Creeds: Islamic Creeds

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An ʿaqīdah is an Islamic creed or creedal statement; the plural, ʿaqāʾid ("articles of belief"), is used in a similar sense. Since there is no Islamic body corresponding to the Christian ecumenical councils, Islamic creeds do not have the official status of the Christian creeds and thus are not used liturgically. What might be regarded as an exception to these assertions is the Shahādah, or confession of faith ("There is no deity except God; Muammad is the messenger of God"), which is universally accepted by Muslims and is repeated in the formal worship or prayers (alāt ). The Shahādah is not generally regarded as an ʿaqīdah, however, though it might be considered the basis of all later creeds. The terms ʿaqīdah and ʿaqāʾid are applied to works of greatly varying length, ranging from those with fewer than a dozen lines to voluminous theological treatises.

The Development of the Islamic Creeds

Although they hold no ecumenical councils, the Sunnīs, who are the great majority of all Muslims, have come to a large measure of agreement about the articles of belief through informal consensus. Each legal/theological school, and notably the anafī and anbalī schools, has developed creeds which the school has accepted and often attributed to its founder, even when the composition might date from several centuries later. The various subdivisions of Shīʿī Islam have also produced their creedal statements, as have some of the minor sects.

The process by which the Sunnī creed was elaborated is similar to that in Christianity, namely through argument against the views of some believers which were felt to be heretical by the main body of believers. Among the views excluded by the Sunnīs were the Shīʿī belief that the prophet Muammad had designated ʿAlī to succeed him and that each of the following (Shīʿī) imams had been similarly designated by his predecessor, the Khārijī belief that a person who commits a grave sin is thereby excluded from the community, and the Muʿtazilī belief that human acts are independent of God's control.

The Main Doctrines of the SunnĪ Islamic Creed

The following are the main articles of belief accepted by Sunnīs, though the wording does not follow any specific creed. The order is roughly that of the anafī creed (found in Wensinck, 1932); comments have been added.


God is one and unique in the sense that there is no deity other than God; he has neither partner nor associate, and neither begets nor is begotten. This is the first clause in the Shahādah and also appears in the Qurʾān, though not in the earliest portions. Allāh is the Arabic word for God, used also by Arabic-speaking Christians, but some of Muammad's contemporaries recognized Allāh as a "high god" alongside other deities. It is against such people, and polytheists in general, that this article emphasizes the uniqueness of God, which became one of the distinctive features of Islam.


He has been from all eternity and will be to all eternity with all his names and attributes. These attributes may be essential or active (attributes pertaining to activity): among the former are life, power (or omnipotence), knowledge (or omniscience), speech, hearing, sight, and will; and among the latter, creating, sustaining (with food), giving life, and raising (from the dead). All these attributes are eternal; they are not God and yet not other than God. The Qurʾān frequently applies names to God, such as the Merciful, the Forgiving, the Creator, the Knowing. Ninety-nine such "beautiful names" are commonly recognized and used in devotions. The theologians held that God possesses the qualities or attributes (ifāt ) corresponding to these names, as the quality of mercy corresponds to "the Merciful." The seven essential attributes listed above were much discussed by theologians in the third and fourth centuries ah (ninth and tenth centuries ce). Some, especially the Muʿtazilah, held that the attributes are not distinct from God's essence, so that, for example, he might be said to know by his essence; others held that the attributes have a hypostatic character (not unlike the three hypostases of the Christian Trinity), so that it is by his knowledge rather than his essence that God knows. The latter view, which made allowance for the special position of the Qurʾān as God's attribute of speech, came to be the standard Sunnī position and was accepted by the Ashʿarīyah, the Māturīdīyah, and others. With regard to the active attributes, the Ashʿarīyah held that these are not eternal, since, for example, God cannot be creator until he has created. The Māturīdīyah, on the other hand, held that these names and attributes apply to God eternally. There was also some discussion, especially in later times, when there was greater familiarity with philosophical ideas, as to whether existence, eternity, and the like were to be regarded as attributes.


God created the world and all that is in it; he did not create things from any preexisting thing. God's creation of the world ex nihilo is always implied in the creeds, although it is not always stated explicitly.


God is unlike all created things: he is neither body nor substance nor accident (of a substance); he has no spatial limit or position. Nevertheless, as the Qurʾān indicates, he has two hands, two eyes, and a face, and he is seated on the throne. The otherness and, in this sense, transcendence of God are clearly expressed in the Qurʾān ("No thing is like him" [42:11]), and this point received much emphasis in later times. It was a serious problem for the theologians to reconcile this otherness of God with the anthropomorphisms in the Qurʾān, which include not merely such terms as hands and face, but also most of the names and attributes. Some of those who insisted on the otherness and incorporeality of God, like the Muʿtazilah, held that the anthropomorphic terms were to be understood metaphorically, and they called those who understood them literally mushabbihah ("those who make [God] resemble [humanity]"). Most Sunnī theologians, following Amad ibn anbal, said they were to be accepted bi-lā kayf, or "amodally" (literally "without [asking] how [they were to be understood]"), that is, neither literally nor metaphorically. Some later Ashʿarī theologians allowed metaphorical interpretation, within limits however.


