One of the definitions of idol worship is to think that something independent of God has the ability to harm or benefit us.

[5:76] Say, “Would you worship beside GOD powerless idols who can neither harm you, nor benefit you? GOD is Hearer, Omniscient.”

قُلْ أَتَعْبُدُونَ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ مَا لَا يَمْلِكُ لَكُمْ ضَرًّا وَلَا نَفْعًا وَاللَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ

So what does this mean in practice? Let’s assume I have a headache and decide to take some Advil. If I think that the Advil will be able to relieve my hardship, independent of God, then that would be idol worship. This doesn’t make the Advil itself sinful or bad, but only the way that I am treating it as a source of relief that can benefit my condition, independent of God.

If on the other hand, I have a headache and implore God to allow the Advil to help eliminate my headache, then that would not be idol worship since I am attributing all power back to God. Because God is the only One who can benefit us, and therefore inversely harm us, then we must always be aware that it is only God’s will if our actions have the intended outcomes we are hoping to see.

This is the reason we use the following three expressions when discussing such matters:

  • God willing = إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ = In Shã Allãh
  • This is what GOD has given me = مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ = Mã Shã Allãh
  • No one possess power except God = لَا قُوَّةَ إِلَّا بِاللَّهِ = Lã Quwwata Ellã Bellãh

All three of these expressions can be found in Sura 18 of the Quran, with two of the expressions being given as a reminder to someone who forgot that his garden was provided to him because of God and not due to his cleverness.

[18:23] You shall not say that you will do anything in the future, [18:24] without saying, “GOD willing.” If you forget to do this, you must immediately remember your Lord and say, “May my Lord guide me to do better next time.”

وَلَا تَقُولَنَّ لِشَيْءٍ إِنِّي فَاعِلٌ ذَٰلِكَ غَدًا – ٢٣

إِلَّا أَنْ يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ وَاذْكُرْ رَبَّكَ إِذَا نَسِيتَ وَقُلْ عَسَىٰ أَنْ يَهْدِيَنِ رَبِّي لِأَقْرَبَ مِنْ هَٰذَا رَشَدًا – ٢٤

[18:39] “When you entered your garden, you should have said, ‘This is what GOD has given me (Mã Shã Allãh). No one possesses power except GOD (Lã Quwwata Ellã Bellãh).’ You may see that I possess less money and less children than you.

وَلَوْلَا إِذْ دَخَلْتَ جَنَّتَكَ قُلْتَ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَا قُوَّةَ إِلَّا بِاللَّهِ إِنْ تَرَنِ أَنَا أَقَلَّ مِنْكَ مَالًا وَوَلَدًا

By using these expressions in our speech we are acknowledging that (1) nothing happens to us that is not in accordance with God’s will, and that (2) all power belongs to God.

In the following example from Joseph, we see that after Joseph interpreted his two prison mates dreams, that he asked the one who was destined to be the wine butler for the king to remember him at his lord.

[12:42] He then said to the one to be saved “Remember me at your lord.” Thus, the devil caused him to forget his Lord, and, consequently, he remained in prison a few more years.

وَقَالَ لِلَّذِي ظَنَّ أَنَّهُ نَاجٍ مِنْهُمَا اذْكُرْنِي عِنْدَ رَبِّكَ فَأَنْسَاهُ الشَّيْطَانُ ذِكْرَ رَبِّهِ فَلَبِثَ فِي السِّجْنِ بِضْعَ سِنِينَ

This verse informs us that because the devil made Joseph forget God, that this mistake required that he remain in prison a few more years.

I don’t believe that Joseph’s error was asking his prison mate for such a request, but strictly due to the fact that he forgot God in the process. Had Joseph glorified God by simply acknowledging “if God wills,” I believe that he could avoided these extra years he had to stay in prison. To compound matters he used the expression “at your lord” which shows his momentary slip in remembering that God is the ultimate decision maker in all matters.

A possible clue to this is that in the following verse Joseph uses the expression “God willing” when welcoming his family to Egypt, thus acknowledging that it is God who will keep his family safe.

[12:99] When they entered Joseph’s quarters, he embraced his parents, saying, “Welcome to Egypt. GOD willing, you will be safe here.”

فَلَمَّا دَخَلُوا عَلَىٰ يُوسُفَ آوَىٰ إِلَيْهِ أَبَوَيْهِ وَقَالَ ادْخُلُوا مِصْرَ إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ آمِنِينَ

Another example that reinforces this point can be seen with the story of the owners of the garden. These individuals were working diligently with expectations to reap the harvest of their efforts, but because they forgot God they lost any gains they thought they were going to have.

[68:17] We have tested them like we tested the owners of the garden who swore that they will harvest it in the morning. [68:18] They were so absolutely sure. [68:19] A passing (storm) from your Lord passed by it while they were asleep. [68:20] By morning, it was barren. [68:21] They called on each other in the morning. [68:22] “Let us harvest the crop.” [68:23] On their way, they confided to each other. [68:24] That from then on, none of them would be poor. [68:25] They were so absolutely sure of their harvest. [68:26] But when they saw it, they said, “We were so wrong! [68:27] “Now, we have nothing!” [68:28] The righteous among them said, “If only you had glorified (God)!” [68:29] They said, “Glory be to our Lord. We have transgressed.”

Their mistake was not the hard work they put into their garden, but again simply that they thought the outcome of their harvest was due solely to their hard work and not because of what God wills. This kind of thinking led to their rude awakening when they realized that they should have glorified God, which they could had they just said “God willing.”

This same principle holds for all benefits and provisions. We must realize that this all comes from God, and if we fail to remember this at all times then we can risk momentarily falling into idol worship and thus suffering the fate of such actions.

[34:36] Say, “My Lord is the One who controls all provisions; He grants the provisions to whomever He wills, or reduces them, but most people do not know.”

قُلْ إِنَّ رَبِّي يَبْسُطُ الرِّزْقَ لِمَنْ يَشَاءُ وَيَقْدِرُ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

[34:39] Say, “My Lord is the One who controls all provisions; He increases the provisions for whomever He chooses from among His servants, or reduces them. Anything you spend (in the cause of God), He will reward you for it; He is the Best Provider.”

قُلْ إِنَّ رَبِّي يَبْسُطُ الرِّزْقَ لِمَنْ يَشَاءُ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ وَيَقْدِرُ لَهُ وَمَا أَنْفَقْتُمْ مِنْ شَيْءٍ فَهُوَ يُخْلِفُهُ وَهُوَ خَيْرُ الرَّازِقِينَ

[29:17] “What you worship instead of GOD are powerless idols; you have invented a lie.” The idols you worship beside GOD do not possess any provisions for you. Therefore, you shall seek provisions only from GOD. You shall worship Him alone, and be appreciative of Him; to Him is your ultimate return.

إِنَّمَا تَعْبُدُونَ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ أَوْثَانًا وَتَخْلُقُونَ إِفْكًا إِنَّ الَّذِينَ تَعْبُدُونَ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ لَا يَمْلِكُونَ لَكُمْ رِزْقًا فَابْتَغُوا عِنْدَ اللَّهِ الرِّزْقَ وَاعْبُدُوهُ وَاشْكُرُوا لَهُ إِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ

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