The concept of Širk: what it meant before Islam

Various religions had a concept of associating a creature or a heavenly body with their god, which later became the most fundamental sin as Semitic faiths took over.

The concept of Širk: what it meant before Islam

The cardinal sin in Islam is Širk, ‘associating (a creature with the Creator)’ or ‘polytheism’. Thus, sun-worship means offering worship to a creature, putting it on the Creator’s throne. In this paper, we trace the early and later history of the concept of Širk (rhymes with French cirque, not with English shirk). It is a standard job of philological research within the history of ideas, and of philosophical ‘concept clarification’. We illustrate the ancient use of the term with examples both from the time and culture when the corresponding phenomenon was indeed given that name, as well as from other cultures including Hindu astromythology, which has developed this concept furthest; and, in secularized version, from modern European astronomy.

Širk as polytheism

The Arabic word širk comes from the root š-r-k, ‘to associate’, which we find back in šarīk, ‘companion’, and šarika, ‘a company’. In the Qur’ān it appears with the specific theological meaning ‘associating a creature with the Creator’. Someone who does this, is a mušrik (participle), an ‘associator’, effectively a ‘polytheist’. Since Islam affirms the total incommensurability of the Creator with His creation, it rejects this association and considers it the most fundamental sin.

This core principle of Islam, the rejection of polytheism in favour of strict monotheism (tawḥīd, ‘declaring something to be one’, from wāḥid, ‘one’) is already present in the Bible. The same condemnation of polytheism, though not using the word širk, and the same affirmation of God’s unicity is formulated in the first of the Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me, for I am a jealous god.’ (Exodus : ). It led to the central Jewish prayer: ‘Hear Israel, thy God is one.’ Whatever the differences and hostilities between Judaism and Islam, they agree on this fundamental outlook of strict monotheism.

(Christianity makes the same claim, yet from the Jewish and Islamic viewpoint it does not live up to its claim, for it literally ‘associates a creature with the Creator’, viz. Jesus Christ, whom it calls ‘God’s incarnation’ or ‘God’s only-begotten son’. To Islam, a family relation between a finite and mortal creature and its infinite and eternal Creator is absurd.)


The Semitic word širk is first known as carrying a theological meaning from inscriptions in a Northwest-Semitic dialect in Ugarit, ca. -1500. There it means ‘the act of associating’, viz. of a deceased king with a star/god. When somebody had earned fame, he became part of the collective consciousness, just like the starry sky. After his death, his fame survived him, and so he was still part of the collective consciousness, now no longer as a living presence but as a memory rendered visible through identification with a specific star. Or in theological parlance: through association with the god located in that specific star.

With or without having such a simple term, this phenomenon of an eternalizing projection of heroes onto the heavens existed in ‘Pagan’ cultures worldwide. While Semitic polytheism is long dead, ancient and modern astronomy give some well-known examples. For centuries, and certainly today, širk in the literal sense has been fading away, partly through the natural demystification of the starry sky, partly through its forcible desacralization by monotheism.

More broadly, the principle remained operative in many religions even after they had emancipated themselves from literal star-worship. A well-known example is the Greek word Apotheōsis, ‘elevation to godhood’.

Star-worship was the most common form of polytheism, partly rivalling and partly overlapping with ancestor-worship. In the Bible, star worship is still explicitly allowed for the non-Israelites, in the Qur’ān, by contrast, it is universally forbidden. (see below) This way, širk evolved in status from a near-universal practice of connecting the stars with the collective consciousness to the sin par excellence.  


All known civilizations have a concept called ‘god’, plural or singular. These gods are a category of beings deemed endowed with far more power and vastly larger longevity than us human beings. For the rest, their characters and functions may vary.

The operative meaning of ‘a god’ in human life is the personification of an important collective factor difficult to negotiate, and which you have to take into account in the things you plan to do. So you had better stay friends with them by paying them attention or sacrificing to them. This principle is then generalized, and gods can be personifications of any category of beings or entities.

A god is powerful in that he can impact your life. But in a polytheistic pantheon, he is not all-powerful, because he has to share his power with other gods. Rarely if ever is he seen as ‘the Creator’ who stood outside the universe and fashioned it from nothing. Rather, he himself is a part of the universe. Creation is normally seen as only a transformation from formless matter to the present world of form, and in that process, gods may play their part. In that limited sense, the world’s mythologies have plenty of ‘creation’ stories, but even they assume that the universe as a whole has always been there, even if it may cyclically become unmanifest or submerged in chaos, only to reappear as a well-ordered universe again.

