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Shirk

By:
Charles Fletcher
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Shirk

Derived from the Arabic sharika (to share or participate), shirk in Islamic religious vocabulary means associating other beings with God. Since this violates the central Islamic doctrine of the oneness of God (tawḥīd), shirk is considered the greatest sin in Islam because it is the worst form of unbelief. Often translated as “polytheism” or “idolatry,” the term has broadened its meaning throughout Islamic history.

Using the term mushrikūn (associators) to describe pre-Islamic Arab tribes who associated other gods or beings with the one true God, the Qurʿān labels them as unpardonable, grievous sinners destined for hell (sūrah4:48, 116; 5:72). Generally the term is not applied to Jews and Christians, although in Islamic polemic Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus is seen as a form of shirk. However, in the Qurʿān Jews and Christians are not labeled as associators, but as people of the book (ahl al-kitāb).

There is some debate surrounding the identity of the practitioners of shirk in the Qurʿān. Islamic tradition views the associators as Arab tribes who worshipped multiple gods before the advent of the prophet Muḥammad. G. R. Hawting argues instead that the term, as used in the Qurʿān, is predominately applied to opponents of Islam, including other monotheists, who are then accused of shirk.The concept was reinterpreted in new ways

over the course of Islamic history. The tendency to regard the association of anything with God as shirk became more pronounced after the eighteenth century, with the rise of the Wahhābī movement, which sought to condemn Islamic mystical practices (Sufism), including the cult and veneration of ṣūfī saints. Such Muslims were accused of associating others with God. Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1703–1792), the founder of Wahhābism, fought against the forms of shirk present in his day. His grandson Shaykh ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn ḥasan divided shirk into four different types. The first, associating beings with God, is drawn from traditional Islamic interpretations. The other three—elevating worldly desires above God, obeying corrupt leaders to do evil, and, finally, loving anything more than God—reflect the events and needs of his day.

Muslim modernist thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continued the trend, applying the concept of shirk in novel ways. The Egyptian reformer Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905) equated superstition and refusal to accept the God-given benefits of modernity (in favor of adherence to traditional Islamic perspectives) with placing tradition above God. Muslim revivalists from the 1930s onward, such as the Indian (later Pakistani) thinker Abū al-Aʿlā al-Mawdūdī (1903–1979), applied the concept of “association” to national politics. Muslim political leaders were accused of “worshipping” the Western man-made ideology of nationalism. Indeed, the Egyptian Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966) viewed all Muslims, by virtue of living under the influence of the West, as engaged in various forms of denying God His rightful place of being obeyed and worshipped.

The use of the concept of shirk, originally defined and translated as “polytheism” or “idolatry,” is dynamic and flexible, and the term has been continually reinterpreted in Islamic history to reflect the need to define Muslim and non-Muslim practice and belief.

See also ʿABDUH, MUḥAMMAD; KUFR; MAWDūDī, SAYYID ABū AL-AʿLā; QUṭB, SAYYID; SIN; and WAHHāBīYAH.]

Bibliography

  • Hawting, G. R.The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam: From Polemic to History. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999. The author offers an alternative to the traditional Islamic view regarding the application of idolatry in pre-Islamic Arabia. Note especially chap. 3, “Shirk and Idolatry in Monotheist Polemic.”
  • Sirriyeh, Elizabeth. “Modern Muslim Interpretations of Shirk.”Religion20, no. 2 (April 1990): 139–159. This is the most concise discussion available of the development of the concept of shirk.
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