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Q: Shaikh, I’m not sectarian and I find that neither the sufi nor salafi appellation work for me. (I agree with you that we need to mature beyond sectarianism). One thing I’ve always been uncomfortable about, and I guess it’s intuitive, is the way people explain “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” and make it all about the prophet, peace be upon him. I feel this leads to hero worship because it centers the kalima around the personality. In their explanation, the emphasis seems to be on Muhammad the person, rather than his role as a messenger. Does Allah speak about this part of the kalimah or provide some insight?

A: Yes, God does.

The shahadatain has purpose and speaks to a number of different things simultaneously. If we go into the early years in Makkah, proclaiming that Muhammad was God’s messenger would inform the pagan Quraishi leaders as to one’s allegiance, and to undermine their power and hold. It was an open rejection of their pagan gods, their superstition, and their unjust social practices. Later on in Madinah, it would undermine competing claims from others, such as Musailamah, Aswad al-Ansi, and others, and emphasise that it is the Muhammadan sharī’ah and Qur’an that God actually revealed, and not what the liars and false prophets present. Exaggerating the status of the Prophet by stating that his name alongside God proves his quasi-divine like station, as some do, is not only a poor argument but deeply nefarious. And yes, they often focus on the noble person of the Prophet more than they do God. Ultimately, there is no comparison nor status-based proximity between God and men, and many hadith exhibit the Prophet’s deep unease and anxiety at such a perilous situation occuring, especially since those before us fell into such darkness. For example, Umar b. al-Khattab related that the Prophet said: “Do not exaggerate in praising me as the Christians praised the son of Mary for I am merely a servant. So call me the servant of God and His messenger.” (al-Bukhari)

On the otherhand, to speak of God’s emissary as the average Joe is unbecoming of any believer, as if the Messenger of God was just some ordinary person. He was normal, but certainly not ordinary. And to speak of him with a mediocre regard is to offend God, since the Prophet is His closely loved servant and one He holds in the highest regard.

As for how we might productively engage with the shahadatain (testimony of faith and commitment), I find the following Qur’anic narrative concerning the disciples of Christ highly instructive. Here we are presented with a practical manifestation of the same commitment and formula – the shahadatain, albeit around Jesus:

“When Jesus realized they (still) did not believe, he said, ‘Who will help me in God’s cause?’ The disciples said, ‘We will be God’s helpers; we believe in God – witness our devotion to Him (literally: “witness that we are muslims”). Lord, we believe in what You have revealed and we follow the messenger: record us among those who bear witness [to the Truth].’”

Qur’an 3:53

Their response strongly infers that the desire to become God’s helper is the natural inclination of those who believe in God and are devoted (the Arabic uses the word muslim) to Him. This seems to be a Qur’anic explanation of the formula “There is no god but God”. As for an explanation of the formula “Muhammad is the messenger of God,” the verse continues on to suggest that it is to believe in what God revealed (in our context the Qur’an), and follow the messenger. And we openly testify to this so that we may be recorded among those who bear witness to the Truth, both in this world, and with God.

The statement “Muhammad is the messenger of God” is to say that his divine appointment is true – to deliver the divine message (the Qur’an) which we ought to be consumed by, understanding it the way God’s messenger taught. Where God refers to Muhammad as a messenger, He clearly draws our attention to revelation:

A messenger from God, reading out pages [blessed with] purity, containing true scriptures.

Qur’an 98:3-4

Of course, learning about him as a person entrenches us further in that belief and commitment, as it shows God’s wisdom in choosing Muhammad b. Abdullah specifically, but it is not meant to turn our attention away from the message (and the One who sent it) to the messenger instead – that’d be quite irrational and clearly illegitimate.

I sympathise with such anxieties, and perhaps it raises how important a holistic conception is – one that doesn’t fall into any extremes.

May God guide us to truth, and complete knowledge rests with Him.