Shahadah, Muhammad and Muslim Identity

The following article is the third in a seven-part series on Identity Development and Transformation. This series is geared for Muslims who are leaving Islam and embracing Jesus Christ as Lord, as well as those ministering to them.

Identity Development and Transformation in Christ Series:

  1. Muslim Identity – To be or not to be Muslim? [Available Oct 9, 2017]
  2. Flexibility of the term “Muslim” [Available Oct 16, 2017]
  3. Shahada and Muslim Identity [Available Oct 23, 2017]
  4. Transitional Identity [Available Oct 30, 2017]
  5. Christo-centric Identity [Available Nov 6, 2017]
  6. Christo-centric Identity for Former Muslims [Available Nov 13, 2017]
  7. Identity Applications [Available Nov 20, 2017]

Introduction to this Article

We are still on the “left side” of the progression on identity transformation. The first two articles focused on the flexibility of the term “Muslim.” In summary, Islamic history, theology, and lexicology provide boundaries which do not allow for the term Muslim to include a Christ-worshipper. No Islamic scholar or imam of note has stepped forward to contradict this axiom of Islamic identity. Supporters of a more flexible interpretation for “Muslim,” such as Kevin Higgins, have failed to present indigenous support for this flexibility. Indeed, if a “Muslim” could be interpreted to include a Christ-worshipper, then the term would have lost all meaning. As such, this external attempt to re-define the term “Muslim” seeks to demolish a key identifying boundary marker which the Muslim community has itself established.

This article finalizes our discussion of Muslim identity. First, the article considers whether there is an “essential Islam.” Second, it considers the Islamic confessional creed, or Shahadah, 1 which is the entry point into Islam.

Is there an “Essential Islam?”

Missiologists are currently weighing in on whether there is an “essential Islam.” ref] Insider proponent Bradford Greer gives a typical example of this trendy thinking in his critique of a dissertation published by Doug Coleman: “Coleman’s essentialist view of Islam causes him to conceptualize and define Islam in a monolithic manner and disregard the significance of the actual diversity in faith and practice that exists within and across Islamic communities.” 2

The faulty nature of Greer’s logic is most easily illustrated for Christian readers through an inverse statement: Christians believe the Bible is the Word of God. This certainly could be considered an essential. However, the hard-working researcher could certainly uncover some “Christians” who do not believe the Bible is the Word of God. Does this invalidate the essential? I think not.

Next, the thinking typified by Greer denies a faith community its right to establish its own essentials. Ironically, these evangelical Christian missionaries have overlooked our own tendency to be essentialists—believing salvation comes uniquely through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith in the shed blood of Christ is essential for salvation. Why should Muslims not be entitled to their own essentials?

Essentialism does not preclude diversity. In other words, it is possible to conclude there is an essential Islam while simultaneously affirming a robust diversity among Muslims. Again, we should observe the Christian community globally. While only God knows the exact list of those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, this list would include: those who have died, those who are living, men, women, children, rich, poor, married, single, Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists (I’m running the A, B, C’s here, but I’ll spare you further ). Those whom Christ has saved would include some with no church affiliation. (And no doubt some with church affiliation would not be on the list.) Those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life share nothing less than saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is Christian essentialism. Missionaries typically go into missions because they believe this.

While Christian essentialism may seem straightforward for the majority of those reading this article, could Islamic essentialism prove to be more elusive? Indeed, the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims reflect a level of diversity equal to that of global Christians. Sunnis, Sufis, Shi’ites, Salafists, Secularists, Smiley, Sullen (here we have an “S” run). Most people who were raised Muslim or spent time with Muslims will have encountered self-identifying Muslims who, for all intents and purposes, do not believe in the Almighty. The question begs whether Islam, like Christianity, could feature theological essentialism.

The answer can be found by considering the Shahadah confession as it relates to essentialism and Muslim identity.

A Closer Look at the Shahadah Confession

A person who wants to become a Muslim needs to sincerely declare the Shahadah, “There is no deity but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” This will necessarily be recited in Arabic: la illaha il allah, Muhammadan rasool Allah.”

Muslim scholars actually call the confession “Shahadatayn” –literally, “two confessions.” The first confession declares there is no deity but Allah. The second affirms Muhammad as the messenger of Allah. Each part of the Shahadatayn bears scrutiny.

It is immediately apparent that the first shahadah is set up as a negating statement: “There is no deity…” Technically, this is known as the Nafy (the Negation). This provides a watertight protection of Tawhid (Divine Unity), which is the central doctrine of Islam. At once, the Shahadah rejects Trinitarianism, the Deity of Christ, or any such non-Unitarian belief. The second part of the first of the two Shahadatayn is known as Ithbat, or “The Affirmation.” “…but Allah.” There is no deity…but Allah.

The second part of the Shahadah also prompts further examination. The central doctrines of iman (faith) in Islam are belief in one God, his angels, his prophets, his books, the Day of Judgment and life after death. (Some Muslims add Predestination to this list). Given this doctrinal list, the Shahadah could have been rendered in a much longer list fashion. If the focus was limited to prophets, it could have been given as, “There is no deity but Allah, and he sent many prophets.” Nevertheless, the Shahadah confession merely addresses faith in Allah and Muhammad. This emphasis cements Muslim identity upon acceptance of Muhammad as Allah’s final messenger.

