Interpreting the Hobbies of ‘Shirk’ and ‘Kufr’

Sawt al-Ummah, Issue #100
October 28, 2002

Islam came to the desert Arabs to proclaim a nation of tolerance and understanding in the face of tribal hatred, ugliness and narrow-mindedness. With Islam, the Arabs established a nation of compassion after the failure of the age of ignorance to establish a similar nation if only the size of a mosquito or a pill of aspirin. The gateway to this new nation was inscribed with Allah’s Beautiful Names and prayers were said at dawn in mosques of marble columns inscribed with prayers and supplications like green foliage. What has happened to our faith after all this time? Why do we feel ourselves spiritually bankrupt despite the wealth of religious knowledge we have inherited. Why do we preserve the outer shell of Islam when we conceal so much ignorance under our skins? Why have we abandoned springs and fountains to return to drought and thirst?

Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new hobby or pastime – that of accusing people of ‘heresy’ (Ar: kufr), ‘associating others with Allah’ (Ar: shirk) and at the very least describing what people do as ‘misguided innovation’ (Ar: bida’a) that leads to hellfire. To have any hope of saving ourselves we have to come to terms with each other. We have to agree on the meanings of the words we use before we can reach opinions. We cannot reach an opinion about alcoholic drinks before we agree on what alcohol is. We cannot accuse someone of shirk before we agree on its meaning. Many long and complex definitions of shirk have been put forward by the clerics but most are incomprehensible to ordinary people. What is needed is a simple and yet comprehensive definition that can be easily digested. The meaning of shirk is ‘to associate others with Allah in what are only His’. Shirk does not mean, as is commonly thought, ‘to associate others with Allah’. This definition is incomplete. It is incomplete because Allah sometimes gives permission to others to do certain things that only Allah has the power to do. He gave permission, for example, to Sayedena Issa (a.s.) to bring the dead to life. The key to a proper understanding of shirk therefore lies in the words ‘in what are only His’ What belongs to Allah and no other is His Divinity (Ar: uluhiyah) which has certain Essential Aspects (Ar: moqtadayat al-uluhiya).

If someone were to claim divinity Islam teaches us we are obliged to challenge that claim just as the Quran challenges the claims of the non-believers that they could produce something similar to the Quran. Allah says to them: ‘Come with a similar chapter and bring your witnesses other than Allah’ (Al-Baqarah: 23). If someone were to claim divinity we should ask him to produce evidence of it. He will say, for example, he is generous and Allah is generous. He will say he is strong, powerful and all-knowing and so too is Allah. We might then ask him how long he has been able to enjoy these attributes to which he will probably reply that he has enjoyed them since he was born. At this time, we can say to him, that therein lies a basic difference. He was born with these attributes. Allah was not born. He always had them. This is  ‘precedence’ (Ar: as-sabq) which is the first of the Essential Aspects that belong to Allah alone. We may then ask him if there are any limits to the attributes he enjoys. For example, do his generosity, strength, power and knowledge extend to the entire universe and all that it contains? Do they extend to both what is apparent and to what is hidden? Hopefully he will reply that his attributes are limited which will allow us to tell him that Allah’s Attributes, unlike his, are characterized by ‘absoluteness’ (Ar: al-itlaq) and therefore have no limits. They are not limited by past, present or future. They are absolute in both what is apparent and what is hidden. We can then inquire how long he expects to be able to enjoy his attributes of generosity, strength power and knowledge. A hundred years? A thousand? A generation? Three generations? No matter how he answers, it’s unlikely he will say they will last forever, And so we can tell him that Allah’s Attributes are characterized by ‘everlastingness’ (Ar: as-sarmadiya). They are eternal and have no end. Our final question to him is that if he is indeed all-knowing as he claims, then who taught him. If he is generous, from where did he get his generosity?  He will say he got these attributes from his father or his teacher which will prompt us to ask him who taught them, to which he will reply they were taught by his parents or teachers. We can tell him that whereas his knowledge is contingent i.e. taught to him by others, Allah’s Knowledge is not. It is ‘essential’ (Ar: dhati) In this way we have identified four Essential Aspects of Divinity which are precedence (Ar: as-sabq), absoluteness (Ar: al-itlaq) everlastingness (Ar: as-sarmadiya) and essentiality (Ar: adh-dhatiya). If someone claims one of these Essential Aspects for himself, or indeed for another, then he is making himself or another an associate with Allah ‘in what are only His’ which is shirk.

Shirk is ‘to associate others with Allah in what are only His’ which are Allah’s Essential Aspects – precedence (Ar: as-sabq), absoluteness (Ar: al-itlaq) everlastingness (Ar: as-sarmadiya) and essentiality (Ar: adh-dhatiya). Precedence is contained in the Name ‘the First’ (Ar: al-awal). Everlastingness is contained in the  Name ‘the Last’ (Ar: al-akhir). The Quran says: ‘He is the First and the Last and what is apparent and what is concealed and He knows everything’ (Al-Hadid: 3).

