Shirk – The Unforgivable Sin

Islam makes a clear distinction between God and His creation. It teaches that none of God’s creation must be worshipped directly or indirectly. The Quran speaks of Shirk, or worshipping other gods with the One, True, God, as ‘the great sin,’ ‘a tremendous wrong,’ which will not be forgiven. In Islamic worldview, there is no graver sin than Shirk, the ‘association’ of other ‘gods’ with God, also called idolatry or polytheism. Shirk, the unpardonable sin in Islam, meaning it is the only sins the Most Forgiving God will never forgive unless a person abandons and repents from it. It refers to the worship of any creation and associating partner with God. It includes polytheism and the concept of Trinity. Shirk is setting up man-made gods as rivals to man’s only God. Shirk literally means partnership or association. In Islamic theology it refers to assigning partners to God. Shirk is the antithesis of Tawhid.

‘Indeed, God does not forgive setting a partner with Him. He forgives (all else) except that to whom He pleases.’

(Quran 4:48)

 Prophet Muhammad was asked about the greatest sin in the sight of God. His reply, ‘That you should associate a partner with God despite the fact that He has created you.’

(Bukhari, Muslim)

Partners can be assigned to God in many ways. Shirk can take the form that a non-God shares God’s lordship over creation as His equal or near equal or to the belief that the creation has no lord. Another form is when Supreme God shares his kingdom with lesser gods or spirits. Brahma, in Hinduism, is an all-pervasive, abstract, impersonal Absolute in which all things have their origin and end. He is also the creator who forms a trinity with Vishnu, the preserver god, and Shiva, the destroyer god. Thus, God’s power to create, destroy, and preserve are given to other gods. Similarly, in Christianity, God is three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – yet one ‘substance.’ Jesus is supposed to be an equal to God, sitting on His right, who will judge the world. Ahu Mazda, in Zoroastrians, is the creator of good and deserves worship. Fire is his son and representative. Evil and death are created by Angra Mainyu, another god. Some people believe that saints and other human beings can alter the course of events through supernatural means even after their deaths. They can fulfill all one’s needs, repel personal disasters, and aid on whoever prays to them. In all these forms of Shirk, human beings are given abilities to bring about changes that only God can.

In some cases, God is given human or animal form. The image of God is painted, or more often, carved in the shape of idols possessing human or animal features. For example, many Hindus and Buddhists worship idols that look like Asian men that they consider to be God’s form. Another example is the Christian belief that the Creator took human flesh and came down as Jesus. Michaelangelo, a famous Italian artist, painted God as an old Caucasian man with long hair. Similarly, human beings are sometimes given divine qualities. The ancient Arabs worshipped idols whose names were derived from God’s names. Many New-Agers (Shirley Maclaine) and spiritual movements hold that God resides within all of us, an idea common in popular culture.

The last type of Shirk is when worship is directed to non-God and its reward is sought from a created being. Shirk of this type cancels all the good deeds of a person. Idolatry is its most obvious form that all prophets spoke against. Love, in its perfect form and expressed in total obedience, and different than natural love for parents or spouse, is a form of worship. True love knows how to listen and surrender oneself to God. Prayer is another form of worship reserved for God from which Jesus, Mary, Muhammad, and saints are excluded.

Another form, but to a lesser extent, is to perform one’s worship to be noticed and win admiration. What makes it uniquely dangerous is human nature to seek praise, therefore doing religious worship for the wrong reasons deserves the greatest caution. The desire to show-off is hidden, it has to do with intention, and difficult to resist. Great care is urged from a Muslim to keep the intention pure whenever a good action is being done. One way is to say the name of God, Bismillah, before even mundane actions like eating, drinking, and sleeping. The Prophet of Islam explained it as, ‘When a man gets up to pray and strives to beautify his prayer because people are looking at him, that is Shirk.’ (Ib Khuzaima)

At a deeper level, there is one false divinity which eclipses all the others. This is the human ego, the selfhood which thinks itself independent of its Maker and acts as if it were its own master. Its commands, when it refuses guidance, are described in the Quran as ‘caprice.’

