Idolatry is the greatest sin in Islam, my friend, and here I don’t mince my words. It is impossible that the limited mind of man can ever conceive, represent or picture the infinite perfection of God. Any endeavour to visualize Him, to reduce him to our finite comprehension, beggars His Greatness and flies in the face of all that is Godly. All that we can say of Him is what He has revealed of Himself through the Ages through His Messengers and the Signs of His Existence we see everywhere around us showing the work of an Intelligent Will absolutely perfect in Goodness.
Since God is beyond our imagination, how can we make images of Him or anything representing Him? We simply cannot! Islam, by virtue of its uncompromising stance on monotheism, has been able to preserve itself from this great scourge which has corrupted almost every faith on the face of the earth. Just look at the different religions you see around you and see for yourselves how many have sunk into crude forms of idolatry, taking objects created by human hands as objects of worship. What are they but sticks and stones and other worthless things that have no life or power, fashioned by the hands of foolish men mislead by the devil, men whose minds have distorted the transcendent beauty of God, giving the gods of their imagination fanciful forms as flimsy as clay in a potter’s hands, relegating lofty spirit to base matter.
Look at the low level to which man has sunk worshipping these objects of his own making, so hideous and monstrous that their very existence is an affront to man’s dignity, created as he is in the Best of Moulds and in the Image of God as He Himself tells us. Little wonder that Islam deems it a fall from grace, or to put it in the words of God:
Shun the abomination of idols and the false word, being true in the way of God and not of those that associate partners with Him, for whoso ascribes partners unto God, it is as if he had fallen from heaven and been snatched by birds or the wind had swooped (like a bird on its prey) and blown him to a far-off place.
Yes, the one who indulges in idolatry is indeed lost and far, far away from the truth. I ask you, can science explain why idolatry is so rampant among men, even the seemingly intelligent ones among them? Nay even science cannot explain this peculiar trait that has been the bane of humanity through the ages. Science cannot, but Islam can – what else but the handiwork of the devil.
Moreover, idolatry is an affront to God, the Most High, who created all that is in the heavens and the earth including the very substances these worthless objects of veneration have been made of. It bestows on these created objects the reverence due to God alone as the Creator. To compare God with His creation is a villainy of the highest order as it has the effect of lowering the esteem due to Him from His worshippers. It is an affront to His Supreme Overlordship and an insult to His boundless attributes. Quite naturally, it provokes His Anger and kindles the fire of His wrath. What’s more idols can be desecrated; they can be broken and thrown, kicked and licked. Why, because they are made using created material things. Could we say the same of the One True Transcendant Deity above us? To say that such idols contain or represent a deity is therefore the highest folly.
You may wonder why God is so hard on those who deny him or associate partners with him? Let’s look at it this way: When you deny him, as far as you are concerned, you are, in your mind, negating him, just as when you commit suicide, as far as you are concerned, you annihilate mankind with you. Would it then be unreasonable on the part of God who created you and still sustains you, to have nothing to do with you and put you away just as you put him away?
Now suppose you go one more and takes other gods besides Him. Would it cool his wrath or kindle it? It will kindle it further of course! Why, you are now taking as gods, as creators and sustainers, others besides the one who created you. Suppose you have a child and nurture him and nourish him and pour all your love and affection on him, and in spite of all this he claims another who did not do a thing for him as his father. Now, not only is he annihilating you as his father, but he is bestowing the title on another who has absolutely no right to it. Chances are pretty high that you will tell him to go to hell!
This is why God has Abraham rhetorically ask the pagans in the Qur’an:
Do you Worship that which you have (yourselves) carved? But God has created you and your handiwork!
( Those Ranged in Ranks: 95-96)
And He Himself answers their folly:
Those whom they invoke besides God create nothing and are themselves created. (They are) dead, lifeless
And even puts forth a parable to strike some sense into them:
Those on whom, besides God, you call, cannot create (even) a fly, if they all met together for the purpose! And if the fly should snatch away anything from them, they would have no power to release it from the fly
(The Pilgrimage: 73)
Let me relate the story of Abraham as told in the Qur’an just to show you the kind of logic these foolish idolaters resort to. When Abraham asked his father and his people: “What worship ye?” They said: “We worship idols, and to them we are ever devoted.” He said: “Do they hear you, when you call (on them)? Or do they benefit you or do they harm (you)?” They said: “Nay, but we found our fathers doing so” (The Poets: 69-74). The foolish talk of foolish men. Even the prattle of children is better than the pathetic bleating of this herd.
