The Meaning of Worship

The definition of worship

The meaning of the word “ˆibaadah” in Arabic, which is the word translated as worship in English means “obedience with humbleness,” as stated in dictionaries “Al-Mişbaaĥ Al-Muniir,” “An-Nihaayah Fiy Għariib Al-Ĥadiitħ,” and “Al-Qaamuus Al-Muĥiiţ.” There is no question, however, that merely being humbly obedient to someone is not equivalent to worship. To reach to the meaning of actual worship, we would have to say: “the most extreme humility that is only deserved by the one that has the greatest status.” This is the definition stated by Al-Aşbahaaniy in his famous dictionary “Mufradaat Al-Qur’aan”.

What is this extreme humility that is the meaning of worship? It is not merely the most extreme physical act of humility, which is to prostrate. This is true, because the Qur’aan states that the angels prostrated to Adam, and that the brothers of Prophet Yuusuf prostrated to him. Clearly this act of humility that constitutes worship then, needs an act of the heart.

What is this act of the heart? It can only be to believe that the one humbled to has an attribute of godhood, a divine attribute, such as the power to independently influence events. This is the most humble feeling the heart can have, and ultimate humility cannot be achieved without this.

Based on this preface we can define worship as: the most extreme humility with the belief that the one humbled to has an attribute of godhood.

Aļļaah said:

وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَنْ يَتَّخِذُ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ أَنْدَادًا يُحِبُّونَهُمْ كَحُبِّ اللَّهِ وَالَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا أَشَدُّ حُبًّا لِلَّهِ [البقرة : 165]

Meaning: “Among the people are those who ascribe to Aļļaah equals, and they love them as they love Aļļaah, but the Muslim Believers love Aļļaah more than the idolaters.”

This aayah explains what worshiping other than Aļļaah is. It is to consider Him to have an equal in some sense, as the idolaters did not consider the idols absolutely equivalent to Aļļaah. Second, it is to allow the heart to equalize the love of Aļļaah to the love of something else. I am saying “allow the heart” because a human is only accountable for what he can control.

Explaining Al-Faatiĥah, Ibn Jariir Aţ-Ţabariyy states:

The interpretation of (إيَّاكَ نعبُدُ) (literally: You we worship) is: For You, O Aļļaah, we humbly submit, accept humiliation, and surrender in obedience, in confirmation of You alone being the Creator and absolute owner of everything, and no one else.

قال أبو جعفر: وتأويل قوله (إيَّاكَ نعبُدُ) : لك اللهم نَخشعُ ونَذِلُّ ونستكينُ ، إقرارًا لك يا رَبنا بالرُّبوبية لا لغيرك.(تفسير الطبري , 1 / 157)

As you can see, Aţ-Ţabariyy sees the meaning of worship as being a combination of humility and belief. The belief part he states as, “in confirmation of You alone being the Creator and absolute owner of everything, and no one else.”

Some deviant individuals in this day and age claim that calling a person who is dead, or absent constitutes worship of that person. They also claim that saying something like “O Aļļaah, I ask You by Your Prophet to give so and so!” is worshiping the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم). This does not, however, fit the linguistic meaning of worship, because it does not necessarily involve believing that the called has divine attributes, nor does it mean an ultimate act of humility, not that one believes that the prophet deserves the same love as Aļļaah.

Moreover, if an average, unlearned Muslim should do any of this, he does not understand any of this to be worship of other than Aļļaah. This is because he knows that the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) does not deserve to be worshiped, and that he is only a human being. He also does not believe that Aļļaah needs an intercessor or that the intercessor knows everything or has any other divine attribute. He merely understands from this that calling the Prophet, or asking by him, increases the hope of his needs to be answered. The reason for this being that there is no one more likely to get what he asks Aļļaah for than the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم), or that mentioning the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) in his supplication to Aļļaah makes it a blessed supplication by the blessing of the Prophet’s name (صلى الله عليه وسلم). This is no different than the people asking the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) for intercession on the Day of Judgment.

What we are left with then is the question whether it means worship in terms of the teachings of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم), that is, in light of the Qur’aan and ĥadiitħs.

