What is Shirk (Polytheism) and its manifestations (in Islam)?

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What is Shirk?

Shirk basically is polytheism, i.e. the worship of others along with Allah. It also implies attributing divine attributes to any other besides Allah. It particularly implies associating partners in worship with Allah or to believe that the source of power, harm or blessings is from others besides Allah.

Types of Shirk

There are three types of Shirk, namely:

(1) Ash-Shirk-al-Akbar, i.e. major Shirk

(2) Ash-Shirk-al-Asghar, i.e. minor Shirk

(3) Ash-Shirk-al-Khafi, i.e. inconspicuous Shirk.

Ash-Shirk-al-Akbar (The major Shirk):

The major and serious polytheistic form, it has four aspects:

(a) Shirk-ad-Du’â, i.e. invocation.This aspect implies invoking, supplicating or praying to other deities besides Allah.

Almighty Allah says:

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"And when they embark on a ships they invoke Allah, making their Faith pure for Him only, but when He brings them safely to land, behold, they give a share of their worship to others," (Quran – V.29:65)

(b) Shirk-al-Niyyah wal-Iradah wal-Qasd. This aspect implies intentions, purpose and determination in acts of worship or religious deeds not for the sake of Allah but directed towards other deities.

(c) Shirk-at-Tâ’a. This aspect implies rendering obedience to any authority against the Order of Allah.

Almighty Allah says:

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"They (Jews and Christians) took their Rabbis and their monks to be their lords besides Allah (by obeying them in things which they made lawful or unlawful according to their own desires without being ordered by Allah), and (they also took as their lord) Messiah, son of Maryam (Mary), while they (Jews and Christians) were commanded (in the Torah and the Gospel) to worship none but One Ilâh (God i.e., Allah), Lâ ilâha illâ Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He). Praise and Glory be to Him, (far above is He) from having the partners they associate (with Him)." (Quran – V.9:31).

Once, while Allah’s Messenger (SAW) was reciting the above Verse, ‘Adi bin Hatim said, "O Allah’s Prophet! They do not worship them (rabbis and monks)." Allah’s Messenger said, "They certainly do. They (i.e. Rabbis and monks) made legal things illegal, and illegal things legal, and they (i.e. Jews and Christians) followed them; and by doing so they really worshipped them."(Narrated by Ahmad, At-Tirmidhi, and Ibn Jarir). (Tafsir At-Tabari, Vol.10, Page No. 114).

(d) Shirk-al-Mahabbah. This implies showing the love which is due to Allah Alone, to others than Him.

Almighty Allah says:

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"And of mankind are some who take (for worship) others besides Allah as rivals (to Allah). They love them as they love Allah. But those who believe, love Allah more (than anything else). If only those who do wrong could see, when they will see the torment, that all power belongs to Allah and that Allah is Severe in punishment." (Quran – V. 2:165)

(2) Ash-Shirk-al-Asghar Ar-Riyâ’ (The minor Shirk, i.e. acts performed to show off)

Any act of worship or any religious deed done in order to gain praise, fame or for worldly purposes, falls under this minor form.

Almighty Allah says:

islam on What is Shirk (Polytheism) and its manifestations (in Islam)?

"Say (O Muhammad SAW ) : ‘I am only a man like you, it has been inspired to me that your Ilâh (God) is One Ilâh (God i.e Allah). So whoever hopes for the meeting with his Lord, let him work righteousness and associate none as a partner in the worship of his Lord.’ " (Quran – V. 18:110)

(3) Ash-Shirk-al-Khafi (The inconspicuous Shirk).

This type implies being inwardly dissatisfied with the inevitable condition that has been ordained for one by Allah; conscientiously lamenting that had you done or not done such and such or had you approached such and such you would have had a better status, etc.

The Noble Prophet Muhammad SAW said:

"Ash-Shirk-al-Khafi in the Muslim nation is more inconspicuous than the creeping of black ant on black rock in the pitch-darkness of the night." And this inconspicuous Shirk is expiated by saying thrice the following sentences within a day and a night: "O Allah! I take Your refuge from that I should ascribe anything as partner in Your worship, being conscious of that, and I beg Your pardon for that sin which I am not aware of."

Major and Minor Shirk – A Clarification

The texts of the Quran and Sunnah indicate that shirk and the ascribing of rivals to Allah sometimes puts a person beyond the pale of Islam and sometimes does not. Hence the scholars divided shirk into two types which they call shirk akbar (major shirk) and shirk asghar (minor shirk). There follows a brief description of each type:

1 – Major shirk

This means ascribing to someone other than Allah something that belongs only to Allah, such as Lordship (ruboobiyyah), divinity (uloohiyyah) and the divine names and attributes (al-asma’ wa’l-sifaat).

Major Shirk may sometimes take the form of beliefs

Such as the belief that there is someone else who creates, gives life and death, reigns or controls the affairs of the universe along with Allah.

Or the belief that there is someone else who must be obeyed absolutely besides Allah, so they follow him in regarding as permissible or forbidden whatever he wants, even if that goes against the religion of the Messengers.

Or they may associate others with Allah in love and veneration, by loving a created being as they love Allah. This is the kind of shirk that Allah does not forgive.

Or the belief that there are those who know the Unseen as well as Allah. It is also shirk to believe that there is someone who bestows mercy in a manner that is befitting only for Allah, so he shows mercy as Allah does and forgives sins and overlooks the bad deeds of his worshippers. 

