The word used in the Qur’an for idolatry is shirk شرك, and for an idolater , mushrik مشوك, pl. mushrikun. In theological works the word wasani وثنيis used for an idolater (wasan, and idol), and ‘ibadatu ‘l-ausan عبادة الاوثانfor idolatry.
In one of the earliest Surahs of the Qur’an (when chronologically arranged), lii. 35-43, idolatry is condemned in the following language:-
“Were they created by nothing? Or were they the creators of themselves?”
“Created they the Heaven and Earth? Nay, rather, they have no faith.”
“Hold they thy Lord’s treasures? Bear they the rule supreme?”
“Have they a ladder for hearing the angels? Let anyone who hath heard them bring a clear proof of it.”
“Hath God daughters and ye son?”
“Asketh thou pay of them? They are themselves weighed down with debts.”
“Have they such a knowledge of the secret things that they can write them down?”
“Desire they to lay snares for thee? But the snared one shall be they who do not believe.”
“Have they any God beside God? Glory be to God above what they join with Him.”
But they are, in a later Surah (nearly the last), ix. 28 declared unclean, and forbidden to enter the sacred temple at Makkah. That was after Muhammad had destroyed the idols in his last pilgrimage to the Sacred House.
“O Believers! Only they who join gods with God are unclean! Let them not, therefore, after this their year, come neat the sacred temple. And if ye fear want, God, if He please, will enrich you of His abundance: for God is Knowing, Wise.”
In a Surah given about the same time (iv. 51, 116), idolatry is declared to be the unpardonable sin:-
“Verily, God will not forgive the union of other gods with Himself! But other than this will He forgive to whom He pleaseth. And he who uniteth gods with God hath devised a great wickedness.”
“God truly will not forgive the joining other gods with Himself. Other sins He will forgive to whom He will; but he who joineth gods with God, hath erred with far-gone error.”
Nor is it lawful for Muslims to pray for the souls of idolaters, as is evident from Surah ic. 114:
“It is not for the prophet or the faithful to pray for the forgiveness of those, even though they be of kin, who associate other beings with God, after it hath been made clear to them that they are to be inmates of Hell.”
“For neither did Abraham ask forgiveness for his father, but in pursuance of a promise which he had promised to him; but when it was shewn him that he was an enemy to God he declared himself clear of him. Yet Abraham was pitiful, kind.”
Sir William Muir says (Int. p. ccxii.) that “Mahomet is related to have said that Amr son of Lohai (the first Khozaite king, A.D. 200) was the earliest who dated to change the ‘pure religion of Ishmael,’ and set up idols brought from Syria. This, however, is a mere Muslim conceit. The practice of idolatry thickly overspread the whole peninsula from a much more remote period.”
From the chapters from the Qur’an, already quoted, it will be seen that from the very first Muhammad denounced idolatry. But the weakness of his position compelled him to move cautiously. The expressions contained in the al-Madinah Surahs, given when Muhammad could not enter Makkah, are much more restrained than those in the Surahs given after the capture of Makkah and the destruction of the idols of the Ka’bah.
At an early period (about the fifth year) of his mission, Muhammad seems to have contemplated a compromise and reconciliation with Makkan idolatry. Sir William Muir. (quoting from at-Tabari, pp. 140-142, and Katibu ‘l-Waqidi, p. 40), says:-
“On a certain day, the chief men of Mecca, assembled in a group beside the Kaaba, discussed, as was their wont, the affairs of the city. Mahomet appeared and, seating himself by them in a friendly manner, began to recite in their hearing Sura liii. The chapter opens with a description of the first visit of Gabriel to Mahomet, and then unfolds a second vision of that angel, in which certain heavenly mysteries were revealed. It then proceeds:-
And see ye not Lat and Ozza.
And Manat the third besides?
“When he had reached this verse, the devil suggested to Mahomet an expression of thoughts which had long possessed his soul, and put into his mouth words of reconciliation and compromise, the revelation of such as he had been yearning that God might sent unto his people, namely:-
These are the exalted females.
And verily their intercession is to be hoped for.
“The Coreish were astonished and delighted with this acknowledgment of their deities; and as Mahomet would up the Sura with the closing words,-
Wherefore bow down before God, and serve Him, the whole assembly prostrated themselves with one accord on the ground and worshiped. Walid alone, unable from the infirmities of age to bow down, took a handful of earth and worshiped, pressing it to his forehead.
“And all the people were pleased at that which Mahomet had spoken, and they began to say, ‘Now we know that it is the Lord alone that giveth life and taketh it away, that createth and supporteth. And as for these our goddesses, make intercession with Him for us; wherefore, as thou hast conceded unto them a portion, we are content to follow thee.”
“But their words disquieted Mahomet, and he retired to his house. In the evening Gabriel visited him, and the Prophet (as was his wont) recited the Sura unto him. And Gabriel said, ‘What is this that thou hast done? Thou hast repeated before the people words that I never gave unto thee.’ So Mahomet grieved sore, and feared the Lord greatly; and he said, ‘I have spoken of God that which he hath not said.’ But the Lord comforted His Prophet, and restored his confidence, and canceled the verse, and revealed the true reading thereof (as it now stands), namely:-
And see ye not Lat and Ozza
And Manat the third besides?
What! Shall there be male progeny unto you, and female unto him?
That were indeed an unjust partition!
They are naught but names, which ye and your fathers have invented, &c.
“Now when the Coreish heard this, they spoke among themselves, saying, ‘Mahomet hath repented his favorable mention of the rank of our goddesses with the Lord. He hath changed the same, and brought other words instead.’ So the two Satanic verses were in the mouth of every one of the unbelievers, and they increased their malice, and stirred them up to persecute the faithful with still greater severity.” (Sir W. Muir’s Life of Mahomet, new ed. 86, seqq.)
The Commentators do not refer to this circumstance, and pious Muslims would reject the whole story, but, as Sir W. Muir says, “the authorities are too strong to be impugned.”
These narratives of at-Tabari and the secretary of al-Waqidi are fully borne out in the facts of Muhammad’s subsequent compromise with the idolatrous feelings of the people; for whilst he removed the images from the Ka’bah, he at the same time retained the black stone as an object of superstitious reverence, and although he destroyed Isaf and Na’ilah, the deities of as-Sara and al-Marwab, he still retained the “running to and fro,” and the “stoning of the pillars,” as part of the sacred rites of what was intended to be a purely theistic and iconoclastic system. The most singular feature in the fetishism of Arabia was the adoration paid to unshapen stones, and Muhammad found it impossible to construct his religion without some compromise with the popular form of idolatry. It is a curious circumstance that so much of the zeal and bigotry of the Wahhabi puritans is directed against the shirk, or idolatry, of the popular veneration for tombs and other objects of adoration, and yet they see no objection to the adoration of the black stone, and those other strange and peculiar customs which form part of the rites of the Makkan pilgrimage.
Based on Hughes, Dictionary of Islam