Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The concept of "ilah" in Islam

By Shawn Smith --  Feb 9, 2016

When I write an article my primary purpose is not to instruct others, for I do not claim any superior knowledge or authority. What I aim to accomplish is to clarify in my own mind those issues which may be a bit confusing. For you see, my dear readers, I fully admit that I am slow learner. By writing about these issues I seek to bring order where there is chaos; and there is always chaos for my mind fritters about without knowing where to land. And even when a landing takes place there is always the possibility or sense that this landing is merely temporary at best and soon another flight will take place and thus chaos once again becomes the norm. So please indulge me, oh kind and gentle reader.  

When one enters the fold of Islam they utter with their mouths and believe in their hearts the following declaration of faith (shahadah): 'lā ilāha illā -llāh, muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh, which traditionally been translated as. There is no deity or god worthy of worship except Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. 

In this brief article I will concentrate on the first part of the statement -- lā ilāha illā -llāh. The statement is basically deconstructed as follows:
no - la 
god / diety - ilaha
except/but - illa
God - Allah

Before I write further, however, please read the following select verses from the Quran. Click on the hyper-link to listen to the verses in Arabic:  

Allah witnesses that there is no deity except Him, and [so do] the angels and those of knowledge - [that He is] maintaining [creation] in justice. There is no deity except Him, the Exalted in Might, the Wise. (3:18)

And your god is one God. There is no deity [worthy of worship] except Him, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. (2:163)

Allah - there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of [all] existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is [presently] before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation tires Him not. And He is the Most High, the Most Great. (2:255)

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "Allah is the third of three." And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment. (5:73)

That is Allah , your Lord; there is no deity except Him, the Creator of all things, so worship Him. And He is Disposer of all things. (6:102)

Allah - there is no deity except Him. To Him belong the best names. (20:8)

[He is] the Lord of the East and the West; there is no deity except Him, so take Him as Disposer of [your] affairs. (73:9)

I want to here focus on the concept of "ilah" as the declaration of faith and the Quran clearly states that there is no "ilah" except Allah. The word "ilah" appears 147 times in the Quran. Click here to see all of the verses.

So what does "ilah" mean? To know the answer to this question is important for it is the very basis, the very foundation of the Islamic faith.

Translators have generally, and unsatisfactorily in my opinion, rendered "ilah" into English as "god" or "deity," but I feel this does not encompass the full meaning of the term and, in fact, obscures it. The word contains a much more comprehensive meaning than the English terms "god" or "deity" would suggest.

The following Quranic verse gives us a glimpse into the meaning of the word: "So, have you seen the one who has taken their desires as their god [ilah], and Allah has let that person go astray, despite having knowledge, and has sealed the person's ear and heart, and put a cover on the person's eye? Now who will guide such a person after Allah? Still, do you not take lesson?" (Quran 45:23

In this verse we see that someone can take his or her desires as their "ilah." This suggests that "ilah" means a thing, idea or notion which becomes the focal point of a person's existence around which they conduct all of their affairs. It is something which offers them guidance and direction and becomes the determining factor regarding how their lives are lived and decisions are made. It is their highest source of authority and anything which goes against that authority is summarily rejected. One can even refer to this as an idol for it is their sole source of ultimate devotion.

When the pre-Islamic pagans set up physical idols and became devoted to them they referred to them as their "ilah," and they consulted these idols in their affairs to bring them good luck or protection. On what divine authority did they do this other than that of their inwards desires and which induced them to pay homage to these object or productions of their desires? The answer is they did not have any divine authority to do so and thus are rebuked by Allah for their actions. 

The Arabic word used in the Quran for authority is "sul'ṭān," and is mentioned several times in the Quran. I cite the following verse as an example: "We shall cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve, because they joined others in worship with Allah, for which He had sent no authority [sul'ṭānan] ; their abode will be the Fire and how evil is the abode of the wrong-doers." (3:151

Those who join others in worship with Allah -- that is those who worship or devote themselves to other than Allah -- have no authority to do so and are merely following their own desires. They have, in fact, taken an "ilah" other then Allah which is contrary to the the Islamic declaration of faith as well as numerous verses in the Quran.

And Allah says in the Quran: "And do not call, besides Allah, on another god [ilah]. There is no god [ilah] but Allah. Everything (that exists) will perish except Allah's Own Face. To Allah belongs the Command, and to Allah will you (all) be brought back." (28:88

So when a believer says "there is no 'ilah' expect Allah" what is being stated is that the very focal point of their existence, the very criteria by which they make decisions, the very object of their worship and devotion, the very one they call upon for help and guidance is Allah. And Allah makes it clear over and over again that Allah will not share that with anyone or thing for their is no "ilah" other than Allah. The Quran says: "Say, 'I am only a man like you, to whom has been revealed that your god [ilāhun] is one God. So whoever would hope for the meeting with his Lord - let him do righteous work and not associate in the worship of his Lord anyone.'" (18:110)

So why is this important? It is important because the very source and purpose of our existence is Allah. For the believer there is no ultimate meaning to life without Allah. Allah is the one who gives us life and eventually takes it away. It is Allah who provides for us, protects us and is the ultimate source of our eternal salvation.  Nothing can happen to us without Allah's knowledge or permission, and none can protect us from Allah's decree. And of the believers Allah says in the Quran: "Who, when a misfortune befalls them, say: Surely we are Allah's and to Allah we shall surely return." (2:156)

'lā ilāha illā -llāh