The fearless iconoclast he was even at that young age, Abraham wanted to teach his people a lesson and so reduced all their idols to fragments, except the chief of them. These so-called gods did not even have the power to save themselves from destruction. When the temple priests returned, they were shocked to see the sacrilege, and were wondering who could have done this to their idols. Then someone mentioned the name of Abraham, explaining that he used to speak ill of them. When they called him to their presence, Abraham asked: “Worship ye that which you yourselves have carved ? But God has created you and your handiwork!”. Angry, they asked him: “Is it you who has done this to our gods, O Abraham?”.
However Abraham who had left the largest idol untouched promptly replied: ‘But this, their chief has done it. So question them, if they can speak!”. When Abraham challenged them, they were cast into confusion. They said: “Indeed you know well these speak not!” And Abraham replied: “Worship you then instead of God that which cannot profit you at all, nor harm you? Fie on you and all that you worship instead of God! Have you then no sense?”. As they had no answer, these misguided fools were furious and condemned the young Abraham to be burned alive. Abraham was undeterred. He did not lose faith nor flinch in the face of a fiery fate even at this tender age. God had however willed otherwise. He said: “O fire, be coolness and peace for Abraham” and he was spared the fury of the fire by God’s Grace (The Prophets: 51-69; Those Ranged in Ranks 95-96).
Abraham’s descendants through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, the children of Israel for long kept the covenant with God that they were to worship none but Him, but there were times they relapsed into idolatry such as when Moses delayed to come down from the holy mount, when they made a molten calf to worship. The less enlightened folk among them probably conceived of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as “their God” who laid no claim to universal rule and it is possible that this was one of the reasons why they so easily fell into idolatry, for if they could have ‘their God’, others could have ‘their god’ as well, hence entertaining the idea of a plurality of gods. This is why Islam focuses so much on the universal character of God as the Master of the Universe.
The Old Testament revealed to the Children of Israel is very clear in condemning idolatry. You are of course familiar with the Ten Commandants. You well know the First Commandment reads: “Thou shall have no other gods before me”. And I’m sure you know what the Almighty has to say after this, in His Second Commandment: “Thou shall have no other gods before me. Thou shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God”.
He does not stop at that. He speaks about his Oneness and His Peerlessness in very strong terms, showing that He cannot be captured by the minds of men to be represented as an idol: “I am God and there is none else. I am God and there is none like unto Me” (Isaiah 46:9) and His right to be worshipped like no other: “There is no other God beside me, a just God and a Saviour; there is none besides me. Turn to me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:21-23). He plainly tells us that idols cannot take his place in the minds of men: “I give My Glory to No One Else” He said through the Prophet Isaiah “Nor My Praise to Graven Images” (Isaiah 42:8).
You will also find a beautiful psalm exposing the folly of the idolators: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but do not speak, eyes but do not see. They have ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell. They have hands but do not feel, feet but do not walk” (Psalm 115: 4-7). In like manner, the Qur’an challenges those who call upon others besides God, asking of their deities: “Have they feet to walk with? Or hands to hold with? Or eyes to see with? Or ears to hear with?” (The Heights:195). It even tells us how close they are to their false idols: “Many are the jinns and men We have made for Hell. They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not” (The Heights:179). It is such men who are truly blind, whose heads are stone and whose eyes two holes in it, like the idols they adore.
The Biblical rule against idolatry good Christians are bound to follow as much as the Jews, the descendants of the children of Israel. After all did not Jesus (Peace Be Upon Him) declare that worship should be directed to God alone as seen in the Gospel of Matthew. Further did not he say in the Gospel of John: “Children, guard yourselves from idols”. Indeed history provides many instances of how good Christians opposed idolatry tooth and nail. When Constantine V summoned the Council of Hieria 754 which concerned itself primarily with religious imagery, well over three hundred bishops declared “the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation” and “If anyone shall endeavour to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), let him be anathema.” .
