For Muslims, faith is acceptance of the truthful witness’s testimony, because of the intrinsic obviousness of the testimony itself

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For Muslims, faith is acceptance of the truthful witness’s testimony, because of the intrinsic obviousness of the testimony itself. It does not require works: by virtue both of the promises God made to those witnessing to His Oneness and of tasdîq (the assent of the intellect or heart), faith is sufficient for the salvation of those who accept these promises.

I have emphasised the very nature of the act of faith and that which, in Islam’s eyes, establishes it as the instrument of salvation. One could now conclude that the problem of the relationship between faith and works has been raised continually in Islam, and as an acute one. But it has not been raised according to the schemata that our western, Christian or de-Christianized culture is used to. Wanting to identify the facts on both sides too quickly would mean yielding to the temptation of a hasty equivalent and that would lead to a nonsense. It may be helpful, in this respect, to outline a few things that can serve to put us on our guard.


[Faith as Acceptance of Testimony]

[…] In Islam, credibility is based on two grounds that are recognised by everyone: the prophet’s truthfulness and the inimitable nature of the Qur’an. But those grounds lead human intelligence directly, so to speak (and on the very level of intelligence), to the tasdîq [assent] that is faith. […] Once again, we come across this notion that is so profoundly Semitic: the testimony of the truthful witness – in whatever situation he is to be found – is the source of absolutely privileged knowledge. Intelligence therefore accepts it with an immediacy that knows no bounds. I would say that it is primarily this notion that connotes tasdîq, a word having the same root as sâdiq, the sincere and truthful man. […] Now, the prophet-envoy is the truthful witness par excellence and acceptance of his message will lead to God, the supreme and absolute Witness. The tasdîq of faith will therefore lead to an inner certainty that is crystal clear. The decision of the will that leads intelligence to assent to a truth that is not evident no longer has any reason to intervene. If we can state, along with Fr Chenu,[1] that faith, for Christians, is – as a psychological act – “the acceptance of a testimony through a decision taken by the will,” we must add that, in Islam, it is an acceptance of a testimony because of the intrinsic obviousness of the testimony itself.

Thus it is not only a question of a more or less far-reaching psychological analysis. The fact is that the Muslim tasdîq, itself a testifying acceptance of the prophetic testimony, does not intrinsically result in the intelligence-will relationship that the Catholic theological tradition identifies in the interior act of faith. But it does not coincide with the Protestant tradition of trust-faith either. More than an intellectual acceptance of higher truths, Lutheran trust-faith is, in fact, the intimate sensation of one’s own personal salvation; hence the salvific quality’s attribution to faith alone.

Islam certainly places tawakkul (self-abandonment to God) in faith’s furrow but, for the Muslim, certainty about one’s personal salvation is subordinated to God’s inscrutable decree: this, for the Ash‘arite School, is the meaning of the expression, “If God wills it.”[2] For the Muslim, as for the Protestant, faith is sufficient for salvation. But for the Muslim, it is not measured by the inner sensation of salvation brought about by God in the soul. Faith is salvific by virtue both of the promises God made to all those truthfully witnessing to His Oneness and of the tasdîq of the intellect or heart that gives its assent to these promises. The handing of oneself over to God presupposes faith’s acceptance of the supreme Witness: credere Deum presupposes credere Deo.


[The Limited Value of Rational “Proofs”]

[…] Some of those writing in the field of kalâm [apologetic theology] would, no doubt, insist on the value of a rationally “scientific faith” and the instances of “proof” that their discipline brings to the doctrines believed. But that is precisely the point: tasdîq – acceptance-testimony to the prophetic testimony – does not change in its nature just because it has been corroborated in such a way. In the spirit of those who practised it, kalâm merely renders explicit and makes operative the “demonstrations” already implicitly transmitted by the intellect’s unwavering finding of veracity. Experts in the religious sciences are capable of making sense of their faith and of responding to the doubts or objections raised by the deniers but their science does not give them the subject-matter of their faith. This they receive from the text of the Qur’an. Whether they be truly demonstrative or merely self-serving, the rational arguments provided by kalâm remain on the level of a defensive apologia.

As if that were not enough, this is not the perspective in which spirits as different as Ghazzâlî and Ibn Taymiyya[3] (who both mistrusted the science of kalâm, despite their differences) situated faith’s perfection: they intended to seek it in a more profound experience of the basic intellectual acceptance. It is at that point, and protractedly thereafter, that the affective values of religious feeling make their appearance. There is no transmutation of level, as there is in Christianity. Acceptance of the prophetic Word is intrinsically of the same nature as acceptance of a human word that has been guaranteed [by a reliable witness]. But, here, the content of this Word and the value of the Witness are such that, in hearts that desire to live their tasdîq interiorly, there arises the desire for the things of God, in those feelings of joyful obedience and self-abandonment on which Ibn Taymiyya insists.

Ghazzâlî accorded “scientific faith” a very limited value, exactly because it could induce the spirit to accept apologetic arguments as if they were absolute “proof”. It is sufficient to see how he develops his Munqidh[4], his effort to set the finding of veracity on the (to his mind, far more justified) basis of an inner experience, something that itself participates in the prophetic experience.


[The Philosophical Option: a Real Alternative?]

