“There is no God but Allah”. Islam is the only religion whose creed starts with such a negation. What is meant to deter nihilism, is really a double-edged sword.

Each of the three monotheistic religions, commonly referred to as ‘Abrahamic’, has its own affirmation of faith, a single statement held to be fundamental by its adherents.

In Judaism, such a proclamation is Shema (Listen), drawn from Deuteronomy 6:4. It reads: “Listen, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One!” Observant Jews must recite Shema daily—for instance, before falling asleep—and it is supposed to be the last thing they utter before dying. Even in the most private nocturnal moments and on the deathbed, Shema announces monotheistic creed, in the imperative, to the religious community, united around “our God” who is “One.”

Christianity, too, has its dogma going back to the Apostles’ Creed, dating to the year 150. Still read during the baptismal ritual, the statement of faith begins with the Latin word Credo, “I believe” and continues “…in the all-powerful God the Father, Creator of heavens and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…” Credo individualizes the believer; not only does it start with a verb in the first person singular, but it also crafts her or his identity through this very affirmation. While the Judaic Shema forges a community through a direct appeal to others, the Christian profession of faith self-referentially produces the individual subject of that faith.

Is it intolerant?

The declaration of Islamic creed is called Shahada, “Testimony.” In contrast to its other monotheistic counterparts, however, it commences with a negation. Its first word is “no,” : “There is no god [lā ilāha] but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Formulated in the early part of the eighth century, it plays an integral part in the conversion process and is the first of the Five Pillars of Islam. The first part of the “Testimony” is a confession of tawhid, or the oneness of God. Its rigorous monotheism hinges on repudiating the existence of any other gods, which, itself, borders on atheism. (The four opening words in the English translation of Shahada, “there is no god,” may be easily conflated with an atheist conviction).

Generally speaking, it is highly significant that the Islamic affirmation of faith is a negation of other deities and religions. Some will, no doubt, take this as evidence of the intolerance lodged at the very heart of Islam. For my part, I do not think things are that straightforward. After all, the Córdoba Caliphate (929-1031) was respectful of ethnic and religious diversity under Muslim rule. In the medieval Islamic world, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine were thriving. Arabic translations of and commentaries on Aristotle proved indispensable to the transmission of the Greek classics they helped reintroduce in Europe. So, the question is: How can the same principle of Shahada stand behind these developments and the current rise of the Islamic State?

I suggest that the negation, with which the Testimony begins, is the common element motivating the great achievements of Islamic science and philosophy, on the one hand, and the fundamentalist purges of non-believers, on the other. The negative form of Shahada broaches the indeterminate space of freedom, untethered from a specific ethnic community as much as from the subjective identity of the believer. Sweeping the ground clean of all idols, fetishes, gods, the most recent of the three monotheisms endows its followers with the possibility either to create something new in this clearing or to carry the destructive drive through to its conclusion, destroying and negating itself. There is nothing inherent in Islam as such that could influence the choice one way or another. What proves to be decisive here is the historical conjuncture at any given moment, as well as the capacity to endure and sustain the heavy burden of freedom.

Potential for freedom

Amidst the crumbling traditional values of the West, with its own “death of God” announced by Friedrich Nietzsche, the religious “no” waxes more destructive than ever. Its response to the passive secular nihilism resulting in apathy, relativism, and the loss of meaning is the active nihilism of fanatical fervor, intolerance, and insistence on the absolute truth… of nothing in the form of the negation. Although it appears that the fundamentalist option is the exact opposite of the liberal West, the two nihilisms resonate with and reinforce each other logically, ideologically, and militarily. Disenfranchised and disenchanted young people from Europe who, having converted to Islam, join the ranks of the Islamic State fail to realize this secret complicity. Adrift and in search for meaning, they fall into the trap of yet another, more deadly, nihilism, which they mistake for a certain and secure foundation lacking in the milieu they are familiar with.

All this is not to say that basic religious pronouncements in the affirmative, like the Judaic Shema or the Christian Credo, are in any way superior to the basic negation in Shahada. Quite the contrary: the inaugural “no” holds a greater potential for freedom than they do. Nor do I claim that every Muslim person and community responds to the provocation of negativity in the same manner. Indeed, many in the past and in the present have embarked on a more difficult path of radical enlightenment and creativity, indebted to the dismantling power of the negation. But as the battle for hegemony in the Muslim world rages, it is crucial to understand what is at stake in the most recent incarnation of the fundamentalist destructive fury, where it is situated on the global theologico-ideological map, and which alternatives are available to the thoughtless dismissals (or endorsements) of Islam so prevalent today.

Michael Marder is IKERBASQUE Research Professor at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. His most recent monographs include The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium and Pyropolitics: When the World Is Ablaze. He is now completing a book, co-authored with Luce Irigaray and titled Through Vegetal Being.