What is Idolatry?
The Arabic word shirk implies partnership. The term is translated into English as ascribing partners or equals to Allah. The Qur'an uses shirk in the following sense: regarding, preferring, or attaching importance or worth to anything, anyone, or any concept in such a way that it is considered to be equal to or above Allah (Surely Allah is beyond that), and then acting according to that distorted perspective. This attitude means that one regards members of Allah's Creation as Divine, although only He can be Divine.
The truth that is announced in the Qur'an is that there is no deity other than Allah. This truth is set out in the profession of faith, la ilaha illa Allah, and is reiterated throughout the Qur'an. However, Muslims need to understand this point fully and reflect upon it deeply. Given that all power and might belongs to Allah and that He is the Only God, this cannot be interpreted in a superficial manner. When we look at the Qur'an, we see that any other belief, attitude, or behavior that is not based upon this truth is actually idolatry. Thus, we may translate shirk in the general sense as the false conception and idea that any person, thing, or supposed deity has any actual power and might other than Allah (Surely Allah is beyond that).
According to the Qur'an, a deity is an entity that possesses the titles and attributes that Allah has revealed about Himself. The only true deity, therefore, is Allah. No other member of Creation has His titles, and to claim otherwise means taking entities other than Allah as one's deity or ascribing equals to Allah.
A fine distinction needs to be drawn here. For example, one of Allah's titles, al-Ghani (the Wealthy), can also refer to one's material situation. What leads to idolatry, however, is imagining that this wealth was acquired through personal effort. If this were the case, the fact that all wealth actually belongs to Allah would be forgotten. For whatever reason, Allah willed to give that person all that he or she owns, thereby manifesting this particular title al-Ghani. However, many people often forget or ignore the fact that Allah can remove whatever He wills from whoever He wills in a single moment. The failure to consider anyone apart from Allah as poor and helpless renders people unable to understand that He can manifest Himself by whatever titles and in whatever people He wills. As a result, one may think that the individual concerned is the true owner of such possessions as wealth, riches, property, and titles. But since such things were bestowed by Allah, instead of being acquired by individual effort, this misunderstanding may cause people to forget Allah and ascribe a false divine title to another human being (Surely Allah is beyond that). If they do this, they are guilty of idolatry.
The correct thing to do is to realize that Allah is the sole Possessor and Lord of all riches and wealth, regardless of their location and amount, and that He can withdraw His wealth from anyone whenever He wills. When evaluating materially rich people, the important thing is not their economic status but that they are thought of as Allah's servant. For example, if one's family members regard the father as the true owner of his wealth and thus place their hopes solely in him, thereby forgetting the wealth's true owner, they are committing a serious sin. Similarly, those who work alongside this person must realize that only Allah feeds, clothes, and shelters them. It would be highly irrational for them to regard their employer as the one who provides for them, because:
In addition, Allah states in the Qur'an that there is no force and power other than Him (Surat al-Kahf: 39). Whatever resembles force and power in His created entities is actually a little reflection of His infinite might. Allah can remove these apparent attributes at any moment. Overestimating anyone because of these attributes bestowed on them by Allah in this world, temporarily and as a test, and to admire them in this respect as if that power was actually inherent in them, is a form of ascribing divine status to them (Surely Allah is beyond that). Allah reveals in the Qur'an:
This same logic applies to all of Allah's other titles that He manifests or causes to be reflected by members of His Creations. In considering these entities, one must be aware that these titles belong only to Allah and that what we see in other people are merely manifestations of them.
The starting point of idolatry
The false approach of attributing an identity to Allah's Creations by regarding them as beings in their own right who are independent of Allah leads to idolatry. Allah's wealth, beauty, might, and glory do exist, but those upon whom He bestows them do not actually possess them and are not the originators of them; nor do they or their possessions exist in any way that is independent of His existence. People who do not understand this often admire or fear those who apparently possess such attributes, believing that they are somehow independent of Allah.
This mistaken view is the starting point of idolatry. As we will see in later chapters, such an attribution underlies all forms of shirk and idolatrous attitudes. True believers must build their faith on monotheism (the Oneness of Allah) and avoid ascribing any equals to Him. Therefore, all people must constantly remember that they are indebted to Allah for whatever they possess and have been brought into being only through Allah's will. He can keep them alive or not, as He wills, and bestows whatever attributes He wills upon any member of His Creation.
Power, opportunity, intelligence, beauty, fame, and rank are all attributes created by Him. Since He created them, He can easily remove them whenever He wills to do so. Allah manifests Himself in different ways in all places and all people. It is these manifestations that one sees wherever he or she looks. Those who believe in Allah must place the realization that nothing exists independent of Allah firmly in their heart. Only when they believe, think, and behave in accordance with this truth can they stop ascribing equals to Allah.
The idolaters' invalid justifications
We can learn the most accurate meanings of idolatry, monotheism, service, and worship from the Qur'an and the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad (May Allah bless him and grant him peace). Only by reading and understanding the Qur'an and the hadiths and seeking to implement them in our lives can we acquire an attitude, understanding, belief, and behavior that takes Allah as our Lord in all matters and thus avoid the error of idolatry. Therefore, someone who has faith and knows that the Qur'an is the truth must not adopt any other criteria when it comes to matters of faith, thought, moral understanding, lifestyle, and other value judgments. In addition, trying to justify one's preference for alternatives to Allah's commands and thus abandoning His stipulations leads to idolatry.
