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.
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.
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