Print Edition



Mar 3, 2022

The Idols We Carry in Our Hearts

Read Time

Screen Shot 2022 02 28 At 4 16 35 Pm

Rushain Abbasi

​Rushain Abbasi is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities and Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University.

More About this Author

The Idols We Carry in Our Hearts

Evening Star

The Evening Star, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 1865

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. 

Podcast: What, Other Than God, Do We Worship? with Rushain Abbasi

Screen Shot 2022 02 28 At 4 35 57 Pm

Morning Prayers by Ludwig Deutsch, 1902.

Equally important is the fact that this wide spectrum of attitudes toward idolatry deeply infused the Late Antique context in which the Qur’an emerged. Among the early Jewish literature, texts such as the Wisdom of Solomon, the writings of Philo and Josephus, and the narrative of Joseph and Aseneth reveal the sheer range of approaches taken to this theological query, which oscillated between understanding idolatry as the misrepresentation of God to polemicizing it as a way of condemning specific behaviors deemed to be transgressive of Jewish tradition.6 The latter stemmed from a preoccupation with uncovering how idolatry subtly infuses everyday life and language, which is what inspired the writers of a Talmudic tract from the third century to outline the rules which should govern the interactions between Jews and pagans.7

This approach to idolatry became widespread among the nascent Christian community as it began to address the pressing question of which aspects of Roman society, such as festivals and horse races, were merely secular and therefore legitimate customs, and which were implicated in the sin of idolatry. The early Church Father Tertullian famously took a hard line on this question in his De Idolatria (the first work of its kind), a position that was later challenged by his more influential North African successor, Augustine of Hippo, whose robust theory of the saeculum emphasized the inevitable entanglements between the terrestrial and godly cities and consequently allowed for Christians to flourish as engaged Roman citizens.8

Given what we know of the Qur’an’s deep engagement with the Late Antique theological milieu,9 the question which now confronts us is what sort of intervention the Muslim scripture appears to have made within this context. The first thing to note is that although the Qur’an employs various terms related to the practice of idolatry (e.g., ţāghūtjibtaśnām, and awthān), the principal theological term that encompasses the broader concept of worshipping deities other than God is shirk. This linguistic divergence from previous notions of idolatry should already begin to stir our curiosity. 

The Greek eidololatria, which appears on a few occasions in the New Testament (reflecting its pagan environment), is translated literally as the “worship” (latreia) of an “image” (eidolon), thus laying the foundations for the most apparent meaning of the term. The Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, contains no specific term for idolatry but refers rather to the “worship” or “following of other gods” (la-avod/la-lekhet elohim akheirim), which in turn signals the aforementioned emphasis on disloyalty to the God of the Israelites (the Rabbinic tradition, in a similar vein, later standardized the term avodah zarah, meaning worship of the “foreign” or “strange”). That the various understandings of idolatry contained within biblical literature (e.g., the inherent futility of idols) came to inform parts of the Qur’anic discourse is undeniable, but the novelty of vesting the concept of idolatry in an entirely new term is nevertheless striking and merits further reflection. 

The root sh-r-k means to partner up with someone else in a sale or some other affair, which originates from the idea of having one’s sandal straps (shirāk) broken and subsequently mending them by inserting leather thongs (ashraka).10 The idea of interweaving one’s interests with another’s naturally developed, and in turn, the sense of “association” or “partnership” became the predominant understanding of the term. This suggests that the problem of idolatry as presented in the Qur’an is not concerned primarily with images or disloyalty per se but rather with the contamination (and compromise) of divine singularity through its association with created beings. The theological application of this term, far from emerging in Mecca ex nihilo, appears to have surfaced earlier in Southern Arabia, as attested by a Sabaean inscription located in the British Museum, which (using the same root) commands that one “avoid giving a partner to a Lord who both bringeth disaster and is the author of well-being.” That the Meccans came to be familiar with this theological usage is attested by the Qur’an itself, which at several points (e.g., 6:148, 43:20) documents the mushrikūns seemingly clever counterargument that, were God to have willed it, they and their ancestors would never have committed shirk! Given this prehistory, we may now turn to the question of how the Qur’an reconstitutes this concept for its own purposes.

One difficulty in attempting to pin down a singular Qur’anic conception of shirk is that the term is used throughout the book to designate various manifestations of wrongful religious devotion, whether that be, among other things, the direct worship of idols (as in the Abrahamic narrative), the transformation of the Messiah and various religious leaders into gods (9:31), or the use of intermediaries as a way of drawing nearer to the divine (39:3). But this multiplicity may itself be instructive if we examine it in light of some other features of the Qur’anic discourse on shirk. For instance, when mention is made of those individuals who set up rivals to or friends alongside God, the nature of the object of false worship is frequently left unspecified or anonymous.11 On a couple of occasions, the Qur’an even points to a more subjective form of shirk by asking the reader to reflect on those individuals who—according to one Chinese rendering—“take their own nature as their lord” (25:43, 45:23).12

What each of these idiosyncrasies reveals is that the Qur’anic approach to shirk, if not reducible to a single idea, is at the very least insistent on expanding the horizons of what may be included under the category of “idolatry.” By attaching the term to various activities and groups, and in a seemingly inconsistent manner, the Qur’an leaves the reader with the impression that shirk is meant not as a label for a specific belief system or religious custom, but instead represents the natural human tendency to wrongfully idolize the things around us and consequently obstruct our direct encounter with the Real.