No such justification is valid. For example, preferring someone's approval and seeking to please him or her instead of Allah means adopting a false deity. Fearing and respecting someone as much as or more than Allah, and thus abandoning His commands or behaving in a way does not please Him, means exactly the same thing. Loving another person as much as Allah means one is in shirk and sees that person as a false deity other than Almighty Allah If someone who is aware of the requirement to live by faith points to his or her surroundings or environment as a justification for making concessions on religion so as not to attract criticism, this a clear sign of idolatry – whose approval should be more important? A person's family or close circle may not understand Islam, in which case any departure from its requirements or making concessions is another sign of that same danger. No Muslim can make any concessions regarding Allah's approval, for only His approval matters. Of course nobody wants to lessen his or her love and respect for the family. But if family members call upon him or her to ascribe equals to Allah, He reveals the correct reaction:
The Prophet (May Allah bless him and grant him peace) is the best example of how to deal with non-Muslims. While he was preaching, many people realized that the Qur'an was Allah's word and had to be heeded. However, very few of them actually implemented the requirements of religious morality and followed him. For instance, the verses regarding Islamic clothing for women were revealed in the period after the Hijra:
Safiyyah bint Shaybah said: "When we were with A'isha (may Allah be pleased with her), we mentioned the women of Quraysh and their virtues. A'isha said, 'The women of Quraysh are good, but by Allah (swt) I have never seen any better or more strict in their adherence to the Book of Allah (swt) than the women of the Ansar. When Surat al-Nur was revealed (...that they should draw their veils over their bosoms...) their menfolk went to them and recited to them the words that Allah (swt) had revealed. Each man recited it to his wife, his daughter, his sister and other family relatives. Every woman among them got up, took her decorated wrapper, and wrapped herself up in it out of faith and belief in what Allah (swt) had revealed. …" (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Surat an-Nur, "The Rulings of Hijab")
The following is also reported regarding the excellent behavior of Muslim women when the relevant verses were revealed:
A'isha (may Allah be pleased with her) said: "When Allah (swt) revealed the verse: 'and to draw their veils all over their bosoms,' they tore their aprons and covered themselves with them." (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Surat an-Nur, "The Rulings of Hijab")
In the time of the Prophet (May Allah bless him and grant him peace), Muslim women immediately obeyed Almighty Allah's commandment, and experienced a great enthusiasm and desire to do so. The Muslims who came after them also fulfilled this commandment with the same enthusiasm and determination.
Some others, however, were fearful of the reaction of the community they lived in, were put off by their threats, were concerned about losing their position and prestige. They thought that following the Prophet (May Allah bless him and grant him peace) could affect their business and financial interests, and that they would lose out by devoting time to Muslims and serving Islam. Some were afraid of that bad things might happen if they converted, and others preferred their own ease and comfort to start off with the Prophet (May Allah bless him and grant him peace) in the heat of the desert.
In other words, they tried to justify their concessions. Based on what the Qur'an says, however, they were actually ascribing partners to Allah, for they were aware of the truth and yet preferred the approval other people, society, money, rank, or earthly desires over that of Allah. Thus, they placed their hopes in entities other than Him and tried to please them.
Many of these same people also made concessions because of their earthly passions or to satisfy their desires though they knew it was right. In order to avoid facing any threats or making any sacrifices, lazing about or to satisfy the desires of their lower-selves, some of them made concessions and preferred to abide by their lower selves. In the Qur'an, Allah relates the state of those who feigned excuses on behalf of their lower selves to evade being with our Prophet (May Allah bless him and grant him peace):
As we have seen, such people made excuses so they would not have to accompany the Prophet (May Allah bless him and grant him peace) and the believers, and would not have to fully implement Islamic moral values in their lives. Maybe they told others how logical they were. However, these excuses were invalid in Allah's Sight and so they only deceived themselves. By preferring their worldly desires - over Allah's approval, they clearly ascribed equals to Allah.
People living at our Prophet's (May Allah bless him and grant him peace) time were tested under the conditions of the time; people today are also being tested. Allah knows whether they are sincere when they have to choose between their own desires and His approval, or whether they make excuses like the idolaters in the past. Everyone will be appropriately rewarded or punished in the Hereafter for their actions in this world while no excuses can be made in the Presence of Allah. In the Qur'an Allah reveals this truth:
Given the above, people today should not distance themselves from the Qur'an and invent excuses for turning away from Islamic moral values.
First and foremost, someone who ascribes equals to Allah in an unwise manner has adopted as a law-giver some thing or person other than Allah. This supposed "equal" to Allah could be the person himself or herself, family members or ancestors, friends, employer, society, and even the founders and followers of various philosophies and ideologies. Looked at from this viewpoint, people who follow a path other than the revelations by Allah have chosen, either consciously or not, idolatry. Regardless of what they call themselves (e.g., agnostic, atheist, Christian, Jew, or Muslim), they are idolaters. Even if they perform the five daily prayers, fast, and perform many Islamic observances, they are still idolaters if even one of their thoughts or value judgments conflicts with the Qur'an, if they abandon Allah's commands, or if they try to please others instead of Him. Since they have adopted some other entity besides Allah as a law-maker.
Someone who ascribes partners to Allah does not have to think "this is also a deity" or say "I have adopted this as a deity alongside Allah and worship this, too," (Surely Allah is beyond that), for idolatry is first of all in the heart and then reflected in deed. As the Qur'an makes clear, people's preference for any other entity than Allah causes them to become idolaters. However, such people generally do not deny Allah's existence; in fact, many of them refuse to admit that they are idolaters at all. Having smothered their consciences and deceived themselves, they even deny their idolatry in the Hereafter. Allah reveals in the Qur'an: