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Categories of Shirk

Categories of Shirk
Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips

The study of Tawheed cannot be considered complete without a careful analysis of its opposite, Shirk. Some mention of Shirk has already been made in the previous chapter and examples of it have been given to illustrate how Tawheed may be obliterated. However, in this chapter Shirk will be looked at as a separate topic whose grave importance Allaah has attested to in the Qur'aan,

"Surely Allaah will not forgive the association of partners (Shirk) with Him, but He forgives (sins) less than that of whomever He wishes."

Because the sin of Shirk denies the very purpose of man's creation, it is to God the gravest of sins; the unforgivable sin.

Shirk literally means partnership, sharing or associating, but Islamically it refers to the act of assigning partners to Allaah in whatever form it may take. The following analysis of Shirk is according to the three broad categories developed in the study of Tawheed. Hence, we will first look at the main ways in which Shirk can occur in the area of Ruboobeeyah (Lordship), then Asmaa was-Sifaat (Divine Names and Attributes) and finally in 'Ebaadah (Worship).

Shirk in Ruboobeeyah

This category of Shirk refers to either the belief that others share Allaah's Lordship over creation as His equal or near equal, or to the belief that there exists no Lord over creation at all. Most religious systems fall into the first aspect of Shirk in Ruboobeeyah while it is the philosophers and their man-made philosophies who tend to fill the second aspect.

(A) Shirk by Association

Beliefs which fall under this sub-category are ones in which a main God or Supreme Being over creation is recognized, however His dominion is shared by other lesser gods, spirits, mortals, heavenly bodies or earthly objects. Such belief systems are commonly referred to by theologians and philosophers as either monotheistic (having one God) or polytheistic (having more than one God). According to Islaam, all of these systems are polytheistic and many represent various degrees in the degeneration of divinely revealed religious systems all of which were originally based on Tawheed.

Within Hinduism, the Supreme Being Brahman is conceived as indwelling, all-pervading, unchangeable and eternal, the abstract impersonal Absolute, in which all things have their origin and end. While the god Brahma is the personified creator of the universe who forms a trinity with the preserver god, Vishnu and the destroyer god, Shiva. Thus, Shirk in Ruboobeeyah is expressed in Hinduism by the delegation of God's creative, destructive and preservative powers to other gods.

Christian belief states that the one God reveals himself in the three persons of Father, Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit. These three persons are nevertheless regarded as a unity, sharing one 'substance'. Prophet Jesus is elevated to divinity, sits on the right hand of God and judges the world. The Holy Spirit, who in the Hebrew Bible is the means by which God exercises his creative power, in Christian thought becomes a part of the God-head. Paul made the Holy Spirit the alter ego of Christ, the guide and help of Christians, first manifesting itself on the day of Penecost. Consequently, Shirk in Ruboobeeyah occurs in the Christian belief that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are God's partners in all of His dominion, in their belief that Jesus alone pronounces judgement on the world and in their belief that Christians are helped and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Zoroastrians (Parsis) conceive of God, Ahura Mazda, as being the creator of all that is good, and is alone worthy of absolute worship. Fire is one of the seven creations of Ahura Mazda and is considered his son or representative. But they also commit Shirk in Ruboobeeyah by conceiving of evil, violence and death as being the creation of another god called Angra Mainyu whom they represent by the symbol darkness. Hence, God's sovereignty over all creation (i.e. His Ruboobeeyah) is shared with an evil spirit elevated to the level of an opposing god due to man's desire to not attribute evil to God.

In the Yoruba religion, followed by over 10 million people in West Africa (mainly Nigeria), there is one supreme God, Olorius (Lord of Heaven) or Olodumare. Nevertheless, modern Yoruba religion is characterized by a multitude of Orisha worship, so that Yoruba religion appears as strict polytheism. Consequently, Yorubas commit Shirk in Ruboobeeyah by turning over all of God's functions to minor gods and spirits.

The Zulus of South Africa believe in one God, Unkulunkulu, meaning the ancient, the first, the most revered one. The principal specific titles for God are; Nkosi yaphezulu (Lord-of-the-Sky) and uMvelingqanqi (the first to appear). Their Supreme Being is represented as a male, who, along with the earth female, bring forth the human world. Thunder and Lightening are in Zulu religion acts of God, whereas sickness and other troubles in life may be caused by the ancestors, the "Idlozi" or "abaphansi" (those under the earth). The ancestors also protect the living, ask for food, are pleased with ritual and sacrifice, punish neglect and take possession of fortune tellers (inyanga). Thus, Shirk in Ruboobeeyah takes place in the Zulu religion not only in their concept of the creation of the human world but also their attribution of good and evil in human life to the work of ancestral spirits.

