When 'God' equals 'no gods'
The primal statement of Islamic belief is the assertion of tawhid: “La ilaha illa Allah” (“There is no god but God”). The principle of tawhid refers to unity, or rather to unification. Tawhid is less about positing the oneness of a God and more about negating the fracture in the homogeneity of the divine.
It is a curious theological and historical fact that in Islam the primary enemy was never atheism or unbelief but polytheism and idol-worship. When Prophet Muhammad brought down all the idols inside the Ka’ba, he did not do so on behalf of one of them against the rest. He did not leave one true one among many false ones. Ka’ba, the house of God, remains empty. Because the one true one was not a god. It was the absence of gods. For polytheism was seen as a crime committed not by many gods against the right one in the pantheon of potential gods, but rather the crime itself was the very fragmentation of One.
The primal statement of Islamic belief is the assertion of tawhid: “La ilaha illa Allah” (“There is no god but God”). The principle of tawhid refers to unity, or rather to unification. Tawhid is less about positing the oneness of a God and more about negating the fracture in the homogeneity of the divine. What the substance of that homogenous entity is is unknown and it is almost insignificant and has no priority over the prohibition against breaking that unity or introducing cracks into it (shirk). The content of the divine can never be known, but what is clearly known is that the divine is first and foremost an indivisible unity.
The two parts of “there is no god but God” explain and mirror each other. One can make the plausible argument that in Islam God means the absence of gods. That is, God is no gods. That Islam emerged against the backdrop of a fragmented polytheistic Arabian society provides us with a historical justification for this outcome. But what is the theological justification? Here we are left with a negative theology where God is not defined in terms of what s/he is, but in terms of what s/he is not. Imagine a god whose sole function is to prevent the emergence of gods. This negative and negating god evacuates the divine from the earthly sphere as an act of elimination of privilege or abolition of private property. Not unlike the Marxist ideal of a “classless society”, tawhid’s “unbroken divinity” creates an outcome that is ambivalent: It is at once a class (the class of all) and a non-class (the transcendence of class).
When God becomes One, his presence and absence become equivalent. God is everywhere and nowhere. The contribution of Islam and the structural meaning of tawhid lie in the achievement of universal coverage in the negation of divinity on earth. The external point in relation to which all of existence finds its unification and common denominator becomes God.
One of the key functions of tawhid is the creation of the all-encompassing category of “non-deifiable”. In this binary conception, God becomes a constitutive other that gives rise to existence as a unified whole. It is with respect to this reference point that the entire creation belongs to the same class. God becomes another name for the kinship that ties all beings to each other while not letting any one of them claim ownership and sovereignty over the others.
In tawhid, God creates the universe as a unified whole by depriving it of himself. Or the idea of God gives rise to the universe as that which is not-God. That is why Sufis seek to partake in the divine via self-annihilation. Tawhid should be understood as a radical rejection of parochial gods in the name of universalism and a perpetual negation of idols of partiality. With Islam, God is indistinguishable from idol-less-ness. And the oneness of God is simply the mirror image of the oneness of all beings as non-god.