Tawhid, The Centre Piece Of Banisadr’s View Of Islam As A Discourse Of Liberty

It is nearly 50 years since Abolhassn Banisadr began to develop his revolutionary interpretation of Islam, releasing it from the various discourses of power that have made despotism the lot of Islamic countries and re-reading it through a discourse of freedom which provides a theological and philosophical framework for the democratisation of Islamic societies. The centrepiece of this revolutionary work is the concept of Tawhid – but not as it is ordinarily understood. Banisadr argues that the concept had “been emptied of its original meaning through a series of historical, theological and philosophical processes” which reduced its meaning to a “oneness of a God that represents absolute power over everything he creates”. This definition, in turn, created “a master-slave relationship, or a uni-polar dichotomy, between God and human beings”. But this, he says, stands in complete contrast with the original meaning of Tawhid as introduced in Koran, which is “a condition of the absence of all power between God and humans, people with each other, and people with the environment”. At a deeper level, he descibes Tawhid as “a journey from polytheism to monotheism, in which an individual becomes liberated from any relationships that limit and confine humans (such as the relationship to a multiplicity of gods) and through which a person can be freed in relationships with limitless and infinite intelligent life”. For him, Tawhid means “being liberated from the faith in determinism, and rediscovering one’s own inner (fetri) freedom”.

Some years ago, Gold Mercury International conducted an in-depth interview with Banisadr about the concept of Tawhid, its theological meaning and its philosophical, political, economical, social and cultural ramifications.  In the hope that it will create a lively and dynamic debate, I decided to publish it:

Interview of Gold Mercury With Abol-Hassan Banisadr


Is Tawhid a repressed tradition of Islamic thought? If so, how can this be proven? Who or what is repressing it?

I should begin by pointing out that the concept of ‘negative equilibrium’ is not specific to Islam or Islamic thought.  It has precedent in an ancient worldview that was present in Iran prior to the birth of Islam. This worldview assumed that all intelligent life relations should be, and can be, free of both limitation and constraint.  From this perspective, when ‘force‘ is removed from a relationship (of people, but also between people and their environment, and between ideas), then the relationship will become limitless and without constraint. That is the meaning of Tawhid. The concept was in fact one of five principles circulating before Islam, which were later illuminated in the Koran: Tawhid, Nobovat (prophecy), Ma’ad (resurrection day), Emamat (leadership) and Adl (justice) – I will define these in what follows.

It can be argued, however, that the concept of Tawhid has been emptied of its original meaning through a series of historical, theological and philosophical processes. It is even possible to argue that the prevailing definition of Tawhid as the oneness of a God that represents absolute power over everything creates a master-slave relationship, or a uni-polar dichotomy, between God and human beings. But this stands in total opposition to the original meaning of Tawhid, which is at its essence a condition of the absence of all power between God and humans, people with each other, and people with the environment.

Historically speaking, soon after the Prophet’s death in 632, despotic dynasties became the lot of Islamic countries.  Even today, these countries are most resistant to democratisation and to recognising people’s right to participate in leadership.   Iran is a good example of this, as one ’supreme leader’ considers himself to own people’s lives, property and honour and demands absolute obedience in return.  And yet, this is in complete contradiction to the Prophet’s government of the city of Medina.  This is not to say, as is sometimes suggested, that this constitutes a perfect example of a society organized around the principle of Tawhid.  But the extensive political and social freedoms and high levels of tolerance and cooperation between Muslims that were recorded in that society stand in sharp contrast to the despotism that has dominated in Islamic societies ever since.

This meaning of Tawhid is clearly defined in the Koran, which explicitly states that God has given his/her guidance to everyone irrespective of their status as a believer (Momen) or non-believer (Kafir).  It also thus explicitly states that no one can guide anyone but oneself.  This principle, which is the precise interpretation or translation of Tawhid, is neither accepted nor practised in any Islamic or non-Islamic country.  In dictatorships people have no vote whatsoever  and are infantilized as children who should submit to the will of the leader, while in democracies elites are elected by non-elites to make decisions on behalf of the people, rather than decisions being made by the people themselves.

Even in theological circles, the interpretation of the Tawhid concept in both Shia and Sunni schools of Islamic scholarship is different from, and sometimes even in opposition to, the actual meaning as expressed in the Koran. This discrepancy is due largely to the fact that Islamic education has been philosophically grounded in the very different intellectual traditions of Greek philosophy. During the Omavid dynasty, the Platonic and Aristotelian schools of Greek thought gradually began to inform and then to dominate Islamic teaching.  In particular, these traditions emphasized the importance of syllogistic logic, a method of logical reasoning that is based on a uni-polar dichotomy, which in itself is a negation of the holistic logic of Tawhid. Students of Islamic theology continue to be trained mainly in this form of logic, and thus in effect are educated in philosophical principles and methods that are antithetical to Tawhid, and that preclude even the development of an understanding of its original meaning.

