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Last Updated: 2007/05/18
Summary of question
Does Islam consider prostrating in respect permissible?
Has Islam and the Shia school of thought allowed prostrating in respect, like how the brothers of Prophet Yusuf prostrated to him?
Concise answer

According to Islam and the Shia school of thought, prostration is the most complete and beautiful form of worship which solely belongs to Allah (swt) and no other has the right to be prostrated to.

As for the prostration of the brothers of Prophet Yusuf, it wasn’t a prostration of worship and was rather a worship of Allah (swt), similar to us praying towards the Ka’bah. Our prostration towards it is in no way a worship of it. In reality, the Ka’bah is the only sign that we pay attention to while worshipping Allah (swt).

Detailed Answer

According to Islam and the Shia school of thought, Tawhid (the belief of the oneness of God or monotheism) is the highest and most valuable principle and border between belief and disbelief. In contrast to tawhid, we have shirk (polytheism) which the Quran refers to as “great oppression”[1] and an unforgivable sin[2].

Tawhid is of four main branches:

Tawhid in His Essence

Tawhid in His Attributes

Tawhid in His Actions

Tawhid in Worship

Tawhid in worship means that Allah is the only one to be worshipped and no one else other than Him deserves worship because He is absolute perfection and is nothing but perfection; one who is self-sufficient and is the one who bestows all blessings and is the creator of all creatures; all of these traits solely belong to Him.

The main purpose of worship is nearness and getting ever closer to this perfect entity and for the rays of His divine qualities to shine on the worshipper’s inside which calls for one to put aside his/her desires, and going after self-building and purification. This goal can only be achieved by worshipping Allah (swt) which is absolute perfection.[3]

Worship has a vast meaning. Literally, “abd” refers to a person which completely belongs to his owner from head to toe; his will is his owner’s will, and follows him in his choice. Compared to him, he is the owner of nothing and never disobeys him.

In other words, “Ubudiyyah” (servitude) is expressing the final degree of humility in front of the Divinity, thus, the object of worship can only be someone who has respected and bestowed the most of all, and that can be no one other than Allah (swt).

Therefore, Ubudiyyah is the climax of perfection, nearness to Allah and absolute submission to Him.[4]

In the Quran, worship has been counted as the main purpose of the creation of mankind and all other creatures. The holy Quran says: “I did not create the jinn and the humans except that they may worship Me”[5]

As a result, worship only belongs to Him, and He hasn’t permitted any other creature to worship other than Him because worshipping other than Him is the biggest form of shirk (polytheism), and shirk is a great oppression and an unforgivable sin.

One of the most complete and beautiful forms of worship is prostration[6], because it is the highest degree of showing one’s humility in front of the object of worship.

According to Islam, prostrating to Allah (swt) is the most important, or at least one of the most important forms of worship. As it has been mentioned in traditions, when man prostrates to Allah (swt), he is closer to Him than in any other state. The great leaders of Islam, particularly the Prophet (pbuh) and the imams, used to have long prostrations.[7]

Therefore, according to Islamic principles, prostrating to other than Allah (swt) is forbidden, and in our hadith books, there is a chapter titled “The prohibition of prostrating to other than Allah” in addition to traditions from Rasulullah (pbuh) and the imams saying that prostrating to other than Allah (swt) is forbidden.[8]

Prostrating to Prophet Yusuf (pbuh):

Two cases of prostrating to other than Allah (swt) have been named in the Quran; the prostration of the angels to Adam (pbuh)[9] and the prostration of Prophet Yusuf’s brothers and his mother and father to him. Since the prostration in both of these cases is of the same type, we will analyze the prostration of the brothers of Yusuf and solve the problem there; whatever goes there, applies to the prostration of the angels too.

The holy Quran says: “Yusuf placed his father and mother on the throne (to his raised seat) and they all prostrated before him; and he said:" O, my father! This is the interpretation of my dream in the past.”[10]

Some possibilities have been mentioned here:

Some interpreters say: “There are two types of prostration; one being a prostration of worship which solely belongs to Allah (swt) in contrast to the worship of idols, the sun and stars etc. which the polytheists had for themselves, and the other being a sign of respect shown to rulers, kings, prophets and other great individuals. The latter’s permissibility or impermissibility depends on divine enjoinment and prohibition. Islam has strongly prohibited even this type of prostration although it isn’t considered shirk. The only exception is when Allah (swt) demands it, like in the case of Prophet Adam (pbuh).  In such cases, this prostration to other than Allah (swt) is truly the worship of Allah (swt) himself, not the object of prostration, and that is why Satan was kicked out as a result of refusing to prostrate. This type of prostration was favorable and valued in the religion of Ibrahim (pbuh) and other prophets of Bani Israel (the descendants of Israel). The Prophet of Islam’s saying: “If prostrating to other than Allah (swt) was permissible, I would have ordered women to prostrate to their husbands” is good proof that even this type of prostration is forbidden, because he surely isn’t saying that if it wasn’t forbidden for women to worship their husbands, since it is very clear that prostrating in worship to other than Allah (swt) is absolutely haram. Therefore what this statement is stating is that if it wasn’t haram for women to prostrate to their husbands is respect, he would order them to do so.[11]

This verse is trying to say that since they (the brothers and parents of Yusuf) were takrimmed and were granted a personal palace and were allowed to sit on the king’s throne, the second that Yusuf entered and they saw his beauty and the divine light shining from his face, they lost all control and will and helplessly prostrated.

Yet, this prostration wasn’t one of worship, because that of worship belongs to Allah (swt), and worshipping other than Him isn’t allowed for anyone no matter what religion he/she has. This is the concept of Tawhid in worship in which the quest of all prophets was to invite to.

Therefore, neither Prophet Yusuf (pbuh) who was a prophet of Allah (swt) would allow them to prostrate to him in worship, nor would a great prophet of Allah (swt) like Yaqub (Jacob) ever do such a thing and the Quran wouldn’t mention such a act as a favorable or at least permissible one.

Therefore, the abovementioned prostration was one of thanking Allah (swt), the very God (swt) that granted Yusuf so many blessings and high ranks and solved the numerous problems of the family of Yaqub (pbuh). In this case, this prostration (of the brothers of Yusuf) is a form of worship as a result of the greatness of what Prophet Yusuf (pbuh) had been granted by Allah (swt), and at the same time is a form of respect to Yusuf (pbuh), thus the pronoun in “له” in the verse that mentions their prostration to him, is clearly relating to Yusuf (pbuh) himself.

The author of Tafsir Nemouneh says: This meaning seems closer especially since we have traditions from our imams that say that their prostration was a form of worship of Allah (swt).

In some traditions we read that their prostration was a form of obedience of Allah (swt) and respect to Yusuf (pbuh).

The same goes for the story of the prostration of the angels. In reality, there too, the angels were prostrating to an almighty lord for creating such a strange and advanced creature. In addition to this prostration being a form of worship and obedience of Allah (swt), it is also a sign of the greatness and respectfulness of Prophet Adam (pbuh) at the same time. This is just like if someone does an important and righteous act and we prostrate to Allah in gratitude. This prostration is both a form of worship of Allah (swt) and a form of respect to the righteous individual.[12]

Prostration in its vast meaning is meant here; which covers all forms of humility and unassertiveness, because prostration isn’t always used for its famous meaning. It is used for any form of humility also, thus some interpreters of the Quran say that usual humility and respect in that time and era was expressed by bowing (not prostrating) and that is the meaning of prostration in the abovementioned verse. But taken into consideration that in the verse, the term "خروا" which means “falling to the ground” has been used, it seems that their prostration wasn’t just a means of bowing down.[13]

Other great interpreters say: “Worship means for the servant to show his devotion and loyalty and practically prove his servitude (to Allah) and wish to stay on this path of devotion.

Therefore, an act of worship should be one in which is capable of showing and expressing the servitude of the servant or the lordship of his lord. Bowing, prostrating, standing up at during the entrance of the owner and walking behind him are all ways of expressing this humility. The more an act puts this humility and servitude to manifestation, the higher the worship and the more the servitude. Prostration expresses the highness and power of the lord and abjectness of the servant more than any other act, because during prostration, the servant falls to the ground, placing the face on it. Yet, prostration’s essence isn’t worship and in other words, when one prostrates to another, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she is worshipping that person, on the contrary, it being considered worship depends on one performing it with the intention of it being worship. What is forbidden according to intellect  and narration, is for one to prostrate with the intention and mindset that the object of prostration is of rububiyyah, but if this act is done only for respect or welcoming, there is no intellectual or narrative reason for such an act being forbidden.

The only thing is that the religious spirit that religious individuals have acquired from the Quran and tradition, calls for them to leave this act exclusively for Allah (swt) and not prostrate to anyone else for any reason. This spirit is undeniable, yet it doesn’t mean that any act that we perform as a form of loyalty to Allah (swt) can’t be done for anyone other than Him.[14]

The prostration of Yaqub (pbuh) and the mother and brothers of Yusuf (pbuh) was for Allah (swt) and Yusuf (pbuh) was a qibla for their prostration, just like the Ka’bah, thus it is sometimes said in the Arabic language that “one prostrates towards the Ka’bah”.

Just like us when we worship Allah (swt) and make the Ka’bah our qiblah. So by prostrating towards the Ka’bah we are worshipping Allah (swt), not the Ka’bah and it is clear that the sign of Allah (swt), from the sense that it is a sign, is of no independence, and if one prostrates, what the sign is showing and pointing to (meaning Allah swt) is being worshipped.[15]

Considering what has been said till now, one can conclude that in Islam, there is no prostration (even for respect) other than the one that is solely for Allah (swt), to the extent that it has been mentioned in some traditions that the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) asked him to allow them to prostrate to him, and he responded saying: لَا بَلِ اسْجُدُوا لِلهِ   “No, but prostrate to Allah (swt)."[16]

In the end, we would like to invite you to hear some of the fatwas of the maraje’ on prostrating to other than Allah (swt):

The office of the Grand Ayatullah Khamenei:

“Prostrating to other than Allah (swt) is haram and some of the laity who put their foreheads to the ground in front of the graves of the imams (as), if they are performing such an act as means of thanking Allah (swt), it is permissible, otherwise it is haram.

The office of the Grand Ayatullah Fadhel Lankarani:

Prostrating to other than Allah (swt) isn’t permissible and the prostration of Prophet Yaqub (pbuh) and his sons was a prostration of gratitude to Allah (swt). See al-Urwatul-Wuthqa of Seyyid Yazdi regarding this issue.

The office of the Grand Ayatullah Sistani:

Prostrating to other than Allah (swt) isn’t permissible. You can refer to valid tafsirs regarding the story of Prophet Yusuf (pbuh) for further information.

The office of the Grand Ayatullah Makarem Shirazi:

What most scholars and interpreters of the Quran say regarding them (Prophet Yaqub and his sons) is that their prostration was because of the greatness that Allah (swt) had granted him. Their prostration was for Allah (swt) and was a form of prostrating in gratitude.

[1] Luqman:13 "وَ إِذْ قالَ لُقْمانُ لاِبْنِهِ وَ هُوَ یَعِظُهُ یا بُنَیَّ لا تُشْرِکْ بِاللَّهِ إِنَّ الشِّرْکَ لَظُلْمٌ عَظیمٌ"

[2] Nisa:48 "إِنَّ اللَّهَ لا یَغْفِرُ أَنْ یُشْرَکَ به وَ یَغْفِرُ ما دُونَ ذلِکَ لِمَنْ یَشاءُ"

[3] Tafsir Nemouneh, vol.27, pg. 447.

[4] Tafsir Nemouneh, vol.22, pg. 387.

[5] Dhariyat:56 "وَ ما خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَ الْإِنْسَ إِلَّا لِیَعْبُدُونِ"

[6] Although every prostration isn’t worship and in other words, the essence of prostration isn’t being worship; see: translation of al-Mizan, vol. 1, pg. 190.

[7] Shirazi, Shi’eh Pasokh Miguyad (Shia Answers), third print, 1385 (solar), pg. 143.

[8] Wasa’elul-Shia, Alul-Bayt Institute, Qum, 1409 (lunar), vol. 6, pg. 385.

[9] Hashemzadeh Harisi Najmi, Bayan dar Masa’ele Quran, pg. 620.

[10] Yusuf:100 "وَ رَفَعَ أَبَوَیْهِ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ وَ خَرُّوا لَهُ سُجَّداً وَ قالَ یا أَبَتِ هذا تَأْوِیلُ رُءْیایَ".

[11] Seyyid Abdul-Husain Tayyeb, Atyabul-Bayan fi Tafsiril-Quran, vol. 7, pg. 280.

[12] Tafsir Nemouneh, vol.10, pg. 82.

[13] Tafsir Nemouneh, vol.10, pg. 82.

[14] Translation of Tafsir Al-Mizan, vol. 1, pg. 189 and 190.

[15] Tafsir Al-Mizan and the tafsir of Fakhr Razi, under the verse being discussed; translation of Tafsir al-Mizan, vol. 11, pg. 339.

[16] Mustadrakul-Wasa’el, Alul-Bayt Institute, Qum, 1408 (lunar), vol. 4, pg. 480.

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