If the door to accusations is open we should close it. We should respond to random and false accusations of shirk by providing evidence and proof, in the hope those who make such accusations may see the light and desist. The Quran says ‘Argue with them with what is better.’ (Al-Nahl: 125). So, unless someone is associating himself or another with Allah in what are only His by claiming to have one or more of Allah’s Essential Aspects then such a person cannot be accused of shirk. The most we can do is conclude he is ignorant and scholars should help rid him of this ignorance as this is their duty. It is apparent that this definition of shirk will stop those who so easily accuse others of shirk.

Innovation (Ar: bida’a) which has been discussed before (see ‘Innovation and Illusion’) means ‘to leave open what Allah and his Messenger (s.a.a.w.s.) have proscribed or to proscribe what Allah and his Messenger (s.a.a.w.s.) have left open’

While ‘heresy’ (Ar: kufr) has been defined in many ways, put simply it means to attribute to Allah what cannot be attributed to Him. Such a heresy is present in beliefs or claims that Allah is quantifiable, that He has a form or location, that He can be emulated or counteracted, that He can be likened or compared to something else or that He has one or more associates or partners, a wife or offspring In short, Allah is other than anything that can possibly be conceived or imagined. A man who says la ilaha ila Allah with all the meaning and import these few words carry and who says mohamadun rasul Allah knowing the prophet (s.a.a.w.s) is an intermediary between himself and Allah, acknowledges Allah and the revelation brought to us by His prophet (s.a.a.w.s) and who knows he has been created by Allah and that all benefit and harm is in Allah’s hand cannot possibly be accused of kufr  Although he may seek Allah’s secrets and blessings in men, animals, plants or other created things, this is because he also knows that while ‘all goodness is in Allah’s hand’, Allah places it where He wills and it is the believer’s duty to seek that goodness wherever Allah has placed it. The Quran says: ‘Allah will never let your faith go to waste’ (Al-Baqara:143)

In this context we should make a clear distinction between what it means to worship and what it means to follow. While we worship Allah we follow His prophet (s.a.a.w.s) in the hope Allah will be pleased with us. The Quran says: ‘Whoever obeys the Messenger obeys Allah.’ (Al-Nisaa: 80). A believer does not worship the one he follows and therefore we do not worship the prophet (s.a.a.w.s) . Neither do we worship the saints (Ar: awliya). We follow them, not because of something in and of themselves, but because we know Allah has endowed them with secrets and blessings. No-one in their right mind would say he follows Allah. You cannot follow what you worship just as you cannot worship whom you follow. The essence of belief is to know the difference between what it means to worship and what it means to follow  ’. Those who accuse us of worshipping those we follow are ignorant of this fundamental distinction and their ignorance does not excuse them. A condition of what it means to follow is love. We cannot truly follow the prophet (s.a.a.w.s) if we do not love him. But love is one thing and worship is something else. Ibn Abbas (r.a.a.) narrated that the prophet (s.a.a.w.s) said: ‘Love Allah for He bestows His blessings on you, and love me for the love of Allah, and love my household for my love’ (Al-Mustadrek ala Al-Sahihein, Volume 3, Page 162, No. 4716). Our love for the prophet is not for the prophet in and of himself but for the love of Allah. The Quran says: ‘If you love Allah (and He is the only one we worship) then follow me and Allah will love you.’ (Al-Imran: 31). The verse tells us that to win Allah’s love we should follow His prophet.

Finally, we should also have a proper understanding of the meaning of the words min dun illah which may be translated as ‘other than Allah’. These words are often used in connection with awliya which is the plural form of wali. There are two kinds of awliya. There are awliya Allah or awliya ur-Rahman who are chosen and entrusted by Allah to continue the mission of the prophets and messengers. They are the successors of the prophets. There are also awliya min dun illah who are, by definition, awliya ash-shaitan or those in the service of Satan. About the first, the Quran says: ‘There is no need to worry for awliya Allah and they are never sad.’ (Younis: 62). Awliya min dun illah are those whom Allah tells the believers to avoid. The Quran says: ‘The believers do not take the non-believers as friends instead of the believers’ (Al-Imran: 28). To visit awliya is not haram and it is not kufr as some people would like to have us believe for one reason or another. Amer ibn Saad’s father narrated that  Allah’s Messenger (s.a.a.w.s) said: ‘The most guilty among muslims is one who asks about something that has not been prohibited and which is then prohibited because he asked about it.” (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 4, Page 1831, 132-(2358).