Among some Muslim people, Shirk in Ruboobeeyah is manifested in their belief that the souls of saints and other righteous humans can affect the affairs of this world, even after their deaths. Their souls, it is believed, can fulfill one's needs, remove calamities and aid whoever calls on them. Therefore, grave worshippers assign to human souls the divine ability to cause events in this life which in fact only Allaah can cause.

Common among many Sufis (Muslim mystics) is the belief in "Rijaal al-Ghayb", chief of whom occupies the station called "Qutub" from which the affairs of this world are governed.

(B) Shirk by Negation

This sub-category represents the various philosophies and ideologies which deny the existence of God either explicitly or implicitly. That is, in some cases God's non-existence is stated (Atheism), while in other cases His existence is claimed, but the way in which He is conceived actually denies His existence (Pantheism).

There are a few ancient religious "systems" in which God does not exist, foremost among them is the system attributed to Gautama Buddha. Buddhism, a reformist movement in Hinduism opposed to the caste system, was founded in the 6th century BC during the same period as Jainism. During the 3rd century BC it became the state religion. Eventually it was assimilated by Hinduism, Buddha himself becoming one of the Avatars (incarnations of God). It disappeared from India but became dominant in China and other Eastern nations. Hinayana Buddhism (400-250 BC), the earlier and more strict of the two interpretations of Buddhism which arose after Gautama Buddha's death, makes it clear that there is no God; hence the burden of salvation belongs to the individual alone. Thus, this ancient strain of Buddhism could be classified as an example of Shirk in Ruboobeeyah wherein God's existence is explicitly denied.

Similarly in the teachings of Jainism as systematized by Vardhamana, there is no God, but liberated souls achieve something of this status, having immortality and omniscience; and the religious community treats the liberated ones as though they were divine, building temples to them and venerating their images.

Another ancient example is that of the Pharaoh of Prophet Moses' time. Allaah mentioned in the Qur'aan that he negated the existence of God and claimed to Moses and the people of Egypt that he, Pharaoh, was the only true lord of all creation. Allaah quoted him as saying to Moses, "If you chose a god besides me, I will surely imprison you" and to the people, "He proclaimed, 'I am your Lord, the Most High"

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a number of European philosophers asserted the non-existence of God in what became know as the "death of God philosophy". The German philosopher Philipp Mainlander (1841-1876) in his principal writing, The Philosophy of Redemption, 1876, states that the world begins with the death of God, since God is a principle of unity shattered in the plurality of the world and a principle of joy denied in the law of suffering which dominates the worid. In Prussia Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) supported the idea of the "death of God" proposing that God was nothing more than a projection of man's uneasy conscience and that man was the bridge to the Superman. Jean Paul Sartre, a French philosopher of the twentieth century also echoed the "death of God" thought. He claimed that God could not exist because He was a contradiction in terms. The idea of God, according to him, is a projection which man must make being what he is.

Darwin's (d. 1882) proposal that man was merely a glorified ape was widely adopted in the theories of social scientists and philosophers of the nineteenth century as it provided a "scientific" basis for the non-existence of God. According to them religion evolved from animism to monotheism along with man's supposed social evolution from an independent individual to a national state and his physical evolution from ape to man.

They attempt to escape the questions surrounding creation by claiming that there was none and by attributing Allaah's attribute of being without beginning and end to matter which He has created. Present day holders of this belief are the followers of Karl Marx, communists and scientific socialists, who claim that the origin of everything in existence is matter in motion. They further claim that God is a figment of man's imagination created by the ruling classes to justify their hereditary rule and divert the attention of the oppressed masses from the realities in which they live.

An example of this form of Shirk among some Muslims is that of many Sufis like Ibn 'Arabee who claim that only Allaah exists (All is Allaah, and Allaah is all). They deny the separate existence of Allaah and thereby in fact deny His existence. This idea was also expressed in the 17th century by the Dutch Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, who claimed that God is the total of all parts of the universe including man.

Shirk in al-Asmaa was-Sifaat

Shirk in this category includes both the common pagan practise of giving Allaah the attributes of His creation as well as the act of giving created beings Allaah's names and attributes.

