In one of his brief writings, Mr. Jochen Katz has referred to a few verses of the Qur’an, which, in his opinion, when seen together amount to a clear contradiction.
The first among the referred verses is as follows (Al-Nisaa 4: 48):
إِنَّ اللَّـهَ لَا يَغْفِرُ أَن يُشْرَكَ بِهِ وَيَغْفِرُ مَا دُونَ ذَٰلِكَ لِمَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَمَن يُشْرِكْ بِاللَّـهِ فَقَدِ افْتَرَىٰ إِثْمًا عَظِيمًا
God does not forgive that partners be associated to Him, besides that He may forgive any thing for whom He pleases. Whoever associates partners to God is indeed guilty of a very grave sin
The second verse referred to by Mr. Katz is Al-Nisaa 4: 116. The verse reads as:
إِنَّ اللَّـهَ لَا يَغْفِرُ أَن يُشْرَكَ بِهِ وَيَغْفِرُ مَا دُونَ ذَٰلِكَ لِمَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَمَن يُشْرِكْ بِاللَّـهِ فَقَدْ ضَلَّ ضَلَالًا بَعِيدًا
God does not forgive that partners be associated to Him, besides that He may forgive any thing for whom He pleases. Whoever associates partners to God has indeed strayed far away [from the right path].
These two verses, seem to Mr. Katz as clearly contradictory with Al-Nisaa 4: 153 and Al-Furqaan 25: 68 – 70. Al-Nisaa 4: 153 reads as:
يَسْأَلُكَ أَهْلُ الْكِتَابِ أَن تُنَزِّلَ عَلَيْهِمْ كِتَابًا مِّنَ السَّمَاءِ ۚ فَقَدْ سَأَلُوا مُوسَىٰ أَكْبَرَ مِن ذَٰلِكَ فَقَالُوا أَرِنَا اللَّـهَ جَهْرَةً فَأَخَذَتْهُمُ الصَّاعِقَةُ بِظُلْمِهِمْ ۚ ثُمَّ اتَّخَذُوا الْعِجْلَ مِن بَعْدِ مَا جَاءَتْهُمُ الْبَيِّنَاتُ فَعَفَوْنَا عَن ذَٰلِكَ ۚ وَآتَيْنَا مُوسَىٰ سُلْطَانًا مُّبِينًا
O Prophet, the People of the Book ask you to bring down for them a book from heaven [as a sign of your truthfulness]. They asked Moses [for a sign] that was even graver than this. They said to him: “Show us God in the open”. Then, due to their injustice [in their demand] they were struck by the thunder. Then [later,] they took the calf for worship, even after clear signs had been revealed to them; yet we forgave them for these [heinous crimes] and gave Moses a clear authority.
Then again, in Al-Baqarah 2: 51 – 52 the Qur’an says:
وَإِذْ وَاعَدْنَا مُوسَىٰ أَرْبَعِينَ لَيْلَةً ثُمَّ اتَّخَذْتُمُ الْعِجْلَ مِن بَعْدِهِ وَأَنتُمْ ظَالِمُونَ ﴿٥١﴾ ثُمَّ عَفَوْنَا عَنكُم مِّن بَعْدِ ذَٰلِكَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ
And bring to mind when we appointed a meeting time of forty nights with Moses and then, while he was away, you took the calf for worship and [indeed] you were extremely unjust [in doing so]. Then We forgave you even after all this so that you may be thankful.