The difference between worship and taking something as a means (Tawassul)

Before getting into more detail, it is essential to distinguish between the worship (ˆibaadah) of something and taking something as a means (wasiilah) to an end. The person who worships other than Aļļaah to gain His acceptance is indeed a blasphemer, but the one that takes prescribed means to gain His acceptance has done something prescribed: Aļļaah said in the Qur’aan (Al-Maa’idah, 35):

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَابْتَغُوا إِلَيْهِ الْوَسِيلَةَ”

Interpretation: “O You Who Believe, fear Aļļaah, and seek means (wasiilah) to gain His acceptance.”

The means (wasiilah) referred to in the aayah must be something that complies with the teaching of Islaam, that is, with the Qur’aan, ĥadiitħs narrated, and confirmed ijmaaˆ consensus of top scholars of a previous generation. One such means is to supplicate to Aļļaah by the Prophet Muĥammad, called Tawassul in Arabic.

To understand the meaning of Tawassul, consider a person who has angered his bigger brother and asks him to forgive him saying: “forgive me, not because of me, but because of mother.” This does not mean that he is worshiping his mother, but that he is mentioning their mother as a reason for his brother’s forgiveness. He is reminding him that their mother loved both of them and would be pleased if they remained on friendly terms. He is using his mother as a means (wasiilah) for getting his brother’s forgiveness. No one in their right mind would claim that this person has worshiped his mother.

Similarly, he might ask his mother to ask his brother to forgive him, because he knows that his mother’s word carries more weight with his brother than his own. This does not mean that he is worshiping his mother either.

When someone asks through an intercessor, such as “O Aļļaah, I ask You by the Prophet, to give me so and so,” it is in fact more worship than simply asking without mention of the intercessor. This is because a Muslim makes both duˆaa’ and asks through the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) based on knowing his rank. These are two acts of worship, because by asking for intercession he is submitting to Aļļaah by showing love for the intercessor that Aļļaah has given a high rank. The opposite of this was what Ibliis did. He did not want to accept the high rank of Adam. So the intercessor is doing the opposite of what Ibliis did.

Asking an intercessor directly for help (istigħaatħah)

Asking an intercessor directly, or istigħaatħah, is not as good as making tawassul by saying something like, “O Aļļaah, I ask You by the Prophet,” but there is no harm in this either. This is because someone who says, “O Jiilaaniyy, help!” he only means to ask for help from someone more likely than himself to be successful in getting what he wants, because of his high rank. So it is just asking another creation for help, and choosing the one called for help based on the persons rank in Aļļaah’s judgment. He does not believe that the person is able to bring anything into existence, or has real influence on any event. In other words, he believes that the asked is a created being owned by Aļļaah, and without the ability to do anything other than what Aļļaah has created. This is not worship, because he does not think that the person asks has any attribute like Aļļaah, or that he deserves submission and humility like Aļļaah.

It does not matter if the person is dead or alive, present or not, because none of that implies attributing godhood to the person called. The reason is that the person does not believe that hearing or action of any creation can happen unless Aļļaah has willed and created it. Moreover, the hearing of the dead is established by the scholars based on the authentic ĥadiitħs which state that the buried dead kuffaar of Quraysħ heard the Prophet’s (صلى الله عليه وسلم) speech to them, and the ĥadiitħ which states that a dead person hears footsteps around his grave. In other words, no one can claim that the caller has contradicted a basic belief by implying that the dead can hear.

See also this:

Ibn Al-Qayyim argues for the validity of calling the dead


34 Responses to The Meaning of Worship

  1. Admin says:

    salam alaikum sayyidi,
    Nice article.
    Could you also address the following argument:


    Secondly, when the Hanbali scholars and others explicitly stated the apostasy of the one who calls upon other than Allah, they do not differentiate between one who does so believing the response would come from Allah, and one who does so believing the response would come from the creation.

    To differentiate between the two only first appeared after the Da’wah of Sheikh Miuhammd b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab. The advocates of this idea were simply seeking justification for one to call upon others besides Allah. Hence, they argued that when one says: ‘O Sidi ‘Abd al-Qadir, help me!’ He is in reality addressing Allah, while mentioning ‘Abd al-Qadir only allegorically, because he believes in his heart that the response will only come from Allah.

    In response, we say that the statement: ‘O so-and-so, help me!’ is Sarih al-Kufr – an explicit statement of Kufr, which does not accommodate Majaz. Just like the word Talaq, is an explicit statement of divorce, and if one says it to his wife even in jest, his wife is divorced. He cannot claim: I only intended it allegorically, whereas my intention was not to divorce her. Similarly, when one makes a statement of clear-cut apostasy, such as: O Sidi fulan, help me! He becomes an apostate, and his claim that he intended something else would be of no use to him.

    • 1. What Hanbali scholars other than Ibn Taymiyyah and his minions claim this? We do not accept the words of a spacemonster worshiper.

      2. Who said it is majaaz? It is calling a creation for help, something everybody does almost every day. Is it kufr to call a creation for help?

  2. Ahmad-Qadri says:

    It should be noted that on this matter many of the wahabis are *especially* retarded and the TRUE ugliness of their belief and mental retardation becomes as clear as the mid-day sun.

    Also, there are as many “fatawa” on this issue as there are brain dead wahabis.

    Here’s a snapshot of what a lot of their dumb lot say. Makes for a good game of “spot the idiot” with your kids.


    “To call a living creation sitting next to you for help is halal.”

    If you go to a mechanic and ask him for help to repair your car, you have not committed shirk.


    “To call a *living* person (note that I haven’t used “creation”) who is away from you for help is shirk.

    (For some reason they don’t specify a distance in meters/kilometers).”

    Why? Because he can’t listen to you from far! Only what they call “God” can. Their tajseem comes to surface with their “rebuttal” that they so over joyously present, explicitly indicating that what ever they worship, is at a certain distance of x meters from them.

    So according to them, if you shout out to your *living* mechanic to fix your car from let’s say 5 km far, you have just committed shirk! This is an actual “argument” presented by a wahabi!

    Believe it or not, when you tell them, “ever heard of a telephone?” they respond with a “but the telephone facilitates the hearing of a person at a distance! the caller doesn’t believe the mechanic hears him from a distance independently”

    It’s ironic they believe that a material object (creation) like a telephone and cables and radio waves can help a person hear, but that a person can’t hear independently without these aids by the power Allah granted him. The question they present is: “Where is the textual proof that Allah granted the power to person fulan to hear you from X kms.? We know what the cables and radio waves and etc. do and Allah has commanded us to utilize the bounties of the earth.”

    Try asking this and have a good laugh with their “fear Allah, don’t make a joke of religion” comments: Is it shirk to call on him if my mechanic is sitting right next to me but he is deaf?


    However, the SAME person will agree with you that the angels can hear you from over large distances, (and without telephones too), and saying that they can hear you over large distances is not shirk!

    So when you recite the Quran or praise Allah, they can hear you and report it to Allah.

    It’s surprising they haven’t daeef-ed those ahadith that talk about this capability in angels! (It’s for a reason. They don’t need to have a grudge against unseen angels like they do towards Muslims who live in their midst)


    “To call a dead person is shirk.”

    Why? Because the dead can’t hear you, according to them.

    You say that: Allah has the power to create the effect of hearing in a dead person. What is death, after all? It’s a “state” created by Allah. Allah can grant a person anything in any state as He wills.

    They reply by: Where is the textual proof that He did? And even if you can prove He did grant them the capacity to listen, calling on the person for help is shirk in any case as only Allah helps! [This is the same wahabi who says you can ask for help from a person sitting next to you]


    Some even stranger samples amongst them say:

    “You can say from far: O Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be on you


    You can’t say: O Messenger of Allah, pray/intercede for me


    Saying: O Messenger of Allah, help me – is shirk”

    Why? Because we have non-daeef ahadith which states that the angels carry our salutations to him, that he answers our salaams, and so on, which pertain to the first comment. Mind you, upto just a few years ago, a lot of them pronounced shirk even for saying “O Messenger of Allah, peace be on you” from far.

    It seems they’re learning slowly on this topic at least.