The Libri Carolini composed by command of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne around 790 very harshly condemned the idolatry that had crept into the Orthodox church as folly and as an old and outmoded pagan misunderstanding. It was also this attitude that one sees about the same time in the iconoclastic fervour of the Byzantine Emperors like Michael II, Leo III and Constantine V who forbade veneration of images and spared no pains destroying them. Some of these men were subjected to ridicule for their stance. So it is we have last great Iconoclast, the Patriarch of Constantinople, John VII been depicted by an opponent as rubbing out a painting of Christ. Poor John is caricatured with untidy hair sticking out in all directions meant to portray him as wild and barbaric. There are some who say that Islamic influence had a role in this. Well, who knows? But even many centuries later in the sixteenth century and after the same zeal was seen in the Protestant Reformation when men like Huldrych Zwingli and the Swiss Anabaptists railed against religious imagery as heresy. This is because they realized that true Christianity did not accept idolatry in any form.
But what do we see today even in many of their churches where statues and icons are prayed to as if they were God, not very different from the paganism of old. This cancer is widespread in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches where devotees even kneel before the statues of Christ and the Saints in the belief that by doing so they are really adoring Christ and venerating the Saints whose likenesses they are. It is nevertheless heartening to me as a Muslim to see many of your Protestant Churches prohibiting statues and other religious images in their churches in keeping with the true teachings of Jesus. Remember the Puritan groups such as those that settled in the New World denounced all forms of religious objects, not the least the cross. The Amish Christians who live in America are even more strict, forbidding animate objects of any sort, and not just religious images, so that even children’s dolls have blank faces.
Even early Hinduism was not in favour of idols. The Yajur Veda says of God: “Na Tasya Pratima Asti” (There is no likeness of Him) (32:3) which is remarkably similar to what the Qur’an has to say about Him: Laysa kamithlihi shay’un (Nothing whatsoever is like Him) (The Consultation:11). That’s not all, the Veda goes on to declare: “They enter darkness, those who worship natural things” and adds “They sink deeper in darkness those who worship created things” (40:9). The Shvetashvatara Upanishad in like vein pronounces: “Na Samdrshe Tisthati Rupam Asya, Na Chakshusha Pashyati Kashcanainam” (His form cannot be seen; None sees him with the eye) (4:20).
Unfortunately, in later times Hinduism became saturated with idols, from the elephant-faced pot-bellied Ganesh to the monkey god Hanuman who led his tribe against the ten-headed demon-king Ravana. It’s also big business. Indian politicians for instance go to a temple known as Tirupati Kovil where they make a vow that if they win an election, they will donate gold to the weight of their bodies to the temple. In fact many unscrupulous folk in such countries find it good business to set up a temple for people to make vows in fulfilment of which they enrich the coffers of its owners.
And if that were not enough, despite the Buddha’s preachings against any visual representations, even of himself, we find his votaries in South Asia not only making statues of the Indian sage which they worship by offering flowers, but also go to the extent of worshipping his relics like teeth and footprints for which they have constructed magnificent temples.
This is in spite of the fact that the Buddha detested any visual representations of himself or others. We read in the Samyutta Nikaya that an old disciple of his named Vakkali, while on his deathbed, was very eager to see the teacher in person. The Buddha came to him and said “O Vakkali, why do you crave to have a look at this body of impure matter”. The Buddhist treatise Majjhima Nikaya went further, declaring that the form of the Buddha after his death has been discarded and uprooted, and thus he is free from being denoted by a material shape for which it uses the telling words rupa sankhavimutto. It was due to this teaching against animate objects that early representations of the Buddha in temple art such as in Bharhut and Sanchi were aniconistic, with the Buddha being represented by symbols but never in human form, for instance the nativity by a lotus flower and the enlightenment by an empty seat. Buddha images grew in popularity only from about the first century after Christ due to Indo-Greek influence coming from North West India which even changed how he would have really looked like as seen in the voluminous drapery with heavy pleats and short peppercorn curls on the head of these statues. The true Buddha in contrast wore minimum clothing and had his head shaved. In fact Buddhist iconography to this day shows him with finely chiseled features that bear a close resemblance to old Greek statues of Apollo.
