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Essence of Polytheism (1)
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Nikhat Sattar)



The sin of polytheism (shirk) is so severe that, in comparison to other sins, no Muslim tolerates its most minor association with him. The most ordinary Muslim would bear any accusation, accept connection with all other sins, admit to any crimes and bad deeds, but if you were to identify the smallest doubt in any of his beliefs or deeds, he would become incensed.

In the current times, the intelligent ones among people who are influenced by modern thought and fields of knowledge are disgusted by polytheism. Regardless of whether they have any consideration for monotheism (tawhid), they believe that there exists either atheism or monotheism. The rational person of today cannot be involved with something as superstitious as polytheism. And none among this group will accept being associated with polytheism.

A person having some knowledge of the Qur’an and Hadith is overcome by amazement when he observes the beliefs and acts of Muslims and reflects upon the condition and matters of the world. He finds extreme contradiction between the knowledge he possesses on the one hand and the evidence provided by people on the other. He observes with his eyes that the polluting influence of polytheism is dominant everywhere, but finds complete agreement among people that the world has been rid of polytheism, and that even if some remnant is left, it is not worth mention and has no impact: hence there is no need to worry or do something about it. Progress of time and increased knowledge will erase it altogether. In opposition to his opinion, this consensus between others makes a well-meaning person doubtful and he begins to question his knowledge, thinking that he may have misunderstood the meaning of polytheism; perhaps he has gone too far in his definition of monotheism. He thinks that there is a stench in the room, but if everyone is saying that a beautiful smell pervades the atmosphere, perhaps something is wrong with his mind currently. This fact makes him worried and doubtful for some time; but when after repeated experiences, he finds his own views to be true and it becomes impossible for him to refute the existence of the stench, there remain only two options for him. If he does not possess the courage to oppose the common view, he is forced to state that the stench is really a perfume; however, if he believes that he cannot falsify the truth in favour of common opinion, he gives evidence of his sense of smell and either warns others that they are declaring a dirty smell to be perfume due to expedience, or thinks that they are incapable of distinguishing between good and bad smells.

I hold this second opinion about the Muslims of today and other groups who claim to be believers of monotheism. I think that the disgust that Muslims possess about polytheism is not backed with true understanding and knowledge. It is merely ego, based on the heritage of their religious and historical traditions. They believe that they possess such a grand history of denial of polytheism; how could they be involved in this falsehood themselves? Groups other than Muslims who approve of monotheism and deny polytheism consider it to be merely a matter of scholarly pride. Just as Copernicus observed against the prevalent ancient view that the sun revolves around the earth and later, Galileo proved this through experiment, modern experiments and observations have erased belief in all superstitions related with polytheism according to these people and there are no chances of being caught in it in this age of knowledge and research. Such people are not aware of the reality of polytheism; its types and form and the impacts it has upon our scholarly, moral and political lives. They are ignorant of all these points. The only significance this issue has for them is that it was a scholarly mistake which has been corrected by the progress of human knowledge. Polytheism, in their minds, possesses a very narrow meaning of “idol worship” or “nature worship”. According to them, so many secrets of nature have been unearthed that the time is near when human beings can claim to be the gods of the earth and skies, time and place, so what can be the significance of worshipping rivers, mountains, planets and stars?

This situation reminds me of a wise saying of ‘Umar (rta). Once a man was praised for his goodness by saying that he was so good that he was completely ignorant of anything that could be bad. At this, ‘Umar (rta) said that in that case, there was great danger of his becoming bad because if a person could not distinguish between good and bad, he could easily drift into doing bad deeds. In our view, this is true of current times. These people are so ignorant of religion that they are unaware of the greatest evil, ie. of polytheism. And there is no surprise if a person does not consider a disease to be one, or cannot assess the disease or even thinks that the illness is health. Hence, it is an essential requirement of the times that this ignorance, which the Qur’an has called the greatest evil, be clarified so that the essence and reality of polytheism can be highlighted and these two points of truth and falsehood are so clear that there remains no possibility of confusion:


But that Allah might accomplish a matter already enacted; that those who died might die after a clear sign, and those who lived might live after a clear sign. (8:42)   

Polytheism and its Forms 

A true concept of anything cannot be determined without its true definition. Hence it is essential that we first define polytheism and then discuss its types and forms.

If the things that have been declared polytheism in the Qur’an and Hadith of the Prophet (sws) are taken into consideration, the definition of polytheism would be as follows: “association of someone or something with God’s being or His attributes or His rights in the sense that they are used for Him.”

To understand this definition, some explanation is required.

Association with God’s being means considering God to be coming from someone or someone to come from Him; considering someone to be from His type or community; stating someone as His son or father: for example, the belief of Christians that Jesus (sws) is from God, or He has given birth to him or that Mary is God’s mother, or the belief of pagan Arabs that angels were daughters of God. All of these beliefs are contradictory to God’s presence from the very beginning to eternity and all of His attributes, belief in which is essential from the perspectives of nature and religion. This form of polytheism is the polytheism in the Being of God.1

The meaning of associating someone in His attributes is to do so in the qualities which are ascribed to Him: such as creation, planning, knowledge, wisdom. The condition with this type of polytheism is that the qualities are used in the sense of being connected with God. The benefit of this restriction is that the same attributes are often also used for humans but obviously when we apply them to God, their meaning is specific and is according to His status and His all encompassing being. When they are used for humans, they are taken to be distinct from those for God. For example, we use the attribute of wisdom both for God and a person. When we use it for God, it means something different and when we use it for a person, it means something different. If we use it for a person in the same sense as for God, this would be polytheism in the attributes of God.

Including others in the rights of God means association in the things that emerge from His attributes or in the responsibilities and rights that we have towards Him. For example, if God is the Creator, it follows that all order and planning of the universe belong to Him. Assume that even if we accept that God is the Creator of the earth and sky but that their management is in someone else’s hands, then this will be polytheism in the rights, because we are associating someone else with that which becomes essential as a consequence of God being the Creator, even though He who has created also has the right of order. Hence the Qur’an says: “Is it not His to create and to govern?” (7:54) If the plan of action of the entire universe is in His hands, it follows naturally that only He should be worshipped; only He should be obeyed; only He should be the focus of all love. Now assume that we adopt the worship of someone else apart from God, or consider obedience to someone else to be valid in addition to Him, or believe that someone else is also worthy of our real love: all of these situations will be counted as polytheism in the rights. On this basis, the Qur’an has demanded: “And they have been commanded no more than this: To worship Allah, offering Him sincere devotion, being true [in faith].” (98:5). At another place, the Qur’an says: “Those who believe love God the best.” (2:165). In other words, their love for others is subject to their love for God.

The above are the pure forms of polytheism. Other than these, there are things that are not polytheism in their spirit and do not fall under any of the above types, yet they are either a form of polytheism or a path to it. If they are retained, there is a danger that they might open the door to real polytheism. The principle of the Islamic shari‘ah is that it corrects the drivers of sins as well as the real sins. This is why the shari‘ah has made them illegitimate; such as prostrating to anyone other than God; swearing by someone by way of paying respects to someone other than God. This is because prostration has always been considered to be the greatest form of demeaning one self and idolatrous nations used to swear by their idols. Islam, which is the last and complete shari‘ah, also ended these forms of polytheism that could have become real polytheism. This form is called polytheism on account of similarity.

For clarification of all these types of polytheism, it would be appropriate if we present examples of these from the Qur’an.

During the period of its revelation, the groups addressed by the Qur’an, in whose actions and beliefs it has pointed to the existence of polytheism, are three: the Arabs (Ishmaelites); People of the Book (Jews and Christians) and the hypocrites. Among these groups, the Arabs have the special characteristic of being addressed as idolaters both as information and attribute. Acts of polytheism have been identified for the others, but the word “polytheist” or “idolater” as a piece of knowledge or attribute has not been used. The reason for this is that these groups accepted monotheism as a foundation or basic principle. Monotheism was a belief and value that was shared between them and the Muslims. No one from the Jews or Christians denied monotheism. Hypocrites were Muslims in all of their declarations and obvious acts. The polytheism within these groups was in contradiction to their claims and stated beliefs of monotheism. In contrast, the idolaters believed in polytheism per se. In this system, their deities were not only His associates but also indispensable. Without belief in polytheism, they could not understand the universe. Due to this significant factor, the Qur’an has given them importance in this discussion of polytheism and monotheism and so shall we. Hence we present a summary of the forms of polytheism among them that the Qur’an has also discussed.


Polytheism of Idolaters

 The first point to understand about the people of Arabia is that no group among them was a denier of God. Some people have inferred from their saying as quoted in the Qur’an: “We shall die and we live, and nothing but time can destroy us.” (45:24) that they were either deniers of God or that they were naturalists in current terminology. But this view is incorrect. There were no atheists among the Arabs during the revelation of the Qur’an. When they said: “We shall die and we live, and nothing but time can destroy us,” (45:24) did not mean that they were denying God. They said this in refutation of the Qur’an’s claim that the rise and fall of nations depended upon the reform or anarchy caused by the latter’s beliefs and deeds.

The explanation of this summary is that the Qur’an considered the rise and fall of nations to be dependent upon their morality. It stated that the devastation wrought upon the ‘Ād, the Thamud, nation of Lot, people of Madyan and the nation of the Pharaoh was brought about as a consequence of their denial of truth and practice of polytheism, sinfulness, mutual rivalries and other transgressions in their beliefs and practices. It would warn the Arabs that if they did not correct the errors in their beliefs and morals, they, too, would be destroyed similarly, despite their strength and large numbers. The Arabs could not understand this point. They refused to accept that any moral principle could have a role to play in the rise and fall of nations. They thought of their nation as a tree that sprouted, obtained nourishment and grew, flowered and gave fruit until it met its end due to passage of time. Or else, they thought of their nation as an individual who was born, grew to full youth and then died either due to some illness or old age. They considered the system of life and death that is operative in every part of the universe in its physical sense, to be active in the life and death of nations too. They would relate stories of previous nations in their poetry in a similar vein.

The Qur’an presented history from a new perspective, which was very different from their materialistic approach. It demanded a new way of living from them, which opposed their desires. Hence they were not ready to accept it and would say: “there is no relationship between principles and life and death of nations; a nation comes to an end only with the tides of time. Its impiety has nothing to do with its destruction.” The Italian political philosopher, Machiavelli holds the same belief. When he says that government is a single, political entity: it is neither moral nor legal; the focus of all political acts of officials and thinkers should be for its benefit only; the work that benefits the government or that demands the government’s skills and capabilities should be carried out and no legal or moral principle should be of any consideration, then he does not say anything new. He is merely representing the point of view of Arabs in their pre- Islamic period.

The people of Arabia, therefore, neither denied God, nor any of His basic attributes. They believed that God was the Creator of the earth and sky, sun and the moon, cloud and wind. They called to Him as the giver of life, the One who sustained life and the One who took away life. They believed that He gifted them with all their strengths and abilities. They considered the arrangement and management of this universe to be within His control. At the same time, they also believed in and did things that either implied disbelief in God’s attributes or requirements of the same, which is denial, or it necessitated associating someone else with His attributes or His rights, which is polytheism. The Qur’an has reprimanded them on these contradictions in many places:

Say: “Who is it that sustains you [in life] from the sky and from the earth? or who is it that has power over hearing and sight? And who is it that brings out the living from the dead and the dead from the living? And who is it that rules and regulates all affairs?” They will soon say: “Allah.” Say: “Will you not then show piety?” Such is Allah, your real Cherisher and Sustainer: apart from truth, what else remains but error? How then are ye turned away? (10:31-32)

This paradox involved the people of Arabia in the worship of many deities other then God, resulting in overwhelming them slowly with polytheism of many types of God’s identity, attributes and rights. If their idolatrous worship is analyzed in the light of the Qur’an, five different types emerge: angel worship; jinn worship; star worship; ancestor worship and self worship. We now discuss each of these briefly.


(i) Angel Worship

The people of Arabia considered angels to be daughters and progeny of God. This was pure polytheism in the being of God, as it negated God’s supreme dissociation from anything and His being free of any want. This is blatant disbelief. The Qur’an refutes this in the following manner.  

They say: “God has hath begotten a son!” - Glory be to Him! He is self- sufficient! His are all things in the heavens and on earth! No warrant have you for this! Say you about Allah what ye know not? (10:68)

They gave these angels the status of nearness to God that was above that of worship and service and close to that of divinity. This was clear polytheism of attributes. The Qur’an refuted this:

And to Allah doth obeisance all that is in the heavens and on earth, whether moving [living] creatures or the angels: for none are arrogant [before their Lord]. They all revere their Lord, high above them, and they do all that they are commanded. (16:49-50) 

“For none are arrogant”, ie. they do not view themselves as being above worship; they fear God from above. In other words, despite being close to Him, they do not have access to His sphere of eminence. They merely implement orders that come from above. The word “what they are commanded” denotes an ignorant identity, indicating that the status of the One giving orders is beyond the comprehension of angels. This is why, instead of becoming proud of their nearness and presuming that they can get God to do anything they wish for, as was presumed by the idolaters, they are always busy in worshipping God and making efforts to gain His favour and closeness: 

Those whom they call upon do desire [for themselves] means of access to their Lord, - even those who are nearest: they hope for His Mercy and fear His Wrath: for the Wrath of thy Lord is something to take heed of.” (17:57) 

Idolaters believed that they could not get close to God without intervention from other beings. Hence they made these angels the means to gain nearness to God and worshipped them. In this way, the innovation of polytheism of attributes began. The Qur’an has itself given this explanation of this form of polytheism:

Is it not to Allah that sincere devotion is due? But those who take for protectors other than Allah [say]: “We only serve them in order that they may bring us nearer to Allah.” Truly Allah will judge between them in that wherein they differ. But Allah guides not such as are false and ungrateful. (39:3) 

Idolaters would consider prosperity and happiness in this world a sign of blessings due to worship of the angels. They believed that they had children because of the favours from angels. The Qur’an refuted these beliefs in the following words.   

But when He gave them a goodly child, they ascribe to others a share in the gift they have received: but Allah is exalted high above the partners they ascribe to Him. Do they indeed ascribe to Him as partners things that can create nothing, but are themselves created? (7:190-191) 

Similarly, they thought that they obtained sustenance due to benefit from angels. The Qur’an has refuted this.  

For ye do worship idols besides Allah, and ye invent falsehood. The things that ye worship besides Allah have no power to give you sustenance: then seek ye sustenance from Allah, serve Him, and be grateful to Him: to Him will be your return. (29:17) 

Although the Arabs believed the idea of life after death and judgement to be too farfetched an idea, they said that even if they did have to regain life and be answerable for their deeds, the angels whom they worshipped would intercede for them and would protect them from any harm. This belief meant denial of God’s attribute of knowledge, justice and wisdom, which was disbelief,2 on the one hand, and on the other, this was akin to including someone in the attributes of God. This is clear polytheism. The Qur’an has refuted this in various ways. We quote a few verses below. This will clarify the nature of their polytheism as well as explain the refutation by the Qur’an. 

Shall We then treat the People of Faith like the People of Sin? What is the matter with you? How judge ye?  Or have ye a book through which ye learn- That ye shall have, through it whatever ye choose?  Or have ye Covenants with Us to oath, reaching to the Day of Judgment, [providing] that ye shall have whatever ye shall demand? Ask thou of them, which of them will stand surety for that! Or have they some partners in Allah? Then let them produce their partners, if they are truthful! (68:35-41) 

In Surah Najm, the Qur’an has named the angels who were trusted as intercessors by the idolaters and has also refuted their status of being associates of God or intercessors:  

Have ye seen Lat. and ‘Uzza, And another, the third Manat? What! for you the male sex, and for Him, the female? Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair! These are nothing but names which ye have devised,- ye and your fathers,- for which Allah has sent down no authority. They follow nothing but conjecture and what their own souls desire!- Even though there has already come to them Guidance from their Lord! “(53:19-23) 

Lat, Manat and ‘Uzza were statues of angels, all with female names. The idolaters had great confidence in the intercession of these angels. The people of Arabia circumambulated around these idols and while doing so, chanted: “they are of exalted status and we hope for their intercession.” The verses that follow refute these beliefs.    

Nay, shall man have anything he hankers after? But it is to Allah that the End and the Beginning belong. How many-so-ever be the angels in the heavens, their intercession will avail nothing except after Allah has given leave for whom He pleases and that he is acceptable to Him. Those who believe not in the Hereafter, name the angels with female names. (53:24-27) 

After this, the Qur’an argues that intercession is baseless. It is not possible that it can transform good into bad and vice versa. This goes against God’s wisdom and justice. Every person shall obtain a return for his deeds. The mercy of God will be granted only to those who do good and stay away from sin and immoral deeds. However, it will be another matter if they were to become polluted due to some incidental mistake or human whim. The scope of God’s mercy and forgiveness is vast: he disregards the smaller misdeeds of those who protect themselves from bigger sins. The Qur’an says: 

Yes, to Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth: so that He rewards those who do evil, according to their deeds, and He rewards those who do good, with what is best. Those who avoid great sins and shameful deeds, only [falling into] small faults,- verily thy Lord is ample in forgiveness. He knows you well when He brings you out of the earth, And when ye are hidden in your mothers’ wombs. Therefore justify not yourselves: He knows best who it is that guards against evil. (53:31-32) 

The angels who were entrusted with such hopes and aspirations were also considered worthy of the love which is the requirement and demand of God’s attributes and one of the special rights belonging to God and should be entirely reserved for Him. The Qur’an refers to this as polytheism in the rights of God in the following words: 

Yet there are men who take [for worship] others besides Allah, as equal with Allah: They love them as they should love Allah. But those of Faith are overflowing in their love for Allah. If only the unrighteous could see, behold, they would see the penalty: that to Allah belongs all power, and Allah will strongly enforce the penalty.” (2:165) 

“They love them as they should love Allah,” means that their love for these angels is a permanent one: it is not subject to the love for God and the love that is not subservient to the love of God is polytheism. The love of the people of faith for God is such that their love for everything and everyone else becomes subservient to it. Whenever any other love confronts their love for God, they give up the former. They do not ignore God and His shari‘ah for love of anything else. This is what is meant by “But those of Faith are overflowing in their love for Allah.”

Concomitant to all these supplications and submissions, it became necessary to believe that the angels were aware of the worship, the subservience and the living conditions of their worshippers. Otherwise what would be the use of this worship and love bestowed upon them? Hence, they became associated with God in the attribute of knowledge, which is specific to God. The Qur’an refutes this:  

One day shall We gather them all together. Then shall We say to those who joined gods [with Us]: “To your place! you and those you joined as partners We shall separate them.” And their partners shall say: “It was not us that ye worshipped!” Enough is Allah for a witness between us and you: we certainly knew nothing of your worship of us! (10:28-29) 

(Translated by Nikhat Sattar)





1. The belief in unity of existence is stated in many ways. Some of these come under polytheism, particularly in the form it exists in the Bhagwadgita and Hindu philosophy. There is no doubt about this being polytheism of being.

2. Explanation of how this belief denies the attributes of knowledge, justice and wisdom of God will be found in the chapter on “Essence of Monotheism”. Here, we are presenting briefly the shirk oriented beliefs of Arabs.  

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