    The crux of this kind of rubbish “logic” is their ugly belief that Allah is at a distance from His creation and their applying analogy between the Creator & created, their filthy beliefs that He hears and sees as we do or that He grants *His* powers to His slaves/angels etc. They forget that our powers of hearing and sight and anything are *created* BY Him, not something He possesses (ie in Himself) in a finite quantity and we take from it, wal ‘eyaadhu billaah.

  3. daud says:

    assalaamu alaikum

    How would you explain worship in the light of jews worshipping those who made halal what Allah made haraam and vice versa, by following them ?

    • They obeyed them like they obey Allaah, by taking their judgments instead of Allaah. This fits the definition, because it involves extreme submission by ascribing to their leaders a right that only Allaah can have; the right to judge.

  4. Seth says:

    As-salaamu ‘alaykum, Shaykh.
    In light of the above discussion, I have a question about a specific form of tawassul that I’ve come across but never heard before. I wonder if you can tell me if my understanding of it is correct. The du’a says:

    “tahassantu bi Llaahi, wa bi Asmaa-i Llaahi, wa bi aayaati Llaahi, wa malaa-ikati Llaahi, wa anbiyaa-i Llaahi, wa rusuli Llaahi, was-saaliheen min ‘ibaadi Llaahi. Hassantu nafsii bi ‘laa ilaaha illa Llaah, Muhammaadun Rasuula Llah,’ salla Llaahu ‘alayhi wa aalihi wa sallam.”

    My understanding of this is that, essentially, I am seeking fortification in Allah and His names. In addition, I am taking certain means that Allah has supplied us with for fortification. Of course only Allah has power and only Allah is the Protector in any absolute sense, but in this world He has given us means which, while we don’t rely on them, we use. Of these means are Allah’s Aayats, His angels, prophets, messengers, and righteous Muslims. Similarly, an actual physical fortress or fortification is just a means, and it cannot protect without Allah. So we use these things but we rely on Allah.

    Would this understanding of the du’a be correct?

    • Yes, it is OK, but change to: “Only Allaah has the power to create.” What you are doing is working by the causes that Allaah has created. That is, making dua in this way is usually correlated with protection. So making it is a sign of protection.

  5. Seth says:

    Of course, I understand that the Qur’an is uncreated, so seeking fortification in the Aayats would mean seeking fortification in the Speech of Allah?

  6. Mutakallim says:

    Sadly enough, some of the Sufliyyah (so-called Salafiyyah) even consider calling 911 for help a form of shirk.

  7. 2Tfrut says:

    As’salamu alaikum,

    Nice discussion on worship but the comments seems to be on tawassul & Shirk as Wahhabis consider even the tawassul a form of worship. As the first comment puts it intentions are not judged when words are uttered in some cases. Similarly, can we have some examples from Quran or hadith or from the lives of the Prophets (pbut) or stories of previous nations wherein is the example of calling the dead? (Here death is a state)

    Otherwise can we say whatever said in support of calling the dead etc is simply an attempt to justify tawassul and not equate it with shirk?

    Wahhabis say, even the makkan mushriks were also believing that the absolute powers were with Allah not with the idols. So due to resemblance with their practice, can we say that calling to dead is conditionally allowed but disliked (makruh type)?

    • The point of the above is to emphasize that tawassul is not shirk, because it is not worship of other than Allaah. This was done by defining worship. Tawassul then becomes a matter of jurisprudence, and showing that it is in agreement with Islamic law, and not makruuh. This will be done later in sħaa’ Allaah.

      • 2Tfrut says:

        As’salamu alaikum,

        {{This will be done later in sħaa’ Allaah}}

        Jazakallah Shaikh for the promise (May I say). For tawassul it is easy to explain the wahhabi influenced minds that the very supplication of Tawassul starts with O Allah and thus can not be Shirk and we have examples of it in hadith etc. The only problem comes in case of Istigatha or asking the dead or using them as intermediary.

        For tawassul from pious or Prophet (saws)in preference to the good deeds , I heard one of the Shaikh saying that by tawassul through the pious we get the assurance that our duá is heard but may be the thing asked for was not good for us. He said sending peace & blessings upon the Prophet (saws) before and after the supplication is also a form of tawassul which wahhabis do not deny. Whereas in case of good deeds there may be doubts that what we think a good deed may not be acceptable to Allah (swt)due to various reasons.

