Applied to the juridical sphere, the verb ‘to testify’, with its corollary of ‘witness’ (shâhid), essentially concerns the question of the number or quality of a witness or witnesses required in certain situations and their forms of testimony: two men, or when they are not available, a man and two women, are required as witnesses for a debt [2:282]; four witnesses for an adulterer [4:15]; a group of believers must be present at the punishing of a fornicator [24:2]; and as regards inheritance, different forms of testifying are proposed [5, 106:108]. But it is not the juridical aspect of testimony on which I will dwell in this article. In the specifically religious sphere, that of faith, the first of all testimonies is that rendered by God to Himself. Echoing the Book of Exodus, but in a formula that more recalls Isaiah [‘Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no other god besides me; righteous God and a Saviour; there is none besides me…For I am God, and there is no other’, Is 45:21-22], God testifies before Moses in front of the burning bush: ‘Verily I am God; there is no god but I’ [20,14]. This is why the Koran gives God the name of ‘believer’ (mu’min; 59,23) which should be understood as ‘he who bears witness to his own truthfulness, he who pronounces testimony of faith in himself’ (1).
As regards men, testimony to faith goes back to the beginnings of history when God made a compact (mîthâq) with the first generations of men, making them acknowledge his lordship, in an oral testimony: ‘And when thy Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their seed, and made them testify touching themselves, 'Am I not your Lord?' They said, 'Yes, we testify'’ [7:172] (2). In doing this God made men testify to the monotheism written into their natures (the fitra, 30:30). When Muslim believers pronounce the shahâda, they re-actualise the testimony of the original compact and at the same time bear witness to the innate knowledge of God that He placed in them when He created them: ‘So set thy face to the religion, a man of pure faith -- God's original upon which He originated mankind’ [30:30] (3).
The first part of the shahâda, ‘there is no god but God’, is found in this precise form in only two passages from the Koran [37:35 and 47:19] but there are variants with the same meaning: ‘There is no god but Him, Me, Thou’ [2:163; 16:2; 21:87 etc.]. And the affirmation in all its forms of monotheism is without any doubt the theme around which the Koran revolves. But because men unceasingly fall into the shadows of oblivion and polytheism, God continually sends them His prophets to bring them back to the faith, ‘reminding’ them of the pure monotheism to which they bore witness at the moment of the original pact. Thus faith in the truthfulness of the Messenger of God and his Message becomes inseparable from faith in God: the testimony of faith necessarily brings together these three elements. And these are to be found (with the addition of the angels, certainly as mediators of the Word between God and the prophet) in the following verse: ‘The Messenger [Mohammed] believes in what was sent down to him from his Lord, and the believers; each one believes in God and His angels, and in His Books and His Messengers’ [2:285]. The link between the testimony rendered to the uniqueness of God and that rendered to the truthfulness of the Prophet is further established in the Koran by the fact that in the holy Book of Islam a second compact appears, the compact termed the compact ‘of the prophets’, by which God makes all the prophets bear witness in advance to the prophecy of Mohammed: ‘And when God took compact with the Prophets: ‘That I have given you of Book and Wisdom; then there shall come to you a Messenger confirming what is with you – you shall believe in him and you shall help him; do you agree?’ He said. 'And do you take My load on you on that condition?’ They said, ‘We do agree.’ God said, ‘Bear witness so, and I shall be with you among the witnesses’ [3:81].
The Uniqueness of God
Witness in the Koran, therefore, relates first of all to the uniqueness of transcendent God who has no equals. This uniqueness, as a consequence, excludes multiple gods and multiplicity in God. This is what is expressed by the creed that God commands the Prophet to pronounce as testimony to faith in sura 112, by which the Koran ends:
Say: ‘He is God, One,
God, the Rock,
who has not begotten,
and has not been begotten,
and equal to Him is not any one.’ (4)
This testimony given to God reminds us, as has already been observed, of various texts in the Old Testament. The people of Israel have the vocation to bear witness to the only God in relation to the pagan nations. In the New Testament things are different: without obliterating the fundamental bearing witness to the only God [Jesus recalls the Shema‘ Israel: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’ etc. – Mk 12:29], witness in the New Testament is entirely centred around the person and the action of Christ. With God, his Father, Jesus bears witness to himself, as His Messenger: ‘I bear witness to myself , and the Father who sent me bears witness to me’ [Jn 8:18]. In turn, the disciples of Christ are called to bear witness to him, first and foremost as regards his resurrection (proof of his truthfulness) and his redemptive action: ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’ [Lk 24:46-48]. The whole of the mission of Paul is written within this perspective of witness, and it is again with a view to this witness that John writes his Gospel and his Apocalypse: ‘He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth – that you also may believe’ [Jn 19:35; Ap 1:9].
