The concept of tawhid is the very essence of Islam. It refers to the affirmation of the Oneness of God. It is the most important metaphysical concept and answers the ancient riddle of the cosmos: how did it all come into being? Indeed, the Islamic declaration, la ilaha illa Allah - There is none worthy of worship but God - must be understood and asserted before one can become a Muslim.
The Koran teaches that the prophets were sent by God to remind all nations of this truth and to urge them to avoid the grave sin of shirk, the association of partners with God. It is no coincidence that Moses and Jesus taught that observing the shema, the Hebrew equivalent of tawhid, was the most important commandment of all (Deuteronomy 6:4, Mark 12:29).
In the Islamic world view, all beliefs contrary to tawhid represent a falling away from that original monotheism. All creation is thus properly regarded as standing on this side of the line dividing the natural from the transcendent. Islam's insistence on the absolute transcendence of God eliminated all possible fusion of the divine with the creaturely, and therefore, any misperception of the natural as the supernatural or vice versa.
Mohammed is described in the Koran as having been sent to confirm what remained of truth from the earlier revelations, and to correct any historical distortions. Consequently, Muslims since the time of the Prophet have been critical of trinitarian Christianity for postulating three persons in the godhead, each of whom is "fully God" according to the Nicene creed. They assert that this represents a deviation from clear prophetic teachings. Islam holds up the prophet Abraham as an example of one who had pure faith in the one God and was yet "neither a Jew nor a Christian" (Koran 3:67).
From the beginning of Mohammed's mission, there was precision and care in the use of language when describing God. Consequently, words such as "father" or "son", which had caused some confusion and had detracted from the pristine monotheism preached by the earlier prophets, were absent from the Islamic vocabulary.
On the other hand, the Old Testament ban on the use of graven images was strongly reaffirmed. Even today, in mosques throughout the world, no matter how large or small they are, the use of pictorial representation of human beings is forbidden, so as not to detract from the worship of God alone. The most ostentatious decoration will usually only consist of naturalistic mosaics and verses from the Koran.
Today's proliferation of the statues of rulers and their murals in some parts of the Muslim world is perhaps more a reflection of their own insecurity than the embodiment of Islamic teachings.
Mohammed's success was to re-establish the pure faith of his forefather Abraham by emphatically insisting that worship should not be directed towards anyone except God alone, and that no one else should be the object of adoration or fear.
So, tawhid is not just a metaphysical concept but also a dynamic belief. It teaches the believer that every man, woman and child - as creatures of the same one God - are his brothers and sisters, and deserving of his assistance and cooperation.
As the Tunisian Islamic thinker Rachid al-Ghannouchi - currently in exile in London - has observed, tawhid represents the struggle to liberate the human being not only from discrim-ination based on colour, class or race but also the tyranny of his fellow man, who seeks to monopolise wealth, power and law-making.
"There is no obedience due to a creature that involves disobedience of the creator" is a well-known saying of the Prophet on the essence of tawhid. It is this that has kept the fires of individual freedom and integrity burning, especially in the face of oppressive and authoritarian institutions and regimes through the ages - and even now.