What is shirk (polytheism) in Islam?

Polytheism (“shirk”) is defined as ascribing an aspect of divinity to anyone or anything beside Allah. From this perspective, shirk is equal to ascribing partners/equals to Allah. Such a deed, obviously, contradicts the very core concept of monotheism in Islam and is the biggest sin in Islam.

If Allah wishes, He may forgive any sin even if the sinner does not repent; however, shirk is never forgiven without sincerest repentance (Zumar 39:53 and 4:48). Because shirk is seen as a betrayal of Allah’s love toward His creations, namely humans.

The opposite of shirk is tawheed. The term tawheed means, “ascribing any and all divinity to Allah alone and ascribing no partners to Allah.” Obviously, the two terms are antonyms and one cannot exist where the other is present.

Islam teaches that worshipping anything and anyone beside Allah is an act of shirk, be it an angel, a holy spirit, a prophet, a saint, an esteemed person or a star, Earth, etc. The only address for prayers and worship is Allah. Worshiping other(s) beside or instead of Allah would be equal to appointing oneself a divine being.

There is a clear concept in hierarchy and subordination: The enforcer of a task is superior, while the tasked one is inferior. Contrary to this notion, one’s ability to select a “god” renders that person the master of that very “deity.” In Islam, this is called “appointing one’s own god,” which essentially means worshipping one’s own ego. Simply put, such people deify their own desires and dreams (Yunus 10:66).

Thus, any kind and form of shirk is a transgression of one’s boundaries.

Imagining one has the ability to appoint their own divinity and then worship it is a paradox in and of itself, which will inevitably lead to the destruction of human’s spiritual integrity.

As mentioned above, ascribing Allah’s divine qualities to others than Him is an act of shirk. Ascribing perfectness and flawlessness is an act of shirk, for only Allah is flawless and perfect. 

Therefore, the Qur’an thusly warns those who say “Jesus is the son of Allah”: “Indeed, [by this assertion] you have brought forth something monstrous, whereat the heavens might well-nigh be rent into fragments, and the earth be split asunder, and the mountains fall down in ruins!” (Maryam 19:89-90)

Polytheism (shirk) is a shackle Satan locks on humans’ spiritual freedom. Any kind or act of shirk is an attempt to render Allah’s trust in people moot. Any kind and form of shirk makes a human being a slave to another fellow human, or to a matter, or to his/her own ego.

What does the term “shirk” envelop?

Claiming that an individual or a group, an organization or an institution is capable of wielding divine powers, which belong to Allah alone, is an act of shirk. The Qur’an clearly defines any tangible or intangible “authority” ascribed as a “partner” or “equivalent” to Allah in establishing divine laws and/or rulings as “taghut” (adversarial). Because only Allah is Allah.

He is the only Entity worthy of worship; everything and everyone else has the right to worship Him, not to be worshipped. Attempting to steal this or that quality of His does not divinize the attempter. Doing so only blemishes that person’s humanness, because one claiming divinity had to have tarnished his/her humanness first.

The only party secure from any imaginable damage in such a situation is clearly Allah: “Allah is He save whom there is no deity: the Sovereign Supreme, the Holy, the One with whom all salvation rests, the Giver of Faith, the One who determines what is true and false, the Almighty, the One who subdues wrong and restores right, the One to whom all greatness belongs!

Utterly remote is Allah, in His limitless glory, from anything to which men may ascribe a share in His divinity!” (Hashr 59:23) Ascribing flaws or imperfectness to Allah is an act of shirk as well. This kind of shirk includes ascribing human qualities to Allah.

The heinous illusion that Allah has flaws speaks to the deficiency of the beholder. Unless someone like this corrects his/ her vision, they will not be able to see what they are looking at in its true shape and essence. Every single magnificent name of Allah—“al-asma al-husna”—mentioned in the Qur’an speaks to His perfectness.

One goal of the al-asma al-husna is making humans aware of Allah’s qualities and powers; the other goal is making those very humans aware that they will never reach perfectness in qualities and powers Allah granted them. 

When prayers are directed at Allah alone and when He alone is worshipped then one can say this is a prayer and worship; ascribing partners to Allah in prayer or worship is indeed an act of shirk and such objects are clearly powerless idols.

Why is shirk prohibited in Islam?

Shirk is ingratitude toward Allah (Quraysh 106:1-4), because it is an infringement on Allah’s right to be worshipped alone. Any and all forms of shirk cultivate and support the concept of “a remote Allah.” When the human thinks he cannot reach Allah without an intercessor, shirk thrives! All the while Allah is closer to him than his jugular vein. 

Shirk is one’s invention of lies about Allah: “And who could be more wicked than one who invents [such] a lie about [a message from] Allah?” (Saf 61:7)  Shirk renders one’s efforts and attempts vain: “… If thou ever ascribe divine powers to aught but Allah, all thy works shall most certainly have been in vain: for [in the life to come] thou shalt most certainly be among the lost” (Zumar 39:65) Shirk deprives one of Allah’s mercy and grace: “Do not set up any other deity side by side with Allah, lest thou find thyself disgraced and forsaken” (‘Isra’ 17:22) So, shirk can be seen as the demise of a human’s internal unity and integrity.

Shirk undermines the spiritual dynamism and destroys inner energy. Shirk, obviously, cannot inflict any harm on the Lord of the worlds. On the contrary, shirk destroys only that person who commits this heinous crime.

Therefore, shirk is a moral schizophrenia, which destroys humans’ ability to comprehend and maintain balance between feelings and thoughts, spirit and body, tangible and intangible, and soul and mind. Shirk weakens such people in comparison to those objects that are being ascribed divine features. For instance, if one believes in the bad omen of the number 13, he/she is likely to have nightmares in a hotel room No. 13. That is the kind of negative impacts shirk could inflict on humans. The Qur’an qualifies shirk as “the greatest oppression” (Luqman 31:13). 

What is dhulm (oppression) according to Islam?

In the Islamic teachings, the word “dhulm” is used as the antonym for the word “justice.” Whatever is unjust, it is oppressive. Justice is giving one what he/she rightfully deserves, while oppression is depriving one of it. Violence is absolutely prohibited in Islam in however small amount or insignificant form. The Qur’an commands every believer to be just toward each other and the environment (Nuh 16:90).

Allah also says the following in the Qur’an: “Never do I do the least wrong unto My creatures!” (Kâf 50:29) 

There is no single justification for oppression in Islam. There is absolutely no benefit to the religion or the state, to the individual or the society; hence the prohibition of oppression of anyone by anyone. In the Qur’an, Allah says, “Never would We destroy a community unless its people are wont to do wrong [to one another]” (Qasas 28:59).

This is why Islamic scholars and thinkers argue that “States fail not because of disbelief, but because of oppression.” 

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