Such an abstract and philosophical understanding of idolatry may raise the suspicions of both believers and nonbelievers, given the exceedingly concrete nature of the Qur’an. But this is an understanding borne out by the scripture itself. To be sure, the Qur’an frequently employs shirk in a tangible way against its various opponents in order to draw a clear boundary between the monotheist and the idolator (and, in this sense, serves as a polemical tool akin to its precursors).13 It was, after all, a processual form of revelation,14 one that initiated and continuously directed a sociopolitical revolution within the Hijaz. Yet even if one takes these aspects of the Qur’anic discourse on idolatry into account, one could nevertheless abstract from this comprehensive project of religious reform a more fundamental conception of idolatry, which aimed to overcome the deficiencies of its predecessors. 

The Qur’an can therefore be said to have universalized the problem of idolatry by expanding its contours to include a wide range of beliefs and actions, all of which reflect the misguided human propensity to deify without just cause. Many scholars have noted, for instance, that the Qur’an tells us remarkably little about the state of Meccan idolatry at the time (indeed, almost all Qur’anic references to idolatry as such are biblical in nature). What this suggests, as insightfully argued by Patricia Crone, is that the idolatries of “those of the Messenger’s own time were conceptual [in nature]. What he is targeting is a falsehood (ifk), something untrue fathered by the pagans on God: he sees himself as smashing idols in the sense of eradicating wrong beliefs.”15 This of course is not to suggest that Meccan practices of idolatry were not at the forefront of the Prophet’s criticism; that would be to deny the obvious. But what often goes unnoticed in discussions of the matter is how the Qur’an’s presentation of shirk is deeply philosophical in nature.

This theoretical orientation toward idolatry is reinforced by the Qur’an’s distinctively discursive approach to the problem. Appealing to human reason, in one instance (among several others) God forcefully mocks the fact that “they have taken gods besides Him who create nothing and have themselves been created, and who have no control over their own harm or benefit, and have neither control over [their own] death, nor life, nor resurrection”(25:3). Though clearly channeling biblical subtexts here (see Jeremiah 2:11 and Isaiah 44:10 ), the Qur’an appears to go further than its scriptural precursors in pinpointing and arguing against the “un-reasonableness” of the majority of our religious predispositions. Indeed, its call to moral individualism (i.e., the idea that we are completely responsible for our own actions), in the place of mechanisms of communal salvation, goes much beyond anything we find in Late Antique Judaism (with its paradigmatic emphasis on being “the chosen people”) and Christianity (with its culture of holy men).16 As it pertains to the concept of idolatry, then, what exactly is the Qur’an asking its listeners to ponder? 

Following Crone’s lead, I would argue that the essential problem of idolatry as described in the Qur’an is that of humanity’s inconsistency in affirming God’s oneness and sovereignty. The Meccan pagans did not deny that God was the sole creator; instead, where they erred was in their inability to follow through on this fundamental recognition. This is precisely why when they faced the dangers of seafaring, they called on God, only to return to their idols upon landing ashore. Toshihiko Izutsu refers to this as a form of “temporary monotheism,17 the implications of which the pagans neglected to ever consider. 

It would be easy to project this problem onto a world distant from our own—but aren’t we all prone to this sort of behavior in our day-to-day lives? Many of us call on God in our times of need, only to resume our reliance on and complete devotion to the various idols in our lives—whether they be our careers, our possessions, or even our families. This is a form of devotion, to use Qur’anic language, that is “upon the very edge” (¢alā ĥarfin) (22:11). Whereas the message of Islam calls us to recognize the sharp contrast between God and everything else, we—much like the mushrikūn—view divinity as a spectrum of priorities that reflects the vicissitudes of our flailing hearts. This may be what the Prophet ﷺ referred to when he spoke of a form of idolatry so subtle that it may be analogized to a black ant creeping along a sable rock on a pitch-dark night. In light of this danger, we would do well to heed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's admonition that: “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance, which means a deep certainty that it is better to be defeated with Him than be victorious without Him.”18

This insight may in fact be contained within the Qur’an’s assertion that “God has not assigned to any man two hearts in his breast” (33:4). In his commentary on this enigmatic verse, the Persian mystic Jāmī interpreted this line as a spiritual mandate to be “one-faced and one-hearted in love, turning away from other than Him and turning towards Him” and to not “make one heart into a hundred pieces, each piece wandering after a goal.”19

Søren Kierkegaard referred to this as the problem of “double-mindedness,” which is to say that a mind divided is a mind unable to encounter divine reality as it truly is; hence the Danish theologian’s elegant prayer and rejoinder to humankind:

