TWO ARMIES FACED each other from opposite sides of the battered walls of Jerusalem. The year was 614 C.E. Inside the besieged city, a few thousand fighting men loyal to the Byzantine emperor, Flavius Heraclius the Younger—the handsome young warrior who had seized the throne after personally drawing and quartering its previous occupant—anxiously awaited the onslaught they knew was coming at the hands of the royal army of King Khosrow II, king of kings and ruler of the Persian (Sassanian) Empire.
For three hundred years, these two superpowers—one Christian, the other Zoroastrian—had warred with each other for control over the Near East, the balance of power swinging back and forth with each destructive battle. This was not just a struggle over land; it was a clash between the divergent religious views of two theocratic kingdoms, each founded upon an officially sanctioned and legally enforced conception of the divine as existing in either two forms (Zoroastrian Dualism) or three (Christian Trinitarianism).
By the start of the seventh century C.E., the incessant conflict had drained both empires of their wealth and strength. And yet so great was their animus that neither could shake the instinct to inflict just one more measure of violence upon the other. The recent ascension of Heraclius had left the Byzantine Empire in disarray, and Khosrow thought to take advantage of his adversary’s situation by sending his nearly bankrupted army on a rampage across Christian lands. His forces had already captured Antioch and Damascus. Now they stood at the walls of Jerusalem, poised to conquer the holy city and in the process to strike a symbolic blow to Christianity.
Circling the city walls were Khosrow’s ten thousand heavily armed Persian troops, along with an auxiliary force of about two thousand Jewish fighters hoping to avenge three centuries of oppression, mass slaughter, and forced conversion under Christian rule. The Jews would get their wish. When the walls were breached and the Persian army victorious, King Khosrow handed Jerusalem back to the Jews, who promptly unleashed a wave of death and destruction upon the city’s Christian inhabitants.
The Byzantines rebounded. Heraclius reconstituted his army and forced the Sassanian troops out of the cities they had so recently conquered. In 630 C.E., he recaptured Jerusalem, sending the Persians back to their capital city, Ctesiphon, in defeat, but massacring the Jews who remained. Weak and weary from war, the two superpowers sued for peace and prepared for what each assumed would be another brief respite in this unending battle between withering empires. But then something happened that neither could have imagined.
A few months after Heraclius and Khosrow had hammered out their peace deal in the city of Cappadocia, each was visited by an emissary from the forgotten desert wastelands of the Arabian Peninsula. The emissaries carried letters addressed to both emperors from an Arab prophet who claimed to speak on behalf of a god that neither the Trinitarians nor the Dualists had ever heard of, but whom the prophet claimed was the sole God in the universe.
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, the letters began. Peace be upon him who follows the right path. I invite you to Islam, and if you become a Muslim you will be safe, and Allah will double your reward, and if you reject this invitation of Islam you will be committing a sin by misguiding your subjects.
The letters were signed Muhammad Rasulullah: Muhammad the Messenger of Allah.1
King Khosrow, in defiance of all kingly codes of conduct, killed the emissary and commanded his viceroy to find this desert prophet and cut off his head. Heraclius, however, was so amused by the audacity of the letter that he reportedly fell into a fit of laughter. He dismissed the emissary, tore up the missive, and apparently thought nothing more of it.
Before the decade was out, the followers of this same desert prophet had swallowed up nearly the whole of the Sassanian Empire, putting an end to Zoroastrianism as a global religion. They had pushed the Byzantine Empire out of the Near East, leaving it a hollow shell barely a fifth of its former size. They had even allowed the Jews to once again return to Jerusalem and practice their religion there. Having sprung out of the Arabian wilderness to confront a world dominated by two prevailing perceptions of the divine—God as Three and God in Two—the armies of this new religion, called Islam, sought to root out both beliefs from the known world, and replace them with the Jewish view of God as it had been wholeheartedly embraced by their prophet, Muhammad: God as One.2
MUHAMMAD IBN ABDALLAH ibn Abd al-Muttalib was born some time around the latter half of the sixth century C.E. in the city of Mecca, in the Arabian Peninsula. He came into the world the only son of a widow, in a city where widows were left without protection. He became an orphan while still a child, in a society that treated orphans as chattel to be bought and sold. Through the assistance of a kindly uncle, the young Muhammad was able to avoid this fate and to earn a meager living making trade runs north to Syria and south into Yemen. In his twenties his prospects suddenly improved when he married an older merchant named Khadija and took over the management of her successful caravan business.
