Associating Partners with God (Shirk)

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

“Do they associate partners with Him those who create nothing and themselves created.  And who have no power to give them any help, nor they help themselves?” (Qur’an, 7:191-92).

If we were to define shirk in the most basic terms, it would be saying and believing that there is not one but multiple deities. Even though this is the most straightforward definition, this concept is much more nuanced and has the potential to creep into our thinking and language on a daily basis. This is why it is imperative to know what counts as shirk and not deceive ourselves by thinking that we are Muslims and we believe in one God hence we do not commit shirk.

In the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), people used to say that when the stars came into a certain position it rains, thus attributing power and other Divine Attributes to the stars. Even though we might think we are Muslims and therefore do not have this wrong attitude anymore, in most instances, we commit the same mistake. For instance, do we not think and say that it rains as a result of the evaporation of water and the process of condensation when cold and hot layers come into contact? If this is a form of shirk, then, are we not to believe these ‘scientific’ explanations? So is it blasphemous to say that the fruit comes from the tree and the rain from the cloud? God says in the Qur’an:

“Those who have no knowledge say: “Why does not God speak to us, or a manifest sign (miracle) come to us?” So spoke those before them, a word like theirs. Their hearts are alike. Yet We have made clear the signs (and the Revelations establishing the Unity and Sovereignty of God, the Messengership of Muhammad, and the Divine authorship of the Qur’an) to a people who seek certainty (with open, inquiring minds)” (Qur’an, 2:118).

He addresses everyone, not just Muslims (remember there were no “Muslims” with a capital M). He urges us to go and read in the name of God, to look at the tree and to realize the signs of God’s Will in creation of a fruit. Qur’an never addresses “Oh Muslims” because it was not sent to Muslims. In fact, there were none at the time. An astounding point is that there are verses in the Qur’an addressed to the mushrikun (those who commit shirk and attributes power and intelligence to causes). In a sense then, belief in the existence of God is taken as a given in the Qur’an and those who do not accept this are not even addressed. The Qur’an is primarily concerned with warning us against associating partners with God, such as thinking that the causes in the universe possess power, intelligence, etc.:

“If you invoke them, they do not hear your call; and if they heard, they would not be able to respond to you…” (Qur’an, 35:14).

The first verse ever revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) summarizes the iman education of the Qur’an, “Read in/with the name of your Lord…” (Qur’an, 96:1): To read the signs/ayah in the name of God… The point of Qur’anic education is to enable us to read the signs of God in creation and see the manifestations of His Attributes such as the Most-Merciful, the All-Knowing, The All-Wise, etc. It is teaching us to read and understand a new language: the language of the signs/ayah in the creation. The language is called tawhid (unifying God) and the medium of speech is witnessing (shahadah)/contemplating by using all our God-given faculties.

Then, we need to put all our effort into learning how to read in the name of God! How will we interpret the scientific facts? Well, nobody is saying that the fruit falls from heaven. There is the seed, the tree and finally, the fruit. God in the Qur’an is challenging the shirk interpretation of creation, which takes God out of the picture. To claim that effects are the work of causes is to associate partners with God. Even if we say that God created the universe but then attribute the redness of the tomato to its exposure to the sun, without realizing that God is the Cause behind all these apparent causes, this is hidden-shirk. Again the point is to realize that: Seed + Sun + Soil + Water ≠ Tomato. God says in the Qur’an:

“Yet some choose to take, apart from God, deities that create nothing but are themselves created, and have no power to avert harm from, or bring benefit to, even themselves (so that they can give harm or bring benefit to their worshippers), and they have no power over death, nor over life, nor over resurrection” (Qur’an, 25:3).

They cannot create anything, for they themselves are being created. The scientific facts are there, and they are nothing but the signs. We learned to look at things in the shirk way, attributing the outcomes to causes and calling this scientific. The Qur’an is teaching us the tawhid (unifying God) way of interpreting facts. God is the Creator of the causes and the outcomes. God creates the seed, the sun, the water, the photosynthesis, the tree, and the fruit. Let’s break this down step by step.

We take the existence of God as a given for the purposes of this deconstructive analysis and start with the signs that point to the All-Powerful. Every day we say, “This tree gives delicious apples.” The correct understanding is “The tree is being made together with the fruit, for it cannot give the fruit on its own.” Why? Because for one apple to come into existence, the entire universe has to exist. Whoever is making the apple must also be making the tree, the rain, the clouds, the sky, the earth, and the whole universe. He must thoroughly know human anatomy, our digestive system, control the galaxies, the distance between the sun and the earth, the tilt of the earth, etc. All these are signs, and the interconnection between these causes is also a sign. All signs point us to the Divine Attributes of God. The Qur’an is teaching us to actually read in the name of God, not just to say it. If we want to avoid the hidden shirk that creeps into our daily life, we need to be vigilant about these sorts of distorted attributions of outcomes to causes and realize that everything is constantly being created by God. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was sent as a reminder of this fact and mercy for all humankind to teach this language of tawhid (unifying God).


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

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