(A) Shirk by Humanization

In this aspect of Shirk in al-Asmaa was-Sifaat, Allaah 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 God 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. For example, Hindus and Buddhists worship countless idols in the likeness of Asian men and consider them manifestations of God in creation. Modern day Christian belief that Prophet Jesus was God incarnate; that the Creator became His creation, is another good example of this type of Shirk. There have been many so-called great Christian painters like Michaelangelo (d. 1565), who painted pictures of God as a naked old European man with long flowing white hair and beard on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. These pictures have in turn, been held by the Christian world in the highest of esteem.

(B) Shirk by Deification

This form of Shirk in al-Asmaa was-Sifaat relates to cases where created beings or things are given or claim Allaah'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 Allaah. Their main three idols were: al-Laat taken from Allaah's name al-Elaah, al-'Uzza taken from al-'Azeez and al-Manaat taken from al-Mannaan. During the Prophet Muhammad's era there was also a false prophet in a region of Arabia called Yamaamah, who took the name Rahmaan which only belongs to Allaah.

Among the Shi'ite sects is the Nusayreeyah of Syria, who believe that the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, 'Alee ibn Abee Taalib, was a manifestation of Allaah and give him many of Allaah's qualities. Among them is also the Ismai'ils also know as Agha Khanis who consider their leader, the Agha Khan, to be God incarnate. Also included in this category are the Druze of Lebanon who believe that the Faatimid Caliph al-Haakim bi Amrillaah, was the last manifestation of Allaah among mankind.

Claims of Sufis (muslim mystics) like al-Hallaaj that they have become one with God and as such exist as manifestations of the Creator within His creation may also be included in this aspect of Shirk in al-Asmaa was-sifaat. Modern-day spiritualists and mediums like Shirley Maclaine, J.Z. Knight, etc., often claim divinity for themselves as well as mankind in general. Einstein's Theory of Relativity (E = mc2, Energy is equal to mass times the square of the speed of light) taught in all schools is in fact an expression of Shirk in al-Asmaa was-Sifaat. The theory states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it merely transforms into matter and vice versa. However, both matter and energy are created entities and they both will be destroyed as Allaah clearly states:

"Allaah is the creator of all things..."
"Everything in (the world) will perish..."

The theory also implies that mass and energy are eternal having no beginning or end since they are supposed to be uncreated and transform into each other. However, this attribute belongs only to Allaah who alone is without beginning or end.

[MSA-USC Editor's note: Understand that the author is pointing out a flaw in an informal part of the theory of relativity, that is, that matter and energy are eternal. The author is not arguing against the mathematical relationship between these two, but rather against their independence from Allaah's all-encompassing power - both creative and destructive.]

Darwin's theory of evolution is also an attempt to explain the evolution of life and its forms from lifeless matter without the intervention of God. One of the leading Darwinists of this century, Sir Aldous Huxley expressed this thought as follows:

"Darwinism removed the whole idea of God as the creator of organisms from the sphere of national discussion."

Shirk In al-'Ebaadah

In this category of Shirk, acts of worship are directed to other than God 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-'Ebaadah has two main aspects.

(A) Ash-Shirk al-Akbar (Major Shirk):

This form of Shirk occurs when any act of worship is directed to other than Allaah. It represents the most obvious form of idolatry which the prophets were specifically sent by Allaah to call the masses of mankind away from. This concept is supported by Allaah's statement in the Qur'aan:

"Surely we have sent to every nation a messenger saying, worship Allaah and avoid Taaghoot (false gods)"

Taaghoot actually means anything which is worshipped along with Allaah or instead of Allaah. For example, love is a form of worship which, in its perfection, should only be directed to Allaah. In Islaam, the love of God is expressed by total obedience to Him. It is not the type of love which man naturally feels toward creation; towards parents, children, food, etc. To direct that type of love towards God is to lower Him to the level of His creation which is Shirk in al-Asmaa was-Sifaat. Love which is worship is the total surrender of one's will to God. Consequently, Allaah told the Prophet (saws) to tell the believers:

"Say: If you love Allaah, follow me and Allaah will love you."

The Prophet (saws) also told his companions, "None of you is a true believer until I become more beloved to him than his child, his father and the whole of mankind". Love of the Prophet (saws) is not based on his humanity but on the divine origin of his message. Thus, like the love of Allaah, it is also expressed by total obedience to his commands.

