The Tawhidic paradigm for human rights

Tawhid is a fundamental Islamic principle, often translated to as 'monotheism', but as we'll see, there are more layers to it than that.

The Tawhidic paradigm for human rights
Photo by Steven Lasry / Unsplash

This is a humble (and frankly nerve-wracking) attempt to briefly summarise decades of Professor amina wadud’s life work into an accessible starting point for queer and sexually diverse people. Please read amina's 2006 book Inside the Gender Jihad and their other work for their elaboration of the tawhidic paradigm. I felt the need to include this sidebar because of the paradigm's practical implications (it underlies much of Sisters In Islam and Musawah's work in an earlier sidebar).

It's exciting to imagine the potential of the tawhidic paradigm as a framework for generations of queer and diverse Muslims.


The Tawhidic paradigm for human rights

Liy Yusof, after amina wadud

This is a brief adventure into the world of Islamic ethics.

Tawhid is a fundamental Islamic principle, often translated to as 'monotheism', but as we'll see, there are more layers to it than that. The tawhidic paradigm asks us to consider how our recognition of Allah's singularness manifests in the way we live life.

Why does this matter?

Knowing you have a personal relationship with God doesn't mean it is immediately clear how to connect that to a sense of authority — or full ownership to participate in producing knowledge from within an Islamic framework, engaging with primary sources. Doing so can go a long way to resisting mono-narratives constructed from blindly accepting long-held interpretations of the faith, including our own internalised queerphobia and misogyny. Through their work, amina wadud offers a structure for activism, and describes the paradigm as why they became Muslim to begin with.

I've come to think of tawhid as a core operating system (OS) that connects my physical and metaphysical realities.

This is a metaphor I adopted after encountering amina wadud's explanations of the tawhidic paradigm a few times. Much like my devices, I need to upgrade my OS to keep myself functional. 'Upgrading' my tawhid is to then consider how my understanding of Allah changes and affects my beliefs as I grow — either by accepting ‘downloads’ others have made for me, or learning to code my own ‘upgrades’ for wellbeing and activism. Naturally, this also changes how I see myself along the way.

Theologically, tawhid relates to how Allah is not only one and unique, Allah is also uniform and unites.

Because of tawhid, all of Islam exists along the lines of the indisputable and unconditional idea of Allah's oneness. This is why shirk is the only unforgivable sin (4:116), because it's the direct opposite of tawhid. Because Allah is a singularity that cannot be divided yet created everything, everything radiates from one Source and participates in Allah's unity. This means no matter how it seems externally, ultimate separation between Creator and creature or one and another is internally just an illusion.

When presenting the tawhidic paradigm, amina often shares a quote from the Catholic St. Augustine:

“Imagine that God is a circle, the center of which is everywhere, and the circumference of the circle is nowhere.”

Applied to a 3D world, God is a sphere of reality:

“Allah is present in the most minute thing and also in the most expansive capacity we have to imagine, for example our universe."

Therefore, every human-human relation can be represented as a triad with Allah as the third (58:7).

This can be imperfectly imagined as a triangle, where Allah occupies the highest moral point and two persons (or groups of people) are sustained horizontally to each other instead of hierarchically. This means, to accept Allah's presence means to understand that there can only be a non- hierarchical relationship of horizontal (or equal) reciprocity between anyone else.

This also aligns with how Allah only distinguishes between us on the basis of our taqwa (49:13).

Taqwa, often translated as moral consciousness, is also described in the Quran as something beyond our capacity to perceive in others. Yet taqwa factors largely in our own agency in the world (khilafah) — if a consciousness of Allah is absent, it becomes possible to think of others along non-horizontal lines of inequality, transgression, oppression, and abuse. "You can't be ethical by yourself," amina says. From an Islamic framework, "the notion of ethical behaviour involves honouring another person because of a deep awareness of the presence of Allah at all times."

In the Qur'an, all Things are part of a system of dualism (51:49).

That is to say, everything comes in pairs. Some of these pairs coexist as complementary contingent equals, such as a pair of gloves, or the human and jinn as sibling species. Others are mutually necessary opposites, such as day or night, up or down. All of creation is interconnected this way, but since Allah is not like Things (42:11), Allah is the tension holding the pairs in balance and harmony while occupying the highest moral point at all times. As amina points out, "The Qur’an never says we were created from a male person. The first person was Adam, an entity that has what is essential to all of us — a nafs and a soul. When Iblis says 'I am better than Adam', he places himself as better than the other (istikbar), and that is the foundation of all forms of oppression and discrimination.”

Muhammad ﷺ was reported to have said "One of you does not believe until they love for the other what is loved for the self."

In traditional cultures for a long time including Southeast Asia, gender was seen as a spectrum. "It was just accepted that some people clearly manifest masculine and feminine in one body," amina says. In her research of the first 500 years of Islamic fiqh, she observes that the fiqh was strongly in favour of inclusion. For example, "the emphasis on creating a prayer space for intersex persons was in everybody's fiqh."

The tawhidic paradigm also reflects itself in other sources of knowledge.

Some examples are the golden rule of reciprocity, the Mandelbrot set (sometimes called the thumbprint of God), or the yin yang, an ancient Chinese philosophy of dualism. "There is no absolute positively completely 100% male and only male, there is no absolutely positively 100% female. There is a spectrum. And not only that, looking at that yin yang symbol which is about the masculine and feminine, there is always the manifestation of the other within each." In presentations, amina also loves sharing this poem she heard recited from a trans person in Africa: "My God is not a woman, my God is not a man, my God is both and neither, my God is who I am."

The paradigm inspires us to remove stratification from all levels of interaction: public, private, ritual, political.

Since the ultimate intention of Islam is reciprocity and not hegemony, this ethic was first applied to gender relations in the family by Sisters In Islam and Musawah, and can be applied to all human relations. amina wadud lists its potential applications in human rights debates "including women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, antiracism, antisexism, anti-ableism, and other counter-oppression movements within an Islamic framework."

Since Allah is a circle with the center of everywhere and a circumference of nowhere, in each of us is an essence (dhat) reflecting our union with this cosmic design.

We can choose to ignore this transcendent reality and emphasise the illusion of external superiority over others — or we can recognise the transcendent reality in all living beings and relate to each other in a reciprocal way.


Exercise no.7

from the workbook The Signs In Ourselves

Do it yourself or with others:

Visualise your own sense of authority and connection to the Divine. In a blank rectangle, design your own prayer mat. Imagine a mat that welcomes your feet, hands, and forehead — a portal that helps you show up. Be as simple or detailed as you like!

A prayer mat illustrated by Dhiyanah Hassan. A leaf is placed where the head meets the mat.

This post is adapted from the workbook The Signs In Ourselves (pp.62-65), written by Liy Yusof, illustrated by Dhiyanah Hassan, published by CSBR in 2020. Since publication, amina wadud is now involved in QIST.

The Signs In Ourselves

This post is part of a series of stories exploring queer Muslim courage.

Read all posts

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