What Happens when a Society Turns to Idolatry?
A few signs let us better understand the "religion" of worshipping people pervading a society. Of these, the most basic is the heedless behavior exhibited by those who forget the existence of Allah and that He is with them at every moment. Instead of seeking Allah's favor, a person who adopts such a pattern of behavior blindly does what others ask of him—even if it is contrary to religious morality—and will be prepared to suffer every humiliation and degradation.
For example, some behave in a way contrary to the teaching of the Qur'an because they want certain others to accept them and be taken into their group. Though they know their behavior is wrong, still they are willing to do every sort of disgraceful thing to get others to like them. As a result, they experience pangs of conscience in this life and will be repaid for their insincerity in the life to come.
Such people think they are ingratiated themselves with others, but Allah knows their real intentions. They forget Allah, but He sees them every moment and knows what they conceal in their hearts. And though other people may hold positive views about them, Allah knows their insincerity.
For example, a person may see that his boss's moral character is corrupt, that he treats the poor and needy unjustly and has made the kind of profit forbidden by Allah. Yet for the sake of a promotion, this employee pretends not to notice his boss's behavior. He tries his best to make his boss think he is a loyal, hard worker and so he turns a blind eye to actions that Allah has forbidden. But Allah sees him, and knows everything he thinks and everything he says. He does nothing to win Allah's favor, but all the things he does to curry the approval of others is written down in the Presence of Allah.
In fact, people with such errant beliefs, seeking to influence others in their own favor become like puppets. Others control their strings, and they carry out to the letter what is wanted of them, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, lawful or forbidden. In order to satisfy only a few worldly desires and selfish passions, they agree to become a part of a superstitious system that ignores Allah and cares nothing for earning His favor. They are ready to behave in ways that humiliate themselves and degrade their humanity; they live under others' control, without the human dignity that faith affords. As a result, they comprise a frightening group of people who are insincere, disrespectful and hypocritical towards others. They do not know what love really is and live only for their own gain. They lock themselves into a system where real friendship is absent and every relationship is based on profit. Within this system, have created with their own hands, they are—as Allah tells in Surat al-Isra'—lonely and helpless, far from the mercy and assistance of Allah.
Do not set up any other god together with Allah and so sit there reviled and forsaken. (Surat al-Isra', 22)
Why do they turn to the idolatry of worshipping people? Some of the basic reasons can be listed as follows:
They Forget Allah and Want to Earn the Favor of Others
People who set up other idols beside Allah ignore His existence and absolute control over the universe. As a result of their heedless attitude, they think themselves autonomous. They believe that they can do whatever they want, live the kind of lives they desire according to their own plans; think that they have all total free will and that no one can interfere with them. They are rebels who accept no authority. They disregard the facts that everything is under the eternal power of Allah and that they are servants. They don't understand that the whole universe has a fate that Allah has determined for it and that no creature can escape its pre-ordained fate. As a result, they live their lives trying to fulfill their desires and passions in this world and forget about earning the favor of Allah.
In feeling irresponsible, however, they are quite wrong. Even though they may disregard Allah's existence, He is always with them. He sees everything they do and knows their eagerness to please others instead of Him. For example, He sees their efforts to show affection towards others in order to win their affection in return; and He sees the pains they take to persuade others to like them. Allah tells in the Qur'an about the efforts of those to please others besides Him:
Some people set up equals to Allah, loving them as they should love Allah. But those who believe have greater love for Allah... (Surat al-Baqara, 165)
Such people work very hard to get the object of their affection to think that they really love and value him. But were they asked to show the same eagerness and determination towards Allah, they would refuse. For example, if asked to pray five times a day, they would most probably decline, making the excuse that they have little time to do this and cannot allot times for prayer in the course of a busy workday. They realize that if they did establish their prayers, none of their associates would appreciate them. In other words, according to his distorted view, fulfilling this act of worship would bring them no concrete benefits. Furthermore, they may be heedless only because they wouldn't want anyone to say that they have converted and turned to religion. As a result of such choices, they will earn the approbation and superficial love and appreciation of a handful of people. On the other hand, they do not realize that by not fulfilling an act of worship that Allah has required of all His servants, they have lost His eternal love and mercy.
