Previously, in writing about sufism, I made reference to the five pillars of Islam. Perhaps I should step back now and offer a brief description of each of these pillars, which together constitute the foundation of a Muslim’s duty to God. In a very real sense, for the faithful of Islam all behavior is informed and guided by their duty to God. However, it is possible to identify in the Qur’an certain practices, some ritualistic, which are enjoined by God and which seem to have little direct bearing on family or society, but are rather intimately tied to our relationship with God.
Five of these duties are described as the Pillars or fundamental principles of Islamic worship as manifested in both belief and practice. In the Qur’an we are commanded to adhere to these principles. Doing so pleases God and helps to reserve a place for us in the Eternal Gardens in the life to come. Failure to perform these duties earns us God’s enmity and eternal suffering, but otherwise has no pertinent effect on those around us – on family or society. Therefore, apart from the eternal punishment which awaits those who fail in these duties, the Qur’an specifies no earthly penalties for them, whereas violation of other Qur’anic injunctions – such as those related to theft or adultery – are condemned by God to earthly as well as eternal punishments. However, it is one’s duty to God that forms the foundation of Islam. Failure to uphold this foundation, to maintain these pillars, must of necessity exclude one from being a Muslim. According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad declared,
Islam is built upon the following five pillars: testifying that there is no god except Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger, the establishment of the prayer, the giving of zakah, the fast of Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Makkah. (As-Sayyid Sabiq 108-109)
At the core of any form of Islamic belief, whether it be Sunni or Shi’i, orthodox or mystical, firmly stands the unshakable faith in the oneness of God, known as tawhid, which every Muslim affirms in the shahada:
Ash hadu an-lā ilāha illal lāhu, wa ash hadu an-na Muhammad an-‘abduhū wa rasūluh.
(I testify that there is no god but God, and I testify that Muhammad is His servant and Messenger.)
It is no coincidence that all serious references to the pillars of Islam begin with the shahada, as this is the cornerstone of Muslim belief, a belief which the Qur’an repeatedly reminds the faithful to keep ever in their thoughts. Developing in the presence of two communities of kitabiyya or People of the Book, one of whom insisted on the paternity of God as father of Jesus, the Muslim community must never forget that, “There is no god but God,” a theme that is humbly yet forcefully repeated throughout the Qur’an. Through the Prophet Muhammad, it is revealed to the believers, “And your God is One God. There is no god but He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful” (002:163).
God! There is no god but He, the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede in His presence except as He permits? He knows what appears to His creatures as before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He wills. His Throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them, for He is the Most High, the Supreme in glory. (002:255)
The oneness of God is further affirmed in a particular form of warning against the sin of polytheism or associating other beings with God, a warning often expressed throughout the Qur’an. Such is the warning delivered by God’s Messengers to those who would associate other deities with God or who would continue to worship non-existent supernatural beings in God’s place. They must accept that there are no other creators, no other protectors, no other helpers to save them when the time of Judgment arrives. Nor do His Messengers share even slightly in His Divinity. There is only God, to whom all will have to answer. The following Qur’anic verses are typical of this kind of warning.
Know you not that to God belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth? And besides Him you have neither patron nor helper. (002:107)
Say: “Truly am I a Warner. No god is there but the one God, Supreme and Irresistible, the Lord of the heavens and the earth, and all between, Exalted in Might, able to enforce His Will, forgiving again and again.” (038:065-066)
Yet they attribute to some of His servants a share with Him in his godhead! Truly is man a blasphemous ingrate avowed! (043:015)
The Trinity of the Christians posed a peculiar challenge to the Prophet. The Christians certainly extended out from the line of the Abrahamic faiths, believing in the one God, but from the Islamic perspective they had sinned in associating others with God, primarily an equally divine son. As a warning specifically to Christians and as a response to their concerns and criticisms, the Qur’an instructs the believers to acknowledge that Jesus was no more than a man. If he is to be revered, it must be as a Messenger of God, not as a god.
O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion, nor say of God aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was no more than a Messenger of God, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him. So believe in God and His Messengers. Say not “Trinity.” Desist, it will be better for you, for God is one God. Glory be to Him. Far exalted is He above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is God as a Disposer of affairs. (004:171)
They do blaspheme who say, “God is Christ the son of Mary.” But said Christ, “O Children of Israel! worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” Whoever joins other gods with God, God will forbid him the Garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will be no one to help for the wrong-doers. (005:072)
Christ the son of Mary was no more than a Messenger. Many were the Messengers who passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. See how God makes His Signs clear to them, yet see in what ways they are deluded away from the truth! (005:075)
The oneness of God is so fundamental to Islamic faith, that rejection of it appears in the Qur’an to be the ultimate sin. While God is “Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful,” there is, the Qur’an records, one thing which even God could never possibly forgive – the attribution of partners to Him. Those who persist in their polytheistic beliefs, who die in error, believing that God has partners, will suffer the worst torment in the life to come.
Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers, for that they joined companions with God, for which He had sent no authority. Their abode will be the Fire. And evil is the home of the wrong-doers! (003:151)
God forgives not that partners should be set up with Him, but He forgives anything else to whom He pleases. To set up partners with God is to devise a sin most heinous indeed. (004:048)
God forgives not the sin of joining other gods with Him, but He forgives whom He pleases other sins than this. One who joins other gods with God has strayed far, far away from the right. (004:116)