Yet despite the relative wealth and comfort of his new life, Muhammad could never shake the feeling that there was something profoundly wrong with a society that had brought him so close to a life of slavery and despair—a society in which the unprotected masses could be so easily exploited by the powerful and affluent for their own gain. He became restless and dissatisfied. He began giving away his wealth and seeking solace in the mountains and glens of the Meccan valley, where he would spend his nights in prayer and meditation, beseeching the heavens for an answer to the misery and sorrow that he saw in his world.
Then, one day, the heavens responded.
According to tradition Muhammad was meditating in a cave on Mount Hira when he was seized by an invisible presence commanding him, “Recite.” What followed that initial experience was twenty-two years of nearly uninterrupted prophetic revelations from a god he called Allah—revelations that would eventually be collected into what is now known as the Quran, or the Recitation.
The ancient Arabs were already familiar with Allah, who was likely conceived as the Arabian equivalent of the Indo-European deity Dyeus, or its Greek counterpart Zeus: that is, as a sky god who steadily rose through the ranks of the Arab pantheon to become High God. But it’s unclear whether the Arabs thought of Allah as a personalized deity or as a kind of abstract spirit, somewhat akin to the divine force that the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians believed underpinned the universe. Allah is not a proper name, after all, but a contraction of the Arabic word al-ilah,meaning simply, “the god”—an indication that Allah may have been viewed more as divine spirit than as divine personality. And unlike the hundreds of other deities recognized by the ancient Arabs, Allah seems never to have been represented by an idol, which would make sense if he was perceived as an animating spirit without physical form.
At the same time, the Arabs credited Allah with being the creator of the heavens and the earth, so they clearly ascribed will and intention to the god. They thought of Allah as a material being who, like Zeus, had sired both sons and daughters. Indeed, Allah’s three daughters—Allat, who was associated with the Greek goddess Athena; Manat, who was likely connected with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar; and al-Uzza, who was the Arab equivalent of Aphrodite—played a central role in ancient Arab spirituality as Allah’s intermediaries.
Whatever the case, the ancient Arabs had little use for an abstract deity they could neither see nor interact with in their day-to-day lives. The Arab pantheon was littered with a host of gods and goddesses, angels and demons, and djinn, all of whom served the specific needs of their desert worshippers and nearly all of whom were conceived of in unambiguously human terms. The gods of the Arab world ate and drank, had sex and sired children, wore clothes and carried weapons (the goddess Manat wore two coats of mail and carried two swords). Most of these gods, save Allah, were carved in stone to look like human beings (or occasionally some other living creature) and housed inside Mecca’s central sanctuary, the Kaaba, where they could be visited by Arabs across the region bearing gifts and sacrifices in exchange for their favors and blessings.3
Page from “Journey of the Prophet Muhammad,” from the Majma al-Tararikh by Hafiz-i Abru (c. 1425 C.E.) Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0 1.0
Yet this was a highly evolved form of polytheism, one that freely absorbed the deities of other religions, including Judaism and Christianity. The Jewish patriarch Abraham had his own idol in the Kaaba, as did Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary. In fact, a great many Arabs considered all these gods to be nothing more than multiple manifestations of a single divine, albeit distant and unapproachable being: Allah.
So when Muhammad came down from Mount Hira with a message from this same Allah claiming to be the sole deity in the universe, he did not arouse a great deal of theological resistance. Mecca was a vibrant, religiously pluralistic, cosmopolitan city—a center of trade and commerce—in which Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and polytheists intermingled in an environment that encouraged bold religious experimentation. Muhammad’s declaration of monotheism would have been neither new nor particularly offensive to most of its residents. Even the vocabulary that Muhammad used to describe Allah as creator and king, as the Subduer of Men and the Bestower of Fates, was nearly identical to the vocabulary the ancient Arabs used to describe Allah.