How can Tawhid, the Oneness of God, implying the absence of power relations and exclusiveness, be put into practice in a Muslim’s daily life?

I have answered this question to some extent in my first response. However, it presents a good opportunity for introducing fuller definitions of Tawhid, Justice and Imamat (or leadership).

At a deeper level, Tawhid may be understood as a journey from polytheism to monotheism, in which an individual becomes liberated from any relationships that limit and confine humans (such as the relationship to a multiplicity of gods) and through which a person can be freed in relationships with limitless and infinite intelligent life.  Tawhid means being liberated from the faith in determinism, and rediscovering one’s own inner (fetri) freedom.  For whenever relationships are forged within limits, they are established as relations of power, and serve to trap people in power relations in belief, thought, word and action. If, on the other hand, people develop relationships with each other and all life based on the principles of Tawhid, then these relationships are in fact established as if relations with God, and are thus free of all forms of power and force. There is only relationship which need not be, and cannot be, a power relation:

Human ↔ God ↔ Human + other phenomena

This also applies to the free development of knowledge. We can assume that in the absence of power relations, a multiplicity of ideas that can be related to one another through the free flow of knowledge will reach a state of Tawhid.  Not only does Tawhid not negate the multiplicity of ideas; on the contrary, it necessitates it.  The constant passage through and movement in multiplicity therefore requires a guiding principle that enables us to develop a discourse of freedom in which ideas are judged on the basis of their relationship to justice. In other words, it requires a guiding principle that is compatible with independence and human rights. And this in turn requires the universal development of the talent of leadership, as both a method for thinking as well as its goal, so that people can make sense out of this great multiplicity of ideas. Any progress must therefore begin with a multiplicity of ideas and proceed through a process of de-violentization as it moves in a Tawhidi direction.

When this can be done without limitation, and when it is oriented towards the realization of justice, it becomes possible to develop relations of friendship and freedom. What does “justice” mean in this context? What does it mean to say that justice can be used as an indicator for Tawhidi ideas, relationships and individuals? In Koranic terms, the term justice is defined as “indicator” (mizan); an indicator that distinguishes right from non-right.  Justice is understood in this context to be a “straight path”; the path to right. It is understood to be straightforward because right is beautiful in its clarity; it is unambiguous, not convoluted. From this perspective, justice and freedom are not contradictory, as has often been assumed, but are mutually constitutive. And because of this, an ideal  – we might even say a utopian – measure of justice may be held up to gauge the extent to which we achieve freedom from limitation and freedom to become one with life through creativity.

This itself requires leadership (Imamat).  Imamat is possible when people are liberated from the need to own or possess each other, and to either make decisions for others or to have others make decisions for them, and thus can reflect upon their own thoughts and deeds in order to bring their society closer to its utopian possibility. If we are freed from such limit-making and confinement, we can become the authors of our own words, thoughts and deeds.  Imamat in this context means that each person should have the rights, independence and freedom of all people in mind (as in the narrative of Abraham in the Koran). From this perspective, the moment of thinking is thus a moment of unification with intelligent life, as the thoughts of a single individual – present and past, ‘here’ and elsewhere.

Free, independent leadership becomes possible when one is anchored at the point of eternity, as the time of freedom is infinite. We may think and act in the present, but can also move beyond the frontiers of the possible and open new intellectual horizons. A free person can also locate herself/himself in the future while being in the present, thus freeing his/her intellect from the limits of that which only presently exists.  And when people become imams/leader of one another in order to create a society in which none possess or have power over any of the others, they have reached a state of Tawhid.  It goes without saying that one cannot enter, let alone follow this path without developing a genuine discourse of freedom.

As the guiding principle of a discourse of freedom, therefore, the concept of Tawhid unites a whole set of principles that together make freedom possible: individual autonomy and leadership enable people to engage one another in the free exchange of a multiplicity of ideas, and to use the ideal of justice as a criterion for evaluating the validity and value of these ideas in order to inform the future development of their thoughts and deeds. In this way, thinking and action become devoid of force and be filled with rights.  As people become increasingly freed from limit-makers (both those who seek to limit and the limitations of condition), they become less dependent on any source of power. This is what I mean by the term ‘negative equilibrium’, a state of peace accomplished by rejecting all external sources of power and limitation rather than seeking comfort in those which seem the most powerful or beneficial at a particular moment in time, and by learning to trust one’s independent judgement and ability to form free relationships with other autonomous individuals.

