Why Shirk is the Greatest of Sins

Why Shirk is the Greatest of Sins

When it comes to kufr and Shirk, we may fail to see its true ugliness when we look at the “least bad kafir,” and even fail to appreciate the beauty and moral worth and value of that mustard seed of Iman that is so difficult to observe when we look at the “least good Muslim.”

Sometimes, human beings, Muslims included, fail to appreciate the gravity of sin. They aren’t looking at it the same way Allah سبحانه وتعالى is. For example, Allah سبحانه وتعالى said about the people who slandered Aisha (رضي الل عنها):

وَتَقُولُونَ بِأَفْوَاهِكُم مَّا لَيْسَ لَكُم بِهِۦ عِلْمٌ وَتَحْسَبُونَهُۥ هَيِّنًا وَهُوَ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ عَظِيمٌ

“And you said with your mouths what you had no knowledge of and assume it’s something to be taken lightly while, in fact, it’s extremely serious in the sight of Allah.” [Qur’an 24:15]

And this applies to other sins as well. As we all know, consuming riba is one of the seven worst sins in Islam. Imagine that, imagine, a respected banker actively engaging in all sorts of riba-promoting work, wearing a nice suit, living in a posh neighborhood, and driving a nice car, actually being more sinful, keeping all factors constant, than a thief or a prostitute. Do our societies today look at it that way? Is that something simple to digest for someone who’s been inculcated, socialized, and brainwashed into accepting the moral standards of our societies today?

There must be a certain level of conscious willingness on our part to remember that Allah سبحانه وتعالى is the ultimate moral standard and that we must strive and remind ourselves constantly that we need to view the world through the lens of the divine, rather than purely through our limited human perspectives.

Back to the topic at hand. Why is Shirk so bad? The Prophet (peace be upon him), as reported in Saheeh Al-Bukhari, asked one of his companions: “What is the biggest sin in the sight of Allah?” He said, “To set up rivals or those equal unto Allah, though He is the one who created you.” (أَنْ تَجْعَلَ لِلَّهِ نِدًّا وَهْوَ خَلَقَكَ)

Shirk is essentially treating one in a manner that only Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) must be treated. The very purpose of our creation is to worship Allah, and so to worship other than Him is an inherent rejection of the very purpose of our being. Any act of worship should only be directed to Him. If it is directed to any other entity, then such an act is gravely misplaced. And the very definition of dhulm or oppression in Arabic is the situating of things out of their designated places.

Now, we don’t say that Allah is a “victim” of the oppressive act of Shirk. On the contrary, no one here is being oppressed other than the mushrik himself. As Allah سبحانه وتعالى states,

وَمَا ظَلَمُونَا وَلَـٰكِن كَانُوٓا۟ أَنفُسَهُمْ يَظْلِمُونَ

“and they did not wrong us, but rather they only wronged themselves.” [Qur’an 2:57]

Allah also states:

مَّنْ عَمِلَ صَـٰلِحًا فَلِنَفْسِهِۦ ۖ وَمَنْ أَسَآءَ فَعَلَيْهَا ۗ وَمَا رَبُّكَ بِظَلَّـٰمٍ لِّلْعَبِيدِ

“Whoever does good deeds, then it is for their own benefit. And whoever does evil, it is their own loss. Your Lord is never unjust to ˹His˺ servants.” [Qur’an 41:46]

So, just because Allah’s (سبحانه وتعالى) rights and honor are being violated through the oppressive act of Shirk, He is not some victim who is harmed in any way as a result.

But again, why’s it such a great act of oppression, especially to the one who engages in it? Ibnul Qayyim al-Jawziyyah makes an insightful comment. He says that oppression impedes or obstructs safety or security, and guidance. And Shirk is absolute oppression because it absolutely obstructs one’s safety (from the wrath of Allah سبحانه وتعالى) and absolutely derails one off the path of guidance.

The person also oppresses himself through committing Shirk by situating himself in a manner of utmost servitude (because that’s what worship is) to a helpless, dependent creature. It’s inherently humiliating and denigrating to be in that state, even if the mushrik fails to see it.

Going back to the hadith, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said that the worst sin in Allah’s sights is to set up rivals or those equal unto Allah, though He is the one who created you (وَهْوَ خَلَقَكَ). Shirk is so evil not only because worship is a right due to Allah alone, but its ugliness is magnified because the mushrik equalizes between Allah, who is the ultimate source of his existence, with the creation that is unable to even create a fly. He equalizes between Allah, who is the ultimate source of his sustenance, with entities that could barely help themselves. It’s the pinnacle of ingratitude and treachery.

We know that there are rights owed to people by virtue of who they are. Be they our parents, our spouses, our children, etc. Think about a right you believe you’re entitled to, whether it’s loyalty from your spouse or respect and obedience from your children, wages from your employer, etc. Think about why you think you deserve those rights. And then imagine that the right of worship to Allah سبحانه وتعالى is just maximally greater than all that. Worship is an act that inherently entails the recognition of the maximally perfect being. To direct worship to a being that is not maximally perfect is a travesty of rights of utmost proportion.

The proportionality of a punishment for a crime factors into consideration just how significant the right being infringed upon is. Somebody trying to cut your hand off deserves to be punished more than somebody who tries to steal your money, as your right to your limb is more established than to your money. Similarly, the right that Allah has to be worshipped alone is a right that is the logical and necessary outcome of all His attributes combined. It is the most significant right a maximally perfect being such as Allah سبحانه وتعالى lays claim to, and its infringement is the most serious crime that could be committed as a result.

[The Rationale of Hell in Islam by Bassam Zawadi, p.23-25]

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