In Al-Furqaan 25: 68 – 70, the Qur’an has stipulated the principle that repentance and correction — even after shirk — shall do away with the sin. The verse reads as:
وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَدْعُونَ مَعَ اللَّـهِ إِلَـٰهًا آخَرَ وَلَا يَقْتُلُونَ النَّفْسَ الَّتِي حَرَّمَ اللَّـهُ إِلَّا بِالْحَقِّ وَلَا يَزْنُونَ ۚ وَمَن يَفْعَلْ ذَٰلِكَ يَلْقَ أَثَامًا ﴿٦٨﴾ يُضَاعَفْ لَهُ الْعَذَابُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ وَيَخْلُدْ فِيهِ مُهَانًا ﴿٦٩﴾ إِلَّا مَن تَابَ وَآمَنَ وَعَمِلَ عَمَلًا صَالِحًا فَأُولَـٰئِكَ يُبَدِّلُ اللَّـهُ سَيِّئَاتِهِمْ حَسَنَاتٍ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّـهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا
And those who invoke no other god besides Allah [the one God] and do not kill except for a just cause and who do not commit fornication. Whoever commits there sins shall meet the evil fruits [of his deeds], his punishment shall be [consistently] increased on the Day of Resurrection and in disgrace he shall abide for ever — except for those who repent and believe and do good deeds. as for them God will change his sins to good deeds. And God is extremely forgiving, his mercy extends for ever.
The first two verses state that Allah may forgive any other sin, but He shall never forgive the sin of associating partners with Him. Whereas, in the third verse, the Qur’an states that after the Banu Israel took the calf for worship — which is obviously a symbol of shirk [or associating partners to Allah] — Allah forgave them. Then again in the fourth verse, the Qur’an states that even those who associate partners with Allah, shall not only be forgiven if they repent with a sincere heart but their bad deeds shall then be converted into good deeds and thus their reward shall be increased manifolds.
The contradiction, according to Mr. Katz, is quite obvious.
In the following article, I shall present my point of view regarding the contradiction pointed out by Mr. Katz. After the above concept is clarified, I shall also present my point of view regarding two related objections raised by Mr. Katz. These two objections are dealt with under the sub-headings: “The Incident of Worshiping the Calf” and “Did Abraham (pbuh) Commit Shirk?” respectively.
In my opinion, the key verses to consider, to begin with, are Al-Furqaan 25: 68 – 71. In these verses, the Qur’an has stressed that any man who commits the three stated crimes (i.e. shirk, murder and fornication) shall face the consequences of these crimes in the shape of everlasting punishment in hellfire. The only exception will be those who sincerely repent and correct their behavior before they die and are subsequently taken to the court of their Lord. This obviously implies that if any one commits any one or more of these crimes and then neither repents nor corrects his/her behavior before his death, he shall then have to face the everlasting punishment of burning in hellfire. From another perspective, it also tells us that when a person sincerely repents about his past behavior and corrects it, all crimes, however grave they may have been, can not only be written off but converted into good deeds. According to the Qur’an, the life of this world is a test for mankind. This test extends till one’s death and till one’s death, he/she has a chance of forgiveness. Sincere repentance and correction in the life of this world, clears one of the sin as if it never existed.
Now let us focus on Al-Nisaa 4: 48 and Al-Nisaa 4: 116. Both these verses actually refer to the Divine principle of punishment/forgiveness in the hereafter. Both these verses state that whoever comes on the Day of Judgment as a polytheist (one who associates partners with God) shall in no case be forgiven. For Allah may forgive any sin for anyone He pleases, yet He will never forgive the person who comes on the Day of Judgment as a polytheist. If seen in the light of my explanation given for Al-Furqaan 25: 68 – 71 (in the previous paragraph), it should become quite clear that this verse does not refer to those who had committed the crime of associating partners with God and had later sincerely repented and corrected themselves, as their repentance and correction would have removed them from one category and placed them in the other. The verse refers only to those who, till the end of their testing time — i.e. till the end of their lives — stayed polytheists and never repented or corrected their behavior. These are the ones who shall never be forgiven and who shall have to taste the punishment for ever.
Seen from yet another perspective, these two verses (Al-Nisaa 4: 48 and Al-Nisaa 4: 116) actually tell us that in the hereafter, God may forget any sin — however grave it might have been — for any one He pleases, even if the person never repented or corrected his behavior, except shirk. For anyone who comes to the hereafter with the sin of shirk (not repenting or correcting it till his death), shall lose all hope of being dealt with mercifully and shall have to burn forever in the hellfire.
