What Is Shirk (Islam)?
Literally, shirk means ascribing or the establishment of “partners” placed beside God. It is the vice that is opposed to the virtue of Tawhid (monotheism). Those who practice shirk are termed mushrikun. Mushrikun (pl. of mushrik) are those who practice shirk, which literally means “association” and refers to accepting other gods and divinities alongside the god of the Muslims – Allah (as God’s “associates”). In Islamic law shirk as a crime, can just be attributed to Muslims, since only a Muslim is legally responsible not to associate any partner to Allah.
Within Islam, shirk is an unforgivable crime if it remains unpardoned before death: Allah may forgive any sin if one dies in that state except for committing shirk.In Islam, shirk (شرك širk) is the sin of practicing idolatry or polytheism, i.e. the deification or worship of anyone or anything besides the singular God, i.e. Allah.
The word širk comes from the Arabic root Š-R-K (ش ر ك), with the general meaning of “to share”. In the context of the Quran, the particular sense of “sharing as an equal partner” is usually understood, so that polytheism means “attributing a partner to Allah”. In the Qur’an, shirk and the related word mušrikūn —those who commit shirk and plot against Islam—often refer to the enemies of Islam (as in verse 9.1–15).
Islamic commentators on the Quran have emphasized that pre-Islamic Arabic idolatry made a number of godlings (most memorably the three goddesses al-Manāt, al-lāt and ʻUzzā) equal associates of Allah (as the Qur’an discusses in the 53rd surat) and the word mushrikūn (singular: mushrik) is often translated into English as “polytheists”.
The Quran and what the people of Nuh’s community would say in an effort by the idolaters to ignore and mock Nuh. “They (idolaters) have said: “You shall not leave your gods nor shall you leave Wadd, nor Suwa’, nor Yaghuth, nor Ya’uq nor Nasr.” (Qur’an 71:23)
Other forms of shirk include the worship of wealth and other material objects. This is pointed out in the Qur’an in one of the stories of the Children of Israel, when they took a calf made of gold for worship, and for which Moses ordered them to repent.
Another form of shirk mentioned in the Qur’an is to take scholars of religion, monks, divines, or religious lawyers as Lord(s) in practice by following their doctrines, and/or by following their rulings on what is lawful when it is at variance to the law or doctrines prescribed by Allah’s revelation.
Medieval Muslim (as well as Jewish) philosophers identified belief in the Trinity with the heresy of shirk, in Arabic, (or shituf in Hebrew), meaning “associationism”, in limiting the infinity of God by associating his divinity with physical existence.
In a theological context one commits shirk by associating some lesser being with Allah. This sin is committed if one imagines that there is a partner with Allah whom it is suitable to worship. It is stated in the Quran: “Allah forgives not that partners should be set up with Him, but He forgives anything else, to whom He pleases, to set up partners with Allah is to devise a sin most heinous indeed” (Qur’an 4:48). Many Islamic theologians[who?] extend the sense of worship to include praying to some other being to intercede with Allah on one’s behalf, rather than taking one’s case to God Himself. The limits of the concept of worship are quite elastic and theologians often describe excessive veneration of some artifact here on earth as shirk.
Atheism is described as shirk because it denies the position of Allah as the unique creator and sustainer of the universe (tawhid ar-rububiyya, the Unity of Lordship) and muslims who declare that they are atheists are being punished in Muslim countries. In the same way, the act of shirk is extended to include such things as the notion that God possesses human-like anthropomorphic qualities as well as acts of worship or piety whose inward goal is pride, caprice, or a desire for public admiration, although public prayer is a core Islamic aspect of faith, encouraged and supported in the Quran.