In addition to the principles of Mizan, fetri and Imamat,two further principles can be included in this theory of Tawhid: “prophecy” (nobovat), meaning the practice of communicating the discourse of freedom, and “resurrection” (ma’aad), or the moment at which nobody owns anything or anybody else.  It often goes unnoticed, or is denied, that in the Koran these guiding principles affirm and clarify each other; there are no contradictions between the verses in this sense. However, as no discourse of power can accommodate these principles, the many interpretations of the Koran that are based on various discourses of power find it filled with contradictions. And as many of these developed historically without reference to the Koran itself – In most cases being based on an Aristotelian philosophy of power – these interpretations contradict the Koran itself.  Indeed, they have succeeded in turning the Koran into a collection of contradictory verses, and subsequently have imposed Islamic societies to centuries of despotism.

The Koran thus provides us with a system for living that is based on principles which are mutually constitutive and free of contradiction.  It is regretful that Islamic, and indeed most societies are neglectful of these principles.  For when they work to guide our thinking, speech and action, they remind us of our freedom, dignity and rights and in everyday life, and it is the consciousness of these rights that in turn work to regulate our actions in relation to ourselves, others and worldly phenomena.

Does Tawhid imply that all worshipping of religious leaders is wrong? Is any religious leadership a sin (Shirk)?

It is obvious that any religious authority that which assigns absolute authority to itself is form of Shirk (false God-making).  Even Ayatollah Montazeri, once Khomeini’s would-be successor,  has accepted this and argues the velayat motlageh faqih (absolute rule of the jurist) is a form of shirk.

Nevertheless, it is not correct to say that all clergy in all religions who ascribe to themselves any such authority are committing shirk. That is because most do not realize that they suffer from a form of alienation.  Rather than condemning this, it is therefore preferable to simply  introduce Islam as a discourse of freedom.

How can Islam be freed of its multitude of interpretations that cause conflict?

In fact there are only two main discourses of Islam: one of power, and one of freedom. All the variations on the discourse of power are essentially the same; in fact, the multitude of differences that we appear to see are a result of this grounding in power. Power emerges from discord and contradiction. Different groups have developed different interpretations of Islam in order to preserve their social and political positions, and the intensity of the conflict between them is an indicator (rather than a cause) of the intensity of the power struggle underlying. Because power is accompanied by and is the production of power relations, it needs to seek discursive forms of power that suit its interests and creates animosities. And when it is established, because it cannot exist without power relations, it cannot not produce violent and bloody confrontations.

Discourses of power without contradiction do not exist.  Even “democratic” forms of discourses of power suffer from contradictions.  The difference is that while totalitarian discourses are uni-polar in nature (in other words, in a position of dominance in opposition to all other possible discourses), democratic discourses of power are bi-polar or multi-polar (set up in competition against one another).  In either case, both systems are dichotomous, based on the assumption that there are inherent contrasts between opposing positions. In such a system, these positions must then be pitted against one another, often in order to negate the other, in order to survive, be recognized or be regarded as legitimate. In this case, the relationships between positions (whether this be between people or between interpretations of Islam) assume various forms of power relations. This suggests a zero-sum relationship between competing positions: one’s loss (or subordination) is the other’s gain (or dominance), and vice versa.  For example, the dichotomy of “elite and common” people presupposes that an “elite” person has certain abilities that the “common” person lacks; there cannot be one without the other, and there can be no equality between them.

It is obvious on these grounds that it is impossible to develop any form of the discourse of power which is free of contradiction. So the solution we are left with, is the suggestion that the discourse of freedom is the only one consistent with open and transformative societies.  In such societies, economy, education, art, politics and social relations are formed not on the basis of mutual contradiction, but on Tawhid, as Tawhid signifies freedom from contrast, contradiction and conflict.

Could and should Tawhid become the centrepiece of Islamic worldview?

Tawhid can become the guiding principle for Muslims, if and only if they are liberated from the enslavements of power.  Why should it not become a guiding principle of free intellects? But it is also clear that this is not an easy task; decades of censorship indicate how difficult it really is. The concept of Tawhid is censored because it challenges the belief that power is an authentic and primary value in Islam and in everyday life. Had this not been the case, and if the principles of Tawhid had been accommodated to the centrality of power, then it would not have suffered from such censorship.  When the discourse of freedom is offered as a solution, since it does not acknowledge even the existence of power in the abstract (power being regarded instead as the subjective product of unnecessary power relations), then all those who believe in and rely on the reality or necessity of power are compelled to censor the discourse of freedom.  The same censorship that has prevented Western governments and societies from seeing the looming economic crisis has censored nearly all suggestions for resolving the problems, whenever these were incompatible with the defence of capitalist hegemony.

Tawhid can help to guide Muslims by offering an alternative framework within which to understand themselves, others and life.  If they develop such a perspective, then they may begin to see all people and all worldly phenomena as being inherently dignified, rightful, independent and free.  They will also thus be in a position to call the world to peace and development, a new kind of development unlike the one we know today, in which it is not power that develops, but life itself.

