Tawheed and idolatry

September 20, 2009 at 9:17 pm (God, Islam)

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.



  1. Sarah Elizabeth said,

    Yea, like listening to every single thing scholars tell us instead of finding our own knowledge. If we look to scholars in that way, are we not just treating them like other religions treat priests? Is this not a form of idolatry?

    What I love about Islam is the fact that WE are in direct connection with God, not through some intermediary. WE are told to seek knowledge and find our own path.

    I think much of the Muslim community has lost this idea, but I never will. For me this concept is Islam, and following anything and everything any scholar tells us just makes me bite my tongue in disagreement.

    Although scholars have a place, they are not the be all end all. We should pick and choose what is right for us because that is human nature, that is the way we work.

    I am sick of the argument that we cannot pick and choose or somehow we are not following our religion correctly.. Come on! Everybody picks and chooses.. Conservatives choose conservative arguments, liberals choose liberal arguments. Either way, both groups are “picking and choosing.”

    This concludes my rant for the moment..

    LOL 🙂

  2. susanne430 said,

    I loved this and especially what you said about Arabic. If God meant for only those who can read and understand Arabic to get to heaven then that leaves out A LOT of people! I choose to believe God can speak to people in their own languages. He speaks to me in English! So for people to think we must learn a “holy language” in order to find God’s truth…eh, that’s a huge turn off. As a tribal native woman said in South America one time to a Bible translator, if your God is so powerful, why can He not speak ____ (insert difficult tribal language)? Excellent point! And that’s how I feel. If God meant heaven only for those who can speak Arabic, so be it. But I think God is not that way and only Arabs and/or Muslims think he might be. But this reminds me of the Jews and that whole “God’s chosen people” thing. Another reason why – as an outsider of Islam and Arabs – I see Islam as only an Arab/Ishmael version of the Bible.

    So much of interest to me in this post, but I’ll stop for now.

  3. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    I don’t think the prophets are infallible either. I read recently that the idea of Muhammad’s sinlessness was developed by traditionalists after his death. Like you said, the Qur’an admonishes him on several occasions.

    The created/uncreated debate is one of the most interesting parts of Islam to me. I personally believe it was created, but orthodox Islam of course argues that it was uncreated. This brings up the issue of whether the Qur’an is then on the same level as God. I think this debate is especially important when it comes to issues of Islam & modernity. If the Qur’an is created, then there is room for re-interpretation.

    The Arabic idea is interesting, although like you said, controversial. The problem is that many Arabs seem to think they are better Muslims because the Qur’an is in Arabic. Aside from this annoying aspect, I don’t see why it’s a big deal that the Qur’an is in Arabic. It came down to the Arabs, so it makes sense. It doesn’t mean God values Arabs or Arabic-speakers above others.

    I never understood the idea of Islam putting so much emphasis on there being no God but Him, until one author said that in today’s context it could mean other “Gods” like materialism, egoism, etc. Back then it probably referred to actual deities, but since today much of the world is generally monotheistic, the author’s interpretation makes more sense.
    An interesting point is that pre-Islamic Arabia was actually largely monotheistic. They didn’t see a contradiction between worshiping their tribal totems, for example, as well as the one God.

  4. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    Oh and I love what Sarah Elizabeth said:

    “Although scholars have a place, they are not the be all end all. We should pick and choose what is right for us because that is human nature, that is the way we work.”


    Susanne: It’s so unlikely that God meant for only Arabic-speakers to go to heaven that I don’t get why some Muslims (and non-Muslims) even believe that. It’s ridiculous. I speak to God in English too, except for the parts of prayer said in Arabic. For me praying in Arabic is nice in a way because it forms a link to the Qur’an. I don’t know if that makes sense but it’s kind of hard to explain.

  5. Stacy said,

    I have a problem with many of the same issues. Since I have studied Biblical history and textual criticism, I can’t see either the Bible or Quran being preserved perfectly. I think that in the case of the Bible, that the author’s intention was preserved in each book, but the writings all reflect cultural and linguistic biases of the writers. I think that the Quran shows a lot of the same biases, but there is no real scholarly disciple of textual criticism in Islam. It is unfortunate that those who want to use scholarly methods to study the history of the Quran and hadith literature are often cursed and called kafirs.

  6. Sarah said,

    Sarah Elizabeth – yes, I forgot about how people almost regard scholars as infallible too. Rigid religiosity really puts me off as well. It becomes much more complicated than it should be, in my view. I still think it’s motivated by insecurity and the need for certainty.

    Susanne – I’ve honestly never heard anyone say only Arabic-speakers will get to heaven, and like you, I wouldn’t listen if they did. I’ve seen nothing in the Quran that would warrant that view. I think reciting the Quran in Arabic is just to avoid anything being lost in translation, and I think the other parts of the prayer and greetings etc being done in Arabic are just tradition – not essential. They are nice because they unite Muslims the world over, so they can all pray together easily etc.

    Sara – I’m glad you agree about these points, and of course I don’t think that these beliefs are essential to Islam. At one point in history the prevailing view was that the Quran was created. That’s an interesting point about implications for re-interpretation.
    Yes, it’s fascinating that there was still monotheism in Arabia at that time. Coming from the Judeo-Christian tradition I guess I assumed everything outside of it was pagan. I love how the Quran mentions Jewish prophets and also other prophets I’ve never heard of, from other monotheistic traditions in the region.

    Stacy – textual criticism of the Quran is exactly what I was reading about, and just how much resistance there is to it. It’s not helped by the fact that most of the critical scholars are secular and seem to be using their findings to discredit the religion where, in my view, this is not warranted. (It is known that there were variant readings of the Quran even at the time of Muhammad; to me that doesn’t have to mean God didn’t successfully transmit a message.) But I guess the doctrine of the Quran being uncreated and miraculously transmitted with 100% fidelity is the real obstacle to this kind of study.

  7. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    Check this out, about the Mu’tazilas, who believed the Qur’an was created:

    An important belief of the Mu’tazila was that the Qur’an was created, which meant that it could be interpreted while taking the context into consideration. As there are bound to be changes in time, the Qur’an must be constantly re-interpreted. This is in direct opposition to the orthodox Muslims, who see the Qur’an as uncreated and eternal. The Mu’tazilas believed that the Qur’an was God’s speech which had been “created” under certain circumstances, which implies that God could have created a different Qur’an should circumstances have been different. They accuse their opponents of associating another thing (the Qur’an) with God, as they are implying the two co-exist.

    • Sarah said,

      Excellent! I really hadn’t appreciated the implications for re-interpretation, I’d only considered the issue of the Quran’s origin in isolation. But it’s nice to see my thoughts about that reflected back at me.
      I’m planning to read a translation of writing by 12th century Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd / Averroes, and he discusses mu’tazilites, among other thinkers. So I’ll look forward to that now.
      Thanks Sara ❤

  8. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    The Mu’tazilites rock my world!!!!

    Lol seriously, I love them and agree with almost all their theology! It’s sad that since then orthodoxy has completely taken over.

    • Aynur said,

      Well Sunni Islam “won”, and as I understand it wiped out the Mu’tazilites. Weren’t the Mu’tazilites one of the first Muslim “groups”? (I haven’t studied early Islamic history that closely).

  9. Aynur said,

    I just saw this posting (I think sometimes I’m blind). 😛

    “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.”

    That would be right … and that’s true that Prophet Muhammad (saw) is admonished, one being in 80:1-10

    One thing that seems like it’s idolatry is the topic of intercession, as the hadith literature presents – that Prophet Muhammad has that power. That totally goes against what the Qur’an says about intercession. There is the pleading on behalf of someone, but not to the extent of having any influence or power. Wouldn’t putting Prophet Muhammad on that level be like idolatry???

    “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.”

    That’s how I see it too, and it appears it’s what the Qur’an says about it:
    41:44 Now if We had willed this [divine writ] to be a discourse in a non-Arabic tongue, they [who now reject it] would surely have said, Why is it that its messages have not been spelled out clearly? Why – [a message in] a non-Arabic tongue, and [its bearer] an Arab?” Say: Unto all who have attained to faith, this [divine writ] is a guidance and a source of health; but as for those who will not believe – in their ears is deafness, and so it remains obscure to them: they are [like people who are] being called from too far away.

