The Arabic word shirk is the opposite of tawheed, Allah's oneness and uniqueness, and is more inclusive than polytheism and idolatry. Shirk contradicts the very purpose of creation as expressed in the Quran:
"I have not created jinn or mankind except to worship Me." (Quran 51:56)
Prophets were sent with the mission to eradicate shirk and to invite humanity to single out Allah in worship.
What is Shirk?
Shirk is to associate someone other than Allah in those aspects which are unique to Allah and His exclusive right. Shirk is to worship created beings like Allah is worshipped, to venerate created beings like Allah must be venerated, and to assign a portion of His divinity to someone else.
Severity of Shirk !
There is no issue upon which Islam is so strict as the one of tawheed (monotheism). Therefore, shirk is considered the greatest violation with which the Lord of the heavens and the earth is defied. The severity of shirk can be summarized in the following points:
(1) Shirk makes the Creator like His creation, in that matters that are exclusive to Allah are associated with others who have no right to it. Therefore, Allah declares shirk to be the greatest wrong,
"Indeed to ascribe partners (unto Him) is a tremendous wrong." (Quran 31:13)
(2) Allah has declared that He will not forgive the sin of shirk unless the person repents from it,
"Surely Allah forgives not that a partner should be set up with Him, and forgives all besides that to whom He pleases." (Quran 4:48)
(3) Allah has forbidden Paradise to those who do not repent from committing shirk, condemning him to Hell for eternity,
"Surely whoever associates (others) with Allah, Allah has forbidden to him Paradise and his abode is the Fire." (Quran 5:72)
(3) All the good works a person may have done are lost, become worthless, and are rendered vain if a person dies unrepentant of shirk,
"And certainly, it has been revealed to you and to those before you: if you should associate (anything) with Allah, your work would surely become worthless, and you would surely be among the losers." (Quran 39:65)
(4) Shirk is the deadliest of all major sins. On one occasion, the Prophet, may Allah praise him, asked his companions if they knew what was greatest of all major sins. He then explained to them,
"The major sins are: shirk, not being kind to one's parents...." (Saheeh Al-Bukhari, Saheeh Muslim)
Types of Shirk
(1) Greater Shirk (Shirk Akbar)
(2) Lesser Shirk (Shirk Asghar)
Definition of Greater Shirk:
Greater Shirk is associating others with Allah in those aspects which are unique to Allah in his person taking a rival or associate unto Allah and making it an equal to Allah.
Shirk in Allah Being the Lord
This category includes:
(i) Atheism (the belief that human beings have no Lord).
Pharaoh denied the existence of Allah and claimed his own self to be the Lord over Moses and the people of Egypt. He announced to people:
"I am your Lord, Most High." (Quran 79:24)
Modern day philosophers that deny the existence of Allah or scientists who consider the universe created itself or has no beginning or end fall under this category. Also, the idea that nature itself is God, or that God dwells within His creation is also shirk.
(b) The belief that Allah shares His rule and control over the creation.
People who fall into this category are those who may believe in Allah's powers and abilities, but also believe that Allah is several "persons," that He is somehow "split" into different beings. An example is Christians who believe that Allah is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, all at the same time. Also, Hindus believe in One God who takes the forms of Brahma – the creator-god, Vishnu – the preserver-god, and Shiva – the destroyer-god. Islam teaches that Allah is One in every sense: perfect, indivisible, and complete.
Another example of this shirk is held by people who pray to the dead. They believe the souls of the saints and other people can meddle in the affairs of mortal men, that somehow the departed souls can cause change in the life of men and women by answering their prayers or in other ways. The truth is that the dead have no power over the lives of the living; they cannot answer anyone's prayers, nor protect them, nor grant their wishes.
Greater Shirk: Shirk In Allah's Names & Attributes
Making Allah like the creation or making the creation like Allah is the essence of shirk on Allah's Names and Attributes. It can be further classified into two types:
(i) Humanizing Allah by giving Him attributes similar to humans is shirk. Depictions of God in paintings and sculpture are of this type. Christianity, the major religion of the West, views God in human terms, as Jesus is considered God incarnate by them, so it naturally produced the likes of Michelangelo who depicted the Face and Hand of 'God' in paintings. Hindus worship countless idols as forms of God. On the contrary, the Muslim tradition has been clear on this point because of the Quran's clear teachings,
"There is nothing like Him, and He sees and hears all things." (Quran 42:11)
(ii) Another form of this type of shirk is when human beings are deified by giving them divine names or qualities. For example, the Christians raise Mary, the mother of the Jesus, to a divine status by giving her some of Allah's attributes, such as the Merciful. They also call Mary the mother of God, 'God' being a reference to her son Jesus. The latter they have called the Living God, the First and the Last – Names reserved for God alone. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah praise him, said:
"Allah Almighty has said: 'The son of Adam... reviled Me and he had no right to do so... As for his reviling Me, it is his saying: Allah has taken to Himself a son, while I am the One, the Everlasting Refuge. I beget not nor was I begotten, and there is none comparable to Me.'" (Saheeh Al-Bukhari, An-Nasai)
Greater Shirk: Shirk in Allah's Right To Worship
In this category of shirk, acts of worship are directed to other than Allah and the reward for worship is sought from the creation instead of the Creator. Praying, bowing, and putting one's forehead on the ground are acts of worship reserved only for Allah.
"So when they ride in the ships, they call upon Allah, being sincerely obedient to Him, but when He brings them safe to the land, lo, they commit Shirk with Him." (Quran 29:65)
Examples of Shirk in Allah's Right To Worship
(1) To love Allah correctly is to worship Him. A form of Greater Shirk is giving someone a portion of love reserved for Allah. Allah is the only One loved for His own sake. Two things beloved for their own sake cannot coexist in one heart. Love of Allah is different from the love of one's parents, spouse, or children as it is coupled with a feeling of His awe and holiness and leads a person to pray to Allah, trust Him, hoping for His mercy, fearing His punishment, and to worship Him alone. Loving other beings as Allah should be loved is shirk in love. A Muslim should not be attached to anything else to a level where it enslaves his heart. Hearts get attached to power, money, glamour, women, music, drugs, and alcohol, to name a few. These things can become the 'god' in one's life who a person chases day and night, and, once he gets the thing he loves, he works hard to please it. That is why the Prophet, may Allah praise him, said a man who worships money will always be miserable[Saheeh Al-Bukhari] and the Quran says,
"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)." (Quran 2:195)
(2) Shirk in supplication. First, supplication or invocation (known as du'a in Arabic) is part of worship as the Prophet, may Allah praise him, said:
"Supplication is the essence of worship." (Abu Daud, Al-Tirmidhi, Ahmad)
Calling upon dead saints, righteous men or those who are absent and far away for help and assistance as Allah should have been prayed to is Greater Shirk. It includes praying, invoking or supplicating to a false deity, prophet, angel, saint, idol, or anything besides Allah. Christians pray to a man, the Prophet of Allah, Jesus, whom they claim to have been God incarnate. Catholics pray to saints, angels, and Mary as the "mother of God." It is also shirk to pray to Prophet Muhammad or to deceased holy men believing that they can answer prayers, as Allah says,
"Say: 'Behold, I have been forbidden to worship those whom you invoke instead of Allah.'" (Quran 6:56)
"And do not invoke besides Allah that which neither benefits you nor harms you, for if you did, then indeed you would be of the wrongdoers." (Quran 10:106)
"If you pray unto them they hear not your prayer, and if they heard they could not grant it you. On the Day of Resurrection they will disown association with you. None can inform you like Him Who is Aware." (Quran 35:14)
(3) Shirk in obedience. Allah is the only Ruler of the affairs of men. Allah is the supreme Lawgiver, the Absolute Judge, and the Legislator. He distinguishes right from wrong. Just like the physical world submits to its Lord, human beings must submit to the moral and religious teaching of their Lord, the Lord who sets apart right from wrong for them. In other words, Allah alone has the authority to make laws, determine acts of worship, decide morals, and set standards of human interaction and behavior. His is the command:
"His is the Creation and Command." (7:54)
"Legislation is not but for Allah. He has commanded that you worship not except Him. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know." (Quran 10:40)
Obeying religious leaders in matters of clear disobedience to Allah is a form of Greater Shirk as Allah says:
"They (referring to Jews and Christians) took their rabbis and their monks to be their Lords besides Allah." (Quran 9:31)
They made partners unto Allah not by directly praying to them, but by willfully accepting their rabbis and clergy changing the lawful into prohibited and the forbidden into lawful in Allah's religion. They gave their religious men the authority only Allah has - to set the divine law. For example, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church has the authority to determine how God is to be worshipped. He has full authority to interpret, change, and cancel both his own laws and those established by earlier popes, so he determines liturgical service and fasting.
(4) Making a vow for other than Allah.
(5) Sacrificing an animal to venerate or please someone other than Allah, like a saint.
(6) Going around the graves of saints. Bowing or prostrating to people or graves.
(7) Fearing other beings as Allah should be feared in afflicting a person with punishment.
(8) Seeking super-natural help and aid from other than Allah of what they are not capable of providing like asking angels or saints for help.
(9) Making a 'middle-man' (intercessor) between one self and Allah, praying to the 'middle-man' and relying on him.