The classical Islamic interpretation is that those who affirm the Shahadatayn cannot be considered kafiroon (disbelievers). Al-Ghazali was quoted earlier in this series with this ruling:

“As for the Advice, it is that you restrain your tongue, to the best of your ability, from indicting the people who face Mecca (on charges of Unbelief) as long as they say, ‘There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God,’ without categorically denying this.” 3 Thus, Shahadah-confessors retain Muslim identity.

Muslim Identity and Muhammad

The relationship of Muhammad to Muslim identity cannot be understated. Generations ago, observers of Islam called the religion “Mohammedanism.” Muslims do not like this term, since they ardently deny worshipping Muhammad. Nevertheless, the centrality of Muhammad to the religion of Islam and Muslim identity remains unassailable.

First, as we have seen, Muhammad features in the Shahadah confession by which a person enters into the Umma (Muslim community). Second, the Qur’an states that Muhammad is the example for all believers: “There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and [who]remembers Allah often” (Sura 33:21). Muhammad’s life provides Sunnah (the way and the example) for all Muslims. His dictations make up the Qur’an. His own personal sayings, the Hadith, are authoritative for Muslims to live by.

Third, Muhammad stated “Whoever obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah” (Sura 4:80). Similar verses where obedience to Muhammad and Allah are linked include: 3:32, 3:50, 3:132; 4:13; 4:59; 5:92; 8:1; 8:20; 8:46; 9:29; 9:71; 24:52: 24:54; 26:108. Therefore, submission and obedience to Muhammad and inextricably linked to faith in Allah and Muslim identity.

What about Muslim Atheists?

Those who have traveled in the Muslim world will have encountered Muslims who really have no faith in Allah or Muhammad. They may be secularists or materialists. They may deny divine revelation or even the concept of divinity itself. These individuals and groups would thus reject Allah, and that Allah has spoken through prophets, including Muhammad. And yet, many of these secularists seem to live persecution-free lives in the presence of other Muslims. Would the presence of Muslim atheists undercut a theory of essential Islam based on affirmation of Muhammad?

There are two comments required in response to the reality of “Muslim atheists.” First, many Muslims who have turned atheist, or atheistic, are persecuted, especially nowadays by the hard-liners. Second, even stiffer persecution is meted out against Muslims who come to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Here the answer seems to lie in the spiritual realm. There is Satanic pushback when a Muslim comes to faith in Christ, whereas the same spiritual pushback is absent when a Muslim merely discards his faith in God.

Another way of looking at this is that only the blood of Jesus breaks the covenant of Islam, which is based on Muhammad and Shahadah. The Shahadah covenant is collectively-affirmed by a Muslim community from the time its forefathers embraced, or were forced to embrace, Islam. This is one reason why Muslims whisper the Shahadah in the ears of their newborn children—they want that covenant to be the very first thing they hear. Muslim atheists and secularists are technically not Muslim (that is, kafirs) according to Islamic Law, but they have not broken the covenant of Muhammad, which only the blood of Jesus can do.

Why Muslim identity and Christo-centric identity are mutually exclusive

Given the prominence of Muhammad in the Shahadah confession and Muslim identity, we must examine Muhammad’s Christology to determine whether Muslim identity and Christo-centric identity are mutually exclusive. By Christo-centric identity, which will be developed further later in this series, I mean finding one’s individual identity in the Lord Jesus Christ, and one’s spiritual group identity in the Body of Christ.

There are excellent resources on Muhammad’s Christology. From the Islamic side, I recommend Tarif Khalidi’s The Muslim Jesus. 4The Answering Islam website has an excellent article on the Islamic Jesus written by Dr. Mark Durie at: 5

It is beyond the scope of this article to present Muhammad’s Christology in its totality. The summary is that Muhammad viewed Jesus as a Virgin-born prophet, but denied His Divinity (Sura 5:116); His Incarnation (112:3), His Crucifixion (4:157-158) and therefore His resurrection. A plain reading of the Qur’an rules out any possibility that Muhammad was trying to promote Jesus as Lord or a plan of salvation based on the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

The “insider movement” paradigm fails in Muslim contexts because this paradigm requires a permanent retention of one’s socioreligious identity. In Muslim contexts, this identity is conferred and retained by the indigenous community by affirming Muhammad as the final and infallible prophet. Those who have come to believe in the biblical narrative regarding Jesus have therefore de facto rejected Muhammad as a prophet and thus they do not retain Muslim identity.

Therefore, Christo-centric identity—our individual and group identity goal—and Muslim identity are mutually exclusive in the long-term. The next article will focus on identity transformation through the transitional stage.

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  1. may also be transliterated “shahada”
  2. Bradford Greer, “Review of A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives by Doug Coleman,” in Understanding Insider Movements: Disciples of Jesus within Diverse Religious Communities. Harley Talman and John Travis, eds. (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2015): 640
  3. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. n.d. Faysal al-Tafriqa Bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa (The Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing Islam and Masked Infidelity). English translation by Sherman Jackson: (Accessed April 17, 2017).
  4. Tarif Khalidi. The Muslim Jesus. Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (2003).
  5. (Accessed July 24, 2017.)

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