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.

Can We Avoid Our Existential Questions?

…Now there has come unto you from God a light, and a clear divine writ, through which God shows unto all that seek His goodly acceptance the was of peace; and, by His grace, brings them out of the depths of darkness into the light and guides them onto a straight way.(Koran, 5:16-17)

I recall a conversation I had with my best friend in high school. I was deeply troubled with my nineteen year old sister’s death and was inquiring about my friend’s thoughts on the meaning of life given that we will die eventually. Her answer astonished me so much that I could not find any words to explain the deep pain I had in my soul. She simply said “I am too young to think about it!” This illustrates how skillful we are in self-deception to shun the reality of our death

Yet, regardless of our age, gender, culture, religion, or socioeconomic status, we all have existential questions that beg answers. Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? On the one hand, we cannot help but ask these questions because it is impossible to shut them off. The urge and need to find answers runs so deep in us that we cannot accept any dogmas. On the other hand, our need to avoid these important questions illustrates our reluctance to dig deeper and face Truth. Ultimately, this search for existential meaning is a search for true happiness or inner peace. Otherwise life simply does not make sense, and we cannot truly enjoy anything.

Because of the way we are created, we seek meaning

We seek meaning in our relationships. We seek meaning in life. We seek meaning in material things. And it is impossible to have inner peace and be in harmony with life and the universe without satisfying this need for meaning. We can describe this as being in congruence with our creation (the way we are created). We are given various faculties, such as heart, spirit, mind, and reason. Without heart (shutting off our conscience for instance), we become like beasts and commit atrocities. Without reason, we fall into the darkness of ignorance and become zealots. Those who shut off one or more of their faculties cannot fulfill their purpose of creation. Hence, being in congruence with our nature requires us to satisfy all our faculties. Answering our existential questions and finding meaning in our lives satisfies both our heart and our mind.

Our egos develop numerous strategies to ignore our existential questions. Some of the means for trying to silence our inner voice are alcohol consumption, excessive work, and dedicating one’s life to family or social causes to the extent that one becomes consumed in them. Others try to deceive themselves by thinking that we can never find the answers to these questions, hence it is pointless to even try. “We are who we are and that is the end of the story”, they reason. Yet all these strategies are doomed to fail and torment more and more people into depression and disillusion.

All of us want to find unceasing inner peace

In a way, most of what we do in life is to attempt to attain that inner peace through perhaps attending yoga classes, establishing friendships, participating in religious activities, or fulfilling our ambition in our career, etc. And indeed we do find temporary moments of bliss here and there. But seldom does this happiness last. We strive to buy a brand new car, but the excitement ceases soon after we have it. Then, we turn to something else to make us happy and life goes on like this. Meanwhile, we get tired and depressed of this endless quest for happiness and ending up with disappointments. We waste our lives in search of something that we never quite find.

But what is happiness really? Have we ever thought about it thoroughly? What are we looking for? Do we seek the fulfillment of our dreams, passions or needs? Is this the aim of our life, and can this pursuit in itself bring us happiness? Happiness is rather transient. We have randomly dispersed moments of joy, followed by moments of sorrow. This is why it is said that life is all about ups and downs. For instance, think of your many shopping sprees and the subsequent plummeting of your emotions!

Even though we have never experienced this feeling of utmost and continuous happiness, we want to be very happy all the time. This desire in itself is a sign attesting to the existence of such everlasting happiness. Is it therefore possible to attain a state of inner peace? To be able to answer this crucial question, we need to face our existential questions and find out who we are and what can make us really happy. What makes us happy can only be something that is in harmony with our creation. Therefore, the solution lies in being frank with ourselves, our feelings and thoughts and acknowledging that we cannot be satisfied with temporary sources of happiness. Inner peace is found in accepting our reality as created beings and acting accordingly.

So, who are we and why are we here?

Many of us spend our entire life reading hundreds of books, studying for years to obtain advanced degrees, or working day and night to get ahead in our careers. Yet without posing to ponder upon the existential questions it is all pointless, for death awaits us in the end. We find ourselves in this mysterious world. We feel strongly connected to endless things. We enjoy a sunny day; we smile and feel happy when we see a beautiful rose. It seems that nature is somehow related to us, and we have a close relation with all creation. But surprisingly, all these things that we like fade away, die, and do not last. The rose dies, the sun sets, friends depart, and at the end, we know that we will die too. In every instance, something to which we attach ourselves dies or fades away, yet we still refrain from thinking about the deeper meaning. Since death is so real, we cannot help but ask “where am I going and what is really going on?”

