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Idolatry is the worship of an idol or a physical object as a representation of a god. In all the Abrahamic religions idolatry is strongly forbidden, although views as to what constitutes idolatry may differ within and between them. In other religions the use of idols is accepted. Which images, ideas, and objects constitute idolatry is often a matter of considerable contention.
Behaviour considered idolatrous or potentially idolatrous may include the creation of any type of image of the deity, or of other figures of religious significance such as prophets, saints, and clergy, the creation of images of any person or animal at all, and the use of religious symbols, or secular ones. In addition, Christian theologians, following Saint Paul, have extended the concept to include giving undue importance to other aspects of religion, or to non-religious aspects of life in general, with no involvement of images specifically. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. Man commits idolatry whenever he honours and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods, or demons (for example satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money etc." In some ultra-conservative Islamic societies with sharia law, idolaters may face the death penalty.
The avoidance of the use of images for religious reasons is called aniconism. The destruction of religious images within a culture is called iconoclasm, of which there have been many major episodes in history.
The word idolatry comes (by haplology) from the Greek word εἰδωλολατρία eidololatria parasynthetically from εἰδωλολάτρης from εἴδωλον eidolon, "image, figure", and the suffix -λάτρης, itself related to λάτρις latris, "worshipper" or λατρεύειν latreuein, "to worship" from λάτρον latron, "payment". Although the Greek appears to be a loan translation of the Hebrew phrase avodat elilim, which is attested in rabbinic literature (e.g., bChul., 13b, Bar.), the Greek term itself is not found in the Septuagint, Philo, Josephus, or in other Hellenistic Jewish writings. It is also not found in (pre-Christian) Greek literature. In the New Testament, the Greek word is found only in the letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation, where it has a derogatory meaning, as one of the vices. It is also found in the Didache and the Apostolic Decree includes a prohibition from the "pollution of idols". Hebrew terms for idolatry include avodah zarah (foreign worship) and avodat kochavim umazalot (worship of planets and constellations).
In current context, however, idolatry is not limited to religious concepts. It can also refer to a social phenomenon where false perceptions are created and worshipped, or even used as a term in the entertainment industry.
The Christian view of idolatry may generally be divided into two general categories, the Catholic/Orthodox view (which accepts the use of religious icons and other images) and the Protestant view. Protestants often accuse Catholics of idolatry, iconolatry, and even paganism for failing to "cleanse their faith" of the use of images; in the Protestant Reformation such language was common to all Protestants. Puritan groups adopted a view similar to Judaism (as a result they were accused of Judaizing), denouncing all forms of religious objects, whether in three-dimensional or two-dimensional form, including the Christian cross.
The first commandment of Ten Commandments.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; --Exodus 20:2-5
To a Protestant, the Bible teaches that an idol is anything that is more important than God. Anything, whether physical or not, that is more important to a Christian than God is an idol. This includes items, family and work. To a Christian, God must come first in all things, and by putting him first, they are in a better position to love and serve others.
The Roman Catholic and particularly the Orthodox Churches cite St. John of Damascus' work "On the Divine Image" to defend the use of icons. He wrote in direct response to the Byzantine iconoclasm that began in the 8th century by the Byzantine emperor Leo III and continued by his successor Constantine V. St. John maintains that depicting the invisible God is indeed wrong, but he argues that the incarnation, where "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14), indicates that the invisible God became visible, and as a result it is permissible to depict Jesus Christ. He argues: "When He who is bodiless and without form... existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you draw His image..."
He also observes that in the Old Testament, images and statues were not absolutely condemned in themselves: examples include the images of cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-22) which God instructed Moses to make, the embroidered figures of cherubim angels which God told Moses to make on the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle tent (Exodus 26:31), or the bronze serpent mentioned in the book of Numbers.
