Controversy at UC Irvine over Muslim Witness to Faith
The Orange County Register reports a controversy over graduation ceremonies at the University of California Irvine, where 11 Muslim students had been planning to wear green stoles with Islamic inscriptions over their robes. One side would say “Lord, increase my knowledge.” The other would have the shahadah or Muslim confession of faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.” The Register reports that:
‘ Jewish students and outside groups that have gotten involved in the controversy, such as the American Jewish Congress, say the wearing of a garment with that word implies approval of terrorism and suicide bombings. “I am offended by that,” said Larry Mahler, president of the UCI chapter of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. “What they are doing is ratifying the suicide bombing that killed innocent people.” ‘
Rumors also swirled that the inscriptions involved support for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization, the paramilitary wing of which sponsors suicide bombings against Israeli targets as a way of fighting Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian land.
I can’t say how upset I am by the gross bigotry displayed by anyone in the American Jewish Congress who would attempt to associate the Muslim confession of faith with terrorism.
The shahadah or confession of faith is a universalist statement. It begins by saying “La ilaha illa Allah.” “La” means “no” in Arabic. “Ilah” is god with a small “g”, a deity of the sort that is worshipped in polytheistic religions like those of ancient Greece and Babylon. It is a cognate of the ancient Hebrew “eloh,” which also means “god.” One of the names for God in the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible is Elohim, which literally means “the Gods.” Some scholars believe that the use of this plural is an echo of the process whereby a council of gods in ancient Near Eastern religion gradually become merged into a single figure, the one God.
So “La ilaha” means that there are no gods or small deities of the polytheistic sort. The ancient Arabs worshipped star-goddesses such as al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. These are the equivalents of Venus, Hera and Diana in classical mythology. The Muslim witness to faith denies that such deities exist.
“Illa Allah” means “except for God.” So there is no deity except The Deity. This part of the shahadah is a pure expression of monotheism. Monotheism’s basic characteristic is its universalism. It asserts that one, single divinity underlies all of Being. This point is why it is wrong to insist on using the word Allah in English rather than God. Allah is not a proper name. It is simply the Arabic word for “the God.” A god is ilahun. The God is al-Ilahu. The close proximity of two “L’s” in al-Ilah caused them to be elided together so that the word became Allah. But it just means “the God,” i.e., “God.” Christian Arabic-speakers also use Allah to refer to the God of the Bible.
And, the Koran also identifies Allah or “God” as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as of Muhammad. So, “there is no God but God.” There is no difference in sentiment between this statement and the phrase, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” (Dt. 6:4).
The other part of the Muslim witness to faith is, “and Muhammad is His Messenger.” (Muhammadun rasul Allah [or, transliterating by pronunciation: Muhammadu’rasulu’llah]. The word rasul or messenger is used interchangeably in the Koran with nabi or prophet. The Arabic nabi is cognate to the Hebrew word, which is the same. When Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country,” he certainly used the word nabi in his original phrasing. The Koran does not represent Muhammad as the only prophet or recipient of divine revelation. Even the bees receive a form of wahy or revelation from God. God has sent a prophet “to every city,” it maintains. Not only are all the biblical figures prophets, but so are John the Baptist and Jesus, and even ancient Arabian prophets are accepted. In India, many Sufi Muslims were perfectly comfortable accepting Krishna and Ram as prophets. Of course, committed Muslims believe that Muhammad is the most recent messenger and the most appropriate one in which to believe, but they don’t deny the validity of others such as Moses. And, in traditional Islamic law, it is perfectly all right for human beings to follow other prophets of the one God, whether they be Christians, Jews or members of some other monotheistic religion. This tolerance was implemented for the most part, though there were lapses, and some serious ones. It can be contrasted with medieval Christianity, which often expelled Jews and Muslims or forcibly converted them.
So both elements of the confession of faith in Islam are universalistic. The one God is the God of all being, and Muhammad as prophet exists within a moral universe of many prophets, and comes in a long line of true prophets, with much the same message as they had, concerning the compassion and love of the one God for his creation.
As for the phrase, “Increase my knowledge, ” it is literally “increase me in knowledge and make me one of the virtuous.” The phrase is from a pilgrimage prayer: Rabbi zidni ‘ilman wa alhiqni bi’s-salihin. The salihun or righteous in the Koran are those who do good deeds. At one point the Koran says that Jews, Christians and others who are salih or righteous need have no fear in the afterlife.
For these Muslim graduates of the University of California to implicitly sacralize the secular learning they received there by associating it with the prayer that God should increase them in “knowledge” is another universalist sentiment. Many Taliban would have denied that there was any `ilm/knowledge to be had at the University of California.
So, the bigots should back off and stop demonizing the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. In multicultural America, moreover, an atmosphere of religious tolerance is the only safeguard against pathologies like antisemitism.
[A reader wrote in to suggest that the AJC protesters confused shahadah, or “witness to faith” with shahiid or martyr. The former is an abstract noun, the latter is a person. The former is a recitation. The latter is a person killed for his or her faith. “Martyrs” or shuhada’ (the plural) have in Islamic tradition most often been non-violent. The use of the term “martyr” for a suicide bomber is a very recent innovation by Islamist radicals. Traditional Islam forbids suicide and a suicide would never have been considered a “martyr” in classical Islam. Anyway, the witness to faith has nothing to do with martyrdom at all. Arabic, like other Semitic languages, including Hebrew, is based on triliteral roots. Sh*h*d has to do with witnessing. By putting the three-letter root into various morphological forms or qalibs, you can create a wide range of supple meanings. The audience for a television show are addressed by hosts as `A’izza’ al-mushahidin, “dear viewers.” Mushahidun or viewers are also unrelated to martyrs, much less to suicide bombers. You can’t interpret a religion with 1.3 billion members that has dominated much of the Old World for 1400 years through the lens of the last 20 years in Gaza-Israeli relations. If you do, it leads you to look like a total idiot and frankly, a fascist.]