    • Sarah said,

      Aynur – thanks for these verses. I’m learning so much from the Quran. I should have noted down references, because I can never remember things exactly.

      I have read that Adam’s eating the forbidden fruit was a grievous error (on the other hand I recently read a book that made great pains to say it was a “slip” and not a “sin” – just so they can say prophets are sinless!) I have read that Moses killed someone early in his life. Muslims that say the Bible slanders David should think about that.

      I have read that God put the divine writ in Muhammad’s heart. It also said that we cannot understand the mechanism of God transmitting this message. So all this stuff about a pre-existing book with God since the dawn of time is just speculation.

  10. caraboska said,

    That Iranian scholar’s idea of how the Qur’an came into being is, as far as I can tell, virtually identical to the orthodox Christian view of how the Bible came into being. I personally am not willing to take this as far, at least in the case of the Bible, as some people do – I read the Bible in a manner that is devoid of cultural bias per se: the point of those places where cultural elements come in seems to me to be that we must be sure our behavior conforms enough to cultural norms that we will not be taken for immoral persons living in disobedience to God by the people who surround us.

  11. Sarah said,


    “we must be sure our behavior conforms enough to cultural norms that we will not be taken for immoral persons living in disobedience to God by the people who surround us”

    Interesting point. I’ve often wondered about the apparently different understandings of morality throughout history and I think this explains it quite nicely.

  12. caraboska said,

    The sad part, however, is that Christians often feel that we have to adopt those extra-Scriptural cultural assumptions of 2000 years ago or whatever as normative, even though the cultures in question were by no means Christian.

    This can result in the absurd phenomenon of Christians in today’s world who have dirtier minds than those of non-religious persons, because they immediately begin to think a certain way when they see certain things happening (e.g. a Christian girl leaving a boy’s dorm room in her nightgown at 3 AM) and they can’t get past it.

    The non-religious person, on the other hand, might speculate, but it will suffice to tell them plainly, ‘We are just friends; he got home from rehearsal at 2 AM and was hungry, so he woke me up, I heated up leftovers for him and we sat down and ate them in his room, and then I returned to my room to go back to sleep,’ and they will say, ‘OK, that’s cool’ – especially if it is a well-known fact that this girl does in fact feed the boy dinner every night, for example because his parents are too poor to send him money, and he would otherwise have to get a job which would take away from his schoolwork – and cease to think any dirty thoughts.

    Meanwhile, the Christians I am speaking of would think that it’s a sign of the shamelessness of modern culture that a non-religious person would just accept that explanation at face value, and probably speculate that the girl in question was lying, at very least about the nature of the relationship, and possibly also about what really went on in the boy’s room.

    The same applies to things like women working outside the home. In the Greek culture of New Testament times, women were apparently expected to stay in their homes basically at all times, and if they didn’t, it was speculated they were ‘loose’ or at very least neglectful of their families. I don’t know any non-religious person in today’s world who is going to derive any kind of sexual connotations from a woman being outside her home, or think that she is neglecting her family. But there are Christians who think we should all be living under the same cultural assumptions to this day, and they can’t get past it if a woman is working outside her home.

  13. Sarah said,

    Yes, I agree we don’t have to stick to the cultural norms of years gone by. But one problem I had with Christianity was that it adapted to modern culture while trying to be very different from it. For example the Christians that thought they could drink in bars with non-Christians and limit their alcohol intake, when actually they couldn’t avoid caving to the subtle social pressure to drink a lot. Or the Christians that thought it was appropriate to date in the western way for years on end with no talk of marriage and do everything except intercourse, including sleeping over! I think these type of scenarios set people up for failure.
    Clearly the Christians you are talking about are of a totally different mentality, but either extreme is probably over the top.

  14. caraboska said,

    I suppose I have been fortunate not to have traveled in circles where people adapted to modern culture in that way. I don’t think it’s impermissible to go to a bar, but personally I would limit my alcohol intake to ZERO in any circumstance where alcohol abuse (i.e. getting drunk in any way, shape or form) was taking place. It would just be too much of a stumbling block, send the wrong message, etc. to have any alcohol at all.