I am close to thinking that Ibn Rushd [Averroes] remains slightly indebted to his enemy, Ghazzâlî, in the contempt he shows towards the experts in kalâm. But the underlying reason for his attitude is quite different. The falsafa [the Greco-Islamic philosophy] was opposed to precisely this primacy accorded to the finding of veracity and thus was opposed to the Muslim dominance of testimony-faith. It is very easy to delude oneself about the problems posed by falsafa in general and by Ibn Rushd, in particular. It is true, the reasons the latter gave for the need for a revelation were to be taken up, in part, by Hebrew theology (Maimonides) and Christian theology (Thomas Aquinas) - at least, as far as the truths that are, in themselves, accessible to reason are concerned; but, unlike Hebrew thought and Christian thought, above all, everything remains directed by the higher form of knowledge enjoyed by the men “rooted in science,” to whom the sole Agent Intellect opens up the world of intelligibles. Prophetic revelation is no more than the transcription of this reality within the wise men’s reach into symbols and imaginative allegories that are accessible to the “common herd.” […] This and the transcendental nature of faith’s values are poles apart.


[Passing from the Testimony to the Witness]

But let us return to the religious faiths of Islam and Christianity. […] Islam’s faith conceives of itself essentially as testimony. And if we are to identify a dominant argument from amongst those produced by the different schools, I would say that works, or obedience in performing the prescribed works, perfect and complete a believer’s faithfulness. At its indivisible core, faith accepts (through a finding of veracity) the mission of the prophet-envoy who, in turn, testifies to God’s truthfulness. And God alone, in a last analysis, fully deserves the Name of “truthful Witness” or “very Witness of what is Real,” as al-Hallâj[5] used to say. God is the One Who testifies about Himself to Himself, in His eternity.

I know of no better way to define the attitude of the mu’min [believer] in its most exclusive and demanding notes than by quoting some sentences of Louis Massignon’s:

God is not within men’s reach and one must not allow men to try and reach God. Muhammad himself, on the occasion of his ‘night journey’, experienced the rapture that leads to the inaccessible holy city where God’s glory resides. He did not think to penetrate God’s love. An abyss separates us from God. God is alone. This is how the rigour and intransigence of a monotheistic faith appears in a people that considers prophets to be the heralds of a Last Judgment that will reduce us all to our starting point; men who have come to remind men that God is separate and inaccessible and that faith, pure faith, is probably the only gift worthy of being offered to Him.[6]

[…] Believing, through God, in the Word come down upon the Prophet-Envoy, by virtue of a finding of the intellect that declares the message truthful: this is what constitutes the “status” of mu’min and is sufficient to bring about divine “satisfaction” (ridwân) with man. Nevertheless, and the message itself demands this, this acceptance-testimony to the supreme Witness’s Word tends, by way of a natural extension, to submit to God in total trust. Is this a journey towards the unrevealed Mystery? It is this drama that is being constantly relived, in Islam, by men thirsting for God: searching for the unknown way that leads from the Testimony to the Witness. Thus the greatest Sufis try, precisely, to achieve – in love and through love – a Oneness of Testimony, wahdat al-shuhûd. This was the drama of certain paths that ended in bloodshed and that were constantly exposed to the risk of a degeneration of the faith in a gnosis that, on the pretext of reaching beyond it, ended up diluting it into the monism of the Oneness of Being, wahdat al-wujûd.[7]

In response to the question that those “thirsting for God” untiringly posed the faith of Islam, there stands the line of the pious believers or pious ancestors, with their “monolithic” testimony to the inaccessible Transcendence; a testimony entrusted to God in a handing over of the whole of being through an act of trust (tawakkul) that “does not ask questions.”


(Excerpts taken from Louis Gardet, Dieu et la destinée de l’homme, Vrin, Paris 1967, pp. 395-407 passim)

[1] La psychologie de la foi dans la théologie du XIIIe siècle (Institut d’études médiévales d’Ottawa, 1932), p. 117.

[2] The Ash‘arite School is one of the two main theological currents recognised in Sunni Islam. One of its theses states that one cannot say “I am truly a believer” without adding “if God wills it,” precisely because being a believer (and the salvation that derives from this status) are, in the ultimate analysis, in God’s hands (Ed.).

[3] A rigorist Hanbalite theologian and point of reference for modern Salafis. He died in Damascus in 1328 (Ed.).

[4] Deliverance from Error. We have offered excerpts from this work in the preceding article (Ed.).

[5] The famous mystic crucified in Baghdad in 922 (Ed.).

[6] Taken from “Le Salut de l’Islam,Jeunesse de l’Église, p. 7.

[7] Here Gardet is referring to the distinction (advanced by Massignon) between the mysticism of the “unity of testimony” championed by al-Hallâj (d. 922), in which the distinction between the witness and the subject-matter of the testimony is maintained, and that of the “unity of being,” whose key proponent is Ibn al-‘Arabî (d. 1240) and which resulted in the monism by which “God alone is” (Ed.).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Louis Gardet, “Those Who Thirst for God Abandon Themselves to Him”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 108-112.

Online version:
Text by Louis Gardet, “Those Who Thirst for God Abandon Themselves to Him”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: