Azhar Goraya, Mexico
Seventh century Arabia saw the birth of one of the most influential religious movements in history. Islam, beginning from the humble, dusty streets of Mecca, had in less than twenty three years managed to unite the whole of unruly Arabia under a simple declaration: “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad (sa) is His messenger”. What was it about this message that brought about a miraculous revolution? It was a message of the Unity of God, service to God and humanity, peace, harmony, championing the rights of women and promoting the importance of education; teachings to establish peace at home, in society and in the world at large. In fact, seeing as it is a message of peace, it was through peaceful propagation, and the forbearance of the Prophet Muhammad (sa); the lasting impacts of his high spiritual and moral example that the teachings of Islam were exemplified and thus so widely accepted. After the life of the Prophet Muhammad (sa), Islam continued to rapidly expand in the middle east, welcoming millions of new souls into its fold. Later, places as far off as Indonesia and China saw millions enter the faith through the efforts of Muslim merchants.
Throughout history, there have been many religious movements that have captivated the hearts and minds of people and have left their enduring mark on our understanding of the world and our place in it.
Such great changes are usually begun through the advent of great prophets and sages, where people witnessed great signs of truth and miracles and thereafter accepted new faiths. Nevertheless, mass conversions usually occurred long after the demise of the founders of the great religions. Buddhism spread rapidly when it was adopted as the state philosophy by the Buddhist king Ashoka in 3 BCE. Christianity spread rapidly throughout the western world when it was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.
Whereas the trend in the past was of an expanding religious influence, today the trend is quite the opposite. The largest growth of people is of those unaffiliating themselves from any form of organized religion. Nevertheless, even today, there are those who independently seek out new spiritual paths in the form of organized religion. In the coming decades, it is estimated that worldwide there will be “a relatively small increase in the number of Muslims, a substantial increase in the number of people unaffiliated with any religion, and a substantial decrease in the number of Christians”[i]due to religious conversion. Worldwide, the majority of those that choose to accept a different religion will opt to accept Islam.
Different faith traditions teach different methods of entering the faith. The Abrahamic faiths each have a different model of conversion.
Unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism, the oldest of the three Abrahamic traditions, does not actively seek converts. In fact, it discourages it. For those who do show interest in converting, there is usually a lengthy vetting process of study and inclusion under the supervision of a Rabbi. This process can span several years before a potential convert can enter the faith.
The most common method of conversion to Christianity is through baptism in the name of the Trinity or verbal acceptance of Jesus as Lord. The baptism usually includes bathing in water or having water sprinkled on the head, which is representative of spiritual cleansing and rebirth. Most Christian groups encourage the convert to undergo a period of study before conversion, sometimes spanning a year or more.
Islam offers the simplest and most straightforward method of conversion. Neither does it discourage people from converting, nor does it require a long process of study before becoming a Muslim. In fact, Islam is a universal religion; for all people and for all times. Thus, it is accepting of all, without discrimination. Accepting Islam happens through a simple verbal declaration, known as the Kalima Tayyiba (the pure declaration), the Kalima Shahadah (the testimony) or simply theShahadah (testimony). After having recited the declaration, the matter of one’s faith is a matter of the heart, which rests between them and God.
The declaration of faith is one of the five pillars of Islam, which are the basic, obligatory actions that all Muslims must follow and implement in their lives. A person who comes to realize the truthfulness of Islam and wishes to follow it may enter Islam through this verbal declaration, no matter their level of study of the religion. Being a declaration before God, it is not necessary for it to be witnessed or vetted by others, although some Islamic organizations and countries do provide certificates of conversion for new Muslims.
The original words of the Shahadah can be traced back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (sa). They are included in the Azan, the Muslim call for prayer. This call is made five times a day before the congregational prayers, alerting the believers that the prayer in congregation is to begin shortly. It advises them that prayer is the path to success and well-being, and that the path to such a prayer is through the declaration of faith. The relevant words from the call to prayer are:
‘I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah. I bear witness that Muhammad (sa) is the Messenger of Allah.’
These words have remained by and large the words by which a person enters the fold of Islam. The testimony of faith is not only method of conversion, but a form of worship. It is declared in the call to prayer and is repeated in the daily Islamic prayers.