In the most basic level of mankind’s myths, ‘both heaven and earth as well as the ocean are clearly preexistent.’ (Witzel 2013:361) This primordial layer of the world’s myths has been termed ‘Gondwanan’ by Michael Witzel, the more advanced layer ‘Laurasian’. This layer developed a notion of ‘emergence from chaos’ (rather than ‘creatio ex nihilo’) of the world, yet ‘it is important to observe that neither the Gondwana High God, nor the Eurasian (Father) Heaven, nor the Amerindian Great Spirit is a creator god: they do not create the universe or the world, and they leave its establishment to later demiurge deities.’ (Witzel 2013:360)

Prophetic monotheism gradually developed this idea: ‘the emergence of the biblical single god and creator took shape only during the second part of the first millennium BCE, clearly under Zoroastrian Persian influence’. (Witzel 2013:360) With this innovation and its later elaboration by theologians came the idea of the ‘creation ex nihilo’ by an extra-cosmic God, an idea too heady for most Laurasian let alone Gondwanan cultures. It is an exclusively Biblical-Quranic belief, further propagated by thinkers who elaborated the Biblical or Quranic assumptions, that a single Supreme Being, in a single moment never to be repeated, created the whole universe from nothing. 

Gods are imagined to be endowed with personalities befitting the element of which they are the personification. As such, they are also sensitive to gifts and flattery, and may thus be influenced into exercising their power in a partisan, friendly way. That is why people who would never think of appeasing the stormy sea, do devise rituals to appease the sea god, hoping that he will guarantee smooth sailing.

Star Worship

In writing, the idea of ‘a god’ is first attested in the Sumerian ideogram Dingir, which has the physical form of a radiant star, four straight nails at 45° distance. (Apart from dingir, it can also have the pronunciation an, ‘sky’.) It certainly has the meaning ‘god’, for it is used as the common determinative for a whole class of names signifying gods. This usage as a determinative was also adopted in the cuneiform writing systems of Akkadian and Hittite. The symbol still lives on as part of the logo of the Yezidi religion.

That, at any rate, was anciently how a divine being was conceived: as a radiant heaven-dweller. Because a star is radiant and stands in heaven, near-permanently visible to all, it is a part of our collective consciousness, our shared frame of reference; which is what the function of a pantheon was.

In neighbouring Akkadian, a Mesopotamian dialect of Semitic. the Sumerian ideogram Dingir was read as Ilu or El, originally meaning ‘a power’. We know this word very well through Hebrew, a northwestern (Levantine) dialect of Semitic. Thus the names Ur-i-el, ‘my light is God’; Gabr-i-el, ‘my strength is God’; Rapha-el, ‘God heals’; Mi-cha-el, ‘who is like God?’ But as we shall see, these names now carry a meaning of ‘God’ that has resulted from a revolution, viz. from poly- to monotheism, severing the immediate connection with the stars.

However, anciently, El had been a member of a pantheon, the father of the other gods. As father-god, El was identified with Saturn, the slowest visible planet, and concomitantly called ‘the Old One’, grey and wise. His son Ba’l (‘lord’, form of address for Hadad, ‘noise’) was likewise identified with Jupiter: ‘El represents the principle of preservation and balance and Baal that of action and progress. Without the first principle, the world would return to chaos and power would be uncontrollably unleashed. Without the second, life would wither away in torpor and stagnation. Baal’s physical appearance is contrasted with that of El. El is a ‘bull’ with powerful horns and a thick white beard. (…) Baal, on the other hand, is a ‘bull-calf’ with thin horns and narrow beard. (…) He is above all the storm-god.’ (Caquot and Sznycer 1980:12) (This name is probably, through the Phoenician settlements in coastal Western Europe, also the origin of the Germanic god-name Balder, i.e. Ba’l addir, ‘mighty lord’.)

A derivative of El is Eloha, ‘a deity’, ‘a god’. We know it mainly through the plural form Elohim, ‘gods’, ‘pantheon’. The Arab form of the term ha-eloha, ‘the deity’, is al-Ilāh, also ‘the deity’. Thence the Moghul emperor Akbar’s Indian city name Ilāh-ābād (wrongly anglicized as Allahabad), ‘divine city’. In contracted form, al-Ilāh becomes Allāh, ‘thé deity’, ‘the god par excellence’.

A star, like a god, is, as far as a mortal can tell, eternal: it existed before we were born and goes on existing after we have died. As suggested by the extreme longevity of the physical stars, gods are proverbially deemed immortal. Hence the binary: us mortal earthlings versus the immortal heaven-dwellers.