The above explanation should actually resolve the contradiction pointed out by Mr. Katz, but because he has also referred to two other verses (incidents) and has also derived a few conclusions from these verses, it seems that these verses should also be clarified so that no misunderstanding may remain in this connection.
The Incident of Worshiping the Calf
In Al-Nisaa 4: 153, the Qur’an says that Allah forgave the Banu Israel even after they took the calf for worship. Mr. Katz says that this forgiveness contradicts the two referred verses of Surah Al-Nisaa. Although a short answer to this objection is that the Banu Israel repented and corrected their actions and therefore God forgave them. However, the understanding of the whole event that actually took place would not only be of great interest but shall also show the gravity of the sin of shirk. The referred incident is not only mentioned in the Qur’an but also in Bible.
However, before we turn to the details of the incident, it is important to note that according to the Qur’an, when God sends His messenger (rasu’l as opposed to nabee) to a particular people, this messenger clarifies the true religion of God to these people to such an extent that they are left with no admissible excuse for rejection. At this time, if these people persist with their rejection and keep themselves on shirk, then God directs his messenger to leave the place and subsequently God punishes the rejecters and administers a general death sentence on their nation. This administration of the general death sentence may take any one of two shapes. If the messenger has only a very few companions and is not in a position to establish his authority in a distinct piece of land (i.e. cannot establish a state) then God directs him to take all his companions and move away from the rejecters. Subsequently, the rejecters are annihilated through an offensive of the forces of nature (like a wind storm etc.). This was the case with the people of most of the messengers of God, like Noah. Lot, Shu`aib, Hu’d etc. On the contrary, if the messenger is supported by some companions and is also given authority in a land (i.e. establishes a state under his authority) then the death sentence on the rejecters is administered through the messenger and his companions. The believers are directed to fight the rejecters till the time that all these rejecters are annihilated from the face of the earth. This was the case with the last of the messengers of Allah.
While considering the incident of the worship of the calf, in the light of the Qur’an, it is important to keep in mind the above explanation (regarding the fate of the rejecting polytheists from among the people toward whom a messenger is sent) as well as the fact that Moses (pbuh) was a messenger (rasu’l) of God. Thus, the people of Moses were also subjected to the same law of God to which all other people had previously been subjected — i.e. if they persist with polytheism, they shall then be punished and annihilated.
Keeping the above explanations in mind, let us now look at the particular incident as reported in the Qur’an. The Qur’an has reported some of the relevant parts of this incident in the three different places. In Al-Nisaa 4: 153, the verse referred to by Mr. Katz, there is only a passing reference to the incident, no details of the incident are provided in this verse. In Al-A`raaf 7: 148 – 153 some details are provided. These verses read as:
