I have been wanting to write about monotheism (tawheed) and idolatry for a long time, but didn’t strike while the iron was hot and now I’m not sure I’ll remember all the thoughts I’ve had. But today I came across a couple of articles that prompted me to do it.
Given that Islam is so big on there being one God with no partners and none having a share in God’s divinity – it is probably the central message of Islam – a couple of traditional Islamic doctrines bother me. Firstly, the infallibility of prophets – isn’t that making them super-human? And I just don’t think it’s true; the Quran even admonishes Muhammad on occasion. I don’t need to believe that every word that came out of his mouth besides revelation was accurate; the hadith about the fly landing in your drink for example, that you should dunk the other wing in too because one wing has a disease and the other has the cure (or something to that effect). He may never have said it, of course, but even if he did, does it have to be true? Couldn’t it just have been him repeating an old wives’ tale he’d heard? He was a human after all – he didn’t know everything! Surely to believe he did is associating him with God?
Secondly, the idea that the Quran is eternal and uncreated. If that isn’t associating something with God, I don’t know what is. The equivalent of the eternal and uncreated word of God in Christianity is Jesus, who is openly deified. Enough said.
I suppose it arises from this problem: how can we understand God’s interaction with humanity while preserving both God’s transcendent perfection and humanity’s transience and dependence? How does God enter time and space and impart messages to us? Is it possible that the glory of God’s words could be transmitted by imperfect vessels?
A view I find intuitive and interesting, which has been controversially proposed by an Iranian scholar according to an article I read (which I can’t seem to access now), is that the word of God is a combination of prophets’ cognitive processes and divine inspiration. The fact that the Quran is in Arabic is not because God selected Arabic words at the dawn of time to later send earthwards, but because Muhammad understood God’s message through the medium of Arabic. This would not mean they were his words, but that the words resulted from a confluence of God’s and his minds.
This way, it’s clearly about God communicating to us, and there is not a temptation to regard a sequence of Arabic words as divine in themselves.
There are two aspects to idolatry: belief and worship. Idolatrous belief is ascribing divinity to anything besides God, which seems to be the meaning of shirk in the Quran. Idolatrous worship is a woollier concept. What is worship anyway? Is it praise, adoration, obedience…? These are all things we could easily do to other people – does that mean we are worshipping those people? I certainly used to think that too much admiration for someone was bordering on worship, but I could never neatly draw a line to define where it became idolatry.
Maybe it is simply a matter of ascribing divine qualities; I am unlikely to think a person is omnipotent, but I could start to think – at least unconsciously – that they could never be wrong. I might then blindly imitate them and unwaveringly follow them. I suppose in that way worship follows on from belief.
It seems that the tendency to ascribe divinity or divine qualities to people or things besides God is something that we humans are prone to. In the Quran this tendency is denounced time after time after time. There is something very intellectually satisfying about the idea of one God, one creative life force, one ultimate reality, one Sustainer of all that is. One focal point, one goal, one object of worship, submission to Whom constitutes our natural state, our primordial way of being. From Whom we come, and unto Whom we return. A lot of people are drawn to Islam for this, only to find that in practice there are various other things they are supposed to revere.