The truth of the matter is that these questions are vital for understanding who we really are. Interestingly enough, for all of us, these existential questions are rather innate. Whether we like it or not, they come to us naturally. But many times, we choose to suppress them, thinking they are too serious and are ruining our happy moments! We mistakenly worry that thinking too much about these existential questions would shatter our dream world that is in fact unable to fulfill our desire for happiness. Only sometimes, when our beloved ones die, or when we have tragic accidents or events, we are reminded of our questions again and may pursue the answers.

We are like guests in a mysterious house, which is full of things that we admire, yet we cannot quite hold onto. We are brought here for an indefinite amount of time, and we are taken away suddenly. It is therefore only naturally reasonable to wonder and to want to know what is going on here. What does this all mean? Why I am here, who brought me here, and where am I being taken to? Unless we pursue these questions for ourselves, instead of shutting them off or relying on cliché answers inherited from our parents or culture, we can never be truly satisfied and happy.

When you wake up in the morning, do you say “Life is beautiful” without a second thought? If not, we have a problem of a dichotomy in our life. What is this life all about? Why do we have to work and go though many hardships? These very thoughts are the keys to open the chains that have taken away our freedom. Thanks to the sophisticated toys of this age, we try to silence these questions, hence our humanity! Is it not, as Kant says, our reason that differentiates us from animal beings? And is not Socrates shouting from the Stone Age that an unquestioned life is not worth living?

Every minute that passes dies, and we cannot retrieve it. We try to cling to good memories. Memories fade away, and we feel sorrow for not being able to live these moments again. Are these memories not giving us pain? Then, we think about our future. It looks like a dark and unpredictable tunnel. We do not know what will happen to us the next minute, and this affects the very moment we are in. How can I get pleasure at this moment if I know I will die sooner or later? What is money, fame, or passion worth if I am dead? Neither past nor present can help us. Does life have to be so? If we want to solve this dilemma, we have to keep questioning, and seeking true meaning in life. Only when we question, we can find that true happiness can only be found in God.

Post written by Dr. Eren Tatari

If you love God, follow the Guide, and God will love you

“Say: ‘If you love God, follow me, [and] God will love you…’ ” (Koran 3:31)

When we look at the verse above, we recognize that it is different from what we generally think; that when we love our creator, He loves us back. Yet, this verse suggests that to say “I love God” by itself is not enough to receive God’s love back. There’s a condition, it posits: “follow me (the guide).” But, why do we need to follow a guide?

My life is not transformed when I claim that I love God

When we look at our lives as people who claim to love God, we see that we are generally not transformed by this love. We don’t feel that we receive the love back. Our lives can still be miserable, our thoughts distracted, and our feelings hurt. We cannot comprehend many things happening in our lives and in the universe, and we become angry at the One behind all this. In summary, there is something missing with our claim.

The verse states that we won’t be able to feel the love of our creator in our daily life, except when we follow the guide. In fact, this love becomes a curse for us. Things, people, and moments that we love depart from us, leaving us with pain. We see things we don’t understand in the universe, and we become angry at the God we claim to love.

The verse starts by saying: “If you love God…” and pushes us to ponder that we are given the ability to love the creator of all good and brings us to this crucial point: “We witness that God creates everything with love, why don’t we feel it?” The answer is in the verse: “Follow me.” We are aware that we have freedom to choose many things in our lives and thoughts. So, in order to feel the love and close the loop, that is to recognize the meaning of my life and everything around us, we need to use our free will to follow the teachings of the guide on the meaning of the creation of the universe.

The verse above declares that claiming to love the creator is not enough to receive and feel the divine love in every part of our lives. It pushes us to look for a guide. But what kind of guide do we need to follow, and why?

The beauty I witness necessitates an appointed guide

Here is the fast answer: We see that there is beauty everywhere in the universe, and this necessitates guides appointed by the creator. But why?

Let’s give an example to understand this necessity. Now, think of any meaningful piece of technology, like a laptop for instance. Thousands of engineers are working constantly to design it for specific purposes. Every activity of designing the laptop is specifically for it to be used. Now, would it make sense to spend millions of dollars to design and manufacture a laptop and then sell it to be used as a coffee tray? Or even destroy it after it is manufactured? If that was the case, wouldn’t you conclude that these engineers have no wisdom at all? Why would they spend all this time and money to manufacture such a high-tech tool and then not use any of its functionalities? This won’t make any sense.

