The Meaning of the 'Kalima'

Understanding Islam – Abul Al\’a Maududi


In the Arabic language the word ilah means ‘one who is worshipped’, i.e., a being which on account of its greatness and power be considered worthy to be worshipped, to be bowed to in humility and submission. Anything or any being possessing power too great to be comprehended by man is also called ilah. The conception of ilah also includes the possession of infinite powers: that may astonish others. It also conveys the sense that others are dependent upon ilah and that he is not dependent upon anyone else. The word ilah also carries a sense of concealment and mystery, that is, ilah would be a being unseen and unperceptible. The word khuda in Persian, deva in Hindi, and god in English bear, more or less, similar signification. Other languages of the world also contain words with a like sense. 

The word Allah, on the other hand, is the essential personal name of God. La ilaha illallah would literally mean \”There is no ilah other than the One Great being known by the name \”Allah\”. It means that in the whole of the universe, there is absolutely no being worthy to be worshipped other than Allah, that it is only to Him that heads should bow in submission and adoration, that He is the only Being possessing all powers, that all powers, that all need His favor, and that all are obliged to solicit His help. He is concealed from our senses, and our intellect fails to perceive what He is. 

Having known the meanings of these worlds, let us now find out their real significance.

From the most ancient known history of man as well as from the oldest relics of antiquity that we have been able to obtain, it appears that in every age, man had recognized some deity or deities and had worshipped them. Even in the present age every nation on the face of the earth, from the most primitive to the most civilized, dose believe in and worship some deity. It shows that the idea of having a deity and of worshipping him is ingrained in human nature. There is do so.

But the question is: What that thing is and why man feels impelled to do to do so? The answer to this question can be discovered if we try to look into the position of man in this huge universe. A perusal of man and his nature from this viewpoint shows that he is not omnipotent. Neither he is self-sufficient and self-existing nor are his powers without limitations. In fact, he is weak, frail, needy, and destitute. He is dependent upon a multitude of forces and without their assistance he cannot make a headway. There are countless things necessary to maintain his existence, but all of them are not essentially and totally within his powers. Sometimes they come to his possession in a simple and natural way, and at times he finds himself deprived of them.

There are many important and valuable things which he endeavors to get, but sometimes he succeeds in getting them, while sometimes he does not, for it is not completely in his own power to obtain them. There are many important and valuable things which he endeavors to get, but sometimes he succeeds in getting them, while sometimes he does not, for it is not completely in his own power to obtain them. There are many things injurious to him; chances bring his hops to a sudden end; disease, worries, and calamities, always threaten him and mar his way to happiness. He attempts to get rid of them, and success and failure both visit him in this quest. There are many things whose greatness and grandeur overawe him mountains and rivers, gigantic animals, and ferocious beasts. He experiences earthquakes, storms, and other natural calamities. He observes clouds over his head and sees them becoming thick and dark, with peals of thunder, flashes of lightning and continuous fall of heavy rain. He sees the sun, the moon, and the stars in their constant motion. He reflects how great, powerful, and grand these bodies are, and, in contrast to them, how frail and insignificant he himself is! The vast phenomena, on the one hand, and the consciousness of his own frailty, on the other, impress him with a deep sense of his own weakness, humbleness, and helplessness. And it is quite natural that the preliminary idea of divinity coincides with this sense. He thinks of those hands which are wielding these great forces. The sense of their powerfulness makes him seek their help. He tries to please them so that they may be beneficent to him, and he dreads them and tries to escape their wrath so that he may not be destroyed by them.  

In the most primitive stage of ignorance, man thinks that the great objects of nature whose grandeur and glory are visible, and which appear to be injurious or beneficent to him, hold in themselves the real power and authority, and therefore, they are diving. Thus, he worships trees, and numerous other objects. This is the worst form of ignorance.

When his ignorance dissipates to some extent and some glimmers of light and knowledge appear on his intellectual horizon, he comes to know that these great and powerful objects are in themselves quite helpless and dependent and are in no way better placed than man rather they are still more dependent and helpless. The biggest and the strongest animal dies like a tiny germ and loses all his power; great rivers rise and fall and become dry; the high mountains are blasted and shattered by man himself; the productiveness of the earth is not under earth’s own control-water makes it prosperous and lack of water makes it barren. Even water is not independent. It depends on air which brings the clouds. Air too is powerless, and its usefulness depends on other causes. The moon, the sun, and the stares also are bound up by a powerful law outside whose dictates they cannot make the slightest movement. After these considerations, his mind turns to the possibility of some great mysterious power of divine nature which controls the objects he sees, and which may be the repositories of all authority. These reflection give rise to belief in mysterious powers behind the natural phenomena, numberless gods are supposed to be governing various parts and aspects of nature such as air, light, water, etc., and some suggestive material forms or symbols are constructed to represent them. And he begins to worship those forms and symbols. This too is a form of ignorance, and reality remains hidden from the human eye even at this stage of intellectual and cultural pilgrimage.

As man progresses still further in knowledge and learning, and as he reflects more and more deeply on the fundamental problems of life and existence, he finds an all-powerful law and an all-encompassing control in the universe. What a complete regularity control in the universe. What a complete regularity is observed in sunrise and sunset, in winds and rains, in the motions of stars and the changes of seasons! How in a wonderfully harmonious way countless different forces are working jointly, and what a highly potent and supremely wise Law it is, according to which all the various causes in the universe are made to work together at an appointed time to produce an appointed event! Observing this uniformity, regularity, and complete obedience to a firm law in all fields of believe that there must be a deity greater than all others, exercising supreme authority. For, if there were separate, independent deities, the whole machinery of the universe would be upset. He calls this greatest deity by different names, such as ‘Allah’ ‘Permeshwar,’ ‘God,’ Khuda-I-Khudaigan,’ etc. but as the darkness of ignorance still persists, he continues worshipping minor deities along with the Supreme One. He imagines that the Divine Kingdom of God may not be different form earthly kingdoms. Just as a ruler has many ministers, trusted associates, governors, and other responsible officers, so the minor is like so many responsible officers, under the Great God who could not be approached without pleasing and propitiating the officers under Him. So, they must also be worshipped and appealed to for help and should in no case be offended. Can be made to the Great God.  

The more man increases in knowledge, the greater become his dissatisfaction with the multiplicity of deities. So, the number of minor deities begins to decrease. More enlightened men bring each one of them under the searchlight of scrutiny and ultimately find that none of these man-made deities has any divine character; they themselves are creatures like man, rather more helpless. They are thus dropped out by one until only one God remains. But the concept of one God still contains some remnants of the elements of ignorance. Some people imaging that has a body as man have and is settled in a particular place. Some believe that God came down to the earth in human form; others think that God after settling the affairs of the universe has retired and is now taking rest. Some believe that it is necessary to approach God through the media of saints and spirits, and nothing can be achieved without their intercession. Some imagine God to have a certain form or image and they regard it necessary to keep that before them for the purposes of worship. Such distorted notions of godhead have persisted and lingered, and many of them are prevalent among different people even in the present age.


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