Surah 109. The Unbelievers

1. Say, “O unbelievers.

2. I do not ‘worship’ what you ‘worship,’

3. Nor are you ‘worshippers’ of what I ‘worship,’

4. Nor am I a ‘worshipper’ of what you ‘worship,’

5. Nor are you ‘worshippers’ of what I ‘worship.’

6. To you your religion, and to me my religion.”

This short chapter is clearly related to the previous chapter, which ends by reminding the Prophet that in actuality it is his enemies, the unbelievers and the polytheists, who will be bereft of any legacy or posterity. Kufr (كفر) means to cover up, and kāfir is one who covers up the truth and tries to destroy it.

This chapter, along with chapters 72, 112, 113, and 114, begin with the command: “Say (qul).”

[109:1] Say, “O unbelievers.

[109:2] I do not ‘worship’ what you ‘worship,’

God directs the Prophet to inform these people that he does not worship that which they worship. This is straight talk, decisive, clear, and explicit without any reservation. The leaders of political, social, and revolutionary movements usually try to move forward with great caution. Instead of putting all of their cards on the table at the outset, they take one step at a time and disclose their intentions only gradually and in stages. In other words, they calibrate their statements and reveal their intentions in accordance with their own self-formulated timeline, one that they believe will help them increase their power and influence. But the Qur’an, right from the first year of Muhammad’s prophetic mission, orders him to proclaim in clear terms understandable to everyone that there is no room for concession, collusion, or flattery. This statement, for example, means that the Prophet is forbidden to say that maybe he can compromise, perhaps his opponents have a valid point that is worthy of his consideration, and so on. Some people consider such an approach to be both correct and judicious.

[109:3] Nor are you ‘worshippers’ of what I ‘worship,’

In this verse, “worship” appears in the active participle form with reference to the pagans. It therefore suggests that their state of affairs, circumstances, present condition, and behavior are not conducive to worshipping that which the Prophet worships.

[109:4] Nor am I a ‘worshipper’ of what you ‘worship,’

Here “worship” in the active participle form refers to the Prophet. It denotes that he would never consider following them, and, moreover, that his intellect and thought process would bar him from doing so.

[109:5] Nor are you ‘worshippers’ of what I ‘worship.’

The Prophet repeats the same sentence found in verse 3 for emphasis. This underlines a fact that had become clear to him: His fellow Makkans were not going to be receptive to his Message and were not ready to accept the truth, or at least did not indicate that they were. As such, there is no point in squabbling and bickering with them.

[109:6] To you your religion, and to me my religion.”

You do not accept my word of truth, so why should you expect me to accept yours? Why should you expect me to worship idols, as this violates my conviction? You continue along your path, and I will continue along mine. There is no need to argue or quarrel, for all of us are free to choose which path we will follow.

The main axiom of this chapter is “worship” (‘ibādah), which is mentioned eight times or, to be precise, once every three words. This level of emphasis, stress, and concentration is not repeated anywhere else in the Qur’an. So, why is it done here?

‘Ibādah is normally translated incorrectly as “worship.”We know that the Prophet did not worship idols, so how would this information be useful for us today? He advises his fellow Makkans that as their differences are irreconcilable, they should leave each other alone. What message are we supposed to derive from this today?

‘Ibādah is actually a condition of surrender, submission, and devotion. Ali Shariati was the first one to point out that ‘ibādah means leveling and paving the road. In Arabic, tarīq al-mu‘abbad (طريق المعبد) means a road that has been paved and is now leveled (‘abd; عبد) with asphalt, one that no longer has any bumps and potholes that make driving difficult.

In modern-day Makkah,the trucks, bulldozers, and other machinery used to pave roads are called ‘ābid (عابد), a derivative of the word for worship. Thus ‘ibādah does not mean “worship,” but to remove obstacles and bumps, to fill in the holes and make the surface smooth. When we say we are doing God’s ‘ibādah, it means that we are striving to make our beings “smooth” and “leveled” for carrying out God’s orders. For example, if God’s command is to be generous and yet we are unable to be generous, then our soul has not yet been “smoothed.” What should we do to make this happen?

When obeying God becomes second nature, people will accept His commands wholeheartedly, just like a sponge that absorbs water. However, a thick cloth absorbs water with difficulty, and a nylon cloth does not absorb it at all. In the same manner, a human soul that has been attuned to God’s commands, meaning that it has been made ready to do what it has been commanded to do, can easily make substantial sacrifices for truth and justice.

Qur’an 2:207 says: “And among humans is one who sells his soul seeking God’s pleasure.”This means that some men and women who have dedicated and “sold” their life to God will gladly offer it to gain God’s satisfaction out of their love for the “Beloved.” The former does not know “I,” for they exist only within the “Beloved.” The verse ends: “God is most kind to [His] servants.”The relation between God and His servants can become so sincere and intimate that the latter can sacrifice their life in the way of God. Of course, the Qur’an also describes the hypocrites and pretentious servants: “Among humans is he whose talk about worldly life impresses you, and he calls God witness to what is in his heart,though he is the staunchest of enemies”(2:204).Why? Because “When he assumes power and wields authority, he would try to cause corruption in the land, and to ruin the crops and livestock” (2:205).

