In this section I will refer to Imam Ali’s (ع) first sermon, taken from his collection of sermons, letters and sayings that are compiled in the book ‘Nahjul Balaghah’ (Peak of Eloquence).
In the beginning of this sermon,the Imam (ع) beautifully describes the link between knowledge, divine unity, and faith:
“The foremost in religion is the acknowledgement of Him, the perfection of acknowledging Him is to testify Him, the perfection of testifying Him is to believe in His Oneness, the perfection of believing in His Oneness is to regard Him Pure, and the perfection of His purity is to deny Him attributes, because every attribute is a proof that it is different from that to which it is attributed and everything to which something is attributed is different from the attribute. Thus whoever attaches attributes to Allah recognises His like, and who recognises His like regards Him two; and who regards Him two recognises parts for Him; and who recognises parts for Him mistook Him; and who mistook Him pointed at Him; and who pointed at Him admitted limitations for Him; and who admitted limitations for Him numbered Him.”
In the last 3 parts I’ve given an indication on ways to the ‘acknowledgement of Him’, so now I want to move to the next level of his sermon, which is the ways to perfecting this knowledge and the stages to reaching true ‘Tawhid’ or Divine Unity.
In the book ‘Tuhaf al-’Uqul’ (Masterpieces of the Intellect, pg. 327), someone is said to have asked Imam Ja’far b. Muhammad as-Sadiq (ع):
‘What is the course to the true believing in God’s oneness?’ The Imam (ع) said: ‘The door of search is opened and the pursuit of the exit is existing. The knowledge of the present should precede his description while the knowledge of the description of the absent should precede the knowledge of him.’ ‘How can we know the witness before we know his descriptions?’ he asked. The Imam (ع) alludes to this point in the following words: “When someone is present and manifest, we first know him through his self, then we get to know his attributes. But in the case of something absent, knowledge of its attributes precedes knowledge of its essence. Just as in the case of (Prophet) Yusuf’s (ع) brother, they studied Yusuf (ع) himself and recognized it was him. They asked him, ‘Are you really Yusuf (ع)?’ They did not formulate their question the other way around; meaning, they reflected on the qualities of the person whom they were confronted with and realized that he was Yusuf (ع). They did not ask others to identify Yusuf (ع) for them.”
Hence, the knowledge of every knowing being is limited to the framework of its existence and to the extent that it lacerates the veils. Imam Ali (ع) in this regard says, “The intellects will never have the capacity to reach to the core and circle of His Attributes. Nevertheless, there is no veil to obstruct anyone in comprehending the necessary level [of knowledge of Allah].” That is, on the one hand, all the existents of the world of contingency are Divine signs and as such serve as mirrors reflecting a true image [of the Divine] but at the same time, they are not separable from the Divine. (In his debate with Imran al-Abi’, Imam al-Ridha says: “Neither He is in the creation nor is the creation in Him. Just like the mirror: neither you are in it nor it in you. And the mirror is not like a mirage that portrays a deceptive view. At the same time, it has no truth in it other than the image of the person standing in front of it.” (Al-Tawhid of Shaykh as-Saduq, pp., 434-435)
At the end, the point that must be mentioned is that in the Islamic narrations there is mention of an innate knowledge of Allah. There are two types of innate qualities in the human being: innate understandings (which every human being possesses prior to any education) and innate inclinations (which are part and parcel of the nature of every human being). The former are referred to as “innate knowledge of Allah” and the latter as “innate worship of Allah.” But they are not present at a conscious level of the human mind so as to render a rational endeavour [to understand Allah] unnecessary.
Nevertheless, since knowledge of Allah is innate, the arguments presented in favour of Allah serve actually as reminders and not real proofs. In the process of proving something, one realizes that he has acquired a knowledge which he formerly lacked. But being reminded is to become aware that one has had something all along, albeit unknowingly. Thus it is that in Qur’anic verses and in narrations, what is always mentioned is the removal of the veils of obliviousness. And what rids one of a state of obliviousness is a reminder not a proof. [More on this on another occasion Insha’allah]