Father in Heaven! What is man without You! 
What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know You! 
What is all his striving—could it even encompass the world—but a half-finished work if he does not know You:  
You the One, who is one thing and who is all! 
So may You give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; 
to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; 
to the will, purity that wills only one thing. 
In prosperity may You grant perseverance to will one thing; 
amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; 
[and] in suffering, patience to will one thing.20

On this view, we might say that the vice of idolatry, rather than being reducible to the association of God with lesser beings, is in essence a manifestation of a deeper human problem: that of the divided will. And lest this be misconstrued as an idea alien to the Islamic tradition, we may turn our attention to the powerful final words of the chapter of “The Overturning”: “for those who wish to walk straight, your only will is the will of God, Lord of all beings” (81:26–29).21

Now, this formulation of idolatry may seem to be of relevance to the believer alone, but that would be to naively accept the myth that we moderns have overcome the universal human urge to devote ourselves zealously to phenomena which lie beyond us. Ibn Taymiyyah, on the other hand, was of the view that that religion in its most general sense signifies the human veneration of an object by one means or another, which could apply as much to personal relationships as it does to our attachment to material things.22 Modern people are no less prone to this intrinsic drive; in fact, our objects of reverence are seemingly endless. To cite the most salient example, an increasing number of us engage in the daily ritual of watching the invisible hand of the stock market make or break our dreams, while the rest of us passively consume the ever-changing products of the “culture industry” in the hopes of obtaining some form of docile felicity. To quote the late David Foster Wallace, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”23

What then is the telos of our modern religion, and what is its idolatry? Drawing on the mystical adage that “he who knows himself knows his Lord,” one might say that the secular age is defined by a perpetual search for the authentic self (a noble venture if there ever was one) but one constantly plagued by the ever-increasing reliance on an artificial world of our own making. Hannah Arendt referred to this facet of human life as “work,” which she viewed as corresponding “to the unnaturalness of human existence” despite it serving the crucial purpose of granting “a measure of permanence and durability upon the futility of mortal life and the fleeting character of human time.”24 One cannot help but think here of the Qur’anic discourse, especially in the earliest revelations, which repeatedly attacks the idolators for engaging in the pursuit of wealth and possessions as a way of avoiding the very fact of their mortality. It is, in other words, a brute fact of our paradoxical human condition that we build and inhabit a world that facilitates our meaningful existence, but which also serves to obstruct us from accessing its deepest meaning. 

Far from being limited to the imposition of social and economic structures, however, this insight may extend to the phenomenon of religion itself. The Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig once cryptically remarked that “God has to reveal himself; he has to establish his own religion (which is merely anti-religion) against the religionitis of man.”25 According to Leora Batnitzky’s reading of the passage, Rosenzweig aimed to highlight the fact that even religion can become a subtle form of idolatry by restricting God’s freedom precisely in its attempt to grasp Him. What we have here then is a struggle not between reason and revelation but, oddly enough, between religion and revelation. This could be by way of the “idolatrous” inclination to reject biblical anthropomorphisms in order to fit our standards of reason (as Rosenzweig accused Maimonides of doing) or, more profoundly, the tendency to make the defense and establishment of religion our ultimate goal in life. To employ the language of two of the world’s great social critics, Marx and Ma¢arrī, this would be in essence to “fetishize” religion and transform it into a “commodity” “whose bridal gifts and dowry those who care, can buy in the theologian’s shop of words.”26 Unfortunately, living as we are in the age of the reification of Islam, the prospect of this threat has only increased in the wake of the establishment of a new Muslim creed (as subtly captured by the British scholar Abdal Hakim Murad): “There is no islam but Islam, and Muhammad is the messenger of Islam.”27

Moving beyond the narrow confines of religion, however, it appears that one of the classical objects of idolatry—namely, the image—has in fact reasserted itself in a new and far more sinister guise. We live, as the French Marxist theorist Guy Debord presciently recognized, in a “society of the spectacle,” one in which images have come to mediate and almost completely instrumentalize our social relations. Instead of engaging in genuine human activity, we passively attach ourselves to “the single pseudo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy” and thus live a life once removed from reality.28 This signals, in the pithy words of Debord, “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”29 In other words, it is no longer the accumulation of concrete possessions which distracts us from what is real; instead, we are now satisfied with the mere representation of reality (and one can’t help but imagine Debord’s horror upon hearing about the recent NFT craze). To reference the principle of idolatry yet again, it might be said that we now live in a world in which we mediate our access to the Real (however one chooses to define this) precisely through the image.

What then, it must be asked, can we really know about ourselves in a world dominated by the twin urges of seeing and being seen? An existential journey toward the Self or the Real mediated entirely by objects (i.e., that which is itself created and contingent) is precisely what the idea of idolatry has cautioned us against time and time again, and it would serve us well to heed its perennial message. For though it may be the case that we no longer offer sacrifices at pantheons of gods and goddesses, the charging bull of Wall Street stands as a stark reminder that we will never be able to rid ourselves of the urge to erect a golden calf, try as we might.