The single most important religious tenet of Islamic theology is the concept of tawḥīd, which means “oneness” and “singling-out”. The Arabic root word و-ح-د (w-ḥ-d) covers all the meanings related to “one”, “single” and “union”. The verb وحّد (waḥḥada) is the active form of this base root and means concretely “to single out”, “to make one”. This should make clear what tawḥīd, which is the infinitive (maṣdar) of the aforementioned verb, actually means: to single out God in worship and to attribute divinity only to Him. Islam considers God as the One, the Single, the Indivisible, an uncompromising monotheism that forms the essence of the Islamic creed. To attribute divinity to anything or anyone else than God is regarded as major disbelief. Several verses of the Quran describe this very clearly, making it a matter of the utmost importance in the adherence to the religion. God says in Chapter Muḥammad: 19: “Know that there is no deity except God” and He says in Chapter al-Ikhlāṣ: “He is God, One. God, the Eternal Refuge. He begets not nor is He begotten. Nor is there to Him any equivalent.”
The faith of a Muslim has to be declared, according to the most common opinion, with one’s heart, tongue and actions. This declaration is called the shahāda, defining one’s membership to the Islamic religion. A Muslim testifies that “there’s no god except God, and that Muḥammad is His messenger.” It is common among Muslim believers to extend their index finger while uttering these words, as a sign of “one” and “oneness”. The index finger is usually called al-sabbāba in MSA, but older texts like a prophetic narration on the performance of the ablution talk about al-sabbāḥa, from the verb sabbaḥa, which means “praising”. Al-sabbāḥa thus means “that with which one praises (God)”, as explained by the historical Muslim scholar Majd al-Dīn Ibn al-Athīr (1149–1210) in his al-nihāya fī gharīb al-ḥadīth wal-athar.
The raising of the index finger is closely connected to declaring the Oneness of God. Both Al-Nasā’ī and al-Tirmidhī narrate authentically from the Companion Saʿd ibn Abī Waqqāṣ that he said: “The Messenger of God passed me by while I was supplicating God with my fingers, so he said: ‘One, One’ and he pointed with his index finger.” This is also a visible part of the Islamic prayer as demonstrated by the Prophet. Part of a Muslim’s prayer is the so-called tashahhud, in which the Muslim sits after prostrating and declares the Oneness of God and the prophethood of Muḥammad. While keeping both hands on the knees, the right index finger points towards the qibla (the direction of the Kaʿba).
As a result, this hand gesture is ubiquitous and well-known throughout the Muslim World. The raised index finger is featured in several different works of art, both as a pose or for propagandic reasons. A 17th century Ottoman painting currently at the Bibliothèque nationale de France shows a Muslim man standing before a nilometer with his index finger raised. A similar 19th century Ottoman painting of an old man from Bukhara (modern-day Uzbekistan) shows him posing with his index finger extended. From a propagandic point of view, the sign for tawḥīd occasionally appeared on the famous Iranian revolutionary posters promoting the emerging agenda of the nascent Islamic Republic. These graphic messages had the important goal to provide legitimacy for the new Khomeini-led government, religious piety then being an important means to attain that.
It’s imperative to understand the deep religious and spiritual meaning of this hand gesture. By performing it, the believer wants to convey the message that he is in fact a muwaḥḥid, one who worships God alone, as opposed to being a mushrik, one who associates others with God. Only a muwaḥḥid enters Paradise in Islamic thought. He who establishes and declares his faith in God alone, rejecting the association of partners with Him. It could therefore repeatedly be seen in situations of imminent danger, death or disaster. These are the moments that the human connection to God is established in its most pure form, allowing for the spontaneous physical manifestation of one’s creed. Famous examples are several pictures taken after the Egyptian Rābiʿa Massacre or, more recently, a victim of the New Zealand Christchurch attack being carried away to an ambulance.
Since the emergence of the Islamic State militant organization, who’s members often posed with their index finger raised on photos, this sign of tawḥīd is falsely called an “IS gang sign”, or an “IS salute”. It need not be said that this is just plain wrong and the result of ignorance, collective hysteria and fear mongering, but also creates a dangerous stepping-stone to increased attacks on random Muslims performing this hand gesture. It’s only logical that Muslim militants use this gesture as well, as they firstly consider themselves to be Muslim, and secondly are in dire need for legitimacy and representation among the wider Muslim population. That does not, however, mean that it effectively is their symbol. Such conclusions and deductions should be avoided as much as possible.
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Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.