The status of the People of the Book (ahl al-kitab), particularly Jews and Christians, with respect to the Islamic notions of unbelief is not clearcut. Charles Adams writes that the Quran reproaches the People of the Book with kufr for rejecting Muhammad’s message when they should have been the first to accept it as possessors of earlier revelations, and singles out Christians for disregarding the evidence of God’s unity. The Quranic verse 5:73 (“Certainly they disbelieve [kafara] who say: God is the third of three”), among other verses, has been traditionally understood in Islam as rejection of the Christian Trinity doctrine, though modern scholarship has suggested alternative interpretations.[note 1] Other Quranic verses strongly deny the deity of Jesus Christ, son of Mary and reproach the people who treat Jesus as equal with God as disbelievers who will be doomed to eternal punishment in Hell. Quran also does not recognize the attribute of Jesus as the Son of God or God himself, it respects Jesus as a prophet and messenger of God sent to children of Israel. Some Muslim thinkers such as Mohamed Talbi have viewed the most extreme Quranic presentations of the dogmas of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus (5:19, 5:75-76, 5:119) as non-Christian formulas that were rejected by the Church.
Cyril Glasse criticizes the use of kafirun [pl. of kafir] to describe Christians as “loose usage”. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, in traditional Islamic jurisprudence, ahl al-kitab are “usually regarded more leniently than other kuffar [pl. of kafir]…” and “in theory” a Muslim commits a punishable offense if he says to a Jew or a Christian: “Thou unbeliever”.
Historically, People of the Book permanently residing under Islamic rule were entitled to a special status known as dhimmi, while those visiting Muslim lands received a different status known as musta’min.
Greater and lesser shirk
Shirk is defined in various ways. Some argue that there is only one type of shirk. Muhammad has classified shirk into two categories:
- Greater shirk (Shirk-al-Akbar)
- Open and apparent
- Lesser shirk (Shirk-al-Asghar)
- Concealed or hidden
Greater shirk or Shirke-al-Akbar means open polytheism. Muhammad describes major shirk in two forms:
- To associate anyone with Allah Taala as His partner (to believe in more than one god).
- To associate Allah’s attributes with someone else. (Attributing, considering, or portraying Allah’s knowledge or might to being those of anyone else)
Other interpretations also derived from the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition (Sunnah) divide shirk into three main categories. Shirk can be committed by acting against the three different categories.
This category of shirk refers to either the belief that others share Allah’s Lordship over creation as His equal or near equal, or to the belief that there exists no Lord over creation at all.
- Shirk by association
- This is the shirk concerned with associating “others” with Allah.
- Shirk by negation
- This is shirk in Rubūbīyah (Lordship).
al-Asma was-Sifat (names and attributes)
Shirk in this category includes both the non-believer practices of giving Allah the attributes of his creation as well as the act of giving created beings Allah’s names and attributes.
- Shirk by humanization
- In this aspect of shirk, Allah is given the form and qualities of human beings and animals. Due to man’s superiority over animals, the human form is more commonly used by idolaters to represent Allah in creation. Consequently, the image of the Creator is often painted, moulded or carved in the shape of human beings possessing the physical features of those who worship them.
- Shirk by deification
- This form of shirk relates to cases where created beings or things are given or claim Allah’s names or his attributes. For example, it was the practice of the ancient Arabs to worship idols whose names were derived from the names of Allah. Their main three idols were; Al-lāt (taken from Allah’s name al-Elah), al-‘Uzza (taken from al-‘Aziz), and al-Manat (taken from al-Mannan). During the era of Muhammad there was also a man in a region of Arabia called Yamamah, who claimed to be a prophet and took the name Rahman which, in Islam, belongs only to Allah.
In this category of shirk, acts of worship are directed to others besides Allah and the reward for worship is sought from the creation instead of the Creator. As in the case of the previous categories, shirk in al-‘Ibadah has two main aspects.
This form of shirk occurs when any act of worship is directed to someone else besides Allah. It represents the most obvious form of idolatry, against which the prophets were specifically sent by Allah, calling the masses of mankind to give it up. Examples of this shirk are asking for forgiveness, admittance to paradise, etc. that only Allah can provide, from others besides Allah.
Lesser shirk or Shirke-e-Asghar means hidden polytheism. A person commits hidden polytheism when he professes tawhid (there is no god except Allah) but his thoughts and actions do not reflect his belief.