In Babylon and in Harran, each planet was worshipped in a temple of its own. Not all cultures went that far and became that explicit in their identification of stars with gods, yet the general association of gods with stars was pretty universal and assumed as a matter of course. Stars were explicitly recognized as gods by prominent philosophers like Socrates and Plato.

The Indo-European Gods

The same meaning of ‘star’, ‘radiant heaven-dweller’, is present in Vedic Sanskrit Deva, ‘the shining one’ (from div-, ‘shine’, whence Sanskrit divas, Latin dies, ‘day’); hence ‘a god’. It is also etymologically present in cognate words like Latin Deus, ‘a god’. One of the Sanskrit terms for ‘astrologer’, at least since its mention in the 4th-century dictionary Amarakośa, is Daiva-jña, ‘knower of the gods’, or in practice, ‘knower of destiny’. Another is Daiva-lekhaka, ‘gods-writer’, ‘destiny-writer’, i.e. horoscope-maker. Obviously, the stars here were seen as gods regulating man’s destiny. (Note also that planets are called graha, ‘seizer’, like a ghost coming to possess you, a god impressing you with his impact.)

A derived secondary root is dyev-, whence Dyaus, ‘heaven (-god)’, related to Greek Zeus, Latin Jupiter, Gothic Tiwaz (a specific Germanic god, whence ‘Tuesday’), Norse Tivar, ‘gods’ in general. It is widely thought that jyoti, ‘light’, (whence jyotiṣa, ‘astronomy’, ‘astrology’, originated as a colloquial form of *dyauti.

A parallel development, but omitting (or only implying) the original link with the stars, is found in Slavic Bog, ‘the share-giver’, ‘the apportioner’, ‘the destiny-decider’, related to Sankrit Bhaga, and hence to the derivative Bhagavān. Other god-names are more derived from the practice of worshipping, such as the Germanic counterpart God, ‘the worshipped one’, related to Sanskrit Huta. Or the Greek Theos, ‘god’ (< *thesos), related to Latin festus, ‘celebration’; feriae, ‘holiday’, i.e, ‘religious feast’; to Germanic disir, ‘goddesses’; and to Sanskrit dhiṣā, ‘daring, enthusiastic’, dhiṣaṇā, ‘goddess’, dhiṣṇya, ‘devout’. But even here, a stellar connection reappears, for the latter word is also a name of Śukra/Venus.

More examples of the personification of heavenly phenomena as gods are found throughout the Vedas. The deities Mitra and Varuṇa represent the day sky (hence the sun, here remarkably called ‘the friend’) c.q. the night sky, with its stable sphere of the fixed stars, with its regular cycles representative of the world order. In Mazdeism, this Varuṇa is known through his appellative Ahura Mazda, ‘Lord Wisdom’, god of the world order. The Nāsatyas or Aśvins (‘horse-riders’) are thought to represent the two morning- or evening stars, Mercury and Venus, who ‘ride’ the sun, often likened to a horse. Uśa (related elsewhere to Eōs, Aurora, Ostara, and hence to ‘east’ and arguably ‘Easter’) represents the sunrise.

Stellar references are explicit in the case of Sūrya, the sun, and of Soma/Candra, the moon; but less so in the case of Viṣṇu, ‘the all-pervader’ (like the sun’s rays), though he has a solar quality; and Śiva (‘the auspicious one’, an apotropaeic flattery of the terrible Vedic god Rudra, ‘the screamer’, the mountain storm), who is the Candradhāra or ‘moon-bearer’, and the Somanātha or ‘lord of the moon’, who has a lunar, nightly quality. The navagraha or ‘nine planets’ (sun, moon, their two eclipse nodes, and the five visible planets) as a whole are a normal object of worship. The 12 Ādityas or ‘suns’ provide the template of the Zodiac.

Hindu mythology is abundant and explicit in its stellar references. In other mythologies, this may have become more obscure, often because we only know them in bureaucratic fashion, through preserved narrative texts defective in conveying the experiential and practical meaning of gods for their worshippers. Still, witness this observation of the Greek high gods and of the Germanic gods (Aesir): ‘There are twelve Aesir. In ancient times, the number had more significance than the composition of the group. (…) The Greek pantheon counts twelve Olympians.’ (Ongkowidjojo 2016:245) The identification of the seven planets with the seven week-days is likewise well-known, after conquering the world starting from the Babylonian template.

The Chinese Divine Firmament

In a vague sense, Chinese civilization deified the starry sky, where the oldest known word for ‘gods’, 上帝 Shàngdì, ‘the powers on high’, originally referred to both ‘stars’ and ‘ancestors’. The Chinese language makes no difference between singular and plural, so Protestant missionaries adopted it as their term for ‘God’. (This used to be contested by Confucians because Shàngdì never indicated the universe’s Creator, only its Controller/s.)

An even less personal word is天 Tiān: ‘heaven’, introduced as the usual term for the divine by the Zhou dynasty, -11th to -3rd century. The reigning emperor was half-deified as the 天子, Tiānzi, ‘son of Heaven’. The term was personalized by the Catholic missionaries as 天主 Tiānzhǔ, ‘heavenly boss’ = ‘God’.

The adjoining Turks and Mongols traditionally worshipped Tanri, c.q. Tengri, which straddles the meanings of ‘heaven, blue sky’ and ‘god’. In Islamicized Turkish, Tanri means ‘God’ and is used in derivatives like ‘theology’. The Japanese use 天 Ten, ‘heaven’, to translate Sanskrit Āditya, ‘one of 12 solar deities’, e.g. Benzai-ten translates the Indian goddess Sarasvatī.

The three main individual gods of the folk-Chinese pantheon embody the desired values of happiness, success and longevity. They are also identified with a specific celestial body. Either they are the three stars in the ‘tail’ of the Great Bear: or they are the three stars in the ‘belt’ of Orion; or they are as follows. The star of Fú (福), ‘fortune’, or Fúxīng 福星, refers to the planet Jupiter. Like in Babylonian astrology and its derivatives, the planet Jupiter was deemed auspicious, ‘the bringer of jollity’. The star of (禄), ‘salary coming with rank’, ‘success’, also ‘progeny’, Lùxīng 禄星, is Mizar. The star of Shòu (壽), ‘longevity’, Shòuxīng 寿星, is the southern star Canopus.


Heaven-worship is truly the universal religion, rivalled only by ancestor-worship. And even then, these two are intertwined. Like the stars, deemed a real influence in the astrological paradigm, cannot materially but only subtly affect human beings, the dead likewise can subtly affect you. That is why the Romans warned that you should not offend them: De mortuis nihil nisi bene, ‘of the dead nothing but good.’

Deceased ancestors are deemed to be in heaven, often actually associated with a specific star. When your father has died, you take your child on an evening walk, and when the stars appear, you point out one of them and say: ‘There is grandpa, watching over us.’ In the Vedic funeral ritual, a zone in the sky, in the Scorpio-Sagittarius area, is designated as the destination of the dead.

The association of a deceased mortal with an ‘immortal’ star is known in Semitic as širk. The word širk is first known from inscriptions in Ugarit, Syria (ca. 1500 BCE), and means ‘the act of associating’, viz. of a deceased king or hero with a star/god. It is from the Semitic root /š-r-k/ ‘to team up with, to join’ (Del Olmo Lete & Sanmartín 2015:88, ref. to De Moor & Spronk, 1982:179); cfr. South-Semitic/Arabic šarīk, ‘friend’ (Aartus 1985). In the text Legend of Kirtu, when king Kirtu lies dying, his wife says to his friends: ‘He is only a finger removed from his death, Kirtu is going to join [š-r-k] Ilu.’ (V:16-17, quoted in De Moor 1990:330; Ilu is an older form of Biblical El.) In nearby Hittite, with lots of Semitic influence, the expression kisat Dingir: ‘he became a god/star’, means: ‘he died’.

A king who died henceforth lived on in association with a specific star. When somebody had earned fame, he became part of the collective consciousness, just like the starry sky. After his death, his fame survived him, and so he was still part of the collective consciousness, now no longer as a living presence but as a memory rendered visible through identification with a specific god or star. Or in theological parlance: through association with the god located in that specific star.

The Mayas and the Pharaonic Egyptians systematically deified their deceased kings by identifying them with stars. Among the Pharaohs, the earliest dynasties ‘went to’ the circumpolar stars after death, later kings ‘went with’ Ra, the sun god, or Osiris, god of the hereafter. In the Pyramid Texts, king Pepi 1 of Egypt’s 6th dynasty, ca. -2300, is said to have become Rigel (or Orion as a whole) after his death.

In China, the three above-mentioned stars identified with a specific god, have also been interpreted by the Daoists as the place where important individuals from the past have been appointed for eternity. The star Fùxīng 福星 (Jupiter) is associated with an ancient governor who bravely protested against a cruel decree by the emperor; the star Lùxīng 禄星 (Mizar) may refer to an ancient official; and the star Shóuxīng 寿星 (Canopus) is sometimes identified with the philosopher Lǎozi.