The Quran speaks of ‘he who has taken his own caprice as his god’

(Quran 25:43)

For such a one,

‘it is as if the birds had snatched him or the wind had blown him headlong into a place far away.’

(Quran 22:31)

There are many who would claim that they do not believe in any gods of any kind, so the Islamic Confession of Faith has no meaning for them. They are wrong. If they have ever loved anything, desired it, and valued it above all else, then this is a ‘divinity’ for them. If they treated it independent of its Creator, then it is a false god, the object of sacrilegious worship. ‘Have you seen,’ asks the Quran,

‘the one who takes his own desire to be his god?’

(Quran 25:43)

 The Prophet Muhammad said,

‘The worshipper of money will always be miserable.’


 God of Fear or Love?

 A lot of Westerners are afraid of Muslims, thinking Islam is a religion of fear and that Muslims fear God. A lot of Christians say that Christianity is about love, but Islam is about fear. There is no question that many Christians try to love God. They frequently compare their relationship with God to be like that of a father to a son. But, do Muslims love God or is their relationship with God based only on fear?

 The word ‘love’ occurs in the Quran more than 70 times with reference to:

  • God’s love for the believers and their ‘intense’ love for Him (2:165)
  • Our wider relationship with others (28:56)
  • Our attachment to material things in life (2:216, 3:92, 3:14, 14:3)
  • Emotion shared with our families (7:189, 42:23, 30:21)

The Quran frequently speaks of the love of God for the good-doers (2:195; 3:134; 3:148; 5:13; 5:195) the repentant (2:222), those that purify themselves (2:222; 9:108), the God-conscious (3:76; 9:4; 9:7) the persevering ones (3:146), those that put their trust in God (3:159), the upholders of justice (5:42; 49:9; 60:8), and those who struggle in the path of God (61:4).

In the Bible, love is mentioned:

  • 267 times in Young’s Literal Translation
  • 653 times in New International Reader’s Version
  • 280 times in King James Version
  • 511 time in New International Version
  • 588 times in New Living Translation

 Fear is mentioned more than 200 times in the Quran, whereas in the Bible fear is mentioned:

  • 385 times in King James Version
  • 120 times in New International Reader’s Version
  • 333 times in Young’s Literal Translation

Why do the Bible versions have such widely different counts of such critical words? One version has twice the number of occurrences of the word ‘love’ than some other versions. Could love have been introduced when the actual word or meaning intended might have been different? Is the urge to deliver ‘good news’ overtaking the ‘real news’ from God?

 Fear, undoubtedly, is the most urgent, severe, and complete human response. The purpose of fear in all species is always one: survival. Everyone has the inside alarm called ‘fear’ in response to real or perceived danger. Highly uncomfortable, fear is extremely useful. Without fear we would put ourselves in situations that would threaten our health and life. Without fear, we are in constant danger. In this way, fear is a great mercy.

What exactly does Islam instruct believers to fear? Simply put, it asks believers to fear God and explains why that is crucial to our survival:

  • ‘Fear God and know that He is well-acquainted with all things.’ (2:231, 2:233, 5:7, 5:8, 33:55, 49:1)
  • ‘Whoever follows My guidance, on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve.’ (2:112, 2:262, 2:274, 2:277, 3:170, 5:69, 6:48)

 The point to be extracted from is that just like the fear that prevents us from running against the traffic on a busy highway or walking into a fire, the fear of God is a blessing intended to keep our souls alive. God is watching us at all times and we shall return to Him for judgment. In this world, we have to live as believers, true to His message, in gratitude to His favors. Upon return we will have much to fear if we have failed the purpose for which we were put on this earth – to worship God. On the other hand, if we followed God’s guidance, then we will have nothing to fear in the end. Fear God now and be dafe. Fail to fear God now, and you will have much to fear later. It resembles the councel of a parent to exercise care to avoid tragedy in future. Hidden in the idea of fearing God is the recognition of the acknowledgement of the consequences we have been promised for submission (Paradise) or transgression (Hell). If we   walk around like a spoiled child thinking we deserve everything, we become complacent by assuming we are already saved. Our self-indulgence can cause us eternal lives. So, yes, Muslims are afraid of God and are thankful about that.

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