“One who offers the ritual prayers in an ostentatious way is a polytheist. One who keeps the fast, or gives alms, or performs the Hajj to show the public his righteousness or to earn good name is a polytheist.”— Muhammad
Mahmud ibn Lubayd reported, “Allah’s messenger said: ‘The thing I fear for you the most is ash-Shirk al-Asghar.'”
- The companions asked, “O messenger of Allah, what is that?”
- He replied, “Ar-Riya (showing off), for verily Allah will say on the Day of Resurrection when people are receiving their rewards, ‘Go to those for whom you were showing off in the material world and see if you can find any reward from them.'”
Mahmud ibn Lubayd also said, “The Prophet came out and announced, ‘O people, beware of secret Shirk!'”
- The people asked, “O messenger of Allah, what is secret Shirk?”
- He replied, “When a man gets up to pray and strives to beautify his prayer because people are looking at him; that is secret Shirk.”
Umar Ibn Al-Khattab narrated that the Messenger of Allah said: “Whoever swears by other than Allah has committed an act of kufr or shirk.” (graded hasan by Al-Tirmidhi and saheeh by Al-Hakim)
Ibn Mas’ood, one of Muhammad’s companions, said: “That I should swear by Allah upon a lie is more preferable to me than that I should swear by another upon the truth.”
- That this verse criticizes a deviant form of Trinitarian belief which overstressed distinctiveness of the three persons at the expense of their unity. Modern scholars have also interpreted it as a reference to Jesus, who was often called “the third of three” in Syriac literature and as an intentional over-simplification of Christian doctrine intended to highlight its weakness from a strictly monotheistic perspective.
- Nonbelief: An Islamic Perspective
- Kamoonpuri, S: “Basic Beliefs of Islam” pages 42–58. Tanzania Printers Limited, 2001.
- Glassé, Cyril; Smith, Huston (2003-01-01). The New Encyclopedia of Islam. Rowman Altamira. p. 429. ISBN9780759101906.
- Gimaret, D. (2012). “S̲h̲irk”. In P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Encyclopaedia of Islam(2nd ed.). Brill. (Subscription required (help)).
- Cenap Çakmak Islam: A Worldwide Encyclopedia [4 volumes]ABC-CLIO 2017 ISBN978-1-610-69217-5 page 1450
- “Qur’an 4:48”.
- see e.g. A. A. Nadwi, “Vocabulary of the Qur’an“
- “Qur’an 7:148–150”.
- “Qur’an 9:31”.
- “Yusuf Ali translation of 9:31, footnote 1266”.
- Learning from other faiths Hermann Häring, Janet Martin Soskice, Felix Wilfred – 2003 – 141 “Medieval Jewish (as well as Muslim) philosophers identified belief in the Trinity with the heresy of shituf (Hebrew) or shirk (Arabic): ‘associationism’, or limiting the infinity of Allah by associating his divinity with creaturely being”
- “Atheists and Islam: No God, not even Allah”. The Economist. 24 November 2012. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
- Charles Adams (rev. by A. Kevin Reinhart) (2009). “Kufr”. In John L. Esposito. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Subscription required (help)).
- Thomas, David (2006). “Trinity”. In Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. Brill. (Subscription required (help)).
- Joseph, Jojo, Qur’an-Gospel Convergence: The Qur’an’s Message To Christians, Journal of Dharma, 1 (January-March 2010), pp. 55-76
- Mazuz, Haggai (2012) Christians in the Qurʾān: Some Insights Derived from the Classical Exegetic Approach, Journal of Dharma 35, 1 (January-March 2010), 55-76
- Schirrmacher, Christine, The Islamic view of Christians: Qur’an and Hadith, http://www.worldevangelicals.org
- Carré, Olivier (2003). Mysticism and Politics: A Critical Reading of Fī Ẓilāl Al-Qurʼān by Sayyid Quṭb. Boston: Brill. pp. 63–64.
- Glasse, Cyril (1989). The New Encyclopedia of Islam (Revised 2001 ed.). NY: Altamira Press. p. 247. ISBN0759101892.
- Björkman, W. (2012). “Kāfir”. In P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd ed.). Brill. (Subscription required (help)).
- “Kitab At-Tawheed” by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, chapter 40
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