In India, the stars of the Great Bear are identified, from antiquity till today, with seven of the ‘seers’ (Ŗṣis, inspired poets) who composed the Ŗg-Veda, collectively the ‘seven seers’ (Saptarṣi). Here again, the number is more important than the actual names, so in the premodern age different lists competed (details in Mitchiner 2000), with only the sages Atri and Vasiṣṭha as constants. The latter got identified with the star Mizar in the Great Bear’s tail (or in the Big Dipper’s handle), the centre of a multiple star, whose main partner Alcor is named after his wife Arundhātī, thus symbolizing marital fidelity. Another prominent Vedic seer who got eternalized as a star is Agastya, a sage known for his migration to the south, hence associated till today with the southern star Canopus.

The seer Vasiṣṭha has left us some poetic imagery of how such deification should be conceived. He was the only Vedic seer to be many times the author, but once also the addressee of a hymn, thus implicitly becoming a god. But far from seeing this as something exceptional, he deems all seerhood as a form of temporarily participating in divine existence. So he went through this process of širk not just after his death, he described it himself: ‘When Varuṇa and I embark together and urge our boat into the midst of the ocean, we, when we ride over ridges of the waters, will swing before that swing and there be happy. Varuṇa placed Vasiṣṭha in the vessel and deftly with his might made him a ṛṣi/seer.’ (Ṛg-Veda 7:88:3-4) The vessel of the heavenly god Varuṇa signifies the seeming motion of the stars around the earth. Vasiṣṭha is associating his status as a ṛṣi with his elevation to the starry sky.

In a passage of the Mahābhārata (tra. KM Ganguli 1997:IV.9) referring to the major ancient Indian philosophy, Sāṅkhya (‘enumeration’, viz. of the universe’s elements), this then-innovative system was extolled through a comparison with the well-known ancestral notion that sages move to heaven: ‘Those regenerate ones that follow the Sāṅkhya system enter into the superior state of Brahma like the celestials entering into the firmament.’

The Greek word apotheōsis, ‘elevation to godhood’, has roughly the same meaning as širk. Mortals thus deified among the stars included in mythology some characters of human origin, such as Hercules, Perseus, Andromede, or Ganymede, but there are historical cases too. Antinoos, Roman emperor Hadrian’s lover-boy, who drowned himself upon discovering his first beard hairs, was commemorated through a star in Aquarius.

When in the 17th century the southern sky was mapped, one secularized case of širk took place. A constellation was named after the protection given to Vienna by the Polish king Jan Sobieski against the Ottoman siege: Scutum Sobieskii, ‘Sobieski’s shield’, now simply Scutum. The logic, which at once explains the Indo-European poetic ideal of ‘undying fame’ (Greek kleos aphthiton, Sanskrit śravas akṣitam), is that one becomes immortal by one’s glorious deeds, and immortality is the key characteristic of gods.

When William Herschel discovered the first planet beyond Saturn in 1781, he named it Sidus Georgium to immortalize his sponsor, King George III. But as so often the latter’s fame proved less than undying, and outside England it was considered irrelevant, so the alternative name Uranus caught on. (Note, for contrast, the term Charles’ Wain, meaning the Great Bear and wrongly thought to refer to Charlemagne or another king Charles; it really means ‘churl’s wain’, and contrasts with the ‘woman’s wain’, i.e. the Little Bear.) A more successful modern form of širk is the custom of naming asteroids and landscape features on planets after meritorious people.

While present in many places, some limitations of the method of širk are also in evidence. Very few mortals ever succeeded in eternalizing themselves this way. Few readers will have heard of king Kirtu or pharaoh Pepi, and likewise in other civilizations, the most consequential individuals have not become known as star names. It is not through stars but through another calendrical ingredient that the Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Octavian Augustus acquired a place in our everyday consciousness: through the non-stellar month names July and August.

Moreover, the mysterious nature of the starry sky, and thus its association with the afterlife, diminished as the mechanics of heaven became better known. Already in the Greek period, dissident freethinkers like the philosopher Anaxagoras and the playwright Aristophanes theorized that stars were only burning rocks. But the most decisive nail in the coffin of širk was the rise of a religious conception that denied any divine dimension to the starry sky: prophetic monotheism.

