“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” This is the shahāda (testimony or confession of faith) of Muslims and is what most Muslims would say makes them Muslim. This is considered to be the first of five “pillars” of Islam.
There are several important characteristics of the shahāda to point out.
It focuses on a belief in monotheism.
One of the main ideas understood in the development of religion in the region of the Arabian Peninsula during the time of Muhammad is the belief in one god and not many. Historical sources indicate that the region was known for its polytheistic (belief in many gods) beliefs and that Muhammad, according to biographical sources, preached a belief in one god alone. For Muhammad, Allah was this god. [In another post I’ll talk about the name Allah.] So in Islam, there was a move away from the belief in many gods toward the belief in one god alone.
Muhammad is recognized as a unique messenger of God.
The word that is used in this statement for messenger is rasūl, coming from the Arabic root of r-s-l (in Arabic, ر س ل, reading from right to left of course). The root itself can mean to send out, dispatch or transmit. Other verbal forms of this root can also mean to be relaxed, act naturally or even talk at great length and without restraint. The noun rasūl, can mean messenger, emissary, envoy or delegate and apostle. In Christian studies in Arabic, rasūl, is the word used for Paul and also for the twelve apostles of Jesus. In Islam, a rasūl, or messenger, is seen as a special designation for a prophet that had a specific message to give to people from God. So the messenger had a message. There are at least four clear messengers of this special designation within Islam, as they each had a special message to give to the people. They are, chronologically, Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad. Their messages were recorded and respectively were the Tawrāt (law), Zabūr (Psalms), Injīl (Gospel) and the Qur’an.
As the testimony of faith, it is the most succinct descriptor of Islam and a Muslim.
In many Muslim cultures where Islam is embedded in the belief system of the people, when children are born, and when people pass from this life, those around them, usually family, will often recite the shahāda in their ear. It is believed that it will help them navigate between the physical and spiritual worlds with greater ease, as they are reminded of what is considered to be the most important truth of all life. If a non-Muslim wishes to convert to Islam, a simple recitation of the shahāda will complete the conversion process, provided that the recitation is made with honest intention (niyya). [This understanding also became a controversial point throughout history within Islam.] As such, Muslims often encourage non-Muslims to simply repeat the shahāda in order to become a believer of Islam.
In practical everyday life, the shahāda is often used as a quick prayer.
Often, when going about daily business, in conversation, this phrase can be used to bring one’s mind back to a particular point or to begin a difficult conversation. It is believed that reciting the shahāda will help to focus one on remembering God, believed to be the most worthy endeavour. In that way, negative or unwanted thoughts can be removed, or it can help one to retain or redeem one's train of thought when forgotten. So this phrase, although fundamental to Islamic belief, is not relegated simply to an infrequent recitation, but rather it becomes commonly heard and used in everyday life, ingraining belief into the heart and mind of the believer throughout their ongoing routine.
The shahāda in Islam is central to the life of a Muslim. It speaks of what is important, central and of core relevance to the life of a Muslim. In short, the confession of faith, through continual repetition, is a reminder of one’s priority of beliefs. What is your shahāda?