Traditionally, aspiring converts would be encouraged take a bath before becoming Muslims through the declaration of faith, although this is not obligatory. This ritual bath was to both to emphasize the importance of physical hygiene as well as symbolize the inner purification that would be achieved upon accepting Islam. To enter Islam by accepting Allah and His Messenger is a spiritual rebirth and a form of sincere repentance. It is for this reason that the Prophet Muhammad (sa) declared that one who recites the declaration of faith and thereafter sincerely follows Islam is forgiven their past faults[ii]. Some converts also adopt an Islamic name after conversion, although this also is not necessary.
The declaration of faith is the quintessence of the Islamic belief, therefore its necessary to have a proper understanding of it. The wording of the declaration of faith is divided into two sections: The first part professes belief in Allah, and the second iterates belief in Muhammad (sa) as the Messenger of God. Both are essential for spiritual growth within Islam.
In the first part (also known as Tahleel), there is an interesting play between negation and affirmation – “There is no God (Ilaha) but Allah”. The term used for God (Ilah) refers to any deity, but also alludes to an object of worship and center of one’s devotion and love. Therefore, these words profess not only belief in Allah, but take Him as the object of the deepest love and devotion.
Allah is the personal name of God. It is a pre-Islamic Arabic term that was used exclusively by the Arabs for God Almighty, whom they identified as the Creator God and God of Abraham. The Arabs were historically idolaters, yet such was their reverence for the term Allah that they never used it for any idol or person. The term was later adopted by the Qur’an and formalized as the personal name of God, representative of His many other attributes.
The term Allah determines how a Muslim is to identify God. Various religions affirm belief in God but offer widely different ideas as to His nature and our interaction with Him. For example, Jews believe in Yahweh, who is primarily the God of Israel, His chosen people. Christians generally believe that God exists as a Trinity. In the declaration of faith, a person who wishes to become a Muslimaffirms that their personal view of God will be none other than what is encapsulated in the term “Allah” – A God who is the perfect and beyond any weakness, singular in being and indivisible. The unity of Allah has been beautifully summarized in Surah Al-Ikhlas, the 112thchapter of the Holy Qur’an:
[112:2] Say, ‘He is Allah, the One;
[112:3] ‘Allah, the Independent and Besought of all.
[112:4] ‘He begets not, nor is He begotten;
[112:5] ‘And there is none like unto Him.’
In the second part of the Shahadah, there is another affirmation, this time in the belief of Muhammad (sa) as the Messenger of God. The Prophet Muhammad (sa) was born approximately 570 C.E. He made his claim to be a prophet of God at the age of 40 and died at the age of 63. During his 23 years of prophethood, he received the revelation of the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam, and demonstrated through his example (known as the Sunnah) how to implement its teachings in daily life. It is telling that although Islam teaches belief in the truthfulness of all previous prophets, such as Moses (as) and Jesus (as), yet only belief in Muhammad (sa) is mentioned in the declaration of faith. This is because it is through the Prophet Muhammad (sa) that one comes to believe in the truthfulness of all other prophets. Therefore, to believe in him is by extension to believe in all other prophets of God. Moreover, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) was the chief of the Prophets and the most exalted of them in terms of spiritual rank. It is his example above all others that leads one to God.
The Promised Messiah, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), was the awaited Messiah after the Prophet Muhammad (sa). He came to dispel misconceptions about Islam and to present it’s true teachings. In one place, he writes:
‘I always wonder how high was the status of this Arabian Prophet, whose name was Muhammad, (thousands of blessings and peace be upon him). One cannot reach the limit of his high status and it is not given to man to estimate correctly his spiritual effectiveness. It is a pity that his rank has not been recognized, as it should have been. He was the champion who restored to the world the Unity of God which had disappeared from the world; he loved God in the extreme and his soul melted out of sympathy for mankind. Therefore, God, Who knew the secret of his heart, exalted him above all the Prophets and all the first ones and the last ones…’[iii]
The French historian Lamartine asks:
‘As regards all standards by which human greatness may be measured, we may ask, is there any man greater than he? If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and outstanding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad?’ [iv]
Together, the two halves of the Shahadah combine to give rise to the Islamic ideal of Tauhid, or the absolute oneness, unity, and preeminence of God. All Muslims aspire to achieve this realization of God, where he is not only one in number (a relatively simple concept) but where His existence comes to permeate the soul and desires of the self, and all other things become secondary to His being and will. A verbal declaration of the unity of God is thus only the beginning – true unity of god eventually comes to radiate its truth from the thoughts and hearts of an individual, dispelling all doubts and darknesses that linger within. Unity of God is only achievable through the special blessing of God which is received through following the Prophet Muhammad (sa).