For this reason, Allah warns His servants in the Qur'an against the danger of neglecting to seek His pleasure and trying to please other people instead. In the Qur'an Allah says that He has commanded human beings to purify themselves from all kinds of idolatry and to turn to Him in prayer:
Turning towards Him. Fear Him and establish prayer. Do not be among the idolaters. (Surat ar-Rum, 31)
They Fear People More Than They Do Allah
To be terrified of some power or event often gives a person the will to perform many things in the very best way. The intensity of this fear leads a person to make unexpectedly clear decisions even if he feels inadequate to face the threat.
People with deep, intense fear in their hearts will do anything they have to. For example, a hungry person with no money will do everything he can to accept a job offer. He will not miss the opportunity, but beforehand, will try to learn about the rules of the company and the kind of people who work there. At his interview, he will take pains not to make any mistakes and to present himself well. He will be very respectful towards the interviewers to make sure that his personality and experience make a good impression; and will be careful not to say anything that conflicts with this. He will not lose his train of thought or act inappropriately. His urgent fears and anxieties for the future keep him alert. He will do everything to convince the company officials that he is just the person they need.
On the job, another individual will be very afraid of getting caught doing something that the owner of the company frowns on. He won't be late for work, make personal phone calls or do other such things not acceptable in the company. He also warns other workers to be careful about these rules and regulations. As a worker, he is afraid of being called undisciplined or lax, because such negative opinions may result in material loss and stand in the way of a good life in this world. Discipline in work and appropriate behavior are of course important, but the error lies in acting appropriately only out of fear of others. Such good behavior, determined only by a situation will not last. A person who doesn't fear Allah will easily do all matter of things contrary to His discipline, if he assumes his so doing will not raise any eyebrows.
For this reason, the individual who behaves appropriately should never forget the important fact that the only power to be feared is Allah. It is He Who has created and controls the people and events that he gets excited about, fears and whose importance he exaggerates. In Allah's Sight, neither wealth nor power has any significance; all that is important is people's moral excellence and fear of Him. Moreover, people encounter only those events that are written in their destiny. If the man in our example was fated to take that job, no power apart from Allah's could change the course of events. No matter how many errors or mistakes he might make, that person is accepted for that job if Allah has determined it. But if his fate has been determined otherwise, he won't land that job, no matter what efforts he puts forth, because he cannot avoid the fate that Allah has determined for him.
Nothing occurs, either in the earth or in yourselves, without its being in a Book before We make it happen. That is something easy for Allah. (Surat al-Hadid, 22)
Always remember, this individual in our example may die before he can take that job. In that case, the worldly fears he has experienced all his life and the autonomy he has imputed to other people would have no further meaning. All his efforts will have been in vain. On the Day of Judgment, none of those whose opinions he valued so highly will be of any support to him. As a punishment for neglecting to win Allah's favor throughout his life and trying to please other people instead, he will spend not a thousand—not ten thousand, not a million or even a billion years, unless otherwise willed by Allah—but an eternity suffering the pangs of Hell. If he doesn't repent and ask Allah's forgiveness in his lifetime, for his sins and evil deeds Allah will condemn him to live in Hell for all eternity.
Our Prophet's (May Allah bless him and grant him peace) advice to the faithful further explains the importance of fear of Allah and repentance:
O Muadh, I give you instruction: Fear Allah while passing by each stone, tree, and heaps of earth. Make repentance anew after committing any sin. Repent secretly for secret sin and openly for open sin. (Imam Ghazzali, Ihya Ulum-Id-Din (The Book of Religious Learnings), Islamic Book Service, New Delhi, 2001, Volume II, p. 236)
So, when we think about these realities, we can more easily understand that the fear of Allah is much more important than all these other fears. In the Qur'an Allah speaks about this great reality in these words:
… So fear Allah. And know that you will be gathered back to Him. (Surat al-Baqara, 203)