He defends external acts of honour towards icons, arguing that there are "different kinds of worship" and that the honour shown to icons differs entirely from the adoration of God. He continues by citing Old Testament examples of forms of "honour": "Jacob bowed to the ground before Esau, his brother, and also before the tip of his son Joseph's staff (Genesis 33:3). He bowed down, but did not adore. Joshua, the Son of Nun, and Daniel bowed in veneration before an angel of God (Joshua 5:14) but they did not adore him. For adoration is one thing, and that which is offered in order to honour something of great excellence is another". He cites St. Basil who asserts, "the honour given to the image is transferred to its prototype". St. John argues therefore that venerating an image of Christ does not terminate at the image itself – the material of the image is not the object of worship – rather it goes beyond the image, to the prototype.
Catholic and Orthodox Christians use religious objects such as statues, Crosses, Icons, incense, the Gospel, Bible, candles and religious vestments. Icons are mainly in two- but rarely in three-dimensional form. These are in dogmatic theory venerated as objects filled with God's grace and power -- (therefore Eastern Orthodoxy declares they are not "hollow forms" or cult images).
Evidence for the use of these is found in the Old Testament and in Early Christian worship. For example, the veneration of the tombs and statues of martyrs was common among early Christian communities. In 397 St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions 6.2.2, tells the story of his mother making offerings for the statues and tombs of martyrs. This is a very early form of Christianity, as the Biblical Canon had only been adopted about 30 years previously at the Council of Laodicea, however see Development of the Christian biblical canon for details.
The offering of veneration in the form of latria (the veneration due God) is doctrinally forbidden by the Orthodox Church; however veneration of religious pictures or Icons in the form of dulia is not only allowed but obligatory. Some outside observers find it difficult to distinguish these two levels of veneration in practice, but the distinction is maintained and taught by believers in many of the hymns and prayers that are sung and prayed throughout the liturgical year.
In Orthodox apologetics for icons, a similarity is asserted between icons and the manufacture by Moses (under God's commandment) of the Bronze Snake, which was, Orthodoxy says, given the grace and power of God to heal those bitten by real snakes. "And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any person, when he beheld the serpent of brass, they lived"(Numbers 21:9). Another similarity is declared with the Ark of the Covenant described as the ritual object above which Yahweh was present (Numbers 10:33-36); or the burning bush which, according to Exodus, God spoke to Moses through; or the Ten Commandments which were the Word of God ("Dabar Elohim") in tablet form. These inanimate objects became a medium by which God worked to teach, speak to, encourage and heal the Hebrew faithful.
Veneration of icons through proskynesis was codified in the Seventh Ecumenical Council during the Byzantine Iconoclast controversy, in which St. John of Damascus was pivotal. Icon veneration is also practiced in the Catholic Church, which accepts the declarations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, but it is practiced to a lesser extent, since Latin-rite Catholics today do not usually prostrate and kiss icons, and the Second Vatican Council enjoined moderation in the use of images. Eastern-rite Catholics still use icons in their Divine Liturgy, however.
Some Protestant groups avoid the use of images in any context suggestive of veneration. Religious images are common in Catholic, Orthodox churches. The use of some religious images and symbols, for example in printed matter, is now more common among many modern Protestant groups than was the case in the 16th century, but large publicly displayed images, except the cross, are rare. Many Conservative Christians avoid any use of religious images, even for inspiration, as idolatry.
For know you this and understand: That no fornicator or unclean or covetous person (which is a serving of idols) hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.--Ephesians Chapter 5:5
The body of Christ on the cross is an ancient symbol used within the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, in contrast with some Protestant groups, which use only a simple cross. In Judaism and Islam, such a depiction of God as crucified man is seen as idolatry.
In Hinduism, a murti  typically refers to an image that expresses a Divine Spirit (murta). Meaning literally "embodiment", a murti is a representation of a divinity, made usually of stone, wood, or metal, which serves as a means through which a divinity may be worshiped. Hindus consider a murti worthy of serving as a focus of divine worship only after the divine is invoked in it for the purpose of offering worship. The depiction of the divinity must reflect the gestures and proportions outlined in religious tradition.