The Qurʾān, as it is written down, remembered, and recited, is the speech of God and uncreated. Our writing and reciting of it, however, are created. This matter was the subject of violent discussions in the ninth century. In the so-called inquisition (minah ) begun by Caliph al-Maʾmūn around 833, prominent jurists and other officials were obliged to state publicly that they believed the Qurʾān to be the created speech of God. Among those who refused to make the profession was Amad ibn anbal, and for a time he was the main defender of the uncreatedness of the Qurʾān. The point at issue seems to have been that, if the Qurʾān is created, God could have created it otherwise, and so it is not unthinkable that the caliph, if regarded as inspired by God, could alter its rules. On the other hand, if it is uncreated, it expresses something of God's being and cannot be humanly altered; this implies that the final decision about the application of Qurʾanic rules to practical matters is in the hands, not of the caliph, but of the accredited interpreters of the Qurʾān, namely the ʿulamāʾ, or religious scholars. The Shīʿah, who believe their imams are inspired, still hold the Qurʾān to be created, but since the end of the inquisition around 850, the Sunnīs have adhered firmly to the doctrine of the uncreatedness of the Qurʾān.


God's will is supreme, and he controls all mundane events. No good or evil comes about on earth except as God wills, but although he wills all events, good and evil, he does not command or approve what is evil. Actions are good or bad, not in themselves, but because God commands or forbids them; he could, if he so willed, change what is good and bad. Human acts are created by God and "acquired" by the individual. Belief in the absolute sovereignty of God (for which there are precedents in the Bible and in pre-Islamic Arabia) enabled Muslims to face life with assurance, knowing that no disaster could happen to them unless God willed it. The Muʿtazilī assertion of human free will was seen to threaten God's sovereignty, and so many Sunnī theologians tried to find a way of reconciling God's omnipotence with human freedom. The Muʿtazilah and their opponents agreed that when a people acted, it was through a "power" or "ability" which God created in them, but while the Muʿtazilah held that this was a "power" to do either the act or its opposite and was created before the act, the others insisted that it was the "power" to do only the act in question and was created in the moment of acting. Many Sunnī theologians, especially the Ashʿarīyah, further held that while God created the act, the human agents only "acquired" (kasaba ) it, meaning that they somehow "made it theirs" or had it "credited" to them as their act. The Muʿtazilah had shown that if the act was not the individuals' act and was sinful, God could not justly punish them for it. Most Sunnīs held that whether people were believers or unbelievers depended on their own acts and not on God. At the same time they thought that God could, in his goodness, help people to belief, yet also in his justice lead them astray or abandon them, in the sense of withdrawing guidance from them, but ultimately such treatment followed on sins by the people in question.


God will judge all human beings on the Last Day after they have been raised from the dead. Among the realities of the Last Day are the balance ( mīzān), the bridge ( irā), and the pool or basin ( aw). Before the Last Day sinners will be exposed to the punishment of the tomb. God's judgment on the Last Day is prominent in the Qurʾān and is implied in all creeds even when not explicitly stated. A balance to weigh a person's good deeds against bad deeds is spoken of in the Qurʾān, but there are no clear references there to the pool from which Muammad quenches the thirst of the believers or to the knife-edge bridge over Hell from which evildoers fall down: these are popular eschatological conceptions which have found their way into some creeds, as is also the belief in a punishment in the tomb (ʿadhāb al-qabr ).


Muammad and other prophets are permitted to intercede with God on the Last Day for sinful members of their communities. Although the Muʿtazilah held that the Qurʾanic references to intercession did not justify this belief, it came to be generally accepted.


Paradise and Hell are already created, and will never cease to exist. This was a denial of some sectarian views attributed to the Jahmīyah and others.


God will be seen by the believers in Paradise. This is asserted in the Qurʾān, but it is difficult to understand literally since God is incorporeal. It was eventually held to be true "amodally" (bi-lā kayf).


God has sent messengers ( rusul) and prophets ( anbiyāʾ) to human communities with his revelations. Prophets are preserved ( maʿūm) from sin by God; Muammad is the seal of the prophets. Prophets are sometimes said to be very numerous, reaching as many as 120,000, although only a small number, sometimes 313, are messengers. According to the Māturīdīyah, prophets are preserved from all sins; according to the Ashʿarīyah, only from grave sins. The phrase "seal of the prophets" is now always taken to mean "last of the prophets," but originally it may have meant the one who, like a seal, confirmed previous prophets.