‘The Unity of God is a light which illumines the heart only after the negation of all deities, whether they belong to the inner world or the outer world. It permeates every particle of man’s being. How can this be acquired without the aid of God and His Messenger? The duty of man is only to bring death upon his ego and turn his back to devilish pride. He should not boast of his having been reared in the cradle of knowledge but should consider himself as if he were merely an ignorant person, and occupy himself in supplications. Then the light of Unity will descend upon him from God and will bestow new life upon Him.’[v]
Out of the five pillars of Islam, the declaration of faith is special in that it acts as a gateway to all other aspects of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (sa) stated that before practicing other aspects of Islam, it is necessary to first declare oneself a Muslim through the Declaration of Faith[vi]. This is because the Declaration of Faith orients a person towards the correct path and purifies their intentions – both necessary as a base for future spiritual growth.
The declaration of faith is thus a deep spiritual reality that serves as the gateway into Islam. All who wish to accept Islam, regardless of their history, ethnicity or nationality are encouraged to do so. Allah promises His forgiveness and further rewards to those that do so sincerely.
About the Author: Azhar Goraya is currently serving as an Imam in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Mexico. He is also the Central American Coordinator for The Review of Religions en Español.
[i]Pew Forum, The Changing Global Religious Landscape, April 5 2017
[ii]إِذَا أَسْلَمَ الْعَبْدُ فَحَسُنَ إِسْلاَمُهُ كَتَبَ اللَّهُ لَهُ كُلَّ حَسَنَةٍ كَانَ أَزْلَفَهَا وَمُحِيَتْ عَنْهُ كُلُّ سَيِّئَةٍ كَانَ أَزْلَفَهَا ثُمَّ كَانَ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ الْقِصَاصُ الْحَسَنَةُ بِعَشْرَةِ أَمْثَالِهَا إِلَى سَبْعِمِائَةِ ضِعْفٍ وَالسَّيِّئَةُ بِمِثْلِهَا إِلاَّ أَنْ يَتَجَاوَزَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ عَنْهَا
‘If a person accepts Islam, such that his Islam is good, Allah will decree reward for every good deed that he did before, and every bad deed that he did before will be erased. Then after that will come the reckoning; each good deed will be rewarded ten times up to seven hundred times. And each bad deed will be recorded as it is, unless Allah, the Mighty and Sublime, forgives it.'” (Sunan An-Nasai, The Book Of Faith and its Signs, Chapter: A Man Being Good in His Islam, Hadith # 4998)
[iii]Essence of Islam, vol. 1, pp, 197-198
[iv]History of Turkey p. 276
[v]Ruhani Khazain Vol. 22 Haqiqatul-Wahi, p 148
[vi]أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم بَعَثَ مُعَاذًا ـ رضى الله عنه ـ إِلَى الْيَمَنِ فَقَالَ “ ادْعُهُمْ إِلَى شَهَادَةِ أَنْ لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ اللَّهُ، وَأَنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ، فَإِنْ هُمْ أَطَاعُوا لِذَلِكَ فَأَعْلِمْهُمْ أَنَّ اللَّهَ قَدِ افْتَرَضَ عَلَيْهِمْ خَمْسَ صَلَوَاتٍ فِي كُلِّ يَوْمٍ وَلَيْلَةٍ، فَإِنْ هُمْ أَطَاعُوا لِذَلِكَ فَأَعْلِمْهُمْ أَنَّ اللَّهَ افْتَرَضَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَدَقَةً فِي أَمْوَالِهِمْ، تُؤْخَذُ مِنْ أَغْنِيَائِهِمْ وَتُرَدُّ عَلَى فُقَرَائِهِمْ ”
The Prophet (sa) sent Mu`adh to Yemen and said, “Invite the people to testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and I am Allah’s Messenger (sa), and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has enjoined on them five prayers in every day and night (in twenty-four hours), and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has made it obligatory for them to pay the Zakat from their property and it is to be taken from the wealthy among them and given to the poor.” (Sahih Bukhari, The Book of Zakat, Chapter: The Obligation of Zakat, Hadith #1395)