Juan Cole is piqued
Last Sunday, Juan Cole wrote a brilliant polemic against some planned protests by the American Jewish Congress who were evidently trying to associate the wearing of Islamic inscriptions on graduation robes with the endorsement of terrorism. Here is a long section in which Cole describes the shahadah:
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.