Muhammad did, however, make two principal innovations to the Arab religious system that set him at odds with the Meccan establishment and made his movement unique. First, he firmly embraced the exclusivist connotations of his monotheistic system. It wasn’t enough for the Arabs to believe that Allah was the sole God in the universe; they had to deny the existence of any other god. “Oh my people. Worship Allah. You have no god but Him!” (Surah 7:59).
This was not just a new way of thinking about Allah; it was a direct attack on the established order. For by claiming that no other gods existed, Muhammad was undermining Mecca’s economy, which was predicated on its status as a sanctuary city open to worshippers of all the known gods of Arabia. If there were no other gods, then there was no need for the Kaaba and thus no reason for Mecca’s elevated position as the religious and the economic center of Arabia.
The second innovation, somewhat related to the first, was that Muhammad explicitly identified Allah with Yahweh, the god of the Jews. The Arabs were, of course, well aware of Yahweh. Jews had been living in the Arabian Peninsula for hundreds of years, perhaps as far back as the Babylonian Exile, and they participated in Arab society at every level. The Arabs even accepted Yahweh’s association with Allah, more or less, particularly when it came to Allah’s role as creator.
But Muhammad re-envisioned the relationship between these two deities by claiming that it was Allah who had made the covenant with Abraham in exchange for a promise of fertility (Surah 2:124–133); that it was Allah who had appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush and instructed him to return to Egypt to free the Israelites (Surah 28); that it was Allah who had devastated the world with a catastrophic flood, sparing only Noah and his family from the onslaught (Surah 71); that it was Allah who sent an angel to Mary bearing the good news that she would give birth to the Messiah, Jesus (Surah 3:45–51); that in fact it was Allah who had revealed the Torah and the Gospels (Surah 5:44–46).
To be clear, Muhammad was not replacing Yahweh with Allah; he simply viewed Yahweh and Allah as the same God. The core of Muhammad’s message was that he himself was merely one in a long line of prophets going all the way back to Adam, entrusted with revealing not a new scripture but the “confirmation of previous scriptures” (Surah 12:111). “We believe in Allah, and what has been revealed to us, and what has been revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the [twelve] tribes [of Israel]; we believe in what was revealed to Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them” (Surah 3:84).
There can be little doubt that Muhammad had a deep familiarity with Judaism, in light of his recounting of Jewish myths, his reverence for Jewish prophets, his veneration of the sacred Jewish city of Jerusalem, and his nearly wholesale adoption of Jewish dietary and purity laws. So great was Judaism’s impact on Muhammad’s thinking that a few historians have gone so far as to suggest that Islam, like Christianity, may have originated as a Jewish sect before branching off to become an independent religion. Although most scholars reject that position, what cannot be denied is that Muhammad was greatly influenced by his contacts with the Jews of Arabia. And nowhere is that influence more evident than in Muhammad’s unqualified acceptance of the Jewish understanding of God as singular and indivisible. “Allah is One,” the Quran states emphatically. “Allah is Unique. He has neither begotten anyone, nor is he begotten of anyone. And there is none like Him” (Surah 112:1–3).4
What makes this statement so significant is that at this point in time, Jewish monotheism as a religious idea was being strangled in one corner of the Near East by Byzantine Trinitarianism and subsumed in the other by Zoroastrian Dualism. Whether he was conscious of it or not, Muhammad’s decision to renounce both Zoroastrianism and Christianity (“Do not say ‘Three’!” the Quran warns. “God in truth is One!” Surah 4:171), and to unequivocally support Jewish monotheism instead, not only injected new life into the fledgling Jewish definition of a singular, personal God; it resulted in the creation of a brand-new global religion.5
At the center of that new religion was a kind of doubling down on the very concept of monotheism, which in Islam is founded upon a complex theological idea called tawhid. Arabic for “making one,” tawhid is less an affirmation of God’s singularity than it is a description of God’s essence. It does not mean there is only one God. It means that God is, in form and nature, oneness.
