Unfortunately we live in a time when people accuse each other of shirk. Whilst this claim in unfounded in many cases it is a good reminder for us all to understand what are the realities of shirk so we know what to avoid.
True Agency and Ownership Belong to Allāh Alone
One of the most fundamental teachings that the Messenger of Allāh (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) conveyed to the ummah is the absoluteness of Allāh’s authority over His creation. Every inch, every atom, of creation is in the exclusive ownership of Allāh Ta’ālā. Nothing is outside His dominion, power and control. He is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, All-Hearing and All-Seeing. No part of creation eludes His grasp, power, knowledge, hearing and seeing. Numerous verses of the Qur’ān and hadīths of the Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) confirm these realities.
Hence, Allāh Ta’ālā is not in need of assistance. He is able to bring about anything as and when He pleases at His discretion. The will of no other being can override the will of Allāh Ta’ālā. No event can transpire in the whole creation without the will, power and agency of Allāh Ta’ālā.
Rasūlullāh (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) taught that verbal recognition of Allāh’s total and pervading authority over His creation is the truest speech that is uttered by the slave of Allāh. He (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said:
“The truest thing that a slave proclaims, and each of us is Your slave, is: O Allāh, there is none to withhold that which You give, and none to give that which You withhold, and the owner of fortune will not be availed [of You] by his fortune.” (Sahīh Muslim)
Allāh Ta’ālā says:
“Whatever blessing Allah opens for the people, there is none to hold it back, and whatever He holds back, there is none to release it thereafter. He is the Mighty, the Wise.” (35:2)
Asbāb as Correlation not Causation
While in this dunyā, we observe events taking place apparently in a cause-effect correlation, this connection is not one of independent causation. Rather, true agency rests only with Allāh Ta’ālā, while the apparent causes are merely correlations Allāh has placed in His creation for a wisdom and reason that is known to Him. Allāh alone – independently and without support – brings something into being from nonbeing, whether a physical entity like a rock, an attribute like colour or an action like movement.
For example, when a doctor, or the medicine he prescribes, “treats” or “heals” a patient, the true agent is not the doctor or medicine. The true agent is Allāh alone, while the doctor and medicine are only apparent causes or means (asbāb). When the result or action is ascribed to the sabab, it is as a metaphor, as the true doer is Allāh alone, not the sabab.
In the famous story of the boy and the king recorded in Sahīh Muslim, when the king’s courtier asks the boy to cure his blindness, the boy retorts:
“Verily, I cure no one. Only Allāh (Exalted is He) cures. If you believe in Allāh (Exalted is He), I will supplicate to Allāh and He will cure you.” (Sahīh Muslim)
Hence, while the du’ā or the boy was a means of curing the blindness, the real doer was Allāh alone. By making this known to the courtier, the boy instilled in him the reality of Tawhīd. However, this does not mean the action (in this case, healing) cannot be ascribed to the means (in this case, the boy or his supplication). It is correct to make this ascription, as long as the belief that the sabab is not the real cause is firmly understood.
Similarly, Allāh Ta’ālā said to Rasūlullāh (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam):
“You did not throw when you [apparently] threw, but Allāh threw.” (8:17)
Hence, the verse affirms that Rasūlullāh (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) threw, but at the same time negates that he threw. In other words, because he was a sabab for the action of throwing, it is correct to ascribe the act to him. However, true agency and causation, which is the act of bringing the throw into existence after nonexistence, is not ascribed to him, but to Allāh alone.
Allāh Ta’ālā says:
“Allāh has created you and all that you do.” (37:96)
Everything Belongs to Allāh Alone
Similarly, sole dominion of the entire creation belongs to Allāh Ta’ālā alone. No being truly owns any part of creation. “Ownership” as is customarily used amongst human beings is merely a kind of temporary entitlement that is given consideration in Sharī’ah. However, it does not mean true and intrinsic dominion and sovereignty. This belongs only to Allāh. Allāh Ta’ālā says:
“Allāh is only one deity [worthy of worship]. To Him [alone] belongs whatever is in the heavens and the earth. Pure is He from having a son.” (4:171)
Allāh Ta’ālā also says:
“Say [to the idolaters]: ‘Call upon those whom you claim (to be gods) beside Allāh. They do not possess (anything), even to the measure of a particle, neither in the heavens nor in the earth. They have no share at all in either of the two, nor is any of them a helper for Him.”