From the perspective of a comparative theology of the Scriptures, therefore, one can see that the central subjects of witness in the Koran and the New Testament are radically different because the statement on the one God in the Koran is accompanied by a denial, which is repeated on a number of occasions, of the divine sonship of Jesus [for example 5,17,116-117 and sura 112 quoted above, which perhaps at the outset aimed at polytheism but which subsequently was certainly applied to Christianity], whereas this sonship is the subject itself of witness in the New Testament because it is in his redemptive incarnation, which is completed in the Resurrection, that Jesus reveals at one and the same time his mission as the Son and the universal love of his Father, who ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ [1Tm 2:4]. And it is because of this title that he is a ‘faithful witness’ [Ap 1:5].
The subject of witness in the Koran, therefore, is totally above time: God, in His eternal metaphysical reality. In the New Testament this subject in written into time. Although prepared for by the history of Israel, the witness of the New Testament announces a radically new reality: ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God had prepared for those who love him’ [1Cor 2:9]. However it appeared with Jesus ‘when the time had fully come’ [Gal 4:4].
As regards the action and those who perform it, Islamic witness covers the whole of history – it draws upon the origins of mankind with the original compact (the mîthâq) and is taken up by all the prophets sent by God, from Adam until Mohammed, the seal of the prophets. Christian witness, instead, is historically linked to the ‘new covenant’ made with the blood of Jesus [Lk 22:20] and to the foundation of the Church. The supra-historical character of Islamic witness descends in addition from the fact that it is inscribed in the very nature (fitra) of the believer, as has already been shown. It is thus as old as this nature. For this reason, the Koran designates itself frequently as ‘Remembrance’ (dhikr): it reminds man of what he has forgotten but which nonetheless remains written into his nature. In contrary fashion, in the New Testament the witness of faith is a freely-given gift of God, distinct from the creation, a gift that had not yet ‘entered the heart of man’ but which every man is called to receive into his personal history. The New Testament does not present itself as Remembrance. It is first and foremost the proclaiming of good ‘news’, the Gospel [good news] of Jesus Christ, the son of God’ [Mk 1:1] (5).
The fact that Islamic witness is written into human nature confers upon it a kind of evidence that gives the Muslim faith an almost unshakeable stability, equal to human nature itself. Most of the time one may observe in Muslims a surprising certainty that they are right which leaves no space for any doubt or obscurity. The Christian faith and the witness that comes down from it are a ‘supernatural’ gift that God gives to man, distinct from the nature that he possesses because of the creation, and which for this reason remains fragile, being subject to human freedom which is always fallible. The Christian faith procures a certainty, but not evidence, which will be revealed only in the life beyond: ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood’ [1Cor 13:12].
According to the Koran, witness is an oral proclamation that attests to a truth, that of the one God. Without doubt, theologians will make clear that witness must be accompanied by sincerity, by an assent of the heart (sidq). But the act of witness as such is a real oral attestation. Good works (sâlihât) are certainly part of the obedience that man owes to God, but the Koran does not present it as being part of the witness of faith.
In the New Testament, it is not only words but also deeds that form a part of the act of bearing witness. Thus it is first of all for witness that Jesus engages in: ‘These very works that I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me’ [Jn 5:36; cf. also 10:25, 37-38].
