Lesson 5: Shirk & its Types (part 3 of 3)

Description: The Islamic stance with regards to associating other deities with Allah and attributing to others certain aspects which are exclusive and unique to Him. Part 3: The definition of lesser shirk, forms of lesser shirk and differences between greater and lesser shirk.


  • Shirk & its Types Part 1
  • Shirk & its Types Part 2


  • Learning the definition of lesser shirk
  • Common examples of lesser shirk

o   Charms and omens

o   Taking an oath in the name of other than Allah

o   Showing off

  • Learning the meaning and severity of riyaa
  • Understanding how riyaa affects worship
  • Learning the prayer for protection against riyaa
  • Learning five differences between greater and lesser shirk

New Terms

  • riyaa

Definition of Lesser Shirk

Lesser Shirk is what has been specifically called shirk in the Quran and Sunnah, but does not reach the level of greater Shirk.   Also, lesser Shirk is said to lead to greater Shirk.   Some scholars have said lesser Shirkis so vast that it is difficult to define it precisely.   The most important examples of lesser Shirk are:

Charms & Omens

Wearing charms, talismans, and amulets for protection against the evil eye, bad luck and the like thinking that Allah has placed these powers in them constitute lesser Shirk.  This is discussed in more detail here.

Swearing an Oath in the Name of Other than Allah

Taking an oath, or swearing, in the name of someone other than Allah is a type of lesser Shirk given that a person does not intend to venerate the one in whose name the oath is being taken, else it turns into greater Shirk.   The Messenger of Allah, may Allah praise him, said,

“The one who takes an oath in the name of other than Allah commits disbelief or Shirk.”[1]

Riyaa (Showing-Off)

The Messenger of Allah, may Allah praise him, said:

“The thing that I fear most for you is lesser Shirk.”

They said: “O Messenger of Allah, what is lesser Shirk?”  He said:

Riyaa (showing off), for Allah will say on the Day when people are recompensed for their actions: ‘Go to those for whom you were showing off with your deeds in the world, and see what reward you find with them.’” (Ahmad)

Riyaa is to perform worship in order to be seen and praised by people.   Riyaarenders a deed void; the person earns sin instead of reward from Allah, and it exposes him to punishment.

Human beings, by nature like to be praised, are not fond of criticism, and do not like to be seen deficient in any way.   Islam views doing religious acts to impress others instead of pleasing Allah – what should have been done for Allah is done for people – as shirk.   The Messenger of Allah, may Allah praise him, said:

“Allah (glorified and exalted be He) said: ‘I am so self-sufficient that I am in no need of having an associate.  Thus he who does an action for someone else’s sake as well as Mine will have that action renounced by Me to him whom he associated with Me.’” (Saheeh Muslim)

There is a good chance of a believer falling into riyaa because it is hidden, it sits in the heart, pollutes the intention, and a person has to be extremely vigilant to correct it.  Ibn Abbas, one of the Prophet’s companions, said,

“Shirk in the Muslim nation is more hidden than a black ant crawling on a black stone in the middle of a moonless night.”[2]

Intention is a simple matter, but sometimes changing it can be difficult.   A person has to listen to their heart and see what motivates a certain action.  A Muslim has to carefully watch his intention to keep it pure whenever he performs a good deed like salah, giving charity, fasting, serving his parents, or even smiling.  Perhaps this is why the saying of Allah’s Name has been prescribed before all acts of importance in daily life – eating, drinking, sleeping, going to the toilet, waking up, and going to sleep.  Remembering Allah keeps the heart aware of Allah and the intention pure.

Let us understand with simple examples how riyaa may affect worship:

(a)  Let us say the basic motive when you stand up to pray is for people to see you, or notice you are praying, wishing to be praised.  This invalidates the act of worship.

(b)  Let us say you started off to pray with sincerity, your intention was to pray for Allah, but then you started thinking about pleasing people, and slowly your intention changed.  You do one of the two things.  If you resist the temptation of getting noticed, it will not have any effect on you because the Prophet, may Allah praise him, said: “Allah has forgiven my ummah for what crosses their minds, so long as they do not act upon it or speak of it.” But if you do nothing and do not resist the temptation of doing the act of worship so you may be seen or noticed; instead you slowly start to beautify your salah to be noticed, and so the entire act of worship may become invalid.

(c)  Unintended praise is not harmful.  The Prophet, may Allah praise him, was asked about that and said: “That is the first glad tidings of the believer.” It is not showing off if a person feels happy because he has done an act of worship; actually, it is a sign of his faith.  The Prophet, may Allah praise him, said:

“Whoever feels happy because of his good deeds and sad because of his bad deeds, that is the believer.”

The Prophet has provided us with words of protection against this inconspicuous shirkthat can be said anytime of the day.  One day the Prophet delivered a sermon saying,

‘O People, fear ‘shirk’, for it is more hidden than the creeping of an ant.’ (At-Tabarani)

Those whom Allah wished asked, ‘And how do we avoid it when it is more hidden than the creeping of an ant, O Messenger of Allah?’ He replied,

‘Allah-humma inna na-oodtho-bika an nush-rika bika shay-ann naa-lamu, wa nas-tagh-fi-ruka limaa laa naa-lam.’

‘Say, “O Allah, we seek refuge with You from knowingly committing shirk with You, and we seek Your forgiveness for what we do unknowingly.”[3]

Differences Between Greater Shirk & Lesser Shirk

(1)  Both are defined differently.

(2)  The greater Shirk expels a person from the fold of Islam, whereas the lesser Shirk does not take one out of Islam, but reduces one’s belief in Allah.

(3)  A person who dies committing greater Shirk will be in Hell Fire for eternity; this is not the case with one committing lesser Shirk.

(4)  Greater Shirk wipes out and annuls all good deeds, whereas lesser Shirk only ruins the deeds it motivates or is a part of.

(5)  Greater Shirk is not forgiven by Allah except through sincere repentance done before death; whereas it is up to Allah to punish or forgive lesser Shirk.

[1] Ahmad, Abu Daud, Al-Tirmidhi, Nasai, and Hakim.

[2] Ibn Abi Hatim

[3] Ahmad

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