Meaning "association," the term shirk generally implies assigning partners or equals to God, and is considered to be the paramount sin in Islam. The central doctrine of Islam is tawhid (divine unity), which came to mean that God does not need nor have partners to assist Him. By contrast, Muslims base their understanding of shirk on three passages from the Qur an (34:20–24, 35:40, 46:4), which advise Muslims against associating helpers or partners with God. For instance, Sura 34:20–24 establishes the non-duality of God, arguing that evil and good originate in God's creative act and that evil (the shaytan) has no power over creation.
Sura 34:23 has been used by some commentators to suggest that God's power is so all-encompassing that humans have no free will, and that God has predetermined who will be saved and who will be damned. The Jabriyya (compulsionists, circa eighth-to-ninth century) argued that those who advocated a free will position (the Qadariyya) held, by implication, that humans have abilities over which God has no power, in effect making humans equal to God in certain respects. This view was later modified by al-Ash˓ari (d. 935), who held that God creates a range of choices from which humans have the limited ability to choose (kasb, literally "to acquire") at the moment of decision. In this way, God's ultimate unity is not violated and humans do not associate themselves with God's creative power.
Some contemporary Islamic revivalists have argued that the Qur˒an accuses Christians and Jews of shirk, based on Sura 9:30, which states that "the Jews call Ezra a son of God and the Christians call Christ the son of God." Furthermore, Sura 5:72–73 accuses Christians of associating Jesus with God and contends that "if they do not desist ... a painful punishment will come upon them." Sura 2:105, however, draws a distinction between Christians and Jews, whom it refers to as ahl al-kitab (people of the book) and the polytheists, whom it calls the mushrikun (literally the "ones who associate"). The distinction is based on the idea that while Christians and Jews may be in error, they base their mistake on a corruption of earlier revelation. They, therefore, accept the basic concepts of God's true religion while interpolating certain ideas that need to be corrected for them to fully follow God's path. The mushrikun reject all revelation and prefer to worship their own gods in preference to the united and all-powerful God (see Sura 23:51–77).
Contemporary Islamic revivalists have also used the concept to justify attacks on non-Muslims, as well as fellow Muslims who reject revivalist ideologies. Many contemporary revivalists base their ideas on the writings of Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), who argued that true Islam had been corrupted by pre-Islamic and extra-Islamic ideas that promoted concepts of shirk and interwove them with Islamic ritual and theology. According to this view, only through the violent expulsion of shirk concepts can true Islam flower as it did during the time of the prophet Muhammad and his Companions and successors.
Qutb, Sayyid. Milestones. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1990.
Surty, Muhammad Ibrahim. The Qur˒anic Concept of al-Shirk(Polytheism). London: Ta Ha Publishers, 1990.
Watt, W. Montgomery. Islamic Philosohy and Theology: AnExtended Survey. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985.
R. Kevin Jaques
shirk / shərk/ • v. [tr.] avoid or neglect (a duty or responsibility): their sole motive is to shirk responsibility and rip off the company. • n. archaic a person who shirks. DERIVATIVES: shirk·er n.