The same is applied to his disciples whom Jesus sends out to proclaim the Good News, not only with words but also with exorcisms and healings, with a poverty of means similar to his own [Lk 9:1-6]. Faced with opposition and persecution, this witness will be experienced in suffering: ‘Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but take your share of suffering for the gospel’ [2Tm 1:8]. Thus the supreme witness of a Christian is expressed in the offering up of his life, in ‘martyrdom’ (‘testimony’ in Greek), when he is put to death by those who persecute him, unarmed, and identified with the crucified Christ. In Islam as well, the supreme witness is expressed in martyrdom but a believer becomes a martyr, shahîd, when facing death in fighting for Islam. It is at that moment that Islâm, the ‘giving over of one’s whole being’ to God (according to the meaning itself of the word ‘Islam’), is perfectly achieved.
It has just been seen that in the New Testament witness is linked to the mission of the apostles and the disciples who were sent out into the world by Jesus to be witnesses to him: ‘you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth’ [Acts 1:8]. The counterpart of mission in the Koran is da‘wa, a term that today refers to the peaceful propagation of Islam through preaching. This term more precisely means ‘the call’. In the Koran it is in fundamental terms God who calls to the faith: ‘to Him [God] belongs the call of truth [13:14] (6). But His call reaches men through the prophets and ‘messengers’ (rusul). To the last of them the Koran commands: ‘Call thou to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and good admonition, and dispute with them in the better way’ [16:125]. He is a simple transmitter of the message of the Koran: ‘It is only for the Messenger to deliver the Message’ [5:99]. In the Koran it is not said that believers will be invested with the same mission of preaching – this role is confined to the prophets/ messengers.
The propagation of Islam by preaching, da‘wa, was only organised later. In contrary fashion, the call of God delivered by the Prophet is addressed, as in the New Testament, to every man. Those that reject it will be subjected to divine Judgement, with witnesses against them [16:84-89; 49:51] on the Last Day. Here one encounters again the juridical meaning of testimony, in this case applied to the Last Judgement.
From the point of view of inter-religious dialogue, therefore, it appears evident that the subject of witness presents itself in different terms in the Koran and in the Bible. From the point of view of the ‘subject’ of witness ‘the uniqueness of God’, the Koran is near to the Old Testament [for example Dt 4:35,39; Is 45:21-22]. However, the Old Testament always includes in this subject the salvific actions of God, which mark out the history of Israel and on which the Koran does not confer the same meaning.
The New Testament takes up the witness of the Old Testament but in a rather implicit way, as something that has been acquired, because it is first and foremost centred around the radical news that it proclaims: the person and the salvific work of Christ. As regards the act of witness, in the Koran this is first of all an oral testifying to the faith in front of God and the believing community in response to the call (da‘wa) of God transmitted by His Prophet. In the New Testament, instead, it is at one and the same time preaching and action which are inseparably linked to the mission of every disciple of Christ who was sent into the world to bear witness in words and deeds to the salvific love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
(1) In the view of Louis Gardet, who bases himself on the authority of Jurjânî: L. Gardet, L’islam. Religion et communauté (Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 1967), p. 33; cf. also D. Masson, Le Coran (Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris 1967), p. 950.
(2) The Koran refers to the descendants of the sons of Adam. Later and beginning with a certain number of prophetic traditions of a neo-Platonising kind, the idea developed of a close compact with human souls in pre-eternity, before the creation in the strict sense. The Koran, as the Mu’tazilite rationalist theologians had observed, is extraneous to these speculations:
cf. Geneviève Gobillot, ‘Pacte prééternel’ in Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Dictionnaire du Coran (Robert Laffont, Paris 2007), pp. 627-631.
(3) G. Gobillot, Nature innée, ibid., p. 591.
(4) Here we follow the translation of the author (translator’s note). For the translation of the word Samad by ‘rock’ (v. 2), cf. M. Cuypers, Une lecture rhétorique et intertextuelle de
la sourate al-Ikhlâs, (‘MIDEO’, ‘Mélanges de l’Institut Dominicain d’Études Orientales du Caire’), 25-26, 2004, 141-175.
(5) The Koran, too,identifies itself at times as Good News (bashrâ 2,97; 16,89,102; 27,2; 46,12), but this usage is much less central and frequent than Remembrance (dhikr,
which occurs more than fifty times).
(6) Here also we follow the translation of the author (translator’s note).