There have always been people who constantly talk about God, the Prophet, and religion while pursuing their real goals: power and authority. After raising the waves of people’s religious sentiments and riding them to power, they secure their positions and begin tormenting the people who had helped them into their posts. As a result, both the crops and the society are destroyed. But those who are on the path of ‘ibādah do not seek power and are willing to sacrifice their life for the truth.

How does one become an ‘abd (servant; عبد) of God? Qur’an 36:60 says: “Do not do Satan’s ‘ibādah.”What does this mean? If we translate ‘ibādah as“worship” then this verse is irrelevant, because Muslims do not worship Satan. However, if we argue that it means paving, smoothing out, and submitting, then the subject changes. Satan tempts and promises, and thus we have to be careful not to be tricked into doing his ‘ibādah. In other words, do not prepare yourself for him or act like a sponge, absorbing his tempting words and promises, but build a concrete dam and wall against him. Keep him out of your heart by preparing it to receive the word of God. This chapter’s repeated use of ‘ibādah is meant to emphasize this very point.

Why do we say: “You (alone) do we worship and You (alone) do we ask for help”(1:5) at least ten times during the five prescribed daily prayers? If ‘ibādah means worshipping God, do we, as Muslims, worship anyone other than Him? So why is it that we keep repeating and reminding ourselves of this? If God asks us if we and our parents have been worshipping someone else, what will we answer? Can we not say that we have only worshipped You? If this is the case, then why do we repeat this so many times? Does not God have a right to say: “I am tired of hearing this. Enough is enough”?

Again, ‘ibādah of God is not the same as worshipping God. Rather, it means that we only submit, surrender, and obey Him, for doing so enables us to insulate ourselves from Satan’s tricks and stratagems.

Obviously, God’s essence does not incarnate either in our being or in that of any other creature. Instead, we should do our best to manifest God’s attributes in our being. If God is forgiving and kind, forbearing and gracious, honorable, loving, affectionate, majestic and magnificent, we should do our best to reflect all of these attributes in our daily life. As we were created to gradually manifest God’s attributes, our being should thirst for and be infatuated with absorbing His attributes, as opposed to Satan’s. This is the meaning of “You [alone] do we worship, and to You [alone] do we ask for help.”

The Qur’an describes how the Christians’ ‘ibādah deviated from the divine norm, and Muslims should take this as a warning and a lesson. They deviated by imitating and blindly following their priests, monks, and religious figures: “They have taken their rabbis and monks as lords besides God” (9:31).Thus if people surrender to religious authorities instead of surrendering to God and paying attention to what He has said, according to the Qur’an they have accepted them as their lords. If their words are consistent with the word of God, then it is alright; otherwise, accepting it is the same as doing their ‘ibādah.

According to Sādiq,those people who agree wholeheartedly and unreservedly with a speaker have actually offered their ‘ibādah to the latter. In other words, the people have just worshipped either God or Satan, depending upon whose words the speaker spoke. To avoid such ambiguity, always ask the speaker questions, think critically of what is being said, and remember that nothing you hear, except the Word of God, is ever completely true.

One has to evaluate the truthfulness of a speech, and to do that one has to be equipped with sound knowledge to be able to distinguish truth from falsehood by using the correct criterion: God’s Book. At the same time, one has to think and use his or her intellect. The Qur’an mentions this many times. Qur’an 39:3 says: “Now, surely, sincere obedience is due to God (alone) and (as for) those who take guardians besides Him [say], ‘We only worship them to bring us nearer to God.’”Those who pretend to worship God end up with a different master as their guardian. Why do they engage in such a charade? When the Prophet told them to worship only God, they replied that they pray to their idols, who are the angels’ representatives, only because they cannot communicate with God directly: “These are our intercessors with God” (10:18).

The Qur’an replies that pure and righteous religion must be only for God and that, one day, “God will indeed judge between them concerning that about which they differ”(39:3).But which dispute is meant here? The one arising from sidestepping the Book of God and imitating the opinions of these people. People are muqallids (followers) of this or that marja‘, adhere to this or that school of thought, and so on. Instead of a unified community that serves and follows the Word of God, the numerous intra-Muslim differences have fractured the community.

What relationship, if any, is there between the Qur’an’s unifying soul and the many religious authorities and their treatises? Unfortu-nately, this fragmentation is found in all religions, especially Christianity. If there is only one Jesus and one Bible, then what is the source of this disunity?

Qur’an 39:3 continues: “Indeed, God does not guide someone who is a liar and an ingrate.”It is an extreme form of disbelief (kaffār) to claim that an intercessor can draw one closer to God, for He has created and guided each person and thus is connected with each of them. All such “intercessors” can do is serve as teachers or coaches to help people become more familiar with God.

The Qur’an explicitly proclaims that prophets or messengers were never sent to people to be followed and worshipped by them. Rather, their sole mission was to place the hands of people in the Hand of God: “Be sages from having taught the Book and from having studied”(3:79). Studying and teaching the Book will enable you to instill divine attributes in your being, become godly, and eventually establish direct contact with your Lord.

Prophets and saints would always seek to ensure that their followers did not make the mistake of viewing them as intercessors and objects of worship. They concentrated on introducing God and helping their people realize that God-awareness and deep knowledge (ma‘rifah) are a way to connect with God. One common form of religious deviation has been to consider that the only way to reach God is through a select group of righteous people, because all of us are sinners and thus have no honor to face God. As such, He will reject our endeavors to draw close to Him.

This type of reasoning is derived from worldly comparisons. We reason that God, just like a head of state, does not hold meetings with regular people and thus we must rely on mediators to present our needs and wishes. Based upon this supposed lack of necessary status and prestige, we seek persons who can “provide” us some form of contact with God. In actuality, God wants us to have a direct connection because He does not envisage His relationship with us as being mechanical in nature, something like giving a letter to someone to pass it up the chain of command to the correct official. Your heart has to find God and be in His presence, for this is the only possible means of communication. Therefore, given that ‘ibādah is a reciprocal, mutual, direct, and intimate relationship, an intercessor is completely unnecessary.

Qur’an 39:17 says: “As for those who shun false deities (tāghūt) by not doing their ‘ibādah and turn unto God, unto them glad tidings. So give glad tidings to My servants who listen to the Word, then follow the best thereof.”(39:17–18). The word tāghūt encompasses all types of transgressors, not just those who don a crown or a turban and rule others. Transgressors are defined as those powerful people who step beyond their bounds by claiming that they do not have to answer to anyone; are above the law; and that their opinions, thoughts, and intellect are the only ones that matter. The verse says that there is good news for those who refuse to worship such people or do their ‘ibādah and instead turn to God to correct their own wrongdoings: they pay heed to the Word of God and act upon that which is, in actuality, the best speech.

Some have interpreted “the Word”in the above verse to refer to all discourses. In other words, one ought to listen to everybody’s words and opinions and then pick the best of them. This shows open-mindedness, which is the right course to take in all worldly matters. In fact, there is no other alternative. But here, in the context of this particular verse, it refers to discerning between divine guidance and a transgressor’s words so that one can make the right choice.

The Qur’an has alluded to this several times and stresses that the main challenge to religion always comes from those who reject the concept of absolute monotheism, in which lordship belongs only to God. Qur’an 7:70 says: “Have you come to [tell] us that we should worship God alone and abandon what our fathers have been worshipping?” They were astonished that the Prophet would make such a request. “How could this be,” they asked? People are accustomed to having several channels, connections, backers, and intercessors to reach their goal. Relying upon only one, God, unnerves them.

Qur’an 72:18 says: “The places of worship belong to God, so do not invoke anyone alongside God.”Mosques are reserved exclusively for God, where no one else’s name can be proclaimed as part of ‘ibādah; not even that of the Prophet. “When the servant of God rises to call upon Him, they almost crowded around him”(Qur’an 72:19). If one of God’s servants wishes to worship only Him, those who reject monotheism rise up, object, and attack him. Qur’an 72:20 continues: “Say, ‘I call only upon my Lord, and I do not ascribe any partner to Him.’”

The Qur’an explains that if you worship that which is not God and make partners of them with Him, then your society will disintegrate into sects: Jews, Christians, and Muslims; Sunnis and Shi‘is; follower of Four, Seven, or Twelve Imams. On top of that, people will worship different individuals and support them in opposition to someone else, even if they belong to the same school of thought, which only leads to the proliferation of branches, sects, castes, and groups.

The Qur’an offers us the solution: “Do not invoke anyone alongside God.” If Jews, Christians, and Muslims would worship Him alone, this would establish unity among them. Also, if Muslims would worship God alone, then many of the differences between Sunnis and Shi‘is would dissipate. All of these divisions among us amount to polytheism, despite the Qur’anic command: “Do not be among the polytheists.” Who are the polytheists? “Those who split up their religion and became sects, each faction exulting in what it possessed”(30:32).This one says “I have this” and that one says “I have that.” One follows this part of the religion, and the other follows that part. One adheres to the infallible Imams, and another adheres to the Companions or history. This is definitely polytheism, because it has non-monotheistic elements that have separated – and continue to separate – us from each other. Egoism, which is based on individual, tribal, national, and racial affiliations, will definitely lead to fragmentation and turn monotheists into polytheists.

Translator: Amir Douraghy
Editor: Hamid Mavani