During Prophet Adam, there was no issue about people worshiping false gods. Adam was the first man. The rest of the people during his time were all his children. He taught them about tawhid and they followed him. The problems he faced during his time was not about faith, but about behavior. For instance, his second son, Cain, had killed his first son, Abel, due to jealousy. Although Cain had done terrible crime, he still believed in Allah, the One God. It was his behavior which is bad.
Then came Prophet Idris. During his time, there was not much problem with the faith either. People during his time still worshiped the One true God. It was when Prophet Idris died that people started to take false gods beside Allah.
Next came Prophet Noah. During his time, people had already forgotten about the One true God or tawhid. All of them were involved in idol worship. Prophet Noah spent many hundreds years to convince the people to worship only Allah. But he was not very successful. As a result, Allah sent great flood and drowned all disbelievers.
Then the correct faith was restored, because only the believers in the big ship were saved from getting drowned in the Great Flood. When the children of Prophet Noah multiplied, they spread all over the world. Gradually people forgot about the tawhid and started to worship false gods again.
When Prophet Hud and Prophet Shalih were sent to their respective tribes, the people were already indulging in the worship of false gods. And, as we have learned from previous lesson, Allah destroyed all these disbelievers.
After that Prophet Abraham came, along with his nephew, Prophet Lot. Like the previous generations, the people during Prophet Abraham also worshiped false gods.
But there is one important difference between Prophet Abraham’s period and the period before him. By the time Prophet Abraham came, human beings have started to record things, including the events and people involved. For that reason, we have more knowledge about the time of Prophet Abraham as compared to those prophets who came before him.
Prophet Abraham’s story is not only available in the Bible and the Quran, but also in historical books. Therefore, we can say that the prophets who came before Prophet Abraham had lived during prehistoric time, that is, the period when no history is recorded. Abraham is the first prophet who lived in historic era.
Most scholars say that Prophet Abraham was born about 4,000 years ago. When he was born, people had already forgotten about tawhid. All of them were idol worshipers.
We do not know much about the nature of idol worshiping during the time of Noah, Hud or Shalih, except that they made statues from stones, woods, etc., and they worshiped these statues/idols.
By the time of Abraham, we know much more about the nature and characteristic of idol worshiping, because he had encountered not only with one type of idolatry (idol worship), but many kinds.
The first type of idolatry is similar to the people of Noah, Hud and Shalih. This is the type of idols made of stones, woods, etc., to represent gods, and they worship these idols.
The second type of idolatry is taking people as gods. Usually these people are their kings, and they worship these kings.
The third type of idolatry is taking celestial or heavenly bodies as gods. These celestial bodies may be moon, sun, stars or spirit. And they worship these celestial bodies.
From this, Islam says that idolatry or idol worshiping is not just about bowing down to idols, like what the Hindus are still doing until now. It is also not just about worshiping the stars, the sun, the moon or the spirit. It means, if we idolize, worship, or revere anything other than one true God, then all of these are idolatry or idol worshiping. They are the type of idolatry that come in different forms.
Therefore, if we revere or idolize people more than we should, then it is a form of idolatry forbidden in Islam. If we idolize money, power or wealth more than what is considered proper, this is also a form of idolatry. If we idolize a particular idea or ideology more than necessary, such as saying capitalism, communism, socialism etc are better than Islam, this is also a form of idolatry. Even if we say that Islam is no longer fashionable, or Islamic syariah (Islamic Law) is outdated and no longer relevant to the modern world, this is also a type of idolatry.
From the story of Prophet Abraham, the concept of tawhid is made clear. This is because we are informed about his encounter with various types of people who did not actually bow down to idols made of stones or woods. Yet, they were also considered as idolaters. He rejected all of them and continue with his upright way. The upright way is called “hanifa” in the Quran.
In Islam, the word used for idolatry is “syirk.” “Syirk” means associate. The people of Makkah before their conversion to Islam were called “musyrikin.” “Musyrikin” means people who associate something with something else. They believed in Allah, but they also have other gods that they consider as the associates or the companions of Allah. These associates are their idols that they worship along with Allah.
Idolatry comes from the word “idol.” Idol is an image, an object, or something that people revere, salute, or worship. It can be the spirit, the moon, the sun, the ancestors, the people, the wealth, the power or the idea. Those who worship all these things are idolaters.
Here we have to make the distinction between the manifest and hidden idolatry. Manifest means clear or obvious. Manifest idolatry means the nature of this idolatry is clear and obvious. Hidden means unclear or not obvious. The nature of hidden idolatry is more difficult to detect.
The manifest idolatry refers to those who either reject Allah as the true God, or clearly associate other gods with Allah. Example of manifest or clear idolatry are the people in Makkah before they became Muslims. The believed in Allah, but along with Him, they also worship other gods. Currently, we may say the Hindus are the example of this type. The Hindus believe in the Supreme God although they do not call this as Allah, but they have thousands of other gods along with this Supreme God.
Those who do not believe in Allah at all but worship the spirit, the sun or anything that they consider as their god is another example of manifest idolatry.
Then there are a group of people who do not believe in the existence of God at all. They are known as atheists, and their belief is called atheism. Islam categorizes them as idolaters although they claim that they do not believe in any god. This is because they take their own thinking as their god. Atheism is another example of manifest idolatry.
The hidden idolaters are more complex, because it is less clear. These would include those who revere money, wealth, power, position or other people beyond what is right and reasonable.
For example, those who seek money for the sake of money, regardless whether it is acquired in the right or wrong way, where his mind is all the time obsessed with making money, and consider nothing else is more important, is an example of hidden idolatry. The distinction here is not whether one is rich or poor, because the rich may earn money in the right way and spend it rightly. The poor who are crazy about money, do not care how they earn it, whether halal or haram, and love money for money sake, could also be hidden idolater.
Prophet Abraham’s life provided this understanding. Our faith has to be pure and upright (hanifa). Quran mentions the word “hanifa” 12 times. Of that, eight times the word hanifa is associated with Prophet Abraham. He is the only prophet that the Quran associates with the word hanifa. In fact, Prophet Muhammad was asked to follow the upright way of Prophet Abraham, as in the Quran 16:123: Then, we revealed to you, “follow the way of Ibrahim, the upright, and he was not among the idolaters.”
Prophet Muhammad, the last of the prophet, or the last brick in the House of Prophethood, emulated the upright way (hanifa) of Prophet Abraham. From both of them, we learn the true meaning of tawhid.