      • As you can see though, istighaathah is not a problem either, as explained above. See also

  8. Sam K says:

    Asalamu alaykum,

    Sheikh, could you please elaborate on the fact that not every matter regarding prostrating to other than Allah requires the most extreme humility in the heart for it to be judged as kufur? (e.g. To prostrate to the devil, fire, sun, moon, idol, is kufur no matter what the persons intention was. This is judged as an act of kufur without asking about the person’s intention).

    • Waˆalaykumussalaam,

      You said, “To prostrate to the devil, fire, sun, moon, idol, is kufur no matter what the persons intention was.”

      Yes, this is true, but this is because it is something only a non-Muslim would do. That is why it does not matter whether it was intended as worship or not.

  9. Mo says:

    Shaykh, could you please clarify the ruling of prostrating to a human, i.e. a student prostrating to his sheikh (out of humility) I came across this reading a biography of an old famous Muslim and just wanted to know.

  10. Souphienne says:

    بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
    الحمد لله رب العالمين
    والصلاة والسلام على سيدنا محمد وعلى آله وآصحابه أجمعين

    Assalam’aleykum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barrakatuh Schaykh Abu Adam.

    I pray this finds you in the best of health and spirits.

    Can we say that worshiping(‘ibadah) Allah and seeking Allah’s Pleasure(mardhatillah) are the same thing?
    If not what is the difference?

    May Allah preserve you Sidi Abu Adam.

    • First of all, do not say “Allaah’s pleasure.” This phrase just cannot be translated in this way, because it is highly misleading.

      That being said, to worship is, as we said, extreme humility. Seeking mađaatillaah is to seek Allaah’s reward. They are usually the same, but not necessarily. Worship has a wider meaning.

      • Souphienne says:

        بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
        الحمد لله رب العالمين
        والصلاة والسلام على سيدنا محمد وعلى آله وآصحابه أجمعين

        Assalam’aleykum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barrakatuh Schaykh Abu Adam.

        I pray this finds you in the best of health and spirits.

        Jazakum Allahu Khairan for your answer!

        This translation is so misleading that it is the cause of several questions on this subject!
        It is really sad to see that even sound sunni scholars use this translation.
        Before your answer,as you can see in my first question,I couldn’t even use this translation without adding the original arabic.
        Is there a “good” translation of mađaatillaah in english?
        I also like to share this article:
        who helped me a lot for those interested.

        May Allah preserve you Schaykh Abu Adam.

      • No, I don’t think there is a good translation for it. “Pleasure” has a very strong connotation of, well, feeling pleasure! Something that it blatant kufr to attribute to Allaah. Moreover, it does not give the sense of reward coming to the one who induced it. “Pleased” is milder, but still pretty bad. The thing is, we cannot use a word to ascribe something to Allaah without being sure that He allows it. This cannot be unless one uses the Arabic words of the revealed texts, or is sure that the word is equivalent in meaning. Moreover, it cannot be misleading, even if people are mislead by the original Arabic.

  11. Um Fulan says:


    can you please explain what you mean by “godhood”? and the evidence for it being a requirement for a person’s act to be worship?
    And does that mean that if a person prayed to someone without believing them to have godhood, then he has not worshiped him, so he has not commited shirk?

  12. Souphienne says:

    I think I understand what is the point.

    So the wahabis are saying that merely obeying to something or seeking help from it without believing for this thing to be worthy of worship is,according to them, worship!

    They are crazy…

    A son by obeying his father,seeking help from him for his project etc is then worshipping his father(but as long as the father is not invisible that is ok according to them)!

    Anyway their claim to follow the salaf is false

    because of the definition of Imam At Tabari who clearly make the two things dependent on each other: obedience with humility-belief of the one obeyed is attributed with Godhood.

    So their definition of worship is clearly an innovation,a bad one because it’s false and make people confuse and even cause makes muslims(?) kill other muslim for this non sense.

