lā ilāha illā Allāh
This statement of tawheed or “oneness” of Allah (monotheism) is the heart of Islam, a complete system of values, laws for their implementation, and worship/ devotion (faith) that does not claim to be a separate “religion” that came with the prophet Mohammad, but rather the very same such system (with some changes in the details but not the basic principles) sent to “al-aalameen,” “the worlds,” all people with minds, free will, and language since such people began to exist.
Jews and Christians can recognize in it the First Commandment, the basis for sacred law and faith. Other seemingly more divergent but major such systems, for example Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, also reveal common ground if viewed more closely and in greater depth.
The statement is simple:
لا أله إلا الله
lā ilāha illā allāh
“There is no god (one to be worshipped/ higher authority) but God.”
Simple, but profound. And in the original Arabic, full of signs and wonders for those who care to see…and hear.
A translator of poetry could tell you that perfect translation of any text with depth of meaning is impossible due to the nature of language. And Allah sends His messages with many levels of meaning, some of which are necessarily lost in translation or what is often called “explanation.” Word-for-word “explanation” is obviously translation written with the caveat that we recognize the original as the ultimate reference, the only “authentic” message. Nonetheless, with close analysis of the original, one can certainly gain a better understanding and appreciation of it, which is particularly true of what I call “structural analysis,” an examination of the words, letters, and phrases beyond translation, including their placement, appearance, and sound. By this method I hope to transcend some of the language barriers and also to get a sense of what an original revelation from Allah is like, since previous revelations have been altered over the years by translation, copying errors, and even deliberate rewriting or alteration.
First, the entire phrase in Arabic utilizes only three letters: aleph, which looks ا exactly like the numeral “one” and exemplifies the qualities of “one” such as the power of absolute singularity; ل lam, which looks like an upside-down shepherd’s staff or hook and exemplifies the qualities of support and connection/ connectivity; and ه heh, which looks like and (in its basic form) is a circle, exemplifying the qualities of a circle, such as perfection and unity, return, containment, and cycles, including the life cycle. Note that the aleph also, in addition to being a “one,” also could be thought of as a scepter, a symbol of authority.
The sonic properties of these letters are also important to take into consideration. Aleph is by itself pronounced as an open vowel sound, one of only three Arabic letters that is a pure vowel sound (most Arabic letters are, from the English/ Latin alphabet perspective, consonant sounds whose vowel properties are represented by diacritical marks and vary according to grammatical usage). The sound is basically “ah” but can also vary with the use of diacritical marks and by the letters and sounds that are adjacent to it (sometimes changing it to what is called a “hamza” where its pronunciation is altered); nonetheless its actual sonic value is an open vowel sound, non-guttural, held longer than vowel sounds represented by the “shakl” or diacritical marks. This reflects the quality of open, unchecked voice, the essential sound around which, added to its visual image of the number one (singularity), indicates a completely unique “voice” (sound) on the one hand and the “voice” one senses in one’s “soul” or conscience on the other. The lam has the same sound as the letter “L” which is, among consonant sounds, one of the more “flowing” sounds that connects other sounds together. Its sonic properties affirm its visual appearance as a “connecting” letter. The heh sound, like the “H”, is the sound of a breath. This augments the idea of a circle with the sense of “spirit” as in “breath of life” or “soul” which is exemplified by the Quranic description of Adam’s creation in which Allah “breathed into him from His spirit.” This indicates not only life itself in the organic physical sense but also the immutable life of the soul/ spirit which comes from Allah and is in all of us, which we sense sometimes as our “higher selves,” and which returns to Allah.
One more point regarding the aleph sound: although there is no visible connection between the aleph and other letters in His name, but the sound connects. We hear a seamless connection by means of voice; similarly, the essence of Allah’s oneness can be “heard” with one’s soul even though it cannot be seen. Some have referred to “the still small voice within,” whose “smallness” reflects the relative “volume” for the one who hears, for it is not in that case so much a literal sound as an intuitive “sense.”
As you can see, these are not just any three letters that happen to be used, but letters whose appearance and sound have significance. They are the three letters used in Arabic to form the glorious name Allah.
When we say “There is no god but God” in English, we may comprehend its universal meaning and be able to think about it, but certainly in the original Arabic we can gain an even more miraculous and in-depth understanding without even knowing the Arabic language or being able to use it. One only needs to examine it. So applied to the words of the tawheed statement, we shall examine the words, one by one.
• The first word, spelled using lam-aleph لا, means “no,” making the first word in the statement a negation. This is significant, because sacredness is preserved and understood by prohibition, by setting boundaries beyond which one does not transgress. The connectivity of lam is connected to and followed by a singularity/ one. One by its nature is not connected to anything and therefore “stops” the connection. The initial “flow” of the lam to connect meets a wall, a one, and can go no further, symbolically indicating the meaning of “no.”
• The second word is “ileh” أله which means “god,” not in the sense of an idol but rather in the sense of “that which is worshipped” or “that which is considered supreme power/ authority.” It begins with an aleph, a scepter/ one, authority and singularity (which means in this case uniqueness not necessarily exclusivity) being defining ideas associated with god, capitalized or not. The aleph is followed by, but in Arabic cannot be connected to (one of a number of Arabic letters that do not connect to letters that follow them), a lam, the second letter in this word. The lam connects to the circle heh, thus indicating its property of connecting to or even generating life. This is a significant property of the concept of “god-ness” in that we seek from a god help in holding on to life, in survival both in the physical and spiritual sense. As mortal creatures, we seek a god to provide and reconnect with eternal life, a transcendence from mortality.
