The Quran uses certain key terms to clarify the concept of God and to explain the relationship between the Creator and the created – between God and humanity. According to a renowned twentieth-century scholar of Islam, Abul Ala Maududi, the Quran contains four basic terms from which some of the most important concepts of Islam stem. These terms are ilah, rabb, ibadah, and deen. It is thus important to understand the meanings of these terms, and their implications in the lives of Muslims.
The word ilah literally means “god”, referring to any deity worshiped by humans. Ilah also implies someone people turn to in the hour of need and for the fulfillment of their wishes – someone people glorify and give credit to for their well-being. The pre-Islamic Arabs used to consider their idols as their ilahs. Other religions and cultures gave this title to heavenly beings such as the sun, the moon, the stars, or even to ordinary objects of nature, such as trees, fire, and animals. Allah makes it clear in the Quran that He alone is the Ilah, the only Deity worthy of being worshiped and invoked.
“And do not call out to anyone beside Allah, for there is no ilah but Him.” (28:88)
“Nor is there any ilah beside Him – if there were, each ilah would have taken his creation aside and tried to overcome the others.” (17:42)
Those who believe in more than one ilah often do not deny the existence of Allah, nor do they necessarily consider their ilahs to be equal to Him in majesty. In fact, most of them believe that their so-called ilahs only have a share in Allah’s Might and Dominion, and that these have the authority to intercede with Allah and to grant people’s prayers. However, this practice of “associating partners” with Allah is referred to as shirk in Arabic, and is the greatest sin in the sight of Allah – the only offence that can never be forgiven if one does not truly repent from it.
Throughout history, humans have also been taken as ilahs: deceased prophets, saints, and other pious men and women are invoked, especially at their graves, even today and are thus given a share of godhood. The blind following of religious authorities, or taking them as intermediaries between a person and Allah, also amounts to taking them as ilahs. The Quran says, “They have taken their rabbis and their monks as lords beside Allah…though they were commanded to serve only one Ilah…” (9:31)
Moreover, fulfilling all of one’s desires, regardless of the guidance and laws laid down by Allah, is again contrary to taking Allah as our sole Ilah: “Have you seen him who has taken for his ilah his own passion?” (25:43) The one unable to resist his or her whims, desires, and temptations has taken one’s own soul as one’s god.
The Quran, therefore, emphasizes that none should come between a person and his or her One True Ilah: Allah should be invoked directly for mercy and help as He alone has control over everything.
Rabb basically means someone ‘who brings up’. It can be translated as the ‘sustainer and cherisher’ or simply as ‘lord’ that is meant to cover both these meanings. Someone taken as a rabb is believed to make people survive and prosper, manage their affairs, and possess supernatural powers. The rabb has the authority to lay down the law that ought to be followed, and has the right to command people and dictate over them. The Quran declares that Allah alone is the Rabb, and none other can be ascribed these qualities.
“He [Allah] is your Rabb and to Him you will be brought back.” (11:34)
“Truly your Ilah is One; Rabb of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, and Rabb of the sun’s risings.” (37:5)
As with ‘ilah’, people have taken others to be their rabbs. This does not mean that these rabbs are believed to have created the universe; rather they are thought of as providing food and nourishment to people, giving them protection, and getting their sins cancelled out: “They have taken their rabbis and their monks as rabbs beside Allah…” (9:31) Some people, in their arrogance, have claimed themselves to be the rabb, such as the Pharaoh at the time of Prophet Musa who proclaimed, “My people, is not mine the sovereignty of Egypt and these rivers flowing under me?” (43:51)
Also read: Five Key Facts about the Quran
In reality, though, Allah alone is the Creator and Decider of all matters. He made it solely His responsibility to look after the needs of His servants. In return, they must not be so ungrateful as to invent another rabb besides Him.
Ibadah literally means “worship”. It also refers to being in bondage to someone, carrying a sense of obedience to them. The term, therefore, has two wide aspects: firstly, to perform the various rites of worship, such as bowing to the object or being; and secondly, to believe them to have control over the realm of cause and effect, and having superiority on this basis over others. Again, the Quran forbids us to give our ibadah to anyone other than Allah, such as to heavenly bodies, idols, or human beings.
“And We sent a messenger to every community, saying, ‘Give your ibadah to Allah, and shun false gods.’” (16:36)
“O you who believe, eat the good things We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah, if you give your ibadah to Him.” (2:172)
The latter verse suggests that abstaining from a permitted thing (food, in this case) for no reason other than that somebody forbids it is tantamount to giving ibadah to them. This is because we would then be considering their command to be superior to that of Allah, Who alone determines what is permitted or forbidden for His servants.
The Quran warns us to be wary of giving our ibadah to someone else without actually intending to. For instance, Allah says, “O Children of Adam, did I not command you not to give ibadah to Satan, for he is your sworn enemy?” (36:60) Clearly, hardly anyone would worship Satan by praying to him or believing him to be the almighty. However, many people inadvertently give their ibadah to him by lending him an ear, responding to his whispers, and allowing his word to prevail in their minds and in their lives.
Deen is often understood to mean ‘religion’. However, this term does not restrict itself to religious beliefs, and can be better rendered as “a way of life”. It includes people’s beliefs, as well as all the practices, rules, and regulations which they follow. The term has also been used to refer to the Day of Judgement (Yaum al-Deen) in the Quran, for that is the Day when people will be questioned about, among other things, their deen. More generally, though, deen refers to our beliefs, customs, practices, and actions in this life.
“Everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him, and deen is His alone.” (16:52)
“How can they believe in others who ordain for them things which Allah has not sanctioned in their Deen?” (42:21)
As seen in these verses, Allah commands us to abide by His Deen, that is, adhere to the way of life prescribed by Him for us. We should, therefore, do as He commands, abstain from what He forbids, and strive to establish His Deen firmly.
In conclusion, we can establish a link between these four basic terms of the Quran. Following Allah’s Deen requires us to make Him our sole Ilah and Rabb, and to make our Ibadah exclusive to Him. On the contrary, if we believe that Allah’s Dominion is shared with anyone in any way, then we associate false ilahs and rabbs with Him – we are giving at least some portion of our ibadah to others, and thus not following the right deen. Hence, the Quran requires us to “submit to the will” of Allah, our Ilah and Rabb, by giving our Ibadah to Him alone and following His Deen – this being the meaning of the Arabic word Muslim.