The fundamentals of Islam: I – the testification of faith

June 25, 2007 at 4:00 am (Arabic, Islam, Religion, Theology)

The first in a series of posts about the fundamentals of Islam, both as they exist ideally and theoretically and as they exist in reality, including variations among sects of Islam, and including consequences of the beliefs therefrom and of differences with other Muslims.

The first fundamental of Islam is the testification or proclamation or witnessing or confessing of the Islamic faith. This is known as (شهادة, shahādah).

The shahādah consists of two units; the shahādah exists in two forms: one form that is explicitly a testification (“I testify that…”) and another form that is more of a proclamation.

The first unit as a testification is: (أشهد ان لا إله إلا الله, ash-hadu anna lā ilāha illa-llāh, I testify that there is no deity but Allāh/God). The proclamatory version, and the one most often seen and heard, is simply: (لا إله إلا الله, lā ilāha illa-llāh, there is no deity except Allah/God).

A small historical point: when Muhammad formulated this proclamation, it had a distinct significance. (ألله, allāh) was the supreme deity among all the Arab deities. With this proclamation, Muhammad was essentially proclaiming that all of the other Arab deities were false or non-existent. With the triumph of Islam and the destruction of the cults of the other Arab deities, the significance of this proclamation changed. It adopted a more monotheistic significance, like the Jewish Shema, and for some even a more Islamic triumphalist tone, proclaiming that Islam’s deity, Allāh, was the only deity.

The second unit as a testification is: (أشهد أن محمد رسول الله, ash-hadu anna muHammadu(n) rasūli-llāh, I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of Allāh/God). The proclamatory version is simply: (محمد رسول الله, muHammadu(n) rasūli-llāh, Muhammad is the messenger of Allāh/God). The latter part is often pronounced as muHammadu-r-rasūlallāh. This part declares what sets Islam apart from the other monotheistic religions: Muslims believe that Muhammad (محمد إبن عبد الله, muHammad ibni ‛abdillāh) was a messenger or prophet chosen/sent by God with His true religion.

Because the shahādah contains two distinct but essential elements, the two together are often called (شهادتين; shahādatayn; dual of “shahādah” or “two testifications”).

According to normative Islamic belief and practice, anyone who believes in what the two elements proclaim and recites the two testifications has become a Muslim. Unlike most religions, which have distinct rites of initiation or entrance, conversion to Islam consists solely of proclaiming the two testifications of faith.

Because they define, in some measure, what Islam is, disputes on the wording and meaning and interpretation take on a serious tone. And there are plenty of disputes, disagreements, and theological debates concerning the consequences and meanings of the two testifications of faith.

Some Shiites add a third element to the two mentioned above. This is: (أشهد أن علي ولي الله وصي رسول الله; ash-hadu anna ‛aliyyun waliyyu-llāh waSiyyu rasūli-llāh; I testify that Ali is the friend of Allāh/God and the heir of the messenger of Allāh/God). The proclamative version is: (علي ولي الله وصي رسول الله; ‛aliyyun waliyyu-llāh waSiyyu rasūli-llāh; Ali is the friend of Allāh/God and the heir of the messenger of Allāh/God). This reflects the Shiite belief that Ali (علي إبن ابي طالب; ‛alī ibni abī Tālib; Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law) has a special relationship with God and is Muhammad’s designated heir as spiritual and political leader of the Muslims. There is some dispute whether this third element is mandatory or optional. In any case, the permissability of it, even, makes Sunnis proclaim that Shiites are non-Muslims because they dared to tamper with the sacred fundamentals of Islam.

The shahādah may be found everywhere in Islamic circles and cultures, often in elaborate calligraphy. Indeed, it is heard and recited every single day. Muslims are advised to proclaim the testification of faith upon waking up. And part of the (أذان; adhān, also pronounced azān; Islamic call to prayer) is repeating each element twice in the testificatory aspect. And so in Islamic countries, one would hear the full shahādah ten times a day, at least. (If I remember, I would like to post the text of the adhān when I post about ritual prayer in Islam. If I forget, kindly remind me.)