• The third word is “illa” إلا or “except.” Instead of the word “illa” another word, “ghair,” also means “except” and so could have been used instead, but was not. Clearly this shows us how important the use of these specific letters in this all-important statement is. “Ghair” would introduce different additional letters that do not have the properties described above. So this word begins with aleph, the “one,” followed by lam-aleph, the letters that form the word meaning “no” we began this statement with. But now the “no” is preceded by a single “one,” which since it precedes the “no” is not subject to it, but rather “excepted” from it, hence the meaning “except” which here allows for only and categorically one exception: the word that follows this word, the glorious name of Allah.
Note that these first three words begin and end with lam-aleph which carries the sense of “no” or prohibition, forming in itself as a set of three words, a precedent of boundaries for making sacred, which conceptually forms the “basis” or defining characteristic for our understanding of Allah. This preceding set of three words are written using eight letters: four alephs, three lams, and one heh. The number eight brings to mind this aya from the Quran, Surat al-Haaqa 69:7:
وَالْمَلَكُ عَلَىٰ أَرْجَائِهَا وَيَحْمِلُ عَرْشَ رَبِّكَ فَوْقَهُمْ يَوْمَئِذٍ ثَمَانِيَةٌ
And the angels will be on its borders; and the Throne of your Lord will be carried, above them on that Day, by eight.
Although I would never say the throne of Allah is his name (thus falsely limiting the understanding of what His throne of majesty and power is), one can say that the power of his name (explained below) represents the power of His throne conceptually as being the very idea upon which He renders our minds capable of understanding what we need to know about the nature of His authority. And the eight letters preceding His name are like the “carriers” of that throne, conceptually, bringing to our minds the idea of His sole and ultimate power and sacredness.
• And now with this in mind, we look at the glorious name Allah الله in the context of the statement of tawheed. In a grammatical sense, the “Al-” is a prefix which makes the root word it precedes an infinitive/ concept/ ultimate of that word. For example “qalam” means “pen” as in “a pen,” which could be any pen; “al-qalam” means The Pen as a concept. In the case of authority, one could say “king” or “malik” to refer to one of many kings, but al-malik to refer to “The King,” or authentic essential ruler. And so we find Allah’s names are written with the prefix “Al-” to show Allah as the ultimate infinitive of the attributes from which the names were derived, such as “Al-Qudus” meaning “the Most Sacred,” the “most” derived from the use of “Al-,” or “Al-Ghufur” meaning “The Forgiver” (implying the Greatest Forgiver), and so on. Here the root “leh” written له means god/God; to these two letters the prefix “Al-” or in Arabic aleph-lam ال is added, creating a word meaning the ultimate, the infinitive, of “Godness,” one word encompassing the idea and the actuality of what God means and is.
His name is also distinguished from the generic “god” اله by the addition of a lam, forming double lams in the center or “heart” of the name. The first letter aleph is both One and scepter: singularity or tawheed, and authority. As explained in another article, the double lams may be considered as representing the “Almighty/ Al-Rahman, All-Merciful/ Al-Raheem” dynamic all-inclusive power of Allah, in a sense encompassing the idea of yin/ yang. The two flowing, connecting letters both visually and sonically reinforce the idea of the Creative and the Receptive and their dynamic power joined at the “heart” of the Supreme Power.
The idea of “heart” is further reinforced when one adds the diacritical mark shadda — indicative of “holding” onto the sound of that letter a little longer — which appears like a crown over the two lams الله. Even the fact of holding the flowing sound of lam (L) at that point is like the point where blood is exchanged and oxygenated in the heart, a process for which there is a brief “hold.” This can be sensed when pronouncing the whole name Allah, accenting the second syllable. The sound, when repeating His name (and in Islam His name is often repeated), is very much like the sound of a beating heart. The brief pause from the “hold” distinguishes the first from the second syllable in the same rhythm as the heart. The heart being in Quranic usage the seat of the soul, the higher self, that which transcends the body and its mortality, but which one must purify to attain closeness to Allah.
In fact, the four letters of the name Allah in Arabic could be thought of as the four “chambers” of this heart: the aleph representing “one” for His “oneness,” His total and comprehensive singularity. Two lams for the heartbeat of the universe (meaning in this case all creation inclusive), which is quite literally thikr Allah, the invocation of His name through infinite repetitions, creating from dynamic duality an ineffable completion/ synthesis/ timeless power. The middle chambers most closely represent what we think of as “heart.” The initiating One, as a letter/ number symbolic of His perfection as One, with the heart of all creation at the center of his sacred name, shows us the sense of completeness/ fulfillment symbolized in the final letter, a circle representing breath, life, the soul, consciousness, and returning in fulfillment. It is that fourth “chamber” through which His word passes: Kun or كن : Kaf Noon. Which means simply Be!
And so in a word and a breath Allah breathed life from His own essence into Adam, which passed through the generations of humanity to us. So here we are told that a word is, for Allah, the means of creation! To that act of creation, in our case Allah added His own spirit, a breath, giving us spiritual life as well as physical life. With this spirit and the abstract but very real knowledge of words (names), we are also given the ability and responsibility to understand more deeply the nature of our origins and our creator. Thus we are given these words in all their simplicity and profundity, to ponder and grasp the idea, the abstract but very real idea, of tawheed, of Allah’s very singular, ineffable, and totally unique nature.