Like so many theological terms in our day and age, the notion of idolatry has been reduced to a mere archaicism, and perhaps for good reason. Often used as a polemical device to distinguish between friend and enemy, the idea has served over the centuries to undermine rather than further the Qur’anic call to “know one another” (49:13)—to see, in other words, the humanity in those who remain foreign to us (and who thus function as the means by which we assert our ego). In the Muslim context, one need only consider the increasing tendency among modern practitioners to weed out alleged acts of shirk from popular religious practices, which has inspired abominable acts of violence in the name of monotheistic purity. Less acknowledged—but no less tragic—is the important role the category of idolatry has played in shaping the early modern West’s racialized understanding of the world’s religions, which in many ways laid the ideological basis for the colonial hierarchy that continues to govern our world.1
For the modern Muslim who encounters these difficult facts, an existential question of the highest order is raised: how is the believer to understand and apply a concept that has such a checkered past, but whose centrality to the Qur’an is undeniable? And that too in a world in which religious categories are viewed as out of touch with the rapidly changing realities around us. Most crucial in this regard is the radical disjuncture, noted by the philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, between the Qur’anic world in which the existence of a Creator went virtually unquestioned and the modern secular age, whose very existence is premised on the myth of the “death of God.” “How do we today make the gods one,” Akhtar concisely asks, “when there are no gods” to begin with?2
Some among the Muslim community may take the appealing route of simply rejecting the legitimacy of the modern age, pointing out its contradictions as a way of foreclosing the very need to address these concerns by reexamining the language of Islam. They would consider the pertinent question to be where to place the burden of proof: on Islam or on the modern West. This would leave theologians with the simple task of recovering classical conceptions of idolatry and then applying them to the various circumstances in which we find ourselves—a legitimate endeavor, to be sure. But to restrict contemporary Islamic thought to the mere act of retrieval is to unwittingly affirm the chronological hubris of modernity itself, which would have us believe that the Islamic tradition is an unchanging relic of the past and that our contemporary reality (spoiled as it is by the swamp of late modernity) places us in a permanent state of false consciousness—living out our lives as zombies unaware of their own demise—unless we remove ourselves completely from our continued subjugation.
A more balanced—and one might say, prophetic—approach, however, would heed the Qur’anic optimism succinctly displayed in chapter (93), The Morning Hours (Sura al-Ďuĥā), which apprises us of the fact that God would never abandon His creation nor scorn us so as to leave us to fend for ourselves in an unredeemable world. As the prophet Śāliĥ told the people of Thamūd in his invitation to recognize divine unicity, “He has produced you from the earth and has settled you in it” (11:61).
Numerous commentators took the latter phrase—ista¢marakum fīhā—to mean that God has charged us with developing and making use of the world around us,3 but following from this one might also highlight God’s implicit acknowledgment of our embeddedness in the earth, which suggests, it would seem, that we should feel rooted rather than displaced within our worlds. This is not to say that we are called to rest content with the current state of affairs—the entire prophetic paradigm is infused with an unceasing passion to create a more just and ethical society. But this mission did not entail a destructive obsession with cracking the egg in order to make the omelet, to use the proverb made notorious by Lenin. Instead, the Prophet’s biography reveals a man at ease with the world around him (even exhibiting a distinctly Arabian joviality),4 as well as the radical imagination and wherewithal to make the world a better place than he inherited.
All of this is to say that just as our languages develop, so too must our religious vocabulary, committed as it is to maintaining relevance across time and space. As any Islamic intellectual historian will tell you, this would surely be in keeping with the norm of the Muslim scholarly tradition, which continuously debated the meaning of fundamental concepts such as the caliphate, the self, and even God in an ever-changing world. What this means for contemporary theorists of religion is that, in their theological reflections, they might consider drawing on modes of analysis that have emerged within the modern context, despite being alien to their classical intellectual traditions. In the case of idolatry in Islam, my own view is that a creative engagement with historicism and cultural theory may in fact assist us (ironically enough) in rehabilitating a now-marginal theological concept.
First and foremost, to approach the matter historically is to place the concept of shirk more firmly within the broader history of religions. A good rule of thumb in this regard is to recognize that context matters—and that a concept emerging from within a single tradition may nevertheless come to signify entirely different things over time.
To illustrate this point, we may look to the example of the understanding of idolatry within the Jewish tradition.5 In the Hebrew Bible (as well as the Talmud), one encounters a markedly anthropomorphic conception of God and His covenant with the exiled Israelites. In a world embedded in social relations based on ties of loyalty (much unlike our own), the notion of idolatry was likened to the act of adultery, a transgression that would invoke the wrath of a jealous deity. Within this context, devotion to God appears to be predicated on a moral intuition regarding how we should treat one another. An important theological implication of this assumption was that the sin of idolatry was conceptualized in corporeal rather than cognitive terms; it was seen to be an error in action and lifestyle, not metaphysical understanding.
Maimonides famously went on to overturn this way of viewing things, committed as he was (like his medieval Muslim counterparts) to avoiding any form of anthropomorphism that would compromise divine transcendence. In his view, to engage in idolatry is to fall prey to the dangerous fallacy that the human language through which God reveals Himself is a literal expression of His reality. This diminution of God’s otherness, Maimonides argued, results in the various manifestations of idolatry in this world. What therefore began as a marker by which the Jewish people distinguished themselves from their pagan environment (i.e., their anthropomorphic alliance with God) later became the very basis for their potential transgression vis-à-vis the divine. What this should underscore for us is the inherent malleability of concepts, including some drawn from religious scripture no less.