The Shahaadah

Islam's Declaration of Faith

Islamic Shahaadah
The shahaadah inscribed at Suleymaniye Camii mosque, Turkey. Getty Images / John Elk

One of the five “pillars of Islam” is the declaration of faith, known as the shahaadah. Everything in the life of a Muslim rests upon a foundation of faith, and the shahaadah sums up the essence of the entire faith in one sentence. A person who understands this declaration, recites it with sincerity, and lives according to its teachings is a Muslim. It is what identifies or distinguishes a Muslim at the most fundamental level.

Shahaadah is often also spelled shahada or shahaada, and is alternatively known as the “testimony of faith” or kalimah (the word or declaration).

Pronunciation

The shahaadah is a simple sentence made up of two parts, so is sometimes referred to as the “shadaadatayn” (two testimonies). The meaning in English is:

I bear witness that there is no diety except Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.

The shahaadah is usually recited in Arabic:

Ash-hadu an laa ilaaha il Allah, wa ash-hadu anna Muhammad ar-Rasuul Allah.

(Shia Muslims add a third part to the declaration of faith: “Ali is the vicegerent of Allah.” Sunni Muslims consider this to be a fabricated addition and thus condemn it in the strongest terms.)

Origins

Shahaadah comes from an Arabic word meaning “observe, witness, testify.” For example, a witness in court is a “shahid.” In this context, reciting the shahaadah is a way to give testimony to, bear witness to, or declare one’s faith.

The first part of the shahaadah can be found in the third chapter of the Quran, among other verses:

“There is no diety but He. That is the witness of Allah, His angels, and those who possess knowledge. There is no god but He, the Exalted in Power, the Wise” (Quran 3:18).

The second part of the shahaadah is not stated directly, but is rather implied in several verses.

The understanding is clear, though, that one must believe that the Prophet Muhammad was sent by Allah to guide people to monotheism and righteousness, and as Muslims we should try our best to follow his life example:

“Muhammad is not the father of any of you, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the last of the prophets. And Allah has full knowledge of all things” (Quran 33:40).

“The true believers are those only who believe in Allah and His messenger, and afterward have no doubt, but rather strive in their wealth and their livelihoods for the sake of Allah. Such are the sincere” (Quran 49:15).

The Prophet Muhammad once said: “No one meets Allah with the testimony that there is none worthy of worship but Allah and I am the Messenger of Allah, and he has no doubt about that statement, except that he will enter Paradise” (Hadith Muslim).

Meaning

The word shahaadah literally means “to bear witness,” so by professing faith verbally, one is bearing witness to the truth of Islam’s message and its most fundamental teachings. The shahaadah is all-encompassing, including all other basic doctrines of Islam: belief in Allah, the angels, the prophets, the books of revelation, the afterlife, and destiny/divine decree.

It is a "big picture" statement of faith that has profound depth and significance.

The shahaadah is made up of two parts. The first part ("I bear witness that there is no diety except Allah") addresses our faith and relationship with Allah. One declares unequivocally that no other diety is worthy of worship, and that Allah is the One and only true Lord. This is a statement of Islam’s strict monotheism, known as tawhid, upon which all Islamic theology is based.

The second part ("And I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah") states that one accepts Muhammad, peace be upon him, as a prophet and messenger of Allah. It is an acknowledgment of the role Muhammad plays as a human being sent to guide and show us the best way to live and worship. One also affirms acceptance of the book that was revealed to him, the Quran.

Accepting Muhammad as a prophet means that one accepts all previous prophets who shared the message of monotheism, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last prophet; Allah's message has been fully revealed and preserved in the Quran, so there is no need for any additional prophets to share His message.

In Daily Life

The shahaadah is recited publicly several times a day during the call to prayer (adhan). During the daily prayers and personal supplications, one may recite it quietly. At the time of death, it is recommended that a Muslim try to recite or at least hear these words as their last.

The shahaadah's Arabic text is often used in Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art. The text of the shahaadah in Arabic is also featured on the internationally-recognized flags of Saudi Arabia and Somaliland (white text on a green background). Unfortunately it has also been appropriated by misguided and un-Islamic terrorist groups, such as is featured on the black flag of ISIS.

People who want to convert/revert to Islam do so by simply reciting the shahaadah aloud a single time, preferably in front of two witnesses. There is no other requirement or ceremony for embracing Islam. It is said that when one declares faith in Islam, it is like starting life fresh and new, with a clean record. The Prophet Muhammad said that accepting Islam destroys all sins which came before.

Of course, in Islam all actions are based on the notion of intention (niyyah), so the shahaadah is only meaningful if one truly understands the declaration and is sincere in one's belief. It is also understood that if one accepts this belief, one must try to live according to its commandments and guidance.