Now, let’s look at everything in the universe. There is magnificent well-ordered manifestation of art, from atoms to galaxies. Science is a proof that there is an undeniable order, since all what we do in science is trying to discover this order and show it in formulas. Formulas show that nothing is haphazard; it is ordered. Even things we don’t like such as bacteria function orderly. This order shows that there must be someone who puts these in order.

In fact, we witness not only a perfect order, but an artistic beauty. Every creature is not only designed to do a specific job, but it is complexly artfully adorned. This artistry shows that whoever forms everything in the universe wills to adorn them. It further shows me that these perfect adornments and arts must come from the love of the one forming them. Thus, He must love what He is doing.

Using the same thought process we used in the laptop example, would it make sense that the maker of the universe to adorn and create everything with such magnificent design and artistry and then not inform us what it means and what its purpose is? Then, the creator would be not wise at all, which is contrary to what I witness in the universe. Everything is being designed and sustained in a perfect manner pointing to the fact that their Maker is indeed absolutely wise. So, there has to be an explanation from Him regarding what He means by this magnificent artistry surrounding us.

An explanation is especially necessary for us; human beings. We are not only conscious of our existence, but we are also conscious of the existence everything around us, from atoms to galaxies. We are connected to everything in the universe. Not only that, but we are created in such a way that we love the beauty we witness in creation. We are created in such a way that we are able to ask the very questions I am writing about now.

Would it make sense that our maker would create us with the ability to see and inquire about the beauty around us, yet not provide an explanation? No. The engineers would design a laptop to be able to do calculations, but not tell any user about it. So, why did they design it in the first place? Are they insane? No. Then, the same illogic is not possible about the creator of this miraculously ordered universe.

When we reach this conclusion, we can cry out that there must be a guide appointed by the creator, i.e. a manual by Him for all this to make sense. This is the result of our witnessing.

The guide closes the loop

The engineers close the loop between the engineers and the users by preparing sophisticated manuals and online tutorials (prepared by appointed guides who have mastered the manual.) As a result of this, the users become happy and thankful of using that particular laptop. More importantly, the sophisticated design of the laptop is an important indication that there are users who will use all its functions. Maybe not every user will use all of them, but the fact that these functions exist is a proof that there are “super users” who utilize all these functions. These “super users” are the best guides and trainers that the laptop producer would appoint to train others. They are the ones who directly communicate with the engineers and understand the wisdom of each function of the laptop.

The same way, the fashioner of this universe closes the loop between Him and us (his conscious creation) by sending a clear manual and exemplary human guides that live and explain the manual. In fact, the very fact that there is this perfect order and art in the universe is an indication that there must be conscious creatures that understand and appreciate all this art. These human beings reflect deeply on every art of the creator, admire it, get excited by it, thank the Creator for it, know the wisdom of its creation, and love the one behind it all.  Wouldn’t they be the best guides for all other conscious beings? As a result of following the way of these “super users” that are appointed by the creator to explain the wisdom of everything in creation, other conscious creatures start to make sense of everything in this universe and of how to use their feelings, like the love of beauty. They recognize that the guides must be connected to the creator and His creation and explain us its meanings.

Going back to the example, although we say we love to use the laptop, we may not even be aware that it is a laptop and think that it is a coffee tray. We become angry at using it as a coffee tray, since it is heavy and bulky, and not the best tool to use to serve coffee. So, our love of it is not sufficient to receive the benefits from the laptop. Only when we learn from the guides we recognize the purposes of the laptop. We start to admire it more and we recognize the necessity of learning from the guides. And then we start receiving our love back from it.

This is similar to closing our eyes and thinking that the room and everything in it is dark, but when we open our eyes, everything that we thought to be in darkness turns out to be lively and bright. The guide reminds us that we are “users” too, and tells us how great it is to use the laptop. Similarly, when we use our free will to open our eyes, we realize the beauty of life and recognize that the one who gave us this life loves us. We receive the love back.

We need to look for the guides who comprehensively respond to the creator’s artistry by conscious reflection, admiration, thankfulness, and who explain to us with certainty that all this art that we witness must be fashioned by the absolute artist who is capable of doing so. Only when we use our free will to follow these guides, we start to feel the love of the artist and we recognize the meaning of this life. We start to feel the love, since we start to understand how to use our love of beauty and how to make sense of everything in life.

Like the laptop user who becomes ecstatic when he discovers how to use the laptop other than as a coffee tray, we become delighted at every insight we gain from these “super users.” And we recognize the significance of the verse above, which urges us to look for the guides appointed by the one who has created this universe full of art and meaning.

Post written by Omar