The shahādah establishes two important facts for Muslims:
1. It establishes the superiority of God according to Islam (in that the only deity that exists is God as understood and taught by Islam);
2. It establishes the essential nature of Muhammad’s prophethood and, consequently, of Islam, and of both as being from God.

But the shahādah takes on a more sinister role when used by Salafis (also known as Wahhabis) for propagating their version of Islam by arguing that if Allāh is the only deity that exists, and if one of Allāh’s names is (الملك; al-malik; the King), then the only king or sovereign that exists is Allāh. Which means that the only legitimate law is the one Allāh revealed, which is the (شريعة; sharī‛ah). And so all leaders and governments and states and laws are illegitimate if they do not submit and attempt to implement the laws Allāh revealed through Islam, and consequently anyone who supports such illegitimate authorities or opposes the implementation of sharī‛ah would be guilty of opposing Allāh and Islam and, thus, fit to be executed. And so a compelling argument is created and used to spread the Salafi cause and create more obstacles for right-thinking people. And putting such a complicated issue in such stark and utterly simplified terms helps to stop any debate on the issue, for the retort will be that the debater evidently disagrees with one of the fundamental points made (that Allāh is the sole deity, that Allāh is the sole sovereign, that Islam’s law is supreme and superior, and so on).

A note on “Allāh”: there are debates concerning the origin of the word. Some (for example, many Muslims) argue that it is God’s personal name. Others argue it is a contraction of (ال; al; definite prefix) and (إله; ilāh; deity or god), yielding (الله; allāh) rather than (الإله; al-ilāh). Some argue as a corollary to the latter point that (الله; allāh) came about and was to be used in juxtaposition to (اللت; allāt), which was a contraction of (ال; al) and (إلت; ilāt; female deity or goddess) to yield (الله; allāh) in place of (الإله; al-ilāh) for “(the) God” and (اللت; allāt) in place of (الإلت; al-ilāt) for “(the) Goddess”. Supporting this line of thinking is the fact that in Arab paganism (الله; allāh) and (اللت; allāt) were the supreme deities from whom all other deities were born, with (الله; allāh) being the father deity and deity of the moon and (اللت; allāt) being the mother deity and deity of the sun. (Contrary to many other cultures, Semitic cultures ascribed a male gender to the moon and a female gender to the sun, with words and deities accordingly.) This would also provide an explanation why early Muslims would have chosen the moon as the symbol of Islam.

Another linguistic note: the word in Arabic for “witness” or “testifier” is (شهيد; shahīd), which now is used to refer to a martyr, reflecting the notion, found in practically all religions, that people can testify of their belief in a religion or tenet by giving up their life for it. And so “martyrdom” is known as (شهادة; shahādah, also pronounced shahādat). These linguistic links adds a certain pro-martyrdom aspect to the very testification of the faith, that one may be called upon to sacrifice one’s life to prove one’s belief in what one is proclaiming. I should add that among some Muslim languages (such as among Urdu-speakers), the pronunciation “shahādah” is used for “proclaiming the faith” while “shahādat” is used for “martyrdom”. I don’t know if this divergence carries on into other languages spoken by Muslim peoples.



  1. S. Weasel said,

    Ah, thank you. I’ve always wondered what the prevailing religion was in the Middle East in the time of Muhammad. So, you’re saying it was a multi-deity paganism, along the lines of, say, Shinto? So the association with Christianity and Judaism was a Muhammadan construct? Historically, there is no prior relationship?

  2. About Shia Islam said,

    The most clear distinction between Shia and Sunnis is the Imamah
    Here is a summary of what Imamah is:
    Imāmah (leadership) in Shia Islam:
    Shia believe in the institution of Imāmah as a continuation of prophethood. In the Shia faith the ‎Imam in its narrower sense is the person who is in charge of all political and religious affairs of ‎the Islamic nation.

    More exactly, the Imam is the person who is appointed by God and introduced ‎by the Prophet and then by each preceding Imam by explicit designation (nass) to lead the ‎Muslim community, interpret and protect the religion and the law (shar3ah), and guide the ‎community in all affairs.
    He must be sinless and possess divine knowledge of both the exoteric ‎and the esoteric meaning of the Quran. ‎

    Source (with summarization):‎
    Discovering Shii Islam-Mohammad Ali Shomali

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