The most excellent of the community after Muammad is Abū Bakr, then ʿUmar, then ʿUthmān, then ʿAlī. This apparently nontheological assertion is a denial of the Shīʿī view that ʿAlī was most excellent after Muammad, and thus it is an essential element of Sunnīsm. It was agreed upon only after much discussion, especially regarding the place of ʿUthmān because of criticisms of his conduct.


Faith ( īmān) consists in assenting with the heart, confessing with the tongue, and performing works; it may increase or decrease. This is the Ashʿarī and anbalī understanding of faith, or what makes a person a believer. The Māturīdīyah and other anafīyah, on the other hand, exclude performing works from the definition and then insist that faith can neither increase nor decrease.


A believer who commits a grave sin does not thereby cease to be a believer. This is directed against the Khārijīs, who held that the grave sinner is excluded from the community of believers. Sunnīs generally came to hold that a grave sinner of the community might be punished in Hell for a time, but would eventually go to Paradise through the intercession of Muammad.

ShĪʿĪ Beliefs

Whereas for Sunnī Muslims true doctrine is what is asserted in the Qurʾān and adīth as interpreted by accredited ʿulamāʾ, for Shīʿī Muslims authority in matters of doctrine rests with the divinely inspired imam. There are three main subdivisions of the Shīʿah, namely the Imāmīyah (Twelvers), the Ismāʿīlīyah (Seveners), and the Zaydīyah. All believe that ʿAlī was the rightful imam, or leader of the Muslims in succession to Muammad, and was followed by his sons, asan and usayn, and that thereafter each imam designated his successor, usually a son. The Twelvers, with their center in Iran, hold that in 874 the twelfth imam went into occultation (ghaybah ), but is still alive and will return as the Mahdi at an appropriate moment to set things right in the world. The Ismāʿīlīyah accept the first six Twelver imams, but hold that the seventh was a son of the sixth named Ismāʿīl, and that the series of imams continues until today. The present Aga Khan is the imam of the best-known subsection of the Ismāʿīlīyah. The original Zaydī view was that the rightful imam was a descendant of asan or usayn who claimed the imamate and made good his claim by the sword. The Shīʿah in general reject the twelfth of the articles presented above and also hold that the Qurʾān is created, but they accept most of the rest of the creed, although the Zaydīyah, and to a lesser extent the Twelver Shīʿah, tend to the position of the Muʿtazilah. The strength of the Twelver ʿulamāʾ in Iran today is in part due to the fact that they represent the Hidden Imam.

See Also

Attributes of God, article on Islamic Concepts; Polemics, articles on Christian-Muslim Polemics, Muslim-Jewish Polemics.


The only book devoted to the topic is the pioneer work of A. J. Wensinck, The Muslim Creed: Its Genesis and Historical Development (1932; reprint, New York, 1965). This is built around translations of three anafī creeds and includes long scholarly commentaries on them. Much more is now known about later developments of the creeds, and it should be noted that Wensinck was not clearly aware of the differences between the anafīyah (including the Māturīdīyah) and the Ashʿarīyah, as seen in article 13 above. Creeds by al-Ashʿarī, al-Ghazālī, Abū af al-Nasafī, and al-Faālī are translated by D. B. Macdonald in his Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory (1903; reprint, New York, 1965), but otherwise the book is somewhat out of date. Two versions of al-Ashʿarī's creed are translated and edited by Richard J. McCarthy in The Theory of al-Ashʿarī (Beirut, 1953).

For the development of dogma, there is a brief account in Wensinck's book; I have given a much fuller account of the early period in The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Edinburgh, 1973), and I present a survey up to the present in my Islamic Philosophy and Theology, 2d rev. ed. (Edinburgh, 1984).

For the beliefs of the Twelver Shīʿah, the creed by Ibn Bābawayhi (d. 991) is contained in A Shi'ite Creed, translated by A. A. Fyzee (London, 1942); that of ʿAllāmah al-illī (d. 1326) appears in Al-Bābuʾl-ādī ʿAshar, a Treatise on the Principles of Shīʿite Theology, translated by William Miller (London, 1928). A modern work is A Shi'ite Anthology, edited by William C. Chittick (Albany, N.Y., 1981). For the Ismāʿīlīyah there is a summary of a long creed from about 1200 in A Creed of the Fatimids by Vladimir A. Ivanov (Bombay, 1936). The most important work on the Zaydīyah is Wilferd Madelung's Der Imam al-Qāsim ibn Ibrāhīm und die Glaubenslehre der Zaiditen (Berlin, 1965).

New Sources

Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qurʾan. Minneapolis, 1989.

W. Montgomery Watt (1987)

Revised Bibliography