A Metamodern Interpretation of the Islamic Testimony of Faith

Shahada inscribed on a pair of tiles. Photo by José Luiz.

lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu wa muḥammadan rasūlu -llāh
“There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

This basic proclamation of faith, known as the Shahada, is at the basis of both Islamic theological and legal thinking and its recitation is one of the basic pillars of the religion, an honest testimony of the Shahada being what distinguishes Muslims from non-Muslims in the most basic sense.

Sufi metaphysicians and Islamic philosophers have been dissecting the significance of this straightforward phrase for hundreds of years. Here, I’d like to present a Metamodern reading of this basic testimony of faith.

The Shahada begins in an apophatic mode. “There are no gods” / “There is no God.” This aspect of the Shahada is indicative of the basic anti-idolatry orientation of Islam, but I think it this can also be read as a kind of postmodern skeptical orientation. Whatever you are thinking of as a highest value or principle (God) is ultimately empty. All things are all contextual and subservient to their own histories and other forces outside of their control. This is the reason Islam has largely remains stringently iconoclastic throughout its history.

What comes next, however, is an affirmation in light of this initial negation: “There are no gods except God.” Since this is stated in overtly theological language, it’s easy to read a pre-modern orientation here, and while that’s certainly a typical interpretation, I think there’s something amenable to medamodern spirituality to this affirmation after negation.

One of the notable features of the theological discourse in the Qur’an is the sheer glee with which God is presented in a staggering variety of attributes. These are commonly known at the 99 Most Beautiful Names or simply the Divine Names and these are the various concrete forms through which we meet God in our lives in this world. There’s similarity here to Neoplatonic understandings of the Forms, and Islamic Neoplatonists have certainly interpreted the Names in this way. But what I find of note here is the basic orientation towards playing around with a huge variety of different perspectives on God after such a heavy handed negation. As such, these different Names will always be seen as limited rather than capturing God in his totality, but nonetheless there is substance there. And one may asymptotically approach Divinity through finding God in an ever-widening circle of qualities — from death, to mercy, to vastness, to justice, to intimacy, etc.

Engraved calligraphy of the Shahada featured at a restaurant in Beijing.

The next metamodern resonance comes with the following phrase: “Muhammad is the messenger of God.” One way that Sufis have understood the second half of the Shahada is articulating the importance of a particular spiritual path, following the annunciation of a general and universal spirituality. Here, we find the particular as a fulfillment of the universal, rather than a tension between these two poles. To actually come to live out the meaning of this spirituality, and to traverse the path of existentially realizing the meaning of lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu one must actually follow an established spiritual practice.

The insistence on a particular spiritual path is not, however, a claim that there is only a single road. In fact, Islamic spirituality (and the legal traditions at the foundations) has been emphatically pluralistic throughout history, perhaps due to the initial apophatic moment of the Shahada, so that while these various schools will always have a sense of their superiority in some sense or another, to consider the efforts of their peers treading a different path as fruitless would simply be unwarranted arrogance. So long as a particular school can justify itself historically (by ultimately tracing its authority in an unbroken chain back to Muhammad) and religiously (through participating intelligibly in legal and theological discourses using the basic sources of the religion — Qur’an, Hadith, human intellect etc.), then Muslim scholars and religious authorities have typically avoided considering one another heretics despite various differences in opinion on religious issues. To place oneself outside of any school or spiritual path, however, would be an issue, as at this point you are effectively removing yourself from history, discourse, and particular communities of practice, yet claiming some kind of birds-eye view of the Tradition.

One contemporary Muslim thinker described this using the metaphor of music. While there are many different styles of music and particular instruments one could learn, unless you actually select one of them in particular and submit yourself to the traditions of practice and performance unique to what you selected, well then you will never become a master musician. That does not, however, mean that the Tuba and its associated traditions are metaphysically necessary. They may have been personally indispensable (to use Vervaeke’s turn of phrase), but all these paths are historical and contingent at the end of the day.

For the metamodern spiritual seeker, being able to situate oneself in a particular tradition (or particular traditions — so long as reasonable depth can still be achieved) seems essential to avoid the pitfalls of cliché and shallow New Age spiritualities. But it’s also necessary to avoid the decadent exclusivism of reactionary traditionalists, who’ve yet to bring the force of postmodern skepticism against the truth claims and values of their own traditions.

To tread this delicate middle path (Aṣ-Ṣirāṭ al-Mustaqīm in Qur’anic Arabic), Islam provides some interesting historical, symbolic, and religious resources for the metamodern aspirant.

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Jared Morningstar

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview