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Last Updated: 2012/02/15
Summary of question
If the idol worshippers did not consider their idols to be actual gods, but rather, representations or representatives of God, then does this eliminate the issue of their idol worship?
During previous times, people would worship pieces of stone or wood as representatives of certain metaphysical powers (or power). In such a situation, these individuals would not actually worship the pieces of stone or wood; they would rather be worshipping the actual metaphysical power.
Concise answer

From the perspective of Islam, Allah is the sole creator and manager of all things. Worship is exclusively due to Him and all of the various aspects of idol worship are deviations and distortions in the worship of God. Any entity which a human being places his hopes in and which he considers as a support independent from God is labeled as an idol. People who were ruled by ignorance would create their idols out of material such as wood, metal, and even edible materials; they would then seek their needs from these creations.

From the Islamic perspective, idol worship in any form is polytheism and disbelief in God. This is the case even if the idols are not considered as actual creators and managers of the universe and are viewed as representatives of the true God; whenever something is worshipped that is other than God, it is seen as polytheism. During the early days of Islam, certain idol worshippers used such excuses to justify their actions. The Quran has answered their justifications with the following verse: “Look! [Only] exclusive faith is worthy of Allah, and those who take guardians besides Him [claiming,] ‘We only worship them so that they may bring us near to Allah,’ Allah will indeed judge between them concerning that about which they differ. Indeed Allah does not guide someone who is a liar and an ingrate.”[i]

[i] Surah Zumar, Verse 3.

Detailed Answer

In the whole of the universe, there is nothing worthy of worship except the one source of creation which is God. In the vernacular of the Holy Quran, idols and idolatry contain a much wider meaning than the simple creation of wooden or metallic idols. Any object which a human being relies on and which he believes plays a role in the furtherance of his destiny is labeled as an idol.[1]

The worship of any object other than God in any form whatsoever is considered as idol worship and furthermore, it is blameworthy and reprehensible. Idol worship is in reality a deviation in the worship of God, while the worship of God being an innate part of man. In other words, idol worship is something which is intrinsically against the inner nature of man. Therefore, idol worship is something which arises from ignorance and throughout history, its rise has corresponded to the level of ignorance found in a society. If this was not the case, then how could an aware and knowledgeable individual who believes in God as a creator proceed to cut a piece of stone from a mountain, and use those stones for various purposes. For example, he would use one portion of the stone for his staircase, another for his walls, and then use the third portion for the creation of an idol that would be considered as representation of God or of a representative of God? This clearly goes against logic and the inner nature of man.[2]

The human race has always been aware of the issue of a creator and the clear arguments of the order of the universe have been a telling proof of the existence of an all-wise and all-powerful creator; man has always more or less had an awareness of this creator. During times of ignorance though, when human beings haven't taken their inner nature as a guide and leader in their quest for finding God, they are inclined towards false gods and take to the worship of such things, in addition to attributing the characteristics of God to them.[3]

This reached the point where people made idols out of stones, pieces of wood, metal, or even edible material; in other regions, the moon, sun, and stars were worshipped. Sometimes, large rivers or lakes were worshipped such as the Nile or the Saveh lake.[4] Unfortunately, even in modern times, we see that some people worship various animal figures or even certain human body parts. The Quran has addressed idol worshippers with the following words: “O mankind! Listen to a parable that is being drawn: Indeed those whom you invoke besides Allah will never create [even] a fly even if they all rallied to do so! And if a fly should take away something from them, they can not recover that from it. Feeble is the seeker and the sought!”[5]

In this verse, a very interesting parable is drawn in regards to those idols whom people worship and their inability and utter weakness. All of the idols put together, and even all of the scholars, scientists, and intellectuals of human society are unable to create even a fly, much less anything else.[6]

The idol worshippers of that time (as well as today) had a deviant and incorrect idea in regards to God.[7] They went as far as even attributing a wife as well as children for God; they considered the angels as the daughters of God. The Quran has rejected and further censured such a belief of the idol worshippers in numerous verses. For example, one verse states: “Indeed those who do not believe in the Hereafter give female names to the angels.”[8] Another verse mentions: “They say, ‘The All-beneficent has taken offsprings.’ Immaculate is He! Rather they are [His] honoured servants.”[9]

Similarly, the idol worshippers attributed divinity to their idols and they sought the resolution of their problems from them. They did such a thing while Allah is both the creator of the universe as well as its manager (some idol worshippers apparently believed in Allah as the creator but they attributed other beings as the ones who managed the actual creation).[10]

The Quran has further mentioned in this matter: “They worship besides Allah that which neither causes them any harm, nor brings them any benefit, and they say, ‘These are our intercessors with Allah.’ Say, ‘Will you inform Allah about something He does not know in the heavens or on the earth?’ Immaculate is He and exalted above [having] any partners that they ascribe [to Him]!”[11]

From the perspective of Islam, idol worship in any form is polytheism and disbelief. This is the case even if the idols are worshipped not as the actual creator but as a means of gaining nearness to the creator. During the early days of Islam, a group of the idol worshippers would actually justify their actions by this same line of reasoning. The Quran has answered them with the following words: “Look! [Only] exclusive faith is worthy of Allah, and those who take guardians besides Him[claiming,] ‘We only worship them so that they may bring us near to Allah,’ Allah will indeed judge between them concerning that about which they differ. Indeed Allah does not guide someone who is a liar and an ingrate.”[12]

Therefore, not only is the worship of various physical things impermissible, but the worship of divine figures such as prophets (a) is also impermissible; only the one God is worthy of worship.

The emulation and love of the divine figures (which is completely contrary to their worship) can be considered as a means of gaining nearness to God and this is something which God has made permissible; clearly though, this is a far cry from their worship or any such similar behavior. The following verse in the Quran mentions this concept in the following words: “O you who have faith! Be wary of Allah, and seek the means of recourse to Him, and wage jihad in His way, so that you may be felicitous.”[13] Again, it is clear that seeking recourse and nearness through such figures is completely different than their worship. We will conclude on this note that worship is entirely for God and it is impermissible and illogical to worship any other figure but him.

[1] Makarim Shirazi, Nasir, Tafsir Nemooneh, vol. 11, pg. 191, with some alteration.

[2] Tafsir Nemooneh, vol. 6, pg. 334, with some alteration.

[3] Tafsir Nemooneh, vol. 2, pg. 341.

[4] Makarim Shirazi, Nasir, Mesalhaye Zibaye Quran (Amthal al-Quran), edited by: Ilyan Nejadi, AbulQasem, pg. 270, Nasle Javan Press, first edition, 1999.

[5] Surah Hajj, Verse 73.

[6] Tafsir Nemooneh, vol. 14, pg. 188.

[7] Pishva’i, Mahdi, Tarikhe Islam, pg. 83.

[8] Surah Najm, Verse 27.

[9] Surah Anbiya, Verse 26.

[10] Pishva’i, Mahdi, Tarikhe Islam, pg. 85.

[11] Surah Yunus, Verse 18.

[12] Surah Zumar, Verse 3.

[13] Surah Maidah, Verse 35. یا أَیُّهَا الَّذینَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَ ابْتَغُوا إِلَیْهِ الْوَسیلَةَ وَ جاهِدُوا فی‏ سَبیلِهِ لَعَلَّکُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

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