While this verse speaks about the false deities which the idolaters worshipped, it applies to all creation. No creation truly owns any part of creation, and no creation has any share in it.
In short, from the basic elements of Tawhīd is the belief that true agency, causation and action is Allāh’s alone, and similarly, true dominion, sovereignty and ownership is Allāh’s alone. This extends to the whole of creation, no atom, and not the minutest event, being exempted from this rule.
The Belief of the Mushrikūn and the Reality of Shirk
The mushrikūn that the Prophets (‘alayhimussalām), and in particular our Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam), were sent to call to the core doctrine of Tawhīd did not believe in Allāh’s total sovereignty and complete agency. Rather, they believed His sovereignty, power, knowledge, hearing, seeing and agency are limited. Hence, they believed Allāh was in need of subordinate gods appointed by Him to share in the ownership, dominion and management of different aspects of creation. In this way, the dominion and control of the created realm, according to them, is shared between the greatest god, Allāh, and lesser gods, known as ālihah or asnām.
The Qur’ān, and the doctrine of Tawhīd, on the other hand, espouse that all creatures are just as helpless and dependent on Allāh as each other. Allāh Ta’ālā says:
“There is none in the heavens and the earth, but bound to come to the All-Merciful as a slave. He has fully encompassed them and precisely calculated their numbers. And each one of them will come unto Him on the Day of Resurrection, alone.” (19:93-5)
No being is on par with Allāh such that it can override His will or pressure Him to act against His decision as the mushrikūn believed. Hence, even while the Qur’ān and Sunnah acknowledge extraordinary acts or feats accomplished by certain created beings, this is qualified by the doctrine of total dependence on Allāh Ta’ālā, and is not understood in the way the mushrikūn believed.
Based on their corrupt beliefs, the mushrikūn held that their co-gods possessed independent rights of intercession with Allāh. That is, because they believed the co-gods are partners in Allāh’s kingdom, they considered them to be on equal “bargaining terms” with Allāh. In other words, even if Allāh disapproved of a person, the mushrikūn believed that if the person gained the favour of a co-god, it could convince or coerce Allāh to act against His decision. The Qur’ān repudiates this belief and says intercession belongs only to Allāh (Qur’ān 39:44). No creature can intercede without His will and permission (Qur’ān, 2:255). Allāh can never be coerced by any means to act against His will.
Similarly, based on their beliefs in shared power and ownership, the mushrikūn held that the subordinate gods possessed independent powers of bringing benefit or causing harm to their subjects. These are some of the core beliefs that constituted the shirk of the mushrikūn which the prophets (‘alayhimussalām) were sent to abolish.
In expressing the Islāmic belief of Tawhīd and negating the beliefs of shirk, Allāh Ta’ālā says:
“All praise belongs to Allāh, Who has not taken unto Himself a son, and Who has no partner in sovereignty, nor has He any protecting friend through dependence. And magnify Him with all magnificence.” (17:111)
Expressions and Acts of Shirk
Based on their polytheistic beliefs, the mushrikūn rendered acts of worship to their idols as an expression of their belief in their divinity and to draw their favour. Apart from obvious rituals like prostrating, bowing and praying before them, they would perform other acts in the service of their idols which were representative of their false beliefs; for example, taking oaths by them, vowing to them, slaughtering animals for them, and so on. Although some of these actions when done to other than Allāh do not in themselves entail the belief of the mushrikūn, and may simply indicate reverence and respect, the Sharī’ah commands Muslims not to direct them towards any being besides Allāh, for three primary reasons:
Firstly, it creates a resemblance with idolaters, and resembling harām is also harām.
Secondly, there is a danger that these acts could escalate and lead the common people into actual shirk.
Third, they are against the etiquette of how to interact with Allāh and His creation.
However we must be careful that we don’t start accusing each of other of shirk merely because we don’t understand the act that is being performed. Unless mushrikeen belief is established we must avoid this kind of accusation.