As an expression of “Divine Unity,” tawhid requires that God be not only indivisible, but also utterly unique. Allah is “a thing, not as other things,” wrote Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man (699–767 C.E.), one of the first Muslim theologians to tackle the subject. “He resembles none of the created things, nor do any created things resemble Him.”6
What this means in principle is that there can be no physical similarity between Allah and his creation, which is why, unlike nearly every other creation myth that arose from the Ancient Near East, the Quran expressly rejects the belief that God created human beings in his image. God has no image. He has no body, is of no substance, takes no shape in any form, human or otherwise.
On the surface it appears that Muhammad was consciously attempting to dehumanize Allah. Certainly his disdain for the worship of idols was well known. Among his first acts after conquering Mecca in the name of his new religion was to empty the Kaaba of all its idols and smash them to pieces.
Yet the Quran is replete with anthropomorphic descriptions of God. Allah is described as “holding humanity in his hands” and having “all-seeing eyes” and a face—“wherever you turn there is the face of Allah” (Surah 2:11). The Quran also ascribes to Allah a host of human qualities and attributes—sometimes referred to as Allah’s Beautiful Names—which are clearly meant to create a divine personality for a being who, were one to take the doctrine of tawhid seriously, should technically be without personality.
The obvious explanation for this seeming inconsistency between what Allah is supposed to be and how Allah is described in the Quran is to read such descriptions metaphorically, not as literal descriptions of God’s body. Otherwise it would violate the principle of tawhid.
The problem is that most Muslims do not read the Quran that way. Abu Hanifa certainly did not. As the founder of one of the four main schools of law in Sunni Islam, he set the precedent for Quranic exegesis by vehemently rejecting the possibility of any figurative reading of the Quran. In fact, nearly every school of law in Islam insists that God’s words in the Quran must be taken literally. After all, if God is indivisible, as tawhid demands, then he cannot be separated from his words. He is his words. Therefore, his words must be as eternal and divine, as unchanging and unchangeable as God himself is. So if the Quran happens to mention Allah’s hands or eyes or face, it means that Allah must literally have hands and eyes and a face. Never mind the theological twists and turns necessary to make sense of such a view (Does Allah have only two hands? Why not three, or a thousand? Would not two hands restrain or limit Allah’s all-encompassing power?). As Abu Hanifa’s spiritual successor, Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari (874–936 C.E.), founder of the most powerful traditionalist school of thought in Islam, argued, Allah has a face because the Quran says so. And if such a literal reading happens to contradict the core tenet of tawhid and thus everything that Islam as a religion was founded upon, so be it.7
The position of these Muslim theologians—and the vast majority of Muslims who, to this day, follow their teachings—not only proves just how durable our innate evolutionary impulse to humanize the divine can be; it also lays bare the paradox at the very heart of the Islamic definition of God. For if God does indeed have qualities and attributes, and if God is in fact indivisible, as the concept of Divine Unity requires, then that means God cannot be divided from any of those qualities and attributes. If God is eternal and has always existed, then God’s attributes must also be eternal; they, too, must have always existed with God. Otherwise they would be separate from God, and that would violate tawhid. Even Abu Hanifa was forced to admit as much: “He knows by virtue of his knowledge, knowledge being an eternal quality; he is Almighty by virtue of his power, his power being an eternal quality; he creates by virtue of his creative power, his creative power being an eternal quality.”
It is that last attribute mentioned by Abu Hanifa—God’s creative power—in which the paradox is most spectacularly revealed. The issue is fairly straightforward: If God is indivisible, and God is Creator, how could there be any division between Creator and creation? Are they not necessarily one and the same?
That question has vexed Islam from the moment the Prophet Muhammad first began preaching in Mecca, though, to be frank, most Islamic scholars have chosen to ignore the issue altogether. In fact, such theological concerns have often been dismissed by the learned class in Islam as mere “babble.” The word for theology in Arabic is kalam, or “talking,” and throughout Islamic history those Muslims who have tried to tackle theological conundra have often been scorned as ahl al-kalam, “the people of talking,” which is why the overwhelming focus of Islamic thought over the centuries has been on legal and not theological matters.