A murti is a means of communication with the god or Brahman in Hinduism. Murti is a Sanskrit term which is meant to point to the transcendent "otherness" of the divine; therefore the word "murti" cannot be substituted with or translated as statue or idol without losing the underlying concept's inherent meaning and taking on unrelated connotations.
In Islam, shirk (Arabic: شرك) is the major sin of idolatry or polytheism. Islam strongly prohibits all form of idolatry. It refers to the deification of anyone or anything other than the singular God. Shirk is also associating partners with him, giving his characteristics to others beside him, or not believing in his characteristics.
Within Islam, shirk is an unforgivable crime; God may forgive any sin except for committing shirk. It is the vice that is opposed to the virtue of tawhid, literally "declaring [that which is] one", often translated into the English term monotheism.
As in the other Abrahamic religions, in practice the term has been greatly extended and may be used very widely within Islam to describe behaviour that is deprecated, including the use of images in a way that is seen as un-Islamic, but does not literally constitute worship.
The word širk comes from the Arabic root Š-R-K (ش ر ك), with the general meaning of "to share". In the context of the Qur'an, the particular sense of "sharing as an equal partner" is usually understood, so that polytheism is "attributing a partner to Allah". In the Qur'an, shirk and the related word (plural Stem IV active participle) mušrikūn (مشركون) "those who commit shirk and plot against Islam" often clearly refers to the enemies of Islam (as in verse 9.1–15) but sometimes it also refers to erring Muslims.
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Judaism prohibits any form of idolatry. According to this understanding, even if one directs worship to God and not to a statue, picture, or some other created thing, but uses a created thing as a representation of God in order to assist in his worship of God, this is also considered a form of idolatry. In fact, Maimonides explains in chapter 1 of Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (Avoda Zarah) in the Mishneh Torah that this is one of the ways that idolatry began.
While such scholars as Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi elaborated on proper monotheism and the issues of idolatry, without a doubt Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) was the most thorough in his elucidation of monotheism and the problems of idolatry. This is seen in his work known as the Mishnah Torah, in the Guide for the Perplexed, and in the various shorter writings he composed. In the Mishnah Torah, intended to be a complete compilation of Talmudic law, the theme of proclaiming the Unity of the Creator and eradication of idolatry is not limited to the sections specified for these topics. Rather, it permeates every section of the work as the purpose and foundation of the entire Torah. In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides so clarifies his understanding of monotheism and idolatry that in its light even certain Jewish communities of his time, and today, become suspect of idolatry. This was the core reason for his controversy, even more so than the issue of philosophy.
In short, the proper Jewish definition of idolatry is to do an act of worship toward any created thing, to believe that a particular created thing is an independent power, or to make something a mediator between ourselves and the Almighty. These laws are codified in the Mishneh Torah, mainly in the section called Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (Avodah Zarah) — The Laws of Strange Worship (Idolatry). It is considered a great insult to God to worship one of His creations instead of Him or together with Him. According to the Noahide Laws, the 7 laws which Jews believe to be binding on the non-Jewish world, the non-Israelite nations are also Forbidden to worship anything other than the Absolute Creator. One can find this in Hilkhot Melakhim u'Milhhamotehem (Laws of Kings and their Wars) chapter 9 in the Mishneh Torah. Judaism holds that any beliefs or practices which significantly interfere with a Jew's relationship with God may, at some point, be deemed idolatry.
In the Torah
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Image worship existed in the time of Jacob, from the account of Rachel taking images along with her on leaving her father's house, which is given in the Book of Genesis. According to the midrash Genesis Rabba, Abraham's father, Terah, was both an idol manufacturer and worshipper. It is recounted in both traditional Jewish texts and in the Quran that when Abraham discovered the true God, he destroyed his father's idols.
The commandments in the Hebrew Bible against idolatry forbade the adoption of the beliefs and practices of the pagans who lived amongst the Israelites at the time, especially the religions of ancient Akkad, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
By and large, the [Bible] has succeeded in its task [of uprooting idolatry]. The Jewish People abandoned paganism and heralded monotheism. Through Judaism's offshoots of Christianity and Islam, much of the world has come to reject paganism and polytheism, and to believe in the One God.