    About dating… I used to attend a Christian meeting every Friday evening at university – it was the US equivalent of what you probably know as UCCF (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, or something to that effect). And we had a tradition every year of having a speaker in on the Friday closest to Valentine’s Day to give us a lecture on ‘matters of the heart’. Well, I remember one year, our staff worker gave the lecture, and he began with exactly the following words: ‘Dating is idolatry’.’

    That having been said, I think there’s a certain evolution people go through. If they convert as a young adult, have not been taught godliness from childhood, it can take a while to understand that while it is good to have a sense of limits and save intercourse for marriage, one can still have the godliness problem even if one stops short of that. A serious-minded believer will start limiting their behavior accordingly, as they come to understand the nature of various types of actions.

    The most serious-minded among the circles I traveled in had a policy of no touching of any kind before marriage. There were also others who had a policy of nothing more than shaking hands until engagement. And the understanding of engagement is that in God’s sight, according to Scripture, you are already man and wife and are not permitted to break up, so that meant all that stuff people normally discuss after engagement, in premarital counseling, had to be discussed exhaustively before engagement.

    And the question is posed: what sense is there in setting foot on a path that leads in a direction you are not sure you want to go, from which at a certain point there is no turning back, and from which there should be no turning back at all?

    There are those who go to an extreme and say that there can be no opposite sex friendship, and there should be no interaction between the sexes outside of one’s family (including spouse). This thinking appears a bit flawed to me. What happens if someone is attracted to both sexes? Does that mean they can’t have any friends at all?

    It seems to me that such a person simply has to make choices in how they interact with both sexes, not just one. With the result that they can in fact be friends with people of either gender. By choice rather than by the ‘compulsion’ of not finding people of a particular sex attractive, but nonetheless – friends, regardless of gender.

    All that having been said, I would say that the vast majority of people’s problems in their personal lives have to do with their (erroneous) idea that they cannot live without a relationship, sexual expression, etc. In other words, with an idolatry of this aspect of their lives.

    If someone has not died to that, then I suppose the only way to prevent them from committing sin is to just not allow them to interact with people of a sex that they find attractive. But it will not solve the heart problem. Just look at the actual behavior of people who live in systems that (theoretically) deny them such opportunities. They will find every opportunity they can to do what is forbidden.

    So the solution is nothing less than to repent of idolatry and worship God. To train oneself to bring every little reaction (even physical) that can be brought under conscious control – even those that are not visible to the outside observer. To take that godly responsibility to worship God in every little detail by engaging in what I like to call ‘micro-obedience’.

    Not obedience in the dictionary sense, which presupposes a commandment to be obeyed, which presupposes authority, which presupposes the right or power to compel people by various means to do what is commanded, or punish them for failure to do so. Which we have already discussed elsewhere. I mean here the hearing and doing of God’s will, purely for God and for no other reason.

  15. Sarah said,

    Dating is idolatry? Wow. You certainly have had some interesting friends!

    If the possibility of attraction is only one-way e.g. gay person with non-gay person then it can lead to heartache but not regretted actions.

    Enforced segregation like in Saudi Arabia does not prevent sin as you say. There just is no way to force someone to be righteous, or to remove all opportunities for sin. It always comes down to the individual to decide how to behave. Likewise I don’t think getting married is a solution to a “heart problem”. But I do think it makes life and faith a lot easier. We may not need to form couples to survive as individuals, but as a species, we do. It is a really strong and natural instinct.

  16. Achelois said,

    Islam is quite profound. I really like the religion but there is a lot of confusion there too.

    It is big on tawheed but then there are verses where angels and the Prophet are cited with Allah. I have mentioned that before so won’t bore you again. That is where I get lost. Now I think all religions have a bit of idolatry in them.

  17. Achelois said,

    “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.”

    Yes, but then Quran also ascribes divine qualities to Jesus – he gave life to clay birds, something that canonical bibles don’t mention.

    • Wrestling said,

      Every religion does it! Some are just more blatant than others.
      We just can’t cope with a totally transcendent God. It’s not a practical concept. We at least have to anthropomorphise God a bit.

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