Major Shirk may sometimes take the form of words

Such as those who make dua or pray to someone other than Allah, or seek his help or seek refuge with him with regard to matters over which no one has control except Allah, whether the person called upon is a Prophet, a wali (“saint”), an angel or a jinn, or some other created being. This is a kind of major shirk which puts one beyond the pale of Islam.

Or such as those who make fun of religion or who liken Allah to His creation, or say that there is another creator, provider or controller besides Allah. All of these are major shirk and a grave sin that is not forgiven.

Major Shirk may sometimes take the form of actions

Such as one who sacrifices, prays or prostrates to something other than Allah, or who promulgates laws to replace the rulings of Allah.

2 – Minor shirk

This includes everything that may lead to major shirk, or which is described in the texts as being shirk, but does not reach the extent of being major shirk.

This is usually of two types:

1 – Being emotionally attached to some means which have no basis and  for which Allah has not given permission, such as hanging up “hands”, turquoise beads, amulets, etc on the grounds that they offer protection or that they ward off the evil eye. But Allah has not made them the means of such protection, either according to shareeah or according to the laws of the universe.

2 – Venerating some people or things in a way that does not go so far as ascribing lordship to them, such as swearing by something other than Allah, or saying, “Were it not for Allah and So and so,” etc.

The scholars have stipulated guidelines to distinguish major shirk from minor shirk when shirk is mentioned in the texts of sharee’ah. These guidelines include the following:

(i) – When the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) states clearly that this action is minor shirk, such as in al-Musnad (27742) where it is narrated that Mahmoud ibn Labeed said: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “The thing that I fear most for you is minor shirk.” They said: “O Messenger of Allah, what is minor shirk?” He said: “Showing off, for Allah will say on the Day when people are recompensed for their actions: ‘Go to those for whom you were showing off with your deeds in the world, and see what reward you find with them.’” Classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in al-Silsilah al-Saheehah, 951.

(ii) – When the word shirk is used in the texts of the Quran and Sunnah in the indefinite form [without the definite article al-]. This usually refers to minor shirk, and there are many examples of this, such as when the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “Incantations, amulets and love spells are shirk.” Narrated by Abu Dawood, 3883; classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in al-Silsilah al-Saheehah, 331.

(iii) – If the Sahaabah understood from the texts of sharee’ah that what was meant by shirk here was minor shirk, not major. Undoubtedly the understanding of the Sahaabah carries weight, because they are the most knowledgeable of the people (after the prophet) concerning the religion of Allah, and the most knowledgeable as to the intent of the Lawgiver. For example, Abu Dawood (3910) narrated from Ibn Mas’ood (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Tiyarah (superstitious belief in omens) is shirk, tiyarah is shirk,” three times, and there is no one among us but (will have some of that) but Allah will rid him of it by means of tawakkul (putting his trust in Allah). The words “there is no one among us…” are the words of Ibn Mas’ood, as was explained by the prominent scholars of hadeeth. This indicates that Ibn Mas’ood (may Allah be pleased with him) understood that this was minor shirk, because he could not have said, “There is no one among us…” referring to major shirk. Moreover, major shirk cannot be eliminated by means of tawakkul, rather it is essential to repent there from.

(iv) – If the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) interpreted the words shirk or kufr in a manner which indicates that what is meant is a minor form thereof and not the major form. For example al-Bukhaari (1038) and Muslim (74) narrated from Zayd ibn Khaalid al-Juhani that he said: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) led the morning prayer for us at al-Hudaybiyah following rainfall during the night. When the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) finished, he turned to face the people and said to them: “Do you know what your Lord has said?” They said: “Allah and his Messenger know best.” He said: “This morning one of My slaves became a believer in Me and one a disbeliever. As for him who said: ‘We have been given rain by the grace of Allaah and His mercy,’ that one is a believer in Me, a disbeliever in the stars; and as for him who said: ‘We have been given rain by such-and-such a star, that one is a disbeliever in Me, a believer in the stars.’” 

Minor shirk may sometimes take the form of outward actions, such as wearing talismans, strings, amulets and the like, and other words and deeds. And sometimes it may be hidden, like a little bit of showing off.

Minor Shirk may also take the form of beliefs

Such as the belief that something may be a cause of bringing benefit or warding off harm, when Allah has not made it so; or believing that there is barakah (blessing) in a thing, when Allah has not made it so.

Minor Shirk sometimes takes the form of words

Such as when they said, “We have been given rain by such and such a star,” without believing that that the stars could independently cause rain to fall; or swearing by something other than Allah, without believing in venerating the thing sworn by or regarding it as equal with Allah; or saying, “Whatever Allah wills and you will,” and so on.

Minor Shirk sometimes takes the form of actions

Such as hanging up amulets or wearing a talisman or string to dispel or ward off calamity, because everyone who attribute powers to a thing when Allah has not made it so either according to sharee’ah or according to the laws of the universe, has associated something with Allah. This also applies to one who touches a thing seeking its barakah (blessing), when Allah has not created any barakah in it, such as kissing the doors of the mosques, touching their thresholds, seeking healing from their dust, and other such actions.

Soruce and References:

1. Dr. M. Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali, Ph.D., Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan -  Islamic University, Al-Madinah Al-Munawwara. Source: Noble Quran – English Translation of the meanings and commentary

2. Islamqa.info

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