Some of these pagan religions, it is claimed in the Bible, had a set of practices which were prohibited under Jewish law, such as sex rites, cultic male and female prostitution, passing a child through a fire to Molech, and child sacrifice.
There is no one section that clearly defines idolatry; rather there are a number of commandments on this subject spread through the books of the Hebrew Bible, some of which were written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Taking these verses together, idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is defined as either:
- the worship of idols (or images)
- the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
- the worship of animals or people
- the use of idols in the worship of God.
In a number of places, the Hebrew Bible makes clear that Yahweh has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol, image, idea, or anything comparable to creation could ever capture God's essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Dt 4:15, they see no shape or form. Many verses in the Bible use anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God's mighty hand, God's finger, etc.) but these verses have always been understood as poetic images rather than literal descriptions. This is reflected in Ho 12:10 which says, “And I have spoken unto the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and by the hand of the prophets I use similes.”
The Bible records a struggle between the prophet's attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab, to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: "According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah" (Je 2:28).
The Bible has many terms for idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible [adherents of Jewish faith maintain that the Torah is the eternally binding word of God]. Thus idols are stigmatized "non-God" (Dt 32:17–21; Je 2:11), "things of naught" (Lv 19:4 et passim), "vanity" (Dt 32), "iniquity" (1Sm 15:23), "wind and confusion" (Is 41:29), "the dead" (Ps 106:28), "carcasses" (Lv 26:30; Je 16:18, "a lie" (Is 44:20 et passim), and similar epithets.
Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men's hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Ps 135:15–18)
Idols were either designated in Hebrew by a term of general significance, or were named according to their material or the manner in which they were made. They were said to have been placed upon pedestals and fastened with chains of silver or nails of iron, lest they should fall over or be carried off (Is 40:19, 41:7; Je 10:14; Ws 13:15), and they were also clothed and colored (Je 10:9; Ez 16:18; Ws 15:4).
At first the gods and their images were conceived of as identical[by whom?]; but in later times a distinction was drawn between the god and the image. Nevertheless it was customary to take away the gods of the vanquished (Is 10:10–11, 36:19, 46:1; Je 48:7, 49:3; Ho 10:5; Dn 11:8), and a similar custom is frequently mentioned in the cuneiform texts.
Idolatry as a negative stereotyping process
Yehezkel Kaufman (1960) has suggested that when God gave commandments regarding idolatry he meant it to be understood in its most literal form: according to the Bible, most idolaters really believed that their idols were gods, and Kaufman holds that this is an error in assuming that all idolatry was of this type, when in some cases, idols may have only been representations of gods. Kaufman writes that "We may perhaps say that the Bible sees in paganism only its lowest level, the level of mana-beliefs...the prophets ignore what we know to be authentic paganism (i.e., its elaborate mythology about the origin and exploits of the gods and their ultimate subjection to a meta-divine reservoir of impersonal power representing Fate or Necessity.) Their [the Biblical author's] whole condemnation revolves around the taunt of fetishism."
However, Kaufman holds that in some places idolaters worshipped gods and spirits that existed independently of idols, and not the forms of the idols themselves. For instance, in a passage in 1 Kings 18:27, the Hebrew prophet Elijah challenges the priests of Baal atop of Mount Carmel to persuade their god to perform a miracle, after they had begun to try to persuade the Jews to take up idolatry. The pagan priests beseeched their god without the use of an idol, which in Kaufman's view, indicates that Baal was not an idol, but rather one of the polytheistic gods that merely could be worshipped through the use of an idol.