Allaah said in the final revelation:

"Whoever obeys the Messenger has obeyed Allaah,"


"Say: Obey Allaah and obey the Prophet..."

If man allows the love of anything or anyone to come between himself and Allaah, then he has worshipped that thing. In this way, money can become one's god or even one's desires could become a god. The Prophet (saws) said, "The worshipper of the Dirham will always be miserable" and Allaah said in the Qur'aan

"Have you not seen the one who takes his desires as his god?"

Much emphasis has been placed on the evils of Shirk in 'Ebaadah (worship) because it contradicts the very purpose of creation as expressed in Allaah's statement:

"I have not created Jinn or mankind except for my worship."

Major Shirk represents the greatest act of rebellion against the Lord of the Universe, and is thus the ultimate sin. It is a sin so great that it virtually cancels out all good a person may do and guarantees its perpetrator eternal damnation in Hell. Consequently, false religion is based primarily on this form of Shirk. All man-made systems in one way or another invite their followers to the worship of creation. Christians are called upon to pray to a man, a Prophet of God named Jesus, whom they claim to have been God incarnate. Catholics among Christians pray to Mary as the "mother of God", to the angels like Michael who is honored on May 8 and September 29, Michaelmas Day, as St. Michael, as well as to human saints, whether real or fictitious.

Muslims whose acts of worship fall into this category of Shirk are those who pray to Prophet Muhammad (saws) or to mystics in the Sufi hierarchy of saints believing that they can answer their prayers, though Allaah has clearly said in the Qur'aan:

"Say: Think to yourselves, if Allaah's punishment came upon you or the Final Hour, would you then call on other than Allaah? (Reply) if you are truthful."

(B) Ash-Shirk al-Asghar (Minor Shirk):

Mabmood ibn Lubayd reported, "Allaah's messenger (saws) said: "The thing I fear for you the most is ash-Shirk al-Asghar (minor shirk)." The companions asked "Oh! messenger of Allaah, what is minor Shirk?" He replied "Ar-Riyaa (showing off), for verily Allaah 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.'"

Mahmood ibn Lubayd also said, "The Prophet (saws) came out and announced, 'O people, beware of secret shirk!' The people asked, 'O messenger of Allaah, 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."


Riyaa is the practise of performing any of the various forms of worship in order to be seen and praised by people. This sin destroys all the benefits that lie in righteous deeds and brings on the one who commits it a serious punishment. It is particularly dangerous, because it is natural for man to desire and enjoy the praise of his fellow men. Doing religious acts to impress people or in order to be praised by them is, therefore, an evil which deserves man's utmost caution. This danger is really significant to the believers whose goal is to make all of the acts of their lives religious acts dedicated to God. In fact, the likelihood that knowledgable true believers would commit ash-Shirk al-Akbar is small, since its pitfalls are so obvious. But, for the true believer like everyone else, the chance of committing Riyaa is great because it is so hidden. It only involves the simple act of changing one's intention. The motivating forces behind it are also very strong, since it comes from man's inner nature. Ibn 'Abbaas alluded to this reality when he said, "Shirk is more hidden than a black ant creeping on a black stone in the middle of a moonless night."

Thus, great care has to be taken to ensure that one's intentions begin pure and remain pure whenever righteous deeds are being done. In order to ensure this, the saying of Allaah's name is enjoined in Islaam before all acts of importance. A series of Du'aas (informal prayers) have also been prescribed by the Prophet (saws) before and after all natural habits like eating, drinking, sleeping, sex, and even going to the toilet, in order to turn these everyday habits into acts of worship and develop in Muslims a keen awareness of Allaah. It is this awareness, called Taqwaa, which ultimately insures that intentions remain pure.

The Prophet (saws) also provided protection against the inevitable acts of Shirk by teaching certain specific prayers which may be said anytime. Abu Moosaa said, "One day Allaah's messenger delivered a sermon saying 'O people, fear Shirk for it is more hidden than the creeping of an ant.' Those whom Allaah wished asked, 'And how do we avoid it when it is more hidden than the creeping of an ant, O Messenger of Allaah?' He replied, 'Say: Allaahumma Innaa na'oodhu bika an nushrika bika shay'an na'lamuh, wa nastaghfiruka limaa laa na'lamuh (O Allaah, we seek refuge in you from knowingly committing shirk with you and we ask your forgiveness for what we do not know about).'"

In the following chapters a more detailed look will be taken of the most prominent areas in which Shirk in all its three aspects most commonly occurs.





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