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Until We Meet Again–The Shahada in Everyday Speech

January 19, 2015

shahadaLong before the presidency of Muhammed Morsi, or the rise of Salafi parties following the uprisings, people in Egypt used to draw my attention to the “Islamization” of public life.  The things that raised the most attention hit the news–the re-veiling of movies stars, for example, and the emergence of religious teachers such as Amr Khaled as media superstars.

But there were also changes in everyday language.

Older men and women in Egypt  pointed out to me, for example, that there have been changes in such things as phone greetings and farewells over the past twenty years. People used to answer the phone with “’Alo” or “Na’am” (yes). By 2000 “Salaamu alaikum” (“Peace be with you”) had become  common. Where people used to end conversations with “bye bye,” many now end with either “Salaamu alaikum wa akram Allah,” or, sometimes, with the two halves of the shahada.

The shahada, or declaration of the oneness of God, is a particularly interesting case.  The utterance “La illaha ill Allah, wa Muhammad rasul Allah” (“There is no god but the God and Muhammad is his prophet”) is one of the central elements in Islam. It is the phrase uttered before witnesses when a convert submits to God and becomes a Muslim. As such, it is a performative utterance in Austin’s sense, a phrase that once spoken under the correct conditions, transforms one’s social (and in this case, spiritual) life forever.

But what does it mean when, at the end of a phone conversation, one person will say, “La illaha ill Allah” and the other respond “Wa Muhammad rasul Allah”?

As a social performance, this pairing of utterances serves to communicate a promise to reunite.  But it also expresses ritual power. One person told me of a friend whose mother-in-law was dying while he was traveling, but held on until her son-in-law arrived. He believed this happened because they had spoken the shahada when they parted.

Another story described a woman who was on her way to surgery and failed to respond when a relative called out the first half of the shahada. Her death on the operating table was blamed in part on her failure to complete the phrase.

On the surface, such tales might be seen as expressing the “contagious magic” described by Frazer in which things once joined continue in folk logic to somehow be connected. The broken phrase seeks to be reunified, and it carries the speakers with it.

But I think also that this use of the shahada is “sacramental” in Gregory Bateson’s use of that term, the signifier that becomes what it signifies. It is because the shahada declares the unity of God that the two halves of the shahada are themselves inherently unified.  The shahada is also called the shahadatain, the “dual testimony” or “dual witnessing.” Theologically, the two halves of the phrase depend on one another—a Muslim cannot testify to the oneness of God without testifying to Muhammed’s revelation of that oneness and vice versa.

In the film Fi Baitina Ragal (“A Man in Our House”, Henry Barakat, 1961), when the hero must flee, the girl who loves him writes the shahada on a piece of paper, tears it into 2 parts, and gives one part to the hero. She explains that when her father is going to travel her mother does this to bring her husband back to her. If we assume Barakat was portraying a custom not uncommon at the time, the practice of splitting the shahada must go back at least to the period before WWII.

Either that, or this movie invented the custom.

One thing users of the phrase agree on is that it connotes intimacy: it is said between family members, spouses and close friends, never by casual acquaintances.

Finally, the use of the phrase does not indicate a particular piety on the part of the users. As one consultant said, “Egyptians are constantly using phrases that mention God, whether they are religious or not.” Islamization is often not so much about the rise in individual devotion as it is about the changing nature of the public sphere and the kinds of linguistic practices sanctioned.

References

Austin, J.L. 1962. How To Do Things With Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bateson, Gregory. 1972. “Why a Swan?” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Pp. 33-37. Ballantine Books.

Frazer, James George. 1963 [1922]. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Abridged Edition. New York: MacMillan.

[This post is based on a column I wrote for Anthropology News in 2008. Thanks to Mustafa Abdalla, Dina Abu-Seif, AbdAllah Cole, Hassan El-Mouelhi, Nesrein Hamdi, Rebecca Munz, Saif Nasrawi, Karem Said, and Dalia Wahdan for their stories, comments and discussions with me about the shahada as greeting. Any errors are mine.]

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