According to the principle of Tawhid, ‘leadership is intrinsic in all humans’. Then is there no authority at all needed? What about the rule of law or the allocation of resources?

The principle of Ma’ad (Resurrection) can serve as a model to regulate relations in such a way that we approach both freedom and our ideal society, or utopia.

On the straight path of right, coordinating one’s ability of leadership with God’s leadership will lead to a point — we might call it “resurrection” –  in which nobody owns anything over anybody else.  In this sense, Tawhid is the movement undertaken by any individual who is free in mind and action, and who not only becomes free from the  domineering practices of others and thus from being dominated, but who also strives to share with others the ideal that no one should own anything over anyone else. The principle here, again, is justice.

If we imagine a society in which no one owns anything over anybody else, we would imagine a democracy (a society in which the affairs of state are run through friendly participation).  Our goal should be to establish a participant democracy that is based on Tawhid, rather than on dichotomy and  the impossible ‘balances of power’. ..and we must be aware that this goal is not within our immediate reach.

This is because presently the separation of decision making from its execution is a necessity.  So while society should rediscover its role in decision making, the elected executioners of political decisions should realize that their only mission is to strive to implement those decisions in the best possible way.  Therefore, whenever people are the decision makers and democratically elected officers are chosen to implement decisions, two authorities will emerge. In this way, an open society, evaluating its progress with indicators of justice and principles of leadership/Imamat, will gradually transform itself toward its utopia.

Finally, in relation to law, we can argue that laws should be reflections of human dignity, human rights, the collective rights of society, the collective rights of global society and the rights of all living things.  From this perspective, at the global level laws can become “Tawhidi”, and the democratic management of global society through the development of an alternative global politics becomes possible.

How can politics achieve and expand freedoms instead of gain and manage power?

I should mention that I have conducted some research about democracy, part of which is discussed in my book about leadership.  In that book I have answered this question in detail, and make a number of suggestions.  Here are few…

Although among Marxists, anti-Marxists and liberals the goal of political activity is to gain, manage and exercise power, the prime goal of politics should be to expand and enhance the freedom and independence of people. Within a dichotomist worldview, politics can only be oriented towards the acquisition and management of power precisely because power relations are so central to political process.  Human freedom and independence either cannot be part of this equation or are subordinated to the demands of power.   In this situation, however, leadership belongs not to dominant or dominated individuals and groups, but to power.  The best indicator of this in contemporary society is that leadership is being shifted further and further away from people themselves.  It is easy to see this happening amongst the dominated, since on the surface we can see decisions are made for them by the dominant.  However, those in positions of dominance lose their autonomy as well, as in order to fulfil the demands of power they must submit themselves to the logics of concentration, multiplication and accumulation.

Therefore, political activity should aim at decreasing the role of force in social groups, as well as in relations between individuals and societies.  We might undertake what I have called ‘deviolentizing’ activities, which are the tasks of a critical and discerning society. In addition, and particularly at this point in history, the idea of “national interest” should be replaced with a concept of national rights, rights of international society and rights of nature, and within nation-states the main concern should be not the protection of national interest but the realization of human dignity and rights.

In order to do this, democracy needs to be revolutionized; we must transform the basic relationships between people and social institutions.  At present, most of our social institutions are based on power and individuals submit themselves to these institutions.  The reconstruction of these institutions based on the principle of Tawhid can motivate individuals to reverse the equation, so that the institutions which determine the life of individuals will be put into the service of life itself.

When put as the centrepiece of Islamic worldview, can Tawhid end violence, war and domination within Islam and from Islam to the outside world?

From the perspective of Tawhid, peace is a basic condition for the human rights of every human being and society.  Every person should enjoy the right to peace.  Furthermore, while every individual has a right to peace, she or he should defend this right anytime and anywhere it is endangered. The establishment of global peace necessitates that we recognize spiritual rights.  The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in fact does not include rights such as the right to peace and the right to friendship.  Peace at social, national and international level swill become realizable only when political activity becomes oriented towards expanding freedom, independence and the human rights of all, including spiritual rights.

Tawhid…an Islamic Renaissance of Positive Islam?

If by ‘Positive Islam’ you mean an interpretation that is based on positivism, that Islam will once again become a discourse of power. As I have argued already, such discourses already exist. Defining the guiding principles of Islam as they are defined in the Koran enables us to rediscover Islam as a discourse of freedom, as there are no contradictions in its guiding principles or practices.  Furthermore, when derivative interpretations of this discourse are reflections or translations of rights, then applying them can help an individual to rediscover his/her freedom and independence and become conscious of her/his intrinsic dignity and rights, as well as those of all living beings and nature.  Hence, life and living becomes an exercise of right in itself, and offers the possibility of experiencing a completeness that every human being deserves.

I thank you for providing me with an opportunity to share my ideas.

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