Biblical Monotheism Versus Polytheism

The central innovation contained in the Bible is the replacement of polytheism with monotheism. This process is described in the Bible book Exodus and attributed to the leadership of Moses, ca. -1300. Here, the many gods were replaced with a single jealous god. Strangely, the plural form Elohim, ‘the gods’, ‘the pantheon’, survived this theological revolution. It became a kind of plurale majestatis with the meaning ‘God’. The Bible, which received its definitive form only under the Persian empire ca. -500, when this usage was well-established, starts with the sentence: ‘Berešit bara Elohim et ha-šamaim ve-et ha-aretz’, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’  

A synonym of Elohim, referring to the same jealous God, is Yahweh. Moses himself introduced this god-name into Biblical tradition. Though new to the Israelites after centuries in Egypt, it must have existed earlier among the Arab (South-Semitic) Beduins as well as among the Northwest-Semitic people of the Levant. Moses, when a fugitive from Egyptian law after he was found out to have committed murder, stayed with a Beduin tribe, the Midianites led by Jethro. They had a storm-god Yahweh, best translated (as pointed out by the path-breaking German Orientalist Julius Wellhausen) as a causative participle of a verb meaning ‘to move in the sky’, whether ‘to blow’ or ‘to stoop like a bird of prey’, from an Arab root, later attested in the Quran (22:32) but not in the Bible. This meaning is confirmed by the fixed expression Yahweh Sabaoth, ‘he who causes the motion on high of the heavenly hosts’, i.e. the motive force of the majestic procession of the stars across heaven. Here again we find a stellar meaning associated with a god-name.

Moses saw an apparition of this god in the burning bush. When Moses asks the god who he is, the god expresses his total sovereignty: ‘I am who I am’, ehyeh ašer ehyeh, as if saying: ‘It is none of your business who I am.’ Theologians and translators have contemplated this sentence profusely, until in ca. 1900, the German Orientalist Julius Wellhausen hit upon its probable original meaning: it elaborates a pun on the name Yahweh, which the Hebrews misinterpreted folk-etymologically as a causative participle of the verb, ‘to be’, hence ‘the being one’, ‘he who is’, or more philosophically, ‘he whose essence is existence’, ‘he who necessarily exists’, ‘he who causes existence to exist’. This edifice of profundities is entirely built on a folk-etymological pun, nothing more. Or to put it more positively: a new conception of the divine was grafted onto an old god.

At any rate, any stellar element in the Israelite conception of or terminology for the divine was herewith severed. In the Bible, the connection with the stars was not just abandoned but positively prohibited, at least for the Israelites. Strictly speaking, it was still allowed for the other nations: ‘Pay attention lest ye lift your eyes up to the sky for seeing sun, moon and stars, that ye be led astray and adore and serve them, those whom the Lord your God hath assigned to all the nations under heaven.’ (Deut. 4:19)

With Christianization or Islamization, all divinity got invested in an extra-cosmic Supreme Being, the Creator. The planets were desacralized and reduced to cogwheels in a cosmic machinery set in motion by the Creator and operated by his angels. Though numerically, a very large part of humanity now espouses this desacralizing view through Christianity and Islam, it is quite exceptional in the history of religions.

Do note a few remnants of širk in Christianity. Those individuals elevated to sainthood are given an abstract place in the sky, viz. a day on the Church’s Saints Calendar, corresponding to a specific degree of the Zodiac. Mary’s assumption into heaven, where she became ‘Queen of Heaven’ (which, like ‘Morning Star’, is a Christian borrowing from an epithet of Venus), is a typical case of širk; except that theologically conscious Catholics take care not to deify her: she is strictly speaking only ‘venerated’, not ‘worshipped’, even when prayed to for her ‘intercession’ with the legitimately worshipped Father. Finally, the very core of Christianity, viz. Jesus’ divinity or association with God, whether as his ‘son’ or ‘incarnation’, is the example par excellence of širk, not with a specific star but with a figurative interpreted ‘heaven’ (eternity) as a whole. It is therefore condemned as de facto polytheism by both Judaism and Islam.

Širk in Islam

The pre-Islamic religion of Arabia was largely star worship, combined with ancestor worship and the worship of special stones. The Ka’ba (‘cube’) housed a black stone deemed to have fallen from heaven, and peripherally also 360 idols. The main stellar deities were associated with the Ka’ba. The presiding deity of the temple was the moon-god Hubal. He was also described as al-Ilāh, contracted as Allāh, ‘thé deity’, ‘the god par excellence’. Originally it could refer to any earlier-mentioned god. Thus, Moḥammed’s Pagan father was called Abdullāh, ‘servant of the deity’, probably referring to his city’s chief deity, Hubal.

Moon gods the world over are often depicted with three women, who may be called ‘wives’ or ‘daughters’ or even ‘mothers’. Thus, Western Wiccans and other neo-Pagans worship ‘the horned god’ (i.e. with the crescent moon in his hair) with his ‘triple goddess’. She represents the three phases of a woman’s life: as virgin, as mother and as crone. Among Hindus, the lunar god Śiva is called ‘he with the three mothers’ (tryambakam, from ambā, ‘mother’, Ṛg-Veda 7:59:12, thus Swami Veda Bharati 2014; often interpreted as ‘the three-eyed one’, so that responsible translators often leave it untranslated, e.g. Jamison and Brereton 2014:954), and is effectively depicted with three goddesses, though mostly separately, as in serial monogamy. In later Hinduism, these have become Pārvatī-Durgā-Kālī. The Vedas also tend to depict other goddesses in threesomes, such as Ilā-Bhāratī-Sarasvatī, or Guṅgu-Sinivālī-Rākā. The latter three women represent three phases of the moon: first crescent, full moon, and last moon-sickle disappearing into the sun/moon conjunction.

Similarly, the three Meccan goddesses of Satanic Verses fame, al-Lāt, al-Uzza and Manāt, are also called the three ‘daughters of Hubal’. Alongside the three-phase scheme just sketched, they are understood as the main planets. Al-Uzza was a goddess of fertility and eroticism, quite like Aphrodite/Venus. Al-Lāt is often equated to the Sun, the female-solar counterpart of the male-lunar god Allāh/Hubal. But a full millennium earlier, Herodotos (Histories 1:131:3) already interprets ‘Alilat’ (al-Ilāt, same development as Allāh from al-Ilāh) as Aphrodite. Manāt is equated with the stream of time and fate punctuated by the phases of the moon cycle. At any rate, allowing for a certain bandwidth in their interpretation, they are part of the universal tradition of sky-worship.

Moḥammed had forbidden his first converts to worship them, but then he developed second thoughts: he might win over many Meccans if only he made this concession of allowing them their favourite goddess triad. Quranic revelation 53:21-22, later repudiated by him as the ‘Satanic verses’, then came out in support of this toleration, stating that the goddesses’ intercession with their Father (like Mary’s in Catholicism) is desirable. But his converts persuaded him that this would be unprincipled, so he improvised the explanation that any permission to worship these ‘exalted birds’ had been whispered into his ear by Satan. A new revelation replaced those two verses, denounced the goddesses as empty names without any reality, and then prohibited their worship for good.

Moḥammed, in a bid to establish monotheism among the Arabs, reinterpreted Allāh as a synonym of Yahweh, the ‘jealous God’. He saw himself as the latest (and even last) one of the line of the prophets of Yahweh, renamed Allāh in Arabia. Since star worship was a common form of polytheism, the Qur’ān (6:78, 22:18, 41:37) simply and strictly prohibited star worship: one should not worship the conspicuous heavenly creatures but their unseen Creator. This way, the star-god El, the Semitic reading of the star-shaped Sumerian glyph Dingir, ended up shedding his connection with the stars and becoming the disembodied extra-cosmic Creator-god Yahweh/Allāh.

To give more detail, the star cult is universally forbidden in the Qur’ān, without distinction between believers and unbelievers. In verse 6:78, it is narrated how the exemplary prophet Abraham gives up Sun worship and turns to the sun’s Creator instead. In verse 22:18, the stars themselves (and likewise mountains, trees, animals) worship Allah. And in verse 41:37, it is assured that sun and moon are but signs of Allah, the reader is enjoined to worship their Creator instead.

It is this zeal for abolishing all stellar references in religion, that made Mohammed opt for the following policies. He inverted the originally planetary-directed circumambulation of Ka’ba, where worshippers had been meant to revolve around the Ka’ba the way planets do (i.e. clockwise in the northern hemisphere): no celestial cycles! He fixed the time for one of his five daily prayers at night, so that it would not amount to sun worship. And he abolished the 13th intercalary month in the lunar calendar, which had been meant to keep lunar and solar cycles in lockstep: no moon worship!

