That state became the basis of the modern state of Saudi Arabia.
The nineteenth-century Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905 ) synthesized tawhid, human free will, and obedience to God's revealed word. He justified rational inquiries into the Quran through tawhid by claiming that there could be no conflict between reason and revelation, so the Quran validates and encourages humans' exercise of reason. Like Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, he attacked traditionalism, focusing instead on knowledge of God and reliance upon proof rather than tradition as evidence. The two most influential themes of Abduh's work for twenty-first century activists are the need to revive the spirit of ijtihad (independent reasoning) by rejecting taqlid (strict adherence to tradition) and pursuing practical goals in the creation of Islamic society rather than contemplating the nature of the divine essence and attributes.
Abduh's interpretation of the centrality of tawhid in directing human pursuits became more important as the Islamic world suffered political setbacks, particularly as secular ideologies such as Nasserism, socialism, capitalism, and nationalism failed to achieve independence from the colonial powers, prosperity, and unity throughout the Islamic world. Sayyid Qutb articulated an Islamic worldview based on tawhid as a human response to God, whereby society is to reflect divine unity through unanimous submission to God's revealed will, both privately and publicly. He asserted that governments should be based on Islamic law.
The Palestinian scholar Ismail al-Faruqi (d. 1986 ) discussed the practical implications of tawhid, focusing on Muslim responsibility for all of humanity and the entire cosmos since Muslims are the beneficiaries of perfect and complete revelation. Such responsibility demands an Islamic world order oriented toward human activity in public action, rather than excessive legalism, materialism, or spirituality alone. Tawhid commands that all life must be ordered according to divine will, so Islamic law must both legislate every aspect of life and be the dominant legal system throughout the world.
The major ideologue of the Iranian Islamic revolution, Ali Shariati (d. 1977 ), popularized tawhid for Shiis. He stressed the purpose of human existence as agreement or trust between God and creation, whereby human beings are responsible for caring for all of creation with tawhid as the foundation for social action; for the rejection of legal, class, social, political, racial, national, territorial, genetic, and economic distinctions; and for the requirement for all believers to work for justice. Tawhid is, therefore, designed to transform a religion that justifies and accepts the status quo into a religion of awareness, activism, and revolution.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989 ) also placed tawhid at the center of Islamic spiritual and material life, calling for unity of all Muslims and particularly stressing political unity as the only way to resolve the lack of harmony among Muslim countries, which he blamed on the West. He called for revolution and the elimination of specific leaders, based on tawhid and true Islam, to ensure the unity of all Muslims throughout the world.
Tawhid is at the forefront of Islamic thought today due to a concern with the practical manifestations of Islamic unity in a world fragmented by colonialism and nationalism. Tawhid has emerged as a powerful symbol of divine, spiritual, and sociopolitical unity.