SHAHĀDAH is a term used in Islam to denote the all-important confession or affirmation of the unity of God and the apostleship of Muḥammad. It derives from the Arabic root shahida, meaning "to attest," "to give decisive word," hence "to acknowledge as true," and is used in referring to eyewitness testimony or other dependable evidence. The same root yields one of the names of God in Islam, al-Shahīd, "the one whose word is authentic," a term used in the Qurʾān in contrast to al-Ghāʿib, "the one in hiddenness" or simply "hiddenness."
For Muslims, the term shahādah means giving open, verbal evidence of what is incontestably true. "I bear witness," the phrase runs, "that there is no god but God, and Muḥammad is the messenger of God." The Arabic reads "Ashadu an lā ilāha illā Allāh: Muḥammadun rasūl Allāh." Witness is always in the singular. It is a corporate faith, but the witnessing unit is the person.
These words constitute the vital first "pillar" of Muslim religion; the other four are śalāt (prayer), zakāt (alms), ṣawm (fasting), and ḥajj (pilgrimage). As with all of the Five Pillars, the nīyah, or intention, has to be present in the recitation of the Shahādah if it is to avail as a genuine confession; its casual citation, as, for example, in a classroom discussion, would not amount to confession as faith.
The precise words in the ritual form do not, in fact, occur verbatim in the Qurʾān. But the theme of the sole lordship of Allāh was germinal to Muḥammad's mission, and his prophethood (rasūlīyah ) was the sole agency entrusted by God with the Qurʾān. Muḥammad's prophethood therefore came to be conjoined inseparably in the Shahādah with the theme of God.
The word Allāh is precisely equivalent to the English word God, capitalized and without the definite article. Allāh is not a happy English usage, though it is sometimes employed in translations of the Shahādah. Care should be taken not to capitalize the word ilāha since it is a different term and should be translated as "god" with lowercase g. To write "There is no G od but God" is without meaning. Ilāha is certainly capable of being pluralized ("gods many and lords many"). Not so Allāh. The core of Muḥammad's mission was this affirmation of divine unity. The term Allāh was already current, and well known to the Meccans, in Muḥammad's day. His own father (who died before his birth) was called ʿAbd Allāh, meaning "servant of God." Thus it was not the existence of Allah that the Prophet proclaimed, but his sole existence. All other deities, agencies, or powers intervening between humanity at the base of a hierarchical pyramid and Allāh at its apex, were nonentities, fictions, leaving God and humanity in unmediated relation.
The force of the word lā in the Shahādah is, as the grammarians say, that of absolute negation: "There does not exist any deity except …" The seven l 's of the Shahādah (i. e., occurrences of the Arabic letter lām ) make the recitation lyrical poetry, and serve, in their simple verticals (eleven verticals plus two rounded letters), as a favorite calligraphic device. Numerous passages in the Qurʾān cite the phrase "There is no god except he" (e.g., 2:163, 2:255, 3:2, 3:6, 3:18, 4:84, 6:102). "There is no god but thou" occurs once (21:87), and surah 16:2 reads "There is no god save I." Clearly more than a bare propositional monotheism is meant, as is evident in surah 6:164: "Say: 'Shall I desire as lord any other than God when he is lord of everything?'" Here the confessing "theist" is brought close to Psalm 73:25: "Whom have I in heaven but thee?"
That Muḥammad is the rasūl, the "messenger" or "sent one" of God is axiomatic and fundamental in Islam. Rasūl Allāh, "apostle of God," is his constant designation in the Qurʾān and in tradition. Indeed, the personal name Muḥammad occurs only four times in the Qurʾān (3:144, 33:40, 47:2, and 48:29). This is indicative of how the personality is absorbed into the vocation. Rasūl conveys a higher dignity than does nabī ("seer, prophet-seer"), though this term also is sometimes used of Muḥammad. Whereas earlier prophets and apostles had limited messages or areas of meaning and of vocation to particular people or situations, Muḥammad's mandate was final and universal as "a mercy to the worlds."
Within Islam, the brevity and simplicity of the Shahādah are seen as great assets, inasmuch as it avoids the complexities or subtleties attached to the Christian confession of "God in Christ." The theologians in Islam were, of course, involved in subtle issues when they developed their sophisticated ʿaqidah s, or creeds. But ordinary believers find ready assurance in what is terse, direct, and uncomplicated. Faith is not so much an exploration of mystery as an acknowledgement of that which warrants submission.
One theological complexity that cannot be avoided, however, is the question whether confession in itself, apart from behavior, constitutes Muslim adherence. In the Umayyad period and beyond, a form of Islam emerged in which Muslims, even caliphs, were utterly ready to recite with intention the confession, or kalimat al-Shahādāh (the "words of witness"), even as they lived profligate or negligent lives. Were they, then, true Muslims? Was a measure of ethical attainment and allegiance necessary? Was a faith without works enough? If not, who was to assess the modicum of acceptable conduct? The questions had political implications where rulers were unworthy. Some interpreters insisted that works were vital, that standards were not merely verbal. Others, frightened by the toils of assessment, preferred to leave the question with God and stay hopeful.
It is not clear when the form of the Shahādah was established, but it was certainly well within the Medinese period of Muḥammad's mission, when accessions to Islam used this formula. The formulation probably belongs to a very early period, the time when Muḥammad's status as the sole recipient of the Qurʾanic revelation had become assured to his followers. As in the other Semitic faiths, in Islam the concepts of "witness to faith" and "witness unto death" were closely linked by a single cognate term, here shahīd, meaning both "testimony giver" and "martyr." During the definitive early expansion of Islam the Shuhadāʾ (from the plural form of shahīd) were warriors in battle.
Ṣūfī, or mystical, Islam has its characteristic dimension for the Shahādah as for the tawḥīd, or unity, of God to which the Shahādah witnesses. The formula "Lā ilāha illā Allāh" in Ṣūfī rhythmic recitation, accompanied by bodily swaying and at gradually increasing tempo, serves to induce ecstatic experience of what Ṣūfīs call the unitive state. Shahādah in this esoteric sense may be said to contain "all metaphysics.… It negates all relativity and multiplicity from the Absolute and returns all positive qualities back to God.… Through its repetition this Unity comes to leave its permanent imprint upon the human soul and integrates it into its Center" (Seyyid Hossein Nasr, Islam and the Plight of Modern Man, London, 1975).
Carra de Vaux, Bernard. Les penseurs de l'Islam, vol. 3, L'exégèse, la tradition et la jurisprudence. Paris, 1923. See the chapter on tradition.
Mouradgea d'Ohsson, Ignatius. Tableau général de l'empire othoman. 7 vols. in 8. Paris, 1778–1824. See especially volume 1, page 176, and volume 2, pages 319–324 and 348–350.
Schimmel, Annemarie. "The Sufis and the Shahāda." In Islam's Understanding of Itself, edited by Richard G. Hovannisian and Speros Vryonis, Jr. Malibu, Calif., 1983.
Kenneth Cragg (1987)