Orestes Brownson asserts that the pagans in the Hebrew Bible did not literally worship the objects themselves, so that the issue of idolatry is really concerned with whether one is pursuing a "false god" or "the true God". Brownson may have been correct, but some claim Brownson's theory contradicts the understanding of the Ancient Hebrews, whose culture was contemporary with others that practiced "idol worship." The opponents claim that the Book of Daniel, Chapter 14, illustrates the Hebrew understanding of idols, but this chapter is rejected as apocryphal by Protestants and is not included in most contemporary translations of the Bible. In Daniel 14, Cyrus, king of the Persians, worships two deities, a deity named Bel and a dragon. Daniel 14 characterizes the king and some of the Babylonians as believing, literally, that Bel and the dragon are living gods:
Now the Babylons had an idol, called Bel, and there were spent upon him every day twelve great measures of fine flour, and forty sheep, and six vessels of wine. And the king worshipped it and went daily to adore it: but Daniel worshipped his own God. And the king said unto him, Why dost not thou worship Bel? Who answered and said, Because I may not worship idols made with hands, but the living God, who hath created the heaven and the earth, and hath sovereignty over all flesh. Then said the king unto him, Thinkest thou not that Bel is a living God? seest thou not how much he eateth and drinketh every day?....
The Guru Granth Sahib, the central scripture and Guru of Sikhs, strongly rejects idolatry. Idolatry is also rejected by the Dasam Granth a scripture by the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, and within numerous rehatnamas (documents codifying the code of conduct of the Sikh religion), such as the Sikh Rehat Maryada and the Budha Dal Rehatnama. Sikhism criticises the practice of using idols to represent God and pray to him, and instead puts forward that the shabad, the word of God, is his "true" murti (deific representation), meaning that true prayer and worship of God is through meditation.
In practice images of human figures of religious significance, such as the Sikh gurus, are common in modern Sikhism, and the Sikh attitude to non-religious images is generally relaxed.
- Perceptions of religious imagery in natural phenomena
- Catechism of The Catholic Church, passage 2113, p.460, Geoffrey Chapman, 1999
- Zollner, Barbara H. E. (31 October 2008). The Muslim Brotherhood: Hasan Al-Hudaybi and Ideology. Routledge. p. 87. ISBN 978-1-134-07767-0. Retrieved 24 December 2013.
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- Roth, Rabbi Simchah. "TRACTATE AVODAH ZARAH". BET MIDRASH VIRTUALI. Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and the Masorti Movement. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
- "Practically speaking, however, the vast majority of the poskim agree that Christianity is considered avodah zarah and a Jew is forbidden to enter a church" Neustadt, Rabbi Doniel. "Visiting a Church or a Mosque - Avodah Zarah". The Weekly Halacha Discussion. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
- "The teachings of the Torah focus on actual Avodah Zarah, and into the times of the Mishnah and Gemara Jews found themselves living among people who practiced pagan religions. Over time, however, new religions developed whose basis is in Jewish belief - such as Christianity and Islam - which are based on belief in the Creator and whose adherents follow commandments that are similar to some Torah laws (see the uncensored Rambam in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 11:4). All of the rishonim agree that adherents of these religions are not idol worshippers and should not be treated as the pagans described in the Torah. Moslems certainly worship a single God and do not offer libations of wine. There are different approaches to Christians, where we find that the Rambam views them as basically pagans, while Tosafot - and even more so the Me'iri - view them as monotheists. Therefore, although many of the laws limiting interaction with non-Jews remain in place in order to avoid intermarriage and assimilation, other laws - e.g. limits on business dealings prior to their holidays - are assumed to be permitted. This is based on statements made in the Gemara that in the Diaspora it is impossible for Jews to avoid such interactions (Avodah Zarah 7b) and that non-Jews living in Diaspora countries are not truly idol worshippers, they are just following the traditions of their fathers (Hullin 13b)."Steinsaltz, Rabbi Adin. "Introduction - Masechet Avodah Zarah". The Coming Week's Daf Yomi. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
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Hinduism also teaches us that all forms of worship are acceptable to God. We may use idols; we may go to temples; we may recite set prayers; we may offer a simple form of worship with flowers and a lamp; or we may perform an elaborate puja with set rituals; we may sing bhajans or join a kirtan session or we can just close our eyes and meditate upon the light within us.
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