Chapter 4: Polytheism and Disbelief, and its Types

Undoubtedly, every Muslim has a lot to gain by knowing what polytheism and disbelief are, including the causes of both, their means, and their types. Provided that a person’s intention for such knowledge is to protect himself against their evils or plights. Allah loves to see His creation knowing what is right so that they may love and follow it, and k owing the wrong path in order to hate and avoid it. A Muslim is not only required to identify what is good and implement it, but also to recognize evil and to abstain from it. Ḥudhayafah b. al-Yamān, a Companion of the Prophet, said,

“The people would ask Allah’s Messenger about the good things, but I would ask him about the evil ones, lest I should fall in it.”[1]

‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb said, “It is only when we have people who are born and grow up as Muslim, without any idea of the pre-Islamic idolatry, that the handhold of Islam will begin to retract little by little.”

Many verses from the Qur’an speak on polytheism and disbelief, cautioning against involvement in either, and exposing their evil consequences in this life and in the hereafter. Besides, this constitutes a principle objective of the message of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Allah says,

“Thus, do We explain the verses in detail, so that the criminals will become evident.” (Q, 6:55)

Polytheism (Shirk)

From a linguistic definition, the word shirk simply means putting two things on an equal footing. But from a legalistic definition, it offers a wider definition that is subdivided into two: general and specific meanings. As for the general meaning of shirk, it implies believing in someone or something as being equal to Allah in what should be exclusively for Him. This is also subdivided into three types:

  1. Shirk in Allah’s Lordship (rubūbiyyah). This occurs when one picks an equal to Allah in any attribute that should be reserved for the Lord or ascribe such attribute to another. The attributes of Lordship include creation, providing for the creation, giving and taking of life, as well as administrating the universe. Allah says,

“Is there any creator other than Allah who gives you provision from the sky and the earth? There is no god but He. How then are you deluded?” (Q, 35:13)

  1. Shirk with regard to Allah’s names and attributes. That is to invent an equal to Him in any of His names and attributes, for He says,

“Nothing is like Him. He is the All Hearing, the All Seeing.” (Q, 26:11)

  1. Shirk in Allah’s Divinity (‘ulūhiyyah). This is to give any of his divine characteristics or the right of being worshipped to another. This may be through praying, fasting, supplicating, seeking help, slaughtering, taking a oath, as well as other things. Allah says,

“Among the people are those who take other than Allah as equals to Him. They love them as they should love Allah.” (Q, 2:165)

As for the specific meaning of shirk, then it implies giving to Allah a rival whom one will also invoke, ask for intercession, love, and have hope in. Each time the word shirk is mentioned, either in the Qur’an or the Sunnah, this specific meaning of the word usually comes to mind first.

Islamic texts have condemned shirk and warned against it in various ways. They have similarly demonstrated the dangers and grave consequences that the polytheists will incur in this life and in the hereafter. Allah has called shirk the “unforgiveable sin,” unless it is repented from before death. He says,

“Surely, Allah does not forgive that a partner is ascribed to Him (shrik), and He forgives anything short of that for whomsoever He wills.” (Q, 4:48)

Allah has also described it as the worst form of injustice. He says,

Shirk is indeed a grave injustice.” (Q, 31:13)

Allah has also described it as something that is capable of destroying a person’s good deeds. He says,

“It has already been revealed to you and to those before you that if you associate anything with Allah, your work would surely become worthless, and you would surely be among the losers.” (Q, 39:65)

Allah has also described it as implying disrespect for the Lord of all existence, and claiming an equal to Him. He says,

“They will say [to their false gods], while they dispute therein, ‘By Allah, we were indeed in manifest error when we equated you with the Lord of the worlds.’” (Q, 26:96-8)

Allah has also declared that whoever dies as a polytheist will become a permanent inhabitant of the Hellfire. He says,

“Indeed, he who associates others with Allah, then Allah has forbidden Paradise for him, and his refuge is the Fire. There are not for the wrongdoers any helpers.’” (Q, 5:72)

The proofs for the various forms of shirk are many in the Qur’an

The root cause of shirk and the motive behind its occurrence among humanity is their extreme dogma regarding the righteous and highly esteemed people, and their usual excessiveness in extolling or praising them. Allah say,

“They said, ‘Never leave your gods; never leave Wadd, Suwāʿ, Yaghūth, Yaʿūq, and Nasr.’ They have led many astray. [Lord] do not increase the wrongdoers.” (Q, 71:23-4)

These are names of some righteous men from among the people of Nūḥ, after whose death their contemporaries made their statues and named the same after them. Although their aim was originally to glorify these men, immortalizing their remembrance and commemorate their virtues, they ended up worshipping them.

An indication to this is found in what has been mentioned by ibn ‘Abbās when he said,

“All the idols which were worshiped by the people of Nūḥ were worshiped later by the Arabs. As for the idol Wadd, it was worshiped by the tribe of Kalb at Daumat al-Jandal. Suwāʿ was the idol of [the tribe of] Hudhayl. Yaghūth was worshiped by [the tribe of] Murād and then by Banū Ghutayf at Jurf near Saba’. Yaʿūq was the idol of Hamdan. Nasr was the idol of Himyar, the branch of Dhī-al-Kalāʿ. The names [of the idols] formerly belonged to some pious men of the people of Nūḥ. When they died, Satan inspired their people to prepare and place idols at the places where they used to sit, and to call those idols by their names. The people did so, but the idols were not worshiped until those people [who initiated them] had died and the origin of the idols had become obscure, whereupon people then began worshiping them.”[2]

Commenting upon the verse, “They said, ‘Never leave your gods,’” (Q, 71:23) ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī relates from Muhammad b. Qays that he said, “They [Wadd, Suwāʿ, Yaghūth, Yaʿūq, and Nasr] were a group of virtuous people who had others who followed their example. After their death, it came to the minds of their follows that if they produced images of their deceased leaders, it would give them more enthusiasm for engaging in acts of worship whenever they remembered those righteous men. They, therefore, made statues of them. After their demise, Satan rushed to tell the succeeding generation that their forefathers used to worship those men, ad that for their sake, they were usually blessed with rain. Thus, that generation began to worship them.”[3]

By so doing, they combined two evils: their devotion to the graves of the virtuous men, and carving out images that they later placed upon the area that those men sat at and beginning to visit them. They two acts were the major cause of shirk taking place within the history of humanity., and remains the principal means of its occurrence during any time or in any place.


[1] Bukhārī no. 7084 and Muslim no. 1847.

[2] Bukhārī no. 4920.

[3] Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī 8/254.

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