Fortunately Islam was saved from the great scourge we call idolatry. When the Prophet set out to conquer Mecca at the head of a large army numbering 10,000 men in the year 630, he did not go there to punish the Quraysh who had for so long persecuted his followers and even made an attempt to take his life, but to abolish the idolatry that had taken root in the holiest of holy places there, the Ka’aba, an ancient temple dedicated by Abraham and Ishmael to the One True God. The scourge of idols had not even spared this sanctum, for it had around it as many as 360 idols, one each for every day of the year. He rode round the Ka’aba seven times, touching the black stone each time and crying ‘God is Great!’ The shout was echoed by his 10,000 soldiers and soon the whole city was resounding with these words. He immediately turned his attention to the idols and smashed each and every one of them saying: “Truth has come, and falsehood has vanished; surely falsehood is certain to vanish” (The Night Journey:81).
He spared just two, the images of Jesus and Mary, simply out of reverence for these two great servants of God, not because he condoned idols of any form. When the Prophet became ill, some of his wives talked about a church called Mariya which they had seen in Ethiopia. Umm Salma and Umm Habiba had been to Ethiopia, and both of them narrated its beauty and the pictures it contained. The Prophet raised his head and said:
Those are the people who, whenever a pious man dies amongst them, make a place of worship at his grave and then they make those pictures in it. Those are the worst creatures in the Sight of God
( Saheeh Al-Bukhari)
How well meant indeed. When we consider the history of the church we can easily see how such misplaced veneration has lead to idolatry. This was mainly a result of the idea of intercession, where votaries believed that in order to obtain Divine favour one ought to pray to those deemed near and dear to God in the hope that the ones prayed to would intercede with the Almighty on their behalf. With time all that which became associated with these saints including their images, relics and places of rest would be venerated and even prayed to, eventually degenerating into worship not of God, but of man.
It is for reasons such as this that the Prophet left no stone unturned in his mission against idolatry, going so far as to command his followers to disfigure images of living things and even level graves so that they are only a few inches high as to be recognizable: “Do not leave any figure without mutilating it or any grave without leveling it”(Saheeh Muslim). You have only to look at the monuments left behind by the men of old to realize how many of them have been dedicated to the dead, kings and popes and nobles, at great cost to the ordinary people who had to bear the brunt of it all, with their blood, sweat and tears.
You may feast your eyes upon the pyramids, but what are they but tombs of the pharaohs, painstakingly built over years using slaves, many of whom perished in the process, a tomb for one man and a graveyard for thousands. What more greater monument of oppression than these?
It was in the same iconoclastic spirit of our Prophet that Jesus condemned the Jews of his day:“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous” (Matthew 23:27–29).
But our Prophet did not stop at just humbling the monuments of oppression, he warned his followers of Divine Retribution:“On the Day of Judgment, part of the hell fire will come forth with two eyes with which to see, two ears with which to hear, and a tongue with which to speak, saying, ‘I have been ordered to deal with three: he who holds there is another god besides God, with every arrogant tyrant, and with makers of images” (Tirmidhi).
Such sentiments expressed by our Prophet ensured that Muslims would never stoop to idolatry or erection of monuments to the dead. Death is, after all, a great leveler and equalizer. It is common to all, and so the place of death must stay that way, distinguishing neither between prince and pauper or patrician or plebe. To raise it to a height is to idolize the dead. It is idolatry in another form.
You will never find idols in a mosque nor animate images of any kind. We Muslims are taught that we have to be ever wary of idolatry for it is as inconspicuous as a black ant crawling on a black rock in the pitch darkness of a moonless night. You only have to see the fate of the other faiths to realise the truth of this.
Finally let me end with a little known quotation from that well known Italian orientalist Dr.Laura Veccia Vaglieri who wrote in Apologia dell Islamismo: “Thanks to Islam, Paganism in its various forms was defeated. The concept of the universe, the practices of religion and social customs were each liberated from all the monstrosities which had degraded them, and human minds were made free of prejudices. Mankind finally realised its dignity and humbled itself before the creator, the Lord and Master of all mankind. The spirit was liberated from prejudice. Man’s will was set free from the ties which had kept him bound to other men or other so-called hidden powers. Priests, false guardians of mysteries, brokers of salvation and all those who pretended to be mediators between God and man and consequently believed that they had authority over the will of other people, fell from their pedestals. Man became the servant of Allah alone and towards other men he had the obligations of one free man towards another free man”