Two Basic Causes of Idolatry
Two basic factors lead people into idolatry: ignorance and insincerity. In order to avoid idolatry, people must have the requisite and sufficient faith and strongly eschew insincerity.
One of the most important factors revealed by Allah is ignorance as regards to religious moral values:
Only the Qur'an and the hadith contains the knowledge essential for pure faith, for no other scripture clearly describes what true belief in the One God is, defines deities and idols, explains the form that pure faith should assume, details the behavior and mentality that pleases Allah, shows how people are misguided to idolatry, reveals satan's snares of earthly desires and deceits, and discusses the attitudes and behavior to be avoided. Our Prophet Muhammad (May Allah bless him and grant him peace) explained these facts all through his life.
The reader must understand that the learning we are discussing here is not just an accumulation of facts, for knowledge, as defined in the Qur'an, is that which impacts one's heart and spurs one's mind and conscience. If people only learn the information imparted in the Qur'an but do not reflect on them as they should be, they may not gain any benefit from it.
Several verses involve Allah's oneness and the non-existence of whatever else people may consider a Deity, as well as about idolatry and its adherents. These matters are frequently emphasized and described in great detail to impress upon people how vital it is that such terms be understood. It is impossible for those who have not read and reflected on the Qur'an know about these facts. So they are, as Allah reveals in the Qur'an, ignorant.
The position of such people is identical to that of the idolatrous communities of the pre-Islamic era. Among the Muslim Arabs, this period is known as the "Days of Ignorance." Those who reject Islam, regardless of when or where they live, are therefore considered ignorant. Given that the Qur'an was revealed 1,400 years ago and is now available in all major languages, there is no excuse or justification for such ignorance and idolatry. People may claim to be devout, but if their faith is based on hearsay knowledge and handed-down superstitions, they are still ignorant because they are not living by the Qur'an's moral values and have not yet correctly understood the faith revealed by Allah. Allah reveals this fact in the Qur'an:
The idolaters that lived among the communities of many prophets have been described as ignorant people. Allah reveals in the Qur'an:
The concept of ignorance expressed in these verses is highly significant, for it includes not only not knowing, but also failing to understand the facts even though one sees and recognizes them. Some Israelites, who knew the Prophet Moses (pbuh) and the Torah sent down to him, and who witnessed his struggle against Pharaoh, are an example of this, for some of them adopted other deities even after obtaining this knowledge. It was as if they actually knew nothing at all. What is even more astonishing and exemplary is that they actually asked the Prophet Moses (pbuh) to set up an idol for them (Surely Allah is beyond that). This shows that salvation from ignorance lies in acquiring information and in understanding that knowledge which enters one's heart and then both affects that person's heart and is reflected by his or her thoughts and behavior.
This is the error made by some of the earlier peoples who deviated into idolatry, especially some of the Israelites (surely the Israelites who are truly sincere are beyond that) Although they possessed considerable information and had learned it well, they still went astray. Allah describes in the Qur'an such people as donkeys loaded with books:
In the Qur'an Allah also tells us that "…when a group of them (Jews) heard Allah's Word and then, after grasping it, knowingly distorted it?" (Surat al-Baqara: 75). In other words, having knowledge is not enough; one needs a sincere heart, one that is rooted in a genuine fear of and respect for Allah, in order to evaluate that information properly.
What we mean by the concept of insincerity is refusing to abide by the facts and even acting in the opposite way although one learns and understands them, in order to preserve their worldly interests. Those who read the Qur'an properly and have reason and a conscience can easily understand what type of behavior and morality pleases Allah. After acquiring this knowledge, they are expected to abide by it and shape their life around it according to their level of sincerity.
Those who are insincere can abandon these truths in an instant for the sake of small benefits and advantages. Chasing after their worldly desires, greed, and passions, they exceed the bounds that Allah has established for humanity. Ignoring His commands and prohibitions, they live for this world and exchange the Hereafter for next to nothing.
Those who ascribe equals to Allah cannot overcome this great sin until they abandon their incorrect worldview and repent. No change occurs even if they exhibit the greatest scrupulousness with regard to those matters that do not conflict with their worldly interests. For example, observing many religious observances may be of no benefit if they deliberately ignore even one of His commands—if they neglect to perform the five regular prayers, for instance. If they continue to follow this path wholeheartedly, they become idolaters. Since they pick and choose which of His commands they will follow, they have unwisely turned their desires into deities. Unless the idolaters do not repent and ask forgiveness to Allah all their deeds including their worship will come to nothing in the Hereafter. Allah reveals this in the Qur'an:
As can be seen, insincerity in this sense is not unique to those remote from religious morality. Some people who become idolaters due to their insincerity apply double standards while maintaining a devout external appearance. In other words, they seek to save their worldly lives and satisfy their own desires by pretending to conform with the religion. But attempting to ease their conscience through self-deception cannot succeed. They observe a false faith according to their own wishes, instead of according to Allah's commands and prohibitions, and thus establish and live by their own religion. Those who have sincere faith, who adhere to what Allah has revealed instead of their desires, urgings, and suggestions, however, seek only His mercy and approval, for as sincere servants to Him they can do nothing else. Thus, they never have to choose between their desires and faith.
But idolaters, whose mentality is the exact opposite of the believers' mentality, are insincere toward Allah right from the very outset. Although He knows their hearts, intentions, and every deed, they continue to follow their own hypocritical path in the misguided belief that He will accept their insincere excuses. They often convince themselves of this "truth," for almost all of them state, when asked, that they deserve of Paradise.
However, Allah tells us in the Qur'an something different: those who knowingly turn toward idolatry, despite knowing the truth, have lost the ability to reason. Thus, there is no point to looking for reason or logic in their incomprehensible and insincere double standards. Bearing this in mind, we can see that both unawareness and a failure to appreciate Allah properly underlie their insincerity and the ascription of equals to Allah that originates from it. Allah reveals this situation of idolaters in the Surat al-Zumar:
Hypocritical and insincere idolaters are a danger to themselves and all others, for they encourage others to follow them. The only escape from this lies in sincerity and the knowledge that Allah may bestow salvation upon them if they repent sincerely. This process involves turning to Allah with a sincere heart by beginning to base their life on His approval, learning the truth in the Qur'an and the hadith, and applying what they learn to their life. However, they will be successful only if they submit fully and unconditionally to Him as soon as possible and hope for His mercy. Allah reveals this fact in the Qur'an: