Potash Hill

“The world’s harp has but a single string”

By Amer Latif 

As a student and teacher of religion, I see a certain common thread through Islamic teachings that is echoed in Islamic practice and ritual. To put it simply, it is the idea of unity—the unity of creation, but specifically god’s unity. In Islam this is called tawhid, the affirmation or the assertion that god is one. The word tawhid comes from the Arabic root for “one,” which is wahid, and is a verbal noun that means, literally, “making one.”

I think that it is important for people to recognize that in Islamic imagination, all of the prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, starting with Adam all the way down to Jesus, are also considered prophets. Growing up Muslim myself, these prophets were very large figures in our imaginations. Stories were told about them, perhaps as often as, if not more often than, stories about the life of Muhammad. It’s also important to remember that according to the Koran, Islam is not a new religion. The Koran teaches that Islam is a renewal of the one religion, sent by God to all people in their own language via one of their own.

The Koran asserts that god has renewed the same message for each community, and the message is simple: There is no god but god, la ilaha illallah. This phrase is called “the words of tawhid,” and Muslim scholars refer to it as “the first witnessing.” The Islamic affirmation of faith goes on to say that “there is no god but god and Muhammad is the messenger and servant of god.” It thereby adds the manifestation of Islam in sixth-century Arabia to the one message sent to all communities. So from the Islamic perspective, Jews say, “There is no god but god and Moses is the messenger of god,” and Christians say, “There is no god but god and Jesus is the messenger of god.”

In Arabic, allah is not just a Muslim god, as Zeus is a Greek god; rather it is “the god.” Arabic Jews and Christians used the same word to refer to god, so it is attested, in earliest translations of the bible into Arabic. In Jewish translations from Hebrew to Arabic, elohim is translated as allah. Currently, some translators who work with Christian missions also argue that it should be translated in that fashion. In today’s polemical atmosphere, what is lost is this historical continuity and similarity between these two traditions. Grasping this can give good insight into the possible experience of 1.5 billion people and how they relate to the world.

I am reminded of a poem by Rumi:

“All the tasks of the world are different, but all are one…The whole world is indivisible, the world’s harp has but a single string.”

Amer Latif is professor of religion at Marlboro College. This editorial is excerpted and adapted from his talk in November titled “In the name of the one who has no name: Constructing and deconstructing god in Islamic ritual practice.” Find further discussion of these ideas.