But from the start, a number of Muslim thinkers publicly wrestled with the fundamental issue of how to reconcile God’s unity with God’s creative power. In doing so, these Muslims not only revitalized Islamic theology in the face of orthodox rigidity, they created a wholly new branch of Islamic mysticism popularly called Sufism.
THERE ARE MANY stories told about the first meeting between the legendary Sufi poet of love, Jalal ad-Din Rumi, and his friend and spiritual mentor, Shams-i Tabrizi, to whom many of Rumi’s poems were addressed. The two men would go on to form Sufism’s most celebrated friendship: Shams will one day pass into sainthood, and Rumi, of course, will become history’s most famous Sufi, recognized around the world simply as Mawlana, “our Master.” But on the day of their first meeting in the year 1244 C.E., Rumi was just an obscure scholar and member of the “turbaned class” in the city of Konya, in modern-day Turkey, and Shams was a wild, wandering dervish whom people mocked as “the Bird” for his peripatetic ways.
Accounts of the initial encounter between Rumi and Shams have passed into legend; like most Sufi biographies they should be read as allegories meant to reveal some hidden truth, and not as history. In some versions of the story, Rumi is sitting alone by a pond reading his books when Shams comes upon him.
“What are you doing?” Shams asks.
Glancing up at the filthy traveler dressed in rags and standing before him, Rumi assumes he is a homeless peasant and replies, “It is something you cannot understand.”
At that moment, the books in Rumi’s hand either burst into flames or jump from his lap and fall into the pond, depending on the version of the story. In either case, the books end up miraculously unharmed.
“What is this?” Rumi exclaims at the miracle.
“It is something you cannot understand,” Shams replies.
There is a less well known but more prosaic version of this story, supposedly recounted by Shams himself, in which he sees Rumi riding a horse through Konya’s market and steps in front of him, blocking his path. Yet regardless of how the story of their first encounter begins—whether beside a pond or at the market—it always ends the same way, with Shams asking Rumi his thoughts about another Sufi mystic, long since dead, named Tayfur Abu Yazid al-Bastami—known to all as Bayazid.8
Rumi (seated on horse) meeting Shams. Folio from Jâmi al-Siyarby Mohammad Tahir Suhravardî.
Topkapi Palace Museum / Wikimedia Commons / public domain
Born around 804 C.E. in the town of Bastam in northeastern Iran, Bayazid came from a family of Zoroastrian priests who had converted to Islam not long after the Arab invasion of Persia and the fall of the Sassanian Empire in 651 C.E. He began his formal education within the Hanafi school, where he steeped himself in the theology of tawhid, the concept of Divine Unity, and the enigma of God’s eternal attributes.
Something about the nature of these inquiries left Bayazid disturbed and deeply unsatisfied. He abandoned his formal education and struck off on his own in search of a more intimate experience of God, one that could not be taught in any school. He eventually fell under the influence of a group of Sufis led by a Persian mystic named Sahl al-Tustari.
As a spiritual movement, Sufism defies categorization. Its chief concern is with seeking direct access to God, which is why Sufis tend to rebuff the traditional concerns of Islamic law and theology in favor of an unmediated experience of the divine. Sufis are unconcerned with the debate over whether the Quran should be read literally or figuratively. Instead they argue that the Quran has two distinct layers of meaning: There is the external layer that all Muslims can access simply by reading the scripture and interpreting it for themselves, and there is a secret, hidden layer that only a select few can comprehend, and then only through the kind of intuitive knowledge that comes from a lifetime of prayer and meditation. The external layer helps the believer to learn about God; the hidden layer allows the believer to know God.
It was precisely this desire to know God that led Bayazid to join this Sufi order. Day and night Bayazid meditated, desperately trying to unlock the secret truth he thought was concealed in the concept of tawhid. And then one day it came to him, shaking him to his core. He jumped out of his seat and cried out in ecstasy: “Glory be to Me! How great is My majesty!”