وَاتَّخَذَ قَوْمُ مُوسَىٰ مِن بَعْدِهِ مِنْ حُلِيِّهِمْ عِجْلًا جَسَدًا لَّهُ خُوَارٌ ۚ أَلَمْ يَرَوْا أَنَّهُ لَا يُكَلِّمُهُمْ وَلَا يَهْدِيهِمْ سَبِيلًا ۘ اتَّخَذُوهُ وَكَانُوا ظَالِمِينَ ﴿١٤٨﴾ وَلَمَّا سُقِطَ فِي أَيْدِيهِمْ وَرَأَوْا أَنَّهُمْ قَدْ ضَلُّوا قَالُوا لَئِن لَّمْ يَرْحَمْنَا رَبُّنَا وَيَغْفِرْ لَنَا لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ ﴿١٤٩﴾ وَلَمَّا رَجَعَ مُوسَىٰ إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ غَضْبَانَ أَسِفًا قَالَ بِئْسَمَا خَلَفْتُمُونِي مِن بَعْدِي ۖ أَعَجِلْتُمْ أَمْرَ رَبِّكُمْ ۖ وَأَلْقَى الْأَلْوَاحَ وَأَخَذَ بِرَأْسِ أَخِيهِ يَجُرُّهُ إِلَيْهِ ۚ قَالَ ابْنَ أُمَّ إِنَّ الْقَوْمَ اسْتَضْعَفُونِي وَكَادُوا يَقْتُلُونَنِي فَلَا تُشْمِتْ بِيَ الْأَعْدَاءَ وَلَا تَجْعَلْنِي مَعَ الْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِينَ ﴿١٥٠﴾ قَالَ رَبِّ اغْفِرْ لِي وَلِأَخِي وَأَدْخِلْنَا فِي رَحْمَتِكَ ۖ وَأَنتَ أَرْحَمُ الرَّاحِمِينَ ﴿١٥١﴾ إِنَّ الَّذِينَ اتَّخَذُوا الْعِجْلَ سَيَنَالُهُمْ غَضَبٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَذِلَّةٌ فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا ۚ وَكَذَٰلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُفْتَرِينَ ﴿١٥٢﴾ وَالَّذِينَ عَمِلُوا السَّيِّئَاتِ ثُمَّ تَابُوا مِن بَعْدِهَا وَآمَنُوا إِنَّ رَبَّكَ مِن بَعْدِهَا لَغَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
In his absence the people of Moses made a calf from their ornaments — an image with a hollow sound. Did they not see that it could neither speak to them nor give them guidance? Yet they worshipped it and thus committed [a great] evil. But when they repented and realized that they had sinned, they said: ‘If our Lord does not have mercy on us and pardon us, we shall surely be among the lost.’ And when Moses returned to his people, angry and sorrowful, he said: ‘Evil is the thing you did in my absence! Would you hasten the retribution of your Lord? He threw down the Tablets and, seizing his brother by the hair, dragged him closer. ‘Son of my mother,’ cried Aaron, ‘the people overpowered me and almost killed me. Do not let my enemies gloat over me; do not consider me among the wrongdoers’. ‘Lord,’ said Moses, ‘forgive me and forgive my brother. Admit us to Your mercy, for, of all those that show mercy, You are the most merciful.’ Those that worshipped the calf incurred the anger of their Lord and disgrace in this life. Thus shall we reward those who fabricate falsehoods. As for those who do evil but later repent and have faith, indeed your Lord after this [repentance and faith] is most forgiving and merciful.
Some further details of the incident are provided in Ta’ Ha’ 20: 86 – 98. These verses read as:
فَرَجَعَ مُوسَىٰ إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ غَضْبَانَ أَسِفًا ۚ قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ أَلَمْ يَعِدْكُمْ رَبُّكُمْ وَعْدًا حَسَنًا ۚ أَفَطَالَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْعَهْدُ أَمْ أَرَدتُّمْ أَن يَحِلَّ عَلَيْكُمْ غَضَبٌ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُم مَّوْعِدِي ﴿٨٦﴾ قَالُوا مَا أَخْلَفْنَا مَوْعِدَكَ بِمَلْكِنَا وَلَـٰكِنَّا حُمِّلْنَا أَوْزَارًا مِّن زِينَةِ الْقَوْمِ فَقَذَفْنَاهَا فَكَذَٰلِكَ أَلْقَى السَّامِرِيُّ ﴿٨٧﴾ فَأَخْرَجَ لَهُمْ عِجْلًا جَسَدًا لَّهُ خُوَارٌ فَقَالُوا هَـٰذَا إِلَـٰهُكُمْ وَإِلَـٰهُ مُوسَىٰ فَنَسِيَ ﴿٨٨﴾ أَفَلَا يَرَوْنَ أَلَّا يَرْجِعُ إِلَيْهِمْ قَوْلًا وَلَا يَمْلِكُ لَهُمْ ضَرًّا وَلَا نَفْعًا ﴿٨٩﴾ وَلَقَدْ قَالَ لَهُمْ هَارُونُ مِن قَبْلُ يَا قَوْمِ إِنَّمَا فُتِنتُم بِهِ ۖ وَإِنَّ رَبَّكُمُ الرَّحْمَـٰنُ فَاتَّبِعُونِي وَأَطِيعُوا أَمْرِي ﴿٩٠﴾ قَالُوا لَن نَّبْرَحَ عَلَيْهِ عَاكِفِينَ حَتَّىٰ يَرْجِعَ إِلَيْنَا مُوسَىٰ ﴿٩١﴾ قَالَ يَا هَارُونُ مَا مَنَعَكَ إِذْ رَأَيْتَهُمْ ضَلُّوا ﴿٩٢﴾ أَلَّا تَتَّبِعَنِ ۖ أَفَعَصَيْتَ أَمْرِي ﴿٩٣﴾ قَالَ يَا ابْنَ أُمَّ لَا تَأْخُذْ بِلِحْيَتِي وَلَا بِرَأْسِي ۖ إِنِّي خَشِيتُ أَن تَقُولَ فَرَّقْتَ بَيْنَ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ وَلَمْ تَرْقُبْ قَوْلِي ﴿٩٤﴾ قَالَ فَمَا خَطْبُكَ يَا سَامِرِيُّ ﴿٩٥﴾ قَالَ بَصُرْتُ بِمَا لَمْ يَبْصُرُوا بِهِ فَقَبَضْتُ قَبْضَةً مِّنْ أَثَرِ الرَّسُولِ فَنَبَذْتُهَا وَكَذَٰلِكَ سَوَّلَتْ لِي نَفْسِي ﴿٩٦﴾ قَالَ فَاذْهَبْ فَإِنَّ لَكَ فِي الْحَيَاةِ أَن تَقُولَ لَا مِسَاسَ ۖ وَإِنَّ لَكَ مَوْعِدًا لَّن تُخْلَفَهُ ۖ وَانظُرْ إِلَىٰ إِلَـٰهِكَ الَّذِي ظَلْتَ عَلَيْهِ عَاكِفًا ۖ لَّنُحَرِّقَنَّهُ ثُمَّ لَنَنسِفَنَّهُ فِي الْيَمِّ نَسْفًا ﴿٩٧﴾ إِنَّمَا إِلَـٰهُكُمُ اللَّـهُ الَّذِي لَا إِلَـٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ۚ وَسِعَ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ عِلْمًا
Angry and sorrowful, Moses went back to them. ‘O my people,’ he said, ‘did your Lord not make you a gracious promise? Did my absence seem too long to you, or was it to incur your Lord’s anger that you failed me?’ They replied: ‘We did not fail you of our own free will. We were made to carry the people’s trinkets and throw them into the fire. The Samiriy threw likewise, and forged a calf for them — an image with a hollow sound. ‘This,’ they said, ‘is your god and the god of Moses whom he has forgotten’. Did they not see that it returned no answer, and that it could neither harm not help them? Aaron had said to them: ‘My people, this is but a test for you. Your Lord is the Merciful. Follow me and do as I bid you.’ But they replied: ‘We will worship it until Moses returns.’ Moses said to Aaron: ‘Why did you not seek me out when you saw them go astray? Why did you disobey me? “Son of my mother,” he replied, “I pray you, let go of my beard and my head. I was afraid that you might say: ‘You have sown discord among the Israelites and did not wait for my orders.'” ‘Samiriy’, cried Moses, ‘what had come over you?’ He replied: I saw what they did not see. I took a handful of dust from the trail of the messenger and flung it away: thus did my heart prompt me’. ‘Go!’ cried Moses. ‘An outcast shall you be in this life, nor shall you escape your appointed doom. Behold this idol which you have served with such devotion: we will burn it to cinders and scatter its ashes far and wide over the sea’. Your Lord is God, other than whom there is no god. His knowledge encompasses all things.
If we look at the complete incident as reported in the above verses, we shall see that firstly, this incident took place after the freedom of the Israelites from Pharaoh. This was a time when they were free and under no compulsion to commit shirk. Secondly, as is also evidenced by the Old Testament, a large number of the Israelites were involved in this sin. Thirdly, according to the explanation given above, because God had clarified His true teachings on the Israelites through one of His messengers — Moses (phuh) — therefore, they had no admissible excuse for committing this sin. In this situation, God could have punished their whole community, as were the communities of Noah, Lot, Hu’d etc. were punished. Fourthly, the first set of verses, referred to above, clearly mentions that those who had actually committed this crime shall not only face a dreadful punishment in the hereafter (if they do not repent) but shall also taste a demeaning punishment in the life of this world as well. The portion: “Those that worshipped the calf incurred the anger of their Lord and disgrace in this life. Thus shall we reward those who fabricate falsehoods“, in Al-Aa`raaf 7: 148 – 153 clearly implies the stated meaning.