For this religious revolution, Moḥammed paradoxically revived a polytheistic concept par excellence, širk. Originally it had meant the association of a mortal with a star/god. Now it came to mean the association of any creature with the one Creator. No human or other being could be deified nor anyhow associated with an or the deity. This affected all known Pagan cults in one way or another, e.g. treating an imaginary elephant-headed creature as god (Gaṇeśa), or associating the hero Kṛṣṇa with the god Viṣṇu (as his ‘incarnation’). It even condemned Islam’s principal rival Christianity, where the mortal man Jesus was associated with the Creator, be it as his ‘son’ or his ‘incarnation’. The anti-idolatrous battle verse: ‘He was not engendered and has not engendered’ (Qur’ān 122:3), while affirming the Creator’s uncreatedness, rejects both the Pagan conception of Allāh’s ‘daughters’ and the Christian conception of Allāh’s ‘only-begotten son’. During the Crusades, when the Pagans of Arabia had long disappeared, it was used as a war motto against the Christians.

In Islam, this širk/’association’ of a mortal with a star, or of an image with the real deity, or of a creature with the Creator, became the single worst sin: idolatry.

This didn’t prevent the Islamic world from developing its own very successful form of stargazing. Astrology remained popular among the Arabs, both the native 28 manāzil (Lunar Houses), and the newly introduced Babylonian-Hellenistic horoscopy. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam restricted the regard one could have for the stars, but at the same time it provided a way out for astrologers. Allotting a predictive meaning to stars could be accepted on condition that it did not involve any deification. As long as the stars were seen as mere instruments of God’s dispensing of destiny (taqdīr) to the creatures, it was lawful to decipher them in horoscopes.


At the dawn of history, and practically since the birth of mankind, star worship, partly overlapping with ancestor worship, was the main religion worldwide. With the development of civilization, and with the breakthrough of monotheism, conceptions of the divine grew away from their referents in nature. Star worship remained alive, but that old layer was overlaid with new levels of abstraction.

In the Greco-Roman world, the elites outgrew the colourful pantheon and, mainly through Stoicism, accepted a more abstract and more unitary concept of the divine. In Neoplatonism, which may have been influenced by Indian thought centring around the Absolute (brahman), everything was thought to emanate from ‘the One’ (to hen). In China too, ‘the One’, ‘the big oneness’ (tàiyī 太一) was the name of a unifying abstract concept transcending the many natural gods of everyday religion. 

In the late Roman empire, this natural evolution was interrupted and driven in a particular direction by the imposition of Christianity. The same scenario repeated itself even more abruptly with the advent of Islam, resulting in the generalized belief in tawḥīd, ‘oneness’ or monotheism. Allāh is conceived as the totally Other: he has no link with stars, men or any other beings. He has no worthy likeness; any image, even heaven, would do Him injustice.

In fact, however, it would have been perfectly possible to move from a naturalistic to a more abstract conception of the divine without cultural disruption, without destroying earlier conceptions, as Christianity and Islam did. But either way, the practical impact on our topic is that širk in explicit form is now more or less dead.  
References / Footnotes 

  • Aartun, K., 1984: ‘Neue Beiträge zum ugaritischen Lexikon ii’, Ugarit Forschungen (Münster) no.17, p.1-47.
  • Caquot, André, and Sznycer, Maurice, 1980: Ugaritic religion. Iconography of religions 15: Mesopotamia and the Near East, Brill, Leiden.
  • Del Olmo Lete, Gregorio, and Sanmartín, Joaquín; tra./ed. WGE Watson, 3de. Ed. 2015: A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition, 2 vols., Brill, Leiden.
  • De Moor, Johannes, 1987: ‘An Anthology of Religious Texts from Ugarit’, Nisaba 16, Brill, Leiden.
  • De Moor, Johannes, and Spronk, K., 1982: ‘Problematic Passages in the Legend of Kirtu (I)’, Ugarit Forschungen (Münster) no.14, p.153-171.
  • De Moor, Johannes, 1990: The Rise of Yahwism: the Roots of Israelite Monotheism, vol.91 in Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaiensium, Leuven.
  • Ganguli, Kisari Mohan, 1997: The Mahabharata. Translated into English Prose from the Original Sanskrit Text, 4 vols., Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi.
  • Jamison, Stephanie, and Brereton, Joel, tra., 2014: The Rigveda: the Earliest Religious Poetry of India, Oxford University Press, New York.
  • Kramers, J.H., 2003: De Koran, revised edition, Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam.
  • Mitchiner, John, 2000 (1982): Traditions of the Seven Rishis, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.
  • Ongkowidjojo, Vincent, 2016: Doors of Valhalla, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Mark S. Smith, 2001: The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Veda Bharati, Swami, 2014: ‘The science of mantra and the Mrtyunjaya Mantra’, 18 Feb. 2014, AHYMSIN blog, transcript of 1997 speech.
  • Witzel, Michael, 2013: Origins of the World’s Myths, Oxford University Press, New York.

About Author: Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

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