Notes on the meaning of shirk in the Qur’an

To ascribe partnership to God

This article is from The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation.

sh-r-k – to ascribe partnership

The Traditionalist renders the sh-r-k root as to ascribe partners (to God), to associate something (with God) polytheism, idolatry and the like. This is correct but it needs some unpacking since without proper analysis we simply end up with a new idol, albeit one with a monopoly.

The prophet who most strongly personifies rejection of shirk is Ibrāhīm. Therefore, a summary of his philosophical pathway is in order.

At 6:74 we see Ibrāhīm’s rejection of what his people made as objects of worship. At 6:75 God shows Ibrāhīm his creation. Through recognising its transient nature (6:76-78), Ibrāhīm understands that creation – even impressive creation – is not God. Having rejected both what man makes and what God makes as potentially being God what he is left with is God himself. God is neither contained by nor defined by what God himself makes or what man makes.

Holding to anything of a created nature as God (be it a statue or a mental representation or conception) is shirk.

When the atheist says there is no god, he is half right. Nothing we can conceive of – nothing we can point to within ourselves or outside ourselves – is God. When the atheist looks to his imagination for God and says he cannot find him there, he potentially speaks more honestly than do many who claim to have faith.

We can know about the infinite God by means of what he tells us in revelation or by what we see in the world about us in the same way we can tell something, let’s say, about a person in whose house we are currently living (but whom we have not met) by virtue of the things we find in that house. But those things are indications only; signposts, clues. While they may offer us insights into his character and status, they are never rightly confused with the man himself. When we begin to speak on behalf of the owner of the house we overstep a line. The fact is that we are house guests, not representatives of the owner.

There is a subtle difference between what I am describing here and what the Traditionalist means (or, at least what one understands him to mean from what he says and does) by the term shirk. From his treatment of shirk one is given to understand that his particular conception of God is the correct one and anything added to that conception represents an idol. The Qur’anic position is that adherence to anything created as God (even if it be a conception of God and there be just one such conception and everyone is agreed upon it) is itself an idol and therefore an instance of shirk. An idol – even an incorporeal one with a monopoly – is still an idol.

As the Traditionalist correctly notes, the Qur’an does not contain instructions on the religion he follows. A man is welcome to serve God as he sees fit – including the Traditionalist. But when a man ascribes divine origin to his chosen methods where no such evidence exists in what God sends by way of revelation, he makes his religion a god and thereby ascribes a partnership to God.

All instances in the text are footnoted.

References

2:96, 2:105, 2:135, 2:221, 2:221, 2:221, 2:221, 3:64, 3:67, 3:95, 3:151, 3:186, 4:12, 4:36, 4:48, 4:48, 4:116, 4:116, 5:72, 5:82, 6:14, 6:19, 6:22, 6:22, 6:23, 6:41, 6:64, 6:78, 6:79, 6:80, 6:81, 6:81, 6:88, 6:94, 6:100, 6:106, 6:107, 6:121, 6:136, 6:136, 6:136, 6:137, 6:137, 6:139, 6:148, 6:148, 6:151, 6:161, 6:163, 7:33, 7:173, 7:190, 7:190, 7:191, 7:195, 9:1, 9:3, 9:4, 9:5, 9:6, 9:7, 9:17, 9:28, 9:31, 9:33, 9:36, 9:113, 10:18, 10:28, 10:28, 10:28, 10:34, 10:35, 10:66, 10:71, 10:105, 11:54, 12:38, 12:106, 12:108, 13:16, 13:33, 13:36, 14:22, 15:94, 16:1, 16:3, 16:27, 16:35, 16:54, 16:86, 16:86, 16:86, 16:100, 16:120, 16:123, 17:64, 17:111, 18:26, 18:38, 18:42, 18:52, 18:110, 20:32, 22:17, 22:26, 22:31, 22:31, 23:59, 23:92, 24:3, 24:3, 24:55, 25:2, 27:59, 27:63, 28:62, 28:64, 28:68, 28:74, 28:87, 29:8, 29:65, 30:13, 30:13, 30:28, 30:31, 30:33, 30:35, 30:40, 30:40, 30:42, 31:13, 31:13, 31:15, 33:73, 33:73, 34:22, 34:27, 35:14, 35:40, 35:40, 39:29, 39:65, 39:67, 40:12, 40:42, 40:73, 40:84, 41:6, 41:47, 42:13, 42:21, 46:4, 48:6, 48:6, 48:6, 52:43, 59:23, 60:12, 61:9, 68:41, 68:41, 72:2, 72:20, 98:1, 98:6.

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and speaker with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik. He is founder of Quranite.com and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur'an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety. Read more...

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