To those who heard these words, Bayazid had uttered the most shocking heresy. He was, in no uncertain terms, calling himself God. Actually, such statements had become fairly routine among a certain group of Sufi mystics sometimes called the Drunken Sufis because of their propensity for making similar ecstatic utterances. Bayazid’s master, al-Tustari, himself once famously said, “I am the proof of God,” while another of his fellow disciples, Mansur al-Hallaj, was crucified for having run out into the streets of Baghdad shouting, “I am the Truth!”9
But while most Muslims assumed these Drunken Sufis were associating themselves with the divine, to Sufis like Shams, such statements concealed an even more startling, and more consequential, proclamation about the very nature of reality. Indeed, it was the recognition of that reality—the ability to understand intuitively what Bayazid, al-Tustari, and al-Hallaj meant by their words—that formed a kind of initiatory rite into Sufism. That is why, when Shams first meets Rumi in Konya, he asks him about Bayazid’s statement. What did the Sufi master mean when he cried out, “Glory be to Me”?
As with most mystical queries, the answer to Shams’s question is irrelevant. Shams is merely assessing Rumi’s worthiness to become one of his disciples. In some versions of the story, Rumi does not even bother to respond. He simply swoons, or falls into a trance, or gazes deep into Shams’s eyes, lost in a secret that only the two of them seem to share. What matters is the truth hidden within the question. For by wondering what Bayazid meant, Shams is asking an altogether different question: “What is God?”
That question has been at the center of the human quest to make sense of the divine from the very beginning. Is God the animating force that connects all living beings, as our prehistoric ancestors seemed to believe? Or nature deified, as the early Mesopotamians thought? Or an abstract force that permeates the universe, the way some Greek philosophers described it? Or a personalized deity who looks and acts just like a human being? Or is God literally a human being?
No matter how one answers it, the question of what God is has been the abiding concern of believers and nonbelievers alike for hundreds of thousands of years. The question itself has led to the building of entire civilizations, and it has also torn them down. It has created peace and prosperity, and it has led to war and violence.
Yet here now was a group of mystics who, propelled by their adherence to a strict form of monotheism, were making a radical proposition: The only way to make sense of the unity of the Creator is to accept the unity of all creation. In other words, if God is one, then God must be all.
The term for this concept is wahadat al-wujud, or the Unity of Being, first coined by one of the greatest philosophical minds in history, Muhyiddin ibn al-Arabi (1165–1240 C.E.). Seeking to provide a firm philosophical basis for the Sufi conception of the divine, Ibn al-Arabi began by addressing the fundamental flaw in the doctrine of tawhid: If, in the beginning, there was nothing but God, how could God have created anything, unless God created it from himself? And if God did make creation from himself, wouldn’t that violate the oneness and unity of God by dividing God between Creator and creation?
Ibn al-Arabi’s solution to this problem was to confirm what Sufis like Shams and Bayazid had been saying all along: If God is indivisible, then nothing can come into existence that isn’t also God. At the very least, Creator and creation must share the exact same eternal, indistinguishable, inseparable essence, meaning everything that exists in the universe exists only insofar as it shares in the existence of God. Therefore, God must be, in essence, the sum total of all existence.10
This, then, is the answer to the question Shams asked Rumi. It is what Bayazid meant when he said, “Glory be to Me.” It is why Tustari called himself “the proof of God.” These Sufis were not claiming to be divine; they were claiming unity with the divine. Indeed, for most Sufis, the mistake of Christianity lies not in violating the indivisible nature of God by transforming God into a human being; rather, it lies in believing that God is only one particular human being and no other. According to Sufism, if God is truly indivisible, then God is all beings, and all beings are God.
And so, at last, we arrive at the inevitable end point of the monotheistic experiment—the climax of the fairly recent belief in a single, singular, nonhuman, and indivisible creator God as defined by postexilic Judaism, as renounced by Zoroastrian Dualism and Christian Trinitarianism, and as revived in the Sufi interpretation of tawhid: God is not the creator of everything that exists.
God is everything that exists.11