Profession of faith

Surah 2 (Al-Baqarah / The Cow): 285-286

285. The Messenger believes in what was sent down to him from his Lord, and the believers; each one believes in God and His angels, and in His Books and His Messengers. We make no division between any one of His Messengers. They say: ‘We hear, and obey. Our Lord, grant us Thy forgiveness. Unto Thee is the homecoming.’

286. God charges no soul save to its capacity, standing to its account is what it has earned, and against its account what it has merited.

Our Lord, take us not to task if we forget, or make mistake.

Our Lord, charge us not with a load such as Thou didst lay upon those before us.

Our Lord, do Thou not burden us beyond what we have the strength to bear.
And pardon us, and forgive us, and have mercy on us.

Thou art our Protector. And help us against the people of the unbelievers.


The duty to make a declaration of faith, often expressed using the term ‘shahāda’ (literally ‘to witness’) is one of the ‘five pillars of Islam’. In the absence of any separate initiation rite, making this declaration for the first time can also serve as a formal act signifying conversion to the religion of Islam.


It is unclear to whom this profession must be made. To God certainly, and presumably one’s fellow believers. However, there is little context from which to conclude that this duty extends to proclaiming one’s faith to unbelievers through proselytization. According to the traditional Islamic narrative, when Muhammad preached the word of God he did so acting as God’s messenger (‘rasūl’) pursuant to a personal commission and in the model established by previous messengers of God: the Old Testament prophets, Jesus and the Arab prophets, Hud, Saleh and Shwayb. So, for example, the best-known of the Qur’an’s instructions to preach its word is addressed, in a way that is unambiguous in the original Arabic, to a singular addressee:

{16.125} Call [addressed to an individual] unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation. And dispute with them in the most virtuous manner.

Surely thy Lord is He Who knows best those who stray from His way and He knows best the rightly guided.

{16.126} And if you would punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith you were punished. But if you are patient then that is better for the patient.

{16.127} So be patient and thy patience is only with God and grieve not on their account nor be distressed by what they plot.


The evidence of both the Qur’an and the recorded biography of Muhammad is that once a believing community had been established the emphasis of that community swiftly turned to the military subjugation of the enemies of God rather than continued efforts aimed at their conversion. Historically, Islam has largely spread through territorial conquest and the imposition of Sharia law rather than through missionary activity (see comments made in 〈50.〉 above). There is no passage in the Qur’an encouraging its audience to go forth and proselytise to others akin to Jesus’s sending out of his disciples to preach the Good News.


When the Qur’an does address faith discussions between believers and unbelievers, it instructs that the believers should not be overly concerned at the lack of belief of others. It is not for the believer to assume responsibility for who believes or disbelieves, since knowledge of God comes from God alone, and God guides or does not guide whosoever He will. On occasion, the Qur’an conveys this idea with the phrase: ‘…God suffices as a Witness’, {4.79}, {4.166}, {6.19}, {13.43}, {17.96}, {29.52}, {46.8} and:

{48.28} He it is Who sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to make it prevail over all religion.

And God suffices as a Witness.


Any discussions on the subject of religion that believers may participate in must only be conducted ‘in the most virtuous manner’, {16.125-126} above and {29.46}. In {6.108} a specific reason for avoiding intemperate language is offered, which is to reduce the potential for an insult being offered to Allah in return:

{6.108} Do not revile those whom they call upon apart from God,
lest they should revile God out of enmity, without any knowledge…


Faced with disbelief, a disbeliever, ideally, should merely say ‘Peace’, {25.63} and {43.89} (see also {88.21}), and take solace from the knowledge that those who fail to accept the call to Allah’s dīn will be deemed to have been warned and will soon suffer divine wrath for their stubbornness: ‘Bear with them and say ‘Peace’. For soon they will know’, {43.89}. This punishment may be delivered by God directly, but in both {16.125-126} and {29.46} the assurance to discuss religion virtuously is supplemented with an ominous caveat, suggesting that should the conversation not proceed as hoped for, the believer may be called upon to be God’s instrument of earthly revenge.

As for what it is that must be professed, this is conventionally summed up in the mantra that is known as the shahada.

