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The word shirk is one form of the Arabic root ShRK (شرك). This root has the general meaning of share (Nadwi - Vocabulary of the Holy Qur'an). In the context of the Qur'an the particular sense of sharing as an equal partner is usually understood. In the Qur'an shirk and the related word mushrikuwn (مشركون) those who commite shirk) often clearly refers to the enemies of Islam (as in verse 9.5) but sometimes it also refers to erring muslims (verse 6.122). When the Qur'an describes shirk it frequently seems to be referring to and disparaging the Christian dogma of the divinity of Jesus. Islamic commentators on the Qur'an have emphasized that pre-Islamic Arabic idolatry made a number of godlings (most memorably the three goddesses Manat, Lat and Uzza) equal associates of Allah (as the Qur'an discusses in the 53rd surat) and the word mushrikuwn is often translated into English as polytheist.
In a theological context one commits shirk by associating some lesser being with Allah. This sin is committed if one imagines that there is some other spirit than Allah whom it is suitable to worship. Many Islamic theologians extend the sense of worship to include praying to some other being to intercede with Allah on one's behalf, rather than taking one's case to Allah Himself. The limits of the concept of worship are quite elastic and theologians often describe excessive veneration of some artifact here on earth as shirk.
Atheism is sometimes described as shirk (in spite of its opposite meaning) because it denies the position of Allah as the unique creator and sustainer of the universe (tawhid ar-rububiyya, the unity of creation). In the same way, the act of shirk is extended to include such things as the notion that Allah possesses humanlike anthropomorphic qualities as well as acts of worship or piety whose inward goal is pride, caprice, or a desire for public admiration.
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