Definition of Lesser Shirk:
Lesser Shirk is what has been specifically called shirk in the Quran and Sunnah, but does not reach the level of greater Shirk. Also, lesser Shirk is said to lead to greater Shirk. Some scholars have said lesser Shirk is so vast that it is difficult to define it precisely. The most important examples of lesser Shirk are:
Charms & Omens:
Wearing charms, talismans, and amulets for protection against the evil eye, bad luck and the like thinking that Allah has placed these powers in them constitute lesser Shirk.
Swearing an Oath in the Name of Other than Allah:
Taking an oath, or swearing, in the name of someone other than Allah is a type of lesser Shirk given that a person does not intend to venerate the one in whose name the oath is being taken, else it turns into greater Shirk. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah praise him, said,
"The one who takes an oath in the name of other than Allah commits disbelief or Shirk."[Ahmad, Abu Daud, Al-Tirmidhi, Nasai, and Hakim]
The Messenger of Allah, may Allah praise him, said:
"The thing that I fear most for you is lesser Shirk."
They said: "O Messenger of Allah, what is lesser Shirk?" He said:
"Riyaa (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.'" (Ahmad)
Riyaa is to perform worship in order to be seen and praised by people. Riyaa renders a deed void; the person earns sin instead of reward from Allah, and it exposes him to punishment.
Human beings, by nature like to be praised, are not fond of criticism, and do not like to be seen deficient in any way. Islam views doing religious acts to impress others instead of pleasing Allah - what should have been done for Allah is done for people - as shirk. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah praise him, said:
"Allah (glorified and exalted be He) said: 'I am so self-sufficient that I am in no need of having an associate. Thus he who does an action for someone else's sake as well as Mine will have that action renounced by Me to him whom he associated with Me.'" (Saheeh Muslim)
There is a good chance of a believer falling into riyaa because it is hidden, it sits in the heart, pollutes the intention, and a person has to be extremely vigilant to correct it. Ibn Abbas, one of the Prophet's companions, said,
"Shirk in the Muslim nation is more hidden than a black ant crawling on a black stone in the middle of a moonless night."[Ibn Abi Hatim]
Intention is a simple matter, but sometimes changing it can be difficult. A person has to listen to their heart and see what motivates a certain action. A Muslim has to carefully watch his intention to keep it pure whenever he performs a good deed like salah, giving charity, fasting, serving his parents, or even smiling. Perhaps this is why the saying of Allah's Name has been prescribed before all acts of importance in daily life – eating, drinking, sleeping, going to the toilet, waking up, and going to sleep. Remembering Allah keeps the heart aware of Allah and the intention pure.
Let us understand with simple examples how riyaa may affect worship:
(a) Let us say the basic motive when you stand up to pray is for people to see you, or notice you are praying, wish to be praises for that. This invalidates the act of worship.
(b) Let us say you started off to pray with sincerity, your intention was to pray for Allah, but then you started thinking about pleasing people, and slowly your intention changed. You do one of the two things. If you resist the temptation of getting noticed, it will not have any effect on you because the Prophet, may Allah praise him, said: "Allah has forgiven my ummah for what crosses their minds, so long as they do not act upon it or speak of it." But if you do nothing and do not resist the temptation of doing the act of worship so you may be seen or noticed; instead you slowly start to beautify your salah to be noticed, and so the entire act of worship may become invalid.
(c) Unintended praise is not harmful. The Prophet, may Allah praise him, was asked about that and said: "That is the first glad tidings of the believer." It is not showing off if a person feels happy because he has done an act of worship; actually, it is a sign of his faith. The Prophet, may Allah praise him, said:
"Whoever feels happy because of his good deeds and sad because of his bad deeds, that is the believer."
The Prophet has provided us with words of protection against this inconspicuous shirk that can be said anytime of the day. One day the Prophet delivered a sermon saying,
'O People, fear 'shirk', for it is more hidden than the creeping of an ant.' (At-Tabarani)
Those whom Allah wished asked, 'And how do we avoid it when it is more hidden than the creeping of an ant, O Messenger of Allah?' He replied,
'Allah-humma inna na-oodtho-bika an nush-rika bika shay-ann naa-lamu, wa nas-tagh-fi-ruka limaa laa naa-lam.'
'Say, "O Allah, we seek refuge with You from knowingly committing shirk with You, and we seek Your forgiveness for what we do unknowingly."[Ahmad]
Differences Between Greater Shirk & Lesser Shirk
(1) Both are defined differently.
(2) The greater Shirk expels a person from the fold of Islam, whereas the lesser Shirk does not take one out of Islam, but reduces one's belief in Allah.
(3) A person who dies committing greater Shirk will be in Hell Fire for eternity; this is not the case with one committing lesser Shirk.
(4) Greater Shirk wipes out and annuls all good deeds, whereas lesser Shirk only ruins the deeds it motivates or is a part of.
(5) Greater Shirk is not forgiven by Allah except through sincere repentance done before death; whereas it is up to Allah to punish or forgive lesser Shirk.