Thus, while only making a passing reference to the incident, when in Al-Baqarah 2: 51 – 52 and in Al-Nisaa 4: 153 the Qur’an says that Allah forgave the Israelites even after their shirk, it actually refers to their forgiveness at a communal rather than at an individual level. This is so because the particular individuals who committed the crime — according to the referred verses of Al-A`raaf as well as Ta’ Ha’ were subjected to a demeaning punishment. Thus, in effect, the Qur’an actually says that when as a nation, the Israelites repented and were prepared to pay for this heinous crime, God showed mercy on them and forgave them.
Now, the only question that may remain in some minds may be that what exactly was the punishment given to the individuals who were actually involved in this crime. The answer to this question can be found both in the Qur’an as well as the Bible. The Qur’an — in Al-Baqarah 2: 54 — says:
وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِقَوْمِهِ يَا قَوْمِ إِنَّكُمْ ظَلَمْتُمْ أَنفُسَكُم بِاتِّخَاذِكُمُ الْعِجْلَ فَتُوبُوا إِلَىٰ بَارِئِكُمْ فَاقْتُلُوا أَنفُسَكُمْ ذَٰلِكُمْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ عِندَ بَارِئِكُمْ فَتَابَ عَلَيْكُمْ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ التَّوَّابُ الرَّحِيمُ
And bring to mind the time when Moses said to his people: ‘O my people, you have indeed wronged yourselves by taking the calf for worship, therefore turn toward your Creator in repentance and slay your own people [who were involved in this crime]. That will be best for you in your Creator’s sight’. Then He turned toward you with compassion. Indeed He accepts repentance and is Ever Merciful.
Thus, according to the Qur’an, as a show of their repentance and as a punishment for those who had committed the crime, the Israelites were directed to slay their own brethren who had been involved in shirk. Some more details of this punishment can be seen in the Bible. Exodus 32: 25 – 29 reads thus:
Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.
Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ ” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
Keeping in view the complete narrative of the incident of the worship of the calf and the punishment, which was delivered on the wrong doers, it should be clear that there is no contradiction in Al-Nisaa 4: 48, Al-Nisaa 4: 116 and the narrative of the incident. The first two verses declare that on the Day of Judgment, whoever shall come to the court of God with shirk (implying that he did not repent during the life of this world), shall in no case be forgiven. While the narrative of the worship of the calf tells us that when a group from among the Israelites committed idolatry and subsequently, the Israelites were prepared to repent pay for this crime by slaying their own brethren, who had been involved in this heinous crime, God turned to them with compassion and forgave them.
Did Abraham (pbuh) Commit Shirk?
Mr. Katz writes:
Surah 6:76-78 asserts that even Abraham took the sun, the moon, and the stars as idols. This is sheer polytheism; yet Muslims respect the Abraham portrayed in their Qur’an as a great prophet, and they believe that prophets are sinless.
Before I present my point of regarding the incident from which Mr. Katz has derived the polytheistic practice or belief of the Qur’anic Abraham (pbuh), let us first take a look at the referred verses. Al-An`aam 6: 76 – 83 read as:
فَلَمَّا جَنَّ عَلَيْهِ اللَّيْلُ رَأَىٰ كَوْكَبًا ۖ قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَ قَالَ لَا أُحِبُّ الْآفِلِينَ ﴿٧٦﴾ فَلَمَّا رَأَى الْقَمَرَ بَازِغًا قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَ قَالَ لَئِن لَّمْ يَهْدِنِي رَبِّي لَأَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْقَوْمِ الضَّالِّينَ ﴿٧٧﴾ فَلَمَّا رَأَى الشَّمْسَ بَازِغَةً قَالَ هَـٰذَا رَبِّي هَـٰذَا أَكْبَرُ ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَتْ قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ إِنِّي بَرِيءٌ مِّمَّا تُشْرِكُونَ ﴿٧٨﴾ إِنِّي وَجَّهْتُ وَجْهِيَ لِلَّذِي فَطَرَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ حَنِيفًا ۖ وَمَا أَنَا مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ ﴿٧٩﴾ وَحَاجَّهُ قَوْمُهُ ۚ قَالَ أَتُحَاجُّونِّي فِي اللَّـهِ وَقَدْ هَدَانِ ۚ وَلَا أَخَافُ مَا تُشْرِكُونَ بِهِ إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ رَبِّي شَيْئًا ۗ وَسِعَ رَبِّي كُلَّ شَيْءٍ عِلْمًا ۗ أَفَلَا تَتَذَكَّرُونَ ﴿٨٠﴾ وَكَيْفَ أَخَافُ مَا أَشْرَكْتُمْ وَلَا تَخَافُونَ أَنَّكُمْ أَشْرَكْتُم بِاللَّـهِ مَا لَمْ يُنَزِّلْ بِهِ عَلَيْكُمْ سُلْطَانًا ۚ فَأَيُّ الْفَرِيقَيْنِ أَحَقُّ بِالْأَمْنِ ۖ إِن كُنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ ﴿٨١﴾ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَلَمْ يَلْبِسُوا إِيمَانَهُم بِظُلْمٍ أُولَـٰئِكَ لَهُمُ الْأَمْنُ وَهُم مُّهْتَدُونَ ﴿٨٢﴾ وَتِلْكَ حُجَّتُنَا آتَيْنَاهَا إِبْرَاهِيمَ عَلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ ۚ نَرْفَعُ دَرَجَاتٍ مَّن نَّشَاءُ ۗ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ حَكِيمٌ عَلِيمٌ
When night drew its shadow over him, he saw a star. ‘That’, he said, ‘is my God’. But when it faded in the morning light, he said: ‘I will not worship gods that fade.’ When he beheld the rising moon, he said: ‘That is my God’. But when it set, he said: ‘If my Lord does not guide me, I shall surely go astray’. The when he beheld the sun shining, he said: That must be my God: it is the largest.’ But when it set, he said to his people: ‘I disown your idols. I will turn my face to Him who has created the heavens and the earth, and will live a righteous life. I am no idolater’. His people argued with him. He said: ‘Will you argue with me about God, who has given me guidance? I do not fear your idols, unless my Lord so willed. My Lord has knowledge of all things. Will you not be warned? And how should I fear your idols when you yourselves are not afraid of serving idols not sanctioned by God? Which of us is more deserving of salvation? Tell me, if you know the truth. Those that have faith and do not taint their faith with wrongdoing shall surely earn salvation, for they follow the right path’. Such was the argument with which We furnished Abraham against his people. We raise whom We will to an exalted rank. Your Lord is wise and all-knowing.
These verses are normally interpreted to imply the evolution in the thinking and the mental development of Abraham (pbuh). It is held that Abraham (pbuh) started from taking a star, the moon and the sun respectively to be the true God. Finally he reached the true concept of Tawheed, i.e. the concept of monotheism. It is also interesting to note that even if these verses are interpreted to imply the mental development and the evolution in the thinking of Abraham (pbuh), they are not — as Mr. Katz has also implied — in contradiction to any other verse of the Qur’an. However, this interpretation may refute the generally held Muslim belief of the ‘sinlessness’ of the Prophets of God.
The generally held interpretation goes thus: One day, when Abraham (pbuh) saw a shining star, he took him for God, and in the morning, when the star disappeared, Abraham (pbuh) declared that if the star was god, it should not have disappeared even in the day. Some days later, when he saw the moon (it seems that it was the night of the full moon) in its glory, he held it to be the God. But when the moon vanished in the day, he declared again that those that vanish cannot be gods… God should be ever present. Then again, some days later, he took the sun to be the God. However, the sun met with the same fate as was met by the shining star and the glorious moon when it set in the evening. At this juncture did Abraham (pbuh) realize that any of these celestial bodies is not an embodiment of the true God. At this juncture did Abraham (pbuh) become a true monotheist and was subsequently guided by revelation from God.
In my opinion, there are some hindrances in accepting this interpretation to be correct. For instance, if you look closely at these verses and read them over and over again, you can easily derive a few things: Firstly, a close look at the personality [Abraham (pbuh)] being depicted in these verses shall show that the person being referred to is of a mature age and mind. It is not a narrative of an incident that took place during the infancy of Abraham (pbuh). This incident is most likely to have taken place between the time when Abraham (pbuh) was in the range of 20 to 30 years of age. Secondly, the depiction shows the person to be extremely wise and observing. The narrative does not show Abraham (pbuh) to be an ignorant person. Keeping in view these two factors, while interpreting these verses, one should be confronted by the question that how is it possible that even after having attained 20 to 30 years of age and even after being blessed with an analytical and observing mind, was Abraham (pbuh) not aware of the fact that the stars and the moon normally disappear in the day and that the sun cannot be seen during the night. How could such an important fact be overlooked by a person like Abraham? Moreover, if the star was rejected for being taken as god due to its disappearance in the morning, then how could this fact be overlooked for the sun and the moon? Finally, in verse 83, after narrating the whole incident, the Qur’an has said that this was the argument with which God furnished Abraham (pbuh) against his people, which clearly shows that the whole incident is not actually a narrative of the evolution in the thinking and the mental development of Abraham (pbuh) but is actually a narrative of an incident in which he brought to the attention of his people the true and unadulterated concept of Tawheed.
To understand these verses fully, it is important to note two things: Firstly, just preceding these verses, Abraham’s dialogue with his father, in which Abraham has criticized idol worship and polytheism; and secondly that the Babylonians — the people among whom Abraham (pbuh) was living — used to worship the celestial bodies besides other idols. In the same way as he had criticized idol worship while talking to his father, one day Abraham (pbuh) decided to take up the task of pointing out to the worshippers of the celestial bodies the fact that their belief was absolutely baseless, unfounded and illogical. However, rather than refuting their beliefs in a direct way — which is always likely to activate the mental defense mechanism of the addressees and turn the whole argument into a fruitless debate — Abraham (pbuh) thought of a wise and an irrefutable plan. The object of the whole plan was to drive home the point that the sun and the moon and the stars by their very nature of existence evidence the fact that they themselves are not only created but subjected to a stringent and a highly disciplined system. These celestial bodies therefore cannot be the creators.
Implementing his plan, one night Abraham (pbuh) while among his people declared that this great star can definitely be God. This declaration was greatly welcomed by his people who were already aware of the strict monotheistic teachings of Abraham (pbuh). However, in the morning, when the star disappeared, Abraham (pbuh) rejected — not the people’s but — his own opinion of even considering the divinity of the star, as God can never be away. The same thing happened with the moon and the sun, subsequently. In this way, all the major celestial bodies that were held as deities by his people (and have generally been held as deities by their worshippers) were rejected. After rejecting these false gods, without entering into any debate with his people and without stimulating their mental defense mechanism, Abraham (pbuh) presented his true belief in front of his people (verse 79 to 81).
As an evidence of the correctness of this interpretation, verse 83, at the end of the whole narrative declares that this line of reasoning was taught to Abraham (pbuh) by God Himself.
In view of the above explanation, it is quite clear that the referred verses do not narrate the evolution of Abraham’s thought and his mental development. They are a narrative of the wise line of reasoning and the flawless arguments that Abraham (pbuh) presented against the false beliefs of his people.
Thus, the answer to the question “Did Abraham commit shirk?” is “No. Abraham (pbuh) never committed shirk. He always adhered to and propagated the true teachings of Tawheed.”
© Copyright October 1999. All Rights Reserved with the Author