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Call to Prayer

Shahadah : Where Muslim Life Begins

by Jeffrey Laing

‘Allahu Akbar!’ - God is Greater! It is the supreme affirmation of Islam, the great axiom upon which all else depends. It qualifies all other statements about God and His creation and is the key to Muslim perception of God. It is the reason for his or her worship, total trust in and self-surrender to Him as well as the foundation of Muslim piety and spirituality.

God is greater than what or whom? The statement seems to beg the question. Its open-endedness is at first perplexing. Why is it left incomplete? But as we insert various objects at the end of this assertion, we soon come to understand. The statement invites – indeed, it demands – our attempts at completing it. But all such efforts are ultimately futile, for God’s infinite greatness cannot be encompassed by our comparisons. As the Qur’an itself says: “nothing can be compared to Him” (112:4)

We may ask “Is God greater than all creation? Is He greater in mercy, compassion, knowledge, wisdom, love, and justice than the most merciful, compassionate, wise, loving and just among His creatures? Is He greater than the greatest power we can imagine”? ‘Allahu Akbar’ repeatedly affirms that He is incomparably greater. He is greater than any likening we may use to complete this declaration, greater than anything and everything that we could ever conceive of, greater than the speculations of theologians or the assertions of dogmatists or the formulations of philosophers, and greater than human words could describe.
Allahu Akbar! This seemingly unfinished comparative is all-inclusive, for it allows for all our praises and glorification. Its open-endedness invites us to imagine, but at the same time proclaims our inability to truly conceive of God’s greatness. All other beings from the perspective of Allahu Akbar stand on the same level ground as infinitely inferior to God. Therefore, the second declaration of the adhan, which is also the first of two testimonies of the shahadah, follows as a natural consequence of Allahu Akbar.

“Ashadu an la ilaha illa Allah! Ashadu an la ilaha illa Allah!” -
I bear witness that there is no god but God!

For how could it be otherwise? If God is infinitely greater, infinitely more merciful, infinitely more compassionate, infinitely more powerful, infinitely kinder, infinitely more just, infinitely nearer to us, infinitely wiser, infinitely more knowing, then how could there be and why should one seek another god, another ultimate protector, another ultimate goal? Why should one seek other deities or intermediaries between oneself and God, or other persons, alive or dead, to whom to direct one’s prayers? Are God’s goodness and power somehow insufficient, that we should invent for Him partners? For Muslims, the answer to those questions is obvious: there is no ilah – deity, but God, and hence, worship is due to God alone.

The Islamic term for worship is ‘ibadah’. It is derived from the same root as the word ‘abd, the Arabic word for “slave”, and Muslims quite proudly refer to themselves as “slaves of Allah.” At first, this seems like a rather severe description of the believer’s relationship with God, for we normally think of a slave as someone exploited and debased. However, our initial discomfort with this term may reveal something about ourselves that is quite in tune with Islam’s concept of worship.

We instinctively resent that a human being should choose to be the slave of another creation, whether it be to a tyrant, greed, drug addiction, power, or to his or her lust. Something within us rejects this as sick and humiliating. We feel how vulnerable such a person is – how very precarious his existence – because his happiness depends on masters who are themselves fickle and weak, perhaps even illusory. Even an atheist could appreciate the refusal to worship – in the sense of to enslave oneself to and to show complete obedience to – a being other than God.

Yet it seems that we all need to have faith in someone or something. A life without meaning or direction is wretched. Whether it is a political cause, a person, career, nation, a dream, an idea, money, power, prestige, family, fame, or revenge, it appears that we must have something for which to live and appreciate, for which to die. In short, I believe that it is human nature to venerate, that we are destined for servitude. Very often, however the objects of our desires remain unattainable. But even when they are attainable, the reality cannot equal our expectations. They become, in the end, like mirages in a desert, nothing more than figments of our false imaginings (Qur’an 29:39).

As Muslims see it, life is a continual choice between masters, between those you create for yourself and the One who created you. When you make your own gods, you create your own oppression and debasement, but when you surrender yourself to the one God, you are shielded from the types of fears and insecurities that lead persons to idol worship.

In fact, from the point of view of Islam, all creatures, whether or not they are aware of it, are already slaves to God in the sense that they all serve His ultimate purposes and can accomplish only what He allows them to accomplish. God not only wants us to realise this truth, but to benefit as much as we can from it, by using the gifts and guidance He gives to us so that we may grow ever closer to Him. When we become true servants of God, we become servants of the divine attributes as well, of His Mercy, Love, Justice, and Truth. To worship a creation is to the Muslim, utterly irrational and self-abasing, but to be the slave of God is a Muslim’s highest honour and lifelong goal.

This is a goal that, at times, could be difficult to pursue. The Qur’an certainly does not paint a rosy picture for most of humanity in this regard. Misdirected worship, idolatry, comes all too easily to human beings and thus the Qur’an refers to faith as an “uphill climb” (Qur’an 90:4-17). Islam (i.e., self-surrender) requires hard work, self-discipline, determination, and, above all, following God’s guidance. This brings us to the next statement of the adhan, the second and concluding statement of the shahadah.

Ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasulu Allah -
I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God!

The first testimony of the shahadah, that there is no god but God, is an independent statement of fact. It bears witness to a universal truth that applies to all of us, regardless of whether or not we acknowledge it. Before humanity came into being, before the creation of Earth, before the birth of the universe we live in, there was but one God – and there will never be another.

The second testimony of the shahadah, that Muhammad (pbuh) is the messenger of God, depends on the first. It too is a statement of a truth, but it is also a statement of commitment to the first and to the community of disciples of Muhammad (pbuh). The first half of the shahadah declares the oneness of God; the second half informs us of God’s great concern for man. The first proclaims God’s incomparable being; the second tells us how to come to know Him. The first states the goal; the second shows the way. God willed to be known and, by His Mercy commissioned Muhammad (pbuh) to help guide us to Him.

From the moment someone joins the Muslim community, whether by birth or conversion, the shahadah will be an ever-present feature of that person’s life. It will be chanted aloud during the call to prayer, invoked at the beginning of all major events, recited at least nine times a day during the five ritual prayers, exclaimed spontaneously by believers during moments of excitement or wonder, and sighed quietly by Muslims when they reflect on the greatness and glory of God. Moreover, it will become a statement of a lifestyle based on the Qur’an and the teachings of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). For Muslims, the Qur’an is God’s Word revealed, and the Prophet’s Sunnah - literally ’way,’ is God’s word most perfectly applied. When ‘Aishah, Muhammad’s wife, was asked about the Prophets (pbuh) conduct during his life, she simply responded. “It was the Qur’an.” Her answer best expresses how Muslims view the relationship between their scripture and the Messenger of God.

The shahadah is where Muslim life begins, both literally and figuratively. It is the cornerstone upon which the community of believers rests and is their source of unity and strength. It is the boundary that protects them and the line of demarcation that must be crossed of one is to join them.

Like all converts, I will never forget my first shahadah. It was the single most difficult, yet liberating and powerful, moment of my life. Gradually, I came to better understand its many implications, but I especially came to see that it proclaims not only the oneness of God but also the unity and equality of humankind.

Dr. Jeffrey Lang is associate professor in the Dept. of Mathematics at the University of Kansas. He converted to Islam in the early 1980’s and is the author of ‘Struggling to Surrender’ and ‘Even Angels Ask’ from which the article was extracted.