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As there are stages and degrees of monotheism, there are degrees of polytheism. There are types of polytheism in contrast to the types of monotheism called for by the prophets.
There are types of theoretical polytheism, as follows:
- Essential polytheism: the view that there is a divine essence besides God. Some schools of thought have hold to two (dualism) or three (Trinity) or more independent eternal principles of creation, taking the world to be multi-polar or multi-focal. The belief that there is more than one principle for the world counts as essential polytheism, which goes against essential monotheism. Such a belief is incompatible with being a Muslim. Islam rejects any form of essential polytheism.
- Attribute polytheism: such sort of polytheism, due to its speculative nature, is not common between ordinary people. This is held, instead, by some scholars who think about theology, but are not keen enough. Ash'ari scholars developed theories that lead to this types of polytheism. This also counts as a sort of hidden polytheism, which may be compatible with being a Muslim.
- Creation polytheism: some schools of thought took God to have no analogues and partner, being the only principle of the world, but took some creatures to be his partners in creation. For instance, they believed that God is not responsible for the creation of misfortunes, defects, and in general, unpleasant events and phenomena; these are, they think, brought into existence by some creatures, without God involving in their creation. This is polytheism with regards to agency and creation, and is in contrast with act monotheism. This types of polytheism is also incompatible with Islam. However, some early stages of this might be categorized as hidden sorts of polytheism, which are still compatible with belief in Islam.
This type of polytheism is tied to human practices—it is polytheism with respect to worships. Some people worshiped woods or metals or stones or animals or stars or the sun or tress or the sea. There are still some people around the world who continue such practices. This is contrasted with worship monotheism.
Moreover, if a person admires and honors a person other than God in ways that imply exclusively divine attributes for that person, then he or she counts as polytheist. For only God is the one who is absolutely worthy of admiration and free from any defect. Such characterizations for anyone other than God—whether in speech or in practice—counts as polytheism.
There are degrees of practical polytheism. The highest degree, which is incompatible with Islam, is worship polytheism, which is an explicit sort of polytheism. However, there are tacit or hidden sorts of practical polytheism that Islam reproaches (though they are still compatible with the person being a Muslim). Thus hypocrisy, egoism, selfish ambitions, love of money, and the like count as polytheism. These are, nonetheless, hidden sorts of polytheism.
Boundary of Monotheism and Polytheism
The boundary between monotheism and polytheism is worship monotheism which includes the lower degrees of monotheism as well.
According to the definition of monotheism, if a person takes there to be a partner or analog for God in His creations or in His practical attributes such as creation, livelihood-providing and the like, then he or she is a polytheist.
The concept of monotheism reveals that the boundary between monotheism and polytheism is the belief that entities other than God are dependent or independent of Him. That is, if someone takes there to be an entity independent of God in his power, knowledge and other attributes, then he or she will be a polytheist. On the contrary, the view that God has created entities who have knowledge and power dependent on Him (that is, it is God who has given them such knowledge and power) does not lead to polytheism, since they are dependent on God and thus they do not count as partners for the divine essence.
Ignorance of this boundary between monotheism and polytheism has led to some controversies. Ash'ari scholars thought that the belief in the principle of causation (that objects in the world have causal effects) leads to polytheism. Wahhabis maintain that the belief in the efficacy of human beings, natural phenomena and the like implies polytheism. The same is true, they think, of the belief that some persons other than God can heal the patients or help realize what people have prayed for.
The above boundary or criterion shows that such thoughts are unfounded—it is rejected both by a rational analysis of what monotheism is supposed to be and by Qur'anic verses and hadiths.
The Qur'an has attributed some causal efficacies to human beings, angels, and objects. it also attributes to Jesus (a) the Christ some supernatural powers, such as creation, bringing the dead to life, telling about what is hidden, and healing the patients:
when you would create from clay the form of a bird, with My leave, and you would breathe into it and it would become a bird, with My leave; and you would heal the blind and the leper, with My leave, and you would raise the dead, with My leave
—Qur'an 5: 110
This verse attributes many powers to a person, Jesus the Christ. But on the other hand, it emphasizes that all these are "by His leave", that is, Jesus did not do any of these supernatural acts independently; rather he depended in them on God. Such verses show that the belief that a person, such a prophet or Imam, can have the ability to do supernatural act, is not polytheism.
Murtaza Mutahhari writes:
- The fact is that the boundary between monotheism and polytheism in the relation between God, human beings, and the world, is in terms of "from Him" and "to Him". The boundary between them in theoretical monotheism is "from Him". Every entity can be conceived of in monotheistic terms insofar as his essence, attributes and acts are known to be "from Him", whether or not it has any causal effects or not, and whether or not it has supernatural powers or not, because God is not the God of the divine realm; he is also the God of this world. He is as close to the nature as He is to the divine realm; thus the mere supernaturality of something does not turn it into a god. ... In the Islamic worldview, the world has a "from-Him" character. The Qur'an attributes to some prophets some supernatural powers such as bringing some dead back to life, but qualifies all of these attributions with the phrase "by His leave". This is expressive of the "from-Him" character of such acts, in order to prevent the thought that prophets have any independent powers. Thus the boundary between theoretical monotheism and theoretical polytheism is the character of being "from Him". The belief in the existence of an entity whose being is not "from Him" counts as polytheism. The belief in the efficacy of an entity whose efficacy is not "from Him" also counts as polytheism, whether or not it is a great natural entity, such as all skies and earths, or an unimportant phenomenon, such as a movement of a leaf.