There is no god but God and Muhammed is His Messenger

The first part of this well-known phrase, may well have its origin in the statement attributed to St Peter in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, a series of religious tracts dating from before the fifth century, composed in the name of St Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome. In Homily XVI St Clement recalls St Peter rebutting the arguments of one Simon of Antioch that the Old Testament contained evidence for the existence of many gods. Peter replied that whilst the Old Testament did indeed speak of gods, if such beings in fact existed they were a different and inferior class of beings to the one true God, and quoted several passages of scripture in support of this – including Deuteronomy 4.39’sThe Lord thy God, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath and there is none except Him’ – concluding that ‘God is one and except Him there is no God.’


This first limb of the shahada, that ‘There is no god but God’, appears twice in the Qur’an, at {37.35} and {47.19}, with slight variations of this statement occurring at {2.163}, {3.18} (in which God himself bears witness that there is no other God but He), {21.25} and {73.9}.  But the second limb, the ‘shahada risala‘: ‘and Muhammed is His Messenger’ is not without controversy, even in Islamic scholarship, since it seems to some to emphasise the person of Muhammad over the message that he delivered, and in any event it begs the question: what, in addition to announcing the Qur’an, was Muhammad’s message? To commit to following Muhammad as God’s Messenger requires not merely trust in the authenticity of the Qur’an and one’s ability to sift the reliable traditions about Muhammad from those that are weak or false (a tall order in itself 〈5.〉), but also assumes that from these sources one can discern a single coherent message. Naming the messenger is only the start.


{2.285} produced above, being the penultimate verse of the Qur’an’s longest surah, is often treated as a concise summary of Islam’s essential articles of faith, namely:

  • monotheism,
  • God’s revelation to humanity through ‘His Books and His messengers’, see 〈19.〉.


A similar credo – belief in God, angels, books and messengers (or in this verse, ‘prophets’) – appears at {4.136}. {2.177} contains another such list but adds a fifth belief requirement: fear of the Last Day 〈96.〉 These lists inspired one of the most oft cited hadith, the so-called Hadith of Gabriel:

One day while the Prophet was sitting in the company of some people, (the angel) Gabriel came and asked: ‘What is faith?

Allah’s Messenger replied: ‘Faith is to believe in Allah, His angels, the meeting with Him, His Apostles, and to believe in Resurrection.’

Then he was further asked: ‘What is Islam?’

Allah’s Messenger replied; ‘To worship Allah alone and none else, to offer prayers perfectly, to pay zakat 〈54.〉 and to observe fasts during the month of Ramadan.

Then he was further asked: ‘What is (perfection)?’

Allah’s Messenger replied: ‘To worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you cannot achieve this state of devotion then you must consider that He is looking at you…’


If belief in God’s Books is to be interpreted as believing that the Qur’an comprises the very words of God, then included within this belief must be the acceptance of everything that is presented in the Qur’an as being factually true as though it is actually true. The list of implausible propositions that this embraces is long and includes the manner in which God brought into existence the heavens and earth and Quranic cosmology 〈54.〉, the existence of not merely of angels but also of jinn 〈15.〉, including Iblis 〈17.〉, the guards of heaven, houris 〈99.〉, Gog and Magog 〈29.〉 and the ‘Beast of the Earth〈96.〉 and the supernatural guard dog of {18.18}; in the historicity of the many biblical and non-biblical stories related including the fantastic journeys of Al Khidr and Dhu’l Qarnayn, the numerous numerous punishment-narratives 〈26.〉 and Solomon dying, leaning on his staff, 〈23.〉 and the detailed descriptions of the Gardens of Paradise 〈99.〉 and the Hellfire 〈100.〉 including the clothes to be worn and food and drink to be consumed there. If there is scope for regarding that any or all of these things, which are presented in the Qur’an in the context of warnings, promises or exemplars, were mere fables, parables or metaphors, Islam has never developed a strong tradition of stating this explicitly.


{2.286} converts the creed of the preceding verse into a prayer, seeking leniency and forgiveness, and culminating, in keeping with another of the most pervasive themes of the Qur’an, with an appeal for strength to prevail against unbelievers.