What Is Worship In Islam?

Worship In Islam: This is an abridged transcribed translation of a part of a lecture by Maulana Ayub Dehlvi (r.h) on worship in Islam, which can be accessed here. Some parts have been improvised from the original for better readability.

In Arabic, worship is termed as ‘Ibadah‘. To better understand the meaning of maʻbūd (i.e., the Deity), it is important to first understand ‘ibadah itself. Historically, Ulema have attempted to define ‘Ibadah (or worship in Islam), with a group amongst them stating that ‘Ibadah signifies Ita’ah, which means complying with someone’s orders. However, the condition for Ita’ah is that there must exist a Mutaa’, i.e., the one who gives orders to act upon. But then if we evaluate the idols of polytheists, Jesus Christ, or Satan, they never command orders to their worshippers, yet they are worshipped by people. The same can be said for other mistaken deities such as the celestial bodies, angels, and so on.

Hence, one can infer that ‘Ibadah and Ita’ah are two different concepts. On the other hand, another group, that being the Muhaqqiq Ulema, stated that ‘Ibadah (or worship in Islam) signifies extreme respect and reverence. Nonetheless, this interpretation is flawed as well. This is due to the fact that people respect and revere Prophets, saints, kings, parents, teachers, etc. For instance, people may stand silent, with their hands fixated in a position, in reverence of rulers and elders, similar to how we stand in Salah (prayer). However, this does not imply that they have taken their elders or rulers as their maʻbūd. An important point to note is that it is the unanimously agreed opinion of Muslims that the prostration to Adam (pbuh) was not of worship to him but only to exhibit respect and reverence. Consequently, we can conclude that reverence and worship in Islam are two different concepts.

Further, there is a third group of Ulema who state that ‘Ibadah is an act which is pleasing to Allah (swt). However, even this meaning is incomplete, as good mu’amlaat (i.e., behaviour with other people) also pleases Allah (swt). Thus, if the meaning of worship in Islam is limited to merely those acts which please Allah (swt), there would be no difference between ‘Ibadaat and Mu’amlaat. But it is clear from the books of Fiqh, where the Fuqaha have made two separate chapters for ‘Ibadaat and Mu’amlaat.

Now I will present my [i.e., Maulana Ayub Dehlvi’s] views on the meaning of ‘Ibadah, in accordance with my research. There are two concepts to understand: zaroorah and haajah. In the former, it means something without which you will cease to exist, e.g., food, water, and air. As for the latter, it means something without which you may experience harm or difficulty but would not die, e.g., marriage. When the required conditions are met, these needs are fulfilled. As humans discover new resources, they find new ways to use them, eventually becoming their haajah. For instance, many electric power plants in the world are powered by nuclear energy, which in turn is powered by radioactive metals. Without electricity, humans would, obviously, face difficulty, thereby making these radioactive metals their haajah. As Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an that He has subjected everything in the world to us, they can also be categorized as zaroorah or haajah, directly or indirectly.

Now that the needs, i.e., haajat and zarooraat, of man are met, what purpose does he serve now? Certainly, it could not be the utilization of worldly possessions, as they are meant for us, not the other way around. Everything in the world is made for the benefit of human beings, and if humans were to live solely for worldly things, then those things would lose their purpose since they were meant to serve humans. Additionally, humans would also lose their purpose by making worldly things their ultimate goal, as they were not meant to be defined solely by their worldly possessions or achievements. [improvised from the original]

To better understand, consider the example of a cap that is meant to be worn. If it is not worn, it would be a worthless piece of cloth. Likewise, food is meant to be eaten; if not eaten, it would go stale and turn into garbage. In the same vein, the existence of human beings is for Allah (swt). If humans begin to live for other than Allah, their life would become meaningless and worthless as well.

The existence that is meant solely for Allah (swt), in reality, is worship in Islam. Just as fire is meant to provide heat, without which it would be worthless, humans are meant to be for Allah (swt), without which they would be worthless. Hence, the ma’rifah (knowledge) of this fact of existence is imaan [faith] and action in accordance to it is ‘ibadah (worship). The essence of worship in Islam is being for Allah (swt). The whole universe exists for humans, as it has given and sacrificed itself for humanity [and this is in fulfillment of Allah’s (swt) command, not because the universe worships humans. Rather it too worships Allah (swt), and Allah (swt) has decided its purpose to be for humans]. Similarly, the whole purpose of human life is to be for Allah (swt), to give itself in for Allah (swt). The universe is for humans, and humans are for Allah (swt). Hence, the meaning of laa ilaaha illAllah is: there is none worthy to be for except Allah. There is none worthy who could be made the purpose of one’s life except the being of Allah.

Since a person is now aware of this meaning, they may ponder upon whether idols of stones, stars, demons, angels, other humans, or anything else that is being worshipped is actually worth being for or not.

One may think that anything or anyone may or may not be worth giving in your existence for, but our Master ﷺ is definitely worth sacrificing our whole existence for. Our Master Muhammad ﷺ is not Allah but the Messenger of Allah. His ﷺ existence is proof that none but Allah is worthy of worship, i.e., the purpose of one’s existence. He ﷺ is verily the greatest of creation; thus, his assertion of the fact that none but Allah is worthy of worship negates the possibility of anyone lesser in position from being such.

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