    It was difficult to understand but it was worth it.
    The sunni definition of worship you have given fits so perfectly with the writings of scholars in Tassawuf such as Imam Abd El Qadr Al Jilani and the necessity to surrender our will to Allaah:

    In the usage of the scholars of spirituality “conforming to Allah’s will,” has several senses:

    1. Don’t seek other than what Allah seeks (wishes, commands, and calls) from you;

    2. Inwardly, have absolute acceptance of Allah’s decree and destiny as it unfolds(wich are Allaah’s Acts).

    wich relates perfectly to your definition of REAL worship:
    The combination of:

    1.humility:For You, O Aļļaah, we humbly submit, accept humiliation, and surrender in obedience,

    2.belief: in confirmation of You alone being the Creator and absolute owner of everything, and no one else.

    In fact Iman, Islam, Ihssan according to the sunni school of thoughts fit so beautifully together that this harmony is a proof in itself of the truth of Islam.

    It is like putting our soul in three pieces of clothes fitting it perfectly,so perfectly that it CAN T be done by no one else except the Creator of this soul.
    Lailaha il Allaah Muhammadan Rassul Allaah sal Allaah’aleyhi wassalam

    Anyway the wahabi’s view of worship is so confusing that sincere Muslims may go crazy if they happen to be stuck with them.

    If this sect has even a spoiled definition of the concept of worship, a concept so central to Islam,then it means clearly that this group is following the path of Shaytan!
    For me this aspect is even greater than the rest:they can’t understand clearly what Lailaha il Allaah means because of this!!!

    If they were true to their view they wouldn’t even seek the help of their brain because they can’t see it…In fact they ‘re already doing that by putting out our rational proofs from the learning of Tawhid despite clear Quranic verses…

    In fact they’re evil…It’s a plague…They are teaching people to seek by themselves the reason to be a muslim (that’s ok but some people might need help),they are teaching people to seek by themselves their proof in fiqh,they are teaching people to seek by themselves how to reform the Heart,they even teach people not to seek forgiveness of Allaah through the Shafa’a of the Prophet sws or the Righteous!

    They’re EVIL.

    In fact they’re the rational proof of the existence of Shaytan.

    May Allaah protect us from this dangerous and misleading group.

    Jazakum Allaahou Khairan Shaykh


  13. tru_quran says:

    As salamu ‘alaykum Shaykh Abu Adam,

    Regarding Um Fulan’s question, are you saying that it is only considered ‘prayer’ if the person being called upon is believed to be Allaah?

  14. tru_quran says:

    Jazak’Allaahu khairan shaykh Abu Adam,

    ..then what does it mean when someone says ‘I prayed to so and so’ (i.e. other than Allaah)? Shaykh, how do you understand ‘prayer’ in this sentence?

    • The most obvious meaning is worship. To me, when you say that you are praying to someone it means you are worshiping that someone. That is why I asked them to define it. It is an extremely loaded word in this context. Wahabism is all about word games to trick people, that is why they almost never define their terms. It is what they learned from their chief scoundrel Ibn Taymiyyah. Webster’s states:
      1 a (1) : an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought (2) : a set order of words used in praying b : an earnest request or wish
      2 : the act or practice of praying to God or a god
      3 : a religious service consisting chiefly of prayers —often used in plural
      4 : something prayed for
      5 : a slight chance

  15. tru_Qur'an says:

    Jazak’Allaahu khairan Shaykh,

    Just to be more clear, can you give us any clear examples of du’a of worship i.e. to other than Allah, without the need to ask the supplicant what did he/she mean or does one have to ask what the supplicant mean before applying the hukm of kufr on such a person?

  16. Detox says:

    Assalaamu alaikum

    What is the best translation for the word “ibaadah” and those words found translated as “worship” ? Is “worship” a proper translation or a bit ambigious and misleading ? Is serve or submit or obedience, a better translation?

    When the Quran repeatedly urges the polytheists to worship Allah and not to worship others besides Allah,what exactly is the meaning being meant in those verses ? In what sense did the polytheists worship others besides Allah?

    • I don’t know a better translation than “worship”. As I stated above, worship is the most extreme humility with the belief that the one humbled to has an attribute of godhood. This is what the Arab idolaters